The Making Of: Body Harvest
At the age of one, a child is on its feet and quite ready to walk around destroying things. In contrast, it took DMA Design nearly four years to prepare its own free-roaming rampage. Body Harvest is the sum total of all your fears. Not the game, but the nightmare of its development.
The Body Harvest story begins a long time ago, in a small development house just outside Dundee. In 1995, Nintendo saw great potential in a game design document drawn up by DMA Design. After initial negotiations, the developer, still reaping the rewards of hits like Lemmings, was given the green light to go into immediate development. Unfortunately, when DMA’s largely inexperienced team sobered-up, it was faced with a tricky problem: its design document consisted of a single picture of an upturned car and a bug. What exactly was it going to develop?
After two years of hard slog DMA eventually presented an action game to Nintendo. Unsurprisingly, it was not what Nintendo had seen in the design document and more importantly, it was not to its taste. A crack team of Nintendo experts, including a producer from the Zelda series, flew over to sort out the mess. It was suggested that the game be reincarnated as an RPG – not what DMA wanted to hear. For the following year, Nintendo worked closely with the developer. Richard Ralfe, Body Harvest’s designer, describes it as a turbulent time. “[Nintendo’s] input was greatly appreciated, but provided massive headaches for us – its focus for the game was very different from the original concept,” he remembers.
At the time, the N64 was missing a big RPG and was being embarrassingly outsold by the PlayStation. Nintendo made plans for Body Harvest to plug the crucial RPG space and DMA grudgingly accepted. “We had problems with their reasoning initially, but after sitting down and discussing the possibilities we came on board.” A series of strange meetings ensued with a Japanese interpreter translating peculiar sci-fi terminology. With DMA’s broad Scottish accents the tense collaboration was at least lined with comedy. Sadly, things weren’t improving very fast and Nintendo didn’t see the funny side.
In a desperate attempt to get the project back on track, the core team at DMA was invited to visit Nintendo’s HQ in Kyoto, Japan. On arrival they were lined up along one side of a long table with some of Nintendo’s top players standing opposite. “The atmosphere was somewhat frought,” explains Body Harvest producer and lead programmer John White. “They basically detailed how they wanted us to redesign the entire game.”
The grilling continued for two and a half weeks, but White doesn’t recall the team being overly troubled, “We didn’t know what was going on. We were just overjoyed at being in Japan for two weeks.” It was White’s first position as a lead programmer and most of the team were also new to their roles, so working from Nintendo’s HQ was a fascinating experience.
Based next to the developers of Star Fox, they were inspired by their methods. “We got to see their whole design approach and it just amazed us – they had a large room with Post-it notes covering practically every inch of wall space.” All their design documents were also in the room, which was the epicentre of the design process. DMA probably refrained from sharing its own design document.
When Nintendo felt that DMA had suffered enough, the team was taken out to dinner in a traditional Japanese restaurant. Miyamoto-san was present but he didn’t say much and looked somewhat solemn – probably still searching for meaning in the profound image of bug and car.