Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved

In a brand new episode of Eurogamer Asks, the three studios formed from Bizarre Creations' ashes have talked to Eurogamer TV about their experience of Activision's controversial cull.

While many had braced themselves for a bump, it seems few were prepared for collapse.

"It was a shock that it was actual closure - completely," admitted Peter Collier, senior level designer of James Bond game Blood Stone and The Club. "I think it's always unexpected, that kind of thing."

Senior tech programmer Martin Linklater was caught unawares, too. "I was surprised they closed it down," he said. "I wasn't surprised there were going to be job losses; I thought they might trim the staff by 25 per cent - something like that.

"But yeah, a total closure - it was just a really big blow. I hadn't been there that long, but a lot of the guys who had been with Bizarre since the early days were really crestfallen."

But producer Nick Davies was less surprised. "I don't think it was a complete shock," he countered. "We've all been in the industry long enough - and we were all senior enough at Bizarre - to know what was happening. But it's still not nice to be told, is it? Certainly wasn't the best day I've ever had at Bizarre Creations.

"It happened, we're moving forward. It's easy to look back and go, 'Well it's the wrong decision,' or, 'Oh I disagree with that'. It's never the best day in the world when you lose your job."

Activision tried to sell Bizarre Creations after racing game Blur stalled commercially. No buyer was found, and the regrettable news that Bizarre would have to close was announced in January. In February, Bizarre waved farewell with a touching montage of the studio's many acclaimed projects, including Project Gotham Racing and Geometry Wars.

"Big publishers, big developers, clash of egos..." mulled Linklater, trying to pinpoint the reason for Bizarre's closure. "Blur was a good game but it wasn't, I don't think, a mass market game. Once you mix weapons and racing you kind of lose the focus.

"It's difficult to sell the kind of numbers you need sell to make money when you've got teams that size. You need to be shifting 2 million units or so to make money back. And that's hard, because you're up against really stiff competition."

Eurogamer TV went on to discover that Bizarre Creations hasn't actually closed. "Core Activision staff" work there, a security guard told us. This was later clarified to mean Bizarre staff that were "retained" by Activision.

Peter Collier now works alongside Ben Ward (former community manager at Bizarre) and Stephen Cakebread (creator of Geometry Wars) at hogrocket. These three amigos will develop for iPhone to begin with, although what hogrocket's first game will be remains under wraps.

"It's not something you're going to expect," teased co-founder Ward.

Martin Linklater has also set up a new company, his called CurlyRocket.

"I want to get my first game out this summer," he told Eurogamer TV, before intimating that he had a bulging "backlog" of ideas to draw from.

Nick Davies and a handful of senior Bizarre team-mates have formed Lucid Games. They'll be around 30 people strong and are concentrating efforts on smaller-scale, downloadable titles. Eurogamer TV was shown around in-progress office.

"We still want to do console games, because that's what we know how to do," explained Mark Craig, chief gameplay officer. "But we want to go smaller scale and look at digital downloads: XBLA, handheld, that kind of thing.

"We've seen what it's like working on AAA games and it's a big factory, it's not a small creative process it used to be like working on PlayStation games and on Dreamcast games, with 12-15 people on a project. We want to get back to that environment.

"We're not going to do three-year projects or anything like that," he added. "We are going to make shorter projects - more gameplay-focused projects."

Video: Bizarre Creations waves farewell.

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved

US publishing giant Activision angered many gamers when it closed one of the UK's most respected developers: Bizarre Creations.

But for one former Bizarre staff member, it was just "business".

Hogrocket, the newly formed micro-studio founded by Peter Collier (senior level designer on Blood Stone/The Club), Stephen Cakebread (creator of Geometry Wars) and Ben Ward (Bizarre community manager), has spoken for the first time on Activision's closure of the Project Gotham Racing maker.

Activision shuttered Bizarre following poor sales of eye-catching racing game Blur and James Bond action game Blood Stone.

Speaking to Eurogamer, Ward admitted he, and others at the now closed developer, struggled to work under the ownership of publishing behemoth Activision.

"It's not enough to point the finger at one little factor and say, 'that's it" he said, pondering an explanation for Bizarre's closure.

"Creatively you could say that the studio was too ambitious, with one team tackling multi-platform development for the first time as well as building a brand new racing IP, and the other team creating an action/adventure game for one of the most iconic characters in history. However, both games were generally rated well critically so I don't think that argument holds too much water.

"Some of us (myself included) found it difficult working under a huge publisher; moving from proudly independent to an internal team took a lot of getting used to. We lost that ability to say what we want, do what we want, and (most importantly) make what we want.

"I don't blame Activision for that - it's just the way things work when you become internalised. It certainly affected the atmosphere at the studio; for better or worse Bizarre became more 'corporate'."

