As we (apparently) inch closer to a remaster of Rare’s 1997 Nintendo 64 classic, GoldenEye 007, I wanted to take an opportunity to contribute to the excitement. GoldenEye is easily one of my favorite games of all time, and my very first freelance piece in games journalism included excerpts from an interview with leaders from the GoldenEye X project–a campaign to port GoldenEye 007 to the superior Perfect Dark engine with locked content restored and other improvements in place–and our discussion didn’t get nearly enough room to breathe. Today, for the first time, I’m giving the full discussion (edited only for clarity and flow where helpful) a home online.
On commission for Zam.com (now Fanbyte), I spoke with project lead Donald J. York, who participates in the group’s forums as “Wreck,” about a year before the community’s major “Patch 5e” release at the end of 2016. During our chat, we discussed the project’s humble beginnings, the fascinating things the group has achieved achieved with GoldenEye and other popular Rare games, mysterious interactions with members of the actual GoldenEye 007 team, and more.
CodeWritePlay (CWP): What bullet points do you think unknowing readers would be most interested in about GoldenEye X?
Donald J. York (DJY): I tend to be long-winded when I write, so I’ll try my best to make some short points.
• Simulants in multiplayer mode
• Greater customization in multiplayer
• Smarter enemy AI
• Co-operative & Counter-Operative missions
• Weather & Time elements (rain, snow, sun, moon)
• Brand new weapon reload animations
• 30 bonus Virtual Assignments
• More in the works!
Basically, if you loved GoldenEye but argued that Perfect Dark was a technically better game, than this may help even out the odds.
CWP: How would you best describe your role in this community’s projects?
DJY: For GoldenEye X, I’m the lead. But for other projects, I like to help out where I can. There are certain things I’m not very good at or need time to improve my skills on. I really enjoy writing mission briefings and character dialogue. So if someone needs assistance there, I’m willing to see what I can do for them. Creating new character skins is also quite fun. And with this many years messing around with [GoldenEye and Perfect Dark], I’ve become pretty good at testing. I owe that to the mass amounts of failures a long the way. If you need an opinion, or need some advice or suggestions, I’m happy to chip in my two pennies.
CWP: Describe any other work you do, home life, anything folks might connect with. Also, where are you located geographically?
DJY: I’m a Canadian, born and raised in the province of Ontario. I had difficulties earlier in life caused by social anxiety. It was so bad that I couldn’t attend most of school and was home instructed by a tutor. This meant I spent a lot of time in the house. And what better thing to do as a kid all day than play video games? It was more than just a way to kill time. It was a sort of escape, which has stayed with me ever since.
CWP: How long have you been doing this type of modding, hacking, and porting? What got you started, and how much time are you able to devote to it?
DJY: Thinking back that far makes me feel old [laughs]. Well, I’ve always owned a game enhancer. Ok, ok, “cheating device.” I had one for the NES, had one for the SNES, so obviously that meant I was going to have one for the N64. But this time it was different. This time it included some really fun tools to allow users to hack their own codes. There was even a VHS tape that came packed in with the Pro series model, How to Hack Like a Pro. It was basic stuff, mostly focusing on Infinite Health or Unlimited Ammunition. Still, it was the first time a brand-new door was opening for me.
The first game that I really started poking around with was GoldenEye. Funny thing: I used to think I might break the game when changing things in the Memory Editor menu. That thing became an invaluable tool. I would look online while at a cousin’s house, well before I had Internet at home, to find codes for the game. There were some really neat GameShark codes out there, and it didn’t take long before I joined a hacking community.
Now, believe it or not, I didn’t have this game right away. It just celebrated an 18th anniversary, so I guess I’ve been doing this stuff for maybe 16 and a half years. How can somebody devote that many years of their life to a game? Thankfully, I’m not alone. GoldenEye is just that good.
CWP: Roughly how many folks are working on the X project at the moment, and what are you guys working on at high level right now?
DJY: There’s usually no more than about three people at one time working on various things relating to GoldenEye X. I deal with just about anything I can, including the porting of all the various models (characters, props, weapons, etc.), the level related files, as well as writing descriptions found in menu folders. There are other members who help with ASM hacks, custom characters, animations, and also some of the levels to help even out the work load.
The original focus was to deal with the multiplayer mode, since we knew more about it and there’s far less involved (like the scripting of events in missions). Since the “Virtual Reality” mode is around 90% or more taken care of, we’ve been trying to tackle some other important issues, such as weapon reloads and the mission campaign.
CWP: How complicated is your development environment? It sounds like your early GoldenEye modding days led to the creation of some editing tools that made life easier for new users. Is that true of the X project also?
