Remembering Rocket Jockey

rocket-jockey-videogame-designRocket Jockey, the Myth, the Legend

Rocket Jockey was the first and arguably the best published game I worked on. Published in 1996 to very little notice, RJ was well-received by videogame critics who happened to notice it. And it was worthy of notice, although I should note that the bulk of the credit goes to Denis Fung, our lead engineer; Elliot Fan, our art director; J Patton, our fearless leader; a zesty soundtrack/audio palette from Tom Hays; and Sean Callahan, who served not only as one of our lead programmers but also as the primary game designer.

What Is Rocket Jockey?

I think Next Generation (March 1997, not available online) summed it up nicely so I’ll quote them:

In Rocket Jockey, you’re the pilot of a homespun rocket bike (duh), competing in a variety of gladiatorial events. There’s only one catch: rockets go really fast, and they aren’t exactly known for their maneuverability. So each rocket bike comes equipped with steel cables and grappling hooks for snagging objects such as poles, people, and so on in order to change direction [and gank other players, of course-GWC]…

Once you get the hang of using the cables for turning and grabbing items, flying around on these rockets is bizarrely enjoyable… Each of the three events is different — for instance in Rocket Ball, players use the cables to grab oversize soccer balls and get them into the goal — but the real attraction is the sickly satisfying amount of violence you can inflict on the other jockeys.

I should also note that Next Gen gave the game four stars of five (withholding a star because of the lack of multiplayer, which they promised to award when the patch was released) and called it a “surprising mix of style, humor, and fun.”

The Rocket Jockey Prototype

The first glimpse I had of the game was in the conference room at our headquarters at 139 Townsend in the SOMA district in San Francisco, a spot that is now across the street from AT&T Park, the Giants’ home stadium. This was before I joined the team and before I started working as a developer. My official title at Rocket Science Games was system administrator; I worked in IT, keeping computers running and drop-kicking the mail server every few weeks (rest in Hades, ccMail).

rocket-jockey-scallahanOne of the devs let me take a peek at the demo, which was running on a PowerMac (please, no laughter) that they’d set up for a pitch with some publisher or partner. I had no idea what the concept was or how to control the demo.

And frankly it looked horrible. In the middle of the screen was a giant colored block, sitting on the ground in the middle of a field. Field being generous since it was a flat colored surface devoid of texture. I think there might’ve been a primitive figure sitting on the block; I can’t remember. If there was, the rider was probably composed of five boxes. I couldn’t figure out how to move the block or the figure, but clearly it was meant to be a man on a vehicle of some sort. I think I said something about tractor racing.

Of course, I was aware that it was a pre-alpha meant to provide proof of concept for basic gameplay mechanics. Pretty textures and models are irrelevant to gameplay. An intelligent developer can use a 10-poly model of anything to test the way a game actually moves and feels. If I’d known the keys to accelerate and grapple, I’d have left the conference room with a much better idea of what was to come.

Joining the Team

jpatton-rjbillboard Some months after, J Patton, the Rocket Jockey producer (the equivalent of a Hollywood director), asked me to come on to the team as a designer. I was electrified, even though J made it clear that it was a strictly volunteer gig. My IT responsibilities were still 100% in force.

J was taking a risk by offering me the opportunity. I could’ve easily damaged some of the game’s assets during production, or become a burdensome source of drama, tension, and incessant questions for the team when deadlines inched ever closer.

Of course, I was intent on contributing. I reported in every day at my desk upstairs, but rushed down to the RJ lair every day at lunch and as soon as the day ended. It was crunch already and we often worked deep into the night. I have a number of stories from this time that I’ll post later, but let’s just say that we knew it was something special when we rounded the final stretch.

Jamal Jennings, one of our lead testers, was a key indicator. Despite having played hour after hour of the game in all states of disrepair, Jamal fiercely championed the game and swore that he still enjoyed playing it after it was approved and left Test. That’s the only time I’ve ever heard a tester say that.

Blastoff… with a Thud

The whole time I worked on RJ, J struggled to get the game marketed to our satisfaction. I won’t point any fingers, but let’s just say that certain objectives were not completed properly to lay the foundation for a successful launch. Two examples come immediately to mind.

First, J once took me aside to show me an email from a friend of his who worked for an industry magazine. His friend was asking J for materials he could use to prepare a preview of RJ. “Where’s your game?” was the gist of the message. I have to admit that (being a callow youth) I wasn’t sure what was wrong. Of course, it’s clear to me now: it’s not the magazine’s job to beg you for material so they can write about your product. It’s your marketing department’s job to do the begging. At the time a game preview was one of the best marketing boons that could happen to your game, and a stepping stone to getting that all-important magazine cover. If J’s friend was poking him for materials, that meant that we had ZERO chance of getting covered at all the other magazines where we didn’t have connections.

Second example: We tiffed vigorously with marketing about the game’s box design, which as you can see was unlike any other box design on the planet in a bad way: a vibrant tattoo, basically, with a dirty tire-tread texture in the background. Huh? This design appeals to bikers and BMXers and tattoo artists, but really says nothing about RJ.

