Evolutionâ??s Martin Kenwright, Mick Hocking and Simon Benson tell Michael French the story of how the studio shifted gears from PS2 to PS3, what that E3 video really meant for game production, and what happens nextâ?¦
Throughout its recent media storm Sony has insisted that its new games format, the PlayStation 3, be judged and defined by the merit of its software. Talk is cheap – after all, how else do you explain the specialist press getting basic facts like game titles wrong and weird write-ups in big-name newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic? – so in terms of software, SCE has let the games speak for themselves.
Unlike Nintendo and Microsoft, Sony has chosen to find those games outside of its own empire, signing up independent developers for the key first party titles.
One of those is long-running Sony partner Evolution and its game MotorStorm. Yet the close relationship between Sony and Evolution has an unfortunate consequence – many forget that the studio is an independent entity. That the two share an inextricable bond is undeniable: its chairman, after all, is former Psygnosis/SCEE man Ian Hetherington; the company produced five first party PS2 games in as many years; its ‘devolution’ team Bigbig produced Pursuit Force, one of the PSP’s few new IP successes; and of course the Evo team has just finished one of the most talked-about PlayStation 3 titles.
Since its unveiling, a lot has been said about the PS3, while MotorStorm has gone from an E3 video representing an emotive concept to a tentpole of development talks and press conferences the world over. It’s not just a new IP game, it’s a launch window title – and that’s launch in the sense it is expected to propel the machine, not the other way around.
But we’ve all heard or read what the launch means for Sony. If MotorStorm is pulling the PlayStation 3 cart, we want to hear from the horse’s mouth; it’s getting the chance to ask Evolution ‘So, how was it for you?’ that interests Develop, hence our visit to the Runcorn-based team…
THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM
But first, hit the brakes and reverse: the story of Evolution and MotorStorm, the studio’s bond with Sony and it’s deeply ambitious ideas go back further than 2005’s unveiling of the game or even the studio’s 1999 founding.
Evolution’s founder Martin Kenwright, who made the move from A-Level art class to game design, had founded Digital Image Design in ‘89, a studio that grew to 50 people by the time he was 25. DID’s softography had, in his words, already set the template for “a habitual and consistent” run of hits with ambitious, technological elements – F29 Retaliator, TFX, Robocop 3D – which would replicate itself years later.
When DID was bought by Infogrames in ‘99 after a decade of independence, Kenwright considered getting out of development altogether. Until Psygnosis co-founder Ian Hetherington urged him to stay in the game, that is, encouraging Kenwright to devise Evolution, a new independent set to keep them free from publishers and create original immersive games.
Hetherington’s SCEE connection and Kenwright and co.’s ability to produce immersive environments saw the company signed to Sony working on the big-money World Rally Championship licence. A perhaps ironic move, given the intention to be free and original, but a move that paid off: Evolution was the first third party allowed to develop a PS2 game; it produced a five-game racing sports franchise, WRC, from 2000 to 2005; most recently, The Sunday Times’ Fast Track listing ranked it as one of the UK’s top performing private companies, valuing the Sony partnership at £40m.
“We wanted to set the philosophy up that we were a dream team – like a football squad,” says Kenwright, looking back. “But we also understood that while we were, and could be, prolific IP creators WRC was a cash cow and the ideal way to grow and cultivate our company, because the industry wasn’t in the best shape for that at the time, was to stick with that game. We wanted to be loyal to Sony – and that will always be there – because they gave us such a wonderful opportunity.”
In turn Evolution gave back innovation – and the senior management all say that they were constantly aiming to impress Sony with ambitious ideas that would still be classed as next-gen concepts today.
“In the early days we deliberately set out to make a big difference in the market because, as any market does, the genre we were in went through a period where everything was the same,” explains managing director Mick Hocking, who had worked with Kenwright at DID. “So we took what were next-gen ideas from our flight sims – things like huge vistas and a sense of spectacle – and then put a racing game into that.”
By the end of the WRC franchise, production processes had been driven to perfection. The company embraced SCRUM and agile development as the team evolved and adapted to a tough 12-month schedule for each title.
“We grew really slowly over the five years,” adds Hocking. “The Rally games allowed that, even though they were hard to get done every year, because that stable base allowed us to be selective about who we’d take on. A licence is great because every 12 months you get a game out the door. It allowed us to make a game in a very healthy game.”
