development info - Dan Tonkin Interview

Interview by Cameron Sawaya.
Dan Tonkin was a Crash Twinsanity developer (Lead Artist/Art Director). Big thanks to them!
You can check out Dan’s new game "Battle Hunters" now available on Steam!
  • What was your role while working on Crash Twinsanity?
Dan Tonkin (DT): I began as an environment artist at Travellers Tales Oxford, but after about 8 months or so I was asked to take the role of lead artist in the studio after the lead at the time left to go on maternity leave. My work primarily focused on making sure the environment art was built and achieved a certain quality, but also involved development across several areas such as helping to implement an efficient level-building and LOD paradigm, some level design, some incidental character animation and some VFX / particle system effects.
  • How did you start working on Twinsanity? Did you start there when TT Oxford was established? Or did you come on later in the project?
DT: I came on board after the studio was established – I think about a year into development. I remember clearly when I started; I had never used Maya before as I came from a Softimage 3D background. So my first job was to learn Maya. After about a week I was given my first production task which was to 'tweak' a model built by someone else. I thought the asset was rubbish so I just started from scratch and rebuilt the whole thing. Unsurprisingly that didn't go down so well with the artist who had made the original, so I was off to a great start...
  • Was a design document made for Twinsanity? If so, do you think it still exists anywhere?
DT: I would say that various design documents existed at various stages in the development of Twinsanity, but I can't recall what they were like. I'm sure there were very diligent designers writing them up, but to put it plainly, the design process on Twinsanity was very fragmented and chaotic. Some of the designers did an excellent job by just putting together gameplay setups and fun scripted sections without documenting them. I've never been a huge fan of design docs myself – I tend to think of games like a sculpture or a painting; you begin with a fairly clear vision, then work towards that goal, but always responding to how it changes shape and making adjustments as you go. An idea in game development is pretty meaningless until you are actually interacting with it, so static declarations in a document of what the game 'will be' are often made totally redundant by the time the game is finished. I think there were a few staff in particular who very much understood that principle, and just went ahead and prototyped cool ideas in the game. (JMac!) The most important element in my experience is having a strong 'game director' who knows what they want to achieve, and how to achieve it. That is far more valuable than a load of documents.
  • What was your favorite moment(s) while working on the game?
DT: I think my favourite moment (or period) was when we basically threw out a lot of what we had built, which was neither working from a gameplay or technical standpoint, and re-engineered the game into a new demo level to present to a soon-to-arrive executive from Vivendi, who I understand was on a mission to cancel the project. Over about a 6 week period, we put together a demo with a more efficient approach to constructing the game and with a cleaner design. It worked out very well and we managed to pull the game out of the fire and prevent it from being cancelled. It felt like a real achievement to keep the game alive and to see new potential in it. I remember it also pulled the team together well and gave us more cohesion as a studio...for a while. This was kind of the beginning of the 'second phase' of Crash Twinsanity when the whole project took a new direction, at least that's how I remember it.
  • What was the easiest, and most difficult part of working on Twinsanity?
DT: The easy part was going to the pub after work. A lot.
The most difficult part was working with certain members of the team who were totally unproven as game developers. There were loads of 'cool ideas' that were – in my opinion – very 'top-down' concepts. I mean that in the sense that they weren't formed from a technical understanding of platform limitations, scripting / coding possibilities or clever gameplay mechanics, but instead from a sort of high-concept notion that then had to be somehow rationalised into something that worked in the context of a video game. Also there were senior technical members of the team that were determined to re-write much of the engine in order to satisfy their engineering desires, in spite of the fact that we were handed a working engine by our parent studio and asked to use it. The re-writing was not a wise operational decision for various reasons. It added a lot of time and problem-solving to the development process, and created many unknowns for everyone. I should say that in the end, some key engineers managed to get some amazing results in terms of performance out of the PS2, and in spite of some poor strategic decisions from above, they managed to achieve impressive results.
  • If you had more time with the game with the experience you have now, what would you have changed within the game?
DT: Ha – wrong person to ask. I would have taken an entirely different approach to the game in terms of its structure, tone and gameplay style. Even at the time I was arguing for a different paradigm particularly for loading level assets. Everyone was obsessed with 'seamless' loading in those days thanks to Jak and Daxter (which was indeed brilliant) but it wasn't necessary to make a good game, and we didn't have working technology to achieve it. So we had to create a loading system that required lots of 'padding' of areas to allow time for memory to be cleared. I also would have liked the vision for the game to have been clearer from the start, based on solid technical know-how, and for it to have been less 'ad hoc' such as it was. In addition, I would have liked more focus to have been on the moment-to-moment gameplay, and to have made that razor-sharp and really engaging, and to have given Crash himself some more interesting abilities that worked in harmony with his classic set of moves. There were some great ideas that were workshopped and made functional that never made it into the final game for reasons I never understood. On the whole I think we spent too much time trying to engineer these kind of spurious elements of the game and not enough on the fundamental mechanics.
