Vectorman, the Sega Genesis game, turned 25 at the end of 2020. The celebration of the game and its title character wasn’t widely publicized when it was held last October.
As many gatherings did at the time, it was held virtually – via Zoom.
Vectorman’s AIS (Automated Invite System) sent invites to every member of the development team and most responded.
It’s more than ironic that a character that earned his chops destroying televisions was going to be celebrated using technology that promotes large scale communication with, well … televisions.
ALL PLUGGED IN AND NOWHERE TO GO
On Oct. 24, 2020 at 12:30 pm, the lights in a secret bunker location began to flicker on and then to steadily glow. The bunker’s sole occupant, Vectorman, sat in a comfy chair, arching his back and raising his arms to simulate a stretch. Fully robotic, of course, Vectorman was just mimicking the humanoids he was programmed to serve. Such gestures helped him to connect with humanity.
Now completely reanimated, Vman observed the party trappings surrounding him, then waited for people to begin logging in. One by one faces appeared in little boxes set into the screen.
With his somewhat limited vocabulary, V-man responded to the ever-growing number of participants. Employing Vocoder (Voice Operated reCorDER) and Voder (Voice Operation DEmonstratoR)) tech that hadn’t been used in 25 years, he shouted, “ALL RIGHT!!”
And with that the Zoom session began.
Lead Programmer Rich Karpp, artist/designer Mark Lorenzen, and designer Jason Weesner logged in first and got the meet-up started. Karpp remembered that the three-person crew started experimenting with the existing Sega Genesis engine. “We just wanted to see what we could do with it,” he said.
Karl Robillard, appearing audio only, was the tools programmer at BlueSky Software at the time. He was at the nexus of those early experiments. “I may have been the one with the initial vector ball idea,” he said. “As a huge Amiga fan, I was familiar with its demo scene. And there were numerous ‘Vector Ball’ demos around, including one from RSI that I saw in 1989.” Robillard shared the video with everyone. “Let’s fast forward to 1:25 into the video. There. You see what may have been the main inspiration for the character.”
Viewing the video made Vectorman react. He bumped his fists together. Over the metallic clangs he said, “Heh heh.”
Mark Lorenzen jumped in to reinforce Robillard’s early contribution to the game. “The genesis – pun intended – of Vectorman was definitely a tech demo that Karl Robillard did completely on his own. He used sprite dots to represent vectors in 3D space.”
Weesner spoke up. “I’m not sure how, but Rich and Mark somehow convinced BlueSky management to show that demo to Sega. Sega was suitably impressed by what they saw and the timing was perfect for BlueSky. Nintendo was just releasing the original Donkey Kong Country and Sega saw this new technology as a way to compete with them. Both Vectorman and Donkey Kong Country ended up making use of advanced 3D software to render the different sprites.”
Lorenzen then recalled that Dana Christianson, Art Director at BlueSky, saw Robillard’s Vector Ball demo. “He heard Jason, Rich and me riffing on all the possibilities of using it to give a game a novel look and feel.” Lorenzen realized Christianson had probably already spoken about it with George Kiss, BlueSky’s President. “I think it was a serendipitous moment when it all came together, because it was like the next day that Dana took me and Jason and Rich into a room and asked us to design a game around the Vector Ball demo.”
Christianson includes other details in his rendition: “I intentionally stayed out of the process. I went into a meeting room one day and Jason Weesner was going on and on about a storyline which was based off of “The Running Man”, with the whole TV show aspect. On the spur of the moment I asked a friend of mine, Patrick Brogan, to write up some new storyline ideas. I think it was overnight, or, at most, over a weekend. Patrick came up with 8-to-10 new ideas. Rich picked the one he liked and we went with it.”
However, Vectorman was still a game idea with no real game.
Narrowing his eyes until they formed thin red slits, Vectorman pumped his fist like a metal piston: “C’mon!” he said.
TECH DEMO NO MORE!!
Lorenzen, Karpp, and Weesner, joined by electronic music specialist Jon Holland, spent the next few weeks ideating.
Weesner joined the conversation again. “Rich, Mark, Jon, and I spent a lot of time listening to music, playing imported games from Japan, and watching anime. Leading up to the Sega demo, there were numerous meetings between myself, Rich, and Mark. The creative meetings for the project were frequently contentious, but the conflict ended up bringing out interesting aspects of what the game would eventually become. As I said, there were a lot of arguments about the direction of the character and story. Mark, Rich, and I wanted something edgy, contemporary, and geared towards a hipper audience than previous BlueSky games.”
