My Visit to Crystal Dynamics
At the end of October in 2002, I went on vacation to San Francisco. As part of my trip, I had the rare privilege of visiting Crystal Dynamics. At the time, the Soul Reaver 2 staff were working on what was then known as Soul Reaver 3 but would eventually become Defiance. Although I was not given details at the time, the other two thirds of the company were working on Whiplash and Snowblind.
I don't normally keep a journal, but I do when I'm on vacation by myself. The rest of this article is a slightly edited version of what I wrote at the time. Italicized text indicates material that was temporarily withheld until the release of Defiance.
I got a bit lost trying to find a freeway entrance, but once I got on it was all good.
Crystal Dynamics is in a building that looks like a church built in the sixties or seventies.
I went inside and there was no one at the receptionist's desk. I spotted a line of people, and asked a guy in a Haujobb t-shirt where Amy Hennig's office was. He pointed me to the stairs, so I headed on up and found her with no problems.
Amy and I chatted for a bit, then we started to pick people up for lunch, and I got to meet most of the Soul Reaver team. We ended up bringing Chris Bruno (Chris@Crystal on the Eidos forums), Daniel Cabuco (he designs like, everything. The Clan symbols, Raziel, etc. etc.), and Scott Krotz (He is one of the actual game engine coders, finding new ways to squeeze power of of the PS2). I also met Andrew Bennett and Richard Lemarchand, among many others.
Amy and Chris were also kind enough to load me up with some incredibly rare LoK material, including a signed Soul Reaver 2 poster, copies of a few of the scripts for the original Blood Omen, a Soul Reaver 2 team t-shirt, and a giant store display box for the Playstation 2 version of the game that has the deleted "vampires" reference in the description on the back.
Before we headed out, I got to see a very funny cinematic that one of the artists had put together. The dialogue was made using clips from Soul Reaver 2. Kain is sitting on a stairway, and a gift box with a bow drops from above. "I know you're there, Raziel," he says. Raziel pleads with him, and finally Kain opens it up to reveal an action figure with a tiny crest on its back. "My God, the Hylden!" he exclaims in shock.
We went to a sushi place in Palo Alto (it's just over a small bridge from Menlo Park), and I got to hear all kinds of inside information about the earlier games in the series.
Part of the reason the Undercity level was cut from Soul Reaver was that it had technical issues. The rooms were just too big, and (like the one I found) if you looked at them wrong they'd disappear, among other things. Apparently this part of the game revolved around raising and lowering water levels to get around. Daniel mentioned that the Priestess battle involved her way up on a ledge, summoning monsters to fight Raziel. As it turns out, the "Stone Tower" screenshots are actually of this area.
Much to my surprise, I learned that Turel's area was not Dark Eden, despite the visual similarities. Time to rename at least one HTML file. The shots that I suspected were of this area really are. The level (like the Undercity) was built, but it just wasn't working right.
Blood Omen was originally much less linearly structured - like the old Mega Man games on the NES, you could fight the bosses in any order. There were apparently a lot of changes made to BO during production, which I found more out about later in the day.
Blood Omen 2 had a bunch of areas and bosses cut, but (as the concept art implies), it was all removed before it was made. Amy also explained that it does take place on the altered timeline ("and when Amy opened the seventh seal, there was silence in the Nosgothic Realm Blood Omen 2 forum...").
There were originally two scenes with vampires in Soul Reaver 2. The first was the vampire slaying, which ended up on the editing room floor because the dialogue was just too awkward. The "whuh-huh?!?" from that sequence is apparently a bit of an in-joke at CrystalD.
The second vampire scene was added after the first was cut, and ended up also being removed for the same reason. Apparently it took place in the "ewok village" type of area pictured above the swamp in the concept art. The vampires of that era told Raziel that he wasn't one of them.
Daniel had a funny story about a trip he took to Japan Center in downtown San Francisco. One of the stores he went into had the Dumah toy, and despite his best efforts, he couldn't get the salesperson to believe that he really designed that character.
Something I thought was very interesting is that no one there (except me) has read the Elric novels. A lot of people assumed that these heavily influenced Soul Reaver, given the obvious similarities (undying anti-hero wielding a soul-stealing sword, etc.). Amy and Daniel both have read the section of the Dungeons and Dragons Deities and Demigods book which discusses the Melnibonean mythos, but not the original stories themselves.
