Development hell: 12 funny tales from game dev history There was a time when lax employment legislation meant development teams could be locked in the office overnight.

Here we present tales of development hell – some attributed, but most anonymous. As you’ll discover, there was a time when lax employment legislation meant development teams could be locked in the office overnight; when humble programmers could afford sports cars; when a 26MB download was considered hefty; and when “fuck android” wasn’t the war cry of a frothing Apple fanboy but meant something quite, quite different.

When silence isn’t golden

Peter Molyneux, Lionhead Studios

How about a PR nightmare? This was back in the days of Flood, at Bullfrog, between Populous and Powermonger back in the early ’90s. Anyway, X was an incredibly talented 19-year-old who had come into the office and taught himself to program. He’d done a whole game, and he was a very, very impressive individual. Anyway, he said to me: “Peter, I’d really like to get the credit for this, and I’d really like to do the PR. But I’m a bit scared about doing that – do you mind coming along to give me a hand?” And I said: “Sure, of course – providing that you demonstrate the game, because the guy demonstrating the game usually gets the credit.”

So we went along to see [now-defunct multiformat games magazine] Zero. David Wilson was the editor there. Now, David was never the most enthusiastic of people. You’d demo to him, and he’d sit there, and you’d think: is he awake? He’d just stare at the screen. So there’s X, demoing Flood, showing all the bits that he was proud of, and there’s David, hardly reacting at all. I could see that X was getting more and more wound up by the intimidating silence emanating from David Wilson.

Anyway, X had been doing the demo for 15 minutes, and was almost at bursting point. Suddenly, he picked up the joystick, turned around to David Wilson and said: “Yes, I think this game is fucking crap as well, and I hate it!” He threw the joystick across the room, and walked out. There was me, left with Dave Wilson, and what do you say? The programmer had just said: “I think this is fucking crap!”

Nutz to that


You won’t believe this, but when Infogrames was Ocean, it released a game called Mr Nutz – on Game Boy, I think – which was developed by Probe. Halfway through the development, the lead programmer (who shall remain nameless) decided that he wanted – sorry, needed – to become a woman.

This set the project back by months. Then when the newly reformatted lady came back to work, she decided that she needed more time off because she had decided that she was now a lesbian and was having trouble dealing with it. Only in this industry.

Roughing it in a mansion


I have to say that probably my favorite memory is from my time at VIE, although you could say it ends up with quite the opposite of development hell. I was working on a football game (whose name must be withheld to protect those that worked on it) with a company called ARC Developments. The title had slipped, and VIE had put quite a lot of money into the product. Just a month before beta it was discovered that ARC were in trouble – so much so that it is alleged that they were not paying tax for their employees even though they were deducting it. Very quickly after this they were declared bankrupt and shut down.

VIE had to work fast, and we managed to get all necessary source code to complete the game (don’t ask me how, you wouldn’t believe me even if I told you – let’s just say it involved wads of cash, brown paper bags and a Mongolian barbecue). Luckily we didn’t need all the team to complete the game, and we got in touch with the six people we needed to finish all versions.

Our one remaining problem was relocating them to London for the 10 or so weeks needed to get everything finished. The decision was made to get a large flat, not too far away from the VIE offices, for all to share. Simple, you might say, but with VIE being in Kensington the flat that was found was a six-bedroom, five-bathroom mansion flat overlooking Harrods. So, from almost being chased by the tax man for non-payment, six lads from Walsall ended up living the life of luxury in Knightsbridge. Unbelievable.

Who are you, again?

Chris Kingsley, Rebellion

When we were doing Saturn games, there was a feature that we really wanted to add to a game. Trouble was, as this was years ago, we didn’t have a clue as to how to go about implementing it. Anyway, we were going to the Sega dev con at San Jose, and the team asked if we could get any help from Sega people. So we spoke to people there, and asked questions during the conference, but no-one could assist us. Eventually, we were pointed in the direction of this top development boss at Sega. We managed to get in touch with this bloke, and actually went to a lunch with him. We explained our problem, and he said he could help. His advice was: “Well, I can’t really tell you how to do it, but there’s one company I know who can. It’s a development team actually based in the UK. They’re doing some amazing stuff – really pushing the machine. Do you know them? They’re called Rebellion.”

I won’t get out of bed for less than 1.5m sales

David Pringle, Empire Interactive

It was 1985 and I kept getting phone calls from a guy called Dominic Wheatley at a company called Domark. He would say: “David, I have a product just for you. Come and visit me and Mark [Strachan] in Wimbledon.” I would always invent some excuse for not going, because we were doing a very hectic project for Rainbird at the time.

