Easter eggs. While some are intentionally inserted to benefit players; others are not. Sometimes these bizarre, incongruous hidden features are so obscure that even the majority of developers for the games they inhabit remained largely unaware of their existence until they were uncovered by the gaming public.
Whether they originated as meticulously crafted inside jokes, or as tiny subversions compelled by veiled motivations, the presence of these stowaways is no mere accident; each was intentionally embedded into a shipped game, either by a single disgruntled developer or a covert subset of a larger team.
What makes a game developer decide to "go rogue" and insert content without the knowledge and approval of their employers and colleagues? We will explore the question by examining instances of this phenomenon that have arisen in games from such prominent companies as Maxis, Naughty Dog, Nintendo and Atari.
Before we dive in, a few brief disclaimers:
The focus here is on content willfully inserted for the sake of sabotage, subversion, or self-aggrandizement. Therefore, something like Hot Coffee doesn't qualify, as it arose more from simple negligence rather than any deliberate effort to include it in the finished product.
By a similar token, Valve's recent radio patch for Portal also falls outside our purview, as its purpose was to hype a forthcoming sequel rather than undermine the existing game.
It should also be noted that I am a developer, not a journalist, and I make no guarantee that all of these examples constitute irrefutable, 100 percent authentic acts of subversion. Most of them are already well documented as such, but in the few cases that haven't been previously verified I have conducted approximately zero additional research to confirm or deny the presence of covert activity.
Breaking the Waves
Not long ago on NeoGAF, a user named RaoulDuke posted an unusual code for the Gamecube game Wave Race: Blue Storm. The code, which had apparently passed under the collective radar of gamers for nearly a decade, replaces the audio files for the game's announcer with quips that taunt and belittle the player. The new announcer is amusingly snarky, and the replaced dialogue, while insulting, is more lighthearted than offensive.
Overall, the "surly announcer" feature appears to have been introduced in the spirit of harmless levity, and would seem to fit in with some of the other wacky secrets in the game, such as being able to replace your jet ski with a dolphin.
All of which raises the question: why did it take almost ten years for this secret to be discovered? One possible answer lies in the fact that accessing it requires players to circumvent the normal password entry screen utilized by the game's other codes. As noted by Tips and Tricks Codebook editor Chris Bieniek (via Gus Mastrapa's GameLife article), it's clear that "somebody must have wanted it buried deep."
Of course, this naturally leads one to wonder how it was finally unearthed after all this time. RaoulDuke was not forthcoming in the terse post describing the code, omitting any information as to whether it was pure chance, random experimentation, or something other than mere serendipity that led to the discovery of such an obscure anthropological gem.
This in turn has fueled speculation as to whether the feature's discovery was truly the result of an unwitting accident, or if it was more likely to have been surreptitiously unveiled by a developer that was already aware of its existence (and possibly even responsible for its creation).
There are other suspicious aspects to the new announcer, most notably the amateurish quality of the replacement voice. The sardonic surrogate is the antithesis of the polished, enthusiastic default announcer, suggesting that the clips were created without any involvement from professional voice actors.
This may simply imply that the feature was a last minute addition, or simply a playful goof that wasn't deemed important enough to warrant devoting any substantial recording resources to its implementation. Alternatively, it could indicate that the secret voice track was inserted by an individual or small sect of the development team at NST acting on their own volition.
If the code is in fact the work of an undisclosed rogue developer, they certainly deserve commendation both for the diligence required to pull off such an elaborate prank, and for the admirable restraint they displayed in allowing it to stay buried for so long. As the next example illustrates, even the most subtle saboteurs aren't always able to execute such stealthy maneuvers without being apprehended.
As the old cliché goes, helicopters are like catnip for gay male bikini models. But when Maxis programmer Jacque Servin took it upon himself to incorporate this particular truism into shipping copies of SimCopter, he was summarily dismissed for his efforts. Dismayed by the gratuitous inclusion of scantily-clad (albeit crudely rendered) women in the game, Servin decided to counterbalance these with some eye candy of his own by adding in muscle men in equally skimpy outfits.
These low-poly hunks, garbed only in Speedos, were not easy to miss. According to the particularly vivid description provided on Wikipedia, "their fluorescent nipples were drawn with a special rendering mode usually reserved for fog-piercing runway landing lights." When a player landed a helicopter, droves of these amorous bikini men would swarm around it enthusiastically, kissing each other to the accompaniment of a conspicuous "smooch" sound effect.
