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Playing Catch Up: Stainless Games' Patrick Buckland

Playing Catch Up: Stainless Games' Patrick Buckland

December 14, 2006 | By Alistair Wallis

December 14, 2006 | By Alistair Wallis
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More: Console/PC

Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to Stainless Games founder, and Crystal Quest/Carmageddon designer Patrick Buckland.

Buckland’s first experiences with computers occurred in 1978 while at school on the Isle of Wight, at the age of 15. “They had an RML 380Z [education-based microcomputer],” he explains. “Also, I messed around with a Commodore PET at the house of a family friend who was teaching me electronics in the evenings.”

He notes that he became interested in programming from the moment he “first touched a computer”, and recalls that, after the electronics lessons ended, he was asked to “write a BASIC program to handle all the schedule and results of the high school sports day”.

“Twice,” he adds. “Because somebody kicked the plug out and we lost the whole program - the machine was cassette-tape based. It was my first experience at running a programming ‘team’. I had variables starting with letters from ‘A’ to ‘L’ and Alan, my mate, had those from ‘M’ to ‘Z’!”

In 1979, Buckland received his first computer from his Grandmother, an Apple II, that he puts down to “her own ‘my grandson is the best’ reasons - but I wasn’t complaining!”. Soon after, he began working at modifying the Lemonade and Breakout games that came with the system and, two years later, had finished his first full game, Liberator, for “the wonderfully titled Thorn EMI Video Programmes Ltd.”.

“However,” he adds, “it never saw the light of day because Thorn hadn’t done a trademark search, and Atari already had a game with that name and sent them a ‘burn them or we’ll burn you’ letter.”

From Beginnings To Apple

Just a few years later, Buckland began working with Apple UK as a contractor, where he says he became “very closely tied into the whole ethos of the company”.

“So, when the Lisa came out I moved onto that and then onto the Mac in 1984. It just seemed natural! The Apple was head and shoulders above other personal computers in the late 70s – before the IBM PC was even in gestation.”

From there, Buckland became a freelance programmer, taking on “whatever work was available on the Apple II and the Mac.”

“This included everything from CAD packages to the system used to create Teletext pages,” he says. “I even wrote a control system for a Roman Villa! Actually getting work was difficult because the machine was a commercial failure at the time. And Apple made bad decisions in a serial fashion, making it more and more difficult for us developers. But games were always my true love.”

Later in the decade, Buckland began working on a shareware shooter game for the Macintosh in his spare time named Crystal Raider which he notes came from “the observation of people messing around in applications such as MacPaint”.

“People liked to take the eraser and rub things out. So I decided to make a game of it, as it seemed that people found it satisfying to reverse entropy – to take the disorder of a screen full of random crystals and to introduce order by cleaning them up.”

The Evolution Of Crystal Quest

Soon after the game’s release, Buckland decided to work on a follow up, Crystal Quest, which would take the gameplay of its predecessor, and add new features.

“When I wrote Crystal Quest I sent out a mail-shot to all registered users [of Crystal Raider],” he says. “One of the registered users was Mike Greene, CEO of [publisher] Greene Inc. Mike wrote back saying that he’d publish it for me instead.”

With the backing of a commercial publisher, the game became immensely successful upon its release in 1987 – Buckland notes that he believes it “appeared on almost every Mac worldwide”.

“Unfortunately,” he adds, “only a tiny proportion of these people actually paid for it…”

“This was very satisfying though,” he continues, “particularly after the disappointment of Liberator. I loved reading the reviews and going to trade shows and seeing people playing it. It gives you a lovely warm feeling in your stomach, knowing you’ve made so many people have fun – what a great way to earn a living!”

The game ended up ported to numerous other platforms, including the Apple IIgs, Amiga, Nintendo Game Boy and Palm. Buckland notes that he wasn’t entirely surprised by the move to port the title, “after the reaction it was getting”.

“And I was getting paid money for not doing any work!” he adds gleefully.

In 1993, Buckland decided to stop freelancing, after ten years. “Not least because I then had two young kids and working from home was proving impossible,” he notes. “I’d got fed up with being on my own, and not actually building anything of any value.”

The Founding Of Stainless

Along with Neil Barnden, Buckland started up Stainless Games “in order to concentrate on games”, though adds that the chance to build a working environment of his choice was also a deciding factor. Nonetheless, Buckland describes the experience as “very difficult”, simply due to his choice of platform in the years leading up to the company’s formation.

“Although I was well known in the States, in the UK my track record on the Apple II and Mac counted for nothing because nobody took those platforms seriously,” he explains. “It took over a year of touting ideas around before we got it off the ground. Curiously though, being on the Isle of Wight had never been a barrier for us. It’s a fantastic place to live, so we’ve never had a problem attracting staff to come and work here.”

One company that did display faith in Stainless was Argonaut, who contracted the team to work on 3D engine development. Buckland describes the experience of working with the company as “interesting but at the same time frustrating”.

“They didn’t quite seem to know what they wanted to do with [3D engine] BRender,” he says. “But it helped pay the bills whilst we were trying to get a contract in so without it, Stainless would properly have fizzled into nothingness.”

Two years later, in 1995, the company landed their first games contract, with British publisher SCi, after pitching a title called 3D Destruction Derby in 1994. “I was heavily into Banger Racing at the time, so it was basically a game of my hobby,” explains Buckland. “A proper 3D smash-‘em-up was utterly unique at the time - this predated the Reflections [Destruction Derby] game - and we had a great demo. Unfortunately though, it was on the Mac, with a ‘we can do it on the PC, honest guv!’ proviso.”

“We pitched the game to everybody,” he continues. “Part of this process was doing the trade shows, and we met SCi at a booth at the Computer Graphics Expo in London in October 1994. They loved the game and gave it the green light – however it took a full 12 months from that point to the point of actually getting the development started.”

