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The game’s Bond: the making of Nintendo classic GoldenEye 007

·12-min read
<span>Photograph: Maurice Savage/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Maurice Savage/Alamy

In 1985, when he was 14 years old, the game designer Martin Hollis asked his mother to help him write a letter to the estate of the author AA Milne. The teenager wanted to make a video game featuring Milne’s most famous character, the honey-addict bear Winnie-the-Pooh. To date, Hollis had written only a few games on the BBC Micro in his bedroom: festive-themed clones of popular arcade titles that swapped, say, the Easter bunny for Pac-Man, or Santa Claus for Space Invaders. A PC magazine had paid Hollis £40 to publish the source code to one of his Christmas-themed games, which readers could type out and play. A game featuring Winnie-the-Pooh, Hollis reasoned, could be a lucrative hit. A few weeks later he received a letter from Milne’s estate, provisionally offering him the video game rights to Winnie-the-Pooh for a minimum of £50,000. “It was out of our league at that point in time,” he says.

Twelve years later, Hollis released GoldenEye 007 for the Nintendo 64, a video game based on the James Bond film. There was little fanfare: Bond, like Winnie-the-Pooh, was a household name, but licensed games were viewed as the lowest form of a medium already widely considered to be profligate. Most movie “tie-ins”, as they were disparagingly called, were made to a punishing schedule to ensure they launched alongside the film. Their developers typically worked blind, limited by the narrative constraints of scripts that were unfinished and rarely suited to interactive treatment.

“Everyone seemed to believe that a game made from a movie had to be bad, or mediocre,” says Hollis. “But I had the confidence of youth.”

GoldenEye was, indeed, different. The film had already been out for two years when the game launched in August 1997. Its game tie-in featured tautly designed levels filled with moments of unscripted drama, tantalising secrets and a delicious competitive mode in which up to four friends caroused around themed maps, playing as various characters from Bond’s roster of heroes and villains. The game was a dazzling revelation. In time, GoldenEye sold more than 8m copies and dominated the rental charts for three years. Built by 12 young people working under punishing conditions, GoldenEye brought the first-person shooter to consoles and laid the design foundations on which many of the world’s most popular games stand today. Like any life-changing success, it came with equally enriching and destructive side-effects.

Hollis, a graduate of Cambridge University’s computer science department, joined the software company Rare in 1993. While working on his first project at the studio, a fighting game for the arcades titled Killer Instinct, he learned that colleagues had met some of the cast for the new James Bond film, codenamed “Bond 17”, to see if Rare was interested in making a video game based on the movie, the rights to which Nintendo’s cantankerous president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, had recently bought. Hollis’s colleagues left unimpressed. Undeterred, Hollis wrote a short design document for a Bond game in the tradition of arcade light-gun shooters such as Virtua Cop, in which players aim a plastic gun at the screen. The studio’s management accepted.

Related: From GoldenEye to South Park: 10 of the best video games based on films and TV shows

Founded by brothers Tim and Chris Stamper in 1985, Rare was situated in a manor farmhouse in rural Twycross, Leicestershire. The company employed about 40 people, and was rapidly growing, but retained the feel of a small family business. The Stampers’ parents and siblings cooked in the staff canteen, managed the accounts and worked as groundskeepers. Employees, however, were segregated. Teams working on different games were allocated separate barns, and only permitted to access that building, the canteen and the head office, their movements monitored by CCTV. An unproven team led by a rookie director on a project many believed was destined to flop, the GoldenEye crew were given a barn on the back lot, “out of sight and out of mind”, as Hollis puts it.

“There was no interaction, no company culture,” recalls GoldenEye’s animator Brett Jones. Team members were not allowed to listen to music while at work. Management were, Hollis says, hands-off, but employees were encouraged to work long hours.

“We were like Oompah Loompas working in the back of Willy Wonka’s factory,” says David Doak, who left academia to join the company. At 28, Doak was one of the oldest members of the team. Having managed his own time as a postdoctoral student at Oxford, Rare’s strict working hours proved to be a culture shock. “You were expected to be there all the time,” he recalls. “You weren’t even allowed to pop out at lunchtime to, say, tax your car.”

Unlike the Cambridge graduates in the team, 23-year-old Duncan Botwood had left university two years into an architecture course. As a fan of Ian Fleming’s original Bond novels, and the later books by John Gardner, at his interview he reeled off the different weapons and gadgets that may translate to a video game. Botwood was hired as GoldenEye’s dedicated game designer. He moved into a B&B hotel across the road from Rare’s offices, returning to his parents’ house at weekends. With nothing else to do in Twycross after hours(occasionally the team visited Sega World in Tamworth), Botwood focused the writhing energies of youth into the game, working from early morning until 11 at night, with only a 30-minute lunch break. “I did stupidly long hours,” he says.

You’d come in at the weekend and someone would be washing their new Lamborghini in the yard

According to Hollis, Rare’s management asked all development staff to sign a waiver relinquishing themselves from EU legislation that sought to limit overtime. Jones signed as did, Hollis says, every member of the team bar one. Midway through development, Hollis played through GoldenEye’s first level, closely based on the film’s opening scene. “I knew one thing for sure,” says Hollis. “The game sucked.” A trench mentality developed. With each missed deadline, the game’s release date drifted further from the GoldenEye film. The next Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, was announced and Rare’s game remained incomplete. Nobody wanted to let down their colleagues by leaving the office early. “In the final push we were working 100-hour weeks, back-to-back,” says Doak.

As well as team spirit, employees knew that the more hours they worked, the greater the potential bonus they could earn if their game proved to be a commercial success. Doak’s job offer letter stated: “Those employees who input additional effort and strive for the very best quality can earn generous bonuses.” Then, suggestively: “The office is open during the evenings and weekends for those employees who wish to maximise their efforts.”

