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Q&A: EA Vets Taking Aim At Next-Gen At Sniper Studios

In this exclusive Q&A, we talk to Sniper Studio co-founder and general manager Jeff Hasson about the developer's new partnership with Sega to develop the first portable multiplayer Crazy Taxi for PSP, how to properly shrink a console game to handhe
In January of this year, a number of EA veterans having come from work on a number of notable titles including James Bond 007, Oddworld, and Knockout Kings announced the formation of Sniper Studios, promising to stay, in keeping with its name, "on target... with deadly accuracy in relation to the development process and final product." The studio's first project was announced soon afterward, a partnership with Sega for the PSP's Crazy Taxi: Fare Wars, combining the original arcade and Dreamcast-exclusive maps from the original Crazy Taxi and the Small Apple maps from Crazy Taxi 2, and introducing multiplayer gameplay, with two players attempting to steal passengers from their rival cabbie by bumping the opponent's car. To learn more about the new studio and the game, we talked to Sniper co-founder Jeff Hasson. Could you introduce yourself and give us a bit of your background and how you landed at Sniper? Jeff Hasson: I’m one of the co-founders and general manager of Sniper Studios. I’m also the executive producer on our current game, Crazy Taxi: Fare Wars. I’ve been in the game industry since 1993; I started as a game tester and steadily moved up into production. How is your team and studio setup? JH: Sniper is comprised of a highly experienced team of development and production talent -- both internally and externally via outsourcing and partnerships. The team is currently 13 people strong with a wide range of past experiences, having worked on some of the industry’s most successful and well regarded properties. Collectively, the gang at Sniper Studios has worked on an incredible number of projects. A brief look at the team’s history and franchises speak volumes: SOCOM, Madden Football, James Bond, Halo, The Simpsons, NCAA Football, March Madness, Battlefield, Knockout Kings, Oddworld, Batman, Star Wars Battlefront, to name a few, and now we can add SEGA’s classic Crazy Taxi to the list. What is unique about Sniper Studios on/off shore business model? JH: There are two growing issues in the game industry: As the scope of games continues to increase, the cost associated with building product continues to also increase exponentially. The other issue is the availability of development resources. For some publishers and developers, “outsourcing” is a dirty word, but every publisher will admit it is something they are exploring to some capacity. Yet there is a very legitimate fear of placing big dollars and precious franchises in the hands of teams thousands of miles away. The team members at Sniper have designed games overseas for a long time with great results. Sniper has assisted building games in Canada, Australia, Hungary, Sweden, England and other countries. When this experience is leveraged with a team overseas, it becomes a great insurance policy for a publisher and allows many more development options. Whether a publisher is in need of domestic or international resources, we can offer services both locally and overseas depending on their needs. Does Sniper practice any agile development or iterate on gameplay mechanics before implementing them, or is the team small and agile enough already without having to implement specific techniques? JH: Sniper adheres to traditional production methods. However, we feel that we are versatile enough to be able to accept changes or adapt during production. Game development is both an art and cut-and-dried science. We have milestones and each game needs to be finished on time and on budget, but certain aspects of developing a game don’t always jive with that schedule; we adjust accordingly. You've already announced that you've become a licensed 360 developer, what's the studio's take on the other next-gen platforms? Is Sniper interested in PS3 or Wii development? JH: Sniper has experience developing across all major platforms and the team looks forward to making announcements about new development projects in the future. Every platform is of significant interest to Sniper. This includes potential projects on PS3 or the Wii. With your first title, Crazy Taxi: Fare Wars, Sniper is developing for the PSP. Was this the team's first experience in developing for Sony's handheld? JH: Yes, this is the team’s first stab at PSP. Some elements feel very familiar. We are used to Sony Standards and the Sony development environment. Also, we have worked on handheld titles before which also brings in unique design challenges. Is there anything you do not like about developing for the PSP? What do you like about the platform? JH: On the plus side, Sony is a well oiled machine. Their tools are rock solid and the support from Sony as well as the forums are very helpful. The machine is powerful for a handheld, which allows us to do much more in terms of rendering and gameplay. On the downside, the UMD is a cool new media, but getting access and load times down to a minimum is difficult. If it wasn’t for the fact that it’s portable, it’s really not much less powerful than a PS2. However, there are a few other challenges inherent with the PSP platform that include remapping controls for various genres, battery life and ensuring that a game remains fun when it goes to the smaller screen. Your game is essentially an enhanced version of the arcade and Dreamcast original Crazy Taxi as well as its sequel, right? JH: Correct, it includes the original Crazy Taxi and the sequel with some key multiplayer gameplay enhancements that were created in collaboration with the producer, Stephen Frost, over at SEGA. Given that the originals were developed for 4:3 aspect ratio, and this new game is being developed for the PSP's wide screen, did this present a problem for your team? JH: Transitioning from 4:3 aspect ratio to widescreen (16:9) didn’t pose too much of a problem. As hardware, the PSP is stronger, faster and smarter than say the Dreamcast was, much of which the original Crazy Taxi was based on. Taking the 4:3 viewing areas and increasing it into 16:9 was straightforward in that regard. The challenge was if this would affect the gameplay and overall design. But to answer your question, we’ve been able to successfully bring Crazy Taxi to 16:9 without any drastic changes. So is Crazy Taxi developed using the original engine, or did Sniper develop an in-house engine for this game? JH: It’s not original. The base for Crazy Taxi and Crazy Taxi 2 are the original engines developed in Japan and ported to the PSP. All of the multiplayer code has been built from scratch. What sorts of multiplayer modes and extras have been included? JH: There will be three modes of multiplayer: “Time Trial,” to best your opponents time, “CRAZY,” like the basketball game H.O.R.S.E and “Head to Head,” where you battle an opponent for fares, steal fares and go at it for the best score. What lessons did Sniper learn from developing Crazy Taxi that you believe will prove helpful in future PSP projects, or game development projects in general? JH: Developing games based on a franchise can be rewarding and a certain way to get some interest in a specific game. Crazy Taxi on the PSP was a perfect first title for us to sink our teeth into with SEGA who has been great partners to us. We are all fans of the series; felt it would be a nice fit for the handheld, and that we could do it well so we went for it. The next title Sniper is working on was also a “no brainer.” The team will take another huge and successful IP in a much different direction where it can have the freedom to implement new platform-specific features and design elements. Are there plans to work on any original IP in the future, or are you content in developing projects based on established franchises? JH: It is every developers dream to build its own successful IP. Yes, we are brainstorming and discussing what would make for a cool new IP so I’d say the possibility is definitely there for us. We’re patient, though, and want the best opportunity possible.

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