Unpublished Q&A: Working on The Simpsons Game and writing a book 28 Jun 2022
Every once in a while, someone gets curious and contacts me about an interview. They almost never go anywhere, but this time I thought I'd post the responses to some questions on my time working on The Simpsons Game and the process of writing the book retrospective.

{How did you get to work The Simpsons Game?}

Ah, well at some point I had the very specific goal to work on a Simpsons video game. It could’ve been The Simpsons Shooter, The Simpsons Minesweeper, The Simpsons Electronic Gin Rummy. Any Simpsons thing in the form of a video game. I’d started working in video games before then, first as a guide writer and then as a game tester and marketing specialist at Vivendi Games, which had published The Simpsons Hit & Run in 2003. It seemed certain that would be my opportunity since that game had been such a runaway hit for Vivendi, but then EA announced their Simpsons video game in 2006! Foiled by fickle license holders.

So I made the very normal and fine decision to quit my good job in Los Angeles, apply for all the jobs I could find at EA’s Redwood Shores office, and bum around California while I waited anxiously to hear back. A friend of a friend at EA also placed my résumé in someone’s inbox and eventually, some three months later, I got the call. And even when I started working there as a tester, they put me on The Sims project! I worked as hard as I could for a couple of weeks and then had the kind of gutsy meeting with a manager that I probably wouldn’t have dared as a new employee if this were not my chance to work on The Simpsons Game slipping away. I simply said, “I’m here to work on The Simpsons Game,” but maybe more desperate. (Definitely more desperate.) That manager--who I don’t think I ever thanked enough--showed up at my desk on Monday, said “What the fuck are you doing here? You’re not on my team,” then informed me of my new role as a tester on The Simpsons Game.

{You've previously discussed testing the final cutscenes for the game on a difficult deadline. Describe the process.}

Oh boy, this story. I remember this story because it’s a woebegone tale of the game industry, when you’re sitting in a dark office like, “Hah, look at us! I’m so frustrated because I can’t complete a boss fight that I should be able to finish in two minutes! It’s three in the morning and we’re going mad! Ha ha… ha!”

The story is that someone well beyond my pay grade decided that the pre-rendered 3D cutscenes in the game needed to be reanimated in the hand-drawn style of the TV show. It’s a creative decision that makes complete sense for the game and the license. Unfortunately, this decision came just before the game had to be submitted to Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo. The result was a cascade effect of sudden additional work for a lot of people who had already worked long hours to make the 3D versions of those cutscenes look as good as possible. As game testers, we’re at the end of the assembly line, and it came down to a handful of us staying extra hours to make sure that we completed natural playthroughs of the game on various platforms and in all of the languages (probably the common set of English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish). I don’t think we left the building until the sun rose again. Mind you, this kind of crunch was not a regular thing on that particular project, and as hourly employees we earned significant overtime from the task. But I don’t remember the money I earned that night, just the glow of the televisions in the dark and the jeers from Homer en français.

{Describe any last minute changes or issues encountered during testing.}

The open secret of video games is that there are errors, issues, and last minute changes right up to the moment it’s final (not to be confused with “done”), and I’m sure we had some last minute snafus on The Simpsons Game. The experience with those cutscenes seems to have overtaken my other experiences of the final days of the project because I can’t actually recall any issues of significance at the end other than squeezing in entirely new cutscene files.

{What was the daily experience of testing on The Simpsons Game?}

Most of my time on The Simpsons Game (from June to October of 2007) was as a game tester on the PlayStation Portable version of the game. Our day to day was a little different from the majority of the team in that the PSP version of the game was kind of bottom tier in terms of the attention and budget it received. PSP was just a weak little platform (sorry PSP fans), and as such required significant optimization and related work to crunch the game down onto the handheld. The problem is it’s not much good to optimize and churn on a game that’s not done yet, so we received test builds for PSP fairly infrequently. Imagine taking an incomplete and broken game build and being told to get through it all and look for bugs. Now do it again tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that… but always the same build, the same bugs. We really had to wring some drops out of that stone to meet our daily and weekly bug quotas. Er, bug “targets.” In truth, I think a tester has more opportunities to really break the game when they have to cycle through the same areas on the same build again and again. I developed into a ponderous sort of tester and felt just fine taking my time combing through the game.

