It's a CV packed with best-selling games spread out across a decade: Killer Instinct, GoldenEye, Perfect Dark, Kameo… we're talking, of course, about Rare.
Independent UK developer Starfire Studios, which has just announced its first game, the Xbox Live Arcade twin stick hybrid Fusion: Genesis, is four men: artist Phil Dunne, programmer Mark Edmonds, artist Ross Bury and designer Chris Tilston. All worked at Rare during the famed studio's heyday, creating many of the games we grew up playing.
Then, in 2009, they left to go it alone. Here, in a sweeping interview with Eurogamer, Phil and Chris explain why, recount the glory days, discuss Killer Instinct, Perfect Dark, the switch to Kinect Sports, and more.
Eurogamer: Tell us about your backgrounds.
Chris Tilston: I am probably the most ancient, although not by age. That's Mark [Edmonds]. I started at Rare in 1993, worked on Donkey Kong Country for a little while as a programmer. And then the chance came to move on to Killer Instinct, which was just two people at that time: Kevin [Bayliss] and Mark [Betteridge]. I went on there as the designer. I went on to do Killer Instinct 2, then onto Perfect Dark 64, Perfect Dark Zero. Whereas Mark's first game was GoldenEye. He was the main programmer on GoldenEye, and he went on to lead Perfect Dark 64.
Phil Dunne: I started in 1994. The first game I ended up on was a baseball game, Ken Griffey, Jr.'s Winning Run, for SNES. That's how old I was. That was cool. I didn't have a clue about baseball at the time. Had no idea about the rules of the sport. Nobody in the company did. We were all like, how are we doing a baseball game? We did a lot of research and got brought over to Nintendo and got to see the Seattle Mariners play and meet Ken Griffey. That was really cool.
After that it was Donkey Kong Country 3 - I did a bunch of backgrounds on that. After that it was Killer Instinct 2. Then I ended up on what became Banjo Pilot in the end, which released on GameBoy Advance.
We were making it as Donkey Kong Pilot. We had the whole thing done. And then we got bought out by Microsoft and it was like, oh, we can't use Donkey Kong any more - right, let's do the whole thing again. And then it was on to Kameo. I spent a bunch of years on Kameo. Got that finally finished, out the door and then it was back to more prototypes and more unique projects. Then eventually I left.
Chris Tilston: Ross, the fourth member, he was on the Perfect Darks. He spent some time on Halo 3 - they sent a group of four or five artists there to help out because it was such a huge game. I think he did a bit on Banjo and the avatars. Ross is the youngest. He's the Ringo.
Eurogamer: So you all left before Kinect Sports?
Phil Dunne: Yes. We'd seen all the tech and we'd been involved in all the prototypes. So we saw all that in its infancy. We were involved in some of that. But when Kinect Sports itself started as a game, that started after we left.
Eurogamer: There was a very definite switch to go from making the games it was making to being a Kinect developer.
Chris Tilston: Yeah. There were lots of things people haven't heard about which we probably can't talk about. That's when the switch was public. We were always looking at how can we do different things and looking at different technologies. But they decided to concentrate on X number of things. It just seemed like a good time to do something different.
Mark had left in December, even before they swapped over to Kinect. He was getting creative urges, I guess, to do something. I'd always worked closely with Mark on a couple of projects. I guess in a way we complimented each other. Mark's the intelligent one. I'm the bull in the China shop. Once you've worked with somebody over ten years you know their strengths and weaknesses.
Eurogamer: And yourself.
Chris Tilston: I don't put myself on a pedestal. We're not rocket scientists and geniuses. We're creating something, and hopefully we're creating something we find is fun, and if you're really lucky a group of players out there find is fun. You're just lucky to be in that position. If you yourself were involved on the team you would contribute in some way to that team and it would help shape the game in a certain way. I'm not dressing that up in hocus-pocus and mysticism.
Phil Dunne: One of the great things about Rare was the opportunity we had to make all the different types of games and franchises. You might end up doing a shooter for a number of years and then after three or four years of shooter, shooter, shooter, it's like, right, what do we do next? Right, we'll do a racing game. Let's see how that goes for a while. Quite a lot of different games came out of the studio at that time. That was really good. I was very lucky to be able to do that. An awful lot of people, you hear the games they've worked on, it's like, football game, football game, football game, football game. As a developer that's got to get a bit tedious at some point.
Eurogamer: And having Rare on the CV can't hurt.
Phil Dunne: It was a really good time. It was a lot of fun to work for Tim and Chris [Stamper]. They used to come round all the time and get stuck in, give you great ideas and feedback on what you were doing. It was really good.
Eurogamer: So you look back on your time with Rare fondly?
