EA Games Swings for the Fences With The Simpsons Game

Part 22 of a 25-part series looking back at every Simpsons video game ever made.

I’d unwittingly stumbled into a fandom when I started watching The Simpsons on television, recorded episodes onto VHS tapes, and then found my own particular niche in the form of writing walkthroughs for Simpsons video games and creating a fansite to host those walkthroughs. Somehow, that wasn’t enough, and I got it into my head that I needed to work on a Simpsons video game. I’d already grown up in Inglewood, CA, a suburb just a stone’s throw from Big Hollywood and all the video game and television production jobs I’d ever want. And while my stint at Vivendi Games was my foot in the door for video game work, it wasn’t quite what I’d hoped. After all, I didn’t just want to work on any video games. It had to be a Simpsons video game.

I was so determined that I left my job at Vivendi Games as soon as I discovered that the Simpsons license had landed at Electronic Arts. They were a multinational entertainment corporation by 2007, so it was helpful to see that EA specified they’d be working on a Simpsons video game at their EA Redwood Shores studio, just a six hour drive from Los Angeles and a more than manageable move. I applied through the normal channels on their website, and a friend of a friend even offered to place my résumé at the top of the pile. I’m ambivalent about that kind of nepotism now, but boy, it sure is important with a goal as specific as this.

Trouble was, I left my job in February, and then it was just… silence. I stayed with my folks while my fate hung in the balance, and I even applied at other video game companies and for every position I could find. Marketing, production, testing; it all felt like a good fit, and I would have taken any job that gave me the opportunity to contribute to a Simpsons game in any appreciable fashion. I hung around in Inglewood for a couple of months, then rode through the desert in a car with no name, until finally, miraculously, I got the call. EA were ramping up for their annual tester rush as they finalized games over the summer to sell in the fall. It required me to be in the San Francisco bay area for the interview, but after all the road tripping I’d done it was no thing to drive up again.

Long story long, I interviewed and got the job — I was a tester at Electronic Arts. My elation knew no bounds. Though they placed me on a Sims game at first, I had the audacity to tell my manager, as a tester not more than two weeks on the job, that I was actually there to work on The Simpsons Game. The gambit worked and I was finally plopped in front of an early build in June 2007. I ended up on the small team working on the PlayStation Portable version of the game, which was the most technically compromised version, but I didn’t care. It was four glorious months of a dream fulfilled. I hid my status as a Simpsons fansite nerd just in case it was a conflict of interest, but their marketing team reached out to me via the fansite and actually found out I worked on the game itself. Thankfully they just thought it was cool that a mega fan was working on it, and they invited me to come along for the actual release party of The Simpsons Game down at the Hard Rock Cafe in Hollywood. It was a long night of much booze, and ended with a small group of us fansite nerds getting a photograph with the man himself, Matt Groening. It was a surreal experience that capped off an unbelievable series of fortunate events.

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You, too, can chase your nerdy dreams!

But I skipped to the end here, so let’s see what was going on before drunken photos with cartoonists.

Electronic Arts was back, baby, and they brought their deep pockets with them. Having briefly lost the license to Vivendi Games, they came back around with what is inarguably the biggest and most ambitious Simpsons video game ever made. The company had the dough to not only invest in the license, but also the production and development of a game full of new patented technology for the next generation of hardware — Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. This seventh generation of hardware represented the pinnacle of technical excellence in home consoles.

The team selected to design and develop a new Simpsons game for the latest generation was EA Redwood Shores. This development team was formed in 1998 alongside its parent company’s new headquarters in — you guessed it — Redwood Shores, a suburb of the larger Redwood City area in the middle of San Francisco’s peninsula. Before TSG, the EARS team were known for developing sports games such as the Tiger Woods series, as well as licensed action titles from the Lord of the Rings, James Bond, and Godfather licenses. Those games weren’t known as great action titles, but they were serviceable vehicles for telling stories in those universes. It was James Bond 007: From Russia With Love that formed the technological backbone for many of their action games after 2005, and that included their new Simpsons game. They landed upon the idea of another action title in which the characters from The Simpsons TV show would discover that they are actually in a video game, and use that to explore the series’s history in video games and just make fun of video game tropes at every available opportunity. The story was penned by writers of the TV show, representing the closest collaboration yet between Gracie Films as the production company of the show and their video game counterparts. This collaboration was meant to bring about the definitive Simpsons video game experience. As one developer noted in the cancelled commentary, “I’m really happy and proud to have finally been on the product that’s going to say that this is the Simpsons game, the {one} that everyone’s been waiting for.”