Our PSP team at EA Redwood Shores was perhaps three of us and a test lead. We were adjacent to the other “previous gen” testers assigned to the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 2 versions, and we had some contract QA assistance as well, but our little team spent the summer and early autumn caring after our previous gen babies as we wrote bug reports and kept track of our findings, while the much larger next gen team plugged away on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

{What were interesting discoveries or insights from writing a book retrospective about Simpsons video games?}

I released the book earlier this year, and I had a moment where I looked it over after the umpteenth editing pass and asked myself, in a kind of forlorn way, “Why did I do this? Who wants this?” Of course, I wrote the book because I had to write the book, this book that I’d wanted to read for almost twenty years about video games people generally don’t care about. It was a book for one, written by one, best accompanied by Chef Lonely Heart’s Soup for One. Fortunately, we live in a time when the Internet provides ample opportunities for creators to make something and release it unto the world, and when I realized that any ol’ goofball can write a book and I’m any ol’ goofball, off I went. I also received a shot in the arm from the work of creators like Talking Simpsons and Jeremy Parish, whose projects in pop culture criticism and history are inspiring.

Like the game guides I’d written for years, I quickly developed a sort of structure to each chapter, and that allowed me to envision the whole thing and see the light at the end of the tunnel. I played the games (again), watched YouTube longplays, read the game manuals, and followed the original developers when I could. I also read all the books and magazine pieces I could find, dating back to the beginnings of the TV show. I wrote on my phone while commuting on a train, paused when I was stressed or tired, and left the project to fester until the pandemic put us all in a stupor. Latching onto the idea of “doing something” rather than remaining locked indoors, I took the opportunity to go out and write again where I could, on my own and distanced, and that was the final stretch of writing the book in 2020.

Maybe you’ll get this or maybe I’m still just feeling loopy, but often when I write something it’s as if I’ve expunged it from my brain. It’s like it’s been jammed in there, all the information, and writing it down is the opportunity to dislodge it onto the page or screen. So when I thought about the surprising things I discovered, I drew a complete blank. Glad I wrote it all down!

  • Bart vs. the World (a game that is great and I will die on that hill) exists because its developers wanted to see Bart skateboard along the Great Wall of China.
  • Krusty’s Fun House would be much cooler if they’d allowed Matt Groening to pick the music.
  • The fan favorite Halloween level of The Simpsons Hit & Run almost didn’t make it into the game but the developers put in the extra time to make it happen, a labor of love.
  • Modders are a vital community for the longevity and preservation of video games (see: Donut Team’s incredible efforts in modding Hit & Run).
  • The Simpsons Tapped Out is the first writer-led Simpsons game. That’s good! But the game is an exploitative cash grab… that’s bad. The game is aware that it’s a exploitative cash grab and makes fun of the player for it. That’s good! It’s earned over two hundred million dollars and guarantees we will never see a normal video game featuring The Simpsons ever again. That’s... bad?

{As someone with experience and knowledge about these games, how good is the series or what's worth noting about them?}

I’m no businessman, but if I created a funny character, and someone drove a dump truck full of money up to my house in exchange for the right to slap that character on a mug, backpack, or in a generic video game platformer, I’d sign right up! Fortunately I’ll never be in this moral quandary (there is no quandary, get hecka paid for your labor and uplift others so they get hecka paid), but this is what comes to mind when I look at some of these video games. The early days really were about jamming out Simpsons video games as quickly as possible to strike while the license was hot, which means they were mostly forgettable video games developed as cheaply as possible. There are some stand-outs, such as Bart vs. the World or Bart vs. the Juggernauts, but they only stand out relative to the rest of the heap.

Fox’s takeover of game publishing duties yielded fewer games and the mixed bag that saw The Simpsons Skateboarding (ick) release a year before The Simpsons Hit & Run (we stan), followed by the audaciously titled The Simpsons Game. It had its issues for sure, but I’m still proud of what we did with that project and you can’t beat the production values that went into a story-driven, single player, action-adventure comedy. We don’t see many of those these days. Cherish them.

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