After a change in executive leadership in late 2004, Sega sought developers for a number of potential franchise reboots. Sega’s intent was to break into the American marketplace with something appealing to a western audience. Developer Secret Level, having worked with new Sega CEO Simon Jeffrey during his time at LucasArts, chose to pitch their vision of “Golden Axe.”
Woman holds sword, sword meets enemy flesh. Repeat. “Golden Axe’s” formula isn’t complicated, yet making it work – in particular for the 2008 series reboot – was.
The series dealt with sword and sorcery, featuring three heroes battling in a land controlled by Death Adder. The original arcade game came home in a variety of console and PC formats, followed by two home console sequels, an arcade exclusive sequel, a portable RPG, and one-on-one fighting game before fading into Sega’s catalog.
For Secret Level, traditionally a 20 to 30 employee studio focused on porting games like “Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter,” this was new. Their resume showed no major projects, just technology. Their specialty wasn’t creating, rather getting games up and running on different platforms. Prior to “Golden Axe: Beast Rider,” Secret Level attempted to port “America’s Army” from Xbox to PlayStation 2 for publisher Ubisoft but struggled. The port was canceled.
Not discouraged and seeking to showcase their creative side, Secret Level pushed to take on the “Beast Rider” project. “We ended up going all out on pitch materials,” says Christopher Bretz, one of the principals at Secret Level. “We spent a fair amount of time and money, more than we previously had on other pitches. … We were looking for something everyone could get behind, a real change in direction in terms of creativity.”
The pitch was for an open world fantasy adventure. The focus would turn to rideable beasts, with heroes scouring the land, solving puzzles, and fighting Death Adder’s minions while on the hunt for a mythical Golden Axe.
“The real heart of the game originally, if you consider games like ‘Conan Exiles’ today and even ‘Rage,’ those kinds of games, those pseudo open worlds aspects of those, was really at the heart and scope of the game that was originally pitched to Sega,” says producer Michael Boccieri to Variety. “The heads of Sega at the time were very interested in trying to tap into the success of ‘Grand Theft Auto’ in western markets. They wanted to see if a western development team could achieve that similar success. They thought that they had a technologically sound team with a lot of vision and forward thinking in Secret Level.”
“We could see what it wants to be. Then we shipped it and were like, ‘oh dammit,’” says art director Matthew Butler.
The earliest pitches for “Golden Axe” landed at Sega at the beginning of 2005. Key to Secret Level was their focus on technology, boasting an internal rendering engine capable of displaying vast landscapes, exactly what an open world adventure game needed.
Beasts were central to “Golden Axe” lore. Each game featured a suite of lizards, dragons, insects, or more for the lead characters to ride. Likewise, enemies used them, leading to a rush for who could knock the other off for control. The plan for “Beast Rider” was to turn them into fighting creatures and transportation. “Grand Theft Auto’s” carjacking, but with fire-breathing monsters.
“We had been playing games at the time like ‘Shadow of the Colossus’ where they were starting to introduce riding mechanics. We thought we could take that in an interesting direction from a mounted combat game. Sega liked that,” says Bretz.
By the end of 2005, Secret Level presented Sega with an engine test, the first milestone of the production. According to Bretz, excitement ran through the studio, but by the early parts of 2006, the design team began to fall behind. “Beast Rider’s” development was based on their new engine, designed by Secret Level from the ground up. From the design side, this meant inadequate tools and playing catch up.
In spring of 2006, with the first playable demo due into Sega, it was clear “Beast Rider” wasn’t ready to be shown. “It was going to look good. It was going to be technically fine, but you weren’t going to be able to play a game,” says Bretz.
Unphased, in the summer of 2006, Sega acquired Secret Level for $15 million bringing them in as an internal development studio, renamed Sega Studios San Franciso. Jez Sherlock, director of technology at Sega, didn’t understand the acquisition. “A number of people like myself were always a little baffled by it. I’ve always believed that it was to secure the team was around to complete ‘Golden Axe’ and beyond that, a long-term play,” Sherlock wrote in an email response to Variety.
