If you’ve ever played Bart vs. the World or Bart vs. the Space Mutants or The Simpsons Wrestling you know that — almost as a rule — games based on The Simpsons suck.
The early exception, of course, is the 1991 Konami arcade game which wisely mirrored the playability of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games. Sadly, after that, things took an immediate downturn and for the next decade Simpsons games were terrible. Even if you have some misplaced nostalgia for something like Bartman Meets Radioactive Man, in your heart, you know it’s a bad game.
While The Simpsons was in its golden age during the ‘90s, games based on the property were stinkers year after year and, at first, 2001 looked to deliver much of the same. In April came the forgettable Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror for Game Boy Color. A month later was the notoriously abysmal The Simpsons Wrestling, a game so bad that Matt Groening demanded his name be taken off the cover. But then, in November of 2001, came The Simpsons: Road Rage and, for a brief moment in time, games based on your favorite Springfield family enjoyed a beautiful renaissance.
Sure, Road Rage was just a rip-off of Crazy Taxi — the fans knew it, the developers knew it, and the creators of Crazy Taxi most definitely knew it — but Road Rage was still a huge success. It was fun to play, it was written by official Simpsons writers, it featured the voices from the show and it was the first game to successfully realize the characters in 3D. Which is why, in short order, The Simpsons: Road Rage became a bestseller for the PlayStation 2.
Two years later, the game would be eclipsed by the far better The Simpsons: Hit & Run — which realized Springfield as a Grand Theft Auto-type sandbox game — but for a good two years Road Rage was the best Simpsons game since the Konami classic and without it, we never would have gotten Hit & Run — which, to this day, is widely considered the best Simpsons game of all time.
Here, Input talks to the developers who made The Simpsons: Road Rage, and they share the stories of how the game started, the enormous headache it was to develop, and even the lawsuit the game brought about.
“Simpsons games don’t sell.”
Michael Pole, former Senior Vice President of Product Development for Fox Interactive: When I started with Fox Interactive in 2000, I was talking with the president, Steve Bersch, and he asked me what I thought we should be doing as a company. I semi-jokingly told him that you had to get out of the sports business because you couldn't compete with EA Sports, the company that I had just left. Instead, I told him, “You’re sitting on one of the biggest franchises in the world, The Simpsons,” and he looked at me and said, “Michael, Simpsons games don’t sell.” So I told him, “If you made some good ones, they would!”
Up until that point, the problem with Simpsons games was that sometimes people think the brand will carry the day. They thought if you had a big label, you could put sh*t in a box and it would still sell. There was a time where this was more or less true, but that started to change when the internet became a bigger part of our lives. If a game sucked, you didn’t have to wait a month to find out from a magazine, you knew within days. Gradually, the industry began to realize this and, generally, they began to do justice to the brands they licensed.
So, I got the ball rolling on Road Rage, but the person who really made it happen was John Melchior. He was the genius that made it happen.
John Melchior, producer of The Simpsons: Road Rage: Road Rage was one of the most turbulent experiences of my career and it gave me more grey hairs than just about any game I've ever done. Not only did I have my bosses at Fox Interactive, but on The Simpsons side there was Gracie Films and Matt Groening — and they often don’t agree on things. Later on, towards the end, EA Sports came in as the distributor, so I had to serve all these different masters while also overseeing what was happening at Radical Entertainment, which Fox Interactive had hired to make the game.
It began as The Simpsons: Racing! and we brought that idea to Groening and Gracie Films, but they didn’t want to do a kart racing game. Every cartoon had a kart racing game and they didn’t want to be like everyone else. Also, Groening said he needed two people in a car together because you needed characters talking to each other to get the comedy.
So we went back to the drawing board, and it wasn’t like we said, “Let’s do Crazy Taxi,” but if you do the math, it kind of had to be that. It needed to be a racing game but it couldn’t be a kart game, you needed two characters in a car together and you needed to intersect as many characters as possible. It had to be a game where you could pick up and drop off.
We came back to them and said, “What if we do a delivery service game?” and we did some mock-ups and we built Homer’s car and they really liked that. We also did a prototype of just Homer driving down a street with a bunch of placeholder Springfield buildings to "Highway to Hell" by AC/DC and that sold everybody — Fox, Gracie, Matt, they all loved that.
“They wanted us to build Springfield, but we had to build a game.”
Melchior: We were looking to create the most authentic Simpsons game that had ever been made. Not only did we have Matt and Gracie Films, but we got the writers involved and the actors too — we wanted this to really feel like The Simpsons.
