Death or Glory: How 1997 Changed Video Games Forever

Death or Glory: How 1997 Changed Video Games Forever

1997 was an extraordinary year in games and marked the true start of the 3D blockbuster era Illustration by John James

Inside the year that gave us 'Grand Theft Auto', 'GoldenEye' and 'Final Fantasy VII'

Inside the year that gave us 'Grand Theft Auto', 'GoldenEye' and 'Final Fantasy VII'

In the fall of 1997, a few months after leaving seminal US developer Looking Glass Studios, Warren Spector sat down and wrote his plan for the future of video games. The vision he recorded was for a new kind of role-playing adventure, where non-player characters were complex and sympathetic, where the interactions went beyond simply killing people and grabbing loot, and – most importantly – where each player had the freedom to forge a unique path through the story. Spector wanted to create a new kind of interactive experience in which every action, every decision, had genuine, far-reaching consequences in a living, breathing universe.

It was ambitious – but it was not unique. These ideas were already being explored in studios throughout the world, where new technologies, platforms, and ideas were giving rise to fresh design approaches. What Spector probably didn't foresee was that the change would be difficult – indeed, for some veteran companies, it would be catastrophic. 1997 has a lot to tell us about how we ended up with the video games we have today, and what was sacrificed to get here.

If one game symbolizes the chaotic, transitional feel of the year, it's Grand Theft Auto. Originally conceived by Scottish studio DMA Design as a simple cops and robbers shoot out, the project eventually grew into a vast open gangster adventure, taking place in a city crammed with messed up characters and cinematic references. Under the guidance of managing director Dave Jones, DMA was an anarchic collective where ideas were all-important and where development teams were given almost total creative autonomy. And inspired by the arrival of powerful new gaming PCs (more on that later) as well as consoles like the PlayStation and N64, what those teams wanted to do was change the whole shape and structure of game design.

"It felt like everything we were making around this time was what's now called 'open world' games," says Gary Penn, now working on sandbox action game Crackdown 3, but then a producer at DMA Design. "Body Harvest started out as a sort of 3D Defender-style game but Nintendo's influence helped it evolve into so much more – a forerunner in some respects for what came next, which was GTA, Tanktics, Space Station: Silicon Valley and Covert for BMG Interactive. I'd been a fan of this kind of game since Elite on the BBC Micro and was producer on Frontier: Elite II so this approach was right up my street."

DMA at the time felt like a cross between the skunkworks division at a major tech firm and the worst frat house on campus. Twenty-something lads came in with no experience and joined million-dollar projects (out of the 10 original staff on GTA, only one had ever shipped a game before), where they kicked off intense rivalries and in-fights. "Manic energy sums it up pretty well," says Brian Baglow, then a writer and PR coordinator at DMA. "Every team was off building their game in whatever way made sense to them. There were arguments and fights and heated discussions at a lot of design meetings, but everybody knew that what we were doing was good. It was a genuinely happy time. We were not building sports games, or genres that everybody knew. We didn't know where many of the games were going, because there was no agreed end point. We stopped when it was generally agreed it was 'fun' – or in GTA's case, when publisher BMG Interactive had genuinely had enough."

It was highly creative, but also wasteful and chaotic, which was fine in the early Nineties, when the costs were comparatively low, but not great in 1997 when higher production values and more complex games meant teams were ballooning in size. Gary Penn had to speak to BMG in a weekly conference call, begging them not to can GTA because costs were spiralling. And in the background big things were happening.

The arrival of the PlayStation at the close of 1994 was a huge shock to the system. The relatively advanced graphics hardware and emphasis on real-time 3D visuals demanded a new form of game development with larger more specialized teams and longer production cycles. At almost the same time in the PC sphere, the huge drop in DRAM prices facilitated the rise of dedicated 3D graphics accelerator cards. Competing manufacturers 3Dfx and Videologic spent 1997 engaged in an escalating hype war, pitching their divergent solutions (Voodoo and PowerVR) against each other, courting developers, PC manufacturers and consumers. Software-based graphics engines would no longer be enough – gamers demanded detailed textures, fast framerates and cool lighting effects.

"I think everyone realized that we had to get a bit smarter at making games; more structure and planning was needed," says Lee Carus, then a lead artist at Wipeout developer Psygnosis, now working on survival horror game The Persistence. "The idea of a dedicated producer role on the team became a thing. In the very early days it felt like their main purpose was to order pizza and report progress to the management. The process was far from perfect but at least there was some sense of planning to reach an end goal. You knew that team sizes were going to expand and that needed a bunch of people to lead their disciplines".

