North Carolina studio Vicious Cycle recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, soon after shipping its Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network game, Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond -- a game designed, coincidentally, to re-imagine retro gameplay.
The company was founded by Eric Peterson, its current president and CEO, and Wayne Harvey, vice president and CTO, after a stint at MicroProse cut short when the company was sold to Infogrames. Vicious Cycle's debut title was the unexpected anime-licensed Robotech: Battlecry, a sleeper hit for the original Xbox and PlayStation 2.
In the years since that game's release, Vicious Cycle entered the world of original IP (with titles like Dead Head Fred, an original but somewhat overlooked game) and began to license its own Vicious Engine (now in its second major iteration, with support for current-gen console platforms) and was acquired by D3 Publisher, which is, itself, part of the Bandai Namco group of companies.
To reflect on this history -- and how the company and the industry has changed over the past 10 years -- Gamasutra spoke with Peterson and Harvey about where they've been, where they are, and where they will be going.
So you've been there for the whole long ride. What was the first game that you made?
Eric Peterson: Well, actually Wayne and I started working together at MicroProse initially, and our first game together was X-COM Interceptor; it was a flight sim with the X-COM license. We worked a few years on that, and we started expanding that studio and working on a couple new projects that never saw the light of day, unfortunately. We did do Civ Multiplayer Gold and an X-COM -- I think it was a Gold edition as well.
By then, Hasbro had bought MicroProse, and we were working on some unannounced titles that Hasbro had licenses for, as well as a game called X-COM Genesis, which was going to be a 3D version of the original X-COM game -- I mean, not exactly, but the point was that it was going back to its roots.
And then when we were in the middle of production of all that, we lost our jobs; the whole studio got shut down because Hasbro was selling off to... I guess it was Infogrames at the time, and they had to reduce the studios; we were one of I guess three others or whatever that got let go.
So the only one that was left was the Hunt Valley MicroProse studio, and they were sold to Infogrames. At that point, we started our company. The first game that we started here, at Vicious, was an unannounced title that was actually a superhero title that we started, and we went from one problem to another.
We were working with Mattel Interactive at the time, who was, suddenly after we signed our deal with them, starting to go through a lot of issues with the whole Learning Company debacle, and we were roped up in that; and making a brand new IP that nobody ever heard of about a bunch of superheroes was pretty risky.
Luckily, we had people that were looking out for us at Mattel and didn't want our new contract for our new company to just evaporate and then us to evaporate. They had the Robotech license, and the Robotech license ended up being what we switched to, just so that we were hooked to a licensed property and then they could sell off the contract to another publisher; we would go with it.
So we spent the next six or so months just getting Robotech up to speed before building a demo before it had to be shown to another publisher for purchase. That's where we kept on going and shipped Robotech Battlecry.
I actually reviewed that, way back in my old career of reviewing games. I really liked it at the time.
EP: We did too! We thought it was a pretty good game. It did very well overall in reviews, and the sales were very good; it was a great first game for our company.
Wayne Harvey: It was an excellent experience altogether, and it was our first chance working on consoles because we were previously a PC developer; so we had never worked on PS2, Xbox, or Gamecube at the time. It was all new to us, and we pretty much had to get that game done in like 14 months.
I remember at the time thinking that it was a new thing for Western PC-heritage developers to be making console games, but, look at the industry now. That's pretty much the way things are.
WH: That was back before licensing really took off, so we built the engine and all the technology for that game ourselves.
EP: Everything was from scratch; we had nothing, really. But some money from the publisher bought some machines, and we got the studio set up and then spent the time making the tech so we could just get art in the game -- get things going, get the gameplay in the product.
Sounds like it was a very, very different way of working and a very different time in the industry compared to the kind of situation you guys have now.