Activision's January 2011 announcement that it intended to terminate Bizarre came after a failed three-month search for a buyer.

Many staff at Bizarre used that time to search for new jobs. Ex-Bizarre design manager Gareth Wilson found one at Sheffield-based Sumo Digital. Others formed Lucid Games.

Hogrocket was "something that we've been talking about for a little while now, but it was only with the eventual closure of Bizarre Creations that the three of us were able to actually get the ball rolling".

"The games industry changed a hell of a lot in those years as well," Ward recounted. "When we started work on Blur there was demonstrable demand for a new racing game IP, but when it hit the shelves not too many people bought it.

"Was this marketing, distribution, the attitude of gamers, or just the game not being good enough to compete? I don't know - I don't have access to the stats that decide it. I guess Activision do, and that's how they made their conclusions and took the decision to close the studio."

While many gamers were angered by Activision's decision to shut Bizarre down, Ward is philosophical about the episode.

"Business is business," he said. "Those guys wouldn't be top of their game if they didn't make difficult decisions. Everybody at Activision has been supportive - they've operated recruitment drives and tried to redistribute Bizarre peeps to other Activision studios throughout the world. The situation sucks ass, but they've been good in how they've treated us."

Now, though, thoughts turn to the future and Hogrocket, which is targeting iOS and the PC and Mac platforms.

"These platforms are popular, and less expensive to develop for than their console counterparts," Ward explained. "Being cheaper allows us to take more risks in our game design, and ultimately will result in better games."

But what of Hogrocket's debut game?

Founder Cakebread's status as creator of superb downloadable retro arcade game Geometry Wars caused some to wonder whether the micro-studio is working on a follow-up.

Not so.

"It's not Geometry Wars," Ward confirmed. "Not only do we not own the IP to that game, but I don't think it suits the platform particularly well. What Hogrocket is working on now is a completely new IP.

"As I said, we're really keen to communicate with our community a great deal. We're DYING to tell everybody about our new game, but it's just a prototype at the minute and it's basically wireframe graphics. I don't think it would do the game any good to show it just yet - the gameplay is nailed but it doesn't look the business yet.

"So now what we're doing is sorting an art style. We're certainly not going to remain silent for much longer, but we want something visually impressive to show before we bang our drums too much about it."


Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved

Yet another studio has risen from the ashes of Bizarre Creations.

Hogrocket is a new micro-studio based in the North West and founded by Peter Collier (senior level designer on Blood Stone/The Club), Stephen Cakebread (creator of Geometry Wars) and Ben Ward (Bizarre community manager).

Hogrocket will initially target iPhone/iPad, PC and Mac, Ward said in a release sent out this morning.

"Our first game is underway, although we have yet to announce it. Watch this space!"

Activision shut Bizarre Creations, the developer behind the likes of Project Gotham Racing, Geometry Wars and Blur, last month.

Hogrocket is the second studio formed by former Bizarre staff members in the month since closure. Lucid Games was formed by Pete Wallace, a former Bizarre senior manager.

Ex-Bizarre design manager Gareth Wilson joined Sheffield based Outrun Online Arcade developer Sumo Digital as its new chief games designer.


Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved

Liverpool developer Bizarre Creations closes today – and it's said goodbye with a touching video showcasing its superb portfolio of games.

Video "Farewell's been an absolute pleasure!", below, was put together by Bizarre's video editor Eamon Urtone. It references many of Bizarre's games, including Project Gotham Racing 4, Geometry Wars and The Club.

"Dedicated to all the talented guys & girls at Bizarre Creations," reads the video's subheading.

Bizarre began life in 1994. In November 2010 owner Activision announced its intent to offload the developer, citing poor sales of its excellent Blur racer.

"Bizarre is a very talented team of developers, however, because of the broader economic factors impacting the market, we are exploring our options regarding the future of the studio, including a potential sale of the business," said a statement released at that time.

However, no buyer came forward and last month its imminent termination was confirmed.

Activision exec Coddy Johnson explained that the publisher had "explored a lot of leads – pretty much anyone you can imagine in the industry. But unfortunately, so far we've not been able to find any interested parties. So we've made as a last resort, a recommendation to the team for closure."

At the end of the video: "1994-2011"


Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved

What have you been up to this week? I've spent most of it staring at a near-vertical assortment of pipes and beams and wishing I was dead. I've also been inventing guttural new expletives that threaten to bring Social Services to the door. God only knows what the neighbours have made of it.

Late to the party I know but yes, I've been playing Trials HD. I have spent significantly more time failing at the game than making progress. And yet, this has been one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences I've had in the last five years.

For the purpose of this article it's really not important that I'm stuck in a game - we've all been there. What matters is that, following a six hour marathon trapped in the same desperate cycle of failure, I can only bring myself to turn the console off for five minutes before rebooting for just one more go.