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Leaping into the advertising abyss.

I only joined near the end as a tester in summer 2007, so it’s not clear exactly when they kicked things off. A prototype shared on YouTube by Morgan Kuno indicates that a team from EA had the game running in the James Bond engine as early as 2004, and given that the prototype was on the original Xbox, it is likely that it was a prototype used to convince Fox of their intentions with the new game. By the time of the announcement in late 2006, EA was well underway and closing in on the release of the game about a year later.

Most of the resources were dedicated to fleshing out the premiere versions of the game on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but EA was no fool in the face of dollars, and they made sure to also develop versions of the game for Nintendo’s Wii, the portable platforms PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS, as well as one more dip into previous generations of platforms with the PlayStation 2. EA Redwood Shores was big, but only so big, and so they strictly handled development of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game, contracting all the others to Rebellion Developments for what was known as “current gen” (PS2, PSP, Wii) and Amaze Entertainment for Nintendo DS. Both companies were well-established as port houses that took on these sorts of projects, and while they both faced tough challenges in translating the game to platforms with less capable hardware, they still managed some impressive work in fitting the game to the limitations.

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First-person crawling is due for a comeback.

EARS seemed intent on surpassing Hit & Run in every conceivable way, perhaps understanding that game’s lasting place in the minds of gamers and the need to provide a new and improved experience in order to make a big splash. The game levels have hints of an attempt to replicate what worked about Hit & Run, especially in the game’s recreation of the Springfield suburbs and the downtown area, but this element comes up quite short in comparison. The world feels relatively empty, populated by passersby who quote their lines from the TV show but nothing relevant to the player’s objectives. Still, as the cancelled developer commentary reveals, it was quite the effort:

That was a big challenge, a lot of animations, every character is different, I mean this is one game I’ve worked on… it’s phenomenal… we’ve got I think over 140 in game characters from the show. I think total you’ll see about 200, but everyone is unique, everyone {has} got a different high and {they’re} true to the model sheets.

As the game progresses, the open world changes slightly, with new characters and interactions popping up. Overall, however, it serves as a hub between levels that’s a bit too big for its britches. This open world Springfield is actually removed from the Rebellion and Amaze versions of the game, and while it may seem like a player is getting less game because of it, I’d say it is a vast improvement. If the open world can’t achieve what Hit & Run did, why bother?

Fortunately — or perhaps unfortunately if you miss Hit & Run’s open nature — the majority of the game takes place through a sequence of bespoke levels that each feature a different member of the Simpson family. According to one of the developers in the cancelled commentary:

We have 16 unique levels. Unlike a lot of other games, we actually don’t reuse a lot of game ideas between each level. Each level is pretty unique, and each level kind of stands alone as a really, really good game in itself.

Each level also features a key player with a second character there for support and to provide another character for co-op gameplay. This dynamic of two characters pairing up to tackle various challenges provides welcome changes to the dialogue and gameplay in each level, and allows all of the family to get some time in the spotlight, something that we have seen prioritized since the second wave of Simpsons games kicked off in 2000.

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Marge’s innate ability to rally a mob pays off.

As noted, before, the story was actually penned by writers from the TV show this time, and it shows in the game’s many cutscenes, dialogue regularly spouted by characters, and even the game’s overall three-act structure. The majority of those pre-rendered cutscenes actually feature 2D animation on par with that of the TV show. This wasn’t always the case — the cutscenes were all originally rendered using the in-game character assets, but someone at Gracie Films or Fox decided they’d pony up the cash to replace them with animation that admittedly looked far better than what could be accomplished with the 3D assets. This resulted in a near-total replacement of all the cutscenes in the game at a fairly late stage, throwing out work that EA’s animators had labored over and requiring us testers to go back and replay every version of every game to make sure the cutscenes were okay. Gracie Films had struck again, but the result is several episodes’ worth of original animation, and if nothing else, a pretty good reason to go back to explore the game. And for those curious to see the old cutscenes, they still shipped with the Nintendo DS version of the game.

