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23rd July 2016
Retrospective: The Story of Max Payne
How The Series Impacted The World of Video Games

Today the Remedy community is celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of Max Payne; the developer's first step into AAA territory and a game which not only shaped the company but the industry too.

To celebrate to occasion, I wanted explore how one of my favourite games came together and the impact that it's had over the years.



Moving From Death Rally to Max Payne

For Remedy, huge changes were happening within a very short amount of time.

The company was formed in Espoo in late 1995, originally stationed in a basement belonging to one of founding member's parents. Not long after, in September 1996, the team celebrated a successful release of their first game, Death Rally for the MS-DOS. The title was a top down racer which demanded an aggressive play style and quick reflexes. The launch of Death Rally proved to the company that they had a successful team, combination and ambition, a realisation which led to them reaching for more daring projects.

Initial prototypes bridged the gap between Death Rally and the final concept of Max Payne. At first, Remedy looked creating at a truck war game called Dark Justice which, according to Markus Mäki's Seven Years of Max Payne* GDC talk in 2004, had a concept demo by November 1996. There had also been talks about diving into the action RPG genre, similar to Zelda, and a space simulator. Speaking on the transition between projects in the retrospective documentary The Story of Remedy, Sam Lake (now Creative Director at Remedy) stated, "There were a lot of different ideas and concepts for different games floating around and one of those was a very early draft of what then became Max Payne." With the sudden jump in project size, concept and goals needed to be nailed down before work could begin, and throughout 1997-1998 the team of just a dozen did exactly that.
Max Payne might not have felt like a natural next step, demanding upgrades and overhauls to every aspect of game design that they had experimented with for Death Rally. In an retrospective interview with GameSpot in October 2011, Lake described the team as being hungry to prove themselves, "a talented team but inexperienced in many ways, but very, very enthusiastic." The studio now had to suddenly deal with 3D graphics, animations, voice acting and interactive narrative. Their first title had gained them connections and support, and shipping the product gave the team experience in the stages of finalising and working with publishers. But still, Max Payne was beyond anything that had been attempted. "It really was a blessing back then," he continues in the interview, "we really didn't know what we were getting into." In his Jeux Video Masterclass in 2015, Lake also added that at the start "it was just a group of young guys, no one had any real experience in these things. We were just making it up as we went along, and dreaming big and having ambitious ideas. "


Inspirations

The original concept for Max Payne was inspired by Film Noir protagonists, both in how the character expresses himself and how he behaves. But inspiration was also taken from legends to illustrate the fracturing reality their protagonist feels and how, for him, "real life completely loses all meaning" as Lake describes it in the Gamespot interview.
For combat, Remedy looked at Hong Kong action films. The ability to slow down time and shoot gave the series extra intrigue, allowing the player to feel badass as they leap at bad guys, both guns blazing. Admittedly after a while things could get pretty comical, and it wasn't too long before players intentionally started crashing into paper shredders, door frames and walls and slowly sliding downwards, Max's face still in his strained look of concentration.



How the Company Changed

In an interview with GameSpot, former Managing Director Matias Myllyrinne describes the Max Payne development process as being the formation of two entities: "We not only built the game itself, but we built the studio in the process." With the need for expansion, the studio relocated to an office building in Espoo to accommodate a larger team which grew to the lofty heights of 20 whole people by the end of development. By modern standards the new team size was pretty small, but for a recently formed independent studio in the late 1990s, it was substantial and the rate of growth was a positive reflection of the company.

During the development, there were also some internal conflicts between two teams on the direction of the company. Many members at Remedy had a background in the Demoscene, an international subculture which strived to push computers to their technical and artistic boundaries, and that background was useful in several ventures. Some wanted to continue creating video games, others wanted to pursue 3D benchmark software development. After negotiations, a sister company called Futuremark was formed in December 1997. The company now has offices in both Espoo (HQ) and California (sales office). Futuremark was acquired in 2014 by UL, a safety consulting and certification company. Remedy still remains an independent studio.

The Old Remedy Logo. I see both an eye and a very surprised Pac Man.