It was like rich sugardaddies flashing the cash for starstruck little girls

There were also major changes in the business structure of the industry. The huge success of PlayStation had given big publishers the confidence to start behaving like major media corporations, buying up studios to show ambition, increase market share and boost revenue – all to appease investors attracted by the smell of cash. And because the studios themselves were struggling with the expensive transition from 2D to 3D game design, many willingly submitted to buy-outs. "I noticed an intensifying of activity from 'The Big Boys' from around 1994 onwards," says Penn. "It was like rich sugardaddies flashing the cash for starstruck little girls. DMA had been happily floating around in its own little bubble of success, but that burst in 1997. If we hadn't sold to Gremlin – well, anyone, really – we'd have been buggered; we were running on empty."

But that deal illustrated a key problem of the era: the mismatch in cultures between developers and publishers. Gremlin Interactive, a veteran of the "Britsoft" game development boom of the Eighties and Nineties, had no idea what to do with this wayward outfit (the rights to GTA were owned by BMG, so were left out of the deal), and was itself soon bought out by ascendent French giant Infogrames. It was also in 1997 that Peter Molyneux's studio Bullfrog started breaking apart at the seams following its 1995 purchase by Electronic Arts. Not that you'd know there was a crisis, judging by the studio's 1997 release, Dungeon Keeper, a brilliant reversal of standard fantasy RPG design, putting the player in control of the eponymous dungeon lord, setting up traps and monstrous troops to defeat incoming treasure seekers.

However, that game's torturous development process symbolized the clash between old school sensibilities and the modern world of production processes and scrutinized budgets. After the sale to EA, Molyneux became frustrated with the endless meetings and bureaucracy imposed by the publisher; desperate to retain close control over his pet project, he moved the Dungeon Keeper team into his own house, leaving the other teams feeling abandoned to the EA hive mind. "Each time we returned to the office to show progress, we found ourselves facing a weird​, sullen​ resentment," says programmer and designer Dene Carter – who eventually left to form Big Blue Box and make Fable. "During one visit, a non-Keeper Bullfrog chap came up to me and asked 'So do you just lounge around in Peter's pool all day or what?' This was at the point where we were working 18-​hour days​ in an attempt to get the damned thing out​.​ The pool wasn't really a feature of our lives. Nor was sleep.

"Looking back, I think this ​ill-will was due to​ ​people seeing​ ​how EA​ treated new acquisitions at the time​. They simply consolidated​ and merged​ them. ​So, while we were working in a little bubble of 'old Bullfrog,' everyone else was seeing the company they loved​ ​become part of just one more​ ​ill-judged efficiency drive.​ People even joked about the 'EA Borg'​ at the time – 'Your culture will adapt to service ours'. It was gallows humor, but no less prophetic for that."

'I hope you appreciate that this is the last time any of you will be able to work on games in this way. The industry is changing.'

After leaving Bullfrog in August 1997, Molyneux went on to found Lionhead, looking for the creative freedom he felt EA had taken. But with larger teams and budgets, he was never again able to exert such intense control over the creative process. This was something he seemed to understand even during those long days on Dungeon Keeper. As Carter recalls, "At one point he said: 'I hope you appreciate that this is the last time any of you will be able to work on games in this way. The industry is changing.'"

Elsewhere, in the U.S. there was the infamous formation of Ion Storm. Set up late in the previous year by Id Software Doom luminaries John Romero and Tom Hall, the Dallas studio spent 1997 burning through a $44m investment from ambitious UK-based publisher Eidos, including the purchase of a luxury 22,000ft office space in the city's Chase Tower, which would be decked out with a crash room and central deathmatch gaming area. Eidos had plenty of cash and confidence thanks to the massive success of Tomb Raider, a groundbreaking exploration adventure with a beautiful, gutsy protagonist who appealed to the new generation of 20-something gamers. Lara Croft became such an icon in the laddish culture of the mid-1990s that she was made a cover star for influential style magazine The Face, an unprecedented honor for a game character. Hollywood was showing interest and the hubris at Eidos was skyrocketing – leading to the infamous Daikatana advert that promised, "John Romero's About To Make You His Bitch".

That's not quite what happened. Ion Storm's debut titles Daikatana and strategy game Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3 were expensive flops, but the studio's determination to push the envelope, invest heavily in talent and experiment in design was formative and influential. It was Romero who encouraged Spector to pursue the creation of the seminal cyberpunk thriller Deus Ex, giving the veteran of famed studios Origin Systems and Looking Glass the resources needed to build the hugely ambitious role-playing sci-fi epic. In late 1997, Spector set up Ion Storm Austin where staff with a love of cult classics like System Shock and Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri, were given the chance to capitalize on new tech and broaden the whole idea of computer role-playing adventures.