  • Any funny stories while working at TT Oxford? (Kingsley Stephens mentioned the story of the American producer with a baseball bat if you remember that one)
DT: I do remember that, yes. I recall the same producer almost came to blows with one of the senior engineers in a meeting once, but I wasn't personally there, so I shouldn't comment...
There were LOADS of funny moments working at TT Oxford and it was very much a studio full of colourful characters. There was a lot of banter and silliness that went on which helped offset the challenge of making the game. A memorable moment for me was when we had a 'chilli stand-off'. A couple of the guys in the studio (Steve O and Kaz) had reputations for being able to stomach extraordinarily hot chilli in food. They would often share a table at the local curry-house with sweat dripping off their faces due to the volcanic food they were eating. One of the art guys (Chris) ordered a jar of the hottest chilli sauce that he could find online and when it arrived the whole studio gathered to watch these chilli kings taste it.
The reaction from Kaz after tasting was priceless; a teaspoon of the sauce that would have melted my face off caused him to merely utter “ahem...yes it is a little spicy.” I seem to recall Steve didn't fare so well even though he put a brave face on.
  • Who was the best at playing Quake III/Halo matches during office gaming sessions?
DT: I'm afraid I didn't partake in the network FPS games so I don't know. I was one of the Streetfigher guys. We played HOURS of Streetfighter 3 third Strike and Capcom vs. SNK. I was clearly the best... Chris Abedelmassieh will certainly agree.
  • What was your favorite game/music to play during the development period of the game?
DT: Aside from Streetfighter 3 Third Strike I think I was totally obsessed with Zelda the Wind Waker at that time. I just loved the atmosphere the game had and it was a joy to be in that world. I don't recall listening to much music at work in those days. We chatted a lot throughout the day.
  • What was it like working with Vivendi Universals production team?
DT: I personally had a great relationship with the Vivendi guys. We met and worked with several of them over the three-year period that I was there, and they varied in style and approach but I felt all of them were supportive. Dave Robinson (Creative Director/Producer at Universal/Vivendi) stood out and will be remembered by most – he was kind of intense and eccentric but I honestly think he brought an urgency and drive to the production of Twinsanity that we needed. I've never seen a producer who just pushed and pushed to get things done. I think he made a huge difference in terms of our output.
  • Where does a game like Twinsanity's source code/assets go after the game goes gold-master? Are they wiped from the TOOL's/PC's? or are they kept around if needed?
DT: I believe all assets / code etc. must be provided to the publisher upon completion so it all would have been sent to Vivendi somehow. There is always an opportunity for dev staff to keep copies / DVD images / game code etc. so some of the guys may still have that stuff. I kept some bits and pieces of art that I produced, but not much.
  • Are there any hidden easter eggs/secrets that are hidden in the games code or assets?
DT: Not that I am aware of – I didn't put any of that stuff in.
  • Was there any cut content that you wanted to see in the game but didn't end up making the final build?
DT: One level in particular I remember being essentially complete was what we referred to as “cute world” where Dr. Cortex runs around a pastel-coloured world full of cuddly creatures, shooting them down with his blaster. I'm not sure why that was cut – I remember the art / animation / design guys putting a lot of work into it and at the time it seemed as complete as anything else we were working on.
  • Did the TT Oxford team work smoothly together or was there a lot of conflict/disagreement on the game?
DT: From my point of view there was a lot of conflict throughout development. I was personally in many meetings where frustration, frayed tempers, and even outright anger was displayed over the way the game was being managed and the decisions that were being made. There was pretty palpable tension between many members of the studio.
Roles were often poorly defined and the structure of the studio shifted and changed a fair bit over time. Different people moved into different positions throughout, and often those changes were not clearly communicated to all staff. A particular issue for me was an unclear delineation of responsibilities - who precisely was responsible (and therefore accountable) for what.
I will admit that I was incredibly frustrated at times with the way the development process ran, and as someone who had already shipped about 8 games in my career at that point, I was often amazed at how little discipline, and how much capriciousness was on display. Given the profile of the IP, and the importance of its success, there were many aspects of the development process, and the studio culture that I found very troubling. To be completely honest I'm still amazed we actually managed to get a 'complete' game done in the end.