DJY: What you see in the GoldenEye X project (as well as many of the releases you can find on the GoldenEye Vault website) is the direct result of years upon years of hacking GoldenEye and Perfect Dark. The knowledge acquired was all put together into a tool that no GoldenEye or Perfect Dark modder should go without. It started out only being able to modify aspects of the Runway level’s setup file, but has evolved into an incredibly powerful editor. Without this, I would dare say that GoldenEye X wouldn’t exist. Same could be said for other projects like Goldfinger 64. Most recently, the editor has also included three more Rareware N64 games: Diddy Kong Racing, Mickey’s Speedway USA, and Jet Force Gemini.
[N64 Today has the scoop on Goldfinger 64, an entirely new bond game built in the GoldenEye 007 engine.]
However, a lot of what has gone into this particular project has been learning as we go. We knew far more about GoldenEye than we did Perfect Dark, and our time working on this has given us a whole new appreciation for Perfect Dark. Things we never even noticed in the game before had suddenly appeared. You really have to give Rareware credit for putting so much into a game that people are just noticing things 15+ years later.
CWP: Something that strikes me about the GoldenEye X project is that, for a community project, it looks more like a professional industry software project with bug reporting, feature discussions, schedules, release notes, and the works. Is this a product of time and project duration? Does it operate smoothly this way? If this was the commercial game industry it seems like you’d be an unusually popular project manager.
DJY: At the core of GoldenEye X, is a group of diehard fans of the original game. For most of us, we’ve spent a ton of time (maybe more than we’d like to admit) playing or hacking it. We have nothing but the utmost respect for the best FPS of a generation (arguably of all time). With that in mind, we won’t settle for anything we aren’t completely satisfied with. And our fans are cut from that same cloth, and are absolutely amazing at bug testing and pointing out the tiniest of details we might have overlooked.
When I first started on the original preview release of GoldenEye X, I unfortunately did a very poor job of keeping track of things. This resulted in some weird issues with blood textures, and not knowing what files were replaced by what. So once the preview was released, I started over from scratch. This time I knew enough to write down everything. It really helps to know what you did for each release, as well. Sometimes you’ll run into an issue, and it tracks back to some little change you made in the previous version. We’re still finding that every so often. I’d suggest to all others out there to keep logs of whatever you’ve been doing as you go.
CWP: I get a sense that your time is divided between the dev work I know you love to do and management of the group, would you say that’s accurate? Do you enjoy helping to coordinate as well? Is it close to a 50/50 split or where would you put it?
DJY: Considering the team is very small, it isn’t too difficult to manage. I’ll ask someone if they can work on something specific, and make sure no two people are ever trying to do the same thing at once. We all have our own unique skills, so everyone kind of knows where they fit in and what they can contribute. They all make it easy for me, and we rarely ever butt heads over anything. I couldn’t ask for a better team right now.
CWP: I would guess that this project does incur some cost to keep moving as most do. Does it have any way of paying for itself? Are you losing money on it at all?
DJY: I suppose one cost would be our time. Time we could perhaps be using to do something else, which could potentially create more income. But as far as actually putting out any money to keep the project going, it may be limited to computer programs or useful items like the EverDrive64 (so we can test on console – where it really matters).
CWP: Has there been any legal activity against any of your work? This is one interesting area across all my discussions that I know makes readers curious. Obviously, devs want to say some things and avoid others but let me know anything of interest I can pass along to readers.
DJY: Hopefully I don’t jinx myself here, but we’ve been very fortunate when it comes to legal stuff. We’ve never been contacted by any of the copyright holders in the past. All releases we make are in patch form (which are pretty much useless on their own), and we don’t encourage or promote downloading of ROMs online. We’re doing this to keep the game alive and well. As long as something is out there to remind people of the greatness of GoldenEye, the original game will remain relevant. And if you don’t already own a nice and shiny cartridge of GoldenEye or Perfect Dark, then shame on you.
CWP: Have you ever heard from anyone involved in the development of the original games? I feel like if I’d been in on the original development, I couldn’t help but reach out about something like this.
DJY: I don’t know if I should name any names, but we have had contact with various members of the original GoldenEye team. A certain someone joined up on the forum, and others have been e-mailed to help fill on some holes regarding different aspects of the game, and they have been quite kind and informative–for what they can remember dating that far back, of course.
CWP: Are you involved in any groups like this totally outside of GoldenEye/Rare games? Do you do any other sort of game development?
DJY: My passion has definitely been more focused on Rareware games, especially GoldenEye and Perfect Dark. Though I absolutely loved the Banjo-Kazooie series, and also think Diddy Kong Racing is a very underrated kart racer.
The only other game I’ve spent some time tinkering with is Resident Evil 2. It’s my favourite of the horror franchise, and it ranks up there as one of my top games of all time. I couldn’t do as much with it on the N64, but found some success with the PC version. I didn’t do a lot with it, but I hope what I did contribute to the Resident Evil modding forums I once signed up for helped them to progress farther into full-fledged mods.
