In our third article following Push Square’s visit to Firesprite, we sent one of our retro enthusiasts who was particularly eager to learn more about the links between its studio’s history with Psygnosis and Studio Liverpool. In time for the launch week of the sci-fi horror game The Persistence we also published a development interview on Firesprite’s process of crafting a scary, stealth roguelike title. Furthermore, in a Soapbox describing our reporter’s first ever PSVR experience, there is hands-on time with the game, including extra additions to The Persistence like the Solex companion app. We strongly recommend you read this interview as a companion piece to Damien McFerran’s An Ode to the Owl: The Inside Story of Psygnosis, because the feature by our Editorial Director is a perfect supplement to this discussion with Firesprite’s Stuart Tilley (Game Director) and Lee Carus (Art Director).
Push Square: When I think of classic game developers based in Liverpool and Merseyside, I think of Matthew Smith who made Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy on the ZX Spectrum, but predominantly of Psygnosis’ output through the 16-bit and 32-bit eras. Can you explain how team members of Firesprite were previously a part of Psygnosis?
Lee Carus: Well, I’ll speak about myself at Psygnosis, then. So basically I went down to, it was called The Computer Trade Show, and I don’t even know what year it was, I think it was BC actually at this point [Laughs]. I was a spotty teenager, I think I was 17, and I went down there with a bunch of guys and we called ourselves Dionysus, because that was dead cool and edgy. We met with a chap called Ian Hetherington, who ran Psygnosis. We came with this idea for a demo and we went down and we pitched a demo. He loved it and he signed it on the spot. I’ll never forget, we then went back up to Liverpool to meet them on the docks, so it was a couple of miles away from here, and Ian sat me down in the room afterwards and he said, “Lee, if you’re lucky in another couple of years you could be earning eight grand a year [£8,000].” And I was thinking, “Oh my God, no way am I ever going to be on that sort of money!”
Stuart Tilley: You could have bought a house back in them times.
Lee Carus: I know, I could’ve bought two! [Carus jokes]. It was really a super exciting time and Psygnosis was still really, really young. I was the seventeenth employee at the time, and eleven of them were all marketing and literally warehousing and stuff like that, because they were the publisher, the marketing, the warehouse, so it was literally everything. Then basically it just grew and grew from there, it was myself and five other artists, there were no coders at the time, the coders were all based in their own bedrooms essentially. I think Psygnosis realised that things needed to start scaling up a little, so they brought people in-house and that’s when the South Harrington Building started filling out and we had our own room and it was crazy because it was just a smoke filled haze, because everyone smoked back then, and inside. Basically, we started working with coders that spawned new developers like Bizarre Creations, who have done a lot of work for Sony, and then we got a whiff of this exciting new hardware coming along from Japan. The first PlayStation arrived in the studio, and I’ll never forget it. The PlayStation dev kit was the size of a large fridge, a large single story fridge, and it came in a wooden frame with hundreds of cables coming off the back of it and it was all water cooled. I think that’s where certainly my passion for getting involved in new technology came from, I was at the beginning of that new technology with a company that was forming a relationship with Sony and basically my fanboy-ism with Sony started at that point, and it hasn’t left me [Tilley responds with a 'Wow!'].
Was it a priority for Firesprite to build its team with an infrastructure based upon a long history of developing PlayStation games? For example, Stuart, you worked for Attention to Detail in 1999/2000 on the PSone Rollcage titles.
Stuart Tilley: When we first started Firesprite, obviously we were all really quite experienced the five guys who started this, having worked at Sony before. I mean we used a lot of our history, because we were a really small studio as well, we needed guys at least for the first year or so, who were experienced as well. We couldn’t afford to make mistakes, basically in the very early days. A lot of the guys we brought in from Studio Liverpool were some of the older guys, like Garv who invented the AR Bot who has now retired [Referring to an original sketch of an AR Bot from The Playroom by Garv Corbett, shown to Push Square when we arrived]. In the early days we went for a lot of that experience, whereas now we’re a lot bigger and more flexible. We actively worked really hard to get in lots of graduates, because not only do they bring new ideas and experience to it, but they’re super well educated these days. Yes, we do draw on our inspiration from the past, particularly like the Rollcage games, which you’ve got down there that I worked on. I was working on a game for the Atari Jaguar at the time when I saw WipEout in America, and I was like, “That’s really good, isn’t it? So, you know what, I’ve got to raise my game.” That was one of the reasons I worked so hard on the Rollcage games, because I was determined to get a better review score than them guys, well...
... What was the Jaguar game, sorry? [The interviewer apologies for his retro enthusiasm here, he side-lined the conversation to a 64-bit Atari discussion, when Tilley was possibly going to elaborate on a 32-bit friendly competition between PSone Rollcage and WipEout.]
Stuart Tilley: I worked on the Jaguar CD launch title called Battlemorph, and I also worked on one called Blue Lightning, which was a Jaguar version of the Atari Lynx game [Battlemorph and Blue Lightning were both released by Attention to Detail in 1995 for the Jaguar CD].
