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Words: Lewis Packwood
This article is part of GAMINGbible's PlayStation at 25 content - find much more celebrating the 25th anniversary of Sony's console, here.
Somewhat appropriately, David Rose worked on planes before he started designing futuristic hovercrafts for the Sony PlayStation's most-important launch title, WipEout. "I specialised in 3D graphics and engineering management, and I was working in military avionics," he tells me. "But I had a real passion for computer graphics, so much to my parents' displeasure, I responded to a postage-stamp-sized advert in the back of Amiga Format which was looking for graduate programmers with 3D graphics experience. I quit the job in military avionics and followed my heart."
David moved from the south coast to join Liverpool-based studio Psygnosis in 1993. He was put to work in the Advanced Technology Group (ATG), an in-house R&D team that was exploring the possibilities of then-new CD-ROM technology.
"My initial role was really varied," says David. "It was doing research projects into inverse kinematics, skeleton animation, simulation of football crowds... A lot of the initial 3D work was streaming media off this new CD-ROM format." Before he arrived, the ATG had already been going for some years, and among other things had been involved in developing techniques used in the pioneering CD-ROM game Microcosm.
Then one day, David remembers, Psygnosis boss Ian Hetherington walked in and "placed on my desk this large photocopier with four big fans strapped to the outside - which was the first PlayStation dev kit". Sony had bought Psygnosis in May 1993, shortly before David started at the company, and the developer had been given the important task of making games for the European launch of Sony's PlayStation console in September 1995.
David recalls his astonishment at booting up the dev kit for the first time: "We plugged it in and spun up the dinosaur head demo. This dinosaur head that we could manipulate, we could rotate, we could open his mouth - and our jaws were just on the floor. I cannot begin to describe how revolutionary seeing that demo in real time was."
The 3D technology was leagues ahead of anything else available in that period, and the ATG quickly set about experimenting with the machine. "Much of it was us taking the fairly scant documentation and just starting to wrap our heads around what it may be capable of," says David. Another member of the ATG, Jim Bowers, created a concept movie of futuristic, wedge-shaped ships dogfighting on a track - and this became the seed for WipEout.
Nick Burcombe, then a game designer at Psygnosis, wasn't part of that technology group, but he was close friends with Jim and would quiz him in the pub after work about what the ATG was coming up with. Jim showed Nick the concept movie, and the pair began chatting about how it could be turned into a game. "After many, many beers, we were imagining how the ships would be 'surfing' on a wave of anti-gravity emitted by the track," recalls Nick. "It was at this precise moment the name Wipeout solidified."
"It went wonderfully out of hand when we were imagining trying to get (The Prodigy's) Liam Howlett to re-record that intro from the legendary '60s surf track 'Wipe Out' by The Surfaris," Nick continues. "Although I have to say, on the night, with a few beers down me, I was convinced it was done by the Beach Boys... of course, like many a drunken conversation, I was wrong. But you can imagine reaching the end of that guitar riff and Liam interjecting with 'W-w-w-w-w-ipeouuuut', and then it would instead just break out into the frantic beats of The Prodigy's track 'No Good'."
Nick continues: "I think that was the precise the moment we both saw immediately what the game should be, and knew it had to be made with that in mind. It was that attitude and positive vibe that really drove it as a direction in our heads. We had such a buzz from not just being on precisely the same page, but on precisely the same line, word and letter at that very moment. It just had to be made because of this intent.
"Jim was a little bit older than I, and very inclusive. He wasn't from the rave scene or the same background at all, and I wasn't an artist or had many tools to convey my thinking, but he was just one of those open guys that would always listen to young minds, and where he found something he could connect with, something that could inspire, he just went with it. He was my biggest backer at the time. He just understood the intent. That was one of Jim's best strengths - he took inspiration from anyone who meant it, as long as it was from the heart."
As such, the tone was set from the off, and WipEout never really wavered from this initial concept of anti-gravity cars set to dance music. Nick was given the role of lead designer, and then, David says, it was a case of making a game that looked as close to the concept movie as possible. He began by creating a ship on a straight track, then started to add loops, gradually working out how far he could push the PlayStation.
"Because it was unknown hardware to us, it was clearly a serious challenge for the programmers to try and master this device," Nick recalls. "Bear in mind they were using a lot of Japanese documentation to reference against, but still managed to make it do what we needed it to do. Everyone seemed to be starting every possible element of the development pipeline from scratch. We had lots of experience with 2D work, pseudo-3D FMV and other pre-rendered assets, but when it came to producing a fully 3D, texture-mapped game - the programming team were pretty much writing everything required in the development pipeline from scratch."
They ran up against the limits of the machine quite quickly, says David. "In a game like WipEout, where frame rate was vital, we had a design goal from the outset that we had to be running at 30 frames per second. Then you draw the maximum number of polygons that you can do while remaining within those constraints." David gives huge credit to programmer Jason Denton for optimising the graphics. "A large part of the success of the game is due to that work, because that meant that we could keep the frame rates."
In terms of the gameplay though, David reckons we have Nintendo to thank. "Mario Kart was a massive inspiration. Mario Kart linked with dance music was a combination that inspired Nick." Nick in turn says that several titles were in his mind when he was nailing down the concept: "The main game design influences for me were really a mashup of several of my favourite games, but I'd do have to say that the biggest credits would go to Geoff Crammond's legendary Stunt Car Racer with its rollercoaster circuits. F-Zero is clearly another massive influence, too. But the Super Nintendo version of Super Mario Kart, when I finally beat it because of the music I was listening to... something clicked in my head. I realised I'd just had some kind of out-of-body experience or something. Completely 'in the zone' while the classic trance track 'Age of Love' was playing instead of the game's chip tunes. Out of nowhere, and after about 20 previous attempts with the game's music, I absolutely nailed the final championship and completed the game. That was a true lightbulb moment for me."
