Rare: Taking control

Rare: Taking control

By Rob Crossley

March 26th 2010 at 3:00PM

Pt2: Studio head Mark Betteridge discusses the companyâ??s new purpose

Despite the recent release of a certain XBLA game, the last thing Rare wants to dwell on is the past. The group has moved on from its memorable Nintendo love-in and the limbo that followed. 

Rare is now completely focused. It is freed from the ghoulies, and has clear, direct goals. It is providing games and services for a device which Microsoft is staking virtually all its reputation on.

In part one of our interview with the devloper’s studio head, Mark Betteridge (pictured), we discussed how Rare is positioning its business for the future. In the second half of our interview below, we discuss what that future will be.

Is there still a hunger at Rare to make the big-budget blockbusters?
Yes absolutely, the main thing that we’re recognising here is that in order to be successful and effective in the future, not only do you need the diamond idea, but you also need to be very timely and cost-effective with how you implement that. 

Like with any hit-driven business, the timing is everything. Having the production facilities so that you can scale something, and move immediately, is very critical. 

Obviously Rare has a legacy of famous games but, now that the company is moving in new directions, is there a need to go back to them?
There isn’t a need to, I mean, it’d be nice to go back to these projects that have been successful in the past – but that doesn’t mean we will. We’d only go back to older franchises if we saw an opportunity to make the product in a different way that would do justice to that, not just for the sake of it.

Is Microsoft happy for you to build expensive, AAA games?
Microsoft Game Studios has quite a large number of different projects; some internal and some external, and it’s about getting the right overall portfolio for first-party. 

A first-party’s job should be to define the Xbox 360 platform, and that’s what we are looking to do here. It’s always a lot of work to do that – no great project ever comes easily – and sometimes that’s seen in the scale and scope of a project. You can imagine something like Halo 3 required an enormous amount of content work, and other times it’s more to do with the design and balance and approachability of a project and I think Natal is going to be key with that. 

So sometimes there’s a different emphasis of effort in a different area for a different audience, that’s the way I see it. I suppose at Microsoft it’s about, overall, having the right content from first-party studios to define what Natal is. 

We’re very confident we do have that, we will have that, and I think people are going to be impressed with what they see from ourselves and first-parties. It’s a great attribute of Microsoft that, not only do they have the creative decision to bring something like Natal into the marketplace when other companies aren’t doing so well at the moment, but they also have the financial backing to run with that.  

You know, a lot of people have great ideas but can’t bring them to market just because of the sheer cost of doing so. At the moment many companies deem it too expensive to be creative with new ideas. 

And that’s a critical advantage that we have being a Microsoft first-party studio. We have full backing for investing in Natal to prove everything it can be and, really, we do feel privileged to be able to experiment with it.

What's surprising with the Wii is that Nintendo published Wii Sports, a new Zelda game and Wario Ware shortly after the console’s launch, yet few developers have been inspired by these games and followed the trend. How important is it that first-party studios lead the way on Natal?
It’s very important. The Wii surprised a lot of people, probably even Nintendo, with the low level of appetite and interest it attracted with its content. 

A lot of the third-parties were a bit slow to react to the Wii, because they weren’t expecting the kind of levels of success you see with Wii Sports or Wii Fit. 

I think [with the Xbox 360], if you’re going into an area where you compete with Halo or Gears of War, you’re up against some very formidable competition. But if a studio is able to define its own game experience, you have a much better chance in being a leader in that area. 

So with Natal, a lot of developers will see it as another opportunity to move into a brand new market where you define your own rules. If you’re a studio starting now, you can go up against the Halos and Gears of Wars and the Call of Dutys, but that’s a tall order. 

To succeed on the 360 you need a quantum change in the rules that allows different offerings to succeed, and I think Natal is a massive opportunity for that. I think developers will realise that. 

I think it will surprise a lot of people how much content you can get on Natal that is appealing to not only the audience that we have but band new customers who will for the first time feel interested on playing on the Xbox. 

The Wii obviously has a dichotomised audience of core and casual, and they tend to not mix. Do you feel Natal can satisfy both audiences? 
We know a lot about  the kind of customers the Xbox has right now – the attach rate is very high, and we can see what sort of software they really like. 

I think there will be a brand new market of people who will come into the Xbox world who aren’t currently attracted to it. Now, how many of the current customers we can attract to Natal, and get a crossover with new audiences, is going to be very key for us. In terms of content I think you’ll get games that satisfy both audiences. 

There is a certain type of customer who is simply not interested in buying a new Xbox, no matter how many Forza or Halo games we add to it – they are just not interested in that kind of core experience. This is where the interesting opportunity is for us, because that market is obviously bigger than the one we have now. 

Natal is the biggest change in how you interact with software… ever, really, because we’ve moved to a clean sheet of paper on the user input – it’s a huge change creatively in how you build a game.