The gameplay of the levels in that three-act structure is perhaps the most maligned aspect of the game. It’s understandable: while cutscenes and dialogue are all great, and there are some fun design ideas in the game’s levels, many of them can feel like a slog to get through. The early levels in which the characters discover their abilities feel like a reasonable pace. Homer masters his ability to turn into a human rolling boulder, Bart tries out his Bartman abilities such as a grappling hook in the sewers, Lisa’s powers of meditation manifests as a god hand that can move objects around a logger’s camp, and Marge’s power of nagging allows her to control mobs and direct them to topple City Hall.

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A visit to the revisionist history museum.

Upon discovering their abilities, the town is invaded by those familiar tentacled aliens, Kang and Kodos. This leads to the game’s slow middle section, in which the characters must again use their abilities to best a series of platforming and boss challenges. Progressing through these areas slows the game down considerably and the sometimes confusing level design only hinders the player’s efforts. The final arc of the game gets the characters back to the fun with parodies of RPGs, war shooters, and even a metaphysical search for their own creator. My personal favorite levels are in this part of the game where the self-referential humor of the show shines through.

In hindsight, however, it generally feels like a marriage of television and game design that just didn’t work out as well as one could have hoped. Matt Selman, executive producer and writer on the television show, contributed to the game, and has noted his surprise that it isn’t as highly regarded as The Simpsons Hit & Run. One of the developers in the cancelled commentary spoke to the challenge of integrating the show’s humor into a video game:

They tell you the jokes, its all based on timing, and then to get that crazy Simpsons wackiness and humor into the game, where its a user experience… It isn’t completely timed for them, you don’t know where the player’s going to go, where they’re going to wander in the environment, and to make sure that level of humor stays true to the show has been a fun and interesting challenge too

I agree that the writing was excellent and Selman and his team should be proud of their work on the game, but it’s not just another episode of the TV show. A video game must live or die on the strength of its game design, and the gameplay of The Simpsons Game unfortunately has the tendency to stumble often.

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Lisa’s sax whacks back, jack.

Players who could plod through the gameplay were rewarded with an embarrassment of joke riches. The idea was to feature as much dialogue and jokes as they could cram in there, along with cel-shaded graphics that were a vast improvement over the visuals of the previous takes on 3D video game characters. Between the writing and improved visuals, it was the closest players could get to playing in an episode of the TV show. And it wasn’t just the usual cast of characters. The aforementioned Kang and Kodos appear to bring the woo-woo Halloween vibe to the game, and even Sideshow Bob and God make appearances as the bosses for the game’s central and final arcs, respectively.

As mentioned above, several versions of the game were created to fit onto platforms that couldn’t handle the requirements of the original “next gen” versions. Rebellion’s ports for PS2, PSP, and Wii all shared the same codebase, built upon their proprietary Asura engine, and each had differences suited to their particular platform. The PS2 version was mostly the same except for lower resolution art and the removal of a few of the game’s maps, and PSP was just a pared down version crammed onto the tiny screen. It was Nintendo’s platforms that really shined in the porting process. The Wii version featured several mini games that were suited for the Wiimote controls, and the Nintendo DS port from Amaze was an entirely different game. It featured side scrolling platforming and gameplay à la games from the NES and SNES eras, and utilized the stylus mechanic to include a Pet Homer mode in which players could poke and prod at their own lazy Homer digital pet.

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Were you gonna eat that?

The game’s journey culminates as a philosophical exploration in which the Simpson family struggles to understand what it means to be in a video game. Their quest mirrors the video game series’s long struggle to find a place on the shelves of many players’ collections, and although this was by far the most expensive and ambitious effort to date, it fell flat in some areas that players could never forgive. I’ll say don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. EA Redwood Shores made a game that addressed many of the concerns I’ve expressed over the course of this retrospective series. They brought in the writers of the show and amped up the jokes to 11, creating a satisfying and funny game that still stands out among the bleak and washed out tones of most action games of the era. Comedy in games is still not the norm, and while there are a few more Simpsons games to come, none of them quite measure up to this grand effort.

Longtime denizen of the Internet, and video games, and the overlap between the two. More at noiseland.co.

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