Life After Atari - What's Next for Shiny?

Gamasutra spoke with Shiny studio head Michael Persson about its recent acquisition by Foundation 9, the studio's existing IPs (including Earthworm Jim), and the company’s future without either David Perry or Atari at the helm, in this exclusive interview.

After the recent announcement of Shiny Entertainment's acquisition by Foundation 9 Entertainment, things are looking up for the company. With a new license at the ready, the company aims to re-establish itself in the next generation.

Shiny studio head Michael 'Saxs' Persson, a skilled Scandinavian coder turned manager whose background was in the 'demo-scene' of the early 1990s, made key technical contributions to many of Shiny's major games, including Sacrifice, Messiah, Enter The Matrix and The Matrix: Path Of Neo. We spoke to Persson about the deal, the existing IPs (including Earthworm Jim), and the company's future without either Dave Perry or Atari at the helm.

Gamasutra: How did the deal with Foundation 9 come about?

Michael Persson: Atari made it public back in February I believe, that they were going to sell of all their internal studios. So back then we started communicating with a whole range of different publishers and developers and private interests.

Foundation 9 was brought on the table in April, and it was a long courtship back and forth, just to see if it was a good fit. We spent a long time looking at the studio and talking to everybody, and in the end they had a really good project for us, and a really good plan, and I really like Jon (Goldman, F9E CEO), so it was just a really good fit for us, and by far the best option we had, and the title we're working on is awesome.

Michael Persson

GS: Ah, so they actually had a project to propose to you?

MP: Yes!

GS: And how many people are currently at Shiny?

MP: Fifty right now, but we're expecting to reach about 80 in some time. A lot of that is contracting, and temporary employment, but about 80 by Christmas probably.

GS: And will you be moving, or staying where you are?

MP: For now we're staying where we are. I think Jon has mentioned this but they want to make a headquarters for Foundation 9, probably in Irvine, and we would move there, and the collective would move there, so the corporate HQ, the Collective HQ and the Shiny HQ would be in the same area. It just makes more sense, as we can save more costs of running the studio, and it'll make it easier for us to cooperate on technology and what have you.

GS: Were you working on anything as you were leaving?

MP: I'm not sure how much was made public...we went to E3 and showed a couple of titles this year, in very early development on PSP, and we were working on a big title on the side for Atari. But it just didn't fit the product portfolio. They wanted an external studio, they weren't interested in an internal studio, so it was mostly just updating our tech and making sure we could perform well on next-gen platforms.

GS: How's that going?

MP: It's going really well. We're operational on both PS3 and 360, and have started on the Wii. We're still running on PS2 and PSP too, so we're across all current platforms.

GS: Are you concerned at all about the transition from being publisher owned to developer owned?

MP: We're thrilled to be owned by a developer, rather than a publisher, for many reasons – now we can actually run it from the perspective of running a business. If you're publisher owned, you're strictly cost-centric – meaning there's nothing about profit, it's all about keeping costs down. From a business standpoint this is a lot more exciting to us, we actually get to make sure we're running a lean, mean studio.

GS: And if you actually do better, then it does better for you.

MP: Yes, exactly. And you have ways of actually measuring it. Like in a publisher-owned studio, you have no way of measuring if you're contributing to that studio. You can't feel good about anything – all you know is if you might or might not break even, and oftentimes you don't even know that. The other thing is that it gives us the ability to go with different publishers, try different things, and try different genres, without getting pigeonholed into one thing.

GS: I guess you're pretty much starting from scratch project-wise then?

MP: Pretty much from scratch, if not entirely. We do have a lot of existing technology that we're working on, but in terms of design and prototyping and whatnot, yeah, it's from scratch.

GS: Is there anything else you wanted to mention about the deal before we move on? I assume Shiny is keeping its name?

MP: Yes…the only other thing that's important to understand is that this is a completely positive transaction for us. We're really happy to be part of Foundation 9, and I went and met with a lot of the other guys from the studio that I hadn't met yet, and other guys I had met, and everybody's super welcoming, very positive. I just went to Backbone and talked to the Emeryville guys who just finished Death Jr. 2, and it's just a good family to be a part of, it's very creative, and one of the things we're excited about is that F9 is one of the last developers that has the oomph to push an IP through. If you have a good idea, you actually have a good chance of getting it approved. I think they proved that with Death Jr.

Earthworm Jim PSP, as shown at E3 2006

GS: What's happening to Earthworm Jim PSP, since that's still with Atari?

MP: We were working on that, and we're not working on it anymore. But it's really up to Atari to make an announcement about that, I probably can't even make that statement officially, but obviously we're not working on it. But they haven't made an announcement as to what they're going to do with it. We don't's just one of those things.

GS: How do you feel about that?

MP: I think we were on track for something really good. There were some external factors that made it less pleasant, and less likely to succeed, but we would've liked to see it through to the end, for sure. I think we were on the right path, I don't know if you saw the version of it (at E3) but I really liked it. It was oldschool and 2D, and just a slight upgrade to it, but following in the same vein as the original, but on the really cool PSP platform. So it's a shame from our perspective.