“I did a lot of sketching at that point,” said Lorenzen, pulling out and sharing pages from two sketchbooks he had filled at the time.
Lorenzen mentioned that the main character hadn’t always been Vectorman. In fact, the first page of a sketchbook from the time shows the name “Shakesphere” and a picture to go with it. The note in orange, however, says it all: “TOO CUTE.” A second sketchbook has a list of possible themes that includes: Western, Pirates of Penzance, 007, Beau Geste, Inspector Gadget, Godzilla, the Arthurian Legend, and even Beach Blanket Bingo.
Many of the ideas had to do with putting massive amounts of animation on screen, but others had to do with the central “tech hook” behind Vectorman: animating the main character as overlapping 2D sprites, in keeping with the Vectorball demo.
Lorenzen recalled, “Animating with clustered or chained sprites had been done before, like the chains of rings in Sonic the Hedgehog or the tentacles in Gunstar Heroes, but no one had ever dared to base a whole game on this method, much less to use it as the main character.”
Vectorman sat forward in his chair. “Yeah!” he said.
Artist / Animator Marty Davis spoke up. “Following Mark’s lead, I fudged around with a head shape that worked better. Then I started animating the figure to find the best arrangement and scale of the balls. We tried to figure out how much negative space we could live with between the hips and knees and boots. For example – no thighs! Once Mark liked it, we worked on locking down the design, which mainly meant finalizing details of that head.”
Davis recalled that fellow artist Rick Schmitz did some concepts at this time; Lorenzen joined back in: “I had to express objections to those drawings, since the way we were animating the hero did not afford facial expression — hardly a face at all. The emotions really came from Marty’s pantomimes.”
Back to Davis, “True, we had no facial expressions in the actual game, but Rick was laying the groundwork for the Saturday morning cartoon!” Making a funny face, Davis insisted: “I Kid … I KID!! In the end it was me who worked out what looked best and showed the best rotation in the game.”
A 3D MARVEL? MAYBE, YES
According to Ellis Goodson, who also did some concept designs for the game, “The 3D aspects of Vectorman got everyone excited. That illusion of depth was what was going to get reaction from the players.”
Davis, who developed most of Vectorman’s animations using VAT, (the Vectorman Animation tool), chimed in. “Originally Karl and some of the others had devised a system to do actual 3D on the Sega Genesis, and they started with an animation of some 3D balls. This was actual 3D computing — on a Genesis. I saw the demo in Karl’s office back in ’93. They quickly realized there wasn’t much to be done with the original 3D ball tech because you couldn’t get it to run in a gameplay situation.” Source for animated .gif: Sega Forever: Rich Karpp on Vectorman.
With a twinkle in his eyes, Davis concluded, “This was all before the ‘Ballz’ game came out. That game sorta proved the unworkability of the concept.”
“Karl gave me a tool that was easy to use,” Davis said. “And it allowed us to design the animations to blend into each other very smoothly by creating a nice action matrix on the game implementation side. When you see animations in the game you’re really watching lots of bits of interconnected animations cutting from one to another as the character detects floors, walls, and takes player input. The VAT system allowed these linkages to look very smooth in a way that’s impossible with full-body sprites.”
Karpp and Lorenzen were the backbone of the game, but Goodson encapsulated the most essential contributor: “Karl Robillard made the tool that let animators feed Rich the data he needed for videogame magic to happen.” Davis then added what seemed to be the elephant in the virtual room: “How Karl got no mention in the credits is kind of stupefying to me … and shameful.”
Vectorman raised an arm in a seated victory pose, “Genius!”
If anyone on the Zoom call recognized that Vectorman’s sound design didn’t include that word, they didn’t say anything. You only get to turn 25 once.
Jumping in, Davis shared a host of notebook pages that he had recently discovered. “I’ve got individual level assignments, some dates, and then a whole four-page missive … to Ellis? … Or Liz? I’m pretty sure it was Ellis – about designing ‘parts’ for the enemies and working with Matt McDonald. I wrote it early in January, 1995, and described us being four weeks behind with four months until the game shipped. Juicy tidbits! And after all this time, a fascinating read.”
BUILDING A WORLD AROUND HIM
It was time for background artists to spin yarns about the levels they had created:
Amber Long spoke about level art first. “I was pretty new to the industry, BlueSky was my first job making games.
