“It was a summer blockbuster,” says Jason VandenBerghe, Everything or Nothing’s lead designer. That is this 2004 title in a nutshell. Like the movies it emulated, this was a game full of explosions, car chases, exotic locales, virtual women and trademark Bond quips. It was a showcase of EA’s deep pockets at the height of the craze surrounding movie-licensed games. But to say it was just a summer blockbuster almost obscures both its creators and the impact it had on the third person shooter genre.
Around 20 years ago, VandenBerghe had the opportunity to join an old friend at EA, the current studio head of Sledgehammer Games, Aaron Halon. “I was like ‘sure, why not?' I hadn’t planned on going to Electronic Arts,” VandenBerghe says. “Sports games were never my thing, and I hadn’t intended to make movie games.”
At the turn of the millennium, not much else was going on at the then-biggest publisher in the business. EA’s hegemony wasn’t built on original ideas and creative new IPs. It dominated with a relentless barrage of annual releases of crowd-pleasers like FIFA and NBA, and a steady stream of games licensed on the hottest movie properties of the time. With titles like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, James Bond, Harry Potter and The Simpsons (to name only the biggest earners) in its portfolio, money was the least of EA’s concern. That said, the publisher’s newly built Redwood Shores campus wasn’t a carefree working environment.
“EA has always been a super high-pressure environment. Really competitive, lots of very strong personalities, lot of focus on delivering right now,” VandenBerghe recalls, having moved from a small outfit called Hyperbole Studios into the big leagues. “The company was run in large part by the business and marketing team.”
If that sounds familiar, so will the next part. “It was an odd environment because they were trying to figure out how to succeed at making non-sports games. They had a huge amount of success with sports games and certain other franchises, but their more traditional games were inconsistent,” says VandenBerghe.
“It was chaos. It was very stressful for me. I was a father, I had a big family at home and was in a new city.”
“I actually really thrived there in a way. The fact that I was able to swim in those waters and succeed where a lot of people failed told me that i was doing something right. That this was probably the industry for me.”
Someone must have picked up on that, because after working as Associate Producer on two 007 games, Agent Under Fire and Nightfire, VandenBerghe was in line for a promotion. Only he wouldn’t know about it for a long while. First, he was asked to join a core team of creatives on the next James Bond game.
“For nine months I was in meeting rooms with these two guys, coming up with what the game would be and learning all about the process. I was kind of one of the the original members of that team,” VandenBerghe recalls.
As the project gathered speed, the team grew and changed: the kind of high turnover often associated with huge projects handled by huge corporations. VandenBerghe, however, was consistently there. “After a while people kept coming to me for answers for all of the design questions and eventually I turned to my producer and asked him ‘am I the lead designer?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘oh yeah, yeah, that's right, you are.’”
And just like that, in a span of one conversation, VandenBerghe was in charge of the design on 007: Everything or Nothing.
The two previous Bond games released by Electronic Arts, Agent Under Fire and Nightfire, were fairly straightforward, 007-flavoured first person shooters. Everything or Nothing was a new direction, marked by a change in perspective. “When I sat down with those two guys to describe what Everything or Nothing would be, we knew we were making a third person game."
“I wanted to make a third person shooter," continues VandenBerghe. "It sounded like a great challenge.” But this was a pre-Gears of War world and not everyone was convinced. “There were a lot of people on the team who were skeptical that it could be done.”
“It was obvious to me and to the creative team that if we were going to make a third person shooter, we weren’t going to be able to do set the camera just over the shoulder. To do what I think of as a first person game with a third person character. That approach was not going to work for Bond because it doesn’t have a very cinematic feel.”
While the team decided to ditch the popular (at the time) camera setup and put Bond’s entire body in the frame, they couldn’t disregard a different emerging trend: cover-based shooters. A couple of games like Winback and Time Crisis toyed with the idea before Namco’s Kill.Switch became the protoplast for the modern cover based shooters. But Everything or Nothing — released in November 2003, just 20 days after Kill.Switch — played a largely overlooked part in the shift from careless running and gunning to crouching behind walls and peeking around corners.
“It was clear that the third person cover-based shooters were going to be a thing,” VandenBerghe says. “We understood right from the beginning that we had an opportunity to solve this problem because we knew that someone would. We had the perfect license, and we had lots of talent. We were given enough time to build it, so we went for it.”
But in order to go for it, the team first had to design and develop new mechanics and technologies to pull them off. Some of them added new dimensions to gameplay. “One of the best moments for me was when we figured out the rappel mechanic,” VandenBerghe says with an excitement still audible decades later (this now seems to feature in every third-person game). The team made small technological breakthroughs we now take for granted. “We were one of the first games to split the character between upper and lower torso, so you could have aiming and running in different directions.”
Other ideas shook and stirred the game industry at large.
“It's not a super sexy story or anything,” VandenBerghe warns when telling me about his favorite moment while working on the game. “I was sitting with an astounding programmer named Jordan Maynard and he was showing me this new technology that he had created where he could take a single pose, like a pose of Bond leaning to the side, and then just apply it to the character’s running animation and that run animation would lean over. He could change all the animations in the game using a single frame of animation. It was the first time that I encountered what’s now known as animation blending.”
I think we can all agree that this isn’t a super sexy story, but it is an incredibly important one.
“Animation blending is common practice now. It’s built-in. It’s not even a big deal. It’s just assumed, but that wasn’t how game were made at the time.”
“I was just blown away by it. I remember Jordan was looking at me with this spark in his eye,” VandenBerghe recalls. “I felt like I was standing at the start of the future. The world of the future was going to have these third person games where characters are gonna move like humans and are gonna be able to climb anywhere they wanna go. And they’re gonna be expressive and they’re gonna have personality.”