Jones recalls that the team would typically take short lunch breaks, during which they would watch a 20-minute snippet of a Bond film. “That meant we watched about one Bond film a week,” Jones says. With no internet, all source material was derived from the films, novels and reference books. Jones was mainly interested in learning on the job, and had no particular ambition to make a classic game. But when the team implemented the competitive multiplayer mode, Jones realised they had designed something unusually compelling. “We had crowbarred it in,” he recalls, “but everyone was playing it all the time.”

For friends who wanted to play together, GoldenEye’s competitive modes, which divided the screen into four quarters, one for each player, became akin to a sport. In the current age of detached online competition, the physicality of the sofa-based multiplayer experience, when bodies jostled, beer bottles were knocked over and slices of pizza were gobbled in the interludes, has been largely forgotten. But in 1997 it was powerful. As the game’s reputation spread, GoldenEye’s sales gained momentum. Each week, the team checked Blockbuster’s weekly rental figures. “When the line went up and up after three months, then six months, then a year, we knew the game was breaking rules in the market,” says Hollis. There were few celebrations to mark GoldenEye’s release. Some of the team travelled to the E3 trade show in Georgia, Atlanta, to support the game’s presentation to the press. “We hit the town pretty hard for nerds,” recalls Hollis. But overwork had become an unbreakable habit. Hollis immediately moved on to the next project. “It nearly killed me,” says Hollis. “And I was certainly very unhappy once the project was finished – a kind of postpartum depression that I think a lot of creative people experience. I should have taken a break rather than embarking on another project, but that was the culture. It caused me serious burnout.”

The exhausted team’s feelings about the game’s warm critical reception were soon complicated when the cheques were handed out. Rare divided 12 cents from every copy sold between the team according to their seniority and logged overtime; this rose to 17.5 cents when the game sold enough copies. “There was no transparency, except that you could see what people were buying,” says Doak. Sports cars, parked in herds parked outside were the clearest manifestation of an individual’s success, and particularly which employees owned share options in the company, which Doak says created a kind of class divide. “You’d come in at the weekend and someone would be washing their new Lamborghini in the yard.”

Jones received about £6,000 for the several thousand hours of overtime he logged working on GoldenEye. “I bought a bicycle, a 32-inch television and a Hoover,” he recalls. “Retrospectively I can see it wasn’t fair. But at the time, I thought: ‘Free money!’” When he began work on GoldenEye’s sequel, Perfect Dark, the bonus terms had improved, partly because of Rare’s improved negotiating position in the market, and partly because the company owned the characters and IP. “Put it this way,” says Jones, “Perfect Dark bought me a house.”

We had just come out of nowhere, so I figured we must be great. But the truth is, I just got lucky

Doak felt his bonus reflected neither the effort he had put in, nor the value he had added to Rare’s bottom line. His disillusionment led him to leave Rare in 1998. In a few years Rare had evolved from a boutique family developer – the equivalent, as Botwood describes it, of a Savile Row tailor – to a company ripe for acquisition. Microsoft bought the studio in September 2002 for $375m.

“People were damaged by the perception of unfairness,” says Hollis. In the long-term, the company’s opaque remuneration policies had a disruptive effect, as staff were incentivised to work on games that were expected to become major sellers. Employees assigned to less surefire hits, or games that were cancelled, felt disappointed and envious. Doak’s disillusionment led him to leave Rare in 1998, and most of GoldenEye’s team followed.

While Botwood, who had no dependents, felt none of the animosity some older members of the team experienced, GoldenEye’s success had other corrosive effects. “I struggled with my ego,” he says. “I became overconfident. We had come out of nowhere, so I figured: we must be great. But the truth is, I just got lucky.” In the short term, GoldenEye’s success set unrealistic expectations for Botwood and established toxic working patterns – still widely encouraged across the industry today – which, he says, led him to burnout from fatigue on three occasions. In the long term, however, the benefits of having worked on GoldenEye soon became clear. “Having GoldenEye on your CV became a magical calling card,” says Hollis. “Mentioning the game would open almost any door.” Jones left Rare to move into film and television, where he worked on Doctor Who and Guardians of the Galaxy. “I’ve worked on other projects that have meant more to me personally,” Jones says. “But whenever I need to crow a bit I just say the first game I made was GoldenEye.”

Plug in a slay … The GoldenEye cartridge.
Plug in and slay … the GoldenEye cartridge. Photograph: Maurice Savage/Alamy

“I was at Rare for just three years, but that time seems a much larger part of my life,” says Doak. “We still meet up. It feels a little like the victims of some boarding school scandal who get together 20 years later: yes, we experienced something that, with hindsight, was toxic. But we are excited to reminisce about the good times, too.”

“I have complicated feelings of pride for GoldenEye,” says Hollis. “I think it is a great piece of work, but whenever someone says otherwise, I don’t feel the need to respond. With some projects the stars align. Yes, you work hard. Yes, the team is talented. But that isn’t enough. The entire world needs to be in the right place. It’s a mistake to attribute success to your own brilliance.”

After he left Rare, Hollis became interested in exploring other modes of interaction in his work, away from the the Bond-like depictions of stage violence that have always been gaming’s primary currency. He became particularly interested in love, a metaphysical dynamic that the medium has struggled to depict meaningfully.

Still, he rejects the suggestion that he was pushed towards nonviolent modes of interactivity because of GoldenEye’s success. “My favourite image of GoldenEye is the sight of four people playing the game. They’re sat together, maybe in an adolescent bedroom, all absorbed in the screen. In that moment, to me, GoldenEye is a game about love.”