After the release of Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, Bob Rafei, co-founder of development studio Big Red Button, got letters from fans telling him that he ruined their childhood.
During his long career, Rafei has worked on numerous critically acclaimed games. He had his hands on the Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter and Uncharted series — all smash hits. But since breaking away from those, his career has gone down a bumpier road, with his independent studio having trouble getting its early projects to see the light of day, and the aforementioned Rise of Lyric receiving ridicule from critics and fans.
But Rafei hasn’t lost faith in his studio, and right now he says he’s looking at a potentially great comeback story. Polygon recently spoke to Rafei about his career in the game industry and how his team is moving on from Rise of Lyric.
A classically trained artist, Rafei started his game industry career in the early '90s at Absolute Entertainment, based in New Jersey, at a short-lived gig. "I believe I was employee number 103," Rafei says, "and somewhere around employee number 107 is when [Absolute] started shrinking and ultimately closed down."
To Rafei, compared to the formal training and work he had done with Photoshop and digital painting, the design of games on the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo seemed almost "primitive." But he remained interested in the game industry as it continued to grow. When rumors of Sony’s PlayStation console began to emerge, Rafei says that’s when he felt things got exciting. In the wake of Absolute Entertainment’s closing, he continuously sent out his portfolio, looking for new work.
"We were doing things that were breaking the PlayStation."
Working with a recruiter, he began having conversations with studios such as the Sega Technical Institute, a leg of Sega’s now-closed San Francisco branch, as well as visual effects companies. One day, the recruiter told Rafei about a young studio run by two guys in Hollywood. Rafei took the jump and met Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin. Rafei became the first employee they hired for their company, Naughty Dog.
"We pursued him hard, and managed to hire him into what looked like a startup," Rubin wrote to Polygon in an email. "It was a huge win for Naughty Dog."
According to Rafei, Rubin’s pitch at the time was, "We’re using the same machines that were used for 'Jurassic Park'." Rafei thought that could be interesting for video games. He thought Rubin and Gavin had a strong vision and were very charismatic, and even if Naughty Dog closed down he knew the job would at least move him to Los Angeles, where he could find a visual effects job, which is what he really wanted to do at the time.
As the lead artist, Rafei, along with a small team, began work on what would become the first Crash Bandicoot, released for Sony’s PlayStation in 1996. According to Rafei, this time in Naughty Dog’s history was fueled by long days and camaraderie. The team of a bunch of "single guys" and one girl — Charlotte Francis, who’s still with the company — worked tirelessly, losing track of whether it was night or morning, and becoming like a "band of brothers," and one sister.
"We knew we had something special [with Crash] and that really drove us," Rafei says. "It was hard work, you know? We didn’t have much time for a social life, so we would do everything together." None of them had families, so if they wanted to take days off, they could, and make up the work on the weekend.
"We were doing things that were breaking the PlayStation," Rafei continues. The concepts going into Crash Bandicoot were new and interesting, but the game wasn’t a sure bet. As Rafei tells it, this led to many late night walks and talks, trying to figure out exactly what the title was going to be.
But at the end of the day, it worked. Crash Bandicoot was not only a big game for Naughty Dog, but for Sony as well. The game sold over six million copies and is one of the best selling original PlayStation games.
Rafei stayed with Naughty Dog for over 10 years, working on subsequent Crash titles, the Jak and Daxter series and the first Uncharted game, Drake’s Fortune. But towards the end, he and a fellow co-worker began tossing around ideas for their own independent studio.
The move from PlayStation 2, where Naughty Dog developed the Jak and Daxter series, to PlayStation 3, where the team began the Uncharted franchise, marked a rough transition for the team. Many team members were shocked to see how difficult it was to develop for the new console.
Naughty Dog was also going through internal changes. According to Rafei, the company had become much larger over the years, becoming more structured as well. And at a certain point, he says, there was a resignation almost weekly. On top of that, Rubin and Gavin had resigned from the company. Without the "visionary that [Rubin] was," as Rafei puts it, it became difficult for members of the team who stepped up as peers to define what the future of the studio would be.
"If you knew what you were in for, most sane people [wouldn't] do it."
So, Rafei began to feel that it was time for a change.
"I started getting the bug to be entrepreneurial," Rafei says. "And once you get that bug, it’s really hard to let it go." In 2005, Rafei also saw a trailer for Unreal Engine 3. It made him believe that he could create the type of narrative-heavy, character-driven games he wanted to make without the need for a large studio’s backing.
Rafei began to spend many late nights with co-worker Daniel Arey — who joined Naughty Dog around the same time as him, working as a game designer on the Crash Bandicoot series and creative director on Jak and Daxter and Drake’s Fortune — talking about their own ideas for an independant studio and what its games would look like. "We were concepting around the clock," Rafei says.
Concept art from Jak and Daxter
But starting a company isn’t easy. Rafei says in order to be entrepreneurial, you need two major components: a lot of self-confidence and to be "rather stupid."
"If you knew what you were in for," Rafei continues, "most sane people [wouldn't] do it.
