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Leading Toy Soldiers Into Battle

"Army Men" doesn't try to separate the men from the boys--its premise is that you can be both.

March 01, 2001|SCOTT STEINBERG |

Life's all play and no work at The 3DO Co., or so it would appear. Much of the publisher's recent success can be attributed to its popular "Army Men" games. Senior creative director Michael Mendheim comments on 21st century boys and the complexity of their toys:

Q: Why would grown-ups want to play with toy soldiers?

A: Most adults remember the toys of their youth and the joy that they brought. As a child, I played with toy soldiers, and I remember thinking how cool it would be if they were alive.

Q: How do you work nostalgia into the game?

A: Think back to your childhood and remember a time when you spent many magical hours on the living room floor or in the backyard waging imaginary battles with toy soldiers. We try to capture the spirit and imagination of youth in these games.

Q: Does a product focused on toy warfare have to be exceptionally violent?

A: Our mandate from Day 1 was to create a family-oriented video game. "Army Men's" success relies on humor and nostalgia--not violence. Soldiers don't die in "Army Men" games--they break apart into pieces of plastic, which can then be used to create reinforcements via molds. There is no blood in these games, and all violence is handled in a classic Warner Bros. cartoon style. We don't need to put gratuitous violence into our products to be successful.

Q: What kind of manpower is required to produce a fairly simple action game?

A: No game is fairly simple or easy. Each project requires a monumental effort by the development teams to produce an interactive game. For PlayStation 2 products, our development teams average about 30 to 35 people. This is split up mostly between three disciplines: art, design and engineering. The team and project are managed by a director and an executive producer. The director focuses on the team and project management. The producers watch the schedule and the books.

Q: Any formulas through which you develop a personality for a stand-out heroine like Vikki?

A: When doing character design, it is important that every character has a visual hook--something that stands out from the clutter and forces the viewer to remember. If the character design is missing this one very important element, it will fail. For Sarge, it was an unusually big chin; for Vikki, it was her green hair and eyes. Taking the Vikki character design one step further, we also knew we didn't want an oversexed vixen as a character because we're making family entertainment, and almost every video game that stars a female lead features her as a sex symbol. Vikki was designed to appeal to adult males in the following way: She's someone you would want to marry, not someone you would only want to spend one night with.

Q: Just how juvenile should a game like this be?

A: "Army Men" games appeal to a wide range of players. We are always cautious to have humor and story lines that appeal to both younger and older players in much the same way as "The Simpsons" television show appeals to a broad spectrum of ages. Younger viewers like the content but may not understand all the humor.

Q: Did you play with Barbie dolls as a kid?

A: Yes, actually. Barbie was always the damsel in distress waiting to be rescued by G.I. Joe. My sister would go nuclear when this happened.

Scott Steinberg is a freelance writer specializing in video games.

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