The making of the pipeworks godzilla video game trilogy
This month, we celebrate the release anniversaries of two iconic members of the Pipeworks gameography – “Godzilla: Save the Earth” (StE) in 2004 and “Godzilla: Unleashed” in 2007. As highly anticipated winter releases, these titles welcomed the holiday season in a monstrous way. Alongside their elder sibling, 2002's “Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee” (DAMM), these games are a key part of Pipeworks’ history, helping put us on the map and allowing us to grow into the successful studio we are today.
Our Godzilla video games are our earliest examples of the Pipeworks pedigree: Crafting exceptional games for all to enjoy. They stand as a testament to the creative freedom given to us to work within the legendary Godzilla universe. Not only that, but these titles also underscore the remarkable level of trust established between Pipeworks, Atari, and Toho, showcasing a collaboration that allowed us to create a genuinely unique Godzilla gaming experience. The lessons and experiences we gained from bringing the colossal world of Godzilla to life set the stage for who we are today — and we will carry those memories with us forever.
To celebrate each of the respective birthdays in the Pipeworks Godzilla Trilogy, our community team sat down for an interview with three developers of the games: Dan Duncalf, Dan White, and Simon Strange.
Before we begin, what was your role for each game in the Godzilla trilogy?
Dan W: Technical Director.
Simon: Combat Designer.
What was the process of landing the Godzilla contract? How did it feel?
Dan D: When Atari approached us about working with them, they had both this Godzilla game and another title that they were looking for developers for. To be honest, when looking at the Godzilla franchise, we were concerned that it wouldn't be well-received, as all the other Godzilla games up until that point were pretty bad. But the Godzilla IP was very valuable, and as of that time, Pipeworks was still an unproven studio.
Pipeworks was able to show Atari some demos we’d made, including Xbox-related demos that were created for Microsoft, which showed our technical prowess. Basically, to show that we could make good games was our team's individual back catalog of successful games. What we had was our back catalog of games that individuals on the team had developed throughout their careers. Since the most recent Godzilla game prior to ours had critic ratings below 50%, there was a goal to beat that rating. And we greatly exceeded that goal. This was also Pipeworks' second title in production – it meant that all our eggs weren't in one basket.
Dan W: Well, we got the contract from Atari, and I don't remember how we got put in contact with Atari to begin with. As I recall, they knew the license was available, they were interested in the license, they were interested in making a game, and they wanted us.
We actually made a demo for them. It was a demo, so it was not full-featured, but you could basically just drive Godzilla around in a little bit of San Francisco. The demo looked cool by the standards of the time. I think it was the fall of 2000 when we did that.
We just barely got Godzilla signed when a different project we were on got canceled. If it had not gotten signed when it did, Pipeworks would have been in real trouble. But it all worked out; it was great. It came just in the nick of time.
Simon: I originally interviewed at Pipeworks for a different project. A week after my interview, Pipeworks called me back and said, “Oh, that project doesn't exist anymore. So, if you come back for a second interview, it's going to be for this other game about Godzilla. Do you know anything about Godzilla?”
When it comes to that first game, at the time of its release, Godzilla video games had somewhat of a mixed track record. With that in mind, what did you take away from various forms of Godzilla media out at the time? What about the movies specifically – how did you aim to capture that same feeling as the films?
Simon: At the time of the original game, I didn't have my nuanced appreciation for why so many previous Godzilla projects were lackluster. All I knew was that I wanted to make something really good.
I very much wanted to create a slower, strategic type of fighting game. I dislike the hyper-focus on speed and reaction times in "fighting games" – I wanted to explore the strategic depths and not copy existing fighting game tropes. So, I was determined to make a game that was strategically interesting and complex, but that didn't require fast reflexes at all. Godzilla was a great excuse to do that – you just kind of pushed your buttons and didn’t need to be fast or speedy. And if you push the right buttons, you’ll win. I thought that was great.
How did you manage the pros and cons of the tech at your disposal for the trilogy games – whether it was the GameCube, PS2, Xbox, or Wii?
We did the GameCube version, and then we made the Xbox version, which we wanted to release, but then we were told we needed to do the second Godzilla.
Simon: I have two anecdotes for this, actually.
I started at Pipeworks in November of 2001, and two weeks after starting my new job, everyone at the studio got a free GameCube. I remember thinking, "This is awesome. I haven't been here even a month, and I got a free GameCube! This place rules."
The other story is about four-player games. Kirby Fong, the producer at Atari, was really adamant that Godzilla support four players. That was his vision, right? Four-player brawling. He wanted "Power Stone," which was a big game on the Dreamcast with four-player brawling.
I don't know about Dan, but at least Solomon [Sliwinski] and I were like, "This is a two-player game. Fighting games are two-player games! We're making a two-player game, and we're optimizing for two players.” But then we hit a publisher milestone, which had to demonstrate four-player fighting. We were confident that it would get cut and that it would be a two-player fighting game. So, we just slapped that feature together with the idea that we’d cut it after the milestone. We spent maybe a week and a half on it… and it was immediately just awesome. Atari was right – we were wrong.