One thing we had to do early on was to narrow down our rules of the game — who has a car, who doesn’t have a car, where characters would go, things like that. Matt, Gracie Films, and the writers came up with the title of Road Rage and it was perfect. The writers also came up with the conceit that Mr. Burns was buying up all the mass transit in Springfield and replacing them with radioactive buses — which is why so many people started becoming taxis in town.
Matt Selman, writer and executive producer on The Simpsons, and writer on The Simpsons: Road Rage: Wait, Mr. Burns bought up mass transit? That was the plot? I don’t remember any of this. I remember Hit & Run a lot better, but the way this kind of thing normally worked is that they’d come to the writers and say “Do you want some extra money?” Then we’d have to write like, 20 lines of Homer being happy and 20 lines of Homer being sad. I remember there being a joke about Moe landing on his hemorrhoids — that’s the most vibrant memory I have of this game.
Although, with everyone in town becoming unauthorized taxi drivers, I wonder if you can add Road Rage to the long list of The Simpsons predictions that came true. We predicted Uber!
Melchior: It was difficult to realize these characters in 3D and it was hard for Gracie and Matt to see them that way. Lisa, for example, her head looks like a mace in 3D, so we had to be very cognizant of angles. As a reference, I know the artists turned to that “Treehouse of Horror” episode where Homer becomes 3D. They also used the Playmates “World of Springfield” toys as a reference, as well as some Burger King toys. Really though, there weren’t a whole lot of 3D representations of the characters up until that point, so it took a lot of back-and-forth.
The vehicles were hard to get approved too. For some, they were obvious — like Homer’s pink sedan and Otto’s bus — but others we had to pitch to them. For Frink’s car, we pitched a spaceship, then Matt Groening came back with sort of a mix between a spaceship and a Star Wars landspeeder.
We also got notes that the city wasn’t dirty enough. They wanted leaves of paper, they wanted cracks in the sidewalks, they didn't want this perfect suburbia because that's not Springfield. Those details were fine, but some things they wanted in regards to the locations of things we couldn’t quite deliver on. Later on, with Hit & Run, there was a map of Springfield, but with Road Rage, it was just tracks. They wanted us to build Springfield, but we had to build a game.
The voices were done late in the process. We hired Larina Adamson, a voice director on the show, to direct the voice talent and I was in the sessions to be sure they got the tone right. Those guys are so talented — the one I remember most was Hank Azaria. His script was like, 40 pages long because there were maybe 50 lines of dialogue for each of his seven characters. I remember that he came in without a script and told us, “I’m going to do each line three different ways and just let me go to the end. If there’s a problem, we’ll address it at the end and I’ll redo it then.” So he went all the way through without a script and he nailed it.
One of the biggest highlights of the whole thing was getting to watch Matt Groening test out the game. For about two hours once a month, we’d go to his office and he’d play the game, his son would play and we’d have two guys in the corner taking notes. I remember seeing the wonderment in his eyes when he was driving the Homer car and I heard him laugh at the game. He was such a great creative partner.
Nathan Sutter, test lead on The Simpsons: Road Rage: Then came The Simpsons Wrestling, which was maybe the biggest piece of shit in gaming history.
“If someone literally took a shit on a disk and sold it at GameStop, it might be more entertaining than Simpsons Wrestling.”
Melchior: If you look at the package, Simpsons Wrestling is the only Simpson's merchandise that I know of that doesn't have Matt Groening's signature on it. It was an atrocious game. It looked terrible, the controls were bad — if someone literally took a shit on a disk and sold it at GameStop, it might be more entertaining than Simpsons Wrestling.
Amanda Hugginkiss (pseudonym), environment designer and level designer on The Simpsons: Road Rage: From what I heard, the point where Groening took his name off Simpsons Wrestling was when he saw Marge go up against Willie. Marge’s special power in the game was to throw Maggie — which is bad enough — but then you had Willie, who carried a rake in the game. So Groening saw Willie attacking Maggie with a rake, which is definitely not honoring the IP.
After that, Groening became really hesitant about any Simpsons game and, talking about Road Rage, Groening literally said, “If I don’t like this game, I’m never going to put my name on another Simpsons game again.”
Melchior: Simpsons Wrestling — which came out in April of 2001 — was a real paradigm shift for us when we were just half a year from our own release. We went from showing them our progress and checking in with Gracie and Matt, to them scrutinizing everything. Fortunately, we got through it, but it was a nightmare.