That future wasn’t far off. Games like Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune kicked off the new age of character animation just a couple of years later. VandenBerghe, however, had enough on his plate to keep him from pondering visions of future.
“The hardest part about working on Bond is that everybody knows who he is and — like him or not — everyone has an idea of what he should be. Your Bond and my Bond — not the same Bond. And that applies to designers, art directors, producers, VPs, heads of business, heads of marketing — everyone in the entire organization has an opinion on what Bond should be. We had to get really good at explaining why we were doing what we were doing, and why we weren’t doing it the other way.”
“Throughout the whole production there was never a moment that we agreed on what the 'Bond' is.”
And yet, perhaps surprisingly, the relations with the license holders, the famously protective Broccoli family, were the least of VandenBerghe’s concerns.
“The people who were running the brand were exceptional.(...) I was really impressed. There's a reason that it's been such a successful franchise, right?”
Perhaps the license holders picked up on VandenBerghe's love for the source material and deemed him well equipped to handle the game. His research certainly wasn't lacking.
“I went deep. I did as much research as I could. I watched and rewatched every film, few of them multiple times, and I also bought all the Fleming books and I read all of those,” VandenBerghe says, and later assures me the books stood the test of time. In the course of research, revisiting one particular movie was of special importance to VandenBerghe.
“For Your Eyes Only was the movie where I fell in love with Bond. Watching it now it’s pretty cheesy but when I was 12 or 13 it was mind blowing.” But even as Roger Moore’s run as Bond was coming to an end in the 80s, VandenBerghe already had a favorite to replace him.
“I really liked Pierce Brosnan. I was a huge Remington Steele fan. I was one of those teenagers that was rooting for him to be the next guy. I had this impression that he was born to be Bond.”
And after Brosnan was finally tapped for the role, Everything or Nothing — as the coincidence would have it — would be the first and last game to secure his services as a voice actor.
“That was one of the big pushes on the game. To complete the cinematic feel, we really felt we needed to get the real actors.” And they did. The cinematic feel was boosted by performances from (among others) John Cleese, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Richard Kiel, Heidi Klum and Shannon Elizabeth.
Sadly for the teenage fan of Brosnan, VandenBerghe “was never in the studio with any of these people, which would have been fun.”
To drive home the idea that EA spared no expense, a fairly successful singer called Mya recorded a song for the quintessentially Bond-esque intro to the game. “She actually came to the studio and performed that song live for us. It was amazing.”
“I'm always satisfied when I hear people talk about Bond games," says VandenBerghe. "People talk about Goldeneye, but there’s always a couple of people who sneak in and say ‘hey, Everything or Nothing was pretty good, too.’ I always appreciate that." That's not false modesty: Everything or Nothing may never topple GoldenEye on the list of best Bond games ever made, but it will forever remain a strong second. Mainly because it’s just a damn good game. But also because, these days, it feels that licensed games in general are something of a spent force. Will the industry even see another big-budget Bond game?
“It’s not that we don’t do licensed games anymore, it’s just that there’s fewer of them and they don’t draw as much attention as they used to. Which is nice, feels like we’ve got a better balance now,” says VandenBerghe. “It’s hard enough to make a game without adding on an additional burden. We got to a nice place now where if it makes sense to make a game out of a film franchise, if it’s a natural fit, then we do it. We’ve learned as an industry how to use licenses better, how to apply them and how to satisfy the audience better.”
And if the licensed games were to eventually die out? Good riddance, says VandenBerghe, who’s not missing the days of games asking for outside validation.
“We have escaped the shadow of the film industry. We’re our own thing and the game franchises don’t need the extra boost. You don’t need to pay the license fees in order to make a great deal of money.”
VandenBerghe himself managed to escape the shadow of working on summer blockbusters as well. His post-EA career took him all over the industry and the world, launching new brands and styles of play for Activision and Ubisoft. His career might be hard to follow, but VandenBerghe only recently started understanding his job choices in a new way.
“The thing I’m most interested in is finding new interfaces for fantasies that we’ve left behind, for the stuff that we’ve missed,” he says. “I love breaking free of the old constraints and finding interfaces that let designers make better games and give us access to fantasies that have been left on the cutting room floor, because we couldn’t figure out how to make them work.”
“With Everything or Nothing it was third person, cover and aim lock-based shooting [...] I was super into breaking the code on how to make a shooter that felt like Bond. We wanted him to not miss, but we wanted you to still have skill and there to be danger so the cover was part of that,” he explains.
“And then when I went to Ubisoft and did Red Steel... That one was about ‘how do we do FPS melee?’ [...] Then when I was on For Honor, my question was ‘how do we do reproduce the real feeling of sword fighting with a controller in third person?’ What is the interface that makes melee feel the way that I feel when I’m fighting with a real weapon instead of feeling like I’m playing Dance Dance Revolution, which is what a lot of melee games end up feeling like?”
“There’s still probably better work to be done there. But we made it across the valley to a new world. I’m really hopeful that it will inspire other designers, that’s always the point.”
Today VandenBerghe works at ArenaNet, the MMOG powerhouse behind the Guild Wars series, where he serves as the director of design. “This is the first time that I have a job where I’m sort of overseeing at a studio level [...] My best value today is probably to sit back and help the next generation figure out their own best way to move forward.”
And after that’s done, perhaps VandenBerghe can find yet another abandoned interface to reinvent. Would he want to? The reply has a touch of 007 himself.
“I never say never.”