Interview – Sidhe Talk Candidly About Shatter™
On a balmy July evening, from London town, I spoke to Mario Wynands about Sidhe Interactive’s (New Zealand’s most successful game developers ) newest original IP and PSN exclusive, Shatter™.
Some of you will no doubt remember Sidhe for making the acclaimed game GripShift®, which first came out on the PSP and was one of the launch titles on the PS3’s PSN. I try to peek beneath the calm, swan like exterior, to find out just how fast the guys and girls of Sidhe are really paddling.
Dominique Louis (DL) : Hi Mario, could you please introduce yourself to our readers and tell us about your background and your responsibilities at Sidhe ?
Mario Wynands (MW) : I’m the Managing Director of Sidhe. I was one of the original co-founders, so I’ve been here for the whole 12 year history of the company. I guess, my specific role over the years has been managing the company’s strategic planning, marketing sphere and that’s my more specific focus now. I used to be more involved in production, but now we’re big enough,I don’t have to do all those jobs.
DL : So, were you a coder back in the day ?
MW : I guess originally we had the typical trinity of founders. We had Tyrone McAuly, who was our programmer, he’s our Technical Director at the moment. We had Stuart Middleton who was an artist and therefore our Creative Director, and myself who came through university with a computer science and commerce degree.
My job was to sit in the middle and do the more project management and business type stuff and we’ve kind of grown those roles from there. When we were small I did code on some of our games, but its been a number of years since I fired up any kind of code-based tools.
DL : I’m sure you’re probably not missing it, as you are busy doing other stuff ?
MW : (laughs) Now I’ve got the ideal part, where I can just ask for stuff and someone else makes it happen. Arguably its a much better role.
DL : GripShift®, your first original IP, was released in 2005 on the PSP and received several awards. Then in 2007 you released GripShift for the PS3 and Xbox 360. What challenges did you face moving your game from a hand held console to, what was back then, the next-gen systems ?
MW : With GripShift, we always had a small team on that. I think the original PSP game was done with a team of about 6 people. We ported it briefly, in early 2007, to the nVidia GoForce chipset, nVidia were looking for some content to show on their E3 stand at the time.
We had a little bit of experience with porting in the other direction to a less powerful platform. The challenges for us on PlayStation 3 were really that we did the deal with Sony Online Entertainment to take the game across to PS3 quite late in 2007 and only got our PS3 dev kits in September, I believe.
So we had about 3 months to port the game from scratch, get it running, get all the online stuff running, get all the store stuff working. The game itself ported across relatively quickly. It took us about a couple of days to get it up and running …
DL : Wow, that’s impressive!
MW : It ran pretty slow and we weren’t making the most of the graphics. The problems arose more from that fact that it was a new platform, the tools and SDK were still maturing. So essentially building a whole new system. The challenge was more about where PS3 was at, at that time, and the fact that we were doing what was essentially a launch title for it. We managed to knock it off in three months and its been successful on the platform, so we’ve been really happy.
DL : I read that it was using a very early version of what Sony now calls the “PhyreEngine”. Three months to do a port seems like a very short development life cycle. So did it help ?
MW : Yeah, very short. Yeah we did use a very very early version of PhyreEngine, it was a huge factor in allowing us to get up and running quickly and getting the game out in the timeframe that we had. PhyreEngine was a big help and we continue to use it on other projects as well.
DL : You also released an XBLA version, was that codebase already there or did you have a separate engine for the Xbox 360 version?
MW : We actually ported PhyreEngine across to Xbox 360.
DL : Really!?
MW : Seems a bit strange, but if you actually look at the copyright screen on the Live Arcade version of GripShift, you’ll actually see Sony Computer Entertainment mentioned, in amongst there relating to PhyreEngine. I think that’s one of the great things about Sony and their philosophy around what they want to do with PhyreEngine.
They’ve been very open with what developers do with it and the platforms it goes to. What that’s meant is they’ve been able to continue getting feedback and ideas and they’ve continued evolving PhyreEngine. Now its a relatively robust solution and its a free solution, which is always better when you are looking at download games where every dollar counts.
