"We just call it a mess simulator," the ever-quotable game developer Alex Ward was saying as his colleague Chris Roberts (the other Chris Roberts) was playing their upcoming game in Kotaku's New York City office during a visit last week. That chaotic game, Dangerous Golf, is indeed about making messes... by using a golf ball in a barely proverbial china shop. We captured footage of Roberts smashing through two holes of the early-June Xbox One, PS4 and PC game.
Roberts aims his golf ball for maximum destruction, hoping to break enough things in the level to activate a "smashbreaker". He then finds himself in control of a steerable flaming ball that destroys everything it touches. When he decides the time is right and all the ricocheting is over, he putts the ball into the hole. He gets points for destruction, but his score is halved if he doesn't sink the putt.
Ward and Roberts represent two elevenths of the small Three Fields Entertainment, an indie studio started by Ward and fellow veterans of the acclaimed Burnout racing game series, which had a popular crash mode that worked like Dangerous Golf but with cars instead of golf balls. They made racing games for years but are doing something different this time.
After leaving EA in 2014 and starting Three Fields, Ward had hatched the idea for this game with the intent to do something new that involved lots of physics and destruction. Perhaps: Dangerous Golf.
"I thought: 'Golf is boring, golf games are boring, golf games made for golf fans are boring,' he said. "We just figured, 'I like NBA Jam, I like Caddyshack, I like Tin Cup, I like movies, so can we be inspired by some of the stuff we've done? Yeah, absolutely.' I guess if we left our jobs and we made a game and you didn't think it was like Burnout there was probably no point, right? Because that's our DNA, that's what we've done for the past 17 years of our lives."
Ward said he'd grown restless at EA, which bought his Burnout-making studio Criterion in 2004. "We felt we weren't really learning anything anymore," he said. "The titles of the games may have changed, but to us as creative people it was pretty much the same work."
He and his friends were inspired by cutting-edge PC physics demos. They marvelled at videos like this:
They loved the smoke, the water, the cracking and shattering of stone in those demos, all of it better than anything of its type seen in a playable game. "It will be coming," Ward said, verbally daydreaming about the generation of the PlayStation 5 and beyond.
For now, he figured, they'd trade the right things off in order to depict the kind of mess not seen in games before. By ditching some traditional elements of a game, they could reserve memory for other, more important ones. They'd go heavy on physics and light on artificial intelligence, just have a ball smashing stuff in rooms full of breakable things. They'd work with Nvidia and Epic to push physics for PC cards and consoles, to get the most of out of Unreal Engine 4.
Ward said that during development they ran into some physics problems and rang up Nvidia. "You're not doing stacks, are you?" he recalled them saying. "Don't do stacked plates."
Ward let that hang for a moment and then told me this: "So we'll show you a level called Touch of Glass with 780 plates stacked on each other." It ran nicely. The stacked plates smashed well. Ward gawked at the plates compressing onto each other, the sliding debris coming to rest: "Restitution is very important."
Wards and Roberts are enthusiastically indie, relishing a lack of meetings and the excitement of small team development, while humble-bragging about the challenges of doing a three-platform release with online multiplayer and co-op. They do think that they're doing something new, and doing it better than they have done before, of course.
"You'd get two years to do a project," Ward said of the older days of big-game development, the ones he's left behind. "[We would] do a lot of new things and then we'd find out we couldn't really make any of those things work and then you'd have a year to make a game. All of those games were tight development. You could do physics but you couldn't have AI. You could do physics but you could have no cars." It was all compromises.
"That's very common with any game team in the world," he continued. "We were making projects on fixed dates. We started this project and had no fixed date. We pretty much had: when all of our money is gone, but we weren't starting with a fixed date. We didn't have to go to any show. We didn't have to make a demo. We've come on a press tour with a near-finished game. You're the fourth person in America to see the game."
Later levels of the game add bombs and glue. You crash through a kitchen and splatter mustard and tomato sauce. The game's first trailer involved smashing up a bathroom.
"It's just a piece of stupid fun."
It will be out next month.