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The agony and ecstasy behind the first Rainbow Six

Six of the best.

It had been a tough few months. Development of the very first Rainbow Six had left the team exhausted and panicky, and the party held at developer Red Storm Entertainment's studio in North Carolina after the game shipped promised some sort of relief. It promised to be special, too - the studio's founder and world famous novelist Tom Clancy was going to be making an appearance.

"As a way to say 'thank you' he offered to autograph a copy of the game for each of us," lead designer Brian Upton says. "Everyone in that room had been working crunch hours for over a year. People had practically killed themselves to get that game out the door. Even though it had his name on the box, it wasn't his game. It was our game. He should have been asking us to sign a copy for him! I was so pissed I went off to be alone in my office so I wouldn't say anything to get myself fired."

Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six had a troubled development, but it can lay claim to being the father of the military shooter genre, introducing the world of video games to Rainbow, a multinational unit of black ops badasses taking on the jobs that no other government will touch. Perhaps the team at Red Storm could see some parallels between themselves and those operatives. With Rainbow Six, a team of committed but inexperienced professionals managed to pull a world-class game together, completely against the odds.

"I don't have any design documents relating to the original Rainbow Six," says Upton. "That's because there weren't any. There was a list of missions and a plot outline, but mostly we figured things out as we went along with the only 'documentation' being the code and the art files themselves. It was a stupid way to make a game, and a mistake we never repeated."

Upton himself was lead designer, though he admits the title meant little. "There were no designers on Rainbow Six - design was something that happened around the margins as people were programming or making art.

"Don't do that," Upton warns. "It's a bad way to make a game."

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Red Storm didn't really know any better at the time. It had only just started making games. The developer's origins come from Virtus, a company kickstarted from the proceeds made by adventure game The Colony, designed by David Smith, and which made 3D modelling tools. Clancy himself was a fan of The Colony, and was an early investor in Virtus, and the author and Smith soon become friends looking for ways to collaborate together.

Virtus and Clancy had some success in 1996 with submarine simulator SSN, but both were looking for more. And so Red Storm was founded, a partnership between Tom Clancy, former submarine commander Doug Littlejohns and 15 employees from Virtus.

Littlejohns served as the company's CEO from 1996 to 2001, a personal friend of Clancy's brought on board after leaving the Navy and serving as SSN's technical advisor. Littlejohns described the opening days of the company: "I arrived in the States at the end of September and the following weekend I took the 15 developers plus Tom Clancy and we went off to Colonial Williamsburg, where the Brits were booted out of the USA in 1776. We spent the whole weekend just chewing the fat and coming up with wargaming ideas."

He laid down the law about his vision for Red Storm and the games they'd make. "Yes, we would capitalise on Clancy's name, that was the whole idea, you know, but I said I'm not into spending Tom's money 'on mindless violence. I'm not having guts spilling out on the pavement, eyes falling out, and all that sort of thing.'"

One of these opening ideas was based on the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team. "I emphasised the hostage rescue aspect of the game and included the idea of an upfront planning phase," says Upton. "The idea for the targeting reticule was mine as well. We'd been playing a lot of Quake around the office and I was frustrated with the twitch reflexes of the younger guys on the team. I wanted a shooter where strategy was just as important as speed and the aiming reticule was a way to achieve that."

The first step of the game was to prototype the one shot/one kill mechanic, achieved by way of a Quake mod. Even in the game's infancy, the team knew they were on to something special. They then dropped the idea of using the actual FBI for the game and flirted with several other concepts, including Upton's favourite: a darker, dystopian game called Jackbooted Thugs complete with a team of antiheroes.

Littlejohns is keen to point out that he's not a gamer, and as a businessman he wanted to make a name for Red Storm with a quick and solid game. "We kicked around a different set of action games, strategy games, whatever. There was a game called Doom, which was just mindless roaring around in an environment with a machine gun in front of you shooting everything that appeared, and that was hugely successful but to my mind it was mindless, and so I quite liked the idea of a strategy but on the other hand I'd looked at some strategy games and I thought they're boring as well because they're so slow. So, we thought about mixing action and strategy."

