Interview: René Boutin discusses Sunsoft, licensed games, and the 16-Bit era

Oct 11, 2012 at 11:40 am/ Author:

sunsoft

We would like to thank former Sunsoft producer/director René Boutin for giving us his time to interview him about the development process during the 16-bit era of video games, Sunsoft’s downfall, working with licensors, and Spore Productions.

René Boutin worked on the following games during his time at Virgin Games and Sunsoft.

  • Looney Tunes B-Ball (SNES) – Producer
  • Speedy Gonzales: Los Gatos Bandidos (SNES) – Director, level designer, misc art
  • M.C. Kids (NES) – Sprite animator and Background Artist
  • Cool Spot (SNES) – Animation, Backgrounds, and GUI
  • Cool Spot (Genesis) – Animation, Backgrounds, Prototyping
  • Bugs Bunny Rabbit Rampage (SNES) – Associate Producer
  • Aero the Acro-Bat 2 (SNES) – Character designer, Play Tester
  • Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: Belle’s Quest (Genesis) –  Producer
  • Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: Roar of the Beast (Genesis) – Producer
  • ACME Animation Factory (SNES) – Co-Producer
  • RoboCop VS The Terminator (Genesis) – Sprite animator
  • Daffy Duck (Game Boy) – Debugging Team

Rene Boutin was also a play tester for games such as Death of Superman (SNES), Justice League (SNES), Porky Pig’s Haunted Holiday (SNES), The Pirates of Dark Water (Genesis), and Punky Doodle (Arcade).


In the 90′s, you worked on both the Sega Genesis and SNES. What were the biggest strengths and weaknesses of each of these consoles?  Also, which console did you prefer developing for?

As a video game artist and animator at that time, I couldn’t help but be more enthusiastic for the SNES. It definitely had the graphics advantage.  Just off the top of my head, I remember it had a greater color palette, more colors for sprites, as many as three independently scrollable background layers, sprite transparency and of course the famous “Mode 7” rotatable/scalable background mode.

However you needed really talented programmers to push these features because the main CPU was rather underpowered and the system architecture really complex. We used to call it “fake 16-bit” because it was really a custom version of an 8-bit CPU hybridized with some 16-bit functionality. The Sega Genesis on the other hand had a true 16-bit processor, the Motorola 68000, despite being a couple years older than the SNES.

The SNES’s wavetable sound chip also gave it a big advantage with audio, and I still feel the controller was way more ergonomic than the Genesis one. So my clear favorite if it isn’t obvious already was the SNES!

(Let’s not forget that this era also saw the Turbo Grafix 16, and the rich kids’ favorite mega-console, the Neo Geo AES.)

Nintendo has not had great third party support since the SNES.  Did Virgin Games or Sunsoft find Nintendo more difficult to work with than Sega?  Were Nintendo’s SNES licensing fees much higher compared to Sega’s licensing fees for Genesis?

I was not directly involved in purchasing and licensing with either console maker, so I only have peripheral knowledge. I think Nintendo may have been more expensive, but both console makers had similar licensing requirements:

Sega/Nintendo handled all manufacturing and packaging. The publisher had to pre-order a minimum quantity of cartridges at a fixed cost, with cost increasing if you needed extra ROM chips or inclusion of battery-backed memory (for which Nintendo charged something like $5 extra). This is why so few third-party games had the ability to save game data and resorted to complicated “password” systems. It was just too expensive to add the battery.

Both Sega’s and Nintendo’s costs as well as minimum order quantity came down over the lifecycle of each console, but in the beginning the investment was quite risky. If a game didn’t sell, retailers would send the overstock back to the publisher.

There were also rules about how many games a publisher was allowed to release within a given timeframe and strict rules regarding content. Nintendo was known for being the stricter of the two.

Today’s game development costs keep dramatically increasing.  What were the typical budgets for most SNES/Genesis games that you produced/directed?

