War games are an annual event these days, but in the very early Nineties it was a very different situation. Medal Of Honor changed all that, delivering solid shooting mechanics and a strong storyline. Here, the original developers explain how they worked with Steven Spielberg to create a classic first-person shooter.
By time work started on Medal Of Honor, the Second World War had been over for 52 years. The top-grossing films were Titanic, Men In Black and Jurassic Park: The Lost World, and the videogame charts were dominated by Quake and GoldenEye 007. This was before Saving Private Ryan, before The Thin Red Line. Though war drama was about to have a big resurgence, in 1997, it wasn’t in vogue.
It may not look impressive now, but this was cutting edge in 1999.
Similarly, the PlayStation was still finding its feet. Sony’s first console had sold well, shipping around 25 million units worldwide, but the catalogue of games was dominated by just a few genres. Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy VII were the biggest hits that year, along with Tekken, Grand Theft Auto and PaRappa The Rapper. A studio called Insomniac had just shipped its Doom clone, Disruptor, over to Japan, but apart from that, on PlayStation the first-person shooter was yet to break through.
So Dreamworks Interactive, founded by Steven Spielberg and comprised of only 30 people, had a challenge on its hands. Not only did it want to reintroduce war history to the mainstream, but also build a sophisticated first-person shooter on an as yet untested platform. Peter Hirschmann, Medal Of Honor’s writer and producer, remembers the early stages of development: “Medal Of Honor kicked off officially on 11 November 1997, when Steven returned from Europe after wrapping principal photography on Saving Private Ryan. He wanted to teach a new generation about World War Two, but knew his movie would be too intense for younger audiences. His insight was to reach young people through a medium they’d embraced: videogames. “Looking back it’s ridiculous, but the idea was controversial at the time because he was proposing an FPS that didn’t have high-tech weapons or take place on another planet. And this was before WW2 had come back into the public consciousness, before Ryan and before Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation. Plus, we only had 2Mb of memory, so forgetting even the broader context of WW2, we first had to figure out how to deliver a fun shooter experience. Not to compare ourselves to Jaws, but Steven said that not having a shark that worked all the time forced him to get creative. The same went for our team.”
All the weapons are extremely authentic.
Nobody was more aware of that than Christopher Cross, MOH’s lead designer. To accommodate the scale of Medal Of Honor on PlayStation, he and fellow designer Lynne Henson had to pull a lot of tricks, as he tells us. “The idea to do a first-person shooter on the PlayStation was f**king crazy. These days you think of someone using, say, the Unreal Engine and building a whole level by themselves. We couldn’t do that. We had to be very careful with the amount of polygons we used because of the hardware. “An enemy in MOH is maybe 200 polys – today, they don’t even make hats that are less than 200 polys. So, we could only have four enemies on the screen at once. We had to work with smoke and mirrors so players wouldn’t notice the enemies were backfilling. Also, we had to cut skyboxes. That’s why every level takes place at night. In the end, though, that kind of worked out, since you’re playing an OSS officer doing secret missions. It added a lot of atmosphere.”
That wasn’t the only instance where technical boundaries actually aided MOH’s development. As design work went on, Christopher, contrary to his initial reaction, discovered the PSone was well suited to a war FPS. “The analogue controller was announced before we launched but we didn’t design around it because we couldn’t guarantee it had market penetration, so we were using the D-pad. That gave the games a really deliberate pace, since we were tuning them to the directional buttons. We had to allow time to set up the situation, to show that, say, there are three guys coming, there’s cover over here, a gun on that wall. We let players figure out the situation and decide how to approach it. “Plus, killing enemies was never meant to be an objective, never meant to be something you had to do to finish a level. Modern games have these cardboard cutouts popping up all the time – it’s just a test of your switch skills. With MOH, you’d need to shoot one guy in the foot, one guy in the hand then one guy in the head, then come back to the other two. It was a much slower paced game. It was a lot more intimate.”
Occasionally the action will switch to vehicles, adding further variety to the game.
Just as Christopher found a way to make the PlayStation hardware work for MOH, Peter Hirschman turned the daunting task of creating an educational war game to his favour. With Spielberg’s brief in mind, he had the responsibility to make Medal Of Honor historically accurate without compromising its entertainment value. The more he wrote and researched, the more he found that one aspect complemented the other. “It was key to provide as much historical context as possible,” he says. “Absolutely, there was a concerted effort to give Medal Of Honor an educational quality, but it almost felt subversive. I didn’t want to scare anyone into thinking it was anything but a game. First and foremost, Medal Of Honor was meant to be entertainment. “From a story perspective, it was all about backing into it. We needed someone whose initial combat experience matched the player (ie they had none), but yet had a legitimate reason to be in the European Theater of Operations in 1944. So Jimmy Patterson was a C-47 pilot, shot down behind enemy lines. We needed a context to move him all around the continent. So bam, he’s recruited into the OSS. That allowed us to cover a lot of ground. To this day, I imagine we’re the only game that had mission objectives varying from sabotaging V2 rockets to saving a rare edition of the Canterbury Tales.”
Just as the absent skyboxes and minimal enemies gave Medal Of Honor its atmosphere, the authentic World War backdrop distinguished it from other shooters of the Nineties. The game had a distinctive flavour. It lived on the principal that truth was better than fiction. “I think people actually love to learn history,” says Peter. “And working with constraints will often push you to a better place. Instead of fighting the limitations, you embrace them and get to work.” Despite this strong work ethic, there was still a long road ahead for the developers…