Max Payne. A name that instantly sends almost any player to a cold New York night. A sad tragic story of revenge, deserted gloomy locations and a calm voice-over of the protagonist. The developers from the Finnish studio Remedy Entertainment have been aiming from the very beginning to create a unique game with a strong charismatic character in the foreground. According to them, in development they professed the concept: “If you are not unique enough, you are a follower. And followers, by definition, cannot become leaders.”
Interestingly, at the time of the development of their main hit, Remedy did not have a huge string of trial and error behind them. The company made a name for itself with the release of Death Rally for DOS, which was critically acclaimed and sold a solid 90,000 copies, giving the developer a great start.
For their next project, Remedy wanted to try something completely different and went to their publisher Apogee Software (later 3D Realms) with three completely different concepts. They offered a racing sim, RTS space battles, and a top-down isometric shooter in the vein of Loaded called Dark Justice. According to Apogee founder Scott Miller, Remedy was enthusiastic and even offered to work on three games at the same time.
Scott suggested focusing on Dark Justice and turning it into a successful franchise with a strong story and a main character who would be the face of the series, similar to Duke Nukem. He also offered to translate the game into full 3D, as in the same Tomb Raider.
For such an idea, a competent, memorable name was needed, which would immediately reveal the essence of the main character. Scott recalls: “I came up with the idea of naming the character Max, but we all couldn’t figure out the last name. At one point we were going to call it Max Heat and even spent $20,000 to trademark it worldwide.» Tired of trying combinations, Remedy sent the publisher a list of the best combinations they could think of, and luckily Max Payne was among them.
Miller still believes that the name was one of the strongest marketing decisions in the promotion of the game. It was not hackneyed, no warrior, dark, or shadow. Ideally, the title should say something about the product. Like superhero comic book titles, Max Payne captures the essence of the entire series. Whatever setting the protagonist is placed in, the leitmotif is clear. For example, the name Tomb Raider (Tomb Raider) implies a certain context, and if there are no tombs in any part, then the name will no longer display the game.
By the way, the comparison with Tomb Raider is not accidental. The franchise was at its peak at the time, and Remedy deliberately omitted Tomb Raider signature elements like acrobatics and swimming from Max Payne in order to assert itself as a more unique project.
When development began, screenwriter Sam Lake joined the team. He not only gave his face to the protagonist, but also offered to replace all the cut-scenes with images in the style of graphic novels. Thus, they found a less expensive and more productive way to make videos, and besides, the player turned on the fantasy and imagined the unsaid nuances. A fan of the Dirk Bogarde films, Lake filled the script with film noir to the brim and turned the plot into a tragic and dark tale of revenge. It is worth noting that Lake did not write the script alone. Everyone on the team could suggest a different idea, and during the development of the script changed several times. For example, in the early version of the game, the bandits who took the very drug «Valkyrie» did not just go crazy, but were deformed and covered with deformities.
In addition to a strong storyline, Remedy wanted to stand out with its gameplay, and for this, the bullet-time effect was invented. Again, Scott Miller played a key role in this idea, and although slow-motion battles were already present in the industry, Miller came up with something that took this effect to a new level.
“I suggested giving the player the ability to turn on slow motion at will, and while the environment was practically frozen, Max himself could continue to aim in real time.” By the way, it was because of the addition of bullet-time to the gameplay that the team abandoned the development of multiplayer.
«It’s incredibly difficult to make the game run slowly for one player, while for the second action will flow at normal speed.»
Typically, bullet-time is most associated with the 1999 Wachowski film The Matrix, which brought the element into the mainstream. Remedy has been hard at work on Max Payne since 1996, and there’s still a common misconception that the game took the effect from the movie. The Finns were not taken aback and did not take offense, but began to competently use the current situation and place references to The Matrix in the game. For example, the shootout in the pillared hall on the way to the elevator is a direct nod to a similar scene from the movie.
A chic addition to bullet-time was jumping with the ability to turn 360 degrees. To achieve this, the developers came up with a technique for blending eight different jump animations. The only thing that did not work was to allow the player to aim up or down while doing this.
Another important decision related to gunfights was the rejection of the standard method of calculating the trajectory of bullets. At that time, shooters used the hitscanning technique, in which at the time of the shot a straight line is drawn from the weapon to the first oncoming object. The developers decided to abandon this technique and instead “launch” bullets at “real” speed.