The developer's logo at the time had also caused some hiccups, with similarities being drawn Remedy's and LucasArts'. The company was already in the process of creating a new logo for their brand, so no action was taken. The bullet logo was unveiled in April 1999 with a press release which read "The idea of changing the company's look had been on the agenda since early last year. The final push to go ahead with the plan came when LucasArts, a U.S. game company, contacted Remedy and said that Remedy's logo too closely resembled that of LucasArts'. Not seeing any point in modifying the old logo, Remedy removed it from its web sites, and replaced it with a question mark." Max Payne was the first Remedy title to ship with the bullet logo.



Technical Challenges

Over the years the demands and exceptions of video games have changed, and the industry with it. In The Story of Remedy, Lake describes how game development for start up companies have changed. "This was the mid-nineties and it was still, at that time, possible for a handful of individuals to actually make a video game or a computer game by themselves, and a top notch game at that. So it was an ambitious dream even then, but something that was within the reach."
For Max Payne, Remedy had a budget of three million dollars, spread over a four and a half year development period. While the team was small, the project was not, and it often required the developers to look elsewhere to save costs. One of the ways this was achieved was by using the graphic novel format as a storytelling technique compared to using cinematics which were often expensive to make and clunky. Using sequential still images also eased the pressure of narrative constraints, as Remedy entered the project with a heavier focus on storytelling and a 150 page script.

To get the aesthetic and atmosphere for their levels and art just right, a group of six developers (aided by former NYPD officers) travelled from the outskirts of Helsinki to the centre of New York on an early morning flight. Their journey and adventures, both glamorous and at times terrifying, were recorded on a special article entitled Remedy Designers Visit New York. "We wanted every level in the game to spell New York in big, bold neon letters." Begins the article, "We had all the levels planned out, from the deepest crime-ridden slums to the glittering skyscraper heights, we knew exactly what we needed. There was only one way to get it. We had to go and do it ourselves." The team classed the expedition as a success, returning to Espoo with 5000 reference photographs and approximately 10 hours of video to be used for textures, atmosphere, audio and locations.

Saku Lehtinen in New York. Screenshot from the Jeux Video Masterclass. Click HERE for the interview.
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With a small studio, developers often had to take on multiple roles, branching out their skills. For many people that required them to be in charge of several elements of game design, but it also sometimes had them step in front of a camera to be incorporated into the game, or recruit others to do the same. Lake, who had portrayed the protagonist in the game, also involved his parents as villains, with his mother approached to play the main antagonist Nicole Horne - which must have made Christmas dinner a tad awkward affair.

Like with Death Rally, Remedy built a custom game engine. Called MAX-FX which was designed to carry the story and technological weight that the team had targeted for. In addition to releasing the game, the developers had ambitions to include an editor to allow the community to create their own adventures. "It will be possible for end-users to do modifications to the game," describes Markus Stein (Lead Programmer on Max Payne) in an interview with GameReactor. "Naturally, some of the extensions and changes will require more work than others. Integrating for example new maps into the game will be comparatively easy, using our custom level editor MaxEd. We are planning on posting examples on how to do certain modifications to the game after the release. We are looking forward to seeing all kinds of modifications made to the game!"


The Impact of Delays

In an industry which demands quick development but heavily criticises rush, Remedy's focus was always on making games they could be proud of; a studio philosophy that gave birth to the tongue-in-cheek phrase "when it's done" in response to release date queries.  So how did the game change between 1998 and 2001? One way was through the game's asethetics. In early footage, many of the textures and graphic novels panels were hand drawn by Kiia Kallio with some photographs used as reference. But later, the team embraced, with some initial resistance, using photographs and manipulating them to bring increased realism and speed to the graphic novel production.

Graphic Novel from The Story of Remedy Documentary.

The world got its first glimpse of Max Payne at E3 1998, just a year after the formation of Futuremark and at the end of what Remedy later refers to as the concept period for the series. The beta footage revealed the game's graphic novel cutscenes. It also featured  lots of shooting, admirable shoulder pads and tasers as an optional weapon for the protagonist. Remedy also teased the release date as being Summer 1999. Yet it would be an additional two years after that before players would be able to get their hands on the game.