That is cool, I didn’t even know there was a Jaguar version of that Lynx game [Blue Lightning].
Stuart Tilley: It’s really good, it’s like Space Harrier, it’s a sprite-scroller. It’s really good. I built the levels using MS-DOS. It was amazing, typing in letters, like the letter ‘d’ in small letters would equate to a big rock and you learned what each character on the keyboard meant, and then you would just draw them in a pattern. Small ‘c’ was a tank, it was amazing [Carus banters with Tilley, saying 'Rock and Roll!']. It was great times, actually, back in the day. It was smaller teams and smaller time-scales, but it was just new and exciting. It really was, and we all just grew up being total geeks as well, so it was boss! [Once again, Push Square is appreciative of Tilley’s use of local Scouse phrasing.]
Liverpool and the North West of England have a strong history of game studios, many like Bizarre Creations, Evolution Studios, and of course Studio Liverpool, are very fondly remembered by PlayStation fans. What are Firesprite’s links to this history, particularly in regards to former members of Studio Liverpool now working for your team?
Stuart Tilley: Yes, I would say the majority of our guys who work here would have worked at Bizarre, Evolution, or Studio Liverpool. I mean Liverpool really is a hotbed for game development talent, as is the North West generally, actually. It is growing all the time. I think even with the tax relief systems that have come in place over the last few years, and the government have really helped the UK games industry. Look in the North West and there is literally thousands of game developers in the North West of England now. You know, we’re looking to grow. I know Lucid are doing great [Note: Lucid Games is also based in Liverpool, and is recognised as a studio that employed previous members of Bizarre Creations]. There is Codemasters down the road, Traveller’s Tales are doing brilliantly. We’re stocked with guys who have been around this area, and I think the future is really, really bright for North West gaming, which is great. A lot of us now, and a lot of the guys and girls who work in the industry have got their roots down, with kids in school and stuff like that. As a business owner as well, we are like super determined to make sure that we have a proper strong and growing North West industry.
Firesprite first worked alongside Japan Studio on The Playroom, which was released in November 2013. The Playroom was an augmented reality, pre-installed PS4 launch game. It was also dependent on the PlayStation Camera, so was Firesprite’s involvement a good preparatory point to working on a bigger game (The Persistence, 2018), which is wholly based on a PlayStation accessory (PSVR)?
Lee Carus: I think in terms of prototyping ideas in VR, it was excellent for The Persistence. You know, one thing we were very good at when we were working with Japan Studio was turning around these two week prototypes. We do pre-visual prototypes, they do code prototypes and it kind of got us into the experimental mentality, basically. Stu had the brilliant idea for The Persistence, but having that experimental mentality and this idea kind of smashed in the middle, and met together really well. It meant we weren’t afraid to try it, because on paper it looked like an absolute nightmare to make. With this mentality that we had from working with Japan Studio, we had done great things with Playroom that we wouldn’t have thought were possible before, so let’s go for it, let’s try it, and you know it’s worked out! [Tilley adds, 'Yep!'].
In April 2015 Run Sackboy! Run! was released as a free-to-play, endless runner game on the PlayStation Vita. Did the Firesprite team enjoy working on a handheld title, and was working on this game beneficial in the team first establishing itself during the early years of the studio?
Stuart Tilley: Ah yeah, so that was really good fun, you know! It was a totally different world for us from where we had come from, particularly it was a time when mobile was in a big growth period. It was fascinating, I can only really talk about it from a game developer perspective. A lot of the lessons we had through 20 years of game development are really different. A slight different way of making games, one thing that I learned the hard way I suppose, is the initial addiction loop you need to put into the game. You need the player interacting within the first five seconds. You need to reward the player and tell them they’re brilliant within the first ten, or fifteen seconds. Normally with games we have a nice steady tutorial and a story set-up and things like that, whereas a lot of mobile players will just have a quick look and then they’ll switch it off, right? It was a really good thing to do, and then understanding, trying to get into the world of free-to-play was really interesting. With Sony trusting us with one of their big IPs was a real honour, as well. We were still quite a new studio, so that was quite a daunting responsibility that we took on, but at the end of the day I think the game turned out to be really popular. It was good fun and I think it was a real, genuinely good score attack game. Yeah, I’m still playing it now, right, three years later.
What size is the Firesprite team currently in 2018?
Stuart Tilley: We’re 75 staff at the minute, and we’re looking to recruit, so if anyone is reading your website and wants to come and work for a great company. [Note: There is a Firesprite ‘Jobs’ section with available positions on https://firesprite.com/ with ‘How to Apply’ details].
Thank you kindly, yet again, Firesprite. It was riveting for this retro gamer to talk to a developer with such a well-regarded team history. Cheers!
In the launch week of The Persistence, did you learn anything new about Firesprite from Push Square? What are your favourite Psygnosis, or Studio Liverpool games? Let us know if you were playing a launch PSone in 1995, or another console like the Atari Jaguar CD, in the comments section below.