The only problem with Servin's alteration was that it worked a little too well. The bikini men were intended to appear rarely, with Servin programming them to show up only on his birthday, his boyfriend's birthday, and (in an eerie twist) Friday the 13th.
However, Servin evidently forgot to carry the one, as a bug in his code led to the bikini men appearing much more frequently than anticipated. As a result, Servin's attempts to enact gender equality within the populace of SimCopter were quickly discovered and patched out of subsequent editions of the game. It took less than a week for Servin to be identified as the culprit and fired from Maxis.
In the ensuing swirl of controversy, Servin offered a number of conflicting accounts of precisely what had inspired him to introduce the bikini men into the game. Initially, he maintained that his intention was to offer a rebuke to the "bimbos", which Servin claimed had been a feature mandated by his "aggressively heterosexual" boss.
However, Servin later clarified that the primary impetus had little to do with either gay pride or protesting sexism, but in fact stemmed from his frustration with the excessive crunch and onerous working conditions at Maxis.
"If it hadn't been for that," claimed Servin, "I would have been a lot more interested in keeping my job and might not have put in the kissing boys. Exploitation is bad business, at least when the exploited workers are in control of the product and can easily find new jobs."
Regardless of his original intentions, Servin has since managed to expand his initial act of defiance outward into an entire cottage industry of subversive activities. Working under various aliases, he has continued his legacy of provocation on a number of fronts, most notably via the "culture jamming" activist group known as The Yes Men, whose elaborate impersonations of corporate spokesmen have been documented in two separate movies. Servin has also sought to foster a spirit of rebellion within students in his role as an "assistant professor in subversion" at Parsons in New York City.
Muddled motives aside, Servin is indisputably one of the most prominent game development saboteurs of all time. However, his recipe for mixing advocacy and self-promotion still owes a heavy debt to an early pioneer -- a man who set the precedent for disgruntled developers of all stripes.
Adventures in Anonymity
While many modern game studios are highly secretive, even the most tight-lipped among them are downright gregarious compared to Atari in the early days of the console business. Back in the 2600 era, Atari notoriously instituted a policy that strictly forbade developer credits in all of their games, in order to minimize potential talent poaching by rival companies and quash any bargaining clout that their designers might gain from attaining "superstar" levels of notoriety.
This in turn led to the formation of Activision by a group of disenchanted ex-Atari employees who grew weary of toiling away in obscurity. The oppressive atmosphere also led to what it widely regarded as one of the first video game easter eggs.
Inserted into the game Adventure by creator Warren Robinett, the Easter egg consisted of a hidden room that displayed the developer's name in large, flashing letters. As the sole developer of Adventure, Robinett was able to keep the secret under wraps until well after the game had shipped. By the time Atari became aware of the "credits cave", Robinett was already long gone. Since Atari did not pay royalties to its creators at the time, they lacked any substantial ability to censure Robinett, who was able to successfully flout the company's restrictive mandate without suffering any repercussions.
Robinett's actions illustrated that Atari's anti-crediting policy was unenforceable in an environment where game creation was the province of a single individual. Along with the aforementioned staff exodus to form competing companies, the Adventure easter egg was undoubtedly a contributing factor leading to the abolishment of Atari's impractical crediting ban.
Without Robinett's efforts, professional game developers might still be languishing in anonymity to this day. Adventure, meanwhile, went on to sell over a million copies, and Robinett's howl in the dark has only served to enhance the game's legacy as a historical landmark.
While the majority of the preceding examples of subversion arose from developer frustrations about working conditions, the next instance was seemingly born from an altogether different set of frustrations: namely, those of a sexual variety.
Naughty by Nature
Before Naughty Dog rose to prominence with Crash Bandicoot or mastered the art of crafting stunningly scripted action set pieces with Uncharted, it was a fledgling studio working on projects for a variety of platforms. One of their first titles during this early journeyman period was Rings of Power, a fairly rote fantasy RPG for the Genesis.
Though its unremarkable gameplay and bog-standard story have largely caused it to be overlooked by nostalgists, Rings of Power does have at least one claim to fame: it is the first (and quite possibly only) console game to feature a genuine nude code.
When starting up the game, players were normally greeted with a logo screen featuring a totally radical (and presumably naughty) dog. Lest there be any doubt that this dog was too cool for school, it was adorned with a pair of sweet, reflective shades and a wily grin, looking every bit like the unholy progeny of Joe Camel and the canine companion from Duck Hunt.