EP: Yeah, I definitely think it was a little bit more raw, and in many ways that was a better experience than it is even now, because you get into a formula of how you do things; and a lot of times you're not coming at it with necessarily -- that's not to say that you're not coming at it with as much gusto or enthusiasm as you might have had, but, when you first start a company, there's a whole sense of passion that you just can't replicate after you've done it once. That feeling eventually goes away because now you're an existing --
WH: You're rinse, wash, and repeat on multiple titles, but you're not going to beat that first title.
EP: Yeah. It's definitely something that you cherish because it's hard to get a whole group of people to be so excited about something for the first time ever and to actually get it done, and ship it, and get the results that we had. It's hard to make lightning strike multiple times.
WH: Also, both Eric and I were deep in the trenches on that title. Nowadays, we are involved; we keep our hands in the cookie jar, so to speak, but back then we were --
EP: We were really doing the work, too. We were part of the team; not just administrators.
Talking to people who found studios and get to a certain point in their careers, you sometimes hear a little tinge of regret from developers who get into management The success is great, but you guys sound like you guys have sort of a similar perspective: you look back very fondly at the times when you were actually really doing the development work. Is that a fair assessment?
EP: Yeah, I think so. Unfortunately, it makes us sound like dinosaurs, but... Like, "Oh, these guys don't do work anymore," or "They're out of touch," or "They don't have the passion anymore for games" -- which is totally not true! We do -- it's just that we have all these extra responsibilities that unfortunately take up our time and move us a little bit further away from everyday development.
I would love for the opportunity to go back and continue to do that kind of work, and have that kind of input on a day-to-day basis because it's a lot more fun. It's who I am; it's why we got into the industry. It's what made us excited about being gamers and game developers.
When you start doing something that is a little bit more out of your spectrum of comfortability, and you're doing politicking and networking and administrative type stuff -- I'm doing legal work now, and things like that, I honestly never thought I would do.
I was an artist, and Wayne was a programmer; we got our hands dirty, and we were grease monkeys back then when it came to what we did with the game. Now, we just sit there and review it at different stages, and we have our input and say what we think is right or wrong; but we're not jumping in, getting our hands dirty. So that's kind of the big change for us.
WH: Yeah, it's weird. It's kind of like eight hours of work a day seems like a lot longer time than 12 hours of work did back then.
EP: Twelve? I mean, even 16! When we did overnighters and everything for Robotech, we used to sleep on the floor at the office; and honestly none of us really minded because it was so exciting. It was like, "Wow, this is great! We're making a game, and we're doing it on our own. We're out of the big, corporate element, the evil empire," type talk. You're thinking that you've gone rogue, and you're doing all this by yourself -- and you are!
But, again, later in life, where we are today, you're back under the corporate wing, and things are done differently. They can't be that way anymore. You have a different set of expectations and different goals. We're not, obviously, shopping for deals on the open market like we did when we were independent, so now we work on what we get and sign with the D3 Group, which is now owned by Namco as well. It just kind of got bigger and bigger; we went from being a very small independent to a larger independent to being purchased.
What year did you guys originally get together with D3?
EP: Well, we worked with them, again, as a developer-publisher relationship...
WH: We started in 2006, maybe?
EP: What was the first one we did -- was that Flushed?
WH: Yeah, Flushed Away.
EP: I guess we worked on the Flushed Away DreamWorks game initially. We were working with other publishers like Konami -- and of course we already mentioned Mattel at the time -- and that turned into TDK Mediactive...
WH: ...and Namco.
EP: Namco, yeah; even Take-2, and everybody. We were working on two things, actually: we were working on Dead Head Fred -- we got that placed with D3 in a similar time frame that we were working on Flushed Away, which was a DreamWorks movie-licensed game. We were doing a new IP, and we were doing a kids' title, a family title.
EP: We were acquired in June, 2007; I would say we worked at least two years with D3 before that.
When I first saw Dead Head Fred, I remember being really impressed because it was a very high-polished PSP game, which was -- is still -- a kind of a rare thing. The PSP market is obviously very different than it was when that game was in the works, but...