I only had peripheral knowledge of the budgets, since that, schedules and negotiations with outside development studios were handled by the Director of Development and the General Manager. From what I recall though, Sunsoft was able to outsource development for around $125,000 to $250,000 USD range (but I may be off). That was considered a bit on the low side even then, but studios would sacrifice profits for the chance to add a big name license to their portfolio. In hindsight this seems rather unfair, but that’s the way business works I guess.

You worked at Sunsoft from 1993 to 1995.  During that time, the gaming industry was preparing to make a massive jump from 2D gaming to 3D gaming with the PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64.  Were employees at Sunsoft hesitant or excited about making that jump from 2D sprites to 3D polygons?

I think it was a very confusing time for everyone. There were two major issues affecting video game publishers and developers at this time: the transition from 2D to 3D as you correctly pointed out, and also the format games would be delivered on.

For the former, the challenge was the uncharted territory. For a development studio, here you were with experience, staff and tools all accustomed to 2D work. Studios needed a decent cash buffer to experiment, re-train staff and build new tools, and that didn’t even guarantee survival because so much was just too new. How should a 3D game play?  For example, nobody truly understood how to make a proper 3D platformer until Nintendo released Super Mario 64. Was what had been done on PCs translatable to consoles? How much was a realistic budget, and how do you keep a publisher from balking at 2x, 3x, 4x budget quotes with no guarantees your studio could deliver?

The other issue was deciding on which format to bet on: Cartridge or CD-ROM. At Sunsoft, the feeling was that upper management was really hesitant, especially over that issue. The debate was quite split: Nintendo was betting on cartridges, a tried and true format that was durable, difficult to copy, convenient for kids, required no mechanical parts, provided fast data transfer and “instant on” games, but cost a lot and had limited storage capacity. On the other side was Sony backing a CD-ROM format with exactly the flipped benefits and deficiencies: easily scratched (not convenient for kids), would in theory be easier to copy, required a mechanical optical drive that could eventually break down, provided slow data transfer and therefore “load times”. But as an advantage, it had loads of storage capacity (comparatively) enabling inclusion of video and CD quality audio streams.

Sunsoft seemed to handle both challenges like a deer in headlights, although in the end, completely unrelated circumstances lead to their demise.

Did you notice Sunsoft having problems (financial or structure problems) before leaving the company in 1995?

Yes and no. There were clues, but I didn’t put the pieces of the puzzle together until it was too late.

In 1994 the console game industry was in a slump and several new consoles were already trying to inject fresh blood. There was the overpriced and lackluster 3DO, the Sega Saturn had been unveiled at the 94 Summer CES, and I think we had seen the Sony PlayStation by then as well. (The N64 was still two years away, but was also already publicly known under the name “Project Reality”).

By December ‘94 we had all three of these consoles in our QA room, but all Sunsoft had in development for them was a port of “Myst”. This made all of us in production quite nervous and frustrated, since we knew it took at least a year to create a game and bring it to market. We had some game concepts that would have worked well for these consoles, but nothing got the green light.  One producer had written up a “Blaster Master 3D” proposal, and I had a 3D shooter concept that involved miniaturized combatants riding various flying and walking insects. But we were told that anything that was not tied to a license just did not sell, which was true for the 16-bit consoles around that time, but it seemed like suicide to have nothing in production at all.

Another clue that year was the company switching our medical coverage to a cheap HMO. And then our 1995 Winter CES booth was smaller than usual, tucked away in the back of the exhibit hall.

It was around this time our Director of Development, David Siller, suddenly announced he was leaving to work for Universal Interactive. Then a short time later, in February 1995, the entire staff was called in for a meeting where Sunsoft’s president announced that the company was shutting down effective immediately. They kept on a skeleton crew of four or five people to wrap up operations and facilitate transfer of IP over to Acclaim, but that was it for production, QA, and marketing. By this time, Looney Tunes B-Ball was in QA at Nintendo and we had just gotten Speedy Gonzales to beta, so it was about to go as well.