Contrary to what a lot of people seem to believe about Twinsanity, the publisher (Vivendi Universal) were amazingly patient and supportive - I think above and beyond their obligations. The problems that faced the development of Crash Twinsanity were entirely a result of how Travellers Tales operated internally.
  • Do you remember this image from development?

DT: Vaguely – I'm not sure where it appears. I'm pretty sure Steve Riding would rather it didn't exist... or maybe he likes it. Who knows?
  • Was a Gamecube Version of Twinsanity ever in development?
DT: I can't recall – not that I am aware.
  • Was Crash Evolution ever in a playable form with the original worlds that it had?
DT: There were 'playable' little sections of the game, but nothing remotely near release-quality. We had many of these vignette / small pieces of environments that you could run about in, but they were more just asset tests than 'game levels'.
  • Would you like to see a Twinsanity or Evolution Remaster?
DT: I realise there are fans of Twinsanity out there, and I truly appreciate them and the affection they have for the game. For me the whole experience was two extremes: I adored the friends I made, and will never forget just how much we laughed at the pub together and helped each other through it, but the work itself was incredibly difficult and fraught with obstacles both technical and cultural. The reason I say this is because when I look at Twinsanity now, I am hit by memories of both these things and I'm kind of conflicted about the game itself. I can't honestly say that I think it's a good game worthy of remastering; there are just so many things I see wrong with it, and it is a direct result of a flawed development process, but In a weird way I also have a lot of affection for it and fond memories of the experience. if there were enough fans who wanted to see it done, then I would totally support it. I do think, however, that technically and logistically - not to mention commercially - it would be incredibly unlikely that a remaster of Twinsanity would ever happen.
  • Would you ever be interested in getting back together with your old coworkers over voice/video call to discuss the memories and times you had while making the game?
DT: We do that already. I pop over to the UK every couple of years and drag them all back together. It's always wonderful to see the old gang. We still laugh together and get on just as we did 15 years ago.
  • What was your favorite program to use while making art for Twinsanity?
DT: Maya and Photoshop. With just those two you can do a lot of cool stuff.
  • Any favorite concept art pieces that you drew or any that stick out for you?
DT: I never did any 'official' concept art for the game, more doodles to refine my own ideas. I think my favourite stuff was little insane (unofficial) sketches by the great Nicola Cavalla – our lead animator. She has a truly unique, and often disturbing mind.
  • What was your favorite part of making the art for Twinsanity?
DT: Something that stood out was when Chris and I set about remaking all the old boss characters just out of our own desire to see what sort of a job we would do. It was not requested or part of the 'official' game but we thought if we made them and had them looking really cool, we could pitch the idea to implement them as boss characters in Twinsanity. We had this 'crazy' idea that we should be using established characters in the Crash universe instead of just constantly inventing new stuff that that player wouldn't relate to. I think we did a really nice job with characters like Ripper Roo, Tiny Tiger, Koala Kong and Pinstripe Potoroo. Unfortunately they were not used as boss characters in the end, but instead only used in one cutscene for 'comedic' purposes.
  • What were your main inspirations while making art for Twinsanity?
DT: I think I looked at a lot of the original PS1 Crash games and Jak and Daxter for inspiration. They had some amazing texture art and the artists behind those games were at the peak of the industry in those days.
  • What was your favorite level to create art for?
DT: I would say the first level, N.Sanity Island. I was able to spend the most time on it and develop the level of detail paradigm to work well with those assets. I think it all looks awful now though and I'm kind of embarrassed by it. It's so damn murky and dark. I think our control monitors were not calibrated right or something. Maybe I just sucked.
  • Do you remember working on any of the worlds that Crash Evolution was going to include in the game? (Ex. the "Gaudi World")
DT: "Gaudi World". The first time I heard that term it made me cringe. I always thought it just sounded lame and not 'fun'. ( plus I don't particularly like the work of Gaudi ) I do remember doing quite a bit of work on the 'Balloon City' level that was entirely cut from the game.
  • Do you prefer creating physical or digital art?
DT: I like digital. I occasionally sketch with graphite, but I love the range of possibilities that digital gives me. Plus I'm not a specialist, so I like rigging and animating characters as much as drawing. I don't have a robotics degree so I can only rig digitally.
  • Are there any projects that you've been working on recently that you can tell us about?
DT: I just released a game on Nintendo Switch and PC – via Steam – called "Battle Hunters". It's a game I made over several years with just one other guy – my current business partner. It's a kind of old-school console RPG inspired by JRPGs of the late 90s / early 2000s with some Warcraft influence as well. I created all the art / animation / music and sound and my partner did all the tools / game code / engine development. It's available now!