Melbourne House: Transform!

With Atari's Transformers due out May 7th, we caught up with the game's director/executive producer Andrew Carter from Melbourne House, and found out what it took to make one of the prettiest PS2 games we've seen...

When we first fired up Transformers (formerly Transformers Armada: Prelude to Energon), we had to check our PS2 for false screens, mirrors and secret branches of Pixar. No way in hell was a PS2 doing that, we blurted, as an aircraft carrier we were running around on transformed and started attacking us from about a mile above sea-level. But it was. And we were impressed. And with the game out this May 7th from Atari, we tracked down the game's director and executive producer Andrew Carter at Melbourne House and demanded answers...

Eurogamer: How did Melbourne House bag the Transformers contract in the first place?

Andrew Carter: The whole licensing side of the deal was handled by our colleges in Atari US, they have very close relations with Hasbro. Melbourne House is an internal development studio of Atari and we were asked if we would like to produce a game based on this license.

Eurogamer: Are you all fans of the original series?

Andrew Carter: At the start of the project there were only a couple of people on the team that I would call genuine fans of Transformers, although a lot of us are of an age where we can remember playing with the original 80's toys and watching the cartoons. I think those guys were looked on as a bit geeky back then! How things change though, as the 80's has become a bit fashionable and the game progressed into something we felt was a bit cool, it all changed! Now the geeks are both fashionable and cool, and so is Transformers - ha ha. Cool for 2004 - that was really a big goal in making this game!

Eurogamer: What were your initial thoughts about how to turn the brand into a game?

Andrew Carter: After studying the brand in its existing forms; the various cartoon series, the toys and the comic books, it was clear to us that the transformers could make great game characters. However it was also clear to us that we needed to evolve the brand away from its young demographic. We needed the game to appeal to the PS2 audience of today, and were very aware that people's first impression when hearing about a transformers game would be that it is a kid's game.

So we decided to try and push everything into a style we felt would work for 2004 as a PS2 game and that meant making the series grow up and aiming to be state of art in visuals, technology, setting, gameplay everything. We decided to evolve the Transformers in the game to be more dangerous! Harder edged, and make the game an exciting high quality action shooter blended with open environments and free exploration.

Eurogamer: Is the end result close to how you envisaged the game?

Andrew Carter: I think it gets pretty close to what I envisaged at the beginning. There are areas that would have been nice to take further - there always are - but I feel really happy with how the game has turned out overall.

Eurogamer: What do you think is the game's underlying appeal? What makes it appealing to gamers not even interested in Transformers (like our very own Kristan)?

Andrew Carter: Well, that description somewhat describes myself at the beginning of the project before I really got into Transformers and I designed the game to be something that I would be interested in myself! So it's a test to see if I have good taste in games or not! [Laughs] Seriously though, it's made as a game first and foremost - to be able to stand by itself with or without a license. We incorporated and adapted the license in ways I felt appropriate, that would please Transformers fans without alienating non-Transformers fans.

In the end as a non-fan, if you enjoy the game then you may well become a fan too! You really don't need to understand Transformers to get into the game as it assumes nothing and will make you understand. The game is an action shooter with strategic elements that traverses and touches on many other genres. As a gamer I think the mix of organic gameplay and intense action, the setting, the CG, the minicon power-ups and what the game does with your PS2 really stands out from the crowd. I don't think there are any other games like Transformers on PS2, so if you want something that's kind of fresh, stands out from all the other PS2 games you own - this is it.

Eurogamer: Why did the game end up being a PS2 exclusive?

Andrew Carter: When developing for more than one platform there is inevitably compromise on the quality of the final game on all versions. You find that you build the game in a way that copes with the collective weaknesses of all the consoles.

We wanted to make the game at the highest quality we could which meant specialising to one platform and developing the game to that machine's strengths. Melbourne House has the most experience with developing PS2 games, it has the biggest install base and we still like the hardware, so the choice was an easy one once we had resolved to develop for one platform only.

Eurogamer: The key question is: how the hell did you manage to get the game looking so good on a format that most developers moan about getting results on?

Andrew Carter: Thanks! Well, ya know, it's all right, we'll survive! Really there are three things though. We have a vision and a firm opinion about what should be possible, what is acceptable and how to approach it on PS2. Play to its strengths. I'm not sure why developers moan today about PS2. It's a hard platform to get started on, but only because it is unique and requires special approaches compared to other platforms. But that pays off later and actually, although industry hype might argue with this, no other console, even Xbox, can match PS2's flexibility, Vector Unit power or polygon drawing speed. We design everything to exploit those strengths.

Lots of people will say they have great PS2 technology, but other than [Gran Turismo developer] Polyphony Digital, I usually don't think so! Our PS2 technology today is really great though, especially the visual and rendering systems, which I believe are the fastest and most powerful on PS2 - no one can display as many polygons at 60fps. Finally we have great artists that really work with the technical constraints and we try to balance art, technology and entertainment in equal measure.

Eurogamer: Any secrets in the game that gamers should look out for?

