Sony Studio Liverpool: WipEout Interview
Tony Buckley gives a detailed interview on all things WipEout - the upcoming WipEout Pulse, their secretive PS3 project and other surprises to be announced soon!
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By Adam Doree
Since its independent days as Psygnosis - and the epic debut of the WipEout series back on the PlayStation in 1995 - Sony's Studio Liverpool has earned a solid reputation as a leading racing game developer, and the recent Formula 1 game for PS3 shows that it's in great form today. But what's happening next on the WipEout front?
While many fans felt let down by WipEout Fusion (the series' only instalment on PS2), PSP launch game WipEout Pure was relatively well received, and the upcoming sequel, WipEout Pulse, could certainly perfect the formula for the handheld system. But the series is also set to return in a big way generally, and the upcoming, full-blown PS3 game may not be the only thing fans can look forward to...
On Friday we sat down with top-bloke Tony Buckley - Game Director for WipEout at SCEE Studio Liverpool - for a detailed chat about Pulse. A humorous, quiet chap who executes some of the finest F-word usage we've ever heard, Tony entered the games industry in 1995 with stints at Digital Image Design and Infogrames, before eventually settling at the Sony family of worldwide studios in Liverpool to head up the WipEout franchise. But of course, Pulse wasn't the only thing on our agenda with Tony.
Kikizo: How long have you been at Studio Liverpool? Could you give an overview of how you think the studio has changed since the beginnings of WipEout?
Tony Buckley: Since Christmas 2002, so I can't give a great deal on the beginnings of WipEout, but I joined just after Fusion had been shipped, and I think the effort that was made to implement something different for the new format, generally, lost a bit of the WipEout focus - that's not having a go at the team that did it, there had been three previous WipEouts, that were visually different and always getting tweaked. But with the new format came a new approach, and I think what we tried was admirable; to a degree these things are almost expected and cajoled out of teams - you've got to make it 'different'. When we started to create Pure, we felt it was all about reinvigorating it, and that was the focus of the team. In terms of how different it was, there was hardly anyone left from the original, so the teams had to rely heavily on heritage from the originals - there's still a couple of people about, but you know, most of them have gone senile now. So I think the focus from my perspective, we've tried to emulate what the original lot did, but because of different formats it takes a different approach - but at the end of the day why break what isn't broken? As long as we're adding something new, don't change a winning formula.
Kikizo: Do you see some of the other SCE studios racing franchises, like for example Gran Turismo, as direct competition - is there that internal competitiveness in terms of what's going on elsewhere in the worldwide studios?
Buckley: Yeah, I think definitely, it's human nature to be competitive, and to wanna be better than whoever. I mean this week [on the press tour for both WipEout Pulse and Pursuit Force: Extreme Justice] with Chris and John and the lads doing Pursuit Force... I like Pursuit Force, because he's a fan of WipEout! And I think that goes across the Sony Studios. You know, we obviously want all the first parties to do well, but we want WipEout to be the daddy. And it does create a competitive element, but also there's a big emphasis on sharing technology around the various SCEE, SCEA, SCEJ studios.
Kikizo: That's something Phil Harrison has talked about - integrating technology from across the studios, to be more efficient?
Buckley: Yeah, I think it would be great if we could have a set of tools that everyone can utilise, but in practise that's not always practical... but what we do have to be conscious of, is not duplicating work that may have been done, for example at Liverpool if London has done something... or we have a relationship with the US studios as well now... there are still a lot of bespoke tools and technology created, but we open it up for people to grab if they want it. And we're still competitive!
Kikizo: The Ridge Racer games on PSP run at sixty frames per second, is this something that will be difficult to achieve with the fantastic amount of detail and track geometry in WipEout Pulse?
Buckley: Yes. I'll be honest; we do have to make a call. Do we go for visuals and sacrifice sixty, or do we go for sixty and sacrifice visuals? And I think tradition suggests... well, I hope it doesn't sound shallow, it's not all about looks, it's about a really good race experience, but it's no coincidence that a lot of the plaudits for Pure were like, "woah, it looks ace!", and it's a big part of the game. The weapon effects are one example, when you fire it you wanna go, "woah f***ing hell!" you know, and we do have to balance it. With Pure as a launch title, we had to get to know the hardware, and get in what we could to push it as far as we could, and we did have drops in frame rate at times, I think only on particular tracks. But with Pulse we know the hardware better and we've optimised, and we've got experience too from what F1 did on the PSP now as well. So it's all a learning curve, like any console or handheld - improving form generation to generation. So this is going to be thirty frames per second.
Kikizo: In fairness so many PSP games are thirty frames that you don't notice, and of course it's not like the original was sixty anyway.
Buckley: I don't think any have been, to be honest! [Apparently WipEout 3 was in fact 60fps - answers on a postcard]. I think it's about how it feels too - I appreciate there was probably the odd frustration in some of the levels, and some of that was down to how much we threw in, and we've learned to be a bit more objective: that looks nice, but turn that little animation out, or tone that effect down.
Kikizo: Let's talk more about the visual style of WipEout, obviously one of the defining things about the series. I think people's idea of what 'futuristic' looks like has changed a lot since the original WipEout, yet the series style has stayed quite the same. So with a next gen WipEout for PS3, do you think you would look to change the visual style to make it what today's idea of futuristic looks like, using the power?
Buckley: Yeah... well but... what is today's future?!
Kikizo: Well I mean look at Back to the Future II. That future doesn't look very futuristic to us anymore, apart from maybe flying cars!
Buckley: Yeah, you're spot on. But you can go back to the 1930s and their vision of the future may encapsulate more about what it's going to be than visions of the future you see on TV and films. We always try to take everyday things like architecture, graphic design and art, and put our own slant on it. We've gone for a sort of real-world feel [in Pulse] and we want it to be fairly recognisable, so that people can relate to it - so Pulse is different in approach to what we did with Pure. We don't know what things are going to look like in the future but this is our slant on it! And with "anything else" we do, we will revisit it... I think it's our interpretation of the future like any other game's. This is our current interpretation of it, and "anything else" that follows will be our interpretation again - and I'll suggest now that it will be different! Because it's the only way to refresh it. Look at Fusion's interpretation of the future... some people said, "ooh, it's really futuristic!" and others said, "ooh, it's a desert!" - but really the thing that makes this futuristic are ships going along really quick! I know what you're saying about the PS3 though. What PS3 does is give us massive scope to do anything we want. It's a good question, because I mean, our artists have a brief... but then it's up to them about how they actually approach each track. But yeah - we're looking at something 'different' for PS3. I'm not gonna tell you what, obviously!
Kikizo: Talking about the PlayStation Store on PS3, it's proved a lot more popular than many thought it would, and the quality on there has been higher than people expected even compared to Live - full-blown titles like WarHawk are only on Network. So do you think that WipEout - maybe in HD! - would prove popular as a download on PS Network?
Buckley: I think WipEout in HD would be stonking! And I think, you know, the arcade nature of WipEout, makes it so pick up and playable, so I think it would be brilliant... It's obvious we're doing a WipEout for the PS3 but... well, there will be an announcement in August.