“I started as animator and transitioned into making level art. It was sooo much fun. I just remember working very late and touching every pixel in every level. Games were such a different thing to make at that point; it was such a challenge to make titles not look repeatable. It was like putting together a puzzle.
“One thing I do remember was the joy of working on the lightning for one of the levels. It was very satisfying. I think I still have the article somewhere about it being the best lightning in a game! Boy, that was a long time ago. Haha.”
Artist Jeff Jonas recalled the hard work he put in. “I had the most creative control over the arctic underwater sequence that ended at the boss fight with the Aurora Borealis effect. The Borealis effect, which Mark envisioned as a special coded thing, was dropped in my lap because it was too time intensive to code.
“We had learned from Shiny Entertainment and other competitors how vertical line blending was more preferable on the TV than straight dithering. That is why everything looked weird on the PC. Those vertical lines blend automatically on the TV. While we were trying to prevent dizzying ‘Moiré effects’, in this case it helped.
“Because of this I was able to solve the Aurora EFX problem by building a ‘fake effect’ by adding two layers of bar patterns, one using the parallax scrolling features of the Genesis. The parallax layer operated behind black bars of the top and used hard coded distortion and color gradient patterns. The best news is that I could control this sequencing myself on our Tile Editing tool (TED) Emulator. Being able to see and adjust the effect myself was half the battle. As a result, I was able to deliver something close to Mark’s vision, even if I did it with duct tape.”
A ROCKET TO NOWHERE
Lorenzen then remembered a lost level. “There was going to be a level where Vectorman found himself aboard a rocket made of wicker and sliding down a launch track. It’s like the rocket in George Will’s ‘When Worlds Collide’. While it looked cool and we had the look of it and all the tech well under way, we cut it because we could not make it fun.”
Jeff Remmer also recalled that level. “Yeah, the artists had a finite amount of tiles in which to create the art for an 8-bit game. This made each one precious and often you had to edit or completely sacrifice some tiles so others on the team would have enough for their needs. Mark had the idea that the background artists could re-use tiles on other levels if they were created with a dual purpose in mind. I was tasked with trying his experiment on the Wicker Rocket level.
“Now the Wicker Rocket was already a very specific and wacky creation to begin with and trying to create other art out of it just wasn’t going to happen. I worked on it for a few weeks and the level looked and played pretty good but it was eventually scrapped. Now trying out new ideas was a big part of game development at BlueSky, but I must have pulled out some of my hair building the Wicker Rocket.”
“Whoa!” Vectorman shouted at the thought of pulling actual hair out.
SPLASH PAINTINGS, ETC.
Remmer again: “I can’t quite remember whose idea it was to have me create small, full color oil paintings for the splash screens, yet I was very happy to stop ‘pushing pixels’ around for a time and really enjoyed painting them. I believe it was Geoff Knobel who then scanned them to be used in the game. Geoff was the first person I knew who used a scanner to create final art for games. It took a lot of effort to simplify all the color variation without losing the image’s clarity.”
“I also did a full color marker study for the Bamboo Mill level.”
THE MAN BEHIND THE MUSIC
Weesner loved Jon Holland’s music for the game. “One of my personal highlights was being able to briefly work with Jon Holland who was our music composer. We spent hours listening to Kraftwerk, Orbital, Prodigy, and Goa mixes to come up with the soundtrack. Jon composed all of the game’s electronic music and it’s still one of the most unique aspects of the game.”
According to Lorenzen, Holland almost wasn’t on the team to begin with. He said, “John was hired to do the game’s techno soundtrack because Sam Powell – BlueSky’s main sound guy – was committed to other projects. And even though Jon was, and is, a techno composer and DJ, he had to learn from scratch the craft of sound for games and innovate new and wacky ways to punish the FM synthesizer chip on the Genesis to play the sounds it did.”
Quiet until now, Jon Holland spoke up. “It was persistence and good timing that resulted in my working with BlueSky on a number of projects. Cold calling them helped me get into game music. I came down and left Sam Powell a cassette demo of my music. He called me a couple of months later and he asked me to meet the Vectorman pre-production team. I remember meeting Mark Lorenzen and Jason Weesner and we seemed to click.”
Holland shared links to his amazing in-game Vectorman tracks here.
At this point, V-man began to make his index finger travel in a circular motion, signaling that it might be time to wrap things up. After waiting out 25 years, what was his hurry?
