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Q&A: Atomic Robot Talks Start-Up, Racing Game IP

In this exclusive interview, Gamasutra talks to Vancounver-based Atomic Robot co-founders Chris Davis, Tristan Grimmer, and Ken Thurston on subjects including agile programming, the Wii, console downloadable games, and more, also revealing a new racing ga
Gamasutra had a chance to chat with the principals behind the recently formed Vancouver-based Atomic Robot Studios, established by industry veterans from Electronic Arts and Black Box Games. The company's development staff has worked on a number of high profile titles, including multiple releases in Electronic Arts' Need For Speed franchise, Sega Soccer Slam, NASCAR 2001 and 2002, and EA's upcoming skateboarding title Skate. So far, it's simply been confirmed that Atomic Robot Games will focus on developing games for the handheld and console market - so we quizzed co-founders Chris Davis, Tristan Grimmer, and Ken Thurston on subjects including agile programming, the Wii, console downloadable games, and more. Can you give us some background on yourself, as well as how you all landed in your current positions at Atomic Robot Games? Chris Davis: I was acting CEO of a small local developer here in Vancouver when I met Ken Thurston (creative director) at a mutual friend’s studio launch party. Being like-minded on both a production and business level we had a lot to talk about. Ken invited me to join Atomic Robot as COO a few months later. Tristan Grimmer: Well, I've been on the technical side of game development for a long time now. I suppose since '95 professionally, but longer if you consider the time spent as a kid programming on machines like the ZX81. The two longest (and enjoyable) appointments were at Radical Entertainment and subsequently Black Box Games. The latter is where I met Ken and gained a new respect for having a talented art team. I look forward to what can be accomplished under the new Atomic umbrella. Ken Thurston: As Tristan said, we worked closely together in the Black Box days and it was just time for us to venture out on our own and start a studio. We met Chris right in the beginning stages and really hit it off; it’s been an exciting ride. And how is Atomic Robot set up? CD: In fact we are in the process this month of moving to a more central location closer to Vancouver's downtown core. The commute to Richmond is killing us; what with all the construction for the 2010 Olympics. Our goal is to have a space with a full arcade room. Ken has nearly every home system ever created and a HUGE library of video games for each system. We're also planning on having an art room where the staff can really let their creative juice’s flow (sculpting, life drawing, etc). Is agile development something that your studio is interested in? TG: Ah, religious debate time. Yes, there are aspects of agile software development that make sense; however making games is not just an exercise in software engineering; there is the interaction with the content development team (modelers, sound engineers, texture artists, etc). It is that interaction that is a primary concern at Atomic. How can they be given the right tools to quickly iterate their art through the game pipeline. Additionally, one of agile's tenets is frequently delivered working software. At least with non-downloadable efforts, game products go alpha, beta, and final... not release. Once the discs are burned there's no going back. The standard QA testing starting at alpha seems like a pretty good idea to me. Additionally, progress should also take the art into account. Other ideas are more relevant to game production. The idea of iterations in time-frames of weeks is reasonable. So your studio makes the proclamation of offering “the very best in creative art, technical experience, and innovative design for today's gaming market.” That's a pretty bold statement. How do you plan to back it up? KT: Basically from the 30+ years in the business that we have as a group. We’ve been through all stages of development on some really solid titles and know what works and what doesn’t. Atomic works from gameplay first and moves from there, that coupled with our in-house technology sets the stage for some awesome games. TG: We have created our own in-house tools and engine that allows us to have full control over production. Features like live-tuning and integration into DCC applications allow fast iteration times. Our tools are largely determined by our creative team – they are the ones that know where the process needs improvement. Given your experience, what lessons has your team learned that best positions Atomic Robot to make an impact in the independent market? KT: Well, we've seen a lot of platforms come and go and we have a lot of old school tricks that can be applied to the current generation of platforms. We've also seen a lot of wasted resources over the years. Managing huge teams is part of the problem; productivity doesn't increase in proportion to team size. There are definite benefits to a small and efficient team, and that's what we want to be. Can you speak to how your studio plans to “push the boundaries of what the industry thinks of as standard?” Specifically, what is it about the standard that needs to be pushed? KT: The standard, to some extent, is becoming large development teams with large budgets making content-rich and gameplay poor titles. There needs to be more of a balance; there is a lot of interesting stuff going on with smaller platforms and delivery methods like Home and Live Arcade. At the core, ideas are what push boundaries and that is really what Atomic Robot is all about. As a studio, are you looking to differentiate yourselves from these sorts of games, or will you play to your strengths and try to introduce new twists on established genres? CD: Being a start-up we need to responsibly balance our desires to develop what we would like to be working on with what makes sense from a business perspective. We will absolutely play to our strengths in the racing genre, and branch out from there into action adventure. Can you talk in general terms what sorts of game or games you are working on currently? CD: Unfortunately we can’t, but we are naturally into the racing genre. We have an internal race IP that we would love to see in the handheld or downloadable space. It’s a very cool and new concept that will really get everyone excited. Over the next few projects we would also be very interested in working in the action adventure genre. Hopefully that will become a reality for us. Can you talk about when you expect to announce your first title? CD: Again, we can’t comment just yet on that. So are you chiefly looking to establish new IP, or are you looking to court existing brands? CD: We will be looking at both. It’s the dream of any independent developer to establish their own IP, however, as a new studio we need to first establish trust with our publishers. We do have an internal IP that we hope to see on the downloadable/handheld market. Do you find that it's more or less difficult to develop for one of these markets over the other? TG: Certainly developing for a console is a bigger deal than for handhelds. Team sizes, budget, risk, and time-frame are all larger. I wouldn't say it's necessarily more difficult to develop for one over the other, but the project scope is different. Handhelds are more often "pick-up-and-play". A nice playground for a start-up. This is one of the reasons that the downloadable market is appealing; smaller in scope yet still allowing exposure to console hardware. KT: Having said that we have experience developing for multiple platforms simultaneously! I have worked on NBA Live for four different platforms: the SNES, Genesis, PlayStation, and PC. Back then all four platforms were completely different from each other. So for us, a platform is a platform…we can make it work. Speaking of platforms, do you plan on supporting the Wii in the near or long term? Do you find that some experiences are only possible on Nintendo's console? CD: Yes. Near. Yes. KT: There are most definitely some experiences that are only possible on Wii. Unless Microsoft or Sony creates a controller that emulates Nintendo’s, there will be certain games that are only possible on Wii. It’s a great thing to stand out from the rest, and Nintendo has done it with style! You mentioned interest in the downloadable market. Is Atomic Robot looking to develop for Live Arcade or the PlayStation Network? TG: Yes. We’d very much like to do something for XBLA or PSN. It’s a great way to work on next-gen consoles with reasonably-sized development teams. Having experience with big teams on consoles, we think we can up the bar in this market with a much smaller team. Finally, can you speak to whether your studio will look to focus on platform exclusives in order to best exploit the advantages of each platform on the market, or will you look to multi-platform efforts to maximize profitability? TG: Platform exclusive makes sense for initial projects. Multi-platform in the medium and long term does more than just maximize profitability; it also forces the technology and tools to evolve in a scalable way, it forces you to be careful about how you organize and share tools and art between platforms. Overall it depends on the title and publisher needs. I do believe that multi-platform efforts are best done in tandem, rather than one lead platform followed by ports to the others. KT: Absolutely, it’s a very exciting space to play in, especially with IP!

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