The Making Of Road Rash
Road Rash shifted from being a forgettable Super Hang-On clone and began to evolve into the spectacl
We look back at the making of Road Rash on the Sega Megadrive
Published on Jul 8, 2010
Not only is living with a high performance motorbike an exhilarating lifestyle choice, it’s also difficult to describe to the uninitiated, because although some similarities can be drawn to the safe existence of your average car driver, in comparison, motorcycling is an extreme pursuit that features a broad spectrum of challenges – not least of which is severely limited boot space and the wonderfully erratic nature of the British weather. But rather than getting from A to B in maximum comfort and dryness, motorbikes, by their very nature, have always been about the thrill of the ride.
Yet throughout history there have been few games to encapsulate that quintessential riding spirit, with most either going for pure arcade antics, like Sega’s spectacular Manx TT Superbike, or, as is the case with the recently released SBK X, unadulterated simulation – a hurdle which still seems insurmountable when you consider real-life motorcycles require full body control.
SBut in 1991 a plucky EA development team decided that realism wasn’t the answer, and after pairing illegal street racing with cop chases and the ability to clobber other bikers off their machines with batons, they released what many regard as the pinnacle of motorcycle gaming.
“I was working on the Rampage project for the Lynx which got axed [after Epyx went bankrupt] and I was laid off with 90 other people. My next job was at EA as a Technical Director in late 1989,” recalls a nostalgic Carl Mey who, at this point in his career, had already worked as a programmer for Lucasfilm Games on Maniac Mansion. “Not long after starting at EA I was asked to create a banked road effect for Andretti Racing and, after staying up all night, I had created a great effect, but with no banking. It was too much for the NES to handle so I adapted it for the Mega Drive, creating a super-fast scaling algorithm that allowed several scaled sprite images in addition to the road effect.”
Indeed, playing Road Rash today, it’s noticeable how similar the pseudo 3D is to Super Mario Kart and F-Zero on the Mode 7-empowered SNES, a comparison which Mey supports. “My effect was exactly like Mode 7, except there was no rotating around the Z-axis. While optimizing the code I figured out that the interrupts I used to set scale per scan line were using about 60 per cent of the CPU, and, at the time, Edwin Reich was working on a true 3D version of Blockout for the Mega Drive, so we adapted the 3D technology for Road Rash. We were able to render all the detail for the road, including the dashed lines. It was all smoke and mirrors but it was an actual 3D rendering.”
But despite his skill for wrangling performance out of the Mega Drive, Mey’s scaling effect would need an equally impressive concept if it was to go any further, and so after showing his work to his EA colleagues, Mey began a turbulent working relationship with Road Rash’s co-creator Randall Breen. “Randy proposed a café style AMA [American Motorcycle Association]-licensed motorcycle racer, and it was this combination of my technology and Randy’s idea which formed the basis of Road Rash. Funnily enough, Road Rash was the working title from day one.”
So with the Road Rash project underway, the team worked feverishly to make a demo that would be showcased at the 1990 Consumer Electronics Show. However, despite a strong start, Mey had his concerns. “The problem was the very tame, almost Disney-like view of the AMA, and Randy’s desire to make it a ‘go anywhere’-style game. This just didn’t work on a console that was an adaptation of the Sega System 16 arcade board. We ended up calling the game ‘Randy’s Sunday Ride’ behind his back. We all knew Road Rash needed more balls to sell than a simulation of someone following the speed limit on a Sunday ride.”
As predicted, the early prototype of Road Rash “bombed” at CES 1990, and so, desperate to steer the Road Rash project in a different direction, Mey decided to take matters into his own hands. “Road Rash was going to miss Christmas 1990, so the team was given an additional six months to sort it out. I begged Richard Hilleman to give me creative control on the gameplay and he agreed, with Randy limited to everything but gameplay. I put in the cops, kicks, clubs and punches and Dan Geisler did a great job on the physics with radical crashes.”
