Gavin Rummery Interview
by Ross Sillifant
Ok, it's my pleasure to put questions to Mr Gavin Rummery (ex-Core
design etc), Gavin if you would, please...a little about your goodself for
I've worked in the games industry since 1995 when I took a job at Core Design after I completed my PhD at university. I was lucky enough that the project I ended up on was Tomb Raider, which was just getting started. Obviously that was a huge success, so I felt I'd made the right choice going into games for a living!
I then went on to lead the sequel, then the whole team moved onto Project Eden which took ages and then completely flopped - so a big crash back down to earth. After that I moved up into management, first as Technical Director and then finally as Studio Manager of Core. But this was post-"Angel of Darkness" and the studio was fighting for survival trying to define a future after Lara.
After Rebellion took over Core, I left and moved into the world of social gaming where I've been since. I now have my own company, Legendary Games, where we've been trying to forge a living making web and mobile games and increasingly non-games for people who want "game-like" apps.
I'd like to start by asking about the PSP games you over saw as studio Manager, 1st up: 'Smart Bomb'.....
The PSP seemed ideally suited to puzzle games (mercury, Lumines etc etc) and Smart Bomb seemed to be wanting to be something out of either 1 of the Lethal weapon films or the adam west Batman era, The Riddler having planted explosives etc, so a fantastic concept, but it sadly seemed in need of a lot more optimising and play testing as the timers were far too harsh in places to make game readily approachable for the more casual gamer and the sluggish controls added an extra level of stress.
What can you tell us about the games origins and if there was a degree of pressure put on the studio, to get the product out, no matter what.
This was Core's first PSP game, and the first project out of the studio after Angel of Darkness caused Eidos to relocate Lara to Crystal. The game came about from Eidos trying to decide where next for Core, and a process where everyone in the studio had been encouraged to put forward ideas for new projects. I can't remember the exact numbers, but I recall that the number of game designs submitted was slightly higher than the number of Core employees at the time!
Out of this, two projects were eventually selected by Eidos for development: Smart Bomb and Free Running. Smart Bomb had a really good demo based around a couple of the puzzles that got over the idea of racing against time to defuse the bomb. However development time and budget was small, and Eidos was pushing for release, so the game simply didn't get sufficient play testing. The other problem was that the development team and the play testers all became experts at playing it, and set the game difficulty far too high. This resulted in the game getting negative reviews when it finally shipped.
Moving onto Free Running, an interesting one as i believe Core did the PSP version and Rebeliion the PS2 version? If so, I'd love to know how it came about that Core ended up with the PSP version and also how you'd adress constructive critiscm that whilst a novel concept, the game seemed a tad 'pedestrian' as there was'nt enough motivation for the player.. unlocking new levels, clothing etc not really enough to drive them on.
Also as a PSP supporter, were there ever concerns over wether Sony really knew how best to handle the hand held market? and what effect the (rampant) PSP piracy would have on sales?
Core developed both the PSP and PS2 versions, but they were released after Rebellion bought the studio because SCi (who took over Eidos) wasn't interested in publishing the game, even though it was more or less finished when they took over.
The game had a tough development because after green-lighting it, Eidos still had doubts and kept requiring new demos every couple of months. This played havoc with the planned development as it meant features had to be brought forward to demo (including look and feel) rather than the team having breathing space to experiment and just get on with it.
Ultimately the game *almost* worked, but again the balance was a bit off because again it just didn't get the testing and polish time it needed due to SCi suddenly deciding they didn't want the game a couple of months before its launch.
With regards the PSP, we all thought it would do great because it seemed much slicker and easier to develop for than the DS, but ultimately it was the DS that caught the public's imagination.
The game I'd really like to talk about (and why I'm doing this interview) is: 'Project Eden' a PS2 title that sadly many simply seemed to pass by....it's been described by it's fans as 'A lost gem'....'The spirtual successor to...The Lost Vikings....Hired Guns'.