The effect was almost instantly visible, says producer Simon Benson, pointing out that the first WRC was made by 12 people – the next 20, the third around 30, and so on: “Doing a game every year is both brutal and healthy because you’re reviewing what you’ve done and going forward to make sure you are better and sharper. The early games were made with very few people and we had a lot of crunch, but when it came to the end of the series cycle had just one weekend crunch.”
Adds Hocking: “In the games industry getting that model right is really hard, but we perfected it and WRC5 was – until MotorStorm, of course – the best game we’d made. Constant improvement.”
But the success was double edged. Evolution thrived, but it’s games were only a hit in the rally niche in Europe. One review called the series “the best games you’ve never played”. Evolution created five PS2 titles to a regular yearly schedule – something only EA’s teams that are four times larger has got right – but it was wall-to-wall Rally.
Creatively, ideas to implement in WRC had to go unused (although, of course, elements such as he damage models and carnage made their way to MotorStorm) while entire game concepts were jettisoned and ironically prove beneficial to the very likes of the EA. (“Bigbig [Evolution’s satellite studio] wanted to do street racing, but back before it became a big thing in games. But our relationship with Sony meant that we couldn’t compete with Gran Turismo,” explains Kenwright of an eventually abandoned concept. Adds Hocking: “Need For Speed Carbon’s auto-sculpt – we had something identical six years ago – but obviously, with the licences…”).
So: overworked and overshadowed? Far from it – but they craved more. Kenwright says the time tied to WRC was perfect for cultivating a “pressure cooker” atmosphere – and they were ready to pop.
CREATING A STORM
The earliest germ of MotorStorm‘s existence came from the team’s excess of ideas, unable or not allowed to implement in WRC. That germ then turned viral when Phil Harrison asked Kenwright, during a WRC launch trip to the Corsica Rally, “What five things can you do for rally on PS3?”
“Of course, we had been thinking about that for some time,” explains Kenwright. So we needed to know their agenda, too. We asked: Do you want to sell hardware? Do you want a new world-class IP? Do you want to make lots of money? Or is it a mixture of all three? If it’s all three, then it’s three options times three times three – about twenty seven times harder. And of course Phil did turn to me and say ‘Yeah, all three’.”
The team went away to bash into shape their take on the next evolution in racing games. The primary idea was to emphasise the spectacle and enjoyment of racing, rather than the competitiveness. For all its AI fight and technological might, Evolution wanted a game that inverted what WRC did, placing entertainment as its main priority – everything else would be secondary.
And the truth is that the team was also out run over a few preconceptions about their company along the way. They didn’t want to just make the expected next-gen Rally game.
Says Kenwright: “There are misconceptions out there: that we are already Sony – and we’re not; that people think we just do Rally – and we don’t; and that we work for hire – we’re not.”
Adds Hocking: “Rally is great in a number of ways, but we were so close to Sony that people thought we were part of their company.”
A great example of how Evolution was so keen to prove it was evolving is the story behind the game’s name. ‘MotorStorm’ was thought up by an agency after a series of meetings with Sony and Evolution, coming after the studio thought up the idea of a racing festival that pitted unlikely vehicles against each other in the middle of the desert.
“We had ‘Eat My Dirt’, ‘Wasted’, ‘Stampede’ and ‘On All Fours… And Lovin’ It’ – we had some terrible names, actually!” laughs Kenwright. “But we wanted to be edgy, to prove we were capable of something beyond WRC, and ‘Eat My Dirt’ and ‘Wasted’ would have worked well with that festival atmosphere.”
With a co-devised name and game in place (in many respects, that Evolution wanted to push away from WRC and that Sony was happy to help them is a great example of how SCEE’s External Development team works), Kenwright and co. knew that the next challenge would be creating something that would be ready for launch.
GETTING IN THE MOOD
To convey the feel of the game, however, before the PS3 specs were nowhere close to final – despite the team being offered a first glimpse as they were with the PS2 – something was needed to prove the idea could provoke a response.
But despite strict instructions to not be too ambitious, Evolution also knew that the worst thing to do would be to underwhelm, hence the decision to produce the much talked-about E3 video.