It turned out that Sun Corporation had lost millions on some golf course investment in Palm Springs and it cost us all our jobs.

There’s an interesting interview with David Siller here

Many of the games you worked on required communication with project licensors including Disney and Warner Bros.  What is it like to work with a licensor on a video game, and how much influence did they have on the development of your games?

Companies like Warner Bros and Disney have departments dedicated to licensing and merchandise and at that time only one or two people assigned to oversee game projects. No licensed product bearing any of their branding, characters or trademarks can be published or sold without their strict approval. So that said, they have to review *everything*.

At Sunsoft of America, the typical routine was daily communication with the external developer and at least weekly with the licensor. But we’re talking early 1990’s, so the medium was fax machine, telephone and video tapes! Every Producer was equipped with a VCR and we had to record gameplay of our game builds and send them off to our contact at the licensor’s licensing department where they would review the tape and provide their feedback by fax. Test cartridges were also sent, but not as frequently (usually near the end of development when a game was near completion). The feedback cycle was usually pretty quick so as not to delay development, and once a fax came in there would usually be a follow-up phone call within 24 hours to review each item.

Working with famous licensed materials was pretty cool. I got to review tons of their cartoons, unaired TV episodes and other media for source material (gameplay ideas, art and character reference, audio samples, … ) but sometimes the feedback requests from them could get a bit exasperating. With Warner, they were unfamiliar with video games and often unhappy with the pixelation of their characters, quibbling over the perceived size of Bugs Bunny’s teeth for example. I’d have to mock up examples of his teeth two pixels wide, and explain that the resolution being what it was, it was impossible to show a line down the middle!

With Disney, I got to meet the director of Disney’s Beauty & The Beast at the primary meeting, but beyond that most communication was with an associate producer from their newly set up “Disney Interactive” division. The benefit there was working with someone experienced with games and game development, so in a way he was on our side when we had to defend any requests that were not technically feasible or didn’t make sense to a non-gaming lay person. On the other hand, being experienced in game development, he’d try to request things that were technically possible, but would impact time and cost, so I had to push back on those. Fortunately he was fairly understanding.

 

Did Warner Bros. or Disney ever ask for things to be removed or changed in any of the games you worked on?  Did game development and creative freedom ever feel restricted by licenses?

Yes all the time. The biggest sticking point would always be how the licensor’s characters were being depicted. It was most important that the quality of the art and what the characters did, did not diminish their brand in any way.

The next hurdle was usually gameplay related. A funny one was Disney’s concern about Belle (main female protagonist in Beauty & the Beast) getting hit in the chest by whatever sprite we had bouncing around in some levels. They felt it would be perceived as sexual. We adjusted enemy sprite paths as best we could and explained that some play was just too random to avoid that possibility. Were we supposed to program some sort of boob avoidance A.I. into the game? Luckily the associate producer at Disney was able to dissipate the issue.

Similar issues came up with the licensors at Warner Bros, who didn’t understand most video game tropes, like pixels, memory restrictions, action based gameplay and the artistic freedom required to turn a passive media property into an interactive one. You have to give the player something to do! They were not comfortable with Bugs Bunny punching Elmer Fudd, Speedy Gonzales kicking things, Wile E. Coyote touching Road Runner, etc. Luckily, Sunsoft’s general manager had a great relationship with WB’s head of licensing and she was fairly persuasive when needed. If it weren’t for her, I don’t think Speedy Gonzales would have ever been approved with the graphics it has. The backgrounds in particular don’t look “Looney Tunes” at all, and we had to revise several sprites for that same reason.

You were a producer on Looney Tunes B-Ball.  Were there any characters, ideas, or in-game power ups (ACME Plays) that your team wanted to add to the game, but ended up being scrapped?

Looney Tunes B-Ball had one of the smoothest development cycles in my experience thanks to the team at Sculptured Software, led by Ned Martin. They were really on the ball (pun intended), on time and their game builds solid. They probably had some of their best people working on it (they had previous experience porting NBA Jam).