It was supposed to be Core Design's next 'BIG THING'... a very ambitious adventure game on the challenging PS2 hardware.....
Was there ever a concern that such an ambitious game would clearly mean a long 'gestation period' and that whilst you/the team were coming up with original game concepts, they'd suddenly pop up in titles released before yours and reviewers would simply think... ohhh right they've taken that section from...?
I'm glad you liked Project Eden because as you said it didn't seem to get much love at the time, and we'd just put over 3 years into making it so it was a huge disappointment for the team.
We didn't think it would take so long: it was meant to be a 2 year project, but we'd just been too ambitious with our ideas. After Tomb Raider we were just too over-confident, because that had been crazy ambitious and yet had worked out so well. As it was, the team just wasn't big enough to deliver on our grand plans.
As for other games being released and stealing our thunder: that's a constant danger during game development. You get paranoid every time you hear of another title that seems to be doing things you are doing, but usually it turns out that the ideas are quite different.
Also whilst your 4 team characters had various unique abilities, they seemed to lack a degree of personality (ie many of us would of loved to have seen a sense of despair creep in, the deeper you got into the game, instead they came across as a bit cold and clinical0 was this a real challenge to implement? I ask as a lot of the hype Sony was pushing about 'power of PS2' was that ruddy Emotion Engine and how PS2 would mean characters in adventure games would be unique and respond to events unfolding around them etc etc.
Also, was the limited Ram a factor when designing the game? perhaps reason for enviroments feeling a little samey in places due to repeated textures?
Well the PS2 "emotion engine" was just marketing speak that meant nothing: it didn't exist, it was just another CPU, except a painfully complicated one that was hard to program effectively. We developed primarily on the PC, with the PS2 conversion following behind, but ultimately it forced us to simplify some aspects of the engine to get it to work on the console. The textures were quite brutally squished as I recall, and its lack of ability to multiply texture colours (it could only add) caused all kinds of headaches with the shadow maps and torch.
As for the characters, yes it would have been nice to give them more personality. But ridiculously, *I* wrote the story and script because we never got assigned a proper script writer! And then had to direct the voice recording even though I'd never done that before either. So it would have benefited from someone other than a programmer doing that bit of the job...
Ok, so i've mentioned The Lost vikings, Hired Guns etc, but did I spot inspiration from some other classic names in there?
Spy Vs Spy? Big Trak? Aliens (Directors cut...sentry guns)...The Thing...Unreal....
I was a huge fan of Hired Guns and that was the big inspiration because nothing like it seemed to follow - the world just got obsessed with Doom clones. As for Lost Vikings, I can honestly say not a single member of the team had ever heard of it until the reviews starting coming in comparing Project Eden to it!
And yes, Aliens was also a big inspiration. The original idea for the game I pitched (and which we didn't really create) was based on the "control room siege" sequence. The idea was that as your team went deeper, they would find themselves attacked from all sides and would therefore need to constantly weld doors shut behind themselves, leave sentry guns etc to defend their backs as they continued forwards...
But that isn't really how the game came out because Heather and Neal (the level designers) were such puzzle fiends, so the 4 player puzzle solving ended up taking centre stage. Unfortunately the Eidos marketing team didn't understand this at all and pitched the game as an FPS so it didn't really reach the right players.
Was Project Eden a hard game to 'market' (i.e sell to the press and public) for many the PS1 was thier 1st console and they'd have no idea of Hired Guns, let alone what the Amiga was, as Sony had targetted the non-gamer and it explored concepts like vertical cities (a fantastic medium, as the atmosphere and sense of decay and stagnation increased the further down you travelled) and Urban Exploration, long before they became vogue.
Game also really came into it's own in co-op mode.
As I said above, people (including unfortunately Eidos themselves) didn't really get the game at all. It looked like an FPS and a lot of people reviewed and bought it on that basis, and then got very negative as it wasn't their kind of thing. But people who enjoyed the puzzle, exploration and adventure element did seem to like it a lot.