Chris Tilston: Yeah, entirely. You're in a privileged position of making games. I still have the same enthusiasm as when I started. And when you finish off, if you're lucky, loads of people like it. And if you're not so lucky, you're not so lucky. It goes through phases. Perfect Dark 64, the press just absolutely loved it. Then with Perfect Dark Zero, we definitely made some mistakes with it. That's for sure. There was definitely a backlash from Nintendo fans and Microsoft fans.
The thing is, if you take the good things, you've got to take the bad things. If some people enjoy your game then maybe you've served your purpose and there isn't anything more. All the games we've worked on, they've all made money, which ultimately, if you're a business, that's what you have to do. Perfect Dark Zero, from a development cost, made four times its money back. The early games made a stupid amount of money back. Like GoldenEye and Donkey Kong, because they cost so little to make.
Phil Dunne: Tim and Chris were great at backing people and the ideas we were coming up with. There was a great education.
Chris Tilston: Let's be fair. We still have that backing. We were able to go to Ken Lobb, creative director at Microsoft, with a crazy concept that probably most people would turn down.
Every game I've made, I've worked with Ken. Ken was a big part of Killer Instinct. And in a way it's carried on. It was a good nurturing environment there. But things change. Back then a game cost $2 million to make. Nowadays a game costs $20, $30 million to make, and then they add probably the same amount in marketing. It's a huge risk. So more people have to get involved.
Before we left Rare we were working on an XBLA thing, which wasn't released. But nobody cared about it because it was so small. You're under the radar. It's just because games are so expensive to make now and management guys' careers are on the line if they back the wrong one, if they suddenly spent $30 million and got no return for it, that all these extra people have to get involved.
For us there was a definite gap between doing Perfect Dark 64 to Perfect Dark 360, where the team size just went ridiculous. But it's nowhere near the team sizes they have today where you've got 100, 200 people working on a team. On Project Dark Zero, we were probably 25 people for most of the project.
Eurogamer: Seems like nothing now.
Chris Tilston: Yeah. And then it ramped up in the end.
Eurogamer: There are over 500 people working on Call of Duty across seven studios.
Chris Tilston: Jesus Christ.
Phil Dunne: How many of those people are managers? I bet it's a lot of them.
Chris Tilston: Now programmers tend to specialise in one thing, rendering or UI or AI. Whereas back then you touched on everything. Obviously it wasn't anywhere near as good as what they do nowadays, but that's how things have gone, which hopefully isn't going to happen with the next series of consoles because if the teams get even bigger there's definitely a downside for the creators, and that is, unless you're maybe one of the top 20 people controlling the project....
Phil Dunne: That's why the onset of digital distribution has rejuvenated the industry to a large extent. It's got a lot of smaller, unique, interesting titles out there. Some of them aren't fully formed. Some of them aren't fully finished. But people appreciate the fact they're doing something different and they're happy spending their money on it. It's something different from another Call of Duty. Not that I don't like Call of Duty. It's great. But it's very similar to the last one.
Chris Tilston: If we did a new Killer Instinct - obviously we don't own the IP - if we were to make that game nowadays, the original team was six, seven people over the space of a year. Now, you could see how instead of one designer putting in all the moves for all ten characters, you'd have at least a designer per character. You would definitely end up with a better game. Absolutely guaranteed. But maybe not everybody on the team would get the creative satisfaction from it. And it might not make its money back. That's the dilemma.
Once the COD guys have made an amazing game with this many people, it raises the bar. You have to compete against that. It's like an arms race. Once you get in, you're in it. It's even a marketing arms race, where they spend more and more money to get the games out because they know you can make a $200 million bet and make $400 million back, and that's probably better than doing ten games for $20 million and not all of those making their money back.
Phil Dunne: It's also about the agility of the company and what you can take on next. Back in the heyday of Rare, we went to different genres depending on where we felt creatively inspired to go. Again, with the onset of digital distribution, teams can do that a bit more. When you're entrenched in a technology fight for FPS supremacy and you've got so much invested in that you can't suddenly go, right, next game's going to be a driving game. When they're smaller games you can turn and change direction and do a new genre easier and quicker, which is exciting as a creative. It keeps it interesting.
Chris Tilston: With this [Fusion: Genesis], it would probably be very difficult to get that passed as a $30 million, $40 million FPS. But because the budgets are a lot smaller you can take more risks. The people making the decisions are more comfortable because there's less risk.
Eurogamer: You've said Perfect Dark Zero made money. Why did it die?
Chris Tilston: For Microsoft it was a special case because they had Halo, which sells a bazillion. They had Gears. So in a way they've got those bases covered. In a way, with Perfect Dark Zero, because we were a launch game, we were lucky in some ways but we were unlucky. The first lot of machines, there was only about 1.2, 1.5 million. Then there was another batch a couple of months later. You look at Perfect Dark on N64 and it sold 3.2 million. But there were 35 million N64s out there. When we released there were 1.5 or two million.
