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Know This Developer: Ubisoft Montreal

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ubi_mon

As I was looking into doing a history on this fantastic studio I came upon an excellent reference that was so good there’s no point in me doing one.  While it’s easy to rag on big media conglomerates, IGN’s Mitch Dyer did a fantastic story of the origins of Ubisoft Montreal that includes stories of Splinter Cell‘s origin, the reinvention of Prince of Persia, and the visual treat that is Far Cry.  It’s a fascinating story that documents the major franchises you can thank that studio for and a must read for gaming history buffs like ourselves.  Head on over and check out House of Dreams: The Ubisoft Montreal Story when you can.

 

Written by spydersvenom

February 27, 2014 at 8:44 am

Interview: Super Icon

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Claire Hill-Whittall

Claire Hill-Whittall

Richard Hill-Whittall

Richard Hill-Whittall

si_logo

Super Icon is the independent developer responsible for the impressive retro flashback title Life of Pixel.  Aside from developing this and a few other titles on the Playstation Mobile platform, this husband and wife duo has big plans afoot, not the least being a new kickstarter project to bring Life of Pixel to a wider audience on PC, Mac, iOS, and Android (with additional content).   Recently Creative Director Richard Hill-Whittall and Claire Hill-Whittall in Business Development were kind enough to answer some questions that we at Gaming History 101 and you readers were wondering about this clear appreciation for early consoles and microcomputers.

GH101: Where did the idea to make Life of Pixel come from?

Richard: Life of Pixel is essentially my pet project; an exploration of
8-bit games computers and consoles, from the graphical and audio limitations
through to references to many of the classic games I grew up with. I always
wanted to do 8-bit graphics, but missed it the first time round as I was too
young.

GH101: Did the game always start off as an homage to 1980s gaming or did you
originally focus on one console?

Claire: It started off as a mixture of 8 and 16 bit machines, but we decided to
focus on 8-bit as there were so many machines to explore with such a wide
range of different graphical limitations and styles.

GH101: Why has your company chosen the PlayStation Mobile platform?  Any plans to port this or other titles to additional platforms such as PSN mini,  Steam, or XNA? [This question predates the recent Kickstarter reveal - ed]

pixelClaire: We had a good relationship with Sony, and were really keen to work on PSM -
the experience was good, and Sony were very supportive. The only
disappointment is the limited sales on the format.

We have just launched a Kickstarter for Pixel, to take it over onto PC, Mac,
iOS and Android. We hope to get the game out to as wider audience as
possible and to keep evolving and expanding the game.

GH101: We noticed you had specific artists for each console’s music and that you
gave them proper credit during the game instead of in the final credits.  How did you go about finding these artists?  Was it a conscious decision to put their names in before the final credits?

Claire: We posted on a couple of forums looking for chip musicians where we explained
about the game and the response was incredible. So many great chip musicians
came forward.

We definitely wanted to display their names in lights as it were, as the
audio is such a major aspect of the game, and these guys did some stellar
tunes for a very limited budget. We are very grateful to them.

GH01: Your site has released level maps for those complaining of the difficulty.
As someone who beat the game 100 Percent without the maps, and I noticed you
make no apologies for the difficulty on your
site, did you ever make tweaks to the difficulty?   I felt the levels
were tough but fair and if you explored enough, there were always safe paths
through a level.  Did you make specific level design changes based on
pre-release feedback?

Richard: Well we could complete all the levels easily enough – but you get so close
to a project, you know every part of each level. Some users however were put
off by the difficulty, and in fairness there were some “cheap” deaths.

I went through every level and tweaked them to remove unfair “luck” based
potential death (i.e. when you do a blind drop and land on a monster!).  So
while I didn’t try to make the levels particularly easier, they are now a
fair test of skill, not chance. We are a lot happier with all of the levels
now too.

lop_menu

GH101: I loved the bonus levels that unlock at the end and how you chose to handle them.  Was it always planned to

be in the game or later added on?

Richard: Nope [it wasn't].  I was working on the update, loving revisiting the game, and
thought I want to add a new machine, especially for those players who
played through the entire game.  As a thank you, really.

***WARNING: Mild spoilers in the following statement, skip to the next question if you don’t want to be spoiled.***
I tweeted for suggestions on the machine and the Master System got the most
votes.  It was cool too as it had extra colors to play with over NES, which
was nice.

GH101: Do you have any plans on a sequel?  Perhaps a 1990s/16-bit era title?

Richard: We do plan on a sequel – the 16-bit systems. We’re keen to explore more
8-bits first though as there are some good ones we missed.

GH101: What is your favourite gaming console or microcomputer and why?

