The lights are on
In issue 227 of Game Informer we ran an article composed of highlights from an interview we had with Naughty Dog co-president about the first game he ever worked on, Toejam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron. Now we're pleased to present the entirety of that interview.
Long before Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells worked with Jak & Daxter, the talented game designer was earning his chops with another famous video game duo. The man that would go on to mold the award-winning Uncharted series got his start designing levels for a sequel starring intergalactic hip-hoppers Toejam & Earl. Working on the jammin’ Genesis title not only taught Wells the fundamentals of game making, it became the first step on his path to Crystal Dynamics and eventually Naughty Dog.
Blasting off into the industry
I was going to Stanford at the time. I was studying computer science, and I was on the gymnastics team. It was the summer of my freshman year, so I guess that would’ve been the summer of 1992. I’m renting a new game like practically every day, just going through the library and playing games all summer long, and my roommate and I rented Toejam & Earl. We played it, and our goal was always to finish it before the rental period was up and go onto the next one. So as you pointed out earlier when we were talking it’s a very difficult game. We managed to get to the end and were super excited. We built that spaceship and took off. The credits rolled. Back then, these credits weren’t a wall of names like they are now. You could actually read these names and appreciate them.
One of the first names that came up was a programmer named Mark Voorsanger. Voorsanger is a very unique name. You don’t run across that many Voorsangers. In fact, he graduated the year before I started, so I was never teammates alongside him, but there was Conrad Voorsanger. He’s actually a rather famous Stanford gymnast, a national champion.
He still came around the gym from time to time, so the next time I asked him, "Do you have a brother named Mark?" He was like, "Yeah, I do. How’d you know?" I said, "I just finished his video game." And he’s like, "Yeah, he made this game called Toejam & Earl." I said, "Yeah, I know, it’s awesome!” I think this was now into the next year and I said I’d like to talk to Mark to see if he had work the next summer. I was going to be around training and wanted to make some money. Conrad gave him my name and e-mail address and I ended up hooking up with him.
They were working in Novato, which is quite a drive from Palo Alto. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from where I was living. I went up there and met with him and his partner, Greg Johnson. Basically, back then, two guys could make a video game as the designer and the programmer. I just geeked out because I was in their office seeing all the posters of the games they worked on. Greg Johnson worked on Star Flight, which was the PC game I played growing up that just blew my mind. There’s literally a thousand stars in the solar system and you could go all over the place searching each planet’s environment, and he was the designer of that game. It just blew my mind. Caveman Games was another one I had played. I was like, "You worked on Caveman Games!"
I don’t know if it was my enthusiasm or what, but I got the gig. They were working on the sequel to Toejam & Earl and needed some help on the level layout. I had never done this but I played lots of games and had a computer science degree, so I guess all that led up to getting the job. So I started working on it all summer long, basically. Fortunately it shipped on time, so I was able to complete my work.
That was my first experience making games. I learned so much. Greg Johnson, to this day, is one of my favorite game designers I’ve ever gotten to work with. He’s just so creative and I learned a lot of great lessons from him. Even though it was literally a three hour commute round trip - I had to pay five dollars every time I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge every day - it was the best summer of my life. It started my career. They just took a chance on me.
What he learned from Panic on Funkotron
I made all kinds of rookie mistakes. Now there’s more documentation, you can read books about it, and obviously go to school, but back then it was the Wild West and trial by fire. All the first instincts you have are to catch the player or trick them into killing themselves. That’s the worst game design. You don’t want to trick the player into killing themselves. As a 20-year-old game designer I guess that was my first instinct. Greg showed me the ropes and showed me that wasn’t how to do it.
Really the biggest thing was time management -- how to come up with an idea and use the tools you have to implement and test it out as quickly as possible and find out whether it’s fun or not or what works. That fundamental, iterative process was the most important lesson. Surprisingly, even back in that day, I guess it was the era of 2D vs. 3D and maybe some bigger challenges, but even back then they had a really good set of tools that allowed us to iterate very quickly. In fact, in contrast to the tools I had to work with at my following job at Crystal Dynamics on Gex, which is also a 2D game – it was a nightmare compared to the system they had for Toejam & Earl 2.
Jumping from Toejam & Earl to Crystal Dynamics
In that same office building up in Novato, right next door was Toys For Bob, who you might know for having just shipped Skylanders. They have a long and storied history as well that goes back at least to 1992. Paul Ritchie, Fred Ford, those guys were right next door working on The Horde for 3DO. So they were working with Crystal Dynamics already. All this brand new hardware hadn’t come out yet, and it was really cool to go over there and see all the dev kits, 3D gaming, and disc-based software. It was really cool to see them working on such cutting edge stuff with full motion video and Kirk Cameron.
I can’t remember if they were working on The Horde or if they were working on porting their version of Star Control 2 to the 3DO. I can’t remember which came first, but they were working on those two games at the time. I’d have lunch with them all the time, and I’d be playtesting their game, and they’d be playtesting our game, and I established a relationship with them.