Jeremy McCarron, Art Director on The Simpsons: Road Rage: Towards the end, when we were doing testing, we would have these tournaments where we’d race for hours. The two-player version of that game was the best. At the end of the day we’d all get together and have a beer and just road rage. It was a lot of fun. The funniest was Krusty — I always played as him.
“I racked up some serious hours jumping Springfield Gorge in Bart’s soapbox racer.”
Melchior: When it came out in November of 2001, it sold really well. I think it sold like 2 million copies on just the PlayStation 2. As for the reviews, it did okay. It got in the 50s and 60s, in part because people were saying we copied Crazy Taxi.
Sutter: It did start out as just a Crazy Taxi rip-off, but it was also full of fan service. The game did fan service really really well and that’s what the fans loved.
Warren Evans, The Simpsons fan and host of “Simpsons is Greater Than…” Podcast: It’s hard to go wrong with a game that at least attempted to pay fan service with the various characters and cars, especially after so many weird and bad games. I always enjoyed driving as Krusty and Mr. Plow. I’m a sucker for that truck!
Charlie Southern, The Simpsons fan and creator of @SimpsonsQOTD on Twitter: Of course, everyone had played Crazy Taxi, but it’s not the first time a Simpsons skin was thrown onto something else, so I was all for it. Road Rage was one of the first PS2 games I got as a teenager and, despite the limited scope of the game, I racked up some serious hours jumping Springfield Gorge in Bart’s soapbox racer.
Hugginkiss: Let’s talk about the elephant in the room — this is a frigging Crazy Taxi clone. We all knew it. We were playing Crazy Taxi a hell of a lot while we were developing it and when I was hired, I was told “We’re making Crazy Taxi for The Simpsons.” No one didn’t know what we were making but, in Crazy Taxi, you didn’t care about the characters or the story or anything. It was “Go pick up this skater and bring him to the fisherman’s wharf,” who cares!
But, if you dip that in a Simpsons skin and you have these weird character interactions, you make up your own story and that’s why fans especially loved the game.
“Someone wants to talk to you from Sega.”
Melchior: A couple of years later, in 2003, Sega did end up suing Fox over the game. Thank god I was left out of it. I did kind of experience the beginning of all that though, and it was a surreal experience.
In May of 2000, we went to E3 to announce the game for the first time. I was nervous anyway because this was the first time anyone was going to see it and for the most part the response was okay. I think because E3 is so loud, you couldn’t really hear the dialogue, which is a big part of why the game was successful.
Anyway, after we showed the demo, we were sitting in a lounge there and someone came up to us and said “Someone wants to talk to you from Sega.” So we go down there and there is this QA tester who is a 22 or 23-year-old kid who could have kicked my ass in half a second. He says to us, “I want to know who designed this game. You guys are stealing from us!” We didn’t know what to do but we eventually got him to leave. Even if that conversation had to happen, it was going to happen later between guys in suits, it wasn’t going to happen in a fight on the floor of the LA Convention Center.
Funny enough, we almost ended up putting that guy in the game. Someone did a Simpsons version of him and we almost put him in, but we didn’t do it.
Pole: Sega got pissed off, but we had a great lawyer who fought tooth and nail and, at the end of the day, there was a number that was paid to Sega that was insignificant to the money that was generated by the game and everyone moved on. Sega came for their pound of flesh, but I think they walked away with a quarter-pound instead.
“Road Rage proved to the marketplace that there was an appetite for Simpsons games.”
Selman: Road Rage was the beginning of the renaissance of Simpsons games. You had the beloved standup arcade game, then twelve or fifteen really bad console games. Then there was Road Rage, which was fun, but it definitely made us realize that the next one should be better. For the next one, we didn’t want just a rip off of Crazy Taxi, goddammit, we wanted a rip off of Grand Theft Auto!
Greg Mayer, gameplay programmer on The Simpsons: Road Rage: Hit & Run is a far better game and I still enjoy playing Hit & Run today. I created the driving engine in both games and Hit & Run was the evolution of what I did in Road Rage. I got to rewrite the code and have it perform better, but if Hit & Run came first, there’s no way it would have been as good.
Melchior: Without a doubt, there would never have been Hit & Run without Road Rage. Road Rage proved to the marketplace that there was an appetite for Simpsons games — you just had to make them right.
Pole: Obviously, if you play Road Rage, you can see the similarities between that and Crazy Taxi, but you have to reuse technology — that’s how things move forward. Look, I love Crazy Taxi. Crazy Taxi was a good game but, let’s be honest, it was a whole lot better with Simpsons characters.