Ultimately, we didn't shake off our Tomb Raider sensibilities, and produced a game that was too much of a mix of genres. It would most have appealed to the kind of people who like action/adventure rather than shooter, but they saw the screenshots and trailers and thought it wasn't for them.
The co-op mode on PS2 was its best bit, and I've always loved sofa co-op games, but it wasn't enough to get the game noticed.
There were claims (IGN/C+VG) that Project Eden was headed for Xbox, there's also been talk of a version planned for the Dreamcast-any truth to either version at least being considered?
If so how would each version of compared? ie DC having more Ram than PS2, but lower polygon handling, Xbox offering more power, but also things like Dolby 5.1, the HDD etc etc.
I don't recall us ever planning to target those platforms, or ever really looking into them. Core didn't really have a relationship with Microsoft at that time (TR was PlayStation exclusive) so I don't recall Xbox being on the cards, and Dreamcast never got much love from anybody.
You came from the PS1...powerful, easy to code for (it seems) toolsets enabling coders to get to grips with the hardware from the off, into the PS2.. powerful yes, but something of a return to the Jaguar/Saturn era of 'nightmare' coding..i.e you had to 'know' the hardware inside out to get best results, Ram was limited (espically compared to the Dreamcast), yet it allowed coders the 'freedom' to utilise the raw horsepower as they required.. or at least that seemed to be Sony's stance....
So was it as Sony claimed? you could allocate resources where you, the people working on the games in question, saw fit and did it allow for things like more complex A.I than other systems I wonder? A.I must have been a key part of a squad based game like Eden, so I wonder how easy it was to 'pull off' on PS2 and at what expense of other areas?
The PS1 had been such a success because it had such a simple and straightforward architecture, especially compared to the other consoles available at the time (and especially compared to the Saturn). So it was quite a shock when the PS2 went back to the "bag of custom chips" approach of earlier consoles, and effectively paved the wave for Xbox to do to them what they'd done to Sega (i.e. gain lots of developer support for a new entrant to the market).
Anyway, Project Eden was developed mainly on PC, with Ray Tran doing the PS2 specific coding. He had plenty of challenges to get the necessary performance from the PS2, which required moving chunks of rendering code to the specific custom chips. But core gameplay code like AI was just running on the main CPU. It also meant performance was never as good as it could have been had we targeted the PS2 from the start, but when we started we didn't even have a PS2 kit (not sure they had been released at that point).
Ok, I'm going to squeeze 1 Tomb Raider related Q in here..but only because it leads to a concern of mine :-)
I've always wondered if poorer than expected sales of Dreamcast Tomb Raider put paid to Core developing any DC specific platforms and what Core expected from a PS1-to-DC conversion, surely those who wanted the game would of already played it on PS1 or PC?.DC version was always going to be selling to limited market....
The DC version was after my time of being involved in the game, but yes it is fair to say that the fact that even Tomb Raider didn't shift many copies took away much incentive to develop anything else for it. Also, the Dreamcast just clearly wasn't setting the world alight, so publishers don't greenlight games for consoles that are failing - which of course leads to a vicious cycle and dooms the console even quicker.
Had sales been better, what would you of done with a sequel and on what format/s ideally would you of coded it on?.Also where did Project Eden find a better home? PS2 or PC I wonder?
I think it did better on PC in the end, but I've never been privy to the sales info. It wasn't good on either though.
As for a sequel, we obviously never really had a chance to think about that. Mind you, we didn't think of making a Tomb Raider sequel either until it was a hit.
Is it ok to ask what the working enviroment was like at Core Design and how you found yourself moving from coder to studio manager (once the Smith Bros had departed) and which was the more challenging role? getting the best from hardware or from people in your team?
How on earth do you get the best from creative talent and try and ensure they stayed with the company?