When I fall asleep, I do so with mental attempts to solve in-game problems playing out behind my closed eyes. So strongly has the Tetris-effect taken hold that after a prolonged session, I can no longer view a column of text without it rocking to and fro while my brain calculates the necessary movements to traverse it.

Clearly this calls for a moment of introspection. There are, after all, no shortage of games featuring revolutions in story-telling, impressive visuals and protracted narratives. There's also no time in which to play more than a small percentage of them. So what compels me to spend so much time in abject misery for what appears to be a deficit of pay-off?

The transformation of my gaming habits began with Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, back in 2005. It was ironic becauses since the days of 16-bit hardware, I had happily believed that if I threw myself behind the juggernaut of hardware progression and queued up giddily on day one, gaming nirvana would be assured. RPG vistas would become ever grander, racing environments would get more and more realistic and total immersion would be achieved.

Video: Another trick in the wall.

But it was the side-project confined to the in-game arcade machine of a triple-A launch title that woke something within me which had lain dormant for 15 years. The psychedelic wizardry owed a great deal to advances in hardware of course. But it was the increasingly complex simplicity of the game that reminded me why I started playing games in the first place - that flood of endorphins when you arrive in the zone and nothing else exists.

I've long since reached the point with Geometry Wars where I can break through the brick wall preventing me from progressing. It now takes me half an hour of queuing up to get the hit that slams home. But every day, without fail, I've got to have that fix, to experience that feeling of being switched on and alive while playing a game.

So it's not simply a case of pointing to subjective terms like "difficulty" or "challenge" - although clearly they're an important component of the appeal of these games. The art of frustration gaming taps into a far deeper issue which exists right down at the level of the synapse.

As much as anything, games like Trials HD and Geometry Wars celebrate gaming as an enormous, unashamed waste of time. They poke two fingers up at multi-million dollar development extravaganzas. They shout from the rooftops that we don't need moral lessons, rich-window dressing or epic storylines to justify our hobby. They're a guilty indulgence, a box of chocolates to be scoffed all by yourself.

When your parents berated you for spending too many hours in front of the screen and not enough time in the sunshine, these games were exactly what they had in mind. Which is why to lose yourself in mindless gaming addiction is to feel like a child again.

There's something pleasing about committing so much time to a worthless endeavour. It's an act of satisfaction that's relevant to you and you alone. In the origins of gaming this simplicity was a necessity, given the limitations of the hardware, but it fulfilled a primal craving that will never disappear, no matter how much superficial gloss we paint on template genres.

I once considered this genre of gaming to belong to a darker age - one I thought was thankfully forgotten. I've now taken to collecting examples of it like most people stash porn.

The revival of this approach to game development has been a call to arms for indie developers. Accessible and affordable, they provide the perfect vehicle for a fledgling studio to make its mark on the industry. In this regard, gaming is simply coming full-circle.

However, there's a fine line between success and failure here. Precisely where that line is drawn ultimately comes down to personal opinion. But here are my recommendations for the rules great frustration gaming:

Rule 1 - Keep it simple. The objective needs to be clear and unambiguous with the end, or at least some progress, clearly in sight. If you're going to surprise the player with a fiery death immediately after overcoming an obstacle, make sure there's a clue in there he or she really should have noticed.

Rule 2 - Don't cheat the player. Hypnosis doesn't work when the watch swings into the side of your face. If the controls aren't tighter than a screw, re-work them.

Rule 3 - Provide timely checkpoints.

Rule 4 - Make me laugh at myself. Voluntary submission to self-flagellation requires a certain amount of brevity thrown into the mix. I don't mind feeling stupid, as long as I can feel I'll get smarter with just one more go.

For me, these factors make the difference between a game that frustrates and challenges in equal measure and one that gets switched off, discarded and resented. Once that line has been crossed, only perfection will suffice. Anything less becomes a curse on the player. Only third-party peripheral makers get a kick out of bad frustration gaming.

If you want an example of what happens when things go right check out the World's Hardest Game, a title which has rapidly become the brightest gem in my sordid collection. Reckon the mainstream transformation of gaming has led to a dumbing-down of difficulty? Long for the days when you sat hunched over a PC, sweating and close to tears, for hours on end? Armor Games would like to know if you're sure about that. Really, really sure.

Released in 2008, it's by no means a new game, but it meets the requirements for pure frustration gaming better than many I've played. World's Hardest Game wears its aneurism-inducing credentials like a badge of honour. The objective is simple - guide a red square past the blue circles to a green area, while the developer taunts you between levels.

Success is measured simply in terms of how many deaths you accrue through the game's 30 levels. Looking at the leaderboards, I find myself feeling real compassion for those who have finished the game without incurring a single death. Those who like their games to test their patience as much as their reflexes should really give it a go.

And then, just one more go.


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