Rare veterans Flippin Pixels: “In the console market you just cannot take risks”

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Flippin Pixels is a group of ex-Rare veterans who have with a new start-up of their own team in a smart building just outside Leicester. The five man team have worked on the likes of Banjo, GoldenEye, Donkey Kong Country 2, Viva Pinata and the recent Kinect Sports titles.

Each of the developers at Flippin Pixels joined Rare in the late 90s, when the company was producing an unrivalled stable of games, exclusively for Nintendo. “Rare was unique. Nobody was making games of the quality that Rare and Nintendo were making,” says Shaun Read, design director. “The reason Microsoft bought Rare was very clear. They had a very core-orientated console, and it was doing very well – but it was just for the core audience. The Xbox built its success on FPSs, very good ones at that, but they bought Rare knowing that we made games that appeal to a wider audience.”

Leaving a company as prestigious as Rare, after an average of 16 years of service, to set up their own studio was a huge step for the team. Each member offers different reasons, but all share a common theme. “For me, I was in console-land looking outside at what was going on, reading the rumours of Apple TV and I thought that’s where I want to be,” explains Steven Brand, studio director. “I’m thinking about that, I’ve got all these ideas I’m putting down on paper. I could either stay in console-land, picking up my salary, and continue to enjoy it… or I can just make that jump and do something I could really grab hold of and make a success out of. For me it was about seizing the opportunity.”

For all the success of Rare, and many other large console developers, the reality is that smaller teams are more agile. They can react to new innovations, produce content for fast moving markets like the App Store, and afford to experiment. “In the console market you just cannot take risks nowadays,” says Steven Hurst, art director. “If you’re making a AAA title there’s so much invested in it. So much manpower – everything. You have to give the people what they want.”

Today’s mobile and tablet development scene is empowering teams like Flippin Pixels to express their creativity outside the risk-averse mega-studio system. It bears many of the hallmarks of the British ‘bedroom coding’ scene of the late 80s and early 90s – where some of the most interesting, innovative titles are created by tiny teams or even individuals. “I think it’s returning to the old days where people used to make their games in their bedrooms. It’s coming full circle. There used to be so many ideas knocking about, whereas with the consoles it has gotten very safe, with few taking any chances anymore,” says Gary Richards, technical director.

James Ackroyd, software director, expands the point: “You can’t put all your eggs in one basket, spend two years on one game – and however tens of millions of pounds on it – and then hope that it works, unless you’ve got that strong brand or IP behind it. The thing I like about mobile development is you can get a product out quickly and then see how people engage with it. If it works, brilliant, you can work on it and extend it in a way that people like. If it doesn’t then you can move on. With the speed and the flexibility with which we can make these games, then it kind of gives you the chance to try out these ideas, and react to how things are going.”

While the quintet are no longer employed by Rare, the mantras and ethics that informed the very best of Rare’s games stays with them. They know what makes a game fun, and know how to perfectly pitch an idea towards the players they intend to reach. “Making games that are fun is all about understanding the people who are playing the game and making sure that the game that you make works for them,” says Ackroyd. “Whether that’s a console game aimed at a more core audience, or a Kinect game aimed at a more casual audience, or everyone even, or an iPhone title.”

So, what is the mysterious new project from the team who created some of the most referenced hardcore games of all time?

“During the very few Summer days that we get in this country, myself and Gary [Richards] used to get out of the office and walk around Rare’s extensive grounds,” explains Read. “Every day we used to talk about: ‘what could we do? What game ideas haven’t we done?’ The Rare offices have nice lakes and duck ponds, and that’s how the idea came about. Everybody, when they walk up to a space of water and see a flat stone, gets the urge to skim it. That’s the idea. Myself and Gary were working on it for a long time, in our spare time, just as a bit of release from work on the Kinect Sports franchise. That’s how it came about.”

Skim It is, of course, aimed at a more casual game player – a market which still has some preconceptions attached to it, says Brand. “I think there’s still a lot of snobbery in the developer society. The big developers don’t put their AAA teams on iOS because they’re going to make a fortune from whatever their latest console title is – so all the big developer teams are still doing console. That will probably shift, especially with the transition from this generation to the next generation. We should see some high quality developers working on iOS.”

The Flippin Pixels team acknowledges that they aren’t making the game exclusively for themselves –  something they have encountered at Rare when they worked on Kinect Sports.

“The good thing about working with Kinect is that it challenges you to throw away your rule book,” says Ackroyd. “When you’re making a game that isn’t in your traditional background, and these games are for everyone to play – including mums and grandmas and kids – then it forces you to look at the design through a different lens.”

Skim It will be Flippin Pixels’ first App Store game, but the team has clearly thought about developing for mobile before. “Viva Piñata is a perfect game for tablet,” says Brand. “It’s ready in terms of its structure to port over. I did the DS version of Viva Piñata and it works better on a touch screen.”

We asked the team how do they think the world will react to Skim It. “I’m sure we’ll get negative comments from the Rare fans, because you can’t please them all,” sayd Richards. “People want Killer Instinct and Banjo but unfortunately we don’t have those licenses. They have a big say because they’re on all the forums, but if we followed that we’d be out of business. They were good games, but we’ve moved on – we want to try new stuff.”