The nude code, which required players to hold down a combination of buttons as they turned on the Genesis, replaced the usual mascot with an image of an attractive blonde female (one of the game's NPCs) gazing out at the player, wearing nothing but an enticing smile.
Despite the arcane technique required to access the altered logo screen, word of its existence quickly spread and the code was printed in at least one publication (Game Players) shortly after the game's release. Although the promise of pixelated breasts may have spurred some increased interest in Rings of Power, it ultimately wasn't enough to rescue the game from being consigned to the dust heap of history.
Though the resulting scandal was ephemeral, the teacup tempest it generated was sufficient to cause a momentary epidemic of shattered monocles and convince a few of the more prudish retail outlets to consider pulling the game from shelves as a precautionary measure.
Much like the Wave Race code, the true story behind this strange little curio remains shrouded in mystery. Perhaps, inspired by the game's borderline plagiaristic Tolkien-esque trappings, a brave fellowship of rogue developers decided to emulate Frodo's noble quest, with their own game in place of Mordor and a naked woman filling in for The One Ring as the mythical, highly sought-after artifact that required their heroic stewardship.
In any case, it's difficult to imagine the nude code receiving unanimous approval from everyone involved in the game's creation; given Naughty Dog's reticence regarding the code's origin, chalking its inclusion up to a maverick developer is not only a plausible appraisal, but most certainly a charitable one.
Continuing the theme of mascot misappropriation, our final example provides a glimpse at a fictitious instance of game development sabotage involving everyone's favorite corporate shill: America's clown prince of obesity, Ronald McDonald.
Game development saboteurs such as Robinett and Servin have inspired their share of real life imitators, but their ideas have also captured the imaginations of a number of non-developers as well – most notably author Douglas Coupland, who incorporated the concept of game development subversion into his 2006 novel JPod.
Coupland's depiction of the inner workings of a game development studio is intentionally hyperbolic, but still familiar enough to be scathing.
Neotronic Arts, the game company where the main characters work, is portrayed as a dire wasteland of meaningless drudgery, in which marketing executives are placed in charge of key creative decisions and preside over soul-crushing daily meetings where they frequently dictate drastic changes based on baffling and seemingly arbitrary whims.
Meanwhile, the rank-and-file developers who occupy the titular JPod cubicle cluster retreat from the larger corporate entity they inhabit at every opportunity.
Cloistered in their communal bunker, they form a makeshift family unit and desperately attempt to transform the pod into their own private haven against the institutional dysfunction that permeates their surroundings.
But when the word comes down from management that their previous work on BoardX is being scrapped, with the existing assets being repurposed into a practically unrecognizable game called SpriteQuest, the JPod crew hatches a plan to fight back.
Together, they apply their efforts to creating a secret room in the new game: an elaborate hidden cave in which players must contend with the wrath of a homicidal, rage-fueled Ronald McDonald.
Coupland frames the sabotage scheme of the JPod dwellers as a natural response to a creatively fallow environment in which the individual developers are adrift, powerless, and fundamentally divorced from the overarching direction of the games on which they work.
As with the real life examples we have looked at previously, this type of atmosphere in turn proves to be a fertile breeding ground for self-organizing cabals of disaffected saboteurs. Sabotage becomes both a bonding ritual and a way for developers to regain a measure of control, however fleeting, over a daily routine that has become an otherwise burdensome endeavor.
So what (if anything) do the preceding examples of game development sabotage have to teach us?
What is most readily apparent is a clear pattern that can be identified in the more well-documented cases: the motivations of game development saboteurs frequently stem from a persistent sense of dismay and dissatisfaction with the circumstances of their jobs.
As illustrated by these tales, developer alienation can result from many common factors, including feelings of powerlessness regarding worrisome or objectionable aspects of a game's design, lack of faith in the competence of project management, anger over unreasonable and draconian employer policies, and unfavorable development conditions such as excessive crunch.
We tend to think of sabotage as a destructive act, but as we have seen it can just as easily involve an intense outpouring of creativity from developers who feel they have no other viable expressive outlet, as with Servin's imaginative subversion of SimCopter. Though the saboteur impulse might initially seem foreign to most developers, subversive actions actually arise most often from our universally shared desires: we all want to feel like some aspect of the games we make are our own, that we were able to contribute some important personal stamp to the finished product.
Unfortunately, the reality is that many of us will spend a considerable portion of our careers toiling away on projects that don't particularly align with our own sensibilities. For any game developer who has ever felt like a cog in a machine they can't abide, the path of the saboteur will always be tempting – in such circumstances, it may even be the most gratifying recourse available.