“I was the project manager on Vectorman, but it didn’t really need one! Making a rough schedule was the first thing I recall doing, and I remember one meeting where the artists went over their levels. Geoff Knobel showed us his hydroponic garden level – and everyone laughed at me because I had no idea what a hydroponic garden was. I guessed it was for growing pot. So I had to laugh at myself!
“One good thing, though … I found an original note sent to me by the Sega Producer, Jerry Markota, and forgot I even had it. It shows what the Sega of Japan bigwigs thought of the game, which was pretty exciting for all of us! It’s pretty cool and I’m not sure that everyone on the team saw it.”
“Vectorman was one of my favorite games to work on. We had a lot of control over the project’s direction and we knew how to play up the strengths of the Genesis. We developed it at a time when game consoles had pretty unique technical architectures, so familiarity with a console allowed us to do some interesting things.
“During initial discussions of the story, we wanted a main theme for the game to be that passive entertainment, like television, was inferior to interactive entertainment. This didn’t really make its way into the final game, except for the fact that you destroy a lot of TVs to get powerups.“
“The game was really, really fun to play. The super-sophisticated tech allowed this — running at 60 fps, super-responsive character control with graphics that matched. It was the gameplay that was always the focus in developing the game. People mention Donkey Kong Country as the benchmark, but I remember Gunstar being a much bigger benchmark than DKC. There were plenty of situations where we dropped cool graphics in favor of performance.”
“Vectorman development is a very sweet memory for me. My favorite part was working with Mark and Rich, sitting in their office and brainstorming ideas. Rich would say … I don’t think we can do that … and then next day he would come in with the problem solved. The back and forth \ teamwork was fantastic and I’m always looking for that with any project I work on. Its hard to find.”
“Vectorman was the first – the only? – Sega game to allow interacting with the Sega logo at the start of the game. The player could control Vectorman and head but and shoot the letters which would flicker and go dark. If the player knocked them out in the right sequence a mini-game started where the letters from the logo dropped from the top of the screen and earned the player bonus starting points. There was also a hidden TV with a powerful powerup, just off the top of the screen that the player could destroy to collect.
“I’ve worked on some very high-profile, big-budget titles, but the experience of developing Vectorman was perhaps the best of my career. We pushed the Genesis to the limit. I felt like I knew every detail of how it worked. I never felt that way about any subsequent console.”
“Vectorman is probably the only truly original game I ever worked on. I’m eternally grateful for having had that opportunity. Working with Rich and Mark was wonderful and one of the most truly collaborative processes I’ve ever been through. I still have people telling me how much they like the game, so it’s an honor to have contributed to video game history in a notable way.”
A FEW SECRETS YOU (PROBABLY) DON’T KNOW
MARK BOTTA: “You can find most of the cheat codes online. There is one I’ve never seen described correctly: CALL A BAD BABY DUMB. To make the code work you had to stand in a secret place on the first level. I think it was on a platform just under the start point. It immediately ends the game and rolls the credits. Similarly, there is a secret debug menu, accessed using ‘ABBA DABBA,’ that we modified just before we went gold. The menu items don’t line up with the bullet points. This really bugged Rich Karpp.”
JEFF REMMER: “Another anecdote was the animated flags. It was Mark Lorenzen’s idea to videotape the flags on top of our building during a windy day. We used the footage to create believable moving flags for the Terraport on the first level.”
A NEW PURPOSE?
After everyone had departed and the screen grew dark, the lights in the bunker grew dim and turned off bank by bank until only one section lit the scene. Vectorman sighed heavily, adjusted his posture in his chair, and settled back. Instead of beginning a new 25 year slumber, however, he picked up the phone and fiddled with the speed dial. “The world can’t wait until 2049 to start cleaning itself up,” he thought. Who to call first. Thumb, thumb, thumb. Ah, yes. Now is perfect time to bring together a superhero team of climate activists, each younger than him.
Vectorman warmed to the challenge as he poked the phone’s keys with a stone-cold index finger.
A phone rang in Stockholm, Sweden. Using his newly designed (and, until now, totally secret) vocal chip, Vectorman said, “Is . . . Greta there? Greta Thunberg? While she may not know me . . . tell her Vectorman is on the line and . . . I want to help.”
In Memoriam – The following individuals worked extremely hard to the bring Vectorman to a TV screen near you. As a result, we will miss them all and will never forget their contributions:
- Geoff Knobel (Background Artist): September 21, 2012
- John Roy (Animator): October 14th 2014
- Matt McDonald (2D/3D Artist): November 9, 2019