Interview - GoldenEye Dev David Doak On Shaking (And Stirring) The FPS Genre On Console
You couldn’t escape it. It was here, rife and potent. It ploughed a path through conventional gaming conversations from the casuals to the parents of gamers that had to put up with the noise, the screaming and the not going to bed because if you didn’t kill John with thirty-seven remote mines stuck to the toilet door in The Facility, well, what was the point of going on with life?
All anybody talked about was how good you were at the game or how you defeated three other people with ‘Slappers Only’ in The Archives. A random person would talk to you at the bus stop on the way to school, explaining how they ‘sniped’ their friend’s bonce as he peered his head out of one of the balconies in Complex.
Your mum, going about her normal day, tending to your every need whilst you festered on the floor in your School Uniform, complete with tie, blazer and a pair of worn-out Kickers in front of a gamma ray-soaked CRT television on a Sunday because that’s where you fell on Friday afternoon after school, would ask you if you have cleared Train on Double ‘Oh’ Agent yet , whilst politely asking you to stop shooting Robbie Coltrane and Sean Bean in the knees.
If you owned it, you played. If you didn’t own it, you played it at somebody’s else’s house. If you didn’t like it, you still played it. If you loved it but there was no space on the screen for you to inflict revenge or casual violence, then you waited. The planned, plotted. The wait was key to defeating Barry, who had taken your title as ‘Supreme Camper’ and wouldn’t abide by the bedroom or front room rules of multilayer etiquette.
If you had no one to play with and you had finished the game over and over, unlocking everything possible, you handed a controller to your Dad, Nan or the pet Terrapin. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered now. This was all that mattered. It decided who made dinner. Who made the tea. Who goes to the shop for snacks. Who bought the beer. Who chose the music. Who chose the next level and weapon layout, cheats and loudness of the TV. It was all. It was everywhere. It was relentless, unforgiving, like a cult or some crazy equivalent of a modern-day social media trend or viral pandemic; try as you might, you couldn’t escape it.
It was, of course, GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo 64 – and quite frankly if it didn’t exist, the N64 in the UK would have struggled for credibility and justification of ownership form the off. While Super Mario 64 was the console’s killer app in the eyes of many, just as many other players picked up the system to play this groundbreakingly brilliant FPS.
To find out what it was like to work on such a seminal piece of gaming history, we spoke to David Doak, once of Rare Ltd. You may remember him as the helpful scientist who gave you the decoder to open the bottling room door, but in real life it was the writer for the N64 mega-hit, and he still remembers what it was like to see all of that hard work pay off in the shape of one of the generation’s most lauded titles.
Nintendo Life: Do you remember the exact moment when the game was released? Was there apprehension between the team, including yourself?
David Doak: Things were quite different back then because there was a significant lag – a month, perhaps – between 'going gold' and commercial retail release, due to the time required for cartridge manufacture and distribution. Also there were a number of master versions – firstly US/NTSC, then JAP and EUR/PAL, which were spread out over the late summer of 1997. The time in the lead up to getting 'gold master approval' for the initial US/NTSC was very fraught. It was our first big 'game is done!' moment – so lots of excitement about finally getting there, but also a lot of trepidation. The initial cartridge run was probably less than 100,000 units (I'm guessing) – it wouldn't have been great to have left some game-breaking bug in there!
I don't have clear memories of the exact public retail release date. There was definitely a fair amount of apprehension because we really had no idea how well it would be received. By way of context, we knew that the game had been very popular in testing – particularly after feedback from NoA / Treehouse – and with the other teams at Rare (there was even an internal trade in illicit multiplayer ROMs), but the public showing at E3 1997 hadn't set the world on fire. The critical feedback was also not immediate – again, there was a lag, certainly for print reviews, and online was still relatively niche.
In 1997 at Rare, there was one machine with direct internet access (in a locked room!) and I would regularly check to see if reviews had come out, and I particularly remember reading IGN's very positive review by Doug Perry. Later, the UK print review in EDGE magazine was another big sigh of relief, and something that mattered a lot to us on the team because it was so respected.
Do you ever find yourself in a situation where somebody is talking about the game, but has no idea you were involved in its creation?
It's not that unusual, particularly if I've just got into a casual discussion about games with someone I've met in a different context. It's almost always fun though, because the game is so well-liked and fondly remembered that if I reveal I was involved then it generally makes people happy. Mind you, these days they tend to say, "Not played it myself but my Dad/Mum really liked it." I haven't gotten to grandparents quite yet!
At any point, did you and the team at Rare think, "Wow, this is it, we’ve achieved to do what we set out to do?"
Certainly not at the time. We were incredibly self-critical and my enduring memory is that we were just relieved to finally have finished making the game. All we could see were the bad things; the compromises and cuts which had been necessary to get the thing finished. In my experience of game dev, that is not unusual; nobody ever thinks their game is properly finished.
We've always had visions that ideas for other games – including Perfect Dark – were actually decided with Power Weapons in Facility? Please tell us this is true...
I can't recall ever using the game for competitive arbitration or decision making. I like the idea though! I think my FPS skills have long since peaked, but I do have some deep reptilian GoldenEye/N64 controller muscle memory instincts...
The impact of the game was clearly felt back then as it still is today; do you still become excited by the prospect of people remembering the game fondly after all this time?
As I get older it is an increasingly amazing thing to see impactful the game was, and continues to be. It is such a great privilege to have been part of something which has clearly brought an enormous amount of joy to many, many people. I've spoken a few times about this – it is particularly touching to have 'random' people thank me for contributing positively to their childhood memories.
I think it is harder for individual games to have such a deep and lasting impact these days, simply because there are so many of them. I also think that "couch multiplayer", with everyone bunched up together for a good session of friendly banter and shared fun, is one of the pinnacles of video gaming – GoldenEye was undoubtedly a pioneer and an epitome of that. Sadly, much of the social joyfulness of that kind of multiplayer experience is often now lost in online anonymity and toxicity.
Lastly, do people ever tell you "Time to leave, Dr Doak"?
Not so much, more often it is, "I'm really sorry – I must have shot you so many times." – which is always sweet because then I get to forgive them!
As we move forward into the newer, more costly ways of playing multiplayer online with people halfway across the world, it’s important to remember that GoldenEye certainly didn’t invent ‘in your house multiplayer’ but it did exactly what David says – "couched multiplayer, with everyone bunched up together for a good session of friendly banter and shared fun" – and outside of Switch, that’s arguably missing in today's gaming community. We're proud to say we were part of the ‘couched’ movement, and the memories it created whilst blowing our best friend up whilst he spun around aimlessly in The Facility toilet. Those days of gaming are almost certainly gone, replaced by heavily-marketed, expensive ways of upgrading your experience to play someone online you’ll never ever meet.
Long live GoldenEye. Long live the couch.