"You can only have two of the three things: You can only have the dream, the family or the career. So pick two. You can have the family and the career — which is what most guys fall into. You can have the dream and the family, but you’re going to be broke. Or you can have the dream and the family, but you’ve got to have financial backing."
Rafei did have a family. His kids had just been born, in fact. And he had financial backing thanks to money he received when Sony acquired Naughty Dog in 2001. He was able to fund his studio, to try to create the concepts he had fallen in love with and couldn’t walk away from. He gave Naughty Dog one year’s notice, wanting to finish the first Uncharted. He recalls as the date of his departure became closer, his wife felt anxiety, asking if he was really going to break off on his own.
"I feel like if I don’t do it at this point," Rafei recalls saying, "it would be disappointing to myself." So in 2009, Rafei and Arey founded their new studio, Big Red Button.
It took Big Red Button five years to ship a game. But not for lack of trying.
Early on in the team's history, Rafei and Arey were constantly concepting and pitching, going to publishers and attending "meeting after meeting after meeting," says Rafei, hoping someone would pick up one of their game ideas.
One concept, a third-person action game titled Ten Minute Man, caught the eye of the now defunct Jerry Bruckheimer Games — the titular film director’s game studio, founded in 2007 in partnership with MTV Games. Big Red Button would have developed the title, which was renamed Project Phoenix after Jerry Bruckheimer Games got involved, providing funding and overseeing the game, with Viacom acting as the publisher.
Concept art from Ten Minute Man
"The character had a clairvoyant power that he didn’t know about," Rafei says. "And I think the Bruckheimer guys really liked that concept." The game would have explored the idea of survivor’s guilt, a worldwide conspiracy and how the main character sees himself as a part of history.
Knowing that Jerry Bruckheimer Games was looking to "give some very small money to do some prototyping to get the project rolling," Rafei put down his own money in order to build a development team and lease a space to work on Project Phoenix — a move he refers to as acting "foolishly" on the promise of a deal. The contract didn’t come on time and when it finally arrived, it was "unsignable," he says.
"Here I was after a year-and-a-half of going through this process," Rafei says. "Here’s a contract in front of me and my lawyer said ‘I don’t know if you can sign this,’ because it wasn’t designed ultimately for what we needed." After renegotiations between Jerry Bruckheimer Games and Viacom, Big Red Button received a new contract it could sign, and it was "off to the races" for the team of about eight, says Rafei.
"Once that project was started it went through a lot of revision," he says, “because Jerry Bruckheimer’s team [members were] not game developers." In order to translate Big Red Button’s ideas clearly, the team came up with an "animatic" which would explain the concepts and mechanics of the prototype in a video.
"My experience has been that these original properties only have a year’s shelf life to them ... You cannot come back the second E3 with that same pitch."
"We were supposed to do a 90 second animatic," Rafei says, "and after months — if felt like years — of re-writes, it became a 27-page epic script. That became a seven-and-a-half minute teaser [that] walked you through the mechanics of gameplay."
Despite Big Red Button having a prototype that went over well with Jerry Bruckheimer Games, publisher Viacom pulled out of the game industry entirely in 2010, which, in turn, sucked the air out of the team’s sails. Around the same time, Arey left Big Red Button. Rafei says it was "unfair to [Arey] to keep going without a paycheck." Arey later went to work for Blizzard and Niantic Labs.
For Big Red Button, a victim of circumstance, it was back to looking for a project. THQ approached the team to work on Deep Six, an underwater shooter taking place on a flooded Earth after humans lost a war with water-based aliens, with promises that the game would be a big property for the publisher. Rafei says that THQ gave Big Red Button funding to quickly prototype an idea for the game, saying that "E3 is going to be all about this game."
"But this was E3 of 2010," Rafei says, "which was right at peak of the demise of THQ." The publisher killed the project.
Rafei and Big Red Button began to change their school of thought. "At that time we were realizing 'OK, you can’t create a AAA game overnight,'" Rafei says, "so we have to use our criteria to make smaller, bite size, character-based games. So we can take that and apply the same formula and apply it to smaller budgets."
Concept art from Jinx and Mojo, another shelved concept
Big Red Button continued to pitch ideas for IP such as a "dynamic-gravity" mechanic for a potential "Inception" game that became its own concept called Before; a concept called Freelancers, a "stylized, squad-based heist game" in the vein of "Ocean’s 11"; a "concept based on imaginative exploration and combat" called Snowday; and others. All properties that it has held on to years later.
"My experience has been that these original properties only have a year’s shelf life to them," Rafei says. "So you would go do the paper pitch, shop that around [and] publishers are like, 'Yeah, we love this concept. We want to see a demo.'" At that point, he says, you return the next year with a vertical slice and the project either "goes or it fizzles out."
"You cannot come back the second E3 with that same pitch," he says.
"The business of game development was a bit of a sobering experience," Rafei says, reflecting on some of Big Red Button’s early ideas."I think had we had a bigger team and bigger financing behind us, we could [have] put our dollars where our mouths are ... When you start talking very broadly like that, I think in my experience, even though it’s some great concepts that I still believe in, from a business perspective you make it really difficult to sell yourself." According to Rafei, publishers are in the business of "de-risking" a project. At the end of the day, their job is to see a game ship, not fuel passion projects.
