TA Interview: Starfire Studios

By DavieMarshall, 5 years ago
In the wake of the launch of Fusion: Genesis, we’re talking to Starfire Studios, the brains behind the XBLA title with plenty of history to share.
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DavieMarshall: Hi guys. Firstly thanks for taking the time to complete this interview with us. So let’s start at the beginning, it’s usually the best place. How did Starfire Studios come to be?
 
Phil Dunne - So Mark was the first to leave Rare and he basically just started working on a game engine which would eventually become Fusion: Genesis. After a few months myself, Chris and Ross joined him and formed StarfireStudios. Mark and Chris had been working together for the previous 10 years or so but we'd all worked together at some point.
 
DM: As former Rare employees, you've seen the industry from a big-name first party prospective and now, as Starfire, you're looking at development through independent eyes. What are the benefits and challenges of going independent?
 
Phil Dunne - One of the benefits is that with a smaller team you're much closer to the creative aspects of development at all times. There's also a much quicker feedback loop on the work you do as it's a small tightknit group of people that are closer to the game. One of the drawbacks is that when you're coming up to deadline's or if you have difficult problems to overcome, you can't simply throw more people at it to get it fixed quickly.
 
DM: Do you have a ‘physical office’ or like some other developers do you work remotely using Skype and such?
 
Mark Edmonds: Originally the four of us all started working from one location (Mark's house) and then slowly started experimenting with remote working. Except for Mark who still works there! So we all work in a distributed manner now and use stuff like Skype video conferencing, OneNote online shared notebooks and online code repositories. It's bizarre but in some ways it's easier to talk to someone on Skype than it is to physically talk to someone in an office next to yours.
 
DM: Tell us a little bit about the Genesis of Fusion: Genesis? Was this project a long held desire for someone? Were you approached to work on it?
 
Phil - Fusion: Genesis is the brainchild of Chris, our designer. We all like MMO's and had wanted to make something along those lines, so Chris came up with this idea of how we could squeeze it all into an XBLA release. We took that to Microsoft and they were delighted with the ambition and scope of what we wanted to do. However, it was actually Microsoft who came up with the idea of expanding the project onto multiple platforms - eventually leading to the release of Fusion: Sentient on WP7, which connects to the XBLA title.
 
DM: Sticking with the brand new XBLA title now, we have to say, there’s a *lot* to explore here. Was it always your intention to create something with such a wealth of depth and discovery?
 
Phil - It was always the plan to make something that players could immerse themselves in for hours and we definitely wanted that whole feeling of this big connected world where you could meet other players and do battle. We hope we've given players what they want and we feel there's an awful lot of value for money in there, especially at 800 points.
 
DM: So we have five factions, and a host of multiplayer options which provide tons of playtime. Was it difficult to get everything in that you wanted, because you guys really aimed high on this one.
 
Phil - Yeah, it was really difficult to get everything packed in there and balanced to a good level as there's just so many modes and so much to test. In fact, we've got to say a big thank you to all the test team at Microsoft who did a great job on this. They all seemed really keen on the game and really helped us to get things balanced and feeling right.
 
DM: Of vast array of in game features, what are you most proud of now you look back on the finished product?
 
Phil - Probably the fact the game is constantly matchmaking you behind the scenes which hopefully elevates it from a single player experience into something more akin to an MMO, where you get to play and interact with real people. This is part of why we love to play MMO's so hopefully we've created a slice of that on XBLA, which we don't think has been done before.
 
DM: And how about achievements. Are there any real toughies in there to keep gamers grinding their teeth before they get the unlock?
 
Phil - Yes! - 'Legend' for reaching the level cap of 100 is going to take quite a while. Also, 'Savior' - for completing the Ark Raid. For that you're really going to have a fairly maxed out ship and weapons and raid it with a good group of 4 players.
 
DM: Are you big on achievements? How do you feel they help you as developers? Is it easier to prod gamers into certain optional tasks, or would you rather the game was played straight up without them?
 
Phil - Achievements are a really cool feature of Xbox games and we feel it definitely helps the longevity and replay-ability of titles. We really hope players will try and pick up the different achievements for playing all the factions, so they get to experience every side of the game. We've tried hard to give players as many reasons as possible to try out all the factions and then find their own route through the game.
 
Marks personal comment: Personally I like achievements in a different way - I don't set out to "achieve" achievements, but it's nice to have them as a record of what I have actually happened to do in a game.
 