DL : I don’t know if I can draw you into this whole argument about the PS3 being harder to develop for than the 360. You’re coming out with your new game, Shatter, and from what you said earlier you are still using PhyreEngine for that title and so, is one platform harder to develop for than the other, in your team’s experience ?
MW : This is one question which can be challenging to answer, depending on who you want to annoy the least. From our experience, we’re a developer that comes from a very platform agnostic, but predominantly console space. In the past we’ve worked on PS1, PS2, PSP, Xbox, PC games, we’ve done Wii games and recently PS3 and 360. There are a lot of differences between PlayStation 3 and 360.
There are a lot of differences between the tools. I think its fair to say that PlayStation 3 can be harder to wrap your head around if you are coming to it new, into the console space. I think a lot of developers, especially for download products, are coming from a PC centric background to the 360s architecture and concept, it would be fair to say, its an easier transition.
From our perspective the differences are fairly minimal, they each have their quirks, they each have their strengths and weaknesses, they each have their different toolsets and they each have their different levels of support. If you face technical challenges on the PS3, that’s made up for in that its much easier to get your content approved and up on the system. Microsoft now can be quite challenging to get stuff up on Live Arcade. It all kind of comes out in the wash.
Each console and each company have their own challenges. My message when I’m talking to developers who are looking to get into the console space, regardless of whether it is PS3 or 360, the message is, don’t under estimate how easy it is to get your content out there. Its not just a case of developing it and throwing it out. You’ve got legal requirements, compliance requirements, customer support requirements and those sorts of things. That’s a long winded way of saying, we don’t mind a PlayStation 3 development.
DL : Tell our readers a bit more about your new PSN game, Shatter ?
MW : Shatter is a game that is inspired by the retro titles like BreakOut and Arkanoid, the kind of classic breaking titles, but totally reinvented for modern consoles and the more modern gaming audience.
We’ve done that by adding physics, great graphics, great sound and a really great soundtrack. Adding much more immediacy and connection through the controls and adding depth to what you can do in terms of those sorts of games. GripShift was a fairly complex game in a lot of ways, which had a steep learning curve that we were never really able to lessen over the different versions that we did. After GripShift, we wanted to find a game that would be a lot easier for people to get into and still have a great amount of depth that we could try.
We looked at games that we played and inspired us when we were kids, that we were still playing today. The one consistent genre that we found was those Breakout games, so we really wanted to see what we could do with that and see how far we could just take that genre.
DL : So like an easy to play, but hard to master kind of game ?
MW : Yes, that’s the classic thing that developers strive for. Easy to get into, hard to master.
DL : Will Shatter support any co-op or multi-player modes ?
MW : Shatter is single player only at this stage but has multiple game modes as well as leader-boards so you can compete against others and your friends.
DL : GripShift was originally published by a combination of SOE (Sony Online Entertainment ) and Ubisoft, I believe. This time, with Shatter, you’ve decided to self-publish on PSN. What made you decide to self publish on PSN? Was it because, as you said previously, Sony make it a bit easier to publish your game on the PSN, as opposed to XBLA or the Wii equivalent ?
MW : GripShift was originally published on PSP via Sony Online Entertainment in the US and Ubisoft in the rest of the world. Sony Online was interested in getting PSN titles out quickly. So there was a great opportunity, having worked with them before, to do a deal and get a game that they were fully backing, out there and to have that support and get up a launch title. So strategically for us it made sense to use that publisher support to get our first original IP out there.
But, the industry is ever changing, ever evolving and we are seeing a lot trends in the market place where the retail space is getting very crowded, arguably the commercial used game market, is having quite a big impact. The licensed titles are dominating, the franchises are dominating, so for us the download space offers a great opportunity. But the thing is, a lot of what you get from a traditional publisher, isn’t necessarily relevant in the console download space. With that being the case, if we can self fund and go through the publishing process, do the QA, do the customer support our selves, then financially it makes a lot more sense for us to self publish.