Above Video: Orbital's 'P.E.T.R.O.L.'
It was the music that would really set WipEout apart, and the idea of having a dance soundtrack was ingrained from the very beginning. "If we were going to do a high-adrenaline racer, then the audio track that accompanies it was going to be a critical part - that has to set the tempo," says David. Nick recalls presenting a list to the Psygnosis marketing team of dance tracks he wanted. At the time it was something of a rarity to have licensed music in a game, and the team hadn't heard of some of the underground artists on Nick's list.
"The folks over in the marketing department said, 'Erm, we've not heard of any of these artists, nor would we know how to get to them, but we might be able to get access to some dance music artists via Sony Music of course,'" says Nick. "And suddenly there were serious options on the table, and I was thrilled we might be able to get some credible dance tracks into the game - it definitely needed it. Both Sue [Campbell, WipEout's product manager] and I were shortly invited down to London to meet with Phil and Paul Hartnoll, who were better known in the rave scene as Orbital. I was a little star-struck, to be honest. Their 'Chime' is still one of the classics from that era. Sue and I sat with them both and explained the concept, but critically, were able to show them a very exclusive glimpse of the pre-alpha version of the game. They responded extremely well to the game and clearly fully understood why I was trying to do this with dance music."
"They then took us down to the recording studio to play me a track they had been developing called 'P.E.T.R.O.L'," Nick continues. "It hadn't yet been released and they were still editing and remixing it, but it was clear that the demo they had just seen upstairs had already pressed the right buttons in their head, and they thought they knew exactly what I was looking for. It was great that they instantly knew what I was trying to achieve on the music side. I think once that contract with Orbital had been established, it was somewhat easier to get other artists on board. Now they had to develop a business model too, but once that was established, it seemed much smoother to bring in the Chemical Brothers and Leftfield. In the end, it was a really good line up of tracks, but was perfectly accompanied with Tim Wright's music, too (as CoLD SToRAGE). After that of course, in subsequent versions of the game, it was seen as a viable route for dance artists to license their tracks into games, and WipEout is where many dance artists wanted to be."
Another thing that set WipEout apart was its cutting-edge aesthetic, which was created by The Designers Republic, the graphic design studio behind the iconic album covers of Pop Will Eat Itself. "These days, assigning a graphic design agency would be commonplace," says David, "but to work with Designers Republic, who had that the heritage in that space, that was pretty revolutionary."
The aesthetic tied in perfectly with the marketing for Sony's PlayStation. Whereas previous consoles were more aimed at children and teenagers, Sony was keen to target club-going twenty-somethings. "There was this first generation of gamers who had reached adulthood and had disposable income, and would perhaps be prepared to drop 300, 400 pounds on this new gaming device," David says. "So it was perceived from the outset that this wasn't a kid's product."
And as it happened, the team behind WipEout were a close fit to the intended market, says David. The coders were mostly in their twenties, and the music in the game was the same music they were listening to on a Friday and Saturday night. "It makes it easier for you, because you're designing and writing a game that you would play and that you would love. So in some ways we didn't have to worry about focus testing, because we represented the target audience."
Nevertheless, the progress of the game was far from smooth. Nick says that at one point WipEout hit a dead end and the team had to start development again from scratch. And David remembers pulling a series of all-nighters in an effort to get a demo ready for E3 in 1995. "I think we worked for three days solid - I mean, genuinely solid. It was a game industry rite of passage back then to do the mythical all-nighter, which I'm not advocating at all, but [it was] the only way that we could get that demo finished."
But the worst point was when Ken Kutaragi, the then-chairman of Sony Computer Entertainment and so-called father of the PlayStation, paid a visit to the Psygnosis offices around four months before the console's European launch. David recalls that Ken sat on his desk and declared that he thought the team didn't have a hope of meeting the launch date. Nick recalls that this declaration was "the spur-in-the-sides that really kicked the team into overdrive", and the coders, who had already been working incredibly hard, redoubled their efforts in an attempt to prove him wrong. "The final 12 weeks of WipEout's development were completely insane in terms of productivity and energy - we all wanted to beat that deadline, we just had to," says Nick. "The hours put in were staggering."
"This golden opportunity to be one of the very few titles that would actually make it for the European PlayStation launch, knowing we had something special on our hands, was the perfect impetus for the whole team," Nick continues. "Was the challenge meant to be reverse psychology, or was it a genuine doubt that we could make it? I'm not sure, to be honest - but it clearly worked either way, and the effort and determination from the team was monumental. Everyone was very proud to deliver WipEout in time for mastering, duplication, distribution and actually being in retail on launch day. Amazing effort from the whole company, not just the development team. Everyone can be very proud of that."
The hard work paid off with some phenomenal sales figures. "Certainly in the UK it was the number one game I believe," says David. "It just captured something about the mood at the time, and Britain culturally at the time." And Nick is proud of WipEout's legacy. "I think it's one of those games that carries with it the passion, soul and intent of the whole team behind it. It always has. The gamers out there, who maybe discovered it in 1995 and bought every version there was or who perhaps discovered it a little later, on PS2, PS3, PSP, PSVita, PS4 or PSVR, it doesn't really matter... When you 'get it', when you find yourself completely at one with it, that's because it's always been made with the same passion and intent as the first one. It has a soul, and you feel it when you master it."
"WipEout wasn't a perfect game by any means, and the sequel (WipEout 2097) played much better," Nick concludes, "but the concept, the graphic design, the music and of course the PlayStation hardware were the perfect combination. Everyone who has ever worked on it has always put that same passion into it."
Follow the author on Twitter at @LewisPackwood.
Featured Image Credit: Sony Computer Entertainment, Psygnosis
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