Q&A: Steve Rechtschaffner
We speak with the executive producer of SSX, one of the most entertaining launch games for the Sony PlayStation 2.
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The PlayStation 2 is now available in North America. One of its more entertaining launch games is SSX, the first PS2 title under the newly established EA Big brand. GameSpot had the opportunity to speak with Steve Rechtshaffner, executive producer of SSX, about the game, its development, and its role under the broader umbrella of the EA Big brand.
GameSpot: When did you begin the development on SSX?
Steve Rechtschaffner: We started more than two years ago. Actually, we probably started with a concept, I think, two and a half years ago. We knew what we wanted to do - the number of characters we wanted onscreen, the type of frame rates we wanted. So we actually developed the game for the first ten months - some parts of the game for even the first twelve months - working on the PC environment. At least the first eight months of that, we made a lot of educated guesses at what the PlayStation 2's capabilities were going to be. So our programmers put together the best PCs we could get - you know, they had two 3D cards on them, and we basically started working on the programming. Just the physics alone - we worked on it a year up front.
GS: So once you switched over to the PS2, how did the development process on the PS2 go? There have been some complaints about developing on the console. What were your experiences?
SR: I think we're in the minority, from what I understand. Things really took off for us once we got on the PlayStation 2. There are always a bunch of hurdles right out front on any platform. You know, you are getting early development kits, and they are not completely done, and they don't have the complete libraries. Outside of that stuff, I would say in general that most of your teams are really empowered by the PlayStation 2. It seems like the type of platform that if you have mediocre people working on it, people who are used to having everything written for them low level, it's probably intimidating. But for people who have really high development goals and are really motivated by the opportunity to do more, these people will get the most out of the system. Our team was just ecstatic with it. We were like "Wow, we can build a particle system, we can do this, and we can do that." We changed how we build our courses completely, because we saw the power of the machine. So, for us, [developing on the PS2] was really motivating.
GS: Obviously the game takes nice advantage of the PS2 hardware. What type of polygon counts are you getting on the characters, particularly in those gorgeous up-close camera angles?
SR: It depends on how we are using our characters - we have four different polygon-based characters from every character in the game. So, it depends on how close you are to the character. In the close-ups, where you can see the character's mouth and facial animation - most of those characters are 5,000-plus polygons. The lowest you'd probably get to is maybe 1,200 or 1,250 polys per character when they are distant - not your character, but a second, third, or fourth character. It's pretty cool. It's a pretty sophisticated system. It not only decides how to draw, but also what and where to draw them.
GS: Let me switch gears a little bit. Why select snowboarding as your first game that you are developing under the EA Big brand? Why not skateboarding or some other extreme sports?
SR: First of all, I'd like to think of us as leaders, not followers. We're not chasing any categories here. In fact, it is probably just the opposite. I think the thinking was that in the snowboard category, we could do something different. We weren't interested in the "licensed" mentality. It doesn't necessarily have to be a license - but, it can be, say, an athlete or a league. A lot of people, when they are looking at alternative sports games - it's almost like they're looking to license the popularity of that sport. It's like "I'm giving myself a head start because people want to go ride BMX bikes, or snowboarding, or skateboarding." But to me, that's the backward approach to game development. When I look at it, what is going to be the most fun game, and what is going to be the most immersive? From there, I looked at snowboarding as a video game and not as a sport. From there, I thought, "How do we evolve both of these? Because we don't have a lot of the limitations that we once had." The criteria for us - I think this holds true for the whole EA sports Big games - was "How do you create physics and control that feels real but delivers an experience that is beyond what you experience in real life?" I've done simulation games, but to me, this was fun because you can be creative with how you evolve the sport. And I think that is something that a lot of people had a hard time understanding until the game was playable.
GS: It definitely has an arcade-style feel to it.
SR: It has a lot of arcade-style feel to it. It's built as an arcade game. We as game designers felt that it has to grab your attention from the get-go, and it has to keep you entertained for every second. We don't literally have a coin slot on the PS2, but we imagined that we did - we imagined that if there were any point in the game where you got bored, we'd have to fix that. So, when you're finished with one course, you are excited about playing the next course. I think what happens in our business is that a lot of people rent games, and that isn't a whole lot different from the way the arcade works. And if the player is quickly bored with it, you probably won't sell a lot of games. The goal was always that renting the game would make people want to buy the game more.
GS: One of the more amazing things about the game is its courses. Who designed them and what were the inspirations behind them?
SR: Well, they were designed by a group of people: myself, Larry Lapierre, who is the producer, three course designers, and three people who actually built all the objects on the course. It was a very cool process where we started out with a combination of themes of what we wanted the courses to be - like the Aloha Ice Caps. That was probably one of the first ideas we had. We thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to be on an iceberg when it's breaking apart." Then we went back and decided that because of its intricate design it would be an expert-level course. So we had to decide what it is that the players know how to do when they get to that course and what is it that we want to give people on this course that they haven't done before. Pretty much all the people who are driving forces in this game are big fans of snowboarding games. We are big fans of any games that feel crafted. We really wanted it to be a full experience. The players are learning a little more each time, they are building the character a little more, and they are challenged in every level. So the courses are a huge part of that. The idea was making stuff early on, in courses like Snow Dream, so you feel like you are doing something incredible, but it's not hard to do. The mantra I kept repeating over and over is, "This is what snowboarding feels like when you are drifting off a cliff." When you dream about snowboarding you dream about being able to fly over a cliff or flying over traffic and stuff like that. That's how SSX feels. We love to jump. I took the course designers downhill mountain biking, just to get a feel. A few people had to go to the hospital because it's just gung ho. [laughs] There are people who love to jump and there are people who don't. Our team is made up of people who like to get air. And it's funny, when you get us together, driving around the area, and all of a sudden you see a cliff on the side and you say, "You know, that would be a cool jump." It's a mentality.
GS: As far as the SSX name goes. What will be the future? Is this a one time only thing?
SR: From the day we started on this we envisioned it to be a line of products. Our goal with EA Sports Big is to stand for something the same way EA Sports does. I think this game defines the potential of what EA Sports Big can be. At our studios, we have a couple of things that we are working on now as a follow-up to this. One of the other teams is working on Sled Storm. We are doing a PlayStation 2 version of that under EA Sports Big. And a lot of people are working on that, and people from other teams are helping out with it. I think what becomes a franchise or a brand is EA Sports Big. What lives under that is games that are alternative sports and are grounded in great gameplay and great physics - and games that have these worlds and experiences that are very arcade-like, very over the top. We wouldn't make a simulation mountain-biking game under the EA Sports Big brand. If we looked at a mountain-bike game, it would probably have downhill, BMX, and all the things that are out there - all of that combined into this one really immersive experience.
GS: Sounds great. Thanks for talking to us Steve.
SR: Pleasure. I'm glad you had a chance to play the game.