While Remedy was secretive during their work on the game, E3 demos allowed audiences to see how the game evolved over the years as upgrades made along the way. At E3 1999, Max Payne returned again with an updated trailer featuring Remedy's brand new bullet logo. The trailer was similar to what Remedy had shown previously, with a focus put on the game's combat elements. New additions to the game could be seen in the video, such as Max using a sniper rifle on an unsuspecting goon. While the game already generated interest, it was at the following year's show where it really shone. With new textures, realistic physics, upgraded character models and more, the trailer showed a more detailed and solid game, closer to the final product.

Max Payne was both a large project and a large undertaking for a small hopeful team based just outside Helsinki.  "It might have been that if everybody had known how many years this kind of a project will take and how hard it will be, y'know, it might have been that quite a few would have said "yeah, no thanks" but we didn't. We didn't know," Lake admits, reflecting on the development days during his Masterclass. He continues later in his conference, addressing the elements which led to the longer development cycle: "part of it was creating the tools and creating the technology, it evolved."



Press Reception During Development

"Demoing the game, the queues were just getting longer and longer. Everyone wanted to get in and see the demo, and we were getting a lot of really raved reviews on the game," Lake describes to Gamespot, reflecting on trade shows. One of those reviews appeared in the May 2001 issue of PC Gamer, who published their exclusive hands-on preview of the title, describing the game as "simultaneously an absorbing crime drama, a stunning visual achievement of cinematic ambition, and a relentlessly rewarding shoot-'em-up." Yet it was the violent "shoot-'em-up" element which also attracted concern from some, especially with marketing focusing on the game's Bullet Time element. "I think of Max very much along the same lines as a good action movie. If you want to start banning things like the Die Hard movie trilogy or John Woo movies, then you are starting to cut a lot of the fun entertainment away from a lot of people," explains Project Lead, Petri Järvilehto in an interview with Voodoo Extreme. "I think what we are doing, regardless, is a crime thriller. We are telling a storyline. The violence itself is not an end."

June 1999 Issue of Computer Gaming World featuring a very early Max Payne.

One thing which became synonymous with the series for fans and the press, is the "Payne Face" or "The Grimace," which became the protagonist's most recognised expression. Because of technical limitations, facial animation consisted of a series of images which would change depending on the character's actions. There would be an expression to show hurt, pride and determination. When Max is shooting, his facial expression reflects the latter, his eyes squinting in response to the muzzle flash whenever the shoot button would be pressed. "The Grimace" would only ever appear when the gun was being fired, which meant that most of the time it would be hidden. But leading up to the game's launch, the Grimace was everywhere. "We wanted those muzzle flashes in the screenshots; capturing screenshots for marketing purposes," Lake explains in his Masterclass conference. "There always had to be a muzzle flash, which means the gun has been fired, so there is always that expression."

On 15th July 2001, the game reached gold status. Eight days later, on 23rd July, the game was released.



The Launch and Critical Reception

Originally planned to be a PC exclusive title, in April 2001, 3DRealms announced that a PlayStation 2 version of the game was currently in the works by Rockstar Canada and set for release later that year. "The line between special effects in movies and videogames is narrowing," explains Sam Houser, President of Rockstar. "The technology behind PlayStation 2 allows us to take action to a level not yet achieved in videogames. With Max Payne, you will see the evolution of gameplay." The PS2 and XBOX ports were released in December 2001, just a few months after the PC version.

The ESRB certificate for Max Payne. Posted by 3DRealms

Max Payne has sold over 5 million units to date worldwide and achieved recognition by Microsoft and Sony, who respectively awarded it "Greatest Hit" and "Platinum Hit" statuses. The game was also awarded a BAFTA, calling it the best PC game of 2001, and a Golden Joystick Award, among many others.