Although struggling with “Golden Axe,” Sega also chose Secret Level to work on an adaptation of Marvel’s first Universe film, “Iron Man,” due before the film’s release in 2008. “‘Iron Man’ couldn’t move. It had to come out with the movie. Later on, as time and schedules and resources became cramped on both projects, “‘Iron Man’ would inherit resources from ‘Golden Axe’ which is why ‘Golden Axe’ got pushed out even further,” says Bretz.
“I remember Jeremy Gordon [co-founder of Secret Level] telling me one day: if we’re going to go down, go down in a blaze of glory,” says Bretz.
The Multiplayer Quota
The key to “Golden Axe” was multiplayer. With the exceptions of “Ax Battler” on Sega’s portable Game Gear and “Golden Axe Warrior” for the master system, every game in the series offered the chance to play with or against other players. In “Beast Rider’s” final form, only one playable character remained: the female Amazon Tyris Flare. Sources varied on whether the original pitch to Sega included multiplayer but agreed the intent was there to feature the other “Golden Axe” heroes, the muscled barbarian Ax Battler and dwarf Gilius Thunderhead.
“Half the team thought ‘Yeah, we’re going to get there’ and the other half wasn’t building that game with multiplayer in mind. When it came to a head about a year later, it was a problem,” says Bretz.
Boccieri joined the team with two years of development left to go. At the time, multiplayer was still on the table. “They wanted to get the combat right on one character before they expanded to the other two. As the years and months went on, by the time I got there, it was well, we don’t have Tyris playable or fun, the frame rate is still slow. Nobody should even be talking about Ax Battler or Gilius at this point.”
Part of the issue with multiplayer was the online component. Secret Level, being a smaller studio without full game development experience, didn’t have capable network engineers. This meant outsourcing much of the online code. Then, those plans unexpectedly died.
“They were licensing the network technology that they intended to use for multiplayer co-op from a third party,” says Boccieri. “The third party got acquired and rescinded the licensing agreement on the network tech. [Secret Level] had to rip it all out and they never found someone or another third-party middleware to go and [add new tech].”
With “Iron Man” nearing completion, at this stage, multiplayer died a silent death despite some residual interest. “So many people were still coming on board or getting ramped up or moving back onto the team from ‘Iron Man’ and they wanted to revisit the topic. It was more like Voldemort. Never say the name, like never say three player co-op,” says Boccieri.
With “Beast Rider” down to a single character, Sega and Secret Level debated the final title. Secret Level wanted a throwback to “Ax Battler,” pitching the name “The Trials of Tyris Flare,” attempting to remove the expectation of multiplayer. Sega wanted the brand recognition and stuck with the “Golden Axe: Beast Rider” moniker.
Tyris gave “Golden Axe” a female protagonist, a choice that in 2008 wasn’t a norm. “That was the start of the industry noticing ‘Hey, everything is a male white guy with brown hair. Do we really want to do another one?’ We just thought it would be more interesting to have a female protagonist. Since it was going to be a mature rated game, obviously is has the natural visuals for those interested in the female body,” says senior combat designer Mark Acero to Variety.
“I mean, that was the time, right? E3 had booth babes and all that other stuff. For me, as a woman, I didn’t take any notice of it,” says producer Belinda Heywood.
“We didn’t feel the dwarf could carry it. With ‘God of War’ out there, we didn’t want [the barbarian Ax Battler] to go up against Kratos. So, we focused on Tyris,” says Bretz.
Even with one character to work with, development wasn’t easy. The animation team chose to rely on motion capture for a bulk of the work, at least until those plans fell apart. “The footage that we got from the mocap shoot, it was determined that we really couldn’t use it,” says Acero.
The heart of the issue was speed. All of the footage was captured in slow motion, unable to convey the speed of real sword fighting. Acero did not attend the mocap sessions, a job assigned to a person left unnamed.