EP: Well, it was even different when we ended up shipping it because the market completely changed on us while we were in development, and really affected everything in the end.
Here, we thought that PSP was going to be this kind of an older audience handheld; something that was a little bit more savvy and slick and sexy, definitely geared towards the mature audience, and that's why we made Fred more of a mature game.
Of course, over the time of development things change; the landscape changed out there. One thing led to another: the game came out, and suddenly it seemed like the PSP was a little bit aged down -- the kind of games that people wanted to play.
WH: A fun experience, though, just getting to work on it.
There was a contrast to what was happening on the PSP at the time, which certainly was good for notice -- I don't know how you guys feel about the situation, but...
EP: Well, I feel bad that it didn't do as well as we wanted it to sales-wise, and it felt like not enough people got to experience that it was a good game because it just wasn't purchased. We got swept under the rug a little bit by the timing because we came out against Monster Hunter, and that was a very big game. A lot of people loved imports, and they wanted to play that game. It was a hot title.
Dead Head Fred
You talked about how, with Robotech, you had to roll your own tech; it was before tech licensing. But now you guys are a tech licenser. Was there a direct correlation between that -- you guys having a basis when you founded the studio, developing your own tech, and ending up licensing tech?
EP: I don't think there was any thought when we first started that we were going to ever do that -- and you could tell that if you were here and a programmer -- because the kind of tech we had on Robotech was really a slapped-together type experience.
We were moving as fast as we could, trying to get everything up and running; we had an editor and everything, but it surely wasn't as robust as what we have today, and it wasn't as streamlined, as compact, or data-driven.
WH: It had some data-driven features, but programmers were still typing in gameplay features.
EP: But what came out of that experience was the fact that we wanted to have changes in order to make things a little bit more data-driven to the point where we could enhance things in the engine but still be using all the tools and tech that would reside from game to game to game. I think that mentality and that shift is what eventually led us to the point of setting up the tech for somebody else.
WH: Yeah, there were a couple projects right after Battlecry that were started that really had a long lag period in the beginning, when we were trying to prep tech going from one game to the next, so a big-time goal of ours was to reformulate the technology so that we didn't have to do that anymore, and we succeeded.
And eventually that led into the licensing venue in 2005, when we were just trying to think of some interesting things to do with all the effort we had put into it.
EP: The licensing also came to be because of our PSP engine that we were developing for Fred. We did all that because PSP emerged, and we were like, "Wow; this is our chance to get into this handheld. It's so slick!"
Nobody was really doing tech for the PSP; everybody was so focused on everything else. So it was a perfect opportunity for us to kind of jump into that as a forerunner and say "We're going to do this tech, and we're going to sell for this," because we really thought that PSP was gonna boom.
Even though it did in some ways, and didn't in other ways, our whole purpose of being on the system and selling the tech for that reason had to start changing as well. We started covering other systems, and we eventually included every system under the hood, except for the Nintendo DS. So we had to kind of expand our thoughts a little bit and not just have the engine be for the PSP but for everything.
You said your tech originally kind of evolved out of the work you'd been doing for Dead Head Fred and your interest in getting into the PSP. When did you start developing the engine, and when did you start licensing it?
WH: We started developing it in 2002, I believe, and we actually put out our first press release sometime around July of 2005, saying that we were in fact entering the licensing market.
And last year you shipped support for the current-gen console platforms.
EP: We showed a demo last year behind closed doors; it was very Unreal quality-ish. We had a lot of the same things; we were showing off a lot of the same features.
We're very proud of the demo we did last year. It really got a lot of people excited about Vicious Engine 2, but the economy obviously has completely changed the need for a lot of third-party engines at this time because there's less product being made.
WH: We released Matt Hazard: Blood Bath as well, just recently --
EP: Yeah, just in January.
WH: I feel like that really showcases the tech very well.
