Sometimes we feel a bit like we're talking to a brick wall. When we find ourselves piling some of our favourite games of past years into roundups of games that sold in pitiful quantities, for example, or whenever people tell us they didn't buy ICO, but wasn't it just the same as Project Eden? No. Damn you. On the other hand, there are clearly times when you think we're talking out of our collective royal backside too, and comparing the critical reaction to the sales figures of the Crash series - consistently one of the best performing platform franchises since consoles reached 32-bit - it's quite possible the ageing Bandicoot is a catalyst for that reaction in a lot of people.
Whatever the critics say, Crash sells. Talking to Daniel Tonkin and Paul Gardner from developer Traveller's Tales this week though, it's clear that they do care what the critics say - and that some of the problems that were cited in Wrath of Cortex (the load times, the possible lack of progress) have been in the forefront of the developer's mind in producing this year's instalment, Crash Bandicoot: Twinsanity. This time, Crash and his nemesis Cortex team up, opening the door to a whole mountain of new mechanics in an environment that branches off and lets you do your own thing far more than it ever has in the past. The team also secured the consultancy of Ren & Stimpy genius Jordan Reichek to help spice up the script, which is aided immensely by the addition of the comical Cortex as a playable character.
With the game now finished - and looking as enjoyably accessible as ever - we asked Dan and Paul how they got from Wrath of Cortex to Twinsanity, what happened on the way, what they plan to do next, and how they feel about platform games in general.
Eurogamer: What was your reaction to how Wrath of Cortex was received critically and commercially?
Paul Gardner: Well there was quite a big difference between how it was received critically and commercially. I think generally we were quite stunned by the response critically. The biggest criticisms were the huge loading times, but also the fact that the game hadn't really progressed any further; that it was still a solid Crash game, but that it was just a Crash game on PlayStation 2. And also at the same time that it had maybe started to lose some of the things that were strong about Crash in the first place in terms of its characterisation and just in the context of what Crash was doing. But as I say commercially Wrath of Cortex was really successful, but it was Universal who came to Traveller's Tales and I think they realised that there was potentially diminishing interest and diminishing returns as well.
Daniel Tonkin: I found it interesting because critically it was received, I think, quite poorly in general, but commercially it performed very, very well. It's still got the sort of sales figures now that most games would desperately love to achieve. It's over three-and-a-half to four million units by this stage, which is very successful. And I think what that shows, and it's a real learning process for us on the game, is that as much as critically people like to talk about things like complexity and new challenges and taking games in new directions, a lot of the market still wants a game that's very accessible, where kids can pick up and play and understand in about 30 seconds how the whole game works, and I think that's reflected in how it's done. For us it was a challenge to try and understand that as much as games develop and we want to do new and challenging things and take the game in new directions, we also have to have that tempered by the fact that a lot of the games players in the market still want something that is really easy to understand and get into in about five minutes and that they can buy for their kids who can play and have a lot of fun with something that's never going to get them to a point where they think 'I don't know what to do next, I don't know where to go, I don't have the right object, or I don't know how to open this door.' All they need to concern themselves with is dodging enemies and jumping on crates. I think it's important to see that there's still a big place for that in the market, and a lot of kids still want to play that.
Eurogamer: You've gone for full 3D this time with a sort of branching approach. Is that in response to anything in particular or is that just a natural progression?
Paul Gardner: I think it's a natural progression to introduce new gameplay mechanics. It seemed the logical step, with the rail camera, because there's only so much gameplay that can enable you to do. For example, throwing Cortex in that sort of environment, it wouldn't really be so successful.
Daniel Tonkin: I think part of it is natural evolution, and that we saw that we could still maintain the classic elements of the game but introduce more degrees of freedom into it, but there was also some pressure from the publisher - they did want to see Crash taken in new directions. So they did definitely want to evolve it into more of a freeform adventure, and that's something that we had to evolve through delicately because I think initially we tried to do too much freeform stuff, and the game starts to lose focus when it's got that, so we've found a happy medium in the end where - I think initially Universal wanted a game that was broadly full exploration, and then we sort of tempered that and made it more linear but within that linearity there is that sort of room to look at whatever you want, go wherever you want, but you're still on a mission from A to B.
Paul Gardner: We tried to keep the pace of the previous games, because one thing that can potentially happen if you open up an area is that it is more like travelling, which isn't as much fun, so we tried to keep the pace.
Eurogamer: What inspired you to go for the approach of having Crash and Cortex working together?