Destructible environments were a major feature of each of the trilogy games, obviously. How did you go about creating the different cities, which had to be balanced out in terms of size, throwable objects, and so on?
Dan W: I'll say that one of the questions from the very beginning, even from the first demo, was, what about the tail? What do we do about tail collisions? The tail is a weapon against other monsters, but does it pass through buildings? Or is it going to knock down buildings? Basically, we decided unless you are using a move where the tail is a weapon, it just goes through the environment, and that's how it works. It was the right decision, but I spent a lot of time stressing about that.
We spent a lot of time thinking about how to do destructible environments. It's difficult on that hardware. Godzilla: DAMM and Godzilla: StE use this crazy Z-buffering trick to take gouges out of buildings at the pixel level. If you look at the buildings when you hit them, they sort of look like they have bites taken out.
The geometry really isn't deformed. There are decals that are drawn on the buildings, which, through a Z-buffer trick make it look like you can see through parts of them. If you look carefully, you can see there are some artifacts around that. We spent a lot of time trying to come up with a clever way to do destruction on hardware in the year 2001.
There was a city editor where you lay down the buildings and the traffic nodes and set up the traffic system. We had a whole destructible object system. Graphics hardware in general, particularly the hardware then, does not want to draw lots and lots of little tiny objects. To get the throughput that you expect, ideally, you would have a relatively small number of objects with very large numbers of polygons. But, for those games, we had lots of small objects with small numbers of polygons. A lot of effort was put into batching and preprocessing and trying to optimize the way all those little objects were drawn. It was a cool technical problem.
A lot of the tricks that are used to improve frame rate, like keeping the camera pointing down or using a portaling system, none of those worked for cities because you could basically see forever. We used fog but didn't want to be too over the top with it. The fog distance would actually change based on where you were looking. There were a lot of tricks we used to try and limit the draw distance and give you a sense of being in a city while also not having to draw tons and tons of buildings that you couldn't even get to.
Simon: There were three tracks that we developed in parallel: The "living city" traffic system, the destruction system, and the city layouts. Changes in one would often affect the other two, but we were always iterating on those systems.
One specific feature we introduced was a "walk-through" building, which meant they offered no resistance to monster movement – you could just walk through them. We wanted "walk-through" buildings to be visually distinct so players wouldn't be confused about which buildings would block them and which would not.
We tried setting a specific height – but there were too many buildings of various heights to make that feel good. I don't think we ever hit a 100% satisfactory solution. But even without perfection, I think everyone agrees that throwing entire buildings is one of the highlights of the series.
I literally just played these Godzilla games last week with a six-year-old. And after playing, he said, “There was a bus driving around. This is not a ‘go on the bus’ time, this is a ‘drive away from the city’ time!” But we sure spent a lot of time making those tiny vehicles obey traffic laws.
How much creative freedom did you have in designing the game? What was the process like for deciding which monsters should be in the game? What about creating the original ones? And what about the locations?
Dan W: I feel like we had an enormous amount of creative freedom. At the very high level, there was direction, but as far as how the game played, a lot of the details were up to us. I think for engineering and design, in some ways, it felt like an original IP. We had a tremendous amount of freedom to just make what we wanted, and it turned out great.
Simon: Mark Crowe decided on game locations – I wasn't ever aware of any discussion or push-back there. Atari and Toho were very strict about which monsters we could use – we'd ask for some, then there would be negotiations, they would come back with a counter-offer, and then we'd repeat. We absolutely became bolder with our monster requests as the series went on. Making Mothra a playable character with two forms was a big goal. Biollante, in the third game, was a big goal.
The art for each game stood out for its time - for example, the first game featured bump-skinned characters, which wasn't standard for GameCube games at the time. How big of a priority was it to design monsters that look and feel like the ones we see in the movies?
Dan W: We spent a ton of time getting bump mapping to work, technically getting it to perform. With that hardware, you didn't write shaders the way you write shaders now. It was very difficult to get it to work correctly and to generate the bump maps. We spent a ton of time on that, and it was worth it.
One thing that was cool was when you hit the barrier, you have this kind of weird shock effect that plays on the monster. Brian Apgar came up with that. He put random values in the transformation matrix and it just kind of freaks out and produces this crazy effect.
I also feel like the lighting was, for the time, very good. That was something I personally worked on and spent a lot of effort on.
Simon: Atari and Toho both very much insisted on a high level of visual accuracy. In terms of animations and combat style, I came up with a guide for each character based on what I wanted their personality to be. Some of that came from the movies, and some of that was just a desire to "fill out" the design space to make a good game. It's been really pleasing to see movies and comics come out that directly reference those ideas – proving that those ideas about each monster's personality resonated with players and fans.