“We realised we had to polarise the vision for the game and took the commercial decision to take all the assets we’re creating for the real PlayStation 3, visualise all the techniques we know it could use and then render up something based on that – not something fantastical you couldn’t achieve,” explains Kenwright. “We aimed high and we wanted to trail blaze – we did that when designing for PlayStation 2, we’ve always done that – and we took on a can do fashion, probably annoyed people along the way, but this movie would distil all the best bits of this game.”
Despite murmurs in the press, they never felt party to any deceit: “It was never that we thought the movie couldn’t be achieved,” he says, and on close inspection now it’s clear they have been validated. “We never once thought we couldn’t do it,” he repeats, before adding: “It was convincing the guys that it would happen which was a challenge.”
Ah, yes, production. After the matters over ‘target render movies’ settled down, Evolution had to get its head down and turn ideas into game. And there were two challenges to face – both of which centred on making it clear to both the team and the publisher what the game was going to be.
“At that point there was an awful lot of people who wanted to contribute to what we were doing,” says Hocking. “Some people just thought that it would be ‘Rally with bits’ so we had to be clear to both Sony and ourselves that it was more than that. The core of the game is brutal off-road racing, and we had to stick to that. It was so important those few months where we kept it focused like that.”
And some judicial editing and a stringent control process helped them refine what MotorStorm was. It was a lengthy journey.
“The first 12 months were… well, I think everyone knows what it’s like when you’re looking at a new format,” he adds. “The platform gets announced and you’re thinking ‘bloody hell!’. It never changes much after that month – although the format specs get more realistic as times go on.
“There were so many ideas flying into the pot, but at some point you have to think, back when it’s March 2005, that it needs squeezing down to a product. During those first 12 months as much was taken out as there is left in the game you have now. So the game wasn’t really built properly until the last 12 months.”
Throughout all that time the studio walls were covered in shots from the movie, almost every frame turned into a poster.
“Imagine how much of a challenge that looks when there wasn’t a line of code written,” says Benson. “On the one hand, while we can talk about inspiring people, you’ve got to understand that there was no next-gen code base in place when the first movie was shown. Keeping people’s belief that they can do it when they can’t even render polygons at that point was difficult.”
Benson and product manager Matt Southern have run through some of the production’s biggest challenges above. In all, the sweet taste of any challenge is the resultant relief, and now the game is done the pride amongst the 100-strong team is immeasurable.
And they know that they’ve nailed it, says Benson, despite the long race to the finish line: “The only point you can prove you were right is fairly late on because you won’t have something running at full pelt early.”
So the shadow of the early movie was turned into an illuminating light. In the flesh, the visualisation trailer and game share so much in common that any doubts seem a little stupid.
Says Hocking: “The thing about those videos is that they were perfect for visualising the product nice and early ahead of launch. The problem is that everyone turns around and says ‘Are you pulling the wool over our eyes or is this what it can really do?’ And you know what, it turns out that this is what you really can do.”
EYE OF THE STORM
Through all of the game’s production, however, Evolution found itself stood in the centre of the PS3 frenzy. Blu-ray, the machine’s delay, the disputed memory specs, the constant chatter in the press, Sony’s introduction of a tilt-sensing control pad – everything Sony did, Evolution saw close-up and first hand, which means that the team has a unique perspective on what’s been happening to its format holder friends.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they don’t think Sony’s got anything to worry about.
“This is the biggest thing Sony has done as a corporation, but their critics will all be singing their praises in a few months time,” says Hocking. “Sony’s made a very brave move and have produced an incredible piece of hardware – it will have paid them dividends in three or four years time.”
“It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” sums up Kenwright. “We’re moving into an amazing new business model and that’s a great save by Sony. They’ve been really beaten up about it – but I’m so happy they had the balls to come out with such an ambitious machine. They only get beaten up for the ten per cent they didn’t do rather than the 90 per cent they have. PS3 is the most amazing bit of machinery – all the console manufacturers deserve credit for creating any machine quickly ahead of the market, but everyone wants to beat Sony up.”