Paul Gardner: I think from the previous games Cortex was sort of becoming in many respects a stronger character, in that, er, well, he speaks [laughs]. And I think Naughty Dog had tried to take Crash in a certain direction by, well, in Crash 3 they gave him a motorbike and a leather jacket, and they tried to make him a cooler character, but he isn't inherently a cool character, he's never going to have people dressing like him or anything, and introducing Cortex gave us the opportunity to take it in an interesting direction and to articulate more and express more through humour.
Daniel Tonkin: Yeah, really all the characterisation in the game is handled through Cortex, because given that Crash can't speak basically all his character comes across physically, it's all just expressed through him making dozy expressions and doing stupid things, but Cortex has got a lot more room to explore his character, and I think in this game we've built on what they've suggested he's like in previous games but probably fleshed him out and there are more facets to him now. We've played on the fact that he's massively egotistical, he's got a real insecurity complex, and so on, so it made sense to make that a part of the playable experience as well.
Paul Gardner: Also, because Crash is the central character, it didn't make sense to make them two opposing characters who were playable because the player would be kind of playing against himself, so it made sense to get them to team up, and that suggested a lot of other gameplay mechanics, and vehicles and modes to us.
Eurogamer: Jordan Reichek (of Ren & Stimpy fame) worked on Crash Twinsanity. What was his role specifically and how did you come to work with him?
Paul Gardner: He acted as a consultant on the game at various stages during the project. He was introduced to us through Universal.
Daniel Tonkin: I think the producer who was attached to our game had had a previous relationship with Jordan in business terms - they worked together on different things, or they'd met on certain projects - so they had a good rapport with one another, and I think the producer at the time just saw an opportunity to approach Jordan with the idea of being involved and kind of liasing with us on the project. So it just seemed like a really good idea to take advantage of this guy's experience in the material we're dealing with and see if he could come up with some really good input, and so he liased with Paul more than anything on writing the sort of screenplay. And he assisted us with some additional concept work for certain locations in the game, because he's got his own studio that can handle all sorts of production processes. So he assisted us in a couple of different areas, basically providing some suggestions and some critical direction I guess in terms of where things might go.
Eurogamer: What do you think gives Crash such staying power?
Daniel Tonkin: I have to say that I honestly believe, and this is putting my sort of game critic hat aside, I think as a developer it's sometimes possible to lose sight of how important simple things are, and I think Crash's accessibility is why he's so successful. All you need to do to be able to play a Crash game is run and jump and spin. And for the most part that's what's seen us through - although of course the racing games have helped - but he's just a very accessible character and I think he's also filled a niche in Sony's library of games that hasn't really been filled in a meaningful way by a lot of other characters up until now. So I just think it's the ease with which players can get used to the game, and he's also always been handled in a very slick way. I think the early Naughty Dog games established him as being a character that was in games that had great graphics, and accessible gameplay and things like vehicles, and it was a very glossy, slick experience. So I think it's the accessibility and the high productions values basically that's carried it through.
Paul Gardner: I agree with all that, but in addition probably just the character himself because he's a mute. Actually one of the things that we found most difficult in moving to PlayStation 2 was agreeing what Crash looked like, because there's so many different iterations of him, and PlayStation 1 resolution was kind of...
Daniel Tonkin: He's got about 700 triangles I think in the original PlayStation 1 game, whereas in ours he's got about 2,500, so you've got that scope to properly realise him as you can imagine he would have been if you could sculpt him in clay, so yeah, that created a lot of difficulties.
Paul Gardner: I think a result of that, the fact that he's quiet, is that people have invested a lot of themselves into the character, so on the internet you'll find fans writing fan fiction for him, making up their own characters...
Daniel Tonkin: That was a real eye-opener actually. You think, yeah, he's been successful critically and we know lots of people own the games, but then you find out that there is actually this Crash subculture of people who are so into it that they'll write stories and do drawings of him doing different things for no reason other than because they really like the character, so that was really bizarre. I had no idea.
Paul Gardner: I think it's just because of the character himself and the scope of the supporting characters that give people the opportunity to do that sort of thing and invest themselves in it.
Eurogamer: What do you guys think of the current generation of platform games? For example, what Naughty Dog has been doing with the Jak series?
Daniel Tonkin: Well I have to say I thought Jak & Daxter was really good. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I thought it was probably not groundbreaking in any way, but I'm sure Naughty Dog would agree, but I think it was probably their most finely executed, orthodox platforming 3D adventure that there was on the market. I just thought it was extraordinarily well done. Jak II I haven't played but I have gotten into the Ratchet & Clank games, and so far I just think they're extraordinary. I'm playing Ratchet & Clank 2 at the moment, and for me it's just brilliant, it pushes all the buttons that I want to have pushed when I'm playing that kind of game. It's got big guns and it's got vehicles, it's got that science fiction kind of theme, it's got great creatures. So I'm a big fan of Insomniac and Naughty Dog. I see them personally, as an artist in the field and being involved in these sorts of games, I see them as something to aspire to, and I hope to be attached to more games that are close to the quality of what they do in the future. I just think they do brilliant work.