It was during this long process of pitching different concepts that Sega approached Big Red Button with, Rafei says, "an interesting opportunity."
According to Rafei, the problem with Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric was the team being overly ambitious.
"First and foremost, we wanted to make sure it was a strong platformer, that we were true to Sonic’s sense of speed," Rafei says about early ideas for the game. "We had an amazing early start to the project. We had a very strong prototype. Everything was looking very good."
"The ambitions of a new developer [and] the ambitions of a publisher made lot of smart people not de-scope the project."
He’s proud of certain things about Rise of Lyric, such as the game’s art style — adopted by the Cartoon Network television tie-in — and the fact that Big Red Button was able to get the CryEngine running on the Wii U in a dual-screen format — something it’s not native to. Big Red Button had also grown considerably in size at this point, up to 70 employees at its peak, though Rafei says about 20 percent were short-term contractors brought on to help ship the game on time.
But when Rise of Lyric released, it was met with little fanfare, as critics noted the game’s poor technical performance, controversial character redesigns and lack of signature speed. Fans of the series’ opinions weren’t much better, as many took to the internet to voice distaste for the game.
"The ambitions of a new developer [and] the ambitions of a publisher made lot of smart people not de-scope the project," Rafei says. Big Red Button was adding more mechanics than it had time to hone, and Rafei admits that Sega and Big Red Button should have scaled it back. He says this over-ambition led to the game running into trouble down the road, and he takes responsibility for this approach.
Rise of Lyric concept art
In part, Rafei says, this came as a result of what he sees as one of Big Red Button’s strengths: "rapid prototyping."
"That’s why the project had a very good trajectory early on. But I think that also became a false win," Rafei says, explaining that the project became overscoped as Big Red Button continued to prototype and change mechanics "significantly" during playtesting. "Ultimately it became quantity over quality," Rafei says.
He began losing sleep a year out from the game’s release, he says. Despite the team getting a better idea of what it wanted Rise of Lyric to be late into development, Big Red Button had to get the game out. According to Rafei, it was the developer’s "mission" to ship the game on time.
Around this time, as staffing contracts ran out they weren’t renewed when the game entered alpha. Rafei says that at the time, the developer was too busy trying to ship the game to plan another project, so Big Red Button let go 50 people, bringing the team down to a core group of around 16 or 17.
"A lot of good decisions are made with great intentions," Rafei says. "And at some point, you’re going to have to make some tough choices."
"You work your ass off for three years. You crunch like mad. You go through hell and back to try to make a ship date."
Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric released on the Wii U on November 11, 2014. Rafei says despite the speed bumps, he wasn’t prepared for the game industry and community’s negative reactions. His sleep schedule continued to suffer.
"We knew that historically Sonic games have been treated very poorly, I think, by the press and we knew that there was going to be some of that," Rafei says. "But I was kind of taken aback by just the kind of hate that was being poured out." Rafei and other members of Big Red Button’s team stopped reading reviews.
"It was very disheartening," he says. "You know, you work your ass off for three years. You crunch like mad. You go through hell and back to try to make a ship date. And I’ve never experienced, like, hate mail in the past. And I’m getting people telling me I ruined their childhood. Alright. Sorry about that. You know, I did the best I could."
"Having gone through that process of putting your heart and soul into a game that’s not well received," Rafei says, "how do you bounce back from that?"
This is a question Big Red Button is currently trying to answer.
Despite the negative attention, Rafei still sees a bright future for Big Red Button.
"We went into survival mode [after Rise of Lyric]," he says. "And we found a lot of great opportunities and a lot of great partners that needed help on their projects."
Dipping its toes into virtual reality, Big Red Button assisted on development of Wevr’s John Wick VR Experience, allowing users to explore the Continental Hotel from the 2014 film.
Currently, Rafei says that Big Red Button is working on other unannounced VR projects, and with Niantic Labs, collaborating again with former founder Arey on an unannounced project. Niantic is currently growing at a fair pace — recently receiving $20 million in funding from Google, Pokémon Company Group and Nintendo — and has built a reputation around augmented reality projects Ingress and Pokémon Go.
Asked if Big Red Button is working on its own IP, Rafei says, "Absolutely," though he says personal work is situated around contract work.
"You know, the fantasy of starting your own studio is that you’re going to be working on creative ideas 100 percent of the time," Rafei says. "Unfortunately it’s more like five percent of the time. But [that’s] the five percent of the time that I get to have my dessert and really have fun. And all the crap you go through to work on the craft that you love makes sense at the end of the day."
Rafei brings up Joseph Campbell’s "hero’s journey" during our interview — the idea that one embarks on a journey, experiences a hardship or crisis and returns home transformed. He believes this is similar to what Big Red Button has gone through.
"We are a much stronger team today," Rafei says. He calls the current studio "a tight ship" with "much better production practices," and says it "will never go into full production without mechanics that are tied down," as was Rise of Lyric’s detriment.
"I think this will be a great comeback story," Rafei says.