He’s also quick to join Sony’s software chorus and say that a huge part of how Sony will succeed relies on teams like Evolution: “Whatever you say, there’s a warm glow of pride here. It was the team, 100 per cent, which got it sorted. There was so much work to do. We had a new format, loads of assets to sort out, and our publisher was under a lot of stress because it was their new format. It was the best of times and the worst of times and so many people were nervous, anxious. But it’s worked.”
And then he likens the widespread distribution of the PS3 MotorStorm demo, available to every PS3 sold and connected to the web, to being revolutionary on a level akin to id’s introduction of its first PC demo: “It’s the ultimate Trojan horse for downloadable content – a huge stone that we’ve thrown into the pond, what Doom did for online PCs is what we aim do for online consoles.”
And, asserts Hocking, with the whole of the MotorStorm experience the team has helped not only live up to Sony’s mandate for next-gen games – by producing and completing the first PS3 game made in Europe, they’ve helped shape that agenda. “We’ve helped prove on day one that it works. Launch games usually only ever hint at what a console can do – I can’t think of any other game that really nails what a machine can do, but we’ve come bloody close.”
THE NEXT NEXT-GEN
So, with one of the most talked about first party launch games for the world’s most talked about home console in the bag, what happens next?
In the short-term, MotorStorm remains a priority, even after its release. Set to play a major part of Sony’s ‘Beyond the Box’ philosophy, when Develop toured the studio teams were hard at work on online content, such as downloadable cars to be rolled out as the PlayStation Network Platform and Store picks up the pace.
And, of course, experience on a launch title, says Hocking, “means we’ve got a second gen title in the works while people are making their first one.”
But while that goes on, the company’s top brass are devising the next five-year plan.
“We crawled, now are walking and are ready to run,” says Kenwright. “And from that, we’ll always have our feet on the ground – and will keep making excellent stuff like MotorStorm – but I’ve got my feet on the ground but my head in the clouds, perhaps, and working out what’s next.
“The development business model is going to change beyond all belief over the next few years. So what we’re looking at is balancing long-term aims while consolidating our position.”
He calls MotorStorm “a curtain raiser” for both Evolution, the PS3, and that ‘big change’ – so what’s behind the curtain? “Yes, I know what that next thing is. We want to be in the business of IP creation,” he starts to explain, before delivering an unexpected punch: “Right now, I’m already thinking about the PlayStation 4 era and beyond.”
He doesn’t seem to be joking: “That’s the way we need to think now in this business. We need to be proactive – and be first or best. Not be a clone or copy anyone else.”
He goes on to tell the story of how when he recently finished the business plan for the company’s next phase, he stuck a label at the top of his monitor with ‘2011’ scrawled on it, “because what happens then is the next big goal.”
It seems almost preposterous to be talking about those things already, despite things like Sony’s own widely-reported speculation in a recent issue of Wired that it’s next home console format could be disc-drive free. To be thinking about the next generation must be a headache for everyone in the industry, especially given the not-quite-perfect birth of the PS3.
But Hocking argues the case for such ambition: “Yeah, it’s a risky thing to say, but if you don’t do that it’s more risky to just look at the current gen and try to fit in with what everyone else is doing. That strikes me as crazy. Think of it like taking a hairpin on a race track - everyone looks at the corner but you really need to be looking at the track and see what’s further ahead otherwise you end up really surprised.”
And anyway, says Kenwright, Evolution has always thought big in this manner – that’s simply how he and the team approaches work: “When we were making PS2 games we were thinking of PS3-type-specs as our bar for World Rally. Now we’re on PS3 we’re thinking about what aiming for the PS4 territory would allow us to achieve.”
At which point he can’t help, before clamping his hand over his mouth, but brand the next Evolution production as “beyond anything you could consider in the current development space”.
Without spoiling the surprise, then, how is that so? “In general, there’s different ways of making games in the future and I think a lot of the things people talk about as being problems in this industry will become less of an issue,” Kenwright says, pointing at the way Evolution worked with Havok to produce constantly evolving courses – embracing middleware as gameplay feature rather than just a technology solution – as a key influence on the market.
“It’s gone beyond the old attitude of a technological difference being what makes things work or how you succeed – in the end things like the concept behind your game and the brand will overtake all that. If you ask me, there’s a huge wave coming that’s going to change things dramatically, and we will aim to be the crest of it.”
And it’s hugely unlikely that the team will have forgotten to pack their surfboards.