What's moved on since then is the second hand market. That does have an impact over time with your new sales. So suddenly we're in a position where four months down the line there's a new batch of machines, people are excited for 360 and it's like, there's already second hand copies of the game on there. To me it seems to be there's a spike right at the start now, two or three weeks, and then after that they're back to the shops.
Definitely some of the fans didn't like what we did. We were never immune to the feedback. It was just one of those things. There were limited resources at Rare and they thought, we've got the shooter category nailed. We need a platformer or a driver. It was to make sure it was a balanced portfolio. It's unfortunate in a way. It can't be easy to make sure there are so many games for this kind of fan and that kind of fan.
Maybe there will be one again. Maybe there will be a need for it. But they're having great success with Sports. It's the most successful game since they were bought. So if I was making those big bets and somebody said to me, do you want a Banjo, which has sold this amount, or do you want a Kinect Sports, which has sold this amount, I'm going to be judged on, ultimately as a businessman who is okaying things, on whether the games are being successful.
You can understand the anger of the fans, that they feel they've been deserted, but there are two sides to it. I don't know how you resolve that one. But ultimately, they've got this great IP there waiting for them. They can always go back to it. They're just concentrating on a certain thing.
Eurogamer: I'd be surprised if they went back to it now.
Chris Tilston: Yeah. They've definitely got that slot filled.
Eurogamer: Although they don't have a fighting game.
Chris Tilston: No they don't. That's true actually. Ken does mention Killer Instinct 3. You never know. One day. You never know.
Phil Dunne: There are still an awful lot of fans of Killer Instinct.
Eurogamer: Are there really, though?
Phil Dunne: I remember meeting the Bungie guys over at SIGGRAPH, and a couple of them were like, oh no way! Killer Instinct! That's so awesome! You worked on that!
Chris Tilston: I bet that made you feel really old.
Phil Dunne: Yeah.
Chris Tilston: You'd have to update it and reinvent it. You couldn't do what they've done with Street Fighter. Killer Instinct wasn't designed for the home. It was designed to go into the arcades and be loud and be brash and be in your face for the arcade market. It was never a home game. It did well when we ported it to SNES.
Eurogamer: How well did it do?
Chris Tilston: 3.2 million it sold. That was something they said we could never do. Some guys at Rare said you'll never be able to chop the detail down. Tim said, yeah we can! I ended up taking 80 per cent of the animation out. It was a bastardisation of the arcade thing. But if you hadn't been to the arcade, it gave you a taster.
We actually had Killer Instinct 2 in development for SNES. That was quite far along. There were more frames and it was looking decent. Obviously the Nintendo 64 then came along and we released Gold for the N64.
Eurogamer: Street Fighter does well. Mortal Kombat did well. New Tekken, new SoulCalibur, Street Fighter x Tekken, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom - it's like the nineties again.
Chris Tilston: We've definitely got ideas of where it should go. It's almost like you need to do a World of Warcraft to it. You can't just have the traditional thing. It's like, how can you make it more accessible in a way.
Eurogamer: That's a dirty word.
Chris Tilston: Yeah I know. You're on the tightrope between the hardcore Killer Instinct fans and new audiences. Maybe we'll leave that one to somebody else.
Eurogamer: If Microsoft asked you to make it would you do it?
Chris Tilston: Yeah. We'd consider it, yeah definitely. But they've got a team of guys at Rare. There's nobody from the original team left. That's the thing. But yeah, I'd love to revisit it. But you'll probably all chase me down and string me up based off what we'd do. It was designed for the arcade and that's it.
Eurogamer: Killer Instinct was on an episode of Gamesmaster, wasn't it?
Chris Tilston: Yeah. That was me. I did one take. One take! That's my claim to fame. It was cool. We'd just finished the game. A group of us went up there. They said, we've booked you a slot on Gamesmaster. We get there, they need somebody to pull off a twenty or thirty hit combo and I'm like, OK, you might need some takes for this. But I did it in one take. I was a lot younger then.
Eurogamer: Which character was used again?
Chris Tilston: Jago, and he knocked him off the 3D rooftop.
To be honest there were loads of exploits and bugs. When we first tested that, the two testers we had, they hated fighting games. They absolutely despised fighting games. I don't want to blame them.
It's just nostalgia from when you were a child and you went to an arcade. You'd just all gang up on us and hunt me down if we made one wasn't what's in your head. It's the same as GoldenEye and the first Perfect Dark. Games you played ten years ago, you had a great time playing them. It was probably at a certain time in your life when maybe you were a student or a group of friends came round your house.
Now, compared to the production values of games nowadays, they don't hold up. But just keep thinking of the good things in your head.