[One gamer's journey from a young fan to finding out how the popular space flight series from the original PlayStation took shape -- featuring new interviews with several of the original developers.]
Last year I saw an article about the corporate restructuring of Sony Studio Liverpool -- formerly Psygnosis. It quickly reminded me why I wanted to pursue writing.
I've never been a wealthy person. My mom would say that we weren't raised poor. but I had hand-me-down toys to play with. Later, video games were introduced to our working class household. This meant two things: my mom could only afford a few games, but we were masters at them.
Raised in a tough neighborhood, I could only think about being anywhere else. Having a mentally handicapped little sister and a single mom, extracurricular activities were out of the question.
Channelling frustration and creative thought took the form of gripping a controller. My mom worked hard to get us the things we wanted, and around 1996, she surprised us with the Sony PlayStation and a couple of games.
One game in particular stands out: Colony Wars. A game which let the player fly freely in space -- something I'd dreamt about for years.
Colony Wars was my perfect form of escapism, and taught me things, too. I learned how inverted controls worked, and how thrust and drag functions on planes. I remember looking in the back of the booklet of the first Colony Wars so I could send a geeky letter to the developers. I thought I'd tell them I'd joined my high-school robotics team and was learning how to program because of them. Unfortunately, the booklet gave no credit to the developers.
Years would pass and I'd take my PlayStation to college with me. Playing Colony Wars and its subsequent sequels would get me through some tough days as a broke student. Then, something magical happened; the internet became popular. I could finally find out who made this game I'd obsessed over for years.
As more news of studios closing in Europe unfurled, I decided to start asking questions -- specifically to ex-Psygnosis lead designer, Nick Burcombe. I was a fan of Lemmings, Colony Wars and Wipeout -- all games published by Psygnosis.
At the time, I wanted to know more about Psygnosis by starting with the title that had me searching for Burcombe in the first place: Colony Wars. I had questions Burcombe couldn't answer, but he knew the people who could.
Burcombe pointed me into the direction of composer Tim Wright. I questioned Wright on his work on the original Wipeout and Colony Wars, and how the two differed. How does one create a score for a game? Is the composer completely in control, or is the sound guided by the game designers?
"Wipeout was fairly open in terms of what I could create," said Wright. "The designer of the game did play several tracks to me… mainly stuff like Prodigy and Leftfield. I also had other members of the team recommending listening too.
"My experience in dance/techno was pretty limited. The nearest I could draw on by comparison was '80s electronica and big artists like J.M. Jarre. Clearly, I needed to experience the latest trends in electronic music, so I did listen to a lot of current material, and also went out to clubs at night to try to understand the key elements of the style we were aiming at."
The soundtrack of Wipeout sharply contrasts Colony Wars'. The sound of Colony Wars set the tone for a game centered around political intrigue. There were two warring factions and the player, often times, found themselves in dogfights. Wipeout's score set a tone that expressed a certain calming freedom. Colony Wars' soundscape mimicked science fiction cinema.
"The Colony Wars music could not have been any further away from Wipeout. The real guide there was that I should seek inspiration from films such as Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. Big space opera-style tracks with character-based themes, modified and intertwined for use in various situations and locations," said Wright.
"So I sat down and composed a theme for the good guys, the bad guys, various systems, victory marches and so on. This was only the second time I'd been asked to create anything orchestral, and it was a lot of hard work to take the instruments, samples, and the limited knowledge I had about orchestration, and blend them into a coherent and believable package," Wright said.
While Wright experimented with Sony PlayStation's sound limitations, others were thinking about different sorts of constraints. Mike Ellis was the original writer and lead designer of both Colony Wars and Colony Wars: Vengeance. I asked Ellis a number of questions revolving around the risk of making a science-fiction space shooter on an unproven console. What was it like releasing a game of this magnitude during a time when fighting games, arcade racers and role playing games ruled?
Ellis stated, "Around the time that Colony Wars was just a concept, the market was flooded with racing and fighting games. 3D had come to home consoles, and so everyone seemed to be concentrating on bringing the arcade experience of games like Ridge Racer and Tekken to the home."
Ellis had to pitch the idea of bringing a genre of games more prevalent on PC to console gamers -- a very different audience. There was no blueprint for success.
"The members of our team were looking to make something different, and so I pitched a space game. There had been space games before -- in fact, some very good ones.
"However, I believed that most of them felt a little slow and ponderous. They were more like flight sims set in space, and didn't capture the fantasy of the high speed, intense dog fights seen in movies such as Star Wars and even Top Gun. Delivering the essence of that fantasy was to be our number one goal," said Ellis.
Luckily for Ellis, the Psygnosis team fully supported the idea. "The team embraced the concept, and I counted myself very fortunate. We were able to put a demo together and pitch it to management, who gave the project the green light and additional resources." What would follow would be the building of a franchise based just as much on story as it was on play mechanics.
"Throughout production, our team was very interested in experimenting with non-linear progression, and telling a story with multiple outcomes. I personally wanted to tell a story that broke away from the standard good vs. evil convention, and focused more on two factions that were forced together to fight over what remained of dwindling resources. There was no right or wrong, just two very hungry animals," said Ellis.