Richard: I think the C64 (Commodore 64).  The music swings it; SID music (and sound fx actually) is
just the best! (smiles)

GH101: What project(s) are you currently working on?  When and where can we expect
them?
Mega Blast

Mega Blast

Claire: We have a second PSM title in the works, called MegaBlast, which is an
intense old school score-attack arcade shooter influenced by classic space
shooters such as Galaga, Galaxian, and Space Invaders.  [It] should be out this
month.

We have a couple of Vita titles in development.  They are slow going but we
aim to finish them this year.

Also we are doing a Unity title – sort of a cross between Battlezone and
Doom – really enjoying that one.  Also Rich has done a solo project, Super
Golf, which is a 2D golfing platformer through popular culture coming very
soon for PC, Mac, iOS and Android.

Written by spydersvenom

May 10, 2013 at 11:00 am

Know This Developer: Radical Entertainment

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It was announced on June 28, 2012, that after careful consideration Activision decided to disband most of Radical Entertainment (on a recent episode of Giant Bombcast it was discussed that the rumored remaining staff was 12) and basically close the studio.  Granted, although the logo may appear on future games and thus be an argument to the fact that the studio is still open, Activision states that Radical remains a support studio with no ability to develop its own games.  Cynics want to blame Activision for setting inappropriate goals for the Prototype developer and we all tend to believe that the remaining Radical staff will be assigned to a Call of Duty in the future, but that’s a different discussion for a different forum.  Instead, I want to touch on how Radical Entertainment came to be and the games it has contributed to the industry.

Humble Beginnings

In 1991 Dave Davis and Rory Armes decided to create Radical Entertainment after working together at Distinctive Software (known mostly for developing PC ports of popular arcade and console games, later becoming EA Canada) along with newcomer to the industry Ian Wilkinson.  Its formative years saw Radical tackling late NES cycle titles for Nintendo, all of which I sadly admit I hate.  During the 16-bit and 32-bit era of consoles Radical migrated to a split between console sports titles and a division known as 369 Interactive, which was responsible for Ubisoft-published PC titles in the CSI series. 

In the early 2000s Radical began developing titles for Vivendi Universal’s licensed products and can be “thanked” for the likes of Simpsons: Hit & Run, Dark Angel, and even the decent Hulk game based of the Ang Lee film.  Despite my negativity towards these titles, they celebrated commercial success (along with some critical success) and publishers began shopping the studio for acquisition.  In 2005 Vivendi Universal would acquire Radical Entertainment but allowed it to remain an independent studio, thus allowing the flow of the company to remain untouched.

To be honest, there wasn’t a reason in the world that I wanted to play any of Radical Entertainment’s early titles, but that all changed with the release of one game: Grand Theft Auto III.  Radical isn’t responsible for anything involving the development of this or any GTA title, however they did manage to take the non-gameplay aspect of that title – the ability to cause chaos in a living, breathing city – and make a game out of it.  Several, in fact.

Radical Finds A Niche

Two of my most fond titles from the last generation were Radical’s first projects under Vivendi Universal: Hulk: Ultimate Destruction and Scarface: The World is YoursHulk: Ultimate Destruction was a sandbox-style game that allowed the player to roam freely across an open city, causing as much or as little chaos as they want in the process.  Scattered throughout the city, a la GTA, are various missions that Hulk can do to further the story, but what I always dug about the game was the fact that regardless of the mission, the city would continue to react to the actions made before and after.  Unlike GTA, the city didn’t reset its current standings in the interest of starting a new story mission, which meant that if you pissed off everyone before starting a mission you may have that much more chaos on your hands when it came time to actually do the mission.  Hulk also had some amazing abilities that hadn’t really been seen before, most of which would later be implemented in Prototype.  He could do large long leaps across the city, run vertically up walls, dig into walls and continue to climb, and drop down with strong “devastator” attacks that did major damage across a small radius. 

Scarface: The World is Yours was a spiritual sequel to the movie that assumed Tony Montana lives and takes out Sosa’s assassins, including Skull, who was responsible for his death in the film.  From that point Tony vows to quit cocaine and return to Miami to rebuild his empire.  It felt much like a reboot of GTA: Vice City, which ironically stole its concept from Scarface the film, but gave the iconic Tony Montana as the playable character and fleshed out some interesting “what-if” scenarios.  Although it could have been a watered down clone, Scarface was actually a decent game that held its own both in reviews and sales, further boasting the fact that Radical knew sandbox games.

Crashing the Party

After the success of Crash Team Racing on Playstation 1, Vivendi handed the development of Crash Tag Team Racing from Traveller’s Tales (previous Crash developer after being acquired from Sony) to Radical Entertainment.  A pretty obvious clone of the newest iteration of Mario Kart (Double Dash), Tag Team released to so-so reviews, many panning the almost laughable AI difficulty, but commercial success.  After that Radical became the official Crash Bandicoot developer and went on to make titles Crash of the Titans and Mind over Mutant, both games did pretty poorly with critics but still brought commercial success.  I think these games are decent 3D platformers, although truthfully there are better examples from this era, but the super short campaigns make them worthwhile to try out for like $5-$10 if you’re a fan. 

