With today's release of our Giants retrospective by Evan Shamoon, we're starting a series of in-depth articles on Good Old Games and we'll take a look behind the scenes to see how some of those classics were made.
Back when it was originally released in The Year 2000, Giants: Citizen Kabuto was one of those games that dared to bridge genres, bending the third-person shooter into the RTS, a mermaid simulator, and back again into something brand new. It was the first game developed by Planet Moon Studios—the brainchild of essentially the same team that created the excellent MDK at Shiny Entertainment several years prior. It was, as we like to say in the trade, ahead of its time.
by Evan Shamoon
Back when it was originally released in The Year 2000, Giants: Citizen Kabuto was one of those games that dared to bridge genres, bending the third-person shooter into the RTS, a mermaid simulator, and back again into something brand new. It was the first game developed by Planet Moon Studios—the brainchild of essentially the same team that created the excellent MDK at Shiny Entertainment several years prior.
It was, as we like to say in the trade, ahead of its time.
“Back at Shiny, Bob Stevenson(Planet Moon CEO), Nick Bruty (Planet Moon President) and I were sitting around coming up with ideas for MDK,” recalls Tim Williams, Principal Designer/Head Writer of Giants, and now Planet Moon’s Creative Director and Writer. “As was common in these chats, we ended up on another digression, talking about all sorts of craziness. We arrived at this image of a massive battle between giants, spacemen, and pirates. We just started laughing at how mad that would be.”But Nick had a glimmer in his eye: ‘Actually, there’s something in that,’ and he jotted down a note.” When the group left to form Planet Moon a couple of years later, this was the first idea that came to the surface—and the game became Giants. “We later changed the pirates to ‘Sea Reapers’—beautiful and powerful mermaid-like women,” adds Williams. “Why? Well, it speaks for itself, doesn’t it?”
Indeed, the three factions—the Meccaryn, the Sea Reapers, and Kabuto, the enormous, flesh-eating monsters of the game’s title—all require decidedly different strategic approaches. The heavily armed Meccaryns enjoy the liberties provided by jet packs, while the spellcasting Sea Reapers are amphibious creatures. You start with one style of gameplay—running and gunning, essentially—and then you’re building bases and defending them, and then you’re a mermaid, swimming through the water. Oh, and finally you’re a massive giant, picking people up and eating them, while doing pile drivers into houses. It came as a result of the team’s desire to create something unheard of and truly ambitious, and the results are all very surreal.
Of course, that’s not to say any of this ambitious surrealism came easily. Williams recalls a particular moment during development where it all just seemed overwhelming. “It just wasn’t coming together, and there was a feeling of biting off more than we could chew,” he says. “So, again, we started off on another one of those digressions, talking about the characters of the Meccs: they were just aliens in spacesuits, which wasn’t very exciting.” They started talking about the idea of the Meccs being five cockney guys in spacesuits and having a laugh about it; then they then came up with their names: Baz, Tel, Reg, Gordon and Bennett. “It’s strange, but this seemingly small shift suddenly invigorated us, and we started seeing the game from a new perspective,” says Williams. “Ideas really started flowing after that. You know, sometimes when you’re in a rut, it’s important to just say, ‘Screw it,’ and start having a laugh, talking about other things; even different absurdities. You’ll often find that you’re actually drilling through to something that could be useful. And if not, best to head for the pub.”
Tonally, the game stood out as well, thanks in no small part to its impressive, stylized graphics. The bizarre and detailed creatures, in combination with the rolling, impressive terrain and amazing skies, provided the perfect stomping ground for the game’s over-the-top weaponry. “We actually started by looking at the masters,” Williams recalls of the creative process. “Nick and Bob talked about the idea of ‘an oil painting coming to life’; this evolved, but we always wanted big panoramic views because, quite simply, we hadn’t really seen anything like that before.” The team wanted to communicate a feeling of being on top of the world; epic, breathtaking vistas with huge, rich, beautiful skies that dominate much of the screen—essentially, a David Lean movie in the form of a videogame.
The game was one of the first to use both pixel and vertex shaders which, in combination with the stylized visuals, gave it a distinctive appearance. “I love the look of it,” says Williams. “It’s the type of game where you can honestly just stop and admire the scenery. This was quite a feat back then.” Of course, this was also something of a double-edged sword: the technology could potentially make the game look amazing, but players needed some kick-ass hardware to get the full experience. (Not something we need to worry about now—one of the side benefits of playing PC eight years after the fact, certainly.)
Of course, no discussion of Giants would be complete without a mention of the game’s humor. “Players and reviewers seemed to actually find it funny, which isn’t the norm,” says Williams. “Most ‘funny’ games out there make me want to saw my legs off.” The game’s writing is complimented with some hilarious voice over, but even this was never planned: “Originally, there was never going to be any real voice over,” recalls Williams. “We were actually just going to do what we did in MDK: record me talking in some silly alien language.” When he started writing subtitles, however, things started to happen: “We had a good laugh at it all, and decided that this was a game where we had to go all out with the comedy—it just felt so natural.” Though the game failed to become a huge commercial success, the fan response was overwhelmingly positive: many wrote in calling Giants their favorite game, and to this day the developer still gets emails from people asking about a sequel. (Their take on this is that they never say never—it’s a world they’d love to return to one day, and they even have a bunch of notes for a potential Giants 2.)
Sadly, the release was also bittersweet for another reason: after spending over three years on a game they were all immensely proud off, Planet Moon’s programmer, Andy Astor, died from a battle with cancer. “Giants has a very special play in my heart because it was this game, full of youthful ambition, at a time when we were going it alone—there were just five of us, and we had just moved to the San Francisco Bay Area,” recalls Williams.” It’s also a game where we learned a lot, and developed lifelong friendships.”