“Behold, the Master of the 99 Dragons.”
Today, I am happy to bring to you an interview with Last Dimension‘s Andrew Bado! With over fifteen years of games industry experience, he’s had a hand in all manners of the business — between his duties as a QA tester, pixel artist, programmer, and now running his own independent development studio. But this interview will take us back to the beginnings of his career in games software, to help shed some light on one specific title.
Between 2003 and 2005, Andrew was employed as a member of Majesco’s “Quality Assurance” team, and tasked with testing a variety of titles in their prototype forms. One release in particular serves as the primary focus of today’s interview: Drake of the 99 Dragons. Even after publishing our article attempting to examine the history and legacy of the title, I still had a number of questions about the much-maligned release. And luckily for me, Andrew had the answers.
This interview should hopefully serve to dispel a couple of long-standing rumors surrounding the game, provide some interesting insights into the game’s development, and to help illuminate the role that QA is meant to play in the production cycle of a video game. So, please to enjoy our first “Industry Interview” here on the Bad Game Hall of Fame!
“You’ve Gotta Put Some ‘Soul’ into It.”
Q: If you don’t mind, could we first start by discussing the rumor that the game was only given six months development time as per some supposed contract with Majesco? Does any of that ring true to you, or is it just one of those completely unverifiable myths that’s popped up?
Andrew: I can only tell you what I know as a lowly tester of this beast. I interviewed for a QA position at Majesco in May, and started a week later in early June. Drake was the first game I was assigned to, at which point it already had most of its levels in one state or another. Some looked almost complete, some were obviously unfinished, while others refused to load altogether. Either way, we’ve been told to test the game as if it was a full-on Beta. The development wrapped up in early October of that year.
Q: In a YouTube comment of yours I read, you claim that Idol FX “would not hear of any suggestions on improving the game (aside from some REALLY random ones)” when it came to QA feedback. Can you recall any other suggestions you provided that went un-implemented? What was your read on the attitude of the developers?
Andrew: The bugs you see in the Xbox version of the game have all been found by QA and reported to the developers numerous times. Majority of them existed from the day I first saw Drake, and have never been addressed even after multiple escalations. Throughout the beta, the engine kept on breaking in every conceivable way, and at least once a week we’d receive a build that was entirely unplayable.
A lot of attention was directed toward suggesting simple solutions to improve level design and signposting and possible ways to balance the game a bit, but the further along we went, the fewer suggestions there were, as we knew they would most likely be rejected or ignored. In the end we had to focus on Drake’s more glaring technical issues and abandon any hope of improving aesthetics and balancing.
Q: Do you recall if there were any plans to improve on the state of the cutscenes / voice acting, or is what we see in the final product always what we were gonna get? You seem to imply they may have been placeholders, much like the menu interface which eventually ended up shipping as.
Andrew: As far as I remember, the cutscenes were there from the very start, even before the levels all connected, so we in QA assumed they were placeholders. Then came the day when we were supposed to get “all final” cutscenes. We gathered around our lead’s machine waiting to see how they looked… and they were all the same, but of nicer compression quality.
Q: Were you able to come to grips with the much-maligned controls in your time testing the game, or was it always something like a struggle simply given the nature of the control scheme? Were there any parts of the game that struck you as particularly frustrating / “unfair to players” in testing?
Andrew: The game is pretty easy once you learn the level layouts, and get used to the control idiosyncrasies. By the end of the development the testers came up with “challenge modes”, like holding a controller upside-down, or resting it on top of ones head. The only parts that were still frustrating even after hundreds of hours of testing were the void stages near the end. Drake’s engine wasn’t meant to accommodate precision platforming, and that’s exactly what the game made you do there. Those platforming sections are by far the worst part of an already terrible game.
Testing the courier stage was pretty damn frustrating, as he never worked right no matter what the developer did (or didn’t do) to fix him. Everything would appear to be working great in one build, and we’d mark it as fixed, then the next build would break everything again. It was just a bug that never gone away.
One other moment I remember being a major test of patience was the portion where Drake has to jump between moving elevators. The devs just couldn’t get that section to work consistently. Drake would keep getting killed for absolutely no discernible reason, sometimes after dropping a few feet, other times when standing still, while other times he’d survive a massive multi-story drop, and get stuck at the bottom of the shaft. An unskippable 40-second elevator ride that preceded that section didn’t help either.
Q: The indication seems to be that Idol FX had grand ambitions for Drake beyond the video game — wanting to launch a comic book and toying with the idea of figures and all other manner of franchising. Do you believe this was their intent from the start? Were these plans more Majesco’s plotting, given their long-term franchise plans for something like Advent Rising?
Andrew: I was told that up until the very end the Idol FX guys were really proud of their product, and thought Drake was in fact a very good game. As far as that whole cross-media franchising goes, it was all Majesco. One of our big-shot producers at that time was really fixated on that stuff.