The biggest thing scrapped was the original name “Looney Tunes Hoop It Up”. We unveiled the game at CES and had a “Hoop it up” basketball throwing game at our booth, giving away t-shirts with the logo.

Then came the lawyers from the “Hoop It Up” national basketball tour.

It was good that this ‘oops’ was caught when it was, before publishing thousands of cartridges. They had to redo all the print art, destroy the t-shirts and come up with a new name and logo. All we could think of that still sounded like urban street-ball slang was “B-Ball”. Marketing was skeptical and kept suggesting “Looney Tunes Balling” but the off-color jokes and derision from the producers and QA staff convinced them to go with “B-Ball”.

Beyond the “Hoop It Up logo” I don’t recall too much needing to change in the game itself, other than some minor background tweaks, and changing the music from all orchestral to something hip-hoppy. I had them insert the TV “test bars” in the beginning and we also had to compromise on the game’s speed by adding that as an option in the game. The guys at Sculptured were so good at playing it that it felt perfect to them at the fast speed, meanwhile Sunsoft’s testers and I found it too quick and spastic. So we just made it an option in the game.

You were an animator and background artist for the game “Cool Spot” for SNES/Sega Genesis.  19 years later, and it’s still the best game based on a beverage.  Do you have any interesting stories to share about your time working with David Perry on that game?

My impression of him was that he was a fairly down to earth, serious but amicable guy who worked hard and was a really talented programmerand game director. He’s also great at PR.

Before David ever started on “Cool Spot”, I was doing a lot of early design and prototype work. I had been drawing and animating sprites for the NES game “M.C. Kids” when I was paired off with a programmer to experiment and prototype on the Super Nintendo. This programmer had no game coding experience at all and meanwhile I had all these ambitious ideas and thought I could do it all (graphics, animation, level design …)

Based on the popular 7Up Spot “surfing” commercial, I came up with this whole narrative to explain where Spot was going in the game:  First he surfs in on his bottle, he gets separated from it and ends up looking for it on the beach, into the walls of a nearby toy store, in a doll house, on a toy train, on the docks, etc. And I desperately wanted to use the SNES’ mode 7 to have a level where Spot would run along a truck wheel, trying to keep from falling off.

I created background art and sprite animations and meanwhile the programmer could barely get a character moving around, so I was left as a bit of a rogue, doing whatever I felt like with little opportunity to really test my graphics or get any real gameplay going on the system.

My memory is fuzzy regarding how many months continued like this, but eventually David Perry, David Bishop and Bill Anderson came to Virgin, as well as the talented team of Mark Kelly and Steven Crow. Their first game was “Mick & Mack Global Gladiators” and the quality of Perry’s engine and the character animation possible with it provided the catalyst for Virgin to start really ramping up the art department and pumping up the team to use the same technology on “Cool Spot”.  The Sega Genesis version took priority with Perry in the lead, while Mark Kelly programmed the SNES version. Some of my stuff made it into the game, some didn’t fit in with the new look and was scrapped.

With David (Perry) in the lead, the game really took shape rather quickly. David was pretty good about delegating parts of the game without dictating too much creatively. When he tasked me to create the score panel and fonts for the Sega Genesis version, he explained how he needed a way to indicate different levels of player health and he wanted something fairly original (as opposed to a typical life meter). So I came up with the “peeling Spot” that gets limp and peels off the score panel the more hurt you are, and falls right off when dead. Usually a programmer would balk at having to write special code to do something nonstandard like that, but I guess he liked it.

Secret projects can be shelved before gamers can see them.  Can you name or describe any canned/cancelled projects at Virgin Games or Sunsoft that were being developed for Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo that the public never knew was in development?  Perhaps betas, prototypes, or proposals of projects that never materialized into a full game?

At Virgin there was preliminary work done for 7th Guest for SNES. It was going to run off the Sony CD-ROM peripheral. They had a couple full motion video scenes streaming froma cartridge as a proof of concept.  It looked pretty good, but the SNES CD-ROM device was scrapped and Sony turned it into the original PlayStation.

