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Q&A: Totally Games Talks Alien Syndrome Wii, Military Work

Gamasutra chats to Totally Games founder Larry Holland about his company's storied history, from classics like X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter through a current refocusing including work for Sega on Alien Syndrome for Wii and PSP, and a military proj

Alistair Wallis

January 29, 2007

10 Min Read

After forming in 1984 and finding success with the X-Wing series of games for LucasArts in the mid ‘90s and, more recently, Star Trek: Bridge Commander and Secret Weapons Over Normandy, Bay Area-based Totally Games have announced their decision to refocus the company’s development away from flight sims. The first major step in this direction came at the end of 2005, when the company revealed a new partnership with Sega, on a “vintage Sega intellectual property” for PSP, and their developer certification for Wii a few months after that. The game has since been announced as a reinterpretation of 1987 run and gun title Alien Syndrome, with Totally Games founder, president and creative director Larry Holland noting that the new version will be an action RPG, with an emphasis on character development. Last year, Totally Games entered the world of Serious Games alongside Digital Mill, with a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) development designed to simulate the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. This also saw Holland joining a panel of speakers at the Serious Games Summit to discuss game design and technology within the defense-intelligence space. Additionally, the company have hired Erick Wujcik as senior creative lead. Wujcik is best known for his work as lead designer on Return to Krondor, though has more recently been employed as Game Design Studio Manager for Ubisoft China. We spoke to Holland about the developments within the company, his take on Alien Syndrome, and where these changes will take the company in the future. When was Totally Games founded, and what titles have you previously released? Totally Games was originally founded in 1984 under the name Micro Imagery. After a series of products, starting with Project Space Station, then PHM Pegasus and a trilogy of WWII titles, we undertook what became the X-Wing series. In the middle of developing that series, we incorporated under the new name, Totally Games. We then developed Star Trek: Bridge Commander for Activision and Secret Weapons Over Normandy for LucasArts. We’ve done several innovative non-retail games as well, including a number of one-of-kind games for the Advanced Projects division of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts Online and a Serious Game design project for DARPA. When did you decide to move the focus of the company away from flight sims? In the years leading up to 2003, we realized that air combat and space sims were on a long, slow decline with their market share falling after many decades of strong sales. And despite our fervent efforts and wishes to the contrary by 2004 this category of games could no longer by itself sustain our studio. So after two decades of making simulations in futuristic space settings and in various historical theatres, we decided to move away from that focus and to look new challenges. Were you working under an exclusivity agreement with LucasArts during the '90s, or was it simply a good relationship? We had a very productive relationship with LucasArts that lasted over 15 years. While I was never an employee of LucasArts or LucasFilm Games nor was there an exclusive relationship arrangement, we worked very closely together. In fact Totally Games was so focused and successful in delivering its brand of totally involving games for them, that there was no bandwidth to expand to other opportunities. Looking back, I think we had a fantastic run together. I have very fond memories of working on so many great products and partnering with so many great people. What is the current status of your relationship with LucasArts, and do you see yourself working with the company again? We have strong relationships inside LucasArts and we continue to look for ways to create a mutually beneficial opportunity. Given the success we’ve had working together, we’re hopeful that we can find that perfect project to collaborate on. Why did you decide to work with Activision? As you know, we had a lengthy stint on Star Wars games throughout most of the 90s. Toward the later part of that decade we wanted to try something a bit different in terms of gameplay but still had its roots in science fiction. Activision had just signed a multi-title deal with Paramount and was looking for a top development studio to make the quintessential Star Trek game, one that would capture the essence of the shows and the movies with a combination of accuracy and fun that hadn’t been previously done. That challenge seemed right up our alley. When and how did you begin working with Sega? Totally Games has connections with many game companies. We’d been talking to Sega for several years looking for opportunities to broaden our scope beyond air combat sims. Their rich back catalog of gaming classics was especially enticing to us. Those conversations came to ultimate fruition when Simon Jeffery joined Sega as we had enjoyed a strong working relationship with him during his tenure at LucasArts. Why did Sega approach you with Alien Syndrome, and how did you feel when first offered the game? Actually, we approached Sega with the idea of developing Alien Syndrome for the PSP and the Wii. We saw a super opportunity to adapt this classic action game into an action RPG one on a platform with very limited offerings in that genre. Many on our staff had a passion for the original game, and wouldn’t let go of the idea of a remake. How has updating the game been approached, and what can gamers expect from the title? Alien Syndrome was originally released by Sega during the 1980s. It was an innovative and exciting arcade game for its time. The game had a solid foundation of imaginative visuals and fast paced run and gun gameplay, but we wanted to completely modernize it to meet the demands of the modern gaming audience. So we decided to combine its core sci-fi universe with action RPG style gameplay. The gameplay of this new version definitely places