I have vivid memories of the original pitch meeting for Tron 2.0. Disney (a division called Buena Vista) came out to Monolith and we considered wearing mouse ears to greet them.
I was so excited to build a modern evolution of the classic Tron arcade game. Minigames, recognizers, and light cycles – it was going to be awesome!
When we sat down with Disney, however, they made clear the reason they chose Monolith for Tron 2.0. It was because they loved Monolith’s First Person Shooters like No One Lives Forever. Basically they wanted that experience in the Tron universe.
I have to admit feeling a little sad. I felt like players would have fallen out of their chairs to see an official high quality sequel to the arcade classic. At least Disney was open to the idea of keeping Light Cycles in the game. So I would just have to focus on designing a fun, modern version of Light Cycles gameplay.
As the lead programmer for the game, I oversaw development and I was responsible for designing and developing the Light Cycles system as well as the UI & UX for it.
The first design challenge was the elephant in the room. This was before the Tron movie sequel was even a thought. There was an expectation that light cycle jetwalls (the colored beams of light behind them) would stay around as long as the cycles do.
In a persistent 3D world, how can you make light cycles compelling when the jetwalls would eventually fill up the entire area?
One potential solution would be that gameplay could only last a few seconds (like the classic arcade version). That wouldn’t leave much room to explore the space of different player emotions, however. It also wouldn’t be very scalable.
Another solution was some external force (like the grid or computer) could frequently reset the jetwalls. I tried a few variants of that, and it ended up feeling arbitrary and frustrating.
The solution I landed on was to give the jetwalls a lifespan. After traveling a certain distance, the “tail” of your light cycle would disappear. It made the light cycles sort of feel like snakes that could travel at super-fast speeds (and could only turn at right angles) but it worked!
There were some interesting programming challenges with the client/server architecture of the LithTech engine. An example was client-side prediction and keeping the client & server in sync in multiplayer games. Fortunately, I was able to work them out and everyone on the team felt the light cycles were fun to play in both single player and multiplayer.
There was still something nagging at me, however. I wanted to see if I could capture the feeling from the movie when the main character entered “the maze”.
If you were driving that cycle, you could probably imagine how tense and claustrophobic it must have felt. So I tried a first person camera. That definitely captured the desired emotions, but it was impossible to play because you just couldn’t see enough to make strategic decisions.
Which leads me to a bit of real talk: There’s no way the light cyclists from the movie could have possibly survived without some kind of internal HUD on the cycles.
Okay, let’s get back to our suspension of disbelief. 😉
I tried a lot of things that didn’t work, and I kept coming back to the first person view as the key. So I went back to classic arcade games as I often did for inspiration. I thought, “Okay, what if it was sort of like Dragon’s Lair? You could ride into the maze, and there would be cues (like a flashing arrow). The cues would let you know which way to turn next and you would just have to pay attention to them and time the turns correctly.”
So I coded it up, hand-crafted a maze consisting of tunnels, dead ends, and one correct way out. I threw in the flashing arrow cues, and it felt GREAT! And players could experience these mazes as they exited each light cycle grid where the camera would automatically go into a first-person view. It was perfect!
If you’re familiar with Tron 2.0, you’re probably saying, “Hey, wait a minute. I don’t remember those sequences at the end of the light cycle grids…”
Yeah, funny thing about that. I wrote the code, created the objects, and instructed the level designers to build a maze at the end of each light cycle grid. I then went on to work on other parts of the game. So what happened?
Turns out the level designers were really busy just getting the core game done and polished. So these light cycle exit tunnels were low priority for them. And I totally forgot to check up on it until too close to the game’s launch.
So if anyone out there has access to the Tron 2.0 game and the LithTech editor, all it would take is a maze and the addition of a couple of objects for the cues and you’d be able to experience true light cycle claustrophobic, stressful…. hmm, okay maybe it wouldn’t have been so hot. Nevermind.
Tron 2.0 released in 2003 and received an 84 Metacritic rating and a 91 / 100 from PC Gamer with the quote, “No matter what you think of the movie, Tron 2.0 stands out as a thoroughly entertaining, infinitely playable, and visually spectacular experience.” PC Gamer [Nov 2003, p.96]
Here’s what I did on Sanity.