Video games based on comic books and superheroes have been around since the early 80’s, and for close to two decades, titles ranged from absolute stinkers – most everything with the dreaded LJN rainbow on the packaging – to bona fide classics found both in the arcade and at home. Everything changed though on August 30th, 2000. It was on that date that Spider-Man, developed by Neversoft and published by Activision, arrived on the Sony PlayStation.
Spider-Man was no stranger to the medium before then, either headlining major releases or co-starring in ensemble titles, but nothing truly made you feel like the character quite like his grand 3-D debut. Whether it was swinging around the rooftops of New York City, running into fellow heroes, exchanging quips with super-villains or snaring hapless goons from the ceiling in your webs, Spider-Man was trailblazing modern superhero games long before the Dark Knight stepped into the corridors of Arkham Asylum. Future Spidey outings like Spider-Man 2, or more recently Marvel’s Spider-Man, similarly didn’t happen without a talented team of developers crafting the blueprints for studios like Treyarch and Insomniac Games to follow.
For Spider-Man’s twentieth anniversary, I reached out to its lead designer, Chad Findley, for an interview. Not only was Chad gracious enough to give up his time to answer a few questions, he also passed along a few never before seen pages from Spider-Man’s design document.
CBVG: So, let’s start at the beginning. Did Neversoft approach Activision to get the Spider-Man license, or was Activision already in possession of the rights from Marvel? Did you have to design a pitch to land the project?
FINDLEY: From what I remember (it has been quite a while!) Activision had the license and was looking for a developer to do it. Joel Jewett, my boss, knew I was a longtime Spidey fan and he also thought it would be a good fit for the company because we were getting Tony Hawk up and running at the same time. With that being an unknown license (at the time!) he thought it would be good to also have a well-known license under development at the studio.
CBVG: There’s always something fascinating to me about “firsts”, as in developers having to figure out how to essentially make something that hasn’t been done before i.e the 3-D platformer with Super Mario 64. Did you feel any pressure crafting the “first” 3-D Spider-Man game, especially seeing as the character hadn’t starred in his own video game since 1996?
FINDLEY: I love doing firsts.
The biggest hurdles going to 3D were 1) getting web-swinging to be fun and useful in an action game and 2) getting wall-crawling to function in a similar manner.
Our first version of web-swinging had the player targeting where the web would actually shoot to (on the ceiling or side of a building) and it would then use physics to swing the player based on that pivot point. While this was a required step in the process of getting web-swinging to work, it definitely was not fun nor useful in an action setting. So, once we had a ‘swinging’ mechanic working, we then worked backwards from what the player would want to do – “I want to swing there” and the engine would work out a good ceiling or building web shot location to allow the player to swing there.
The wall-crawling, on the other hand, was harder to initially get a general use for in action sequences so we decided to cater the level design around his abilities and that’s where the level design became crucial. We started working out each level with the goal of making wall-crawling integral to the gameplay – crawling above bank robbers, exploring flooded sewers, avoiding police helicopter gunfire on the side of a building, etc…
So once we had user-friendly web-swinging up and running, and a small section of a level that had Spidey using his abilities, and it was fun, we knew we had something cool!
CBVG: Since Spider-Man 2, Spidey’s games have largely taken place in an open-world setting. However, Neversoft’s Spider-Man builds a strong case that he works just as well in a linear title with amazing set-pieces like the rooftop police chase and the unforgettable race against Monster Ock at the conclusion. What was the process like for not only designing the scripted moments, but levels that would be fun to play using this character’s abilities?
FINDLEY: You are right – while not doing an open world game was a limitation for us, it really was a blessing and it allowed us to come up with unique linear levels that could cater both to Spidey’s different abilities as well as those of the enemies really well..
It all started with coming up with key gameplay moments and key story moments we wanted to see – and with Spidey’s rich history of enemies, fights, and moments throughout the comic books we had a plethora of cool references to spark ideas for the game!
Once we had a really rough outline for a story and a list of key gameplay moments based on Spidey’s abilities and the enemies, I created a design doc and started merging the two together – the entire time making sure that Spidey’s abilities were a key to the gameplay and used in fun and different ways.
CBVG: Spider-Man has some truly memorable boss fight, a personal favorite being the battle with a gigantic Mysterio. These encounters stand out all these years later because they present interesting challenges that also honor the source material, i.e having to force Carnage into a sonic bubble, which I might add I love as Doc Ock would absolutely have that contingency put into place. Describe how you went about building these battles. Do you have a personal favorite? Is there a character you wanted to use but couldn’t for one reason or another?