At the time of the development of Max Payne, the now ubiquitous Motion Capture system was not so popular and, moreover, an extremely expensive tool. Instead of using it, Remedy invited a martial arts and weapons specialist to the gym and filmed him falling, jumping and running. Then one of the animators, Peter Haiba, manually redraws each frame.
Peter recalls: “I suddenly realized that I could copy animation from other videos in the same way. So I ended up watching Hong Kong action movies and copying their signature falls during fights.”
The lack of Motion Capture also played a role in the decision to use photographs for faces. As models, Remedy hooked up everyone they could reach. In the game, in addition to the faces of the developers themselves, you can meet employees from a nearby office, friends, and even parents of Remedy staff.
Initially, Sam Lake described New York in terms of pop culture-inspired images, while he himself, and most of the people in the studio, saw the city only at the airport. Therefore, for a more realistic depiction of New York, it was decided to send six level designers to the Big Apple.
Under the supervision of two former police bodyguards, they traveled for a week through the most unfavorable areas of the city. Bronx, Harlem, Queens, Coney Island, Brooklyn. They visited former drug-addicted houses and abandoned buildings with stray rabid dogs. As if in a movie, bodyguards led them through the rooms with a pistol pulled out of a holster. Exploring Little Odessa, they ran into a group of suspicious individuals who became interested in their photographic equipment. The latter decided to fall behind only at the sight of the guard’s pistol. In the end, the brave designers were even lucky enough to appreciate the headquarters of the New York mafia, but they never got the courage to get out of the car.
The result of the entire outing: 5,000 photos and 10 hours of video to create a signature gangster setting and atmosphere.
Apogee Software didn’t want to make a fuss about the game from the very beginning and left this task to the players and the press. The first trailer was shown back at E3 1998 and immediately attracted a lot of attention. The release was scheduled for the summer of 1999, but was eventually pushed back to an agonizing two years. Almost everything, including graphics, lighting and textures, has been reworked more than once.
The result of the five-year efforts of the developers is known to everyone. A huge number of awards, ratings from respected publications on average no less than 9/10 and a tangible contribution to the action genre as a whole thanks to the branded elements of the game. And all this was achieved on a budget of only three million dollars over five years of development. The game was chided a bit for the lack of facial animation and excessive scripting of the behavior of the enemies, but it was just a drop in the ocean.
Later, Max Payne made its way to other platforms, including the Game Boy Advance, iOS, and Android. While the phone versions are virtually identical to the original, the GBA version has strayed far from canon. This, of course, is still the same Max Payne, but made in isometric, which Dark Justice once conceived.
Six months after the release, everyone learned the news that Take-Two Interactive (Grand Theft Auto, Jagged Alliance 2) had bought the rights to the Max Payne franchise from Remedy Entertainment and Apogee Software for ten million dollars. Take-Two also announced that it is hiring Remedy to develop the sequel on an $8 million budget.
The resulting Max Payne 2: Fall of Max Payne, with another play on words in the title, destroyed all the stereotypes that usually haunt unsuccessful sequels, and once again demonstrated the skill of the guys from Remedy.
Screenwriter Sam Lake, this time choosing not to give his face to the protagonist, concentrated the story around the development of a love relationship between Max and Mona, an assassin from the first part. Lake’s goal was to «keep what worked and fix what didn’t.» As a result, we are immersed in an even more noir, detective and more unexpected story, three times longer than the original.
Branded bullet-time has also undergone significant changes. Now, by killing players, the player could extend the slowdown with successful hits and, due to this, not be afraid to get involved in the thick of the firefight. When reloading, Max gets down on one knee and the camera pans 360 degrees, allowing the player to coordinate their next moves.
The second part was also well received by the public and critics, but the game’s low sales forced the management of Take-Two Interactive to rethink the possible future of the franchise.
This is where Remedy Interecative’s role in the Max Payne series ends. Max Payne 3 has already been dealt with by Rockstar Games and, according to the Finnish developers, they did a great job. Lake was glad that Rockstar brought their own style to the franchise rather than trying to play on a successful formula.
“They should do their job, we should do ours. If we start to parody each other, it will ruin everything.”
At the moment, there is no clear confirmation whether Max Payne 4 is in development or not. Despite the rather great success of the third part, many fans would like to see the Finns at the helm of the fourth. But for now, all we have are the heartwarming and hopeful words of Sam Lake:
«Who knows, if the opportunity presented itself, I’m sure we’d do something cool.»