Ion Storm burned bright but briefly, closing in 2005. The creative ethos spelled out in that first year lives on, however. Alumni like Smith, Spector, Corrinne Yu and Kent Hudson (Bioshock 2, Deus Ex: Invisible War, The Novelist) have gone on to major projects, while Ex-CEO Mike Wilson later formed the Gathering of Developers – a new kind of business collective intended to protect its cabal of independent studios from traditional money-minded publishers; later, he founded Devolver Digital, which today publishes indie hits like Hotline Miami and Broforce. Writer and game designer Marc Laidlaw even briefly passed through on his way to Valve where he would become a fundamental member of the Half-Life team.

It just felt like any type of game could be made.

But not everything the US industry offered in 1997 was filtered through the prism of that Dallas giant. This was also the year Ken Levine (another ex-Looking Glass developer) set up Irrational Games and began work on the hugely acclaimed action RPG System Shock 2, which cleverly melded adventure, shooter and horror elements and allowed huge control over character customisation, hinting at the future of infinite player agency that Spector foresaw. It was the year Brian Fargo and his team at Interplay Productions launched Fallout, an isometric post-apocalyptic adventure, which enlivened traditional role-playing design with its humor, intricate plotting, and 1950s aesthetics. Meanwhile, Shiny Entertainment released the idiosyncratic third-person blaster MDK ("Murder Death Kill"), famed for its early use of a zoomed sniper rifle, and Activision launched the offbeat, hilarious and stylistically sharp road adventure Interstate 76 – a weird cross between Blaxploitation flicks and Mad Max-style vehicle battler. All of these titles were poking and prodding at well-worn genres.

"PC games, maybe due to the more generous storage space of the hard drive, had always felt more open and more customizable, with a greater degree of visible change to the world, but [in 1997] many of these values were creeping into other genres and platforms," says Harvey Smith, now creative director at Arkane, but back then transfering from Multitude to Spector's Ion Storm Austin team. "CD-ROM games had changed things, allowing much higher-res art to be packed into the game, and giving narrative designers much more voice to work with. The year 1997 saw a proliferation of cool games… Fallout, GTA, The Last Express, Dungeon Keeper, X-Wing vs TIE Fighter, and Ultima Online, led by my close friend Starr Long.The breadth of mechanical experiences was wide. It just felt like any type of game could be made."

Japanese companies were also wrestling with the changeover from the old industry, with its small teams and 2D visuals, to the new era of polygons and panoramic worlds. Traditional RPGs such as Alundra and Breath of Fire III, scrolling shooters like Einhänder and Gradius Gaiden, and sprawling platformers like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night had their origins in the past, but there were also major concessions to the new age. Square chose to move its Final Fantasy series from Nintendo to Sony, designing the instant classic Final Fantasy VII as a vast cinematic adventure, filled with lush narrative sequences, an orchestral score and meaningful, resonant characters. As Hironobu Sakaguchi told the Japanese press at the time:

“It was starting to become clear to us what the memory capacity for the different next-gen consoles would be. Our games were going to need a huge amount of memory. The Final Fantasy VI CG demo we made for the Siggraph exhibition took 20 megs all by itself. We thought that demo had a lot of visual impact, so there really wasn’t much question about which hardware we would use; if we were going to realize the promise of the demo we had shown at Siggraph, nothing but the CD-ROM format would suffice.”

For many, this was a hugely telling release – a Japanese title developed with a truly global mainstream audience in mind. But not everyone appreciated the game's prioritizing of non-interactive visual flair and scripted storytelling over player experience. "Final Fantasy VII caused me a great deal of concern at the time – I hated it," says Carter. "I loathed the pacing. I despised the uneasy mix of pre-rendered backdrops and low-poly chibi-characters. Everything about it just seemed wrong to me, yet the industry was giddy with excitement for it."

Whatever the case, the big business story at the time was that Squaresoft had abandoned its old development ally Nintendo in favor of Sony – it seemed a pivotal moment in the console war between the PlayStation and N64; when FFVII was released in Japan in January, it sold over 2 million copies within three days and made Sony's machine almost impossible to find on store shelves. Sony was so confident it launched a magazine advertising campaign for FFVII with the tag line "Someone please get the guys who make cartridge games a cigarette and a blindfold." Squaresoft was not to be Nintendo's only loss. In October, its talismanic engineer Gunpei Yokoi was tragically killed in a road accident. Yokoi had left the company after the disastrous Virtual Boy, but the Game & Watch and GameBoy handhelds he designed would ensure his status as a design legend.

It wasn’t all bad news for Nintendo that year. Back in 1994, the console manufacturer had presented UK studio Rare with a newly purchased James Bond license. "The first people they approached – Tim Stamper, Gregg Mayles and the former Donkey Kong Country team – looked at the script and decided they didn't want to make the game," recalls Martin Hollis, who with Mark Edmonds would go onto head up development of the now-classic first-person shooter, GoldenEye. "It seems likely that if they had said yes, they would have produced a platform game. Once they said no, I picked up the opportunity."