FINDLEY: I had been reading Spidey for years – nearly every issue of all the series, and we really did want to represent the comic hero well and bring what was in the books to life – so a boss’s gameplay idea could come from an issue’s battle or even from a single panel from a book if it was inspirational enough – or at least spark an idea that would snowball into something even better.
FWIW – in the original design doc, the Lizard was supposed to be the boss at the end of the sewers and the big Venom fight to save Mary Jane was supposed to happen at the top of the brooklyn bridge but those were cut for schedule.
I think the Mysterio battle and the Monster Ock chase were my favorite bosses for different reasons.
On the other hand – that Venom chase through the city – ugh!… I gave that a try again a couple years ago… way too unforgiving!
CBVG: Spider-Man is one of the many heroes who’s active in New York City, and because of this, you’ll often see him interact with others in the superhero community. This is true in Spider-Man tooas throughout the game, you’ll encounter the Human Torch, The Punisher, Captain America and Daredevil. Was it tough getting any of these cameos approved?
FINDLEY: This answer may absolutely torture developers today, but no… not tough even in the slightest.
As you mention – this was at the advent of comic book based games and still before superhero movies and franchises were so important – so Marvel was really cool with approvals. They just wanted a good game and I was super loyal to the material – which meant an easy partnership and great cameos!
CBVG: Speaking of cameos, you know that Spider-Man is going to be something special when you hear a bombastic, heartfelt introduction from none other than Stan Lee himself, in his first video game appearance no less! Do you have any memories of working with Stan?
FINDLEY: Stan was the absolute best. I only worked directly with him the day I directed his voice-over but that was good enough! He was super-kind and sweet from the first second he walked in, and he gave every line he read 110% – especially that first introduction line you mention – that is a looong complicated line and he would not move on until he gave it the delivery he thought it deserved.
CBVG: If you’re just going through the main story, Spider-Man’s a somewhat short game, but once you dig into the collectibles, bonus costumes, and comic covers, there’s a lot to keep you going back. Something this game has become well known for is the “What if?” mode, an homage to the Marvel comic of the same name. How fun was it to come up with this remixed version of Spider-Man?
FINDLEY: Marvel was super reasonable about story and character approvals with us, so we wanted to get in as many of our favorites as we could BUT we still wanted a mainline story that made sense. So the ‘What if?’ mode seemed like the best way to get the best of both worlds.
CBVG: Many would argue that the modern era of comic book video games came in 2009 with the release of Batman: Arkham Asylum. I, along with others, share the opinion that Spider-Man was the first game that really should what a high-quality superhero game could look like. How does it feel to have played such an important part in kickstarting a golden age of comic book video games?
FINDLEY: I appreciate your opinion!
It was a great time – it’s weird now, but back then I was just honored to be able to work in the Spidey world.
This was before the movies became the main focus of revenue for companies and studios so we were able to focus on being a true comic-book based game rather than a movie based game.
I’m actually worried that we have seen the end of games that are truly based on comic books.
Games these days are so cost driven that big studios tend to gamble on franchise based titles – which means tying games to big movies.
It’s a shame too – the books have so much amazing and untapped source material, styles, characters, and storylines to make hundreds of amazing games – I truly hope that comic-book based games continue to survive and thrive somehow and we don’t just rely on the blockbusters for the source material.
CBVG: Spider-Man would get a sequel a year later: Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro by Vicarious Visions. Neversoft would go on to have continued success with the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise, but is a part of you sad that the company didn’t get to do another Spider-Man game, or do you feel you said everything you wanted to with Spider-Man?
FINDLEY: Definitely ‘yes’ to sad and ‘no’ to having said everything I needed to. There is so much great stuff this character went through that I would have loved to bring to players and given the chance I could have easily worked on another five spidey games before even getting close.
CBVG: Finally, on the 20th anniversary of Spider-Man, is there something you would like to say to the fans who not only have loved this game for two decades now, but have since discovered it in that time?
FINDLEY: This was EASILY one of my favorite games to work on. I love the material. I love the character and his message. I loved the challenges of making a difficult game like Spider-Man, and I loved the team I worked with. So to all of you true believers out there – thanks for playing!