You guys are sort of unique in the sense that you're part of a larger organization like a publisher, but you do tech licensing and you still do game development. It seems like you're pretty much the only people in that position, that do that and are part of a publishing organization.
WH: Right. Well, when D3 came in, they promised us that they wanted to maintain our culture, and they've kept that promise. They've let us maintain control of Vicious Cycle as it was for the most part -- sure, they've introduced a lot of new accounting principles that we'd had no idea about previously, and they're not that fun to do, but we still get to manage the studio like we did before.
It really has been easy to maintain that level of confidentiality between our clients' Vicious Engine and our parent company. They're not interested in breaking that line, in other words.
Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard
About how many people are at Vicious right now?
EP: How many people? We're about sixty.
How has your staffing been over the years? When you started, how many people did you have?
EP: When we first started the company in 2000 we were 12 people. Then we went up to about 40 by 2003, and then shrunk back down due to budget issues and went back down to more like 16, and then we rebounded back to 60. We've probably been as high as 64 at any given time, but we're holding at 60 right now.
WH: We went through a time early-on when we experienced a lot of turnover, and that really caused Eric and me to just look at how things were being run around here. We made some changes, and since, I'd say, 2005, we've experienced extremely low turnover; it's a very rewarding feeling for me, personally.
Something that I find interesting about the company is that I feel like the personality and the humor has been certainly consistent -- at least since Dead Head Fred. There's a certain satirical bent to the humor, a certain mature and sarcastic tone. Can you put that down to anything specifically?
EP: Sure, I can. We rehired a designer that was originally with our studio when we formed the company and who was also a designer at MicroProse, and that's Dave Ellis.
Dave Ellis came back to the company after Wayne and I made some changes and were reworking the company as far as how we wanted it to be, moving it into its second five-year term, if you will. The first thing that we did was we hired Dave back.
Dave actually was working on the design for another game at the time, so he wasn't working as the designer on Fred, but we needed the story written. He was a very good writer and is a very good writer, and so he penned the entire story.
It pretty much kicked off a new wave of products for us, which, as you said, are kind of like satirical black comedies or dark humor type things, which was very risky at the time; but so was Fred in general. I mean, Fred was a risky IP to do. But we figured we wanted this film noir kind of dark humor product even though not a lot of people had succeeded in that realm of the industry.
For me, I always wanted to make a product that was always very reminiscent of a Schafer title; I was a big Grim Fandango fan, and I loved the early stuff. A lot of that was, of course, story-driven.
We wanted Fred to kind of have a similar feel to it, and Dave was able to give that to the product. Long story short, we just kind of kept on holding onto that point and reiterating on it with Matt Hazard and Blood Bath and Beyond.
I thought the whole Matt Hazard universe was really interesting. I really enjoyed the concept of the parody of old game culture that came through when the first game came out in terms of the marketing and pretending that there had been a Matt Hazard series -- stuff like Commander Keen, I guess, was sort of the inspiration.
EP: Yeah, it was very fun to create an entire fictional backstory to a catalog that just never was, and that was, again, something that Dave really enjoyed. It was something that he came up with and wanted to do, and it was his idea to do this Matt Hazard character; everybody kind of grasped on it as soon as he said it, and nobody wanted to let go. "This is a great idea -- let's go ahead and do this."
So the fictional stuff in the backstory was really funny, and then marketing at D3 and PR at D3 -- they really enjoyed it, too, and got into the fun of it and started doing things like... They had a company actually make an old 2D Flash game that of course never existed, but you could play it online; they put up the old website and made it look like it had been there since the early days of the internet with all the broken links and pictures that weren't there anymore but had the little X symbol and doesn't-load image kind of thing.
All that little stuff, all those little touches kind of made it feel like it really was. And there were even people reading about it, going, "I never heard about this! How are all these games out there...?"