Eurogamer: Did you ever play Sly Raccoon?
Daniel Tonkin: Oh, absolutely. Cel-shading gets a really interesting punishment a lot of the time and people think it's trite and overused, but I think Sly Raccoon is the most sophisticated use of that technology. It's one of the most beautiful games I think on the market. In terms of comparing it to the other stuff, I think Sly Raccoon is possibly the finest looking 3D platformer on PS2. They seem to deal more with beautiful graphics in smaller quantities, whereas games like Ratchet & Clank and Jak makes games with these massive worlds where you can literally see to the horizon, and their technology is really amazing. So all of those three I think are the absolute leaders in their field. I don't want to gush [laughs], but I'm really enamoured by what they do.
Eurogamer: Are you planning to make another Crash game now you're finished with Twinsanity?
Daniel Tonkin: The simplest answer is this game has gone quite well for us in terms of establishing a reputation for the studio, and so we've got lots of options, we've been approached by a variety of people, and we're considering at this point what to do next. We're interested in the franchise still and the characters, because we've invested a lot of energy into them, adding more depth. It'll probably be down to what Vivendi want to do and what we want to do and what kind of other opportunities come up and what we explore. We're still very interested in the franchise and I think if the opportunity came up we'd be more than happy to do another game. I think that's really all we can say at this point, because we haven't had anything signed, we haven't had anything made official, so...
Eurogamer: Are you interested in developing for the PSP and Nintendo DS?
Daniel Tonkin: I think so. As a developer you kind of want to get a taste for all the different formats, just so you can understand the nature of your job better, and doing games in different contexts, because handheld gaming is something that really interests me as I think it has the potential to provide a whole different type of experience. We see at the moment lots of games just being blindly translated across formats, and I'm not entirely sure whether that's the right approach, and doing a PSP game would I think teach you a lot about what's successful on a handheld. What I'm fascinated by is the Game Boy Advance, which is powered by probably 12-year-old technology or something like that, but is still successful because of how well 2D stuff works in a handheld format. So I'll be interested to see how the new systems deal with that, whether you can just put Gran Turismo on the PSP and it sells really well and is very effective or whether you need to do something that's quite different. So yeah I'd like to be involved in a project on a handheld just to get that experience.
Paul Gardner: I think, like Dan was saying, the format of games that are required in a handheld context is very different, in that the way people use them is maybe a little more short-term. For example Tetris on the Game Boy - one of the reasons that was so successful I'm sure was because you could pick it up for five minutes and then you could come back to in the future. And I actually think one of the reasons Crash has been successful is it's a similar thing; it's something that people can come home from school or the pub, play for half an hour, and then switch it off and come back to it later. It doesn't require that obscene investment of time.
Daniel Tonkin: And you don't need to remember an inventory and remember what was the last point, the last obstacle you came up against; you can literally just play to the next checkpoint and put it down. As Paul says I think that's going to be inherently the nature of handheld stuff. It's got to be tightly parcelled entertainment, not sprawling adventures that require you to sit still for four hours to get through it.
Eurogamer: Finally, we know you read the site, so you know who you're talking to. Is there anything you'd say to our readers to maybe try and convince them to pick up Twinsanity this year instead of one of the other platformers?
Daniel Tonkin: Well I'd say if you've traditionally liked the Crash games, particularly the early ones, and you like the character and the kind of, again I use the word, accessibility of the gameplay, and you enjoy that but you want a little bit more, and you want it in a more interesting package with more interesting story, more interesting characters and some extension on the gameplay themes that have been there to date, then I think you'll really like this. Because we really are trying to cater to Crash fans. I mean, that's the thing - if you're a Jak & Daxter fan or a Ratchet & Clank fan or a Sly Raccoon fan, that sort of thing, odds on you're going to keep liking those games, because those made you happy to date, and don't look to this game for the same things they're already giving you, because what we're trying to achieve is to make something uniquely Crash. And to continue to keep him separated from those other games, otherwise it just becomes this murky pile of people doing the same thing, and we don't really see any point in doing that.
Paul Gardner: As much as we admire Naughty Dog and Insomniac we are really careful to not follow the exact same path, because we don't want to always be stuck in the position where we're sort of trying to play catch-up. And so the main thing we've done with Crash is to look at the strengths of the characters and push that so it's very distinctly different to the other platform games coming out this year.
Crash Twinsanity is due out on PS2 and Xbox this October 8th.