At Sunsoft there were a few titles that might have been announced in gaming magazines, but were cancelled in an early state:

  • Kung Fu the Legend Continues (SNES and Genesis)
  • Road Runner 2: Wile E’s Revenge (SNES)
  • Sylvester & Tweety (SNES)
  • Punky Doodle (Arcade Coin-op)

Let’s talk about Speedy Gonzales: Los Gatos Banditos.  You were the director and lead level designer for that game.  Was Sonic the Hedgehog an influence on the gameplay?  How long was the game in development?

Yes, the game was indeed supposed to bring some Sonic style gaming to the Super Nintendo.

The game had originally been in development by a small studio in England for about a year, but gameplay and level designs were not progressing at an acceptable rate and quality. So we brought Mick, the lead artist, and Anthony Lloyd, the programmer, to California for about six months to finish the game under my direction and direct involvement.

Most of the levels had to be scrapped or overhauled. Gameplay was tweaked and since it wasn’t possible to completely recreate Sonic style gameplay, I saw to it we included something unique to interact with in every world. We spent many late nights during those six months, blasting Nine Inch Nails’ “Downward Spiral”, blowing off steam with rounds of “Galaxy Fight” on the company’s Neo Geo arcade machine. We got most of the game done by the end, and had Tony continue debugging and polishing from his home in England.

There was an unofficial Sonic the Hedgehog 4 that was basically a hack of Speedy Gonzales: Los Gatos Banditos with Sonic sprites replacing the original sprites. This was years before Sega released an official Sonic the Hedgehog 4.  The illegal SNES cartridge was sold in different countries.  Speedy Gonzales: Los Gatos Banditos has gained some notoriety and fame on the internet because of this.  Does this annoy you, or are you glad more people are finding out about your game?

Article:  http://www.1up.com/do/blogEntry?bId=9019049

 

Ha, that’s quite funny! I had not seen that hack before. It doesn’t annoy me at all. When you work for a company as an employee, you have pride in what you create, but the final product belongs to the employer so there’s not as deep a sense of ownership (at least not financially). I’m sure this would have pissed off upper management greatly.

Nintendo announced that the Wii U is launching later this year.  How do you feel about the console and its touchscreen controller?

In general it looks really cool, but I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand Nintendo really knows how to create fun and innovative interactive experiences and the hardware is really interesting, especially the convergence of gaming and traditional entertainment media. The idea of a singular set-top box for gaming, movies, music and television has been envisioned for at least 15 years now.

On the other hand, I haven’t used my Wii or 360 in over a year. Most of my gaming these days is in short bursts on iPhone or iPad, so I can’t help but look at Wii U with an iOS bias. Nintendo is already behind the curve when it comes to tablet and touch gaming. I already have the convenience of linking my media devices and TVs via Airplay and Apple TV. And I’m used to a convenient digital marketplace where I can easily find and download games and apps for free or very cheap.  It’s becoming really hard to justify spending $50 on a big budget story-driven game I don’t have time to play.

I believe the future of Wii U and other next generation consoles will depend heavily on its digital marketplace and maintaining a daily interaction with its players, such as through a mobile app or ensuring that the Wii U becomes the first device people turn on when using their TVs. Nintendo has to compete with a platform that evolves its hardware on a yearly basis and basically lives in my pocket. They might pull it off via their “device for all media” strategy and appeal to a mass market. Otherwise I see it ending up like the Wii—everyone has one but never turns it on.

Tell our readers about Lilgames.com and SporeProductions.com.

Spore Productions is a business I founded almost 15 years ago providing interactive media services, Flash development, Flash animation, web games and adver-gaming. Ironically the website is outdated and due for a makeover.

LilGames.com is a Flash game portal launched in 2001 to showcase some of my early popular web games, along with hand-picked games by other authors. It too is in dire need of a face-lift.


Shortlink: http://www.dromble.com/?p=115