You also have the advantage of having more creative control and ultimately, I guess what we are working towards is having our control over our own destiny. I think that is one of the key things we are trying to do here, is evolve our company from being a game production studio to being an entertainment house, where we move from being a service provider to a company that creates and owns and gets their own IP out there. That’s the more high level strategic view of why we are moving into this more the self publishing space.
DL : So it pretty much gives you control over all aspects of your own title ?
MW : Exactly!
DL : How long has Shatter been in development, from initial game spark to passing PSN approval ?
MW : Its been cooking for a long time and I guess that’s one of the things when you are self publishing can make a difference. We actually started exploring and doing some experimentation and concepts in late 2007, so its been in development in one form or another for over a year now. We’ve been able to iterate with a very small team.
So for most of the project we’ve only had 3 or 4 people on the project. A very small team who feel very empowered. That’s allowed us to iterate and iterate and to add more polish over time. I’ve no qualms in saying that this is the most polished title we have ever produced, because we’ve had that time to really iterate and improve on what we had and as a company we’ve been willing to make that investment and release when we think the time is right, which is soon.
DL : I suppose that comes into the whole the self-publishing thing. If you are getting published through someone else, you have to work to their deadlines and when they want to release the game, and this way it gives you so much more power in how polished you want to make the game before you release it ?
MW : Exactly. To be fair you can’t leave something sitting there indefinitely because there is always something you could add. We’re very proud of the package we’ve created now and it makes sense for us to release it now. We’ll be keeping a close eye on consumer feedbackand seeing where they want us to take the title and hopefully it turns into a franchise.
DL : It certainly looks like it could. Is there an official release date yet, has that been announced yet?
MW : Yes Shatter will be available from July 23rd on the American PSN for $7.99 and for €5.99 and £4.99 respectively, on the European PSN.
DL : So depending on gamer feedback will you decide whether you will support Shatter with DLC and the like?
MW : We haven’t committed any resources, but we have some ideas, but we don’t have any specific plans. So yeah, we’ll see what is resonating with gamers, what gamers would like to see, where they would like to see more functionality or more content. Then again, this is something that we had with GripShift.
At the start of last year we created a whole new patch for it on PSN, which added new weapons and
functionality and a lot of the stuff that we added into the Live Arcade version. We couldn’t actually negotiate through the red tape via our publisher ( SOE ) to get that content out there.
DL : I saw that mentioned on the American PlayStation blog.
MW : It obviously can be a frustrating situation, when you’ve got something good to go, but hopefully with having tighter control with Shatter, we can be more responsive.
DL : GripShift was ported to the Xbox 360, is a release of Shatter on XBLA planned in the future ?
MW : Right now Shatter has been approved for PSN and the company will consider other platforms in the future, but that’s the main focus for now.
DL : So have you started work on your next title or are you just kicking back now after crunch mode and waiting to see what inspires you ?
MW : Um, I don’t know if the games industry is ever one where you can just kick back as there are ideas and opportunities that arise all the time. We have, including Shatter, 5 games in development right now. We have a couple of Wii titles, a Wii, PS3 and 360 title and a PSP title.
Only one of those has been announced at this stage, Hot Wheels Battle Force 5 for Wii, which we are doing for Activision. But we probably would have announced or exposed our involvement in the other 3 titles before the end of this month, so July is going to be a big month for us. We are already working on a number of different initiatives. We had another original IP which has been in pre-production for some time, we’re actually kicking off a lot of iPhone stuff right now.
Its a pretty busy period. So we’ll be announce stuff very soon and as we finish off the projects that we have in production, we’ll be continuing to ramp up production up other projects and putting those into production in succession. There will certainly be more stuff that gets onto the console download space from us, by the end of next year.
DL : Excellent. Definitely sounds like there is no economic crisis down at Sidhe. That’s a good thing after the recent news of so many game developers feeling the squeeze and having to shut down.
MW : That kind of gets back to what I was mentioning before. You see a company or publisher like Brash going down. There are so many developers that are affected by that, who were working away diligently, could have been developing quality products and hitting every milestone.