Some people bought it, and of course other people in the press that were reporting on it would tell the truth of what it was and not necessarily play along with the fake lore.
But nonetheless, I think the whole point of it was that it resonated with gamers that would read about it, and they kind of played along with it -- I mean, they're still playing along with it. Even with Blood Bath and Beyond's release, people still go, "I never heard of these games before! They say this was a franchise."
And of course people will comment and say, "Well, that's the joke; that's the point." Then people will also chime in and say, "Yeah, I remember playing such-and-such game" -- they'd even make up their own game. We even did some competition for people to come up with their own fake games... It was definitely trying to get everybody into the spirit of it.
Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond
I guess we're talking about the whole 10 years here, starting with your first commercial product, Robotech: Battlecry, through Blood Bath and Beyond, which just released. What's the future hold?
EP: Ah, you know, we always ask ourselves the same question. I would say it's more of the same.
EP: It's been 10 years, and I'll say this: We're not like a lot of other studios on the market. We are a studio that ships a lot of titles that range from small, niche products and puzzle-type games like Puzzle Quest and Marvel Trading Card Game -- those kinds of things are extremely niche, but one turned out to be casual, which was good -- and then moving that through kid and family titles like Dora the Explorer, Curious George, Flushed Away, and Ben 10 -- we're working on another movie title right now.
That part came out mid-way through our 10 years as well; we created this family-friendly brand with Monkey Bar Games, which is part of our Vicious Cycle stuff.
And then, of course, Vicious kept on doing Robotech-type games and Dead Head Fred-type games and Matt Hazard-type games, a little more in what adults would play. We feel the formula works. We definitely have a place in the license arena; we've worked with a lot of different licensors: movies, TV shows -- obviously, shows that aren't even on the air, like Robotech, anymore -- and card games, and everything.
We've had our variety over the years, and, again, we've shipped about a title every time we've been around for every year, so I think we've had about 10 or so titles, whereas other people might have had two in that same period. So, like I said, we're not exactly like everybody else in that regard.
You know, some people might say that's good; some people might say that's bad. Either way, we've made a business out of it, and that's kept us around and given us stability. So I think we'll keep on doing that, is my point; we'll keep on working with the Hollywood licensors -- that's definitely where D3's business is, as well.
If we get our chance here and there to pop in another Matt Hazard game or go in another direction on something new, we'll take that opportunity when we get it. And the engine isn't going anywhere, so we're still selling it, as well. It's been pretty consistent.
You give me the sense that not a lot of studios actually do stick around for 10 years.
EP: Well, you know, back when we were in the industry, in the sense of when we first started in this company in the game industry, and even when we were employees of another company previously, the stats on people lasting as an employee in the industry was very, very small. If you had like two or three years in the industry, you were a veteran. There was a time there when people burn out so fast they would just disappear.
WH: It'd just chew you up and spit you out.
EP: Yeah, it was brutal, and the stats were really low. I think they've definitely increased over the years because of the quality of life and of how companies treat employees now compared to 15 years ago has gotten better -- I'm not saying they've completely eliminated the stresses of the industry by any means, but I don't think that we chew up potential candidates as much as we used to as an industry.
I think this is more of a job now; it's not a hobby. Back when it was a hobby, a lot of people had that passion that makes you work a lot of hours; and everybody did it, so you felt like you had to do it. When you did those things -- and the planning wasn't as good back then -- and you felt like you could just keep going and going until the game was done, a lot of people just quit.
I think the industry definitely has changed in the last 15 years in that regard. Companies are bigger; they're more stable; there's more of them. Now we have things like educational programs that people can actually get into and get a game degree -- that was never even heard of back then.
WH: Without your people, the company is nothing; and I think we can certainly attribute a lot of our 10 years to the people we've hired over the years and their contribution.
EP: There are still people who were here in the very first hiring wave, so we haven't lost a lot of our veterans. A lot of good people still work here that worked here back when we worked on Battlecry.