DM: Recently on TA we had a big debate on single player vs. multiplayer. Fusion: Genesis has everything possible. Single player, and co-operative/competitive multiplayer. What is your point of view on this debate as developers? Is multiplayer overused to sell some retail titles?
 
Mark - Well life itself fluctuates between single and multi-player moments and different people enjoy different sorts of experiences in games (and at different times). If you can cater to more people's tastes and allow them to play how they want without impacting the experience of others then it seems a benefit :) And when it gets to the point where you can't tell if you are playing with/against humans or AIs what then? :)
 
DM: With the game available now via the Xbox LIVE Marketplace, will any of the dev team be found online chipping in with some co-op or using their insider skills to obliterate a few gamers battle!
 
Phil - We're still really busy right now because of the launch but we hope to organise something soon which will have some of the dev team playing online. We'll probably have a warzone battle night or something - we'll keep you posted and look out for details on our website! www.starfirestudios.co.uk
 
DM: Speaking of XBLA and retail title, are there many limitations on XBLA as a platform? Did you ever find that there were things you wanted to do but couldn’t as it’s not an ‘on disc title’?
 
Mark - There don't seem to be any limitations to XBLA titles at all now compared to retail ones - it just affects the download size. And there are some standard menu items which need including - but those have the benefit of every game having a trial mode etc, which is great for all the players.
 
DM: When you were working away and fleshing out ideas and the news breaks to gaming sites, how do you feel your Rare-centric history helped or hindered you when it came to promoting your new venture?
 
Mark - I'm sure it helps people to listen to what we have to say, at least initially. But they always want to know about Rare. Often too much :)
 
DM: Fusion: Genesis has a sister title coming out Wednesday for Windows Phone 7. How much involvement did you have in Fusion: Sentient? Were you involved at all in the selection of Wahoo studios to work on this companion title?
 
Phil - While Fusion: Sentient is pretty much based off the world we created for Fusion: Genesis, all credit goes to Wahoo for doing a superb job on their WP7 title. 'Sentient' is a full game in it's own right and Microsoft deserve a lot of credit for expanding the world of Fusion and getting the two titles out together, launched on the same day. I guess it's a glimpse of what can be done in the future.
 
DM: What level of interaction is there between the two titles? Is it a more complete ‘Fusion experience’ if you own both titles?
 
Phil - In Fusion: Sentient you level up cool AI Robot characters (Sentients) Then you can take them and trade them with other players at the Auction House across both the WP7 and XBLA games. When they are fully levelled up they become the ultimate weapons in Fusion: Genesis, so should be worth quite a lot of credits on the Auction House. You can get the high level sentients as a 'drop' in the final Ark Raid but it's much faster to get them through the WP7 game or obviously through the Auction House.
 
Mark - And by playing both games you learn more about the Fusion universe and the stories in it.
 
DM: Can we ask what prompted your decision to work with Microsoft Studios again after leaving Rare?
 
Mark - We all have a lot of friends and contacts there still and of course we're all familiar with Xbox itself which helps. Plus we knew the software development environment is very very good. We were just lucky to be able to continue the relationship.
 
DM: Staying on the topic of Microsoft and XBLA, what are your thoughts on the MSP system? Would you rather have a system of pounds and pence, dollars and cents, or do you feel the MSP works as it is?
 
Phil - The MSP system generally seems fine to me, although possibly it might be better to have more increments in the range of prices?
 
DM: And now that you've got your first title complete and available on XBLA, what's the next step for Starfire? Will you continue to work on downloadable titles or is retail in your future? Can we expect to see more from Fusion: Genesis - some DLC perhaps?

Mark - The future is a big scary place with lots of possibilities and we're excited ourselves to find out which ones come to be.
 
DM: We wish you the best of luck for Starfire Studios - you really deserve some massive success with this title. Promise you’ll swing by the next time you’ve got something exciting to share!
 
Phil - Thanks so much - we just hope people enjoy playing it. We'll be sure to let you know as soon as we've got anything to announce on future projects
 
DM: In closing, are there any final words you'd like to put across to the community?
 
Phil - Look out for the Klobb weapon, it's back!
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Our thanks to Starfire for their time out, as we know their schedules have been manic lately. We know a fair few of you have tried out Fusion: Genesis and enjoyed it, hopefully this provides a brief background to the processes and team behind the title.