Every now and again producers from Crystal would come up to check up on their work and I got to know them. When my gig was up with Toejam & Earl they said I should come down and work at Crystal. At the time it was pretty tempting because I could’ve started my career right then, but I figured the responsible thing to do would be to finish my two years of school and get my degree. I was also on the gymnastics team and wanted to finish that out. I made the decision to stick it out but said I was interested in a summer job. I talked to all the right people and they told me I had a job next summer and in fact I’d be helping finish up Gex in time for Christmas.
So I started working at Crystal all the way through the summer on Gex, and it’s not even close to shipping. It was one of those disaster projects where the deadlines keep marching along and I was like. "I need to go back to school, guys." They were like, "No, we need you to finish up your levels." So I said I’d try to juggle gymnastics, school, and work. I ended up going all the way to just before graduation. I think that's when we finished. It was another six or seven months of development before we finished Gex. Almost through the entirety of my senior year I was crunching to finish Gex and also training in gymnastics. We won the national championship that year.
Being a fan working on the sequel
It was surreal. The thing is, when I started school I didn’t even know what I was going to major in. I thought I was going to major in physics or something. I did calculus in high school and thought I was hot sh**. Then I went to Stanford and realized I’m a complete doofus. I comparatively knew nothing about math, so there was no way I was going to major in physics. It was an eye-opening experience. I just got crushed in my first calculus class. I think I got 20/100 on it. It was obviously not where I needed to be.
I started looking for what interested me and took some computer science classes and thought that sounded really cool. I still had no idea what I wanted to do for a living. I had this warped notion that all video games were made in Japan. I didn’t even know that was a job option for me. When I got the chance to meet the Toejam & Earl guys and see that this is totally something that people do, I fell in love with it. Okay, this is what I was meant to do.
Memorable Toejam & Earl levels
I can’t even remember the levels well enough to pinpoint one. There was an enormous amount of secrets in that game, though. One of the power-ups you had in the game was you could teleport five tiles forward or something, so we had all these secrets where if you bumped up against a wall and teleported five tiles in you’d find secret alcoves or hidden presents.
Some of the things I thought were the most amazing about that game -- going back to the brilliance of Greg Johnson -- was before Parappa the Rappa he had a music beat game in there. You’d come across these boom boxes and in order to beat these minigames you had to hit out the beat. It was pretty rad.
What he's most proud of
When we shipped the game. There’s nothing like shipping your first game. Even though it was a sequel to a game that I was getting to do level design on, the satisfaction of working with those guys and just learning the ropes from two guys I really respect was great. I just really appreciate the opportunity they gave me with zero experience and being as green as I was.
On getting into the video game-making business
I think it’s a lot harder now. Back then I think there were a lot of people who didn’t see it as a career possibility. I think now it’s very much a highly sought-after career. I think the competition is high enough and the barred entry, at least with the high-end console stuff, is so high it would be hard to replicate.
But I should step back and take that back because now that there’s such a broad spectrum of kinds of games out there, I think it might not be as unrealistic to have it happen again when you’ve got mobile games, Facebook games, and a lot of things where you don’t even need somebody to take a chance on you. You can just do it yourself. There are so many tools out there.
I am always just amazed when I see my five-year-old, even when he was four years old, playing Jellycar. In Jellycar they have a level-editing tool and you can make your own levels. I’m seeing this child make these super-complex levels using a set of tools that are more sophisticated than what I used when I got into the industry. And he’s really doing real game design.
I think there’s still a lot of opportunity out there. Now I’m totally reversing what I said, but there’s even more of a chance if somebody’s really passionate about what they’re doing. There’s so many tools and free opportunities out there to mod. There are so many ways you can get your foot in the door and show your work and that you have the chops. You don’t need somebody to take a chance on you.
Last time he played Toejam & Earl 2
It’s been quite some time. I think I busted out my Nomad and popped it in maybe eight or nine years ago, but it’s been awhile. I still have that Nomad, though. Much to my wife’s chagrin I’ve got a garage full of defunct, old gaming stuff. I’ve got a Virtual Boy.
On following the reception of Toejam & Earl 2
Voraciously. It was probably only a year ago that I dumped all my old magazines. I’d collect anything with any mention of Gex or Toejam & Earl. I kept all those with me in my garage for a decade before I finally said, "Enough."
Attachment to characters
I’m still close friends with Greg and talk to him fairly regularly. He actually owns the rights to Toejam & Earl still. I would still love a chance to work with them again. We batted around some ideas and possibilities, nothing serious. Reminiscing, mostly. I think those are great characters and in a lot of ways ahead of their time in terms of trying to make video games hip and mainstream. The first Toejam & Earl’s game design, although it was brutally hard, had really clever game design elements in it -- especially the way it’s always randomly generated, and I’m sure you could go back and enjoy it today and not have the same experience when you first played it.