How Radical Entertainment Beat the Odds to Make a Good Simpsons Game
Life trudged on in 2003. The endless war of our times intensified as the United States and its allies invaded Iraq and ended the decades-long regime of Saddam Hussein, the world was enraptured by the whirlwind romance of Bennifer, and Clay Aiken won the hearts of the nation even as he came in second place to Ruben Studdard on American Idol. The Simpsons was in its fifteenth season by the end of the year, while fellow Fox Television Network sitcoms such as The Pitts, The Grubbs, and soon-to-resurge Family Guy all fell by the wayside into the cancellation ditch.
Outside of the Treehouse of Horror episodes, I wasn’t watching The Simpsons any longer. Like many fans, it wasn’t a conscious choice to stop watching. Life was simply getting busier and busier, and The Simpsons no longer had the chops of its supposed “classic” era in the nineties. It became the background noise, always on television on Sundays and guaranteed to appear multiple times a day in syndication. In spite of that, I remained strangely focused on documenting the video games derived from the license. I still wrote walkthroughs, still updated my fansite. It was a nice bit of steady devotion as uncertainty swirled around. I was approaching the end of my time in college by 2003 and left to ponder where and how and who one is meant to become in adulthood. There was a vague notion of starting a career in video games, but there was no focal point to my vision. It wasn’t until the end of the year when a shining yellow beacon would emerge to light the way.
The intense period of the second Simpsons video game renaissance was nearing its crescendo. We’d seen five games in three years, and tremendous peaks and valleys in terms of the quality of those games. Before 2003, The Simpsons Road Rage was the unquestioned high point of the era, providing a fun gameplay experience while also featuring as many characters as they could cram in there and lots of one-liners. As evidenced by the aforementioned tremulous quality of many of the games released by a variety of publishers, Road Rage’s success was entirely driven by the dedication and craftsmanship of the team at Radical Entertainment in cooperation with Fox Interactive. It was enough of a critical and commercial success that Radical decided they would try for a second miracle.
Securing the rights to develop a game based on such a huge license may seem like a daunting task for anyone but the biggest of publishers, but Fox Interactive was in a different phase of its video game efforts and more willing to take a smaller cut. As Radical Designer Joe McGinn put it, “as a small developer all we had to do was convince Fox that we had a great game concept and development team.” And while Fox Interactive was happy to work with Radical again on developing a game with the Simpsons license, they still weren’t in a place to provide the necessary funding. That meant another go-round of pitching a new game to publishers after Road Rage had shipped. Electronic Arts seemed the odds-on favorite given their success with Road Rage and the fact that they were the publisher of the two most recent releases, but for some reason they opted to pass on their next project. Instead, a critical business restructuring laid the groundwork for the next game. Fox sold its video game arm — the entirety of Fox Interactive’s assets and personnel — to Vivendi Universal Games, a mid-tier publisher known mostly for licensed titles such as The Hobbit and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Vivendi Universal Games itself was an entity derived from numerous mergers and renaming efforts, but the long and short of it is that Vivendi, the media conglomerate based in France, wanted to get into the video game space and decided to do so by buying another French company called Havas Interactive, which included ownership of a little developer called Blizzard Entertainment. All the mergers led to the 2003 formal foundation of Vivendi Universal Games as a subsidiary of the larger Vivendi empire. Fox Interactive joined them and brought along its licenses, including The Simpsons. This kind of shakeup could have had disastrous results for the Simpsons project that had then been in development for nearly two years, but fortunately all parties involved decided Radical’s new game would be worth the investment. And oh boy, would those dividends ever pay off.
That aforementioned two year development period did not come easy. Typical console game development for Radical at the time was about 12 months, which in reality was too short a period to produce a high quality title. But Radical guaranteed themselves some extra time thanks to tricky schedule manipulation. Joe McGinn recalls, “I think our producer was quite clever here, arranging the game to be ‘finished’ in February … knowing full well this would allow him to negotiate another six months of dev time and still hit Xmas.” In an interview with game archivist Liam Robertson, tech director Vlad Ceraldi described how shocking it was to work with a publisher that was willing to invest in quality:
You know, they were game to spend more money and more time, which was — it’s rare. You don’t often get those opportunities. We had very little time but the team was pretty enthusiastic about the additional time and how we could use it…
The extra time gave Radical the wiggle room to craft a game that would far surpass their effort with Road Rage. They stuck with the basic formula of a driving game, but as Simpsons executive producer Matt Selman notes, “There was this huge argument over whether they could get out of the cars… and kick each other.” It presented a challenge for a development team that had focused solely on driving mechanics to now include character control, level design that took advantage of allowing characters to run around, and implementing open world levels in the style of Grand Theft Auto. But they worked through it, got the time they needed to figure it out, and they managed to ship the aptly titled The Simpsons Hit & Run for PlayStation 2, Xbox, Nintendo Gamecube, and Windows PCs by the fall of 2003. The game would go on to become the highest rated Simpsons game in history and the biggest commercial success to date. Its success would remain unchallenged for the next several years as the release of Simpsons games ceased and the license shifted to a new publisher.
