This month marks the 10 year anniversary of Xbox Live, Microsoft's ground-breaking online console gaming service - but that's not the only Xbox exclusive that turned 10 in 2012.
Do you remember Quantum Redshift, the racing game that launched in September 2002 for Microsoft's fledgling entry into the console game market? It was a futuristic racer Microsoft hoped would take on Sony's successful WipEout series at its own game and complete the Xbox's portfolio of genres that already included a sci-fi shooter and a realistic racer.
But Quantum Redshift failed, its developer closed and Microsoft walked out on a contract that guaranteed a sequel after spending one million dollars to put the brakes on WipEout.
Stars in their eyes.
Quantum Redshift was created by a developer called Curly Monsters, a Merseyside studio founded in 1998 by six developers who had left Psygnosis having made WipEout. They were Martin Linkater, Lee Carus, Neil Thompson, Chris Roberts, Nick Burcombe and Andrew Satterthwaite.
Curly Monsters' first game was the well-received N-Gen Racing for the PlayStation One, published by Infogrames in 2000. After it was finished, Curly set about creating its next game, a futuristic racer called Neon.
“We thought the best way to go on was to maximise the WipEout connection,” Thompson, now director of art and animation at BioWare, tells Eurogamer at the Bradford Animation Festival.
“We were the guys who had done WipEout so we thought, let's play on that.”
Having put together a design document packed with rendered shots of what the small team thought Neon would end up looking like, Thompson and co pitched the game to publishers. Microsoft, about to launch the Xbox in 2001, bit.
At the time Microsoft was putting together its launch line-up and wanted a portfolio of games for its console that covered all the bases: science fiction shooter (Halo: Combat Evolved), check. Realistic racer (Project Gotham Racing), check. But it needed a sci-fi racer to take on PlayStation's influential WipEout series which had, over the course of the PlayStation's life, made gaming cool. “WipEout was still seen as Sony's poster boy in that regard and they'd done Fusion on the PS2,” Thompson recalls. “They wanted that.”
Microsoft gave Curly Monsters one million dollars - a minuscule amount by today's standards - to make Neon the WipEout beater it hoped it could be. The independent developer staffed up to nine and set to work.
The idea of the game was that it would be a racing beat 'em up. It had 16 different characters who could be picked from a Street Fighter style character select screen (“The original WipEout had characters - everyone forgets that because the ships were the stars. So we brought the characters back in.”) Players then picked their nemesis to race against. Gameplay was similar, but because you weren't zipping about in a halfpipe, as you were in WipEout, you could go offroad. “We had this vision of this sleek futuristic, realistic racing game. We thought it was cool with the Neon name and it was all hi-tech.”
While Curly retained creative control over the game itself, Microsoft was in charge of how it would be framed and presented. The name Neon was changed to Quantum Redshift because of concern about a potential trademark infringement for the Chrysler Neon, and Microsoft designed a cartoon aesthetic that skewed the proposition younger.
Curly had created cinematics, with the help of a Japanese artist called Satoshi Ueda, where the game's characters would face off against each other. “He did a really good job, so we had some really nice assets there,” Thompson recalls. Then, Microsoft added a cartoon-style intro, captured on YouTube, and made a comic book to tie in with it. “It wasn't great. It was in the style of the intro. It took it down a notch. It was all suddenly a bit too childish and a bit too simplistic.”
The comic wasn't great. It was in the style of the intro. It took it down a notch. It was all suddenly a bit too childish and a bit too simplistic
Neil Thompson, Curly Monsters co-founder
But for Thompson that wasn't the worst thing. The worst thing was Quantum Redshift's box art.
“This is the cover of the game that shipped,” Thompson says. “If anyone thinks this is a nice piece of art we'll fight about it outside. This is a piece of s**t."
The final straw: Microsoft Photoshopped one of Thompson's concept ships into the image used for the box art. You can see it there in the background, the green ship pointing upwards, looking out of place. "It was a disgrace."
Curly knew this box art was coming - Microsoft had alerted the team to its work ahead of release. But that didn't make the pill any easier to swallow. “We were desperately unhappy and they realised that," Thompson says. He was so annoyed that after the game released Microsoft allowed Curly to publish an image on the internet gamers could download and print out as a substitute.
“Even now I cannot reconcile why they would pick that piece of art. It was truly nasty. I'm not going to name names. I know who was responsible for it. I was immensely disappointed. Lee, who was the other art director with me, we were livid. Absolutely livid. But what do you do? It's tough. They pay the bills.”
Quantum Redshift launched in September 2002 to solid review scores. It sits on a 70 Metascore, with much of the praise directed at the smooth gameplay and impressive graphics. Eurogamer's Kristan Reed awarded it 8/10 saying, “It's by no means a screaming 'must have' release for the simple reason that games like this have been done to death, and many veterans may feel like they're re-treading old ground. On the other hand, Quantum Redshift is easily the best game of its type. It's by far the best looking, plays brilliantly, and has huge replay value thanks to the upgrade system.”
Show me the money.
But Quantum Redshift didn't sell well and didn't match the impact made by WipEout Fusion, designed by Thompson's former employer. “There were mistakes,” Thompson admits. “It's not a perfect game by any stretch. I'd like to play it against Fusion. I've never done it. Quantum was on Xbox. WipEout Fusion was on PS2. I've never played them together but it would be an interesting thing to do to see subjectively which is the better game.”
Quantum is not a perfect game by any stretch. I'd like to play it against Fusion. I've never done it. It would be an interesting thing to do to see subjectively which is the better game.
So Microsoft walked away from its WipEout beater despite Curly having signed a contract with the platform holder for two titles. “There were performance issues. Microsoft are a big company, right? And we were not. What are you going to do? You can't force them to take a game if they don't want it.”
In 2003, with no money and no new deal Curly closed its doors after just two games and the staff went their separate ways. Thompson went back to Psygnosis, at that point Sony Liverpool, to work on Formula One and WipEout again.
But what might have been? Could Quantum Redshift ever have challenged WipEout as gaming's premier futuristic racing series? Did Curly Monsters ever have a genuine shot at becoming the next Psygnosis?
“We were very naive business wise,” Thompson says. “What we should have been doing at the point of Quantum was to start growing the company so we were better prepared to take on a game for that generation of hardware. There were six of us and we took three extra guys on to finish Quantum. Nine guys is nothing. Even then it was a small number.”
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And, of course, there was Bizarre Creations, just down the road in Liverpool, which had enjoyed huge success with the Xbox launch racer Project Gotham Racing.
“The same Microsoft guys who dealt with Bizarre dealt with us. Bizarre were growing quite rapidly at that point and they probably thought, well, here's a company that's growing and can take on bigger projects, and here's a company that's pretty static and not really looking to go anywhere beyond the next game. And they were right. It's easy to say in hindsight.”
Despite the failure of Curly Monsters, Thompson remembers his time there fondly. The studio closed with no debt having made two games it was proud of. “We came out of that even. We went into it with nothing, and we came out of it with nothing. We didn't owe any money. That was the important thing. It was a failure because the business doesn't exist any more, but we wrote what we considered to be two good games with basically six guys.
“The idea behind Curly Monsters was we know what we're doing, we can write a game, it doesn't take 30, 40, 50 people, let's do that. And we did it. It was fun. It was good times not having a boss.
"But I don't know if I'd do it again.”