Tech Retrospective: Super Stardust HD
The behind-the-scenes story of PlayStation 3's first great shooter.
It's hard to believe that Super Stardust HD recently celebrated its second birthday. Play the game today and it's still one of the most technically adept, brilliantly conceived and ultra-addictive shooting games available on the current generation of consoles. Where Xbox 360 has its Geometry Wars, PlayStation 3 has Stardust. Both superb, both essential.
The story of the game's genesis starts way back in 2004, when developer Housemarque had reached a corporate crossroads, having created state-of-the-art PS2 technology and several original PSP concepts just as the industry began its transition towards the next-generation platforms.
"We thought that PSP would be a great device to be working on and put in quite a lot of effort to make new game concepts to suit the device. We ported our PlayStation 2 engine and other technology infrastructure to support PSP," explains Housemarque CEO and co-founder Ilari Kuittinen. "Unfortunately, the game publishers were not interested in supporting PSP with original games based on new IPs, which were especially designed with the handheld in mind. On the PlayStation 2 front, the publishers seemed to believe in the summer of 2004 that it wasn't worthwhile to do any new original titles for PS2 either, because the launch of PlayStation 3 would happen in 2005 and the software sales would plummet immediately for the platform."
In short, Housemarque had made a series of decisions that market trends and industry happenings proved to be the right ones, but that the game publishers themselves couldn't foresee. PSP's early progress was stalled by a mentality of porting existing franchises and PS2 titles across to the handheld, while PS3 itself was delayed by a year, eventually launching in the US and Japan at the tail-end of 2006.
Kuittinen continues: "During the autumn of 2005 it seemed impossible to get any projects signed on either the PSP or the PlayStation 2, so it was even more unlikely we'd get into the next-generation console development business as it would have meant massive investments in new technology and concepts and we had depleted all our financial resources to make PS2 and PSP game concept pitches, game demos and prototypes. All this really changed when we saw Geometry Wars on XBLA in late 2005 and we were starting to see new opportunities that seemed like a perfect fit for a small developer like us."
Initially that meant development of the game that would eventually become Golf: Tee It Up on Xbox 360, published by Activision, but the team's previous work on PSP concepts, along with its optimisation work on Guerrilla Games' high-end PSP title Killzone: Liberation meant that the team had good contacts at SCEE. At the 2006 E3, while taking a break from playing the God of War 2 demo, Housemarque co-founder and creative director Harri Tikkanen had his 'Eureka!' moment and from that point on momentum built towards a Stardust revival on Sony's new flagship platform.
"A few things needed to happen before he came up with the idea, so it certainly wasn't something that came naturally to him," says Ilari Kuittinen. "First, Harri had been going through the PlayStation 3 specifications available to us and started to realise the potential of the platform and how amazing games could be created for it. Secondly, Sony had started to contact developers like us and ask of our interest in developing downloadable PS3 games. These two things together made Harri start thinking of Super Stardust... putting the game on a sphere, having a game with hundreds of real-time objects on screen, massive visual effects and so on."
What is quite remarkable is just how quickly Super Stardust HD was developed - the game was complete in less than 10 months. However, in common with many Nordic developers, Housemarque has a strong technical focus and has built up a huge amount of experience in the many years it has been in business that held it in good stead for the oncoming trials.
"Obviously, lots of things have changed during the 16-17 years we have been creating games," explains Ilari Kuittinen. "We have seen many hardware platforms come and go and the games business grow tremendously. Having a £50,000 game-development deal during the Amiga days was huge, but now this barely covers costs for one developer for a year. This accumulated experience brings a lot of sophistication and professionalism into the way we make games. Instead of starting each game from scratch, we have a solid technology infrastructure, pipelines and libraries to start with. This also means that we can spend proportionally more time per game on content and gameplay than ever before, because we don't need to work on the underlying building blocks or core technology of the game."
Focused development began in August 2006, but the team didn't receive the necessary hardware for a couple more months after that. Amazingly, many of the key technical decisions made on how the game would work were based on studying the specs and paperwork provided by Sony.