As luck would have it, the Vivendi Universal Games office was based just fifteen minutes from the house where I grew up in Los Angeles, and the stars aligned enough to allow me to get a job there in 2004. Over time, I learned tidbits about the game’s development and release. The most notable story I heard was that the success of The Simpsons Hit & Run allowed many employees of the publisher to remain employed, since other releases that year such as The Hobbit and Metal Arms: Glitch in the System had failed to achieve sales targets.
That little development studio called Blizzard Entertainment would go on to release a game called World of Warcraft a year later, which was the beginning of the end for Vivendi’s game business. They bought Radical in 2006 to develop Crash Bandicoot games, and continued publishing a variety of original and licensed titles, but the success of World of Warcraft overshadowed all other game publishing efforts. Corporate hawks hungrily eyed Vivendi’s profits from the MMORPG business, and it was ultimately Activision that swooped in and bought Vivendi’s game business in late 2007. I was gone from Vivendi by then, pursuing that silliest of goals: to work on a Simpsons video game.
The elevator pitch for The Simpsons Hit & Run is that it’s an open world mission-based video game featuring all the characters you love from The Simpsons and a mysterious plot involving robotic wasp cameras and aliens. It’s interesting in the context of 2003 because it seems to fit with the paranoia of the times, in which the government had no qualms about abusing its power to spy on foreigners and citizens alike in pursuit of terrorist shadows. This is reflected in the game’s early narrative. Mysterious black vans have invaded Springfield in connection to giant wasp-shaped cameras wandering around and illicitly recording Springfield citizens. If it all sounds too weird for something one might see on the television show, it’s because the writers for the game finally realized they could craft a narrative on par with the show’s writing without sacrificing the inherently bizarre nature of a video game.
Just like in those beloved Treehouse of Horror episodes, the developers could chuck the rules out the window and make up something fun and funny that wasn’t too weird for players. Interestingly, the story we got in the final game isn’t what was planned from the beginning. As part of his deep dive into the game’s development, Liam Robertson discovered that there was originally quite a different story to move the player along. In his words, “Without warning, Gracie Films decided to revise the script partway into development, diverging from the initial storyboards Radical had prepared.” This led to “many hours of work being scrapped,” which was not an uncommon result of working with Gracie Films. They only understood that it was their property and it needed to shine as brightly as possible. Great for players, bad for overworked developers.
Players were well-versed in open world sandboxes by 2003. Grand Theft Auto III shipped in 2001 and paved the way for a multitude of games fashioned as GTA clones, games in which a player was free to roam about in an environment without necessarily having to follow a prescribed narrative. There often was still a story to follow, as with Hit & Run, but players could also choose to completely ignore the missions in favor of goofing around by attacking wandering NPCs, driving vehicles up and down the boulevards, and trying to get into places they shouldn’t be. This open-ended design heavily informed Hit & Run’s mission structure. While Hit & Run did still break up its story across seven levels, and thus wasn’t as open a world as those in Grand Theft Auto, it allowed the team to feature different characters in each level and include more of Springfield than they could fit in a single map.
The game’s levels consist of three core areas — the suburbs, downtown, and seaside docks — each of which is repurposed and tweaked to make up the game’s seven levels. Each level then consists of seven story missions and a bonus mission to unlock a special vehicle. The playable character in each level also varies, moving along in sequence: Homer, Bart, Lisa, Marge, Apu, Bart again, and finally Homer again for the finale level in which the suburbs are reskinned to become a pastiche of the television show’s Treehouse of Horror episodes. This particular level is a fan favorite, including yours truly. Even then, it wasn’t guaranteed to make the cut. Game designer Joe McGinn noted, “The only reason it made it was because the team loved the idea so much, it was a real labor of love.” It was a final victory lap for the team, a chance to go all out with something fun and appropriate to the game’s spooky X-Files vibe. The level design is bolstered by visuals that never quite match the quality of the television show but are fine for a 3D game of this era, and upbeat music that captures the more fast-paced driving missions that make up the majority of the game.
