Nick Burton goes through memory lane as we celebrate the inimitable studio’s first 25 years
Let’s be honest; the UK game development industry isn’t growing. It isn’t healthy. It has systematically surrendered its publishing empires to foreign benefactors, been betrayed by Ed Vaizey’s Whitehall colleagues, slid into the shadow of China and Canada and, in the case of the latter, is haemorrhaging staff there.
Yet if the UK is spinning out of control, there is still to this day an unyielding, positive truth at the very core: its developers can still build games of global standing.
UK talent remains world-class. It still has its magnificently creative designers; Scots who virtually own the sandbox, Englishmen who built Elite from wireframe and crafted LittleBigPlanet from post-it notes.
And Twycross studio Rare is an embodiment of that great British know-how. It is among the few development outfits in the world that has managed to so consistently raise the bar, adapt to a wildly shifting business, and remain innovative.
The studio has done so for 25 years – way beyond the average studio life expectancy – with an eye-watering list of seminal products, distinct and ground-breaking ideas, and a few shocking moments.
Nick Burton began working at Rare twelve years ago, having climbed the ladder to become executive producer of technology and communication. In the first part of an interview with Develop, he talks us through a few of the biggest moments at Rare during his time.
Microsoft buys Rare for a record-breaking $375 million. The developer’s founding brothers – Tim and Chris Stamper – sell their 51 per cent stake with Nintendo agreeing to trade its 49 per cent share.
Burton: I remember it well. There were a few people looking at each other at the time. Obviously there was uncertainty, not quite sure what it all is going to be like. I was pretty excited myself because I’m sad and geeky and like technology.
I don’t think anyone knew what it was going to be like. Obviously there was going to be a whole different culture – but then again we had experience working with international publishers.
These companies all have different approaches, but I swear it takes a while to fully get your head around them. You’re looking at a good few years before we were actually completely integrated into Microsoft.
From their perspective they didn’t want to come in and change everything and break us, and obviously we didn’t want them to.
Gargantuan expectations end badly as Rare releases its first Xbox game, Grabbed By The Ghoulies. Having consistently developed prize-winning games over a decade, Rare’s first Xbox release bucks the trend with a game that fails to attain widespread acclaim.
Burton: What we always wanted to do is bring everything back to a more simple control scheme. The simpler you can make your game, of course, the more people have a chance to enjoy it – not just hardcore gamers.
But, when you’re developing for the Xbox, maybe its appeal wasn’t suited to that console at that time. I would think it would be better received if it was on the 360 right now.
Obviously if you get feedback from any of your games and it’s not as well received as you’d like then, of course, that’s the kind of thing that hurts. You can’t take it to heart a lot of the time, because it depends on who’s actually saying that.
As far as the studio itself, we were looking at other projects and, y’know, it is just one game. No game is the be-all and end-all, and we’re all trying different things and we’ve got to see what people like and what people don’t.
Grabbed by the Ghoulies’ reception was more a case of us saying, well, that didn’t quite work, what do we do next? We already knew about the 360 at the time and started working on that, and Conker [Live & Reloaded] was in the works as well, so we moved on.
Nintendo president Satoru Iwata instantly spins the industry on its head by raising his fist at the Tokyo Game Show. He is showing, for the first time, the Wii Remote – the genesis of a motion control era that Rare quickly aimed to redefine with its games for Kinect, Microsoft’s alternative device.
Burton: Like everyone else, we went through the motions. It’s actually the same motions people are going through with Kinect today. Sort of, shock – “you’re doing what?!” – but then you come to terms with it and think, “actually, that’s a great idea!”
Initially I thought, my god, how are you going to make games? But then you start really thinking about it and it all makes sense. There’s a whole set of things developers are going that they couldn’t ever before.
Then slowly, you think about it more and more and start realising, “yeah, this is a pretty shrewd move by Nintendo.” Something like Viva Piñata has the potential to convert some people to Xbox, but not on the scale that a motion controller could convert people to the Wii.
Five years after the Rare released Perfect Dark, the studio’s other seminal FPS, Microsoft ensured that a sequel would launch along with its new console, the Xbox 360. Yet Rare had to burn the candle at both ends – the group had to develop a second launch title, Kameo, at the same time.
Burton: It wasn’t just about making the games, though. You’re actually trying to see what the hardware can do, you’re trying to push the hardware and feed that back to the Microsoft engineers so that they can then feed that back to other developers. So there’s this whole internal pursuit within all studios that the outside world isn’t privy to.
You’re doing that while developing both Perfect Dark and Kameo. I’m very proud of both of them as far as launch games are concerned.
I suppose two Xbox 360 launch games was kind of crazy. We had about 60 people on Kameo and 90 on Perfect Dark Zero. Both those games you came away thinking, gosh, if only I had another six months.
The thing about launch titles is that you’re always trying to hit a moving target. You’re working with hardware that’s not finished, you’re continually revising the code, you’re finding out it can do new things you didn’t realise it could do.
It was a very exciting time, truth be told. Just showing off parts of the game to the studio, and seeing the look on their faces, that’s always great. And when you’re the first person in the world to figure something out about new hardware, that’s kind of special.
I remember in the Kameo project, George [Andreas, creative director] asked for this one battlefield scene where he wanted a couple of hundred guys in the background. So we took a look at it and knocked something together, and went up to him and said, hey, look what we’ve done.
We got a thousand there. He was pretty impressed! We carried on. That number went up and up and up to about three thousand, to the point where you’re told ‘alright that’s enough now’.
Turns out, about a month later when I was going through the code, that I realised we were rendering all those guys in the background three times. Oops.
Nothing quite screams ‘surprise!’ like Viva Piñata. A new IP from Rare, and a relatively new approach to console games altogether; a candied garden paradise sim that – in retrospect – was a foretoken to the wider markets Microsoft is now trying to summon. The game was loved and the franchise spun several new games and a TV series.
Burton: The thing is – we’ve always been about appealing to a wider audience, even right from the days when we changed our name from ‘Ultimate Play the Game’ to Rare.
When we were thinking of Viva Piñata, looking at where the 360 was, we knew that doing another Perfect Dark would mean we would be competing in a saturated field. So we thought Viva was a good way to broaden our horizons and try something a bit different.
Funnily enough, Viva Pinata didn’t actually start out on the 360. It started life as a mobile game. An isometric kind of thing, but it clearly had much more potential if we upped the detail, so we migrated the idea to Xbox 360, and then brought in the, er, Mexican look!
It never ceases to amaze me that every time that Kameo or Perfect Dark are quoted – in fact all of our 360 titles – people say they weren’t commercially successful. Hang on a minute! I’ve got the figures and they were, thanks very much!
[In the second part of the interview, published later in the week, we'll talk to Rare about what happened after Pinata and its new move into Motion control]