Anyway, after about eight weeks my resistance had worn down so much that I agreed to make a meeting one afternoon in London. That morning involved a long, hard meet with Tony Rainbird, and I decided that I really couldn’t be hacked to go all the way to Wimbledon. So I phoned up Dominic and told him that my car had broken down and I wouldn’t be able to make the meeting after all.

I left the British Telecom building, and a car drove straight into the side of mine. After my car had been towed away, I now had to get home by other means, so I decided I might as well go to Wimbledon anyway. I turned up, and Dominic and Mark asked me if Oxford Digital wanted to do the home computer versions of Trivial Pursuit. I said yes. And, er, it went on to sell 1.5 million copies.

Ship Of Doom sails into British Parliament

Charles Cecil, Revolution Software

It was one of my first games, called Ship Of Doom. It was a text adventure, and like all text adventures, it had a parser. The thing about the parsers in those days, and to this day, the incredibly frustrating thing is that you know what you want to say, but you’ve got to work out how to communicate that via the interface. That’s one of the golden rules of game design – that the interface must be intuitive and not stop the player doing what they want to do.

Of course, people would use expletives with adventure games. I believe Ship Of Doom was the first game that when you typed in an expletive it would understand you. That in itself was quite fun, if a little bit puerile. But there needs to be a justification for it, so about halfway through Ship Of Doom you came across a pleasure room, in which there was a female android. The puzzle was something silly – you had to steal her comb, and use the mirror to reflect her. But if you actually typed in the expletive with this android, the game would understand and respond.

But it would respond in an entirely inoffensive way. So if you typed in “Fuck android,” then it would give you a reply like “She suggests you use a screwdriver,” or, “in the heat generated, her leg flies off.” Just silly, inoffensive stuff. Anyway, that was all fine, and people thought it was great.

But then a Scottish mother discovered Little Johnny typing in “fuck android,” and got really, really offended that it actually understood it. She complained to Aberdeen Rape Crisis, who then in turn complained to their local MP. And their local MP decided to take it further.

Now, this was back in 1984, and the Obscene Video Bill was being discussed at that time. If you remember, the bill was brought in response to a lot of very violent videos, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, sweeping through the whole video industry. During a debate, this MP stood up and said: “I don’t think that the bill should be limited to videos – I think it should include videogames as well. I’ve had a complaint from somebody who talked about this really horrible game, where you can type ‘expletive android,’ and it will understand it.” He got whipped up into quite a frenzy.

The whole thing was full of hypocrisy. The wonderful, pinnacle of hypocrisy was The Sun, which had on page three a topless woman on the top half, and on the bottom half had “Computer Nasty Zapped By The Sun.” You just had to look and laugh. Somehow, people’s values were so screwed up that there’s a semi-naked woman on the top half of the page, and what was really a very inoffensive videogame at the bottom, and The Sun screams out, “This is filth! This is horrible”

Thankfully – for my well-being, because I think I would have been lynched if it had gone through – Parliament in its wisdom decided not to include videogames in the act.

When communication breaks down


I heard this tale about Codemasters. Apparently, they have this really heavy-duty interview system, where they really grill prospective employees. Anyway, there’s an artist who goes along, and he hits it off with the people interviewing him straight away. His art’s really good, and he seems a really good bloke. Now, the job he was going for involved using 3D Studio Max. Almost as an afterthought – taking it almost as read that the guy would know it – the interviewer said: “Can you use Max?” And the guy replies: “Yes.” He got the job.

Fast forward to this guy’s first day at Codemasters. He’s eventually sat down at his desk, and obviously having a problem. Anyway, to cut to the chase, it transpires that he’s never used 3D Studio Max. “But you said you had experience of Max in the interview,” said his senior. “Oh no,” responds the newbie, “I thought you meant Macs – Apple Macs.” I think they sorted it out in the end – the guy got training, or something. But what a nightmare.”

The kidnapping


This integral member of a development team was asked to work completely mad hours – he just had to keep staying, and staying. Eventually, he just got so fed up that he walked out. But the development house sent the producer and a couple of guys over in a car to get him back. They actually bundled him into a car, crushing his leg in the door as they did so. Basically, they kidnapped him. Yes, he did end up calling the police. All totally outrageous, really.

The Iraqi civilians


You remember Soldier Of Fortune? And how it was publicized almost entirely on the dubious ‘merit’ of its authentic violence? Well, in missions in America, if you shot innocent bystanders, there were gameplay-oriented repercussions. It was pretty implicit that shooting civilians was a bad thing.