The introduction of planetary missions mixed with space combat gave the player a feeling that they were a part of something both personal and huge. I wanted to know more about the nuts and bolts of how Ellis' idea became a game.
Ellis and Burcombe lead me in the direction of lead programmer, Chris Roberts. "I came into the Colony Wars team straight after finishing Wipeout 2097 (which was the first title I worked on for SCEE / Psygnosis). My role on Wipeout was engine and effects, so I slotted straight into the same position on the Colony Wars team," said Roberts.
"I worked on both of the original titles at Liverpool. The third episode was created by the Leeds studio, who took the code from the original two games and further improved it to make Red Sun. My work on the first two titles was primarily focused on the in-game graphics and effects.
"This included pretty much everything outside of the front-end: mesh drawing code, star field, nebula, planet and worm hole effects, jump gates, weapons, explosions, cockpit / HUD. Some nice effects (such as the big ship laser beams and the nice engine effects in CW1) were programmed by 'guest' graphics programmers on the team, who wanted to contribute their own ideas to the look of the game (in this case Mike Anthony and Ben John)."
The visual leap between the first and second game in the series was striking, as Roberts explained: "Colony Wars: Vengeance had some notable rendering additions, such as the large planet backgrounds, planet surface missions, wormholes, etc. Also we had a lot more bespoke craft behaviors, such as the asteroid gun, space 'fish', and the League all-terrain vehicle (spider thing). The spider was actually a little disappointing in the final game, because we had to speed up its motion (it was taking too long to move around). This was a shame because the animation was a lot more realistic at its original speed."
Colony Wars was developed so long ago. What did the process even look like? "All of the lighting on the large ships was pre-computed using a PC based tool that I wrote which, back then, was run from DOS," said Roberts. "All of the model images were captured from this tool. We also used this tool to control how the ships fragmented when destroyed and where the docking bays, engines, etc. were for each ship."
Being one of the earliest 3D home consoles, the PlayStation had limitations. Developers had to work around them -- creatively. "The first and foremost challenge on PS1 was contending with the relative lack of features in the poly rasteriser that we take for granted today (namely perspective correction, clipping and depth buffering)," said Roberts.
"This meant that large polygons would warp and vanish when they got too close to the camera, and triangles tended to sort badly because of the very coarse depth ordering mechanism. The only practical solution was to detect large polygons and subdivide them when they get too close, but this can have a drastic effect on performance. Some of the ships in Colony Wars are massive, and you can get very close, so this got a lot of attention," said Roberts.
Ellis recollected playing with the cards Sony's hardware dealt. "As with any gaming platform, the task was to get as much out of what you had. The programmers did an amazing job employing cutting edge game tech, such as streaming and asynchronous loading.
"They also built the first content creation tool that I ever used, which was a 3D mission editor. The programmers and artists also developed a system for texture sharing which maximized the amount of memory we had remaining for special FX."
While most console gamers were in awe of the transition from 2D, there was competitive tension between PC the original PlayStation. "At the time, 3D cards were just arriving for the PC, and we were determined to have FX that matched anything that they were doin -- even though they had more memory and some features that the PS1 didn't have. Chris Roberts did an incredible job coding in assembly language in order to produce some stunning results," said Ellis.
"I remember being at trade shows such as E3 and ECTS, and people would enquire about creating OEM versions of the game for their particular brand of 3D card," Ellis said.
Though Colony Wars may not have been the PlayStation's biggest hit, it does seem to be beloved by its fans. Why hasn't it been revived -- at least on PlayStation Network as a classic download? "Products are only developed if there's a perceivable demand for them, and I think this genre of game went into decline at the turn of the millennium," said Roberts. "There was a brief resurgence with the Star Wars prequel trilogy, but I think this was very brand-specific – it did not produce a new flurry of space combat games or really renew general interest in the genre.
"There have been some attempts to resurrect the space flight/combat genre (including some very pretty ones such as the X series by Egosoft) and Flavien Brebion's Infinity Engine is looking interesting too, but right now it's difficult to see anyone investing heavily in these types of games. Whether we'll ever see another Colony Wars game, I don't know, but I'd certainly be interested in working on it if Sony ever made that decision. With the capabilities of modern consoles I think we could make something pretty special," said Roberts.
Ellis echoes the sentiment. "I don't know. Once every couple of years I hear a rumor of a new Colony Wars game being in production, and I get really excited. But, unfortunately, nothing ever materializes. I'd love to play, or even develop, a new Colony Wars game some day."
Whether or not Colony Wars ever comes back, it was a narrative and technical milestone for the original PlayStation. Tim Wright is currently working with indie developers through the Indie Music Incubator Support Scheme. Chris Roberts and Mike Ellis are still working on projects with Sony. However, Colony Wars is not one of them.
I feel lucky to have learned this much about a game that is so dear to me -- but perhaps it's better that the game functions in my memory as a means of inspiration rather than reappears.