Thanks to The Designer's Republic, WipEout benefited from strong branding

Given that the game was breaking new ground in the 3D racing arena, WipEout unsurprisingly called for some rather unique design methods. “Each of the circuits was drawn by myself on large sheets of A3 paper with details and annotations about the elevation and curvature of the tracks,” Burcombe recalls. “For some tracks there would be notes at the side describing what the player should able to see, or what was hidden from their view. Each track ended up with a distinct feel, which is partly down to the fact that they were rendered by different artists, working independently of one another. Some of the ideas we had couldn’t be met by the hardware, though. For example, the first drop on Altima VII was supposed to be like base jumping off a cliff, and would have required serious skill on behalf of the player to land the ship successfully and maintain speed. In the end, we simply couldn’t draw the track that far so we were forced to include a cave to mask this fact, and then it transpired that we couldn’t drop off the geometry and still keep on top of the relative race positions of each ship, so the top of the mountain and the base of the mountain had to be joined. The end result didn’t quite capture the amazing free-falling sensation I was after when I conceptualised that part of the track, but it still worked. It was a shame, but just one of those things you encounter when you’re developing on brand-new hardware.”

"The mechanics of Super Mario Kart were virtually flawless, so it was a constant source of inspiration for me" - Nick Burcombe

Having already provided inspiration for the game in one sense, Nintendo’s seminal Super Mario Kart would go on to influence another key part of the WipEout experience: its weapons. “The mechanics of Super Mario Kart were virtually flawless, so it was a constant source of inspiration for me,” says Burcombe. “But we obviously couldn’t have banana skins and shells - we had to make it all futuristic and introduce things like electro-bolts and all that kind of sci-fi stuff. In WipEout 2097, Chris Roberts - who also worked on the recent Vita instalment – put in the famous ‘Quake’ effect, and that was just mind-blowing; everyone that saw it instantly fell in love with it, and it went on to become one of the fundamental weapons of the entire series. I’ve heard some people question the inclusion of weapons in the game and the series as a whole, but I can say now hand on heart that we always intended WipEout to be a combat racer. There was never any question of it being purely about speed; we wanted to replicate the same amazing feeling of blasting someone to steal P1 that we'd enjoyed so much in Mario Kart.”

Hardcore Gamers Only

While those who moan about the weapons are clearly misguided, there were other genuine complaints levelled at the game; when compared to later instalments in the series, the original WipEout is surprisingly difficult. “We didn’t really set out with the aim to make it challenging, but we kind of set the difficulty for ourselves – which was probably meant it was a bit too hardcore,” admits Burcombe. “The people on the team that were really good at it fell in love with the demands of the experience, and consequently everyone else got left behind, which is probably why it’s always been a bit of a cult hit with really skilled and dedicated players."

However, one element which contributed directly to the challenge was the unforgiving collision system. “There were no glancing scrapes which resulted in a minor drop in pace in the first WipEout,” explains Burcombe. “You’d just stop dead as soon as you bumped into something. That wasn't by design, it was down to my limited experience that we allowed it to ship like that. It was the first thing that was solved in WipEout 2097, and as a result I feel that game plays much better, and it consequently scored higher in reviews.”

Wipeoutscreens01

While the sequel was able to fix this one problem, Burcombe doesn’t feel it bested its predecessor in every regard. “I don’t think some of 2097’s circuits were anywhere near as good as those in the first game; aside from insanely brutal Silverstream track - we probably went a bit too far with that one - the courses from the first game are generally superior. However, that's a reflection of the amount of time we spent designing them as opposed to a lack of effort; all of the courses in the sequel were conceived, designed and rendered in just three months, whereas in the original WipEout we were able to devote about two months to each.”

WipEout’s level of difficulty was so high that it led to one of the more amusing - and sorrowful - stories from its development, which occurred in the final phases of testing. “Because it was so hard, nobody on the test team could complete it from start to finish in one sitting to prove the game worked all the way through without restarts - everyone had done it using save games,” recalls Burcombe. “I was utterly convinced that it could be finished in one go, but the trouble was that I had to prove it. So one night I stayed late at the office and decided to do exactly that. I must have had to restart about twenty times, but then in the early hours, I finally did it: I secured first place in every race sequentially, without having to use a single restart and no saved games. Almost inevitably, it crashed before the credits rolled! It was probably the last crash bug we knew about in the game and was discovered the night before gold master approval. I was so convinced I was wasting time having to prove this, but then it proved me wrong. I was annoyed at that moment, but that soon changed to amusement when I was relaying it to the team the following day.”

