Post news RSS How the West Was, Part One

Just what actually goes into designing a game like Johnny Outlaw? Well, now's your chance to find out, so pull up a chair and get ready to take some of the best notes of your life.

Posted by on

I must confess that although I have designed a game about cowboys, I am no cowboy. I am not even a fake cowboy like Owen Wilson. Some people might say you don't need to be a cowboy to design a game about cowboys. A cowboy wouldn't say that.

I had to discover the essence of the cowboy. Now, what does "cowboy" actually mean? If you ask a dictionary, the cowboy is simply a man who drives cattle. But if you had asked Roy Rogers, cowboy inventor of cherry cola, he would certainly say that a cowboy is more than a man who drives cattle. But how much more? And how do we make it into a video game?

And so I turned to the only surviving historical records from the days of the cowboy: the Spaghetti Westerns. Researchers have termed these films the "Cowboy Rosetta Stone", for they hold the key to deciphering the cowboy language, or "Code of the West". I watched. I understood.

Recreating the Spaghetti Western became my chief design goal. It would be the cowboy experience, straight from the source of all cowboy experiences. Well, delivering that experience turned out to be no easy feat. A game typically needs to be highly interactive and rely on the player's input. Out in the Spaghetti West, fights are hardly common and when they do occur, they are over in the blink of an eye. Usually the entire movie is spent building up to one single fight, and the majority of the fight is a non-interactive five minute panoramic shot of the combatants with guns holstered. This was the experience that enthralled so many, but it did not readily lend itself to the game format.

Or so we thought! The quick-draw aspect was expertly replicated using a modified Duck Hunt pistol with a pressure sensitive holster. Retinal scanners were used to detect if the player blinked or maybe just wasn't glowering hard enough. The player could control the pacing of the fight by simply increasing or decreasing the intensity of the background music. If done with an artisan's touch, the player might be able to delay the draw indefinitely. We had done it. We had broken the barrier between man and motion picture. We had deciphered the Code of the West.

But in the West, stories don't always have a happy ending. I had a few testers take the rig out for a spin. The legal staff recommended we suppress the findings, but I suspect they'll leak one way or another. I watched a man stare down that screen for five straight minutes, pale as a ghost, sweat beading up on his forehead, teeth clenched so hard it'd make your dentist cry. Five minutes. Five minutes of the most intense focus you ever seen in your life. And after five minutes the poor bastard forgot to draw his gun. Talked it over with some of the boys in R&D, said it was probably a fluke. Few more testers later and we had a whole lot of flukes on our hands.

The truth is, people may have wanted the Spaghetti Western experience, but they sure as hell couldn't handle it. When you make the player a cowboy, you quickly discover that a cowboy he is not. And that's how we arrived at Johnny Outlaw, the top down shooter. Now the player is only a hero by proxy; we leave the actual shooting and staring to a professional. The third person view constantly assures the player that he is not actually the cowboy, and helps alleviate the high levels of stress that accompany such cowboy situations. Sure, the fundamental problems of translating the Spaghetti Western style into a game emerged again, but this time we did not take chances; we just added more fights.

Post a comment
Sign in or join with:

Only registered members can share their thoughts. So come on! Join the community today (totally free - or sign in with your social account on the right) and join in the conversation.