Although Max Payne had been a success, there were some concerns at Remedy. Described in the Seven Years of Max Payne GDC talk, the studio was eager to prove that the title wasn't just a "one hit wonder" and that the developers were capable of delivering further hits. After the successful release of their first AAA game, the team began developing the sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, which came as a surprise to some. "I probably wouldn't have killed off all of the characters in the first game if I had known a sequel was coming," jokes Sam during the Masterclass talk.

15 Years Later

Over the past fifteen years, a lot has changed with the Max Payne series. After the release of the original title on 23rd June 2001, Take Two purchased the Max Payne IP from Remedy and Apogee, announcing the transfer in May of the following year. The MP franchise had brought them $10 Million,  969,932 shares of restricted common stock (stock with conditions) and "certain future development incentives" according to the Take-Two press release. In the same press release, the company announced that Remedy were developing the next instalment in the Max Payne franchise, for release in 2003.
With 2.75 million units of Max Payne sold, it was clear that Remedy had a commercial success in their hands. Following critic and community feedback, Remedy began work on a sequel. With a higher budget and a solid foundation to build the next adventure on, development was much quicker. The sequel, titled Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, was released in October 2003.

Later, and with the IP in new hands, Remedy turned their attention to new adventures and moved from the overwhelming complexity of New York for the unsettling quietness of Bright Falls. Trees replaced skylines and a life of tragedy was replaced with a life of privilege.** The Alan Wake series, whilst not an immediate commercial success, has gained popularity and a loyal fan following over the years and in May 2015, Remedy announced that the game has shipped more than 4.5 million units.

Despite Remedy moving onto new projects, the Max Payne series, now under new management, continued. In 2008, the Max Payne movie came out, with a reception of mixed reviews. While the film was aesthetically beautiful, it was a departure from the original material, full of loose ends and contradictions. The game's protagonist was inspired by the Film Noir genre, and drawing on the films of Humphrey Bogart, known for the intelligent suave and sophistication he gave to his characters. The movie portrayed Max more as a desperate animal, constantly running away from his past, but in no certain direction. With an estimated budget (according to IMDB) of $35 million, the Max Payne movie grossed $85,416,905 by 2013.

On 15th May 2012, Rockstar celebrated the release of the third instalment of the franchise, simply titled Max Payne 3. In the game's events, Max travels to São Paulo, accepting a job offer as a bodyguard after accidentally murdering the son of New York mob boss DeMarco, and then DeMarco's gang, and then DeMarco. Max Payne is very clumsy. In the hopes of making a new life for himself and putting the past behind him, Max throws away his leather jacket and grows a beard, but his past soon catches up to him when his clients are aggressively kidnapped. Don't send a Christmas Card to this guy, it's just going to end in tears. (And not of the Health variety.)
The third instalment was awarded with a 87% review on Metacritic from critics, who praised the game for dark continuation of Max's story and development of the Bullet Time mechanics the series has become best known for. While the game was being developed by Rockstar, Remedy was brought in from time to time in a consultant role, and also contributed to the published graphic novel which detailed Max's life before his family's death.

Max Payne has greatly impacted the way video games are developed and played. It established Bullet Time as a cool combat mechanic, still frequently used in games today. Games such as Red Dead Redemption, Tomb Raider, F.E.A.R, as well as many others, features the ability to slow down time during fight scenes to create cinematic gameplay. Yet what made the game stand out was the presence of a strong story and memorable protagonist.  For many titles at the time, the narrative was often an overlooked element or something that was added near the end. It proved that you could create a game in which the narrative drove the levels while simultaneously delivering on engaging combat without one element taking anything away from the other.

Footnotes:
*D'awww, seven years. :')

** While Alan Wake is caught in a downwards spiral, he lives a life that many writers dream about having.  At the start of the story, he's already a successful writer; he's respected, and he has a thriving fanbase. He's doing very well, surrounded by supportive friends and family; the kind that go above and beyond to help him. It's only in the DLC packs and Alan Wake's American Nightmare that Wake realises and acknowledges how secure his life had been. Especially compared to Max Payne who can't think of someone as "okay" without death suddenly happening to them, Wake's life isn't too bad.

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