emphasis on the action component of the ARPG genre by requiring the player to refine his skill with range and melee weaponry in order to progress through the game. In addition there is plenty of loot to collect, weapons to upgrade, character skills and proficiencies to balance and an inventory to manage. The game takes place far in the future and there is a bunch of nasty aliens on the loose. And of course, humanity is once again faced with the deadly threat of the Alien Syndrome, but we've chosen to focus the story of the game on the personal struggles of our main protagonist, Aileen Harding, as she deals with the growing menace and her role in trying to thwart it. What adds depth to her character is that she has an intriguing history that slowly gets revealed as the game progresses. By having the player play a specific character and focusing the story of her personal inner struggle, we avoid the detached, faceless hero common to most other action RPGs. In summary, the game is all new, with new characters, weapons, environments, gameplay and a new story. Therefore this version of Alien Syndrome is not a simple graphics upgrade but a complete re-design from the ground. The result is an intense, ranged-combat oriented game with lots of strange and horrific aliens threatening to tear the player from limb to limb. When was the decision made to develop the game for the Wii as well as the PSP? Just about as soon as we saw how cool the Wii was and what fun we could have creating the title, we started envisioning the fun players would have with it! How different are the two versions of the game? Are they being developed separately? The Wii version of Alien Syndrome is packed with a lot of extras and upgrades. First and foremost are the special mini-games that uniquely use the controller and allow the player to advance his character and to craft special items. There are also numerous graphics upgrades as well as special moves and an enhanced interface system that is totally kick-ass for this style of game. Despite their differences they share much and the development of these two versions is running concurrently. What do you feel is exciting about the Wii, and how do you feel the console can aid in creating involving games? Clearly its unique interface system is the most intriguing since it allows for wholly new game concepts, ones that allow players to be very physically involved with their gaming experience, albeit in a very natural and intuitive way. Kudos to Nintendo for taking the risk and daring to be different! Do you hope to see the company working with the console again after this title? Absolutely, we already have a number of killer ideas that wii, I mean we, are designing and plan on developing. What was behind the decision to hire Erick Wujcik, and what do you feel he brings to the company? What will he be working on? We’re having Erick focus on the future, and spearhead our R&D efforts with the creation of innovative ideas for new projects. It’s a great opportunity for Erick to flex his design muscles and to utilize his depth and breadth in RPG and games in general to help us both build on our recent new directions as well as branch out into other areas. Also we expect him to allow us to expand our game design consulting services, both domestically and abroad where the technical capabilities are strong but game design expertise is more wanting. Erick will be keeping an eye on the trends in games and at the same he will be taking concepts coming from inside TG and turning them into pitch presentations to help us be in a position to keep moving forward on R&D while we stay completely focused on the products that are already in development. Why did you decide to work on the serious games project with DARPA and Digital Mill? The DARPA project was an example of being able to apply our best thinking and skills for a real world application. Our primary focus will always be entertainment, but being able to translate our skills for a non-entertainment purpose allows us to flex our design muscles in a new way. There’s plenty of cross-pollination that can happen, doing these projects sometimes pushes us to innovate in new ways, which then comes back to our games. What did the project involve, and how did you approach it differently to the way you would approach one of your more mainstream games? The goal of this project was to design a robust, extensible test bed for simulating the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in a variety of futuristic combat environments and missions. These Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs of the future are to be controlled by remote operators possible thousands of miles away from the action. DARPA hired us because we were experienced games designers and they wanted to hear our out of the box thinking to solve the interface problem of controlling many UAVs simultaneously. We approached the project like any other of our past complex simulations, except this time we were able to push the envelope with our ideas and to solely design for an expert user. Do you see the company moving into serious games development on a more regular basis? It’s very possible. Again, we don’t want to completely derail our focus on the computer and video game marketplace we’ve traditionally participated in, but we do want to gain expertise in new design opportunities that enrich our overall game approach as well as to serve a greater purpose in the “real world”. What other plans do you have for Totally Games for the future? Along with helping our publishing partners develop titles for their IP, we are working on several new IP directions on our own. We love working in the action RPG arena and have our eye on developing more games in this space for the foreseeable future. We’re also working our way toward developing on virtually every platform. We are also hatching ideas in new directions outside of ARPG so there is plenty of diversity in our future. Innovative advergaming projects such as the work we’ve done with Disney, and some Serious Games mixed in, that pretty much tells you, in general terms, where we are headed.

About the Author(s)

Alistair Wallis


Alistair Wallis is an Australian based freelance journalist, and games industry enthusiast. He is a regular contributor to Gamasutra.

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