Amy, Chris, Scott and Daniel were all really nice. I was totally nervous, so I stayed pretty quiet, but it was really neat to hear all of their stories.
When we got back, Amy gave me a few minutes to look at some of the original Blood Omen design documents. I could have spent a month looking at that stack of paper. Some of the highlights I noticed were different names for the characters and the dialogue as well. I left them on my lap while we talked in the hope of transferring some of the information by osmosis.
Amy and I talked for awhile about the game industry. It was amazing to hear about working at a company like CrystalD. There are three teams, each with about 25 people, plus the testers like Chris. That's a relatively small number in their line of work (apparently EA has around 100 people working on each game), but my impression was that the quality of the team members more than makes up for it. I felt like I was visiting the game company equivalent of the Apollo astronauts or the Special Forces, because everyone I met was obviously a star player.
Also, she showed me photos of the prototypes of the unreleased Lieutenant Raziel and Lieutenant Dumah action figures. CrystalD has physical copies of them too, but they were misplaced the day I was there. They really look impressive, even more so than in the publicity photos, so I really hope BBI puts them out finally. Apparently the Spectral Raziel figure was supposed to be made out of transparent plastic, but it doesn't look like that one will be mass-produced.
Crystal Dynamics may not have a supercomputer that stores all of the LoK material, but Amy's PC and office are basically the same thing. She has about a billion pictures on her hard drive of everything in the series, from Blood Omen on. If I could have spent a month on those design documents, I could take years to go through everything in that room.
I asked about the mysterious "Kain in white armour" shot from a deleted Blood Omen cinematic, and it turns out that my guess was right - the sequence where Kain is killed was originally an FMV, but it didn't turn out so well so they made it a playable section instead.
Next, we stopped by Scott's desk, where I got to see the Soul Reaver 3 engine in action. I think the rumours about Kain being playable are true, because Amy mentioned dropping Raziel into the test area.
The next game is going to be stunning. The small area I saw (a long hallway with curved pillars on either side) had incredible lighting, with realistic shadows from multiple light sources. Raziel's model has been immensely beefed up in terms of model and texture detail. The biggest change, though, is that the camera has been altered drastically. Instead of following the character directly, it behaves like the one in Devil May Cry, but much more smoothly. It makes the game seem even more cinematic. There does still seem to be a lookaround mode, though, so all the detail should still be visible.
Amy also mentioned in her office taking suggestions from players about the combat system, and I saw Devil May Cry on some machines in the break area, so I'm picturing a much more combat- and action-oriented style of gameplay. I definitely get the impression that I should play through DMC to prepare for the new LoK game, in terms of fighting skills.
On the way downstairs, I saw some very interesting concept art on the walls of all three teams' areas. I won't describe it here, partly because I don't want to offer any spoilers, but also because my memory of the trip is a bit blurry and I don't want to contribute to any rumours of dubious content.
[ One set of concept art was for Whiplash, which had also not been publicly announced at the time. I also saw three pieces of Defiance concept art, including an image of a soul spiral coming out of the ground. The soul spiral picture was an early concept of the markers where Raziel could use his new method of shifting to the Material Realm, according to Amy. The third team was working on Snowblind, which was not announced until much later. ]
I had hoped to meet Mike Peaslee (one of the Blood Omen 2 composers), but unfortunately he wasn't at his desk. However, the guy with the Haujobb t-shirt was, and it turned out to be Kurt Harland! I totally didn't recognize him, but that's partly because I didn't know that he worked on-site. Kurt was totally cool, and had just acquired an actual copy of the Ozar Midrashim texts, so I got to take a picture of him doing his best impression of the elderly Kabbalistic scholar pictured on the title page.
He was also kind enough to give me some music CDs (I forgot to ask if he had a copy of "Ozar Midrashim 1.0" kicking around though [ Kurt has since email me to let me know that it wasn't substantially different than 1.1. ]), and I found out from him that it was lilibat from the NR forums who had been there previously (Amy and Chris had mentioned her, but by her real name, which I previously didn't know). Sarah from the Eidos forums was also going to drop by the next day. I don't know of any other companies that are so generous about showing their fans around, so I thought this was really cool.
My whole time at CrystalD is a total blur. It was so cool to be able to meet the team behind one of my favourite stories, but it was even better to find out that they're all great people too.