"It’s only with hindsight that you can see the difference the whole team was able to make; along with other developers at the time, we took gaming and dragged it kicking and screaming into a new era of cool." - Nick Burcombe

Despite last minute bugs, WipEout was a critical and commercial triumph. The game proved to be the perfect vehicle for Sony’s drive to make the PlayStation as cool as possible; the company wanted to make sure players knew that this new console was a step up from the likes of the Mega Drive and SNES, which many perceived as being aimed at children. WipEout, with its demanding gameplay and pumping techno soundtrack, was ideal.

Interestingly, Burcombe insists that it was never the intention of the team to create something that would trigger a cultural shift in the video game industry. “No conscious decision was ever taken at all from my point of view; it all just came naturally from the culture we’d immersed ourselves in at the time,” he reveals. The signature look of the series was down to the involvement of The Designers Republic, a trendy design agency which had previously worked with the UK band Pop Will Eat Itself.

“Keith Hopwood from the graphic design department had some material sent through from The Designers Republic,” remembers Burcombe. “I think it was Lee Carus - who was one of the artists driving things forward on the team - who scanned some of the icons in and started putting them on the ships and into the game. It looked great and the connection was instant; the images just seem to fit perfectly. We contacted The Designers Republic and they were happy to become more intimately involved, and they actually ended up doing the branding for WipEout.” Ironically, the iconic billboards which litter the trackside of the game and feature so much of The Designers Republic’s work weren’t strictly a visual decision - they served a dual purpose. “The art team had to deliberately position the billboards to cover up draw distance issues,” says Burcombe. “They were basically employed to cover up the graphical limitations of the game. The fact that they worked so well and helped tie the visuals together with the DR designs made it a very good solution.”

WipEout's advertising campaign featured a predictably edgy tone

The influence of the game’s music also been incredibly far-reaching. “I've had hundreds of e-mails from people telling me how those tracks got them into either listening to or writing their own electronic music,” reveals Wright. “I've had people tell me that my WipEout music helps them run, jog, drive, even cope with near fatal illness or personal tragedy. I tell them that it's nothing to do with me, they did all the hard work, I just gave them some music to do it to! It's humbling nonetheless, and it never ceases to amaze and delight me that people hold the music in such high regard. It wasn't just the public either - I was really chuffed to win best music at the Golden Joystick awards back in 1996.”

WipEout 18 years on

Today, Burcombe is involved in the production of mobile games for iOS at his new company Playrise Digital, and relishes the thought of taking on new challenges as the gaming industry expands and changes. However, he still cites his time on WipEout as one of the most enriching of his entire career. “Being part of a team that let its passion shine through and seeing our product come to fruition and really make an impact in a gaming and cultural sense was amazing,” he says. “It’s only with hindsight that you can see the difference the whole team was able to make; along with other developers at the time, we took gaming and dragged it kicking and screaming into a new era of cool. The fact that the WipEout franchise was still kicking ass up until the recent closure of Studio Liverpool is testament to the soul of the game.”

WipEout spawned several sequels, the most recent being WipEout 2048 on Vita

Speaking of which, how does he feel about the closure of the place where he cut his teeth in the industry? “It’s a really disappointing end to a great story,” he laments. “And a story that has been part of my life since 1986 - I used to test Psygnosis games in school holidays before joining the studio full time. It has been a phenomenal tale from start to end and the legacy that is left behind will, I believe, stand proudly in the annuls of video gaming, from Brataccas to WipEout 2048. Everyone who ever worked there, in what ever capacity, has been part of a very important industry story. The people I’ve met have been incredible, the memories are rich and varied. I’m glad I started my career there, but recognition needs to go to one guy who rarely gets a mention – the only guy who went the full distance - Garvan Corbett. This guy is a legend whether or not he’d acknowledge such an accolade. But looking forward, I hope that the many talented developers being thrust back out into the wilderness will find their feet, dust themselves off, take a good look around and see that massive opportunities beckon. The whole industry is in a state of flux and experienced people are needed in markets that are only just being born today. I want to wish everyone luck and I’ll see you out amongst that wonderful chaos that is the game industry.”

Wright - who continues to create music via his production company Tantrumedia also has very fond memories of his time with WipEout. Although he hasn’t been involved with the series since the release of WipEout Pure on the PlayStation Portable, his connection is unbreakable. “As I did with WipEout HD, I was working on an unofficial companion album for WipEout 2048, but given the closure of Sony Liverpool development I've decided to incorporate that into a full-on WipEout anthology, and re-visit and re-master the old tracks for a new album,” he explains. “If there is ever another WipEout game, I'd like to think that I could still cut the mustard and be considered...but now the team has been disbanded it might be a very long time before we see another one. In fact, the closure of Studio Liverpool may sadly mark the end for one of the most treasured PlayStation franchises of all time.”