“It had none of the momentum or the proper look of force that we needed it to look like. We used two months of our animators trying to convert over from what we received to make it usable. It was determined that they would be able to do it faster animating from scratch,” says Acero.
Inside Secret Level
The culture at Secret Level involved a fun, lively atmosphere. Friday nights were designated as kegerator nights. “Secret Level was a big drinking culture. We were there until 10 at night, all the time,” says Heywood.
“That was a combination of a team meeting on the Friday of every week but then we’d spend an hour drinking alcohol and eating snacks,” says Acero.
During heavy crunch sessions toward the end of development, the team found an outlet. “We had an executive producer put us on schedules on the weekend so we’d go out to a club then come in and sleep under the desks, then continue on working,” says Butler.
“We’d work from 10 to 7. Then we’d go out, and drink, then come back and work some more. We did it for six months. Everybody did. And Saturday and Sunday as well, seven days a week,” says Heywood.
Acero chose a more passive method of relaxation. Another employee brought in a traction table that allowed people to hang upside down. “Almost every night to relax or calm, to help focus, I would hit that thing and hang upside down and just stretch. That helped keep me sane,” he says.
Some inside Secret Level, however, enjoyed the wilder side. Heywood recounted a wild office party, part of what she referred to as the “old” Secret Level.
“The girl that organized it hired one of her friends to be Tyris. We also had a bucking bull thing, because of “Beast Rider,” for everybody to try out. Somebody got on it and when they got off, their stiletto went through the mattress which then deflated. So then everybody else who tried the bucking bull, every time they fell off, they hurt themselves.”
“There was this huge room with no one there and this bull that got burst. And the friend that wasn’t very attractive dressed as Tyris. There was this guy, I can’t remember his name. He ended up getting on the microphone and he said this is the worst party I’ve ever been to.”
The Final Countdown
In those final months, Secret Level laid off a number of junior staff members. In their place, the studio hired a number of experienced designers, artists, and coders in attempt to salvage the fledgling “Beast Rider.” Even producers shifted on the charge to turn “Beast Rider” into something playable. But it still wasn’t playable after a delay to finish “Iron Man,” still struggling with frame rate problems and uneven vision.
Butler came in with a year to go. “They gave me a design document and said don’t read it. It was about the size of the bible. They said that’s all changed now.”
When Acero joined on with two years to go, he was told, “You’re basically inheriting a mess,” he says.
Some higher ups at Secret Level discussed canceling the project altogether. “At one point in 2007, I can remember talking to Jeremy and asking why don’t we cancel this, or extend it out a couple years and take it back to a skeleton team? The politics involved would not let it be canceled.” Sega’s investment of Secret Level needed to be recouped.
“We went to Sega of Japan about eight months prior to final release and had to show them our first playable milestone which was effectively the first level of the game as you play it in the final version,” says Boccieri. “If I moved the camera the wrong way, everything would go to shit. We sat in front of the board at Sega of Japan and showed them this and we left. The board decided then and there if they were going to fund the game to its conclusion or cancel the project.”
“Beast Rider” continued. Newly hired lead designer Dedan Anderson walked into an unfinished game with the job of bringing “Beast Rider” together in only six to eight months. “Coming in at that point, my goal was to change as little as possible but try and pull something together that should be playable,” says Anderson. “This was a fire fighting exercise.”
“The designers that preceded [Anderson] were not interested in solving the problems of making a moment to moment game. They were much more interested in exploring the backstory and the ‘Golden Axe’ universe and building up long quest arcs, none of which made the final game because none of those systems to support ‘Grand Theft Auto’ style mission sets came online,” says Boccieri.
“If you don’t know what you’re building, how can the artists build? How can the programmers program to spec? We don’t know what the spec is,” says Bretz.
From Sega’s perspective, Secret Level wasn’t working as a studio should. “I do remember rolling my eyes when hearing a complaint from a programmer about the time they tried to write a shader. Apparently, that wasn’t allowed. One of the more Senior Programmer reserved that kind of work for himself because ‘he really likes writing shaders’ and this got others into trouble and also held the project up. I didn’t think highly of this kind of thing. It’s not how great teams function,” writes Sherlock.