Here's a specific anecdote - the Thunderball. I wanted Anguirus to roll into a ball a la Blanka in “Street Fighter.” Toho initially balked, saying that wasn't something Anguirus could do. But we pushed, saying it was a "Rage Move" and represented a special attack beyond normal limits, etc. Plus, it was just awesomely cool. A few years later, in the "Final Wars" film, Anguirus 100% rolled into a ball to attack opponents. That was good news because then it was movie canon, and we didn't have to quibble about it anymore. Gigan's eyebeam and "shotgun blast" were similar. They didn't exist in the movies but felt important and thematic in-game. So, we pushed for them, and then the other media started to incorporate them. Destoroyah's "Horn Katana" was inspired by a single three-second shot in his film – and it turned into his major in-game mechanic. Even the name "Horn Katana" is now Toho canon, which feels great. You could say that Pipeworks invented those things, but from my perspective, we were just unearthing more elements of the characters. Those elements were sort of needed to make them robust.
The fighting system in each of the games is iconic. What were the early goals for the fighting system in DAMM, and how did that evolve as time went on with the sequels?
One of the pieces of technology we developed was a tool we called the monster editor, which we later changed the name to character editor. It was made by Solomon Sliwinski, who was the primary gameplay engineer for all of the Godzilla games. This was a special-purpose reaction state machine editor for making fighting games that was used on all the Godzilla games and on Deadliest Warrior.
Simon: I wanted a game where a skilled player would consistently beat an unskilled player BUT would lose 75% of their health doing so. The point is that even though "winning" isn't really much in doubt, new players should deal a lot of damage – get a lot of strong hits in and feel powerful even if they ultimately lose. So, we eliminated a lot of the traditional fighting game elements that allow for perfect games. Blocking. Counters. Reversals. Tech throws. Air recovery. The game isn't about avoiding damage – it's about dealing enough damage before you take too much yourself. It's a slugfest.
We also balanced the game around powerups, which gave it a really unique feel. Some players don't like powerups – but without them, many characters don't work as well. Destoroyah and Mechagodzilla LOVE the energy powerups, for example. Rodan's health is wildly low – but he's fast enough to grab a bunch of powerups, which is how he balances out.
In terms of evolution, there are tons of details we could talk about. Unblockable attacks, attack directions, damage types, heights, etc. But the core concept stayed pretty consistent.
Across the three games, are there any concepts that come to mind that ended up on the cutting room floor?
Simon: So, I know this is a very popular topic for people doing these – when talking to me about these games or when they do interviews about the games, they're always like, “Which monsters didn't make it?” Very famously, we worked on Biollante for the second game and weren't able to finish Biollante. And so, we just cut Biollante, but there were still some files and there are some fan mods where people that got the partially implemented Biollante in the game, right? And so, there are people who think, “They worked on things that didn't make it into the game!” Godzilla: Unleashed, though. We shipped with 25 monsters – we 100% got every monster we ever thought about getting in that game.
Nothing ever really got cut across the three games. Biollante is really the only thing that ever got cut. There were things we toyed with or scoped down, though. Like, we did have a much longer story for Godzilla: Unleashed, but we ended up without the time to make all the cutscenes for the story. We had a whole bunch of levels in the game that were supposed to be strung together by the story. And then we ended up with about 20% of the story moments that we had planned.
What main lesson did you learn from each of the respective games when you look back on them?
Simon: For Godzilla: DAMM, when characters are supposed to be different, ANY similarities will spoil the illusion. For Godzilla: StE, mini-games are MUCH MORE WORK than you think. Even more than that. For Godzilla: Unleashed, new control schemes are very shiny – but they don't have staying power.
Which character from any of the games in the trilogy is your favorite?
Simon: For me, Gigan. The first game had 11 playable characters, and there were 12 of us full-time on the project. So, everybody was assigned one character to master and be an advocate for. I was Gigan, and I just can't help but love him still. The Giant Space Chicken is hilarious. He teleports – which fits because my original “Street Fighter II” main was Dhalsim!
How does it feel to still have such a loyal fan base for these games after all these years?
Thank you for allowing us to make these games and having them be successful. We wanted to make a game that sold hundreds of thousands of units and that people would want to play. When we started Pipeworks, that seemed like kind of a crazy idea, and yet that's what happened. We made this game, and people played it and enjoyed it, and it's just like I said, particularly the first game is incredibly gratifying to look back on. It was a ton of work and at times super stressful, but it was great, and without the players, it never would have happened.
Simon: Obviously, it's great to still get fan letters from something we did more than 20 years ago. It's proof that the work we do at Pipeworks can matter. It’s really cool to go to places and have people ask, “How come King Ghidorah has 350 health, but Destoroyah has 600 health? What were you thinking when you made that decision?” and I think to myself, “Oh yeah, I remember thinking on that for a couple of days!” and here we are 10+ years later, talking about it. That is great.