When I joined Core it was a very laid back place. Jeremy had basically discovered that young, talented game designers made games he could sell and make a profit on, and all he really had to do was let them get on with it and then deal with the business side of things. So we had huge amounts of freedom to do as we liked when we designed and built the games, and new game projects pretty much just required pitching an idea to Jeremy and getting the ok.
So Tomb Raider was born out of complete creative freedom, and a small enthusiastic team that was sold on Toby's vision. But as team sizes and budgets grew, this model broke down, which culminated in Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness being such a disaster.
I was made Technical Director with the task of preparing for post-AOD: at that time every team developed its own engine, which was clearly unsustainable, so the idea was to build a single Core Engine for future games. The AOD fallout actually made this easier as everyone bought into the idea, and that's what we did: Free Running and Smart Bomb were built on the same tech base.
But after AOD, Core was never the same again as we didn't have a clear role within Eidos anymore. By the time I took over as Studio Manager, the writing was on the wall, though I didn't know it till a couple of months later when I was informed Eidos was restructuring and small studios like Core were for the chop. I successfully argued for a reprieve on the basis we were the only ones making PSP games, but we were then in limbo for nearly 18 months with our future uncertain whilst first Eidos, then SCi decided what to do with us. Eventually we got sold to Rebellion, but by then morale was low due to the non-stop uncertainty over the future.
So my time as Studio Manager was not a happy one for me. I took the role thinking I'd be able to make us fly, but instead found myself fire-fighting and staving off continual threats to our future. Meanwhile the teams were gloomy as they had a pay freeze, constant threats to the projects they were working on, and no clear end in sight. Amazingly very few people left; I think they all still hoped things would eventually recover.
Do you feel the PS1 and PS2 were ever pushed as far as they could of been, 3D wise? and which titles on both did you ever look at and think, I wish I wrote that and/or...I could of done a better job on THAT!.....?
I think by the end of a console's life they've usually been pushed pretty hard to their maximum potential.
As for the games, I admired a lot of games on both platforms. I don't recall ever wishing I'd written them though, and though there are games I wish could have been better, again I don't think in terms of me doing a better job - no doubt there are reasons why the game didn't achieve its full potential. No one sets out to write a bad game after all.
Talk us through your setting up of Legendary Games and how it's been as an experience, where you'd like to take the company.
After Core I worked at a start-up called Emote Games for a couple of years until it failed, then on to Monumental Games which went bust a year later, so all of a sudden, after 13 years at Core, I found myself looking for another job for the 3rd time in 4 years. It felt the games industry was getting more and more unstable.
So myself and a Monumental colleague got talking and decided to try setting up our own thing - Legendary Games. The idea originally was to make online turn-based strategy games based on the kind of board games you'll find on boardgamegeek. The thinking was that board games are inherently social so it would work well on Facebook etc and they were things we could develop with a tiny budget.
We are now coming up on 5 years, so that's an achievement! Over that time we've released various games, the most successful of which has been Year 0: Tactics which has had 100,000 players. Meanwhile we've also branched out into doing a lot of non-game projects with companies that are looking for "game-like" applications e.g. a teacher training course, a recruitment game, and a 3D room builder.
Ultimately I'd like the company to develop a successful IP of its own, but we aren't quite there yet. Maybe next year :)
Misc Question's time (sorry)....
So, any Jaguar/Panther/Lynx/7800 (Atari Platform) coding under your belt? anything on Konix Multi-system?
Any other Lost Games (any format) you worked on?
Nope to all of the above. Various prototypes worked on that never saw the light of day, but nothing really worth mentioning. Well maybe Tomb Raider: 10th Anniversary Edition, but I'm not going there...
Finally...Any messages you'd like to give to your fans/or critics? here's the time and place to do so.
I don't think I've personally got any fans or critics: the people behind games rarely do!
Gavin, thank you so much for giving of your time to take part in this interview.
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