Hollis went about building a new team within Rare for his project, and as with Grand Theft Auto, he went for enthusiastic young talent rather than industry experience – he wanted a totally fresh approach to design, moving away from Rare's beautiful, but spatially limited SNES adventures. "I always had in mind the excitement and architectural spaces of Virtua Cop, and John Woo's films, notably Hardboiled," he says.

One person said to me 'the player will just walk round in circles forever'

Released in august 1997, GoldenEye ushered in a new era of grand, story-focused first-person shooters, written specifically for video game consoles. Utilizing the N64's analog controller, the team was able to approximate the mouse-and-keyboard interface, providing the ability to look around a 3D space while shooting and navigating. "It took ages for us to iterate down to good controls," says Hollis. "There was a lot of tweaking even for the simple core controls, ignoring peripheral control systems like running, aim mode and leaning. We considered having movement mainly on the yellow C buttons, mainly on the analogue stick or mainly on shoulder buttons. We also considered employing the rarely-used D-pad for movement. All this to try to balance looking and moving across the controller so that both were easy and comfortable."

But this was only part of what GoldenEye offered. Through its combination of open spaces and narrow bottleneck corridor sequences, its strong storytelling and its use of multiple mission objectives and side objectives, the game introduced almost all of the structural maxims of the modern action adventure. There were stealth sequences, there were hidden areas, there were multiple weapons allowing highly personalized strategies – and crucially, there was a local multiplayer approximation of the modern deathmatch experience. While GTA told us about the future of free-roaming action adventures, GoldenEye brought us the mainstream narrative shooter – it heralded the era of Medal of Honor and Call of Duty.

Not that Hollis realized any of this – or so he says. "We never thought about being innovative. We knew we were lucky to have the equipment to do something amazing, but we never said 'This is the first time anyone has done this'. We added features because they seemed and felt like the right way to go about a problem, or because we thought they would be cool to have.

"I don't remember any discussion about something being 'too derivative' or 'too original' except for one exception, which was that several people tried to persuade me that you couldn't possibly have the gun on the right in a game where you move around. One person said to me 'the player will just walk round in circles forever'. Well, I wanted the gun on the right because it was more filmic, realistic and cooler. Sometimes you have to listen to advice and sometimes you just bear it in mind."

But GoldenEye wasn’t the only new title looking to bring first-person action to the consoles. Several thousand miles away in Sunnyvale California, eight-year-old studio Iguana Entertainment was putting together a dinosaur hunting game around an old comic book license. As with DMA and Rare, co-founder Darrin Stubbington was looking to assemble a young ambitious team around his core of experienced talent. "Because we had some new guys, they didn't even know what a risk was," he recalls. "Since we were all young and fearless, we thought we could tell the consumer what they wanted, and how they should enjoy the experience. As it turned out, we were right. Dave Dienstbier, the lead designer, and our creative director Nigel Cook went crazy on level design and layout. Our poor programmers just had to create tools and then the engine to support their desires."

Turok took an intriguing approach to level design, presenting the player with a series of discreet open environments, focused around a central hub world. The game mixed classical weapons like bows and knives with a high tech arsenal including the devastating atomic fusion cannon. But it was the organic richness and interactivity of the environments that impressed, with underwater sequences, rock-falls and hidden traps all adding to the sense of 'being there'. Turok also made it to market five months before GoldenEye, a point that Stubbington is keen to push home. "We were on good terms with the Rare guys," he says. "They told us that Turok had caused them to delay the release of GoldenEye, while they went back and addressed issues within their game that we were doing in a much more revolutionary way.

"1997 was an amazing year for immersive, expansive gaming experiences. Never before or since have we seen that kind of leap: from 2D to 3D, from on-rails to open worlds."

This was 1997 – the year of transition. It was the year games development grew up and got more serious, but also the year it looked outward toward cinema, toward music, toward art and started to experiment with what it found. Alongside all the mainstream technical accomplishments, there was the development of PaRappa the Rappa, Bust-A-Groove and Konami's Beatmania titles – rhythm action games that demanded new skillsets and rewarded new reference points. CD drives made music licensing possible, but the interplay between games marketing and club culture (symbolised by Sony’s sponsorship of dozens of nightclubs and music festivals) brought games into fresh social circles.

In the fall, Warren Spector dreamed of a new type of game where worlds opened, characters felt things and players had real agency. But the dream was already taking shape around him. To get there, old habits, old freedoms, had to be shed. There were victims, but there were also victors. In 1997, the future belonged only to those who embraced it.