I mean, there’s not a tire or wheel anywhere in the entire game. Nothing in the design alludes to the game’s unique alt-reality retro feel. Or the cartoony quality of the action. Or the rockets. Or the three sporting event types (race, ball, and war). For all you know, it’s a game where you pilot a flaming skull into a big mountain of dirt.

As feared, the game didn’t do well, with one estimate of sales at 5,000 units. J probably has a more accurate number. Personally, it was the start of my videogame industry career, thanks to J and the RJ team, but the accomplishment does still feel hollow. In this industry you only get a few shots at a breakout success and in my opinion, this was ours.

Oh, one more funny story. We had a simple dinner at a nearby restaurant to celebrate the shipping of the game. J thanked me for working on RJ while still continuing with my IT duties, and Elliot Fan, our art director, was stunned. J laughed. It was the highest praise Elliot could have given me, because he’d been convinced I’d been working fulltime on the game.

The Tech

There were a few prominent technological innovations in RJ (not including all the subtle ones): 3D graphics card support, and LAN multiplayer support (lamentably delayed). At the time, 3D graphics were just hitting the market, and most 3D games required the purchase of a dedicated 3D card that you had to install in your PC chassis. The practice seems ridiculously convoluted now, when even the most primitive cellphone can render 3D graphics, but it was just gaining momentum at the time.

Update on May 15, 2014: J writes, “One other thing that I think was noteworthy for RJ was its support of force feedback sticks. Though at the time we didn’t have a distribution method to patch in the DLLs we counted on the peripheral guys to help. This was before it became a thing and was lumped in with console rumble (or vibration motors).”

The Reviews

“Rocket Jockey accomplished the impossible: it brought us a completely original gaming experience by breathing life into two game genres that have been done to death, first-person action and racing combat.” – cnet/gamecenter.com, Nominated for Best Action Game of the Year

“Addictive missile-riding mayhem” – CGW (3.5 stars out of 5, lack of multiplayer cited)

“Stylish, campy, and bizarrely addictive” – PC Gamer (85% rating)

“A wicked sense of humor and speed-demon action come together in a game as inventive as it is addictive.” – WIRED

If You’re Keeping Score

Your humble Game Writer Guy (me) had to compile a list of the levels I created for a job interview once. I had the list lying around in my RJ folder and here it is in case anyone cares:

Rocket War

Circuit 2: Beat Em & Bomb Em

Circuit 5: Life Sucks

Rocket Ball

Circuit  2: Puckhenge Circuit

5: Personal Injury Bowl

Rocket Race

Circuit 1: On the Rocket

Circuit 1: Driver’s Ed

Circuit 4: Cable Fodder

What a Ride

The sad thing is that the game kinda sold itself, but it just never had a legitimate shot. Everyone I’ve met who’s played it loves it passionately. And it does seem like a strangely high proportion of game industry professionals have played it. I also remember seeing shout-outs to RJ in reviews of Jet Moto, a spiritual successor that had more life and more sequels than RJ ever did.

Of course, RJ itself had its share of ancestors. Sean told us that Joust was a big influence, and certainly there’s an element of the EA motorcycling beat-’em-up Road Rash in there too. Whatever the influences, you have to admit that getting three unique modes for the price of one was not a bad deal, especially when you throw in the distinctive physics-based gameplay, the insanely cartoonish violence, and the spiffy soundtrack.

I personally tried to inquire about buying the property after Rocket Science Games went through bankruptcy, but the lawyer who represented the owners (the original investors in Rocket Science, to whom the assets returned after the collapse) never returned any of my repeated calls. I also gave that number to Jamal when he tried to investigate, with the same result.

Probably the highest praise is all the continuing efforts to revive and praise the game. According to Wikipedia at least five efforts have been made to remake the game in some form or other, usually as a mod of an existing game. There’s also a Facebook group for RJ which still has chatter and postings. Who woulda guessed.

And lastly, Ars Technica wrote an article about RJ recently titled “Masterpiece: Rocket Jockey for the PC — you heard me.” What more needs to be said after that?

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4 thoughts on “Remembering Rocket Jockey”

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience in the creation of Rocket Jockey. I’ve been a long-time fan of the game and enjoyed playing and sharing it with others over the years. I’ve spent time reverse engineering the level files to learn how to make my own as a hobby and have had a lot of fun and success doing so.

  2. Great article! Hope you’ll be sharing more about your time at RSG. Love your levels in the game, too. They stand out for all the unique little setups; especially the main concept on “Life Sucks.”

    Hey Koramado! I’ve still got that PDF on the dat format you put together in 2007 (thought I lost it, but had it on the old drive from that Win98 box that died around that time). Did you ever realize that those map coords were little endian? It’s cool the way you visualized the area as sectors and got it to work (with only a tiny loss of precision), but it wasn’t really that complex.

  3. Hey is this Todd? Thanks for the kind words!

    Nope had NO idea that there was any kind of pattern to my map coords although I suppose there is a possibility that I did that on purpose. If so it was probably for convenience’s sake :) although I am not sure how that would have been easier since our design tool was more like Visio than Excel.

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