It was at this critical stage that Road Rash shifted from being a forgettable Super Hang-On clone and began to evolve into the spectacle of two-wheeled violence that we all know and love. “I told Richard I wanted to make the game kick ass and that is why I was given some control. Randy may have disagreed on the violence, but EA had no problem with it as they’re really good at identifying problems before they make it into a game. We then had brainstorming sessions, as I believe in getting as much input as possible while designing. Dan and I worked on the fighting system with a ‘no projectiles’ rule, as they’re a major problem in engines that run based on the frame rate. It was truly a group effort”.
This switch to what Carl describes as a “hardcore bash-‘em-up” meant Road Rash wasn’t eligible for licensing support from the major motorcycle manufacturers, and so with Shuriken, Panda, Kamakazi and Diablo standing in for Suzuki, Honda, Kawasaki and Ducati, the Road Rash team created eight motorbikes which ranged from the weedy Shuriken 400 to the beastly Diablo 1000. But rather than build upon guesswork, some of the team had real-life riding experience. “I rode a Yamaha XJ650 Seca and had a dirt bike I used to race in Motocross,” says Mey.
“Dan had a Harley and I think one of the female artists had a crotch rocket. EA also borrowed a race-ready Ducati on the promise that only a pro would ride it. Randy took the bike for a ride and totalled it. He gave himself literal road rash and hobbled around for a bit while EA had to pay around $100,000 for the bike because the insurance only covered professional racers.”
Breen was responsible for Road Rash’s evocative Californian setting, which spanned five roads including Sierra Nevada, Redwood Forest and Palm Desert. “They were all roads that Randy rode his motorcycle on and were modelled after places like Skyline Drive. The modelling was done by Domonique Philipine and his crew on a MAC using Bézier curves. They were very easy to work with and did a great job. They never got any credit but I worked with them on a part of the road that made some players puke from motion sickness, and after watching one of the executive’s kids barf on an open night, I yelled out ‘great, I’ve finally made a game that makes people puke!’”
Although none of our team has ever emptied the contents of their stomach by taking a virtual corner too fast, Road Rash was one of the most visually impressive racing games available on a home console system at the time. Mey explains the effect on the player: “Videogames are a mind game. In design I studied the effects of music on the heart while generating adrenalin, and also the ability of the beat to affect the player’s heart rate. I also learned about the suspension of disbelief and how games are tamed down to eliminate motion sickness. I know a lot about this because I worked on [the unreleased] Sega VR.”
Then in the spring of 1991, Road Rash was finally released to an audience of astonished gamers previously been weaned on the more pedestrian thrills of Excitebike and Hang-On. Placing first was still the order of the day, but Road Rash was less about hitting the apex and more about hitting the competition – preferably full pelt in the face with a sturdy nightstick. And if that wasn’t extreme enough, you also had to avoid crashing into cars, colliding with the local wildlife and, most importantly, not being run down and booked by the cops.
It was clear that the development of Road Rash had been a trying experience for Mey, but despite the hardships he was nonetheless proud of what he’d helped to achieve. “Everyone was focussed on making Road Rash the best game possible, and it was the first game I worked on that I had fun playing after it shipped. I got kudos from everyone I knew and met, and I’ve been asked for my autograph, even by co-workers as late as 2007. I’m constantly thanked by players for the enjoyment they had playing the game and, to me, that’s worth more than the money. I got into the industry to make products that would have a positive impact. The alternative was creating missile guidance systems.”
However, if you dig out your special EA-designed cartridge today, give it a blow and then stick it in your Mega Drive, there’s one glaring omission from the original formula, which seems baffling when compared to any other game in the Road Rash series. And that’s the lack of simultaneous multiplayer. We asked Mey to explain. “At the time, it wasn’t possible given the road effect and CPU power. We could’ve done it eventually, but the game showed really well at the next CES and we all knew we had a big hit on our hands. The [cancelled] SNES version was focused on the two-player view, and Randy dressed it up to look like there was overlap, but the split screen was based on the fact that there could be no overlap.”