Well, a later level was based in Iraq. There was this entire section that contained Saddam Hussein – I think they thought it was humorous, or topical, or something. Well, it was after the game’s release, and a few people noticed that you could shoot innocent Arabs in the Iraqi levels, and there were no penalties whatsoever. And people started saying: “This is really racist.” I think one UK PC magazine actually ran an article about the subject.

I doubt that it was intentional – although it’s a pretty terrible oversight, if you think about it. Apparently, the latest patch “fixes” it but, as it’s a 26MB download and I’ve no desire to play the game again, I don’t know if that’s actually true. Mind you, it might be worth downloading it just to see the bug fix doc attached. “Fixed glitch with Matrox cards; added further EAX functionality; fixed racism in Iraqi levels…”

Escape to disaster


I heard about this development company boss who figured out a great way to make his staff work late on a project. Instead of asking them to work late that evening he thought his best bet was to quietly slip out the front door and lock up for the night – leaving the poor developers trapped in the building, forced to work through the night. Of course, no-one considered what would have happened had there been a fire at the time. After all, programmers are easily replaced, aren’t they? Anyway, the boss crept off down the pub for a good time out while the developers worked on, unaware of their predicament.

Later on in the evening, one of them told the others he was off to McDonalds to get some food and asked everyone else what they wanted. When he got to the bottom of the stairs he found out that all the doors were locked and that there was no way out. He ran back up to the second floor and told the others that they were trapped – locked up for the evening. Their first and foremost thought was how they were going to get food – and how they were going to get it back into the building.

Then one of them had a brainwave. Lying next to them was a huge bunch of bubble wrap – they could lower one of the programmers down using the bubble wrap out of the second-floor window and onto the pavement below. Then he could nip off, get some food, and bring it back. They started lowering him, but the task was tricky. To help, the programmer started trying to climb down the bubble wrap, but just as he was going past the first floor he lost his grip and fell onto the concrete below. Needless to say he broke his leg in such a heavy fall. Still, after a night in the hospital the company very kindly offered to pick him up, and he was back at his desk the following morning.

Is the laptop all right?


There was this programmer who was once working on a high-pressure triple-A licensed product that had to be out in time for Christmas. Because of the tight deadline constraints and the amount of hours he had to put into the project, he often worked at home as well as in the office. For that reason he had bought himself a laptop so that it would be easy for him to bring his work home with him.

He also had a fast sports car, as programmers sometimes do, so that he could whizz backwards and forwards between home and office very quickly. However, his route home took him on a precarious trip through a forest and along a twisting road through some steep, hilly countryside.

One night he’d been working late at the office and was driving home with his laptop in the boot of his car so that he could put in some extra hours when he got back home. Being tired and in the pitch black he misjudged a bend with a steep drop on one side and went hurtling over the side into the darkness below. The car was an absolute mangled wreck. The following morning, and with great concern etched on his mind, the programmer’s boss rang his publisher to tell him the awful news. “I’m so very sorry. I’m afraid our programmer on your triple-A Christmas title crashed his car over the side of a steep cliff last night.”

“Oh, Jesus!” said the publisher.

“Don’t worry, though – we’ve recovered his laptop and checked out the source code, and it’s all okay!” replied the programmer’s boss. To this day, I still don’t know what happened to that programmer.

Raided by the vice squad

Charles Cecil

When I was at [big industry company, still going in 2001] we had a license to do conversions of a number of arcade games. The game this story involves had a cute cartoon animal as the main character. Anyway, there was this guy called Jeremy Smith, who had just started a company called Core. He knocked on my door, and I knew him of old, so we gave him his first work doing a conversion of the game – and he did a very good job.

However, unbeknownst to me, there was a cheat version. In the game, there was a princess kidnapped, and the cute animal goes after her. At the end of the proper version, he gets the princess and gives her a big kiss. But in the cheat version, he actually had a huge penis, and gave her a good seeing to. I didn’t actually know about this.

It wasn’t a problem at first, because no-one actually discovered it – it was a seriously obscure and well-hidden cheat. Until, that is, I was driving along Wandsworth Bridge Road, and my mobile phone went. It was Geoff Brown, who was working for a company who had licensed the game from us to put on a compilation.

And he says: “Charles, you’ve got to help me!” I say: “Look, what’s the matter, Geoff?” He says: “I’ve got the Birmingham vice squad in! We licensed this game from you, and you finish it, and at the end the creature gets a huge great penis out!”

We’d given him the wrong version. We’d given him an earlier, pre-release version, where the alternative ending happened regardless. He’d put the game on a compilation, and thousands of these things had gone out. So there were kids around the country playing this game, and anyone who reached the end was going to see this real obscenity. I’ll never forget that one.

A version of this feature originally appeared in Edge magazine. To try a free two-issue Edge subscription, click here for iOS.

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