Q: You know, for as much as I’ve tried, I’ve never actually been able to get Drake out of bounds [in the PC version of the game]. In fact, there are bugs that seem to be consistently triggered in the Xbox version that I just can’t replicate on Windows. Do you reckon that the PC version being improved was a matter of it having more time in development, or was the Xbox version just a botched port of already-finished PC code?
Andrew: As far as I know, the Xbox version was the “master”, and the PC was just an afterthought, though it definitely got more dev time in the end. We kept testing the PC build for a few months following the Xbox game launch, at which point it all just petered out.
Q: Could you please tell the story about the “soul train” again? I nearly fell out of my chair reading your recollection of that.
A: We at QA considered the terminal-shooting “puzzle” to be very badly sign-posted, and thought that causing a collision of civilian trains to be in extremely poor taste. Our proposals for a less objectionable solution were ignored. We then suggested ways to better point out the importance of the terminal, maybe something like, have it visible to the player through a window, and maybe have a glowing cable lead to the tracks. That was also ignored. Lastly we begged them to maybe just put some of those glowing guidance arrows leading to the terminal, but that was rejected just as well.
That day one of our testers wrote the “soul train” bug out of sheer disdain for the situation. We all had a chuckle and promptly forgot about it… Until two days later. In the morning our department manager came up to the guy who wrote that bug and chuckled something like “Nice going man! Load up the train level, and take a look at what you’ve done, you monster!”
Q: Do you have a favorite memory from your days spent in quality assurance? (Whether it’s taken from your time on Drake or any other title.)
Andrew: Working at Majesco in general was a hoot and a half. The job paid terribly, and the hours were long, but the crew was amazing, and the company went out of its way to make our lives bearable with all sorts of freebies and perks. Most of our bosses were super cool and down-to-earth, regularly hanging out with us, the tester-monkeys. I keep in touch with many of them to this day.
Q: In your time as a tester, what would you say is the most important lesson you learned as you can apply to your current work as a games designer?
Andrew: Spending time in QA was a wonderful training for my life as a solo indie developer, where I have to do the majority of testing on my own. As a tester, you learn to glimpse games’ week spots and hammer them until something breaks. As a designer you need to anticipate those week spots, and insert safeguards whenever possible. I also learned that on occasion a gameplay situation would emerge for which the game’s engine is in no way prepared. In those cases it’s fully permissible for the designer to cheat in order to prevent players from breaking the game.
Q: Any final thoughts or closing statements on Drake of the 99 Dragons? Do you feel that it deserves the reputation it’s earned for itself?
Andrew: Drake of the 99 Dragons was a spectacular train-wreck from start to finish. We kept on waiting for that magic moment when everything starts coming together, but it never arrived. Meanwhile, the IdolFX guys were confident in their product, as appeared to be the marketing. I remember wondering, could it be that perhaps I was wrong, and the game was actually okay? Maybe I was just too close to it, too familiar with its flaws to see it for the masterpiece it was?
Turn out my self-doubt was unwarranted. Drake was trash all along : )
Q: Is there anything you’d like to plug or promote? Any projects currently in the works that folk can look forward to soon?
Andrew: Mystik Belle – a silly, colorful hybrid of a point-and-click adventure and a metroidvania game is currently out on Steam, PS4, Xbox One, and is coming to Switch later this year. It’s full of super-colorful pixel art, cute witches, monsters, backtracking and inventory puzzles. Those who grew up in Europe might remember the Dizzy series. Well, Mystik Belle is sort of like Dizzy, but with a bit more shooting, and less-annoying jump physics.
Also, my Legend of Iya project is still ongoing. *sigh*
Q: Thank you very kindly for your time, and for responding to what must’ve been a weird inquiry from me! Obviously, I appreciate your helping to paint a better picture of Drake’s development, and I wish you the best in all your future games industry endeavors!
Andrew: Thank you for being interested in a fascinating disaster of a game I was once involved with : ) It’s definitely been a ton of fun revisiting these memories.
ADDENDUM: After our initial exchange, Andrew provided a brief followup covering a handful more memories and details.
Hey! A small followup: I just finished replaying the PC version of the game, and I have to say, though the game is certainly bad, it is entertainingly bad. It’s a lot of fun to rediscover shortcuts through levels and safe-zones and AI blind spots during action sequences. It was also a blast finding all the glitches, collision holes, and AI path errors right back where I left them 14 years ago : )
Thinking back to my time at Majesco, being assigned to playing Drake was a lot more pleasant and entertaining than testing Black9. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if Idol FX were under a ridiculously aggressive deadline. The game’s producer was a cutthroat guy, and I wouldn’t put it past him to stack odds against a developer.
I still doubt the entire dev cycle was a mere 6 months, as by early June there was already a fair bit of the game done, and that’s 5 months before the project wrapped up. Also, around that same time Drake was shown off at San Diego ComicCon, and if you track down that demo, you will see that the game is pretty close mechanically and artistically to what it ended up at release (though that demo is a fascinating piece of history in its own right, as it features a unique mission not found in the main game).