By this point Radical Entertainment was rocking and rolling with its new home at Vivendi and probably accounts for the highest point in the studio’s career.  After the release of Mind over Mutant, Radical had three distinct projects in the pipe: Scarface 2, an unnamed Crash title, and a whole new intellectual property Prototype.  Early discussions with the studio would reveal thatPrototype featured an anti-hero with superhuman abilities and free roaming city (a staple for most Radical games after the Vivendi acquisition, even in the Crash games).  There was also rumblings about the game having plenty of violent content.  Shortly after, in 2008, that would all change when Universal sold off Vivendi to none other than publishing giant Activision Blizzard.

Cold Front

When Activision Blizzard acquired Vivendi, any and all developers (as well as their projects) were subjected to review and many found their way to the chopping block.  Not only that, this indie studio was to immediately become a first-party studio for Activision Blizzard, which could result in the publisher getting involved in all aspects of the development process.  This is widely regarded as a negative and ugly side effect of such sales and acquisitions.  According to a former employee, both the early conceptual Crash title and Scarface 2, which he claims was ready to go gold – a term used for the completion of a game that is approved to be manufactured – were slashed immediately.  Critics at the time, myself included, were pretty sure that Prototype was going to be eliminated as well, especially when you consider its vague similarity to Sony’s inFamous and the fact that Double Fine’s highly anticipated Brutal Legend fell victim to cancellation at the hands of Activision Blizzard.  Surprisingly Prototype released and while it didn’t get the greatest reviews, managed to move more than 1 million copies and generate a decent fan base.  As a personal fan of the title, I’m always torn talking about it in public forum because as a critic I can knock it down for several flaws but as a gamer I love it.

Nothing was immediately announced by Radical following the release of Prototype and given the sales numbers – 1 million units is a great number, but not for a top echelon publisher like Activision Blizzard, who has Call of Duty in its roster – it was believed the title would not get a sequel.  There are rumors that the Prototype engine would be used to develop a new Spider-Man or Bourne title, both of which were Activision properties, but to many’s surprise Radical eventually announced Prototype 2 in 2010, releasing in 2012.  No one looked to that as positive news from an industry analytical standpoint, but I’m sure Radical was pleased to still have a job for at least two more years and I personally was intrigued.

It’s important to understand that Activision is a business and it wants to make the best possible decision for its company and investors, which almost never holds the interest of gamers or developers in mind.  A simple business analysis could conclude that Radical’s position at that point was to develop Prototype 2 with the same engine (ie: much cheaper development cost and cycle) and attempt to generate a larger revenue stream for the original investment.  They might have also balanced that with the fact that these other rumored titles were in better hands with other developers.  Furthermore, many still feel that Prototype remaining the sole project of Radical may have been a bad business decision and this was Activision’s attempt to correct the problem instead of losing even more capital on the development of a new IP.  Either way, the game was developed and released.  Having played a significant amount of the campaign already, I can agree that this game is quite similar to the first, basically adapting a new story that allows you to play a refined version of the original.  This makes it a clear target for critics, but as a fan of the series I can say that’s all I really wanted out of a sequel I never thought I would see (or needed).  It premiered at the end of April in the top spot and dropped to down to number four in May, although that’s probably much better than anyone thought it would do and clearly the bump was from fans of the original.  After the smoke had cleared and the initial sales tallied, it was time for Activision to decide what to do with Radical. 

Even in May it was clear that they were either going to close or sell the studio with thePrototypewell thoroughly tapped and Activision taking almost no chances in today’s economy with a new IP.  They did consider the possibility of re-distributing the teams at Radical or selling the studio completely, but the eventual decision was heavy layoffs and a partial closure of the studio.  This is a business that lives and breathes off popular trends, heavy sales, and timid fans.  Truthfully most of the Radical team are victims of the industry landscape and despite the my urge to attack the big guy (Activision) for its decision or the current state of gaming trends (ie: social, shooters, etc.) there’s no one to blame.  Instead of focusing on how tragic it is that Radical has, for the most part, fallen it’s much more positive to remember why they are even relevant in the first place.

Radical Entertainment, you are responsible for Mario is Missing on the NES, a horrendous crime, and for Hulk: Ultimate Destruction a testament to what’s good about sandbox gaming, and you will be missed.  Here’s hoping the talented members of that team that lost their jobs find work quickly and those that remain are put to proper use on future support projects.  In memory, I will be playing Prototype 2 to full completion as my sole gaming project of the week. 

The list of games developed by Radical can be found here.

Written by spydersvenom

July 10, 2012 at 2:22 pm

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