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Wednesday, Gamasutra featured my Colony Wars article. It was a project that I had in my mind for the past two years, but wasn’t sure if anyone would care to participate in, much less read. The response since then has been a bit over-whelming and gratifying. Enthusiasts and journalists have been contacting me via e-mail and social network sites, giving me more ideas than I can currently digest.
One of said enthusiasts to contact me was Andy Satterthwaite. Satterthwaite was the producer for the original Colony Wars. Prior to my questions. I asked him about his history in the games industry, his role as a producer on Colony Wars, and his current projects. What follows is Satterthwaite’s take on his time with Colony Wars and his current views on the industry.
[Update 10-2-11: As a disclaimer, the development of Colony Wars took place almost 15 years ago. Satterthwaite prefaces that his recollection of the specifics of events that far back may not have been as easy to recall.] "I started in the games industry about 18 years ago (1993), as a programmer for Psygnosis (previous to that I’d done a degree in Computing Mathematics and a masters in Parallel Programming). It became apparent fairly quickly that there were plenty of programmers better than me, but I had a flare for organisation and prioritisation – so at the end of 1995 I became a producer. My first title was Wipeout 2097 (ne: Wipeout XL in the US). As a producer my job was to plan the project, organise the team and basically ensure that the game designer’s vision was curtailed enough to fit in to the time available, while being implemented well enough to make the game great. I also got my fingers dirty in design where necessary (on Wipeout 2097 for example, I designed the game structure, but not the tracks or the handling). I was brought on to Colony Wars at the end of 1996 by Ian Grieve (who was in charge of the San Francisco office where the game had been in development for nearly a year) to “save the project”. At the time Colony Wars was epically behind, poorly planned and the design scope was incomprehensible. Psygnosis decided to shut the SF office and move the development back to Liverpool. My job was to get the game releasable. So after analysing the full design and throwing the original (broken) plan out of the window, I grabbed the two best people I’d worked with on Wipeout (Chris Roberts, who you talked to) and Lee Carus (now a senior artist at SCEE) and between us we worked out how to turn the game around. Mike Ellis had an idea for something huge and wonderful. But we needed to make something wonderful AND shippable. We reduced the 150+ missions down to the 72 that it shipped with. Re-scoped the story structure, and fleshed out the game where it needed. We expanded the existing team, put people in new roles, with dedicated responsibilities and started fleshing out the rest of the world (for which I brought on the wonderful Damon Fairclough on as writer - he wrote the fantastic planetary backgrounds and fmv scripts (which in turn produced the full background story for the game)). In all the re-plan and re-development took an additional 10 months. During that time I was responsible for (amongst other things) planning the project, re-designing the game structure (but not the mission contents), managing the team, wrangling resources, writing all the mission dialog, dealing with marketing (who loved us – hence the cinema ads), casting the voice actors and producing the audio recordings.
It was an incredibly stressful project and I was really pleased with how it turned out in the end. Mike Ellis and I never really saw eye-to-eye which wasn’t ideal (and was part of the reason why I bowed out from doing the sequel). But overall it was good. In the 14 years since then ... I formed a company (Curly Monsters) with Chris, Lee, Nick Burcombe and a couple of others. We shipped two titles (N-GEN Racing and Quantum Redshift) before disbanding. I then moved to New Zealand where I’ve worked since.
I’m now the Exec. Producer at Sidhe / PikPok ... I’ve designed and produced many games (most notably GripShift, SpeedRacer and now Monsters Ate My Condo) as well as being involved in every other title that Sidhe has developed since 2003." -- Andy Satterthwaite
IT: Since you bowed-out from developing Colony Wars: Vengeance, were you at all interested in where the series went? Was there anything you would have liked to try implementing, but for whatever reason [personal issues, time constraints, etc] it just wasn't feasible? Satterthwaite: To be honest, I was kind of done with it. I didn’t even play Red Sun. I would have liked to work on a less mission based game (something more free-roaming), but that genre is dead now. IT: With an extensive history in the industry, and turning the original Colony Wars development around within a year, are there development practices you see currently in independent and mainstream games that discourage you? Is there something you'd like to see more of? Satterthwaite: I’d like to see more cash! Seriously, things are much better now (at least for me). Back then (including Colony Wars) it was lots of stress, lots of late hours and it was just youthful enthusiasm that got us through ... now at 41 and a parent, things have to be put in perspective. It is just making games after all.
The move in to smaller time-frames and lower-budgets that has come as a result of the increase in mobile games is helping keep things in perspective.
IT: Your team seems quite focused on mobile gaming. What is it about this area of development that attracts you? Satterthwaite: Two answers here really.
The team isn’t really focused on mobile. Sidhe has done many console games (most recently Rugby Challenge for PS3, X360, PC and soon for Vita). We are also very interested in downloadable stuff for console (GripShift was available for PS3 at launch as a download, and our PSN game Shatter won awards). Indeed we only started our mobile division (PikPok) in 2009 ... we aim to be doing about 50/50 mobile to console gaming going forward if we can.
My personal interest is very much mobile these days. I like the short burst development. I like being able to develop something avant-garde which doesn’t have to have a license or proven commercial appeal to still be valid. And also, those are the games I play the most (and, as a parent, I can also say that they’re the games my kids like playing the most too, which is interesting)
IT: Finally, the era in which Colony Wars was released seems to be a distant memory. Do you see a future in the industry where new ideas and concepts are met with a substantial budget for console game development?
Satterthwaite: Short answer, no. Colony Wars was developed for around 1 million pounds (which was around $1.7m US at the time). You can barely make a downloadable game for PSN and XBLA for that amount of money now. A “substantial” budget for a console game is US $20m+ ... no one puts that amount of money down on something which is a new idea and concept, unless they have extremely deep pockets, and why should they when Angry Birds was developed for less than $200K.
There’s always been an analogy between gaming and the cinema. It’s true more than ever now. Console games are the cinematic blockbusters (huge budgets, but big returns), like the cinema in general big budgets are only put on safe bets (well known directors, famous actors, existing franchises, sequels etc.) – and if a big flop happens it can destroy even a successful studio.
However now, with mobile gaming, we have our equivalent of “art house” cinema. We can make small, low budget games that are still commercially viable ... and once in a while that means you can get companies that can make enough money to do their big console dreams ... but it’s not often.