It’s quite the journey to get to that final Treehouse of Horror-themed level. The game begins with the oddly repetitive opening scene from many of the video games: Homer on the couch, watching television. He decides to go out for snacks, and thus kicks off a series of twists and turns in which it is revealed that mysterious black vans and wasp-shaped drone cameras are spying on the good people of Springfield. The story turns into an investigation as each of the characters pursues their leads while racing and crashing their way around a fully populated Springfield. It’s not the deepest story and in fact probably isn’t the guiding force behind a player’s desire to keep going, but it provides that important framework that so many other Simpsons games are lacking. It doesn’t feel as flimsy as what we’ve experienced so far in Simpsons games, and in turn comes across as the game’s designers and writers actually respecting the intelligence of their players. While Simpsons writers Matt Selman, Tim Long, and Matt Warburton were credited with story and dialogue for the game, McGinn revealed that it was actually game designer Chris Mitchell who took on the brunt of the work with the game’s writing. It’s an impressive effort and undoubtedly a key element of the game’s creative success.
The game is necessarily light in its combat and economy design. Players can kick other characters and objects, and while objects are destructible, other characters simply fall and flail about until they regain their composure and continue on their way. This sounds as strange as it is, but its execution is just so bouncy and fun that it is simply another brick in the wall that makes up this game’s great achievement. As YouTuber minimme noted in his excellent review, “The bouncy, care-free, just-have-fun toy box approach is, to some extent, this game’s lightning in a bottle moment.” It knows it’s a video game, and while it’s not as meta as later iterations on Simpsons video games, it’s certainly a wink at the player. As minimme puts it, “It’s a game that sacrifices long-term satisfaction for short-term joy.” These actions aren’t completely without consequence. Players must collect coins as currency to purchase costumes and vehicles, but they must be careful not to increase their Hit & Run meter too much as they attack characters and destroy objects and vehicles. If the meter is filled, cops appear and give chase until the player outruns them or gets caught. The penalty for getting caught is a small amount of coins, but those coins become precious as the game goes on and missions require the player to purchase new costumes and vehicles to continue.
Vehicle gameplay is what Radical knew best when they began the project, and no one could have faulted them for taking what they had with Road Rage and transposing it to their new open world sandbox engine. Instead, Radical went back to the drawing board to reengineer the vehicle controls, physics, and even the fact that vehicles take damage and explode if they exceeded their damage limits, something they hadn’t achieved in Road Rage. This fragility allowed them to not only tweak vehicle parameters such as speed and handling, but also vehicle health, a key element of the Grand Theft Auto games that makes world traversal that much more interesting. A vehicle that is damaged becomes a liability during missions, and a destroyed vehicle can only be repaired at a high cost. Players can find wrench power-ups throughout the levels that allow them to repair vehicles instantaneously, encouraging them to think strategically as they dart and weave through traffic on their way to the next target. Indeed, although some missions require the player to leave their car, most missions consist of a select few types of vehicle gameplay including races, smashing or evading other cars, and collecting objects from the road.
These missions often also lead the player around the level maps, ensuring every inch of the maps is revealed over time if a player chooses not to explore on their own. They are never very difficult until the last missions in the last couple of levels, and in particular the very final mission of the game in which Grampa Simpson’s jet-powered Jeep must be driven to the site of an alien spaceship without bumping into anything lest the radioactive waste cargo gets jostled and blows up. One gets the sense that there was a design mandate to make the final missions as difficult as possible for the sake of drawing out the final hours of the story. It’s an erratic difficulty spike that many players of Hit & Run remember with a mixture of trepidation and disdain. It doesn’t mar the experience, but caps it with a challenging mission and well-earned finale cutscene.
The Simpsons Hit & Run is now spoken of with the kind of awe usually reserved for classics such as the Super Mario Bros. or Crash Bandicoot series. Many fondly remember the game from their childhoods, and upon examination it’s clear that Radical hit upon something entirely unique in the history of Simpsons games, both those that came before and the games released afterward. Somehow, despite pressure to hit the holiday sales period, the developers also included collectible gags and cards, multiple costumes for all playable characters, and even a multiplayer mode, a distraction that provided up to four players the option to race around in small tracks à la the classic R.C. Pro-am on NES. With all these features and content, the game found the elusive combination of writing, gameplay, and visuals that allowed them to integrate an animated sitcom into a video game in a way that highlights the best of each medium while avoiding the pitfalls we’ve seen to date.
Vivendi, in its infinite wisdom, also released that Windows PC version of the game in a time before Valve’s Steam storefront made the platform a business necessity. This decision led to a thriving modder community around the PC version spearheaded by the efforts of modders at the Donut Team forums, which in turn has provided ample fodder for YouTubers itching to find that next great video subject. The mod content has generated renewed fervor in the game and ensured that a new generation of players can discover this now-classic game, even if it’s through wacky mods and videos on YouTube.
Sadly, Radical’s time with the license ended here, and while Vivendi considered porting the games to platforms such as Nintendo Game Boy Advance and the Sony PlayStation Portable, those versions never came to fruition. Vivendi’s sole outing with the license ended with this game in 2003, and it would be several years before someone else took up the torch.