Andrew Carter: Plenty. A great deal of the gameplay is about exploration and finding minicons, little transformers that give the player character extra abilities, but on top of this we built a whole host of unlockable assets for the player to collect and find, these are called Datacons and there are over 60 in the game. When you find a datacon it unlocks a little transformer unlockable, artwork, CG sequences, music, which can be viewed for a special gallery.

Eurogamer: What was the toughest part, technically, during the development process and how did you overcome the problems?

Andrew Carter: The schedule was the single toughest thing about making this game. We started February 2003 and finished early March 2004. That's design, planning, technology and implementing the entire game. To do this we had a team of almost 70 working in Melbourne and another 20 or so producing the CG in Tokyo. Working on so many things in parallel whilst trying to maintain top quality and cohesiveness was very difficult and used every second of every day all year long!

Gameplay was quite tough to balance as there are so many minicons and so many ways to play the game on three quite different difficulty levels.

The other tricky thing was optimising the game to retain 60fps throughout without compromising visual detail or gameplay and fitting the largest stages into memory. Even though everything is made quite precisely to fit, this always happens when you try and make the game push the hardware to the limit. Over several weeks everyone in the team worked like crazy to gradually shave tiny slices of CPU and GPU time off everything, a few KB or memory here and there. We used every trick known to us and eventually it all squeezed in! I think there's very little noticeable slowdown in the final game. The final optimisation for framerate was started just a few days before submitting the game to Sony and was very risky, but it gave the game such a speed boost we simply had to give it a try!

Eurogamer: Is this likely to be a one-off project, or has Atari got you working on follow-ups already?

Andrew Carter: We are currently looking into what we want to put into a sequel to this game. We've got some ambitious ideas too because we really want to up the ante again on this one. It's too early to talk about though.

Eurogamer: Will they also be absent from other formats?

Andrew Carter: For the reason above I think so, but there may be possibilities of a conversion later. Perhaps a PSP version?! Let's see...

Eurogamer: Are you concentrating on current generation platforms, or already working on fifth-gen console games?

Andrew Carter: We're going to simultaneously work on our final PS2 title whilst beginning work on the next gen platform/s.

Eurogamer: How long did it take to make Transformers from start to finish, and how many people worked on the game in total? Any idea of cost?

Andrew Carter: The transformers game as it stands today started development in Feb 2003, we had just 12 months to complete it which for the type of game we wanted to make was a very short time indeed. With a timeline this short and a game as ambitious as this we needed to have a large team and we needed to work extremely efficiently. There was very little room for mistakes or revision. 70 people worked on the project for practically the entire year, in a very well structured and well-managed team. This together with everyone's talent, dedication and hard work meant that we were able to deliver the game, at the quality we wanted, in that short time. I don't think I'm able to talk about the cost of the game but it wasn't a low cost production!

Eurogamer: What elements of the game do you think stand out?

Andrew Carter: Without question the size and scale of the environments. These were very important to the type of exploration gameplay we wanted, but we surprised even ourselves at how rich and detailed we would eventually make these huge levels look.

Eurogamer: What areas could have been improved, if you'd have had the chance?

Andrew Carter: We would have liked to have put some kind of mulitiplayer mode in the game but the timeline we had made this impossible without compromising the overall game.

Eurogamer: How did you decide on which choices of characters to give gamers?

Andrew Carter: The license pretty much dictated which characters should be in the game. The generation of transformers that the game is based on, Transformers Armada, had three main Autobot characters: Optimus Prime, Red Alert, and Hot Shot. These three characters fitted our game design well. We wanted to give the player a choice of characters but also make those characters different enough to make the choice meaningful. Our tight timeline also meant that we could only build three characters to the kind of detail we wanted, these are very complex models, especially as they all turn into vehicles.

We also wanted to give the player really cool bosses to fight so we put a lot of development time into making the Decepticon characters something special.

Eurogamer: Can you play through the entire game by choosing one character, or is it necessary to switch between them during levels?

Andrew Carter: It is possible to play through the entire game with a single character, but you will be handicapping yourself. There are definitely stages where the game is easier with a certain character and more importantly your choice of minicon loadout effects how easy certain situations are.

Eurogamer: How do you react to criticisms that the game is too short?

Andrew Carter: I wonder how the game has been played when I hear criticisms about it being too short. During our focus tests we had a wide range of people play the game from beginning to end and our data shows the average player will complete the game in around 20 hours. If the game is played fully, i.e. collecting all the minicons, exploring the levels fully and engaging the enemy then there are many hours of interesting gameplay to be had. If someone has a mind to though, the game can be finished very quickly by racing through the levels and only picking up the occasional minicon. It's a shame if the game is played in this way as you do not get the full experience.

Eurogamer: Are you otherwise happy with the critical response?

Andrew Carter: Apart from a couple of reviews from France that I am mystified by, the response throughout Europe has been really good! People have really taken to the game and given Transformers a great chance...

Transformers is due out in Europe on PS2 on May 7th. And the French are certainly mystifying.

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