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Q&A: Vicious Cycle Talks PSP Advantages, Unreal Engine Rivalry

Gamasutra's interview with developer and engine-maker Vicious Cycle (Robotech: Battlecry, Dead Head Fred) reveals the company's PSP optimism (it's "a perfect platform for new IP development"), a new Wii game, and their opinions on rival engine Unre
Vicious Cycle Software was founded after Hasbro Interactive closed the MicroProse development studio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in January 2000 - and has since built up a portfolio of console games such as Robotech: Invasion under its own name, as well as titles including Curious George and Dora the Explorer: Journey to the Purple Planet under the Monkey Bar Games label. In addition, the company has been working on its Vicious Engine, available for all current-gen hardware and particularly Sony's PSP handheld, for which it is producing engine showcase and original IP head-swapping title Dead Head Fred for D3 Publisher and a 2007 release. It's also working on handheld CCG Marvel Vs. and puzzle title Puzzle Quest. Gamasutra had a chance to talk to Vicious Cycle president Eric Peterson, as well as John O'Neill, the company's director of business development for the Vicious Engine, about the company's plans, illuminating the company's PSP optimism (it's "a perfect platform for new IP development"), a new Wii game, and their opinions on rival engine Unreal Engine 3. Why PSP Is 'Perfect For New IP' According to Peterson, the Chapel Hill, North Carolina headquartered company currently employs over 50 people internally, which allows for development teams to vary in size, depending on the scope and complexity of a given project. Vicious Cycle is creating at least one title (Dead Head Fred) exclusively for Sony's PSP handheld. However, Peterson denied any worries over PSP development, given the Nintendo DS' current dominance and reports that some in-development PSP games are being cancelled due to worries over poor sales. “Honestly I don't believe that the PSP market is all that bad,” relayed Peterson, before adding, “Granted, it isn't the DS market.” He continued: “With Dead Head Fred, which is a brand new IP, we felt that the PSP was a perfect platform for this new IP development, because it could be done on a smaller scope, and have less risk than say a next-gen title. The argument could be made that we should have gone PS2, but we were also eyeing the PSP because of our engine development, and we really wanted to have a flagship PSP title to showcase our technology.” The State Of Vicious Engine? Switching focus to the company's Vicious Engine, which is currently available for Wii, Xbox 360, PSP, PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, and PC, John O'Neill described the tool as a “comprehensive middleware solution and includes everything that a development team would need to prototype, develop, test, and release a cross-platform title to multiple simultaneous platforms.” “We have spent a great deal of time examining the way we make cross-platform games, and created a toolset that helps facilitate game content creation on multiple platforms,” commented O'Neill, who was appointed by Vicious Cycle as the director of business development for the Vicious Engine in November 2006. “The Vicious Engine supports seven simultaneous consoles, and is intended to be a cost-effective alternative for those developers that want to develop AAA titles on many different platforms, while maintaining a high level of quality.” The exec added that new platform announcements for the Vicious Engine are expected to be made at the upcoming Game Developers Conference in March, with Wii, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 versions of the engine clearly forthcoming: “I guess it is worth stating that all 3 [next-gen] versions are in progress, hence our increased presence at GDC.” When questioned on the potential issues of priority that arise when operating both a game tools and game development firm, O'Neill replied, “The advantage is that the game studios can concentrate on making cross-platform games using a competitive middleware solution, while at the same time the Vicious Engine division focuses on its clients and offering services to assist them in developing their games.” However, he countered this by noting, “The disadvantage is the engine features are sometimes driven by our internal experiences. So the latest and greatest physics solution may not be available until we have utilized that new technology.” On Vicious Licensors, Unreal Engine Threat When asked regarding the company's current engine licensors, O'Neill indicated that most are currently confidential. However, he revealed that both Collision Studios (300) and Totally Games (Alien Syndrome) are developers who are currently using the Vicious Engine. In addition, Peterson noted: “VCS and Monkey Bar Games are first party clients of the Vicious Engine as well. Basically, we are our own customer. Unlike some of the other options on the market for games engines, we develop and use the technology to make games ourselves.” Finally, neither Peterson nor O'Neill seemed particularly inclined to position the technology as direct competition with Epic Games' popular Unreal Engine 3, even with next-gen versions imminent: “We have created the Vicious Engine to be a general cross-platform solution rather than being geared only towards 1st or 3rd person shooters,” stated O'Neill. “Our product is not specifically written to only target a single genre. We want to build relationships with development teams and help them bring great games to the market.” He ended: “The other thing I will add is that we aren't trying to compete directly with Epic or id when it comes to first person shooters. They do that so well already, and we love their games, too!” Monkey Bar's Calming Naming Turning to the company's Monkey Bar Games division, which focuses on more family-oriented games, Peterson said that the division plans to stay its present course by releasing licensed action and adventure titles such as Dora the Explorer, Curious George, and Flushed Away. In addition, he revealed that the company is also working on an unannounced Wii title that will also fall under the Monkey Bar Games division. However, when asked about any potential worry about being pigeonholed as a company focused on family oriented releases, Peterson responded that Monkey Bar Games is considered to be a single brand beneath the larger Vicious Cycle umbrella. “When we were hired to create Dora for the PlayStation 2 and GameCube, Nickelodeon didn't want Dora under the VCS brand because "Vicious" was in the name, and it wasn't very family friendly,” he said. “We were already prepared to separate the brands from each other, and created Monkey Bar Games just for that reason.” Adding to this, Peterson continued: “We created Dinotopia and Spy Vs. Spy and both were under the Vicious Cycle brand, and this confused many consumers, publishers, and licensors. It also muddied our company perception. So what this has done is make a clear line between what VCS games are and what MB games are. We are putting mature games and niche games under the VCS brand, such as Marvel Vs., Dead Head Fred, and Puzzle Quest, and leaving games like Dora and Curious George in the MB label.”

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