CWP: You say that over time you’ve arrived at a small group of outstanding and talented contributors (and to make this work I’m sure that’s accurate), would you describe the modding community at large to be much the same? I know you’ve encountered a wide variety of folks along the way, what are their shared characteristics?
DJY: What never fails to impress me is how certain games can affect people enough to make them want to do more with them. And these aren’t just gamers who grew up playing when the title was first introduced to the world, but even the younger audience who have lived a shorter life than said game itself. Games like Mario, Zelda, Mega-Man, Castlevania, etc. Classics, that even when facing the high definition graphics, beautifully-orchestrated soundtracks, and Hollywood actor voice overs of today, still appeal to many fans. Now with Mario Maker being such a success, it may motivate more people to want to learn how to mod other classics (I wouldn’t be surprised if more “Makers” start popping up within the next few years). With a whole wide world at their fingertips, there’s no stopping them. When enough people with a shared passion get together, it can be a powerful thing.
CWP: You also mentioned that early childhood issues kept you from getting very plugged in at school and gaming was a great coping mechanism for you. Do you feel that this passion helped you reach a different outcome online? In other words, do you feel that this helped you better plug in with the community you’re excelling in here?
DJY: Let’s just say that, had I spent more time in a social setting at school, things could be very different. I highly doubt I would have invested as much time into GoldenEye and Perfect Dark, or even gaming in general. Not to say I’d have had “better things” to do, as I hate to think of it in that regard, as I love what I do. But I probably would have gone in another direction. A direction that may not have featured hacking games, or at least not nearly to the same extent. I’m proud of what I’ve done over the years, and feel like I was meant for this.
CWP: Has social media had any significant impact in your scene or the way you guys operate?
DJY: I opened up a Facebook account for the project, as well as a YouTube channel. I feel like YouTube has done a slightly better job in getting the word out, as people randomly searching for GoldenEye videos may come across mods that catch their interest. It’s fun putting together preview pictures, and our GoldenEye X trailer master TH126 always does a great job with his work. Social media is hit or miss, and is unfortunately packed with people who just like to hate on things for no reason. Because of that, you need to take online comments with about two pounds of table salt.
CWP: As personal as this craft is for you, considering all of the technical challenges, limited audience (at least by comparison to mainstream game dev), etc., is the community something that helps keep your heart in it?
DJY: Our community is probably one of the most supportive and committed ones out there. We hear often about how laid back and polite our members are. There’s hardly any bickering, no strong negativity, and definitely plenty of respect. Having such good people here is awesome. Even when it’s been a long time since your most recent release, they’ll be patient and keep the fire burning. If nobody was around to care, there’d be no real reason to push on.
CWP: Someone I spoke with from the NES homebrew community said that there are occasional competitions and events that feed some amount of new interest into what they do. While that may not apply here, is there any equivalent? Is anything known for bringing new interest to what you guys do or is pure fandom of the games strong enough to keep the group strong?
DJY: I can’t speak for everyone, but for the guys who have been doing this for a decade or longer, it’s still for the love of the games. We are continuing to learn new things all the time, which increases the possibilities of what can now be done. Every once in a while, we’ll get a new member joining up on the message board. To them, it’s all brand new, and they are filled with excitement and an interest to contribute. Guys like Sogun, Jonaeru and Pavarini, who bring new skills to the table. People who maybe look at things from a new angle. It’s always nice to have a fresh pair of eyes and a brain filled with new ideas on the scene. Why they choose GoldenEye and/or Perfect Dark over everything else? These games have a way of pulling people in. Trust me.
CWP: Do you have specific hopes for the long-term future of what you guys are doing or is the journey the reward? Do you hope to build out the community further or are you content with enjoying the team you’re familiar with?
DJY: I know there must be an ultimate end to this ride. But I also knew that around sixteen years ago. There’s only so much you can do until all the stones have been overturned. The GoldenEye X project will one day be completed, as will Goldfinger 64. GoldenEye and Perfect Dark will be ripped apart and pieced back together bit by bit. Then it’s up to the future modders to see what they can do with it. Let them create something new to be enjoyed. Do I have ideas for future projects? Of course! But time is something that you require a very large dosage of in any of these endeavors. With a small team, life getting in the way, and no paycheck for all the hard work you put into it, it puts a damper on progress and motivation at times. But the love of this, and the feeling of reward when getting things going, can do a lot to keep you looking ahead.
I’d like to see our community grow, as long as it doesn’t change. I mean that in the attitude and passion we have. Now that we’re adding more variety in the way of what games we deal with, I can only hope we see people with a real desire to dig deep into things and show us something we’ve never seen before. I mean, who wouldn’t like to see a Diddy Kong Racing sequel?
Readers can find more information about GoldenEye X and more projects by York’s community at N64 Vault.