GS: A friend of mine did get to see it, and he said it was pretty true to form.

MP: Yeah, I mean the squash and stretch worked really well, and the 3D character...we spent a fair amount of time on that. The backgrounds looked really cool, nice and colorful, the animations were tight, was a good first playable, for sure. But that's how it goes. It's up to Atari, and I'm sure they can find a capable developer to do it.

GS: How did Dave Perry's departure affect the company?

MP: Obviously we still got sold, so it worked ok. I was hired by David, I really like him, and I'm still on great terms with him. He talked to me after the purchase and congratulated me, and was happy that it was in the people's hands that are here. He knows everyone here and there are no ill feelings.

On the other hand, he'd been here a long time, and if you look at what he's doing now, it's not like he's out of ideas. So maybe it was a good time to try something new, and I was more than happy to take over for him. But I don't think it affected us negatively in that sense, we were well set up to run the studio.

GS: It seems more and more these days there's a focus on names of people - Dave Perry's name was known, do you have any desire to foster that sort of thing again? Are you concerned about a current lack of name recognition?

MP: I think it can work both ways, can't it? American McGee's new title that came out, now it's working directly against him that his name is on there. So I don't know if it helps. I don't know, it's really tough to say. I think David did really well in promoting us for sure, but there's something to be said about letting the games speak for themselves.

We're looking forward to focusing on the internal, and the production values, and less glitter, more production, if you know what I mean. We'd much prefer to make them speak for themselves, I'm not going to be the one flying all over the place. I used to speak at GDC about technology, because that's what interested me, and I needed to get a visa! But since then I think we're much more focused on improving our practices internally and trying to make better games. That's the prime motivation for everybody staying put, just being given the change by Foundation 9 to be well capitalized, and make what we want to make, and a really interesting license game up, in our opinion. So that's what we're focused on right now. I don't think there's a need to pitch my name right now, that could perfectly well be handled by somebody else.

GS: You said it's a license, do you think there's original IP in the future again for Shiny?

MP: For sure, yeah. There's no doubt. This was a really good fit for us as a launchpad to get back to a high profile title. After we finished The Matrix, we kind of burned out on The Matrix in general, so we started on some smaller titles, and obviously we didn't complete them. So doing something like this that everybody can gather around and focus on at once is good for the studio, but in the long run we have plenty of ideas and plenty of support from Foundation 9 to start working on prototypes for our own IPs, so that's why I expect that it's going to be 50/50 between licenses and our own IP.

GS: If you can answer this, how are you feeling about the next-gen platforms in terms of ease of use, and who's giving you the most support?

MP: We don't have any issues with any of the two platforms. Obviously 360 has been out for a year now, and PS3 is just coming out, so in that sense Microsoft's support is more mature than Sony's is, but it's a moving platform. That said, we're running on both, and while we're seeing in terms of performance that in some areas one is faster than the other, nothing is really materializing as being hugely different. The PS3 is certainly a beast, but the 360 is good. It's very good. I wouldn't take a particular stance right now. I think the first wave of titles are not going to exploit much of either machine's capabilities, but over time you might see some variation, it's just tough to predict right now.

In terms of what's easier to program for, if you're a PC guy, the 360, obviously. But the PS3, if you use the included software, it's equally easy, really. It's just a matter of how much more power you expect from the machine. That's tough to say right now.

GS: What's the stopping block for the true next gen from a graphics and physics perspective at least? Right now it seems like the surface is being brushed, but there may be more to it.

MP: I think the first wave of titles will be strictly focused on graphics. Strictly a graphical update. I think non-photorealistic rendering is probably the best way to hammer it home, like if you look at Viva Piñata from Rare, it's a really good showcase for what you can do on modern graphics hardware. It's so different, so colorful, and it's so obvious that it's something you couldn't have done in the last generation of platforms that effectively. I think in the future, obviously multithreading is a huge issue for all of us. You're operating with effectively six cores on the 360, and seven SPEs on the PS3, and you've got to use them for something! At some point it would be nice to use them for something!

And right now it's relatively crude, I mean you're separating portions of the engine and throwing them at the different processors, so you're getting some utilization, but they're by no means 100% utilized. But with that parallel processing comes other things. One thing we're really excited about is animation processing, better skinning, cloth simulation, context detection on complex surfaces...stuff that's character-related, that's always been our focus. Everything's just getting updated right now to be more realistic.

GS: How do you feel about the Wii's not graphical but control step forward. Do you feel like that will be limiting?

MP: I think it forces you to rethink how you used to do a multi-SKU project. It certainly forces you to realize you can't get away with just a straight port. And you have to think about can't just count on everyone having the classic controller and just doing a straight on port. That's not really what the Wii's all about. I guess what's so exciting and what's resonated so well with the gaming press and the whole development community, including us is that it's just a really nice rethink. When we played it at E3, playing Mario was as natural as anything.

We would love to do specialized titles for the Wii in the future, if it takes off. It'd be a really fun platform if it's worth it. It's got a really good price point, and if the public reacts as favorably as the development community, it's going to be a huge hit.

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