The publisher disappears, through no fault of their own, and before you know it, your [game] studio is gone. Again, we think we are making some smart moves in terms of our strategy and moving to a place where we have more control and have more stability. Time will tell, but we are surviving and growing while some in the industry are experiencing some pain right now. We think we’re on the right path.
DL : On a slightly more personal level, what is your most anticipated game of 2009/2010 ?
MW : I’ve had my head down so much I’m not really sure. My most anticipated games of this year are the same as my most anticipated games of last year because I haven’t caught up with my backlog yet.
DL : What were they then ?
MW : What do I have on my shelf over here. I still haven’t fired up my copy of Super Mario Galaxy yet, but I need to get stuck into GTA IV, I haven’t played much of that. I’ve been playing a lot of Live Arcade, especially Peggle. I’ve been playing Flight Control and Knights OnRush on the iPhone, recently. I’m more of a dabbler these days, though Fat Princess is looking good on PSN, and I’m looking forward to getting hold of that.
I’ve changed my gaming tastes a lot over the years. I used to be into RPGs and epic adventures, now I just don’t have the time to make that sort of investment. I play a lot of Live Arcade titles, PSN titles and I’m getting into iPhone gaming.
DL : Things you can dip in and out of then ?
MW : Yeah, I might have a couple of minutes here and there. Like I said the bigger stuff like GTA IV, which has been out forever now, I still haven’t gotten round to getting into, because I know that once I touch it, its a huge investment.
DL : Lastly, Is the future of controllers using the body with Natal or similar ?
MW : I’m a fan of EyeToy and had a few EyeToy games that I played. Perhaps my secret shame of my most played game ever, is probably EyeToy Groove, being a bit of dancing fan. I can certainly see it being beneficial, but for a lot of gamers I don’t think it will be a replacement more of an augmentation to more traditional controller mechanisms. So using head tracking, facial recognition and voice recognition stuff on top of the more traditional controller.
If I knew what the future of controllers was, I would probably be patenting it, rather than talking about it right now. Its certainly very exciting and we’re looking at some motion based stuff at the moment. We have 3 Wii titles in development right now, which obviously means that we are getting stuck into the motion controller side of things. We can see the opportunity, though exactly where it all ends up, I’m not really sure.
I think there are a lot of great trends, we’re seeing right now in terms of the strength of online and that has been a revolution for this generation. Going from a very solitary couch experience to a very connected, very community driven experience. What we’ve seen with the Wii and the motion controls and seeing that come across to the PS3, the 360 and the user generated content side of thing, which is all very interesting to us.
There are a lot of great trends and we’re trying to keep up and trying to create games where gamers passions are. Hopefully with the download strategy we have and the self publishing strategy we have, that allows us to be more experimental in these sorts of spaces as well.
Generally, I expect we’ll be getting involved in Natal development, as well as Sony’s tracking technology and continuing to do more on the Wii side as well over the next year.
DL : I hope you do decide to do more original games because the gaming world is falling into a rut of producing lots of first person shooters or third person shooters right now and even though each shooter probably brings something a little bit new, it is generally a little bit stale out there.
MW : I think there has been a lot of incremental progression, as you say, a lot genres have been incremental, graphics technology has been incremental. I think the big moves we’ll see are in controls, community stuff like user generated content, AI and more advanced animation.
The best is yet to come, and that is good news for gamers. There are a lot of great developers out there, doing good stuff and now we’ve got all the basics down, people are creating game which have great graphics, great multi-player, so all the foundations are there for people to start doing some truly revolutionary stuff.
So gamers just have to keep their eyes open and their ears to the ground as there are a lot of great games out there, but it can be hard to see them sometimes in amongst all the stuff that is not so good.
DL : Thanks for taking the time, out of your busy schedule to chat with me.
MW : Thanks for the coverage.
Very few game developers are as candid and open about their thoughts on the game industry and how they are a part of it. I think this refreshing honesty should be something that other game developers should think about adopting. Thanks again Mario for a truly insightful interview.
If you own a PS3 and loved BreakOut and Arkanoid, or even if you are new to the genre, make sure you have a look at Shatter when it is released on PSN from the 23rd of July, 2009.