Four Rare developers shocked the gaming world earlier this year when they announced a brand new direction, a brand new studio and a brand new take on an ageing genre: the venerable space sim. Starfire Studios delivered a massive hit and critical success story last month with Fusion Genesis, and I recently sat down with director Phil Dunne to discuss the past, present and future of the fledgling venture.
Jonathan Lester (Dealspwn): Many thanks for taking the time to talk to us in what must be an incredibly stressful period. Could you introduce yourself as well as your role at Starfire - and background at Rare?
Phil Dunne (Starfire Studios): I'm Phil Dunne, I'm an artist and director at Starfire Studios. I worked at Rare for over 15 years working on a range of games from way back on the SNES right up to Xbox 360, including Donkey Kong Country 3 and Kameo.
Dealspwn: What compelled you to leave Rare and form an independent studio?
Dunne: I guess we were looking to work on projects that we wouldn't have had the chance to at Rare. We we're looking to try out some new ideas and maybe go back to a smaller team setup with a quicker turnaround time on projects. As digital distribution was really starting to take off, it seemed like a good time to start an independent studio. Even since Starfire was formed, the whole landscape of the games industry seems to be changing at a rapid pace and it feels like a very exciting time to be an Indie Studio.
Dealspwn: Rare has become a very different beast over the last few years, thanks in part to the new focus on Kinect games. Were you happy with this new direction, and do you feel that they're still holding true to their founding principles?
Dunne: I think their new direction seems to be working really well for them recently, with Sports being such a big hit. Also, I think they don't really get enough credit for all the work that's been done with avatars and what a big feature it is on Xbox now.
Dealspwn: Right, on to Fusion: Genesis. First of all, we need to get a simple question out of the way. Why a space sim?
Dunne: We were always aiming to make some kind of 'mini-MMO' but also looking for something that we could achieve as a small team. So with our skillset in mind, a space top-down shooter crossed with an MMO seemed like a good fit.
Dealspwn: Can the genre ever become relevant again? What does the genre need to do to appeal to a new generation of gamers... and how did Fusion: Genesis address that?
Dunne: We felt that multiplayer and making the world feel like a dynamic multiplayer environment was key. It tends to create these chance encounters just as you're travelling from place to place, which can turn into battles and feuds or conversely, friendships and co-op play. This really adds a lot of unpredictability to every game session which we feel is important to keep players interested in coming back and experiencing more of the game.
Dealspwn: 'Drop-in' online multiplayer is an incredibly tricky feature to implement, and it frequently outfoxes even the biggest AAA outfits. How did you approach the problem, and what does it add to the experience?
Dunne: Luckily enough our programmer Mark is very experienced when it comes to networking, having been Networking lead on PDZ, so we always felt we had a good understanding of that side of things. It certainly did throw up some problems as we were implementing it but we feel it really brings life to the Fusion universe and makes it feel dynamic and sometimes dangerous which adds a bit of spice while you're just travelling around from station to station.
Dealspwn: What were your major creative influences behind the Fusion universe - as well as the gameplay mechanics?
Dunne: We're all big Sci-Fi fans, with Star Wars being a firm favourite. I used to have lots of Star wars toys as a kid, X-wing, Millenium Falcon etc. so some of that certainly can be seen in some of the ship designs I did, the consortium faction especially. From a gameplay side, we're all quite keen MMO players, especially Mark who's a big Warcraft fan. So I guess you can see a lot of the structure, character levelling, raids, loot etc. that you might see in an MMO.
Dealspwn: Like many pundits, I was surprised that Microsoft decided to release Fusion: Genesis in the mid-November retail killing fields. Just before Modern Warfare 3 and Skyrim hit shelves, in fact. Were you happy with the launch window?
Dunne: The release date fitted in with the development schedule and even though Fusion is a much smaller fish than all the big AAA games, hopefully there is still an audience for it on XBLA.
Dealspwn: Given more time (and a bit of hindsight), what would you do differently - or add to Fusion: Genesis?
Dunne: We were very focused on giving players more value for money, cramming all the elements and features we could into the title. In hindsight, a little more time spent on tutorials and helping players to learn the game and it's mechanics probably would have helped.
Dealspwn: Microsoft's support of independent studios has been under the spotlight lately, thanks in part to conflicting reports from outfits like Team Meat and Zen Studios. How have they been treating you?
Dunne: Microsoft have given us great support throughout the project and they really got behind it on the development side, expanding the Fusion universe onto WP7 with Fusion: Sentient. They also gave us some great development help towards the end of the project and did a great job of the testing, which was no small effort.
Dealspwn: What's next for Starfire? Will you be supporting Fusion: Genesis with DLC, working on a sequel or embarking on a new project?
Dunne: We've got a few ideas that we're currently 'incubating', so you'll have to wait to see what emerges!