So it seems throughout Road Rash’s 14-month development cycle, the most explosive part of the process had been Mey and Breen’s tempestuous relationship, something which Mey feels partly responsible for. “The relationship was strained from the beginning because it was Randy’s first project as a Producer. I had far more product knowledge than he did and I had no time to help train him. It wasn’t Randy I had a problem with per se, it was more that I’d been spoiled working with the best, i.e. Rich Hilleman and Don Traeger. I’m not sure what Randy made of me but at times I was very obnoxious.” But rather than ending on good terms with a friendly handshake and an ‘oh well, at least we got there,’ Mey’s working relationship with Breen took one final turn for the worse over a conflict of accreditation. “Randy ultimately shafted me in the credits.
He took my name off the box and put his on. Company policy was that Producers do not get credit on the box and the whole fiasco led to EA eliminating box-printed credits. Breen’s AMA version of Road Rash was a simulator with zero gameplay, whereas I added virtually all the gameplay elements. I focussed on a great product more than personal issues, but it was getting screwed in the credits and my bonus that really pissed me off. Ultimately, Randy was promoted and not reprimanded, and unfortunately this was part of the political climate that got in the way of a great product.”
As hard as this pill was to swallow, Mey’s huge contribution to Road Rash didn’t go unnoticed by his peers, and in 1991 he was presented with EA’s in-house ‘Fireman of the Year’ award. We asked Mey to elaborate on what this intriguing accolade represents. “The award is for the employee that had the most impact on projects in trouble. It was due to the fact that while I was on Road Rash, I was also Technical Director for 30 more projects, both internal and external. Obviously I only got involved when things went wrong, but I became the go-to person for keeping projects from tanking. Richard Hilleman told me that it was really the ‘You Need to Get a Life’ award because anyone that worked enough hours to be eligible had no personal life. Unfortunately for me, Rich was correct.”
It seems strange, then, that after Mey’s integral role in Road Rash’s success, EA’s upper management weren’t too keen on putting him in charge of a lucrative follow-up. Indeed, Carl’s words paint a very different scenario. “As the number one candidate for becoming the Director of Technology, I was pulled away from direct involvement in any project. I still managed them, but I was more involved in new technology. EA was a political nightmare. As such, I had limited involvement in Road Rash II, as I left to work for Sega before the game was finished. The rule is that people did not get credit unless they were on the project to the end. I figure the real deal is the original, and after that it’s just adding features to an already-hit game.”
After Road Rash, Mey went on to work in various capacities for a range of companies including Sega and Namco, amassing an impressive CV that includes designing the architecture for the Sega 32X and cramming the first FMV onto an N64 cartridge. But since leaving his last post at Global VR in 2008, he has decided to go solo. “I recently formed Carl Mey LLC so I can create products that are just too innovative for a large corporation. My mission statement is to make great games, have a blast doing it and make a ton of money. I got the idea when I was at Sega and I was supposed to talk John Carmack into making Doom an exclusive for the Mega Drive. But he told me that large corporations make games that are too politically correct, and that he’d be back after his game was popular on the PC and do a non-exclusive with Sega, Nintendo or whoever. He was right. That guy was the smartest person I ever met in the industry.”
Whether Mey can pull off a Carmack remains to be seen, but there’s no denying the fact that Road Rash became one of the most successful series’ on the Mega Drive, with two excellent sequels as well as a mixed bag of follow-ups on the 3DO, N64 and PSOne. But when asked if he’d make another motorcycle game, he doesn’t seem too enthusiastic. “I have no plans for a game with only motorcycles in it, but I do have a concept that involves driving. It’s definitely not a simulation because, to me, one thing is clear... reality sucks, so why make a game that simulates real-life?”
But rather than end on a negative we’ll finish, appropriately enough, with Mey’s closing comment. “While making Road Rash I had no idea people would still be talking about it nearly 20 years later. It was a privilege to work on. Most people work a lifetime with little or no recognition, but it didn’t take a name on a box to get more recognition than I ever imagined possible.”