Smashing exploding golf balls into delicate chandeliers, through medieval castles packed with priceless antiquities, into a rural gas station just waiting to blossom into a screen-filling ball of fire: this is what happens when the formative team behind Burnout and Black decide to make a game about golf.
Dangerous Golf is the first game from freshly minted studio Three Fields Entertainment and the product of Criterion Games founders Fiona Sperry and Alex Ward.
The duo founded Criterion Games back in 1993 and then, in 2014, abruptly left the studio, now owned by Electronic Arts, to start over.
While the first game from their second studio may sound like a departure, it fits neatly with the team's long history of creating minutely detailed games in genres known for super-realistic gameplay and then turning them into arcade-like fun factories.
Most famously, Burnout took the concept of real-world physics-based racing and turned it on its head, rewarding players with speed boosts for dangerous driving, and with spectacular, explosive crashes for failing.
Dangerous Golf, which will hit the PlayStation Store, Steam and Xbox Store in May, is designed to be an "irreverent, silly, fun approach to golf games that challenges players to break the rules and wreak havoc. The game will feature more than 100 holes set in a gas station, castle, ballroom and kitchen." The point of the game won't be to make par, but rather to do the most damage possible. Points will be rewarded for trick shots, ricochet technique and, of course, damaging stuff by turning their ball into a bomb and setting off the "SmashBreaker."
Alex Ward tells me that the idea came out of a brainstorming session and was, in part, inspired by a movie he watched on Netflix one day.
News broke on Jan. 3, 2014, that Alex Ward, vice president and creative director of Criterion Games, and Fiona Sperry, studio director, were both no longer working at the studio they founded in 1993.
But they actually quit on Nov. 13, 2013, Ward said.
"I had three months to let my contract expire," he said. "So I sat in bed for a month and played Far Cry 3 on Xbox 360. I did all of the collectibles. Then I went on holiday."
Under the terms of the contract, Ward and the others who left couldn't begin work on anything new until their contracts expired.
Once they did, Ward, Fiona Sperry and Paul Ross, who worked with the two at Criterion from 1996, launched their new studio, Three Fields Entertainment, and started trying to figure out what to create.
"We sat around for a bit and talked about hardware," Ward said. "We talked about what we enjoyed doing. What we wanted to try to do.
"We were talking about what a PlayStation 5 is going to be and what's an Xbox Whatever is going to be. Where is it all going and what do we think the future looks like? We looked at SIGGRAPH, at engine technology."
Ultimately, they decided they wanted to go back to what inspired them in their early days at Criterion: Making games that were fast, fun and sort of like something you'd find in an arcade.
The decision to make a golf game was, in part, inspired by the first movie that Ward happened to watch on Netflix.
"Have you seen Short Game?," Ward asked me during our interview. "It's a documentary that follows golfers who are all seven years old. It follows them as they prepare for a golf tournament for seven year olds.
Ward said he also happened to run across the Dude Perfect YouTube channel, a collection of videos featuring the same friends making absurd, almost impossible trick shots with a basketball.
The spectacle of a tournament packed with diminutive golfers and those amazing trick shots gave Ward an idea.
"I watched all of these videos and I thought, 'Trick shots are fun and I like mini-golf and I've always wanted to make a sports game,'" he said.
And so Dangerous Golf was born.
"I'm happy to hear that," Ward says after I tell him how surprised I was to hear that the team's first game would be about golf.
"If you've followed all of the stuff I've directed over all of the years, it’s the same sort of thing we've done before," Ward said. "We love arcade games, we love coin-ops.
In 2001, the driving genre was dominated by Gran Turismo, a game that was almost more automobile museum than it was racing game.
"But I really wanted to make an arcade driving game," Ward said.
So the team created Burnout.
"Black was the first-person shooter I wanted to make," Ward said. "And Dangerous Golf is that next game.
"If you like Burnout and Black and NBA Jam you might like this; you might, you might not."
I haven't played the game or seen it in action. I can only rely on a few screenshots and Ward's enthusiastic descriptions to try to understand what the team is hoping to create.
So I delve a bit more, trying to feel out what might make this game as explosive a hit as Burnout or Black.
Ward tells me about the 100 holes the game features, its couch cooperative mode, the turned-based party mode supporting two to eight players. That there is no time limit or par for a hole, instead players work to "smash the place up and bang the ball into the hole."
Then Ward mentions the game's mood board.
The idea behind a mood board is to toss a bunch of images, movies, music, anything really, onto a board to try and capture the mood of what you are trying to create, in this case a golf game with explosions.
This is what is on the mood board for Dangerous Golf:
"Golf is boring," Ward said. "Golf games are boring."
Even movies about golf can be boring, if they're really just about golf, Ward said.
Caddyshack, he tells me, was only greenlit because at the end, the golf course explodes.
And it turns out that explosions, even when they're tied to golf, aren't boring.
So Ward and team set about to make a golf game that is as much about golf as Caddyshack was.
In designing the settings they looked to other inspirations. First the queen and her state dining room. Packed with expensive, irreplaceable items, it seemed like the sort of place someone might want to go to explode golf balls and wreak havoc.
The movie Clerks helped them realize just how destructive someone could be in a convenience store; add a gas station to the front and it's even better.
"As we prototyped we started to explore different ideas," Ward said. "The best shots were about taking risks and having fun.
"The game is really just a piece of stupid fun, just like Burnout."
While the team, which recently hired its eleventh member, share strong bonds of long hours together over decades of development, they face something entirely new with Three Fields Entertainment: No safety net.
There is no Kickstarter, no venture funding, no Steam Greenlight or early access. This is make it or break it.
"Everyone quit pretty well paid jobs to come do this," Ward said. "Myself, Fiona and Paul work for nothing. One of our programmers worked for free for a year. Everyone has made sacrifices."
"There's nobody backing us here, just three bank accounts that got merged and that's it."
It helps that the team has faith in one another, something that comes from its many shared hours. Collectively there are 150 years of experience between the developers, Ward tells me.
"A group of us have worked together for a very long time," he said.
And over the year's individually they came to the same sort of conclusion about working for a big company like Electronic Arts.
"We wanted to get back to having fun making games," Ward said. "This is the game business, not the work business."
This long shot, this leap of faith was fueled by the collective desire of these developers to regain complete control of their creative works.
"Chris Roberts says we're fighting for our freedom," Ward said. "Ultimately, we wanted to return to the early years at Criterion where we had 100 percent control. I guess there is only so long that you can work for other people.
"If it all goes wrong, then at least we had a go, we dared to try."
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