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Exclusive interview: David Jaffe talks the birth of Twisted Metal, the rise of gaming, and the death of the console

For gamers of a certain age, there are a handful of specific titles that will forever have a spot in the nostalgia-padded recesses of our hearts.  The same is true for every new generation of gamers, but for a stretch of time in the 90s, a few games were the linchpin that helped transition the industry from the realm of kids to a more mature audience. If the NES and Sega Master System were the Mercury space capsule, and the Super NES/Genesis were Gemini, these games would be the Apollo entries. 

Among these classics are games like GoldenEye, Resident Evil, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. And then, of course, there was Twisted Metal

The Twisted Metal series is one that still elicits strong reactions from people. Most gamers chose a character and stuck with it, even identified with it in a weird way, then were soon convinced that they were the best person ever to play the game even when they lost horribly. To truly see the strength of the brand, you just need to look at the interest being generated by the new game in the series coming out this Valentine’s Day, even after several mediocre outings. In fact, while there have been some decent entries to the series over the years, none have come close to matching the appeal of the first two that debuted on the PS One back in 1995 and 1996 respectively.  And yet the franchise is still among the most well-known, and arguably even beloved properties in gaming. 

At the heart of that grudge-match nurturing franchise was the series’ co-creator David Jaffe. Along with the Twisted Metal franchise, Jaffe is also the director of the critically and commercially acclaimed God of War, as well as the former Creative Director of Sony Santa Monica. All of which give him a firm spot in the history of gaming, as he now goes full circle and returns to the franchise that helped launch his career.

After 17 years in the industry, beginning with a job as a lowly tester to becoming the head of his own studio, Jaffe has been a witness and had a unique perspective to the rise of the gaming industry, as well as acting as a vanguard of its growth. And he’s just getting started.

Ready Player One

Jaffe began in the industry during a transition period, as developers attempted to keep up with gamers whose tastes were maturing. And while many of us may still carry fond memories of gaming from that time, the reality is that the gaming industry of then and now are two very different animals.  The industry has grown into a behemoth, with mainstream appeal and billion dollar franchises. People work hard to break into the field, and the competition is fierce and demanding. There are college courses dedicated to training future employees of the video game industry, and there are tech degrees catered to the it. But when Jaffe began, things were a little different. 

Although he grew up playing video games, Jaffe’s real goal was to turn his talents toward directing films.  To this end he left his home in Alabama to head for California, after being accepted into USC. Perhaps prophetically, his acceptance letter came on the same day that he recorded a personal milestone by beating The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, a game that many remember for its sadistic cruelty and near manic desire to kill you as quickly and often as possible. 

After college, Jaffe attempted to make it in Hollywood, but like so many others, he was having trouble finding that homerun pitch that would propel him into success. In order to pay the bills, Jaffe took a job at Sony as a game tester. In the early 90s, the job of a game tester was still somewhat rare and barely even considered entry level.  Like so many things in those early days of video game expansionism, the industry was still experimenting to a degree.  New jobs were continually being created, simply because no one had thought of them yet, and soon Jaffe found himself getting more and more involved with the gaming world.

At the time, the position of designer was still fairly new, as programmers were expected to wear multiple hats. But as the complexity of the games grew, so did the number of people needed to create them.  Taking what he had learned from films, in 1994 Jaffe made his gaming debut as a designer on the Traveller’s Tales game, Mickey Mania: The Timeless Adventures of Mickey Mouse. From there he never looked back. 

Thanks, traffic

Following the success of the Mickey game, Jaffe impressed the higher-ups at Sony enough that they hired him as a lead designer. All he needed was a project to design. That’s when a chance trip to Salt Lake City changed everything.

“Alan Becker, from Sony Santa Monica, and I went out to Utah to meet with Evans & Sutherland, who wanted to make a 3D game,” Jaffe said. “It was a mind-blowing experience to walk around a 3D database.” 

Soon after that meeting, the development group known as SingleTrac was created.  From 1995 until its closing in 2000, the SingleTrac created 10 games, including the franchise-spawning Twisted Metal series, the Jet Moto franchise, and WarHawk.  Many of the developers, including Jaffe, would then go on to form Incognito Entertainment, which lasted until 2009 after many of the staff left to form Eat Sleep Play. 

But back in 1995, the crew was still working on ideas that they could use to fully implement the 3D technology that Evans & Sutherland had been developing.  Then inspiration struck in the form of a traffic jam in LA. 

“We were all stuck on the 405,” Jaffe explained.  “It was like a chocolate and peanut butter moment–the 3D graphics and being stuck on in traffic–and I was like ‘oh my god I wish I had a missile launcher.’” 

From that inspiration would come the first game of one of the PlayStation’s most successful franchises, Twisted Metal.

“We were all going around the room and I said ‘I have a game with cars and guns’ and they were like ‘done,’” Jaffe said of the game’s creation. “The original game cost $850K, which is ridiculously inexpensive, and it made a ton of money.” 

Jaffe, along with Scott Campbell, would be credited as a creator of one of the most successful franchises on the PS One after releasing Twisted Metal on November 5, 1995 (then later on the PC).  Despite some apathy towards the single-player campaign, the multiplayer more than made up for it and the game became a massive commercial hit, selling over one million copies in North America—at the time an eye-popping figure–and receiving a re-release as part of the “Sony’s Greatest Hits” line in 1997. 

But beyond just the sales figures, the game struck a chord with gamers, especially more mature gamers that wanted to blow up their friends, but i a fun way. It was the right game at the right time, and more than a few college grudges were settled by a game of Twisted Metal.

“We were a favorite of college dorm rooms,” Jaffe said. “I hear the college dorm room thing constantly.” 

The Twisted Metal franchise has since gone on to release nine games (including one remastered port of a PSP game), and a tenth is scheduled for a February 14 release. It is the longest-running franchise in Sony’s history behind the Gran Turismo series, and Jaffe has had at least a hand in all but one of the releases. 

God of the PS2

Although Jaffe’s career has been forever linked to the Twisted Metal franchise, his greatest success arguably came in 2005 as director of the PlayStation 2 classic, God of War.

The original God of War was an immediate success both commercially and critically, and went on to win numerous Game of the Year awards, spawning a new franchise that is rumored to be hard at work on its sixth game (although Jaffe is not involved).

The thing that stood out about God of War was the cinematic feel of the game.  The mechanics were also top notch and are often imitated, but it really was the scope of the game that has given it such a lasting legacy.

Raiders is my favorite movie of all time, and I wanted to make a game that was like a movie.” Jaffe explained. “But one of the hardest things about a game is that it isn’t like a movie, you don’t have a screenplay.  You are thinking on your toes and designing it as you go.”

Using his somewhat unique cinematic and gaming backgrounds, Jaffe directed God of War in a way that was more akin to a film than most games, but still quintessentially a video game, or course, but it is an extremely successful blend of both genres, and opened the door for many to see games in a new light. Jaffe credits Hollywood in some form for all of his works—Smokey and the Bandit and Mad Max are both cited as influences for Twisted Metal–but few are as obviously influenced by film as God of War, and it shows. 

God of War II was released in 2007 and received even more praise than its predecessor. Jaffe was still deeply involved, but turned over the reins to director Cory Barlog after moving up into a more managerial role as the Creative Director for Sony Santa Monica, where his experience would eventually lead to the creation of his own company, Eat Sleep Play. 

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