Inspiration – How I Designed a Hole in Sierra’s Bestselling 3D Ultra Minigolf

Designing in a Meadow

I used to do quite a bit of computer game design work at a meadow near Kaiser Pass which is up around the 9,200 foot level of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s about 40 minutes from our home at Shaver Lake. This was back in 1997 and I would sit with a yellow pad sketching down ideas and hole layouts for 3D Ultra Minigolf Deluxe while my kids would run around and have fun. It was a good work environment.

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Kaiser Meadow – Kids way off in distance on the right. Wife and toddler in foreground at left.

It was a neat place for the kids because there were a lot of frogs and if we came at the right time of the year there were also tadpoles or big groups of frog eggs. I can remember coming up to the same meadow back in the 1960s when I was their age.

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Looking for frogs in one of the ponds.

Because it is at such a high elevation it would get very cold at night so things could freeze over even in the late summer. Depending upon the winter there could also be snow patches until late in the summer too.

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My son finds some ice.

So I got to sit outside in a beautiful environment and work on my game.

Eventually I’d have to go inside and sit down at a computer in my home to get the ideas into a specific digital form. It has been like that for me lately in that I can get a lot of creative work done, or inspiration on how to solve a problem, while just walking through the forest or even just driving somewhere in the car. For the minigolf game the “sit down at computer and implement” step would involve creating models of each hole in 3D Studio Max. I’ll write about that process a few paragraphs down.

 

Raindrops and Opening Screens

The idea for the opening of one of my very first published games, Black Belt (not the Sega game of same name), came back in 1983 when I was driving home from college in Oregon to my parent’s house. Somewhere near the Oregon-California border it started raining big fat occasional raindrops on my windshield and the way I wanted the opening title screen for Black Belt just magically occurred to me.

So when I got back to my apartment in Eugene across from Beall Music Hall (which I recently learned is pronounced “bell” not “be-all”) I implemented the idea. It is nothing awe-inspiring or great or anything, but the genesis of the idea seemed pretty neat to me and I’ve remembered it. Ha, someone uploaded it on YouTube, so you can see the opening here:

I suppose writing is like that too in that you can come up with general plot ideas, characters, situations, etc. anyplace, but eventually you have to sit down at a computer (anyone still use a typewriter?) and write down the specific words that make up the story.

 

A Minigolf Hole

The drive up to the meadow at Kaiser took about 50 minutes and on the way we’d drive past the Shaver Lake dam and the marina. The road there curves along the lakeside and I suddenly saw an alignment of geography that could be used as a hole in my game. When I got up the meadow that day I sketched out a design for the hole while thinking of any technical challenges that various elements would cause. Here is a view of the area courtesy of Google Earth:

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Shaver Lake marina and highway 168 along lakeside.

And here is the sketch of the minigolf hole:

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At this point the next work on a hole would be done in my home office where if I thought the concept was okay and had enough fun elements then I would spend a few days creating a playable 3D model of the hole. I would putt around on it, making different adjustments so that it played well and adding and/or removing different elements. Fun to play and works? Okay, good, keep it. Otherwise it goes into the trash.

The 3D model that I’d make didn’t have any of the artwork detail, only the shapes need to make the hole playable. The following scans are from the artwork design document. There would be three views of a hole: overview, tee, and top down. The top down view also had a very general description. (Sorry, printed them in black and white back then):
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After making sure that it played well the last step was to get a concept drawing done of the hole that could be used by the artists who would be rendering out all the artwork. I was very lucky because I worked with Don Carson on this project. He designed Mickey’s Toontown in Disneyland and a bunch of other stuff. Click here to see some of the neat things he has made. And some more here in Part Two. Really click – his stuff is awesome. His blog is here and is worth following. I always knew that the concept artwork that I’d get back from him on any of my games would be just amazing! Here is the concept he drew for this hole:

 

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Unfortunately I can’t show you how this hole turned out in the game because it wasn’t implemented. My design had 18 holes and I got them all to the playable state and Don did concept artwork for all of them, but because of budget issues only 9 of them were actually rendered off and put into the game. The rendering of all the artwork took a long time. Below is the Moon Base hole so you can get a sample of what a final hole did look like.

We had musical themes for each hole and that really added a lot to the atmosphere. Chris Stevens along with Ken Rodgers creates the music and sound effect. Chris has gone on to win multiple Grammy awards. Hit the play button and you can hear the moonbase theme.

 

Dynamite Cows

So we come to Dynamite Cows. I live high up in the mountains and will occasionally make trips to Fresno, the closest large town, to do shopping. When driving through the foothills I’d see lots of cows in the fields. One day for some reason the thought popped into my head, “How about herding cows with dynamite.” I actually spent some time developing a product from that idea. Here is the title screen. Sorry again, don’t have anything but black and white printouts with me now. I’m sure I have source code and nice real art backed up somewhere on a CD.

 

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Here is a very rough first pass at a game play screen.

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And here are a few of the cows. Wish I had a color version of these screens.

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Mercifully (for end users) I never got past some very preliminary work on this one. It was fun for me though and sort of a joke. “Mooooves” “Cowleidoscope” – shakes head. It is the nature of the beast to have things that don’t pan out. If you never have failed projects perhaps you’re not challenging yourself enough?

I’ll end with this little story from a biography of G. K. Chesterton.

Restaurants and pubs, in fact, not newspaper offices, were much more likely places to find Chesterton writing his articles. Charles Masterman remembered one such Fleet Street restaurant where Chesterton used to write articles,

mixing a terrible conjunction of drinks, while many waiters hovered about him, partly in awe, and partly in case he should leave the restaurant without paying for what he had had. One day…the headwaiter approached [Masterman]. ‘Your friend,’ he whispered, admiringly, ‘he very clever man. He sit and laugh. And then he write. And then he laugh at what he write.’

That seems to be the key for me. Enjoy what you do so much that you can laugh as you do it. My work has never felt like a job.

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