The idea of a hostage rescue simulator appealed to Clancy, and he and Littlejohns mused on it a little more, fleshing out the concept of a hostage rescue simulator: "Tom and I were sitting having a whiskey in the evening of the first day and he said, 'I'm toying with writing a book about a hostage rescue team.' So we then mulled that over until about 3am, got through some whiskey, and I said, 'Look, one of the things that really grips me is if the hostage is taken somewhere then there has to be a protracted negotiation with the local government of whatever country it is before the United Nations can send a team in,' and so we mulled that a bit more and then said, 'Well, why don't we have a permanent team drawn from all over, with international protocols all set up?'"

Clancy was enthusiastic, but they needed a name for both the game and the book. "Nelson Mandela had just instigated the Rainbow state in South Africa, all colours," recalls Littlejohns. "I said, 'Well why not call it Rainbow?' 'Right,' says Tom, 'Now, Rainbow on its own is not gonna do much. What's a captain rank in the navy?' I said, 'It's an 06, a level 06.' So he said, 'Right, well let's call it Rainbow Six.' That was how the name came about. And that also gave Tom the title for the book."

In the game's fiction Rainbow's commanding officer John Clark is at the simulated rank of Major General (which is O-8), but Rainbow Six rolls off the tongue a little easier than Rainbow Eight. Upton couldn't stand the title, arguing that Rainbow didn't sound like a hardened group of counterterrorism experts and that the Six at the end would cause problems if they ever developed a sequel, but was overruled.

By the summer of 1997, the team was in full development and slipping further and further behind. "We were all inexperienced developers and had underestimated the scope badly. As I mentioned before, we had no dedicated designers," Upton says. "As I recall, the level artists were responsible for designing their own levels. I'd given them all rough outlines of what was supposed to happen, but no maps or floorplans."

The below map, sketched out on graph paper, is of the game's 9th mission: Red Wolf. This documentation shows every bit of guidance the team had for the mission.

Set in a US Mint, Red Wolf's map was one of the first levels the art team worked on together and resources on the internet were very limited. As they couldn't easily get information on the inner workings of a US Mint, the team had to improvise. They found a suitable surrogate: a local newspaper, The Raleigh News & Observer.

John Sonedecker was the lead level designer and attributes the success of Rainbow Six to its basis in the real world: "The layouts make sense and help to create the sense of immersion the game is known for. It would feel awkward and unnatural to people if doors were too wide or ceilings too high, because we see these things every day in real life. We have a constant frame of reference."

The emphasis on real world architecture morphed the gameplay around it. Real buildings had real chokepoints, which often meant you were trying to fight the enemies as well as the fact that buildings aren't often designed with armed counterterrorism units in mind.

This meant accidents could happen. "A team would stack up on a door and one guy would throw a grenade through the door," explains Sonedecker. "Except it hit the door frame and bounced back into the team. People would look at it for a second then you'd hear screaming 'GRENADE' through your speakers or from the next door office just as everyone started to try to run away. But the hallways were not wide enough for six people so just as we bunched up: BOOM!" Sonedecker moves his arms outwards to simulate the lethal explosion before laughing.

The levels didn't have to be so meticulously planned because the AI would compensate. There were no scripted reactions, enemies were just placed at their starting locations or set on a simple patrol path, but how their reaction to threats was dynamic.

Clancy's name also gave the team access to technical experts. These were people who actually knew about room clearing and counterterrorism, and could lend the game some authenticity in addition to letting the team get their hands on a myriad of weapons.

On DeVries' 25th birthday, the team was being trained by, what DeVries described as "some very seriously "tip of the spear" guys" on how to shoot MP5s full auto while moving. This formed the basis of Rainbow Six's movement model. The technical consultants advised that keeping a stable firing position while moving was essential. When asked whether or not they'd leap over a sofa in the middle of the room to get across the room faster, they scoffed - "Too dangerous, I'd go around it". The programmers were enthusiastic; this meant they wouldn't have to program in jumping.

By late 1997 Rainbow Six was horrendously behind schedule, sucking up resources from other projects at the studio in a desperate bid to get back on track. The team moved into a crunch mentality.

For Upton, the crunch started to have health risks. With a new baby at home - his son was born in July, 1997 - he was having a hard time juggling the demands of the game and his role at the company, which had ballooned: he was director of engineering for Red Storm, in addition to being the lead engineer, lead designer, and network programmer on Rainbow Six.