“The politics on that project, the artists were still frustrated with the designers. The designers were frustrated with each other and the programmers were just trying to get everything done,” says Bretz.
Getting “Beast Rider” into stores meant unraveling the design. Gone was the open world. Scope slowly whittled throughout development. By the end, “Beast Rider” moved to a linear, level-based game as production neared to a close. “They were building the engine for a really long time. It was from scratch. There weren’t that many people doing that. We just took on too much,” says Heywood.
This meant cutting a significant portion of Secret Level’s original concepts, ideas, and gameplay. For everything Secret Level developed, less than a fraction was left in the final product. “As far as the four years of development, I’d say it’s like 15% of the total effort. You have 85% of other iterations, other whole kinds of versions of the game code that never saw the light of day,” says Boccieri.
To explain, Boccieri remembers being shown one of the early prototypes, made prior to when he joined the project. “One of the lead gameplay engineers dusts off this disc and he’s like let me show you this. He puts the disc in and it takes like 15 minutes to load, but when it finally loads, it’s this totally different game. … It was one of their earliest demos from like three years prior. You could get on a creature you don’t see in the final game, and Tyris doesn’t look anything like Tyris,” he says.
For Anderson, those final months turned into a blur. “There was a lot of crunches. I blocked that out. That was my last crunch project. That took the crunch out of me. I’m not doing crunches anymore.”
By the time of release in October of 2008, the $15 million “Golden Axe Beast Rider” still wasn’t entirely finished. “If you notice the first opening cinematic which was done by a company in San Diego, it didn’t get finished. There’s whole sections of it that don’t have completed textures and have gray walls. We just ran out of time,” says Heywood.
Secret Level produced one more game, “Iron Man 2,” before being dissolved by Sega.
When asked to recall memories from their time working on “Beast Rider,” everyone interviewed for this story from Secret Level looked fondly on the team, despite the various road bumps.
“You should know the last 13 months were some of the most challenging crunch I’ve ever experienced in my over 10 years in the games industry,” begins Boccieri. “The core gameplay engineers, designers, VFX team, the audio, the guys who were there at the end to polish and bug fix, we were doing two months of seven days a week. Non-stop. I was one of the people that made it a point I needed to leave the office from time to time, but there was a team of at least 20 to 30 core staff that were some of the most dedicated people I’ve ever worked with who brought the game over the line.”
“I think it’s my best game,” says Butler, laughing at the thought. “Not in the way of gameplay or anything like that, but just in the team, the situation. The whole team was great. I think I had one of the best times I’ve ever had creating anything. We weren’t satisfied with what we did, but we had the most fun, or I did.”
“Despite the non-ideal circumstances, some really great friendships were forged and a lot of respect for the people who went through the trenches with you,” says Acero.
“It was actually fun to work on that project, all the way up until some of the reviews,” says Dedan.
Nearly all reviews were negative with “Beast Rider” earning a 44% Metacritic score.
“Anyone of us will gladly pick it apart and say what we would’ve liked to have done better or if we had the resources, or what we planned to do but we couldn’t due to the mad rush at the end due to the dramatic change in scope. But it was definitely rated harshly,” says Acero when asked about the reviews.
It took time, but to Boccieri, the vision of “Beast Rider” was realized, if not by anyone from Secret Level and nearly a decade later.
“At its core, now I see ‘Hellblade’ and I really think ‘Hellblade’ is the true execution of what ‘Golden Axe’ was intended to be but they didn’t know what they didn’t know at the time. What they were trying to pitch and what they ultimately wanted the game to feel like, is more what ‘Hellblade is,’” says Boccieri.
But “Hellblade,” “Beast Rider” was not. Or, as Heywood puts it, “Unfortunately, [Golden Axe] was a bit shit.”