At a management retreat to plan for the future of the company, Upton finally managed to get across quite how behind everything was. Future planning gave way to crisis management, and the director of product management was fired on the spot. "This sent me into a downward spiral where I blamed myself for everything going wrong," Upton says. "I was emotionally shattered and I had a nervous collapse at work - basically a complete inability to do anything." He needed to take some time to himself and took two weeks away, not sure if he'd still have a job when he came back.

He did, and the team came together to support him. When he got back, a reshuffle balanced the load. The company hired a network programmer, Dave Weinstein, and promoted Peter McMurray to lead engineer to allow Upton to work full-time on the design of the game as it entered its last few months of production.

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Upton recalls Clancy's involvement as minimal throughout the process: "After the initial brainstorming session he hardly engaged with us at all. He turned my story into his book, but there was no collaboration. His agent just sent me a copy of his rough manuscript so I could work in details." Upton shrugged, "He insisted that we include the heartbeat sensor because one of his experts had told him that it was a real device. I argued strongly against that and lost as well. Mostly he just ignored us."

Latecomer Weinstein came in to a game in chaos and described these last few months as being disastrous. He lived mostly at the office, sleeping in a spare room that was outfitted with air mattresses for the staff. "I was even pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving during that period. They let me go because I hadn't been drinking, but the simple fact was, I was so exhausted that I was incredibly unsafe and should never have been on the road. To this day, I'm not sure why my wife didn't leave me during crunch."

Development was fuelled with 3am rounds of Quake, Atomic Bomberman and a looping soundtrack of Spice Girls, with many of the team crashing in the spare room of the studio. 14 hour days were the norm.

They were feeling burnt out, but E3 1998 turned things around. Red Storm got to show the game to the public for the first time, and lead artist Jonathan Peedin was giving a demo to a crowd of about fifty spectators.

He'd sent his team upstairs and turned to describe the game to the audience. While he was describing what happened, his team of operatives were coming down the stairs with the hostage they'd rescued all by themselves.

Artist DeVries seeks inspiration on the firing range.

"F***" yelled Peedin into his mic. The AI hadn't been smart enough to pull off the plan a week before, so he gunned down the team and failed the mission, so he could give the demo properly.

The crowd loved it. Rainbow Six had captured their imagination.

The next few months were a frantic scramble, but things were coming together. Upton remembers the first time he had a multiplayer match: "I ran into a room where another player was hiding. We both panic fired at each and emptied our clips. It was like Pulp Fiction. Every shot missed because the reticule was so huge." Upton reloaded, waited for the cursor to settle down and shot him in the head. That was when he realised the team was onto something special.

In spite of everything, Rainbow Six still hit the pirate sites weeks before hitting store shelves, and Weinstein was furious: "One of the really annoying things was that the pirates took credit for 'cracking' a game with no copy protection in it. I'm not sure why, but that level of self-aggrandisement made me furious."

Weinstein "expressed this using particularly chosen words, and at great volume."

Littlejohns took him aside and explained that while he understand the anger, people three rooms away could hear him shouting profanity. "I had never realised it before, but being reprimanded for excessive profanity by a retired British Commodore was actually one of my life goals."

Rainbow Six went on to be a success. Launching in 1998 against games like Half Life and Unreal it managed to carve a niche for itself - in just a few years Clancy's name became synonymous with the tactical shooter.

Most of the Rainbow Six team went on to create the Ghost Recon series, a game with many of Rainbow Six's sensibilities but crucially, taking place outdoors. Both series have gained momentum and carried on in the years since.

Red Storm is now a subsidiary of Ubisoft, still in North Carolina and still making Tom Clancy games.

Clancy himself sadly died in 2013, the prolific author ending up as one of the most enduring names in gaming: alongside Sid Meier, he's perhaps had his name appear on more game titles than any other. How much of an input he had after Rainbow Six is unknown. He didn't write any further novels based on his games after Rainbow Six, but Clancy's name on the box indicated a certain type of game, a perceived authenticity to the gameplay. It's a brand that continues today, with the multiplayer-focussed Siege the 18th entry in the Rainbow Six series. Clancy's name lives on via the boxes of countless games, even if he's no longer around to sign them.

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