The Origins Of Carmageddon

Originally, the game was intended to by the publisher to be a licensed Mad Max title, though this plan later ran into trouble when SCi couldn’t actually get their hands on the license. Next, in anticipation of a sequel to the cult 1975 film Death Race 2000 film, the game was titled Death Race 2020. “This is where running people over came from,” Buckland notes.

“Then the film fell through, and we all decided ‘Sod it, let’s just do it anyway – who needs a license!’” he laughs. “The rest is history…”

Carmageddon was released in mid 1997 – using the BRender engine – and immediately topped the UK games charts, with other charts worldwide following suit soon after. The game set players racing against opponents and a time limit through mostly suburban settings, with more time being gained by damaging other player’s cars, or running over pedestrians. Naturally, this captured the attention of moral standards campaigners, which saw the game censored in a number of countries, including Germany and the UK, where pedestrians were replaced with zombies – though patches to combat these changes were quickly released through both official and unofficial channels. Buckland adds that this controversy wasn’t seen as a problem by the company, instead noting that Stainless and SCi “actively courted it”.

“SCi handled it all really, and did a really good job at it,” he recalls. “I’ve always enjoyed pushing the boundaries, so I loved every minute of it!”

However, he is quick to add that one downside of the media attention was that “some magazines panned it without even playing it”.

“Still now a lot of people don’t realise that it was the first game to feature proper collision physics,” he laments. “Not to mention the Action Replay system, proper pre-emptive physics-based network play, etc. And it was fun to play!”

Buckland also explains that the company was surprised at the success of the title, suggesting that Stainless’ original goal was simply to “write a good game in order to establish the company and then to move and grow from there”.

“We weren’t expecting our first game to be a worldwide number one that people still talk about 10 years later!” he says.

Welcome To The Carpocalypse?

The success of the title saw the company working on a sequel almost immediately, and Carmageddon II: Carpocalypse Now was released just over a year later. “We approached the sequel more by simply adding everything we’d wanted to put into the first one but ran out of time,” Buckland explains. “Of course we did also listen to the fan-base, however there was hardly an internet, as such, back then, so there was far less user-feedback than there is these days.”

Nonetheless, the community that sprung up around the series led to there being almost 200 fan-sites, which Buckland notes he was “surprised” by, “but very proud”.

“And of course many of the post-grads that we now employ played it as kids,” he muses. “That’s weird, and makes me feel very old!”

Merging Into VIS

1999 saw the company being absorbed into Scottish based developer VIS Entertainment, which Buckland describes as a “double-edged sword”.

“Basically, our path diverged from that of SCi, and all of sudden we found if very difficult to make ends meet,” he says. “By that time, we had 30 staff and a very nice converted farmhouse – but huge bills to pay. VIS came in and bailed us out – it’s as simple as that. On the one hand it took the stress out of running your own company, but on the other hand we lost our independence. On balance, I much prefer being independent.”

Most notable amongst the many projects that Buckland worked on as part of VIS was 2001’s State of Emergency, which saw him attached to the game mid-way through development as executive director and design consultant. Buckland notes that the time spent working on the game was “tough”, as it saw him spending “two weeks out of three up in Scotland” – away from his family.

“It put a big strain on my marriage,” he says. “But I enjoyed it – going in as trouble-shooter and having to really analyse what was going wrong with a project and what could be done to fix it.”

SOE was only ever a patch-up job though,” he adds, “as there was only so much one could do, that late into the development. I’m very proud of how much I turned it around, but I’m not proud of the game itself.”

Buckland found himself becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the situation as part of VIS throughout the year, and suggests that “VIS knew this”. He felt that the relationship was reaching its finish, with the “writing on the wall” coming when a rally project that the team had been working on for EA since 1999 was cancelled, and VIS began restructuring itself into VIS IOW “by laying off half the staff – myself included”.

Back To Stainless Games!

Stainless was “spun-off” from the company, which Buckland notes “was handled with a bit of a meat cleaver, to be honest”.

“It all worked out okay in the end,” he muses, “after six months of lawyers’ involvement.”

“Part of this was thanks to turning to Les Edgar, founder of Bullfrog and ex-chairman of VIS. Les has said that what he’d seen with Stainless become assimilated into VIS had reminded him of what had happened to Bullfrog at EA, and he felt almost honour-bound to do something about it. So when the VIS axe fell, he stepped in and we re-founded Stainless as the independent company it should have always remained. Everybody who got the chop, without exception, came to work for my new company.”

The re-found freedom saw Buckland “back to wearing out shoe leather, touting demos around all the shows”, but gained the company a deal with Midway, on a driving game intended for PS2, Xbox and GameCube.

“Then,” says Buckland, “as was inevitable, VIS closed down the other half of VIS IOW in ‘03, [and] some of the remaining guys rejoined, including my original business partner, Neil “Nobby” Barnden. Unfortunately, however, Midway had just canned our project so we weren’t in a position to re-hire as many people as we would have liked to.”

The company began working with a number of publishers after this point, including Eidos – although the majority of titles produced by Stainless over the past few years remain undisclosed. Buckland suggests this is “for a variety of reasons”.

“We’ve had a few major projects canned for publishers’ commercial reasons, and publishers just don’t like this sort of information being public,” he explains. We’ve also finished a game where the publisher ended up suing the format holder. The game never made it out and for legal reasons we can’t talk about it. We’ve also ghost-written for developers and publishers where part of the deal is to keep anonymous. All this was to keep the roof over our heads and the mouths fed. Now though, Stainless is far more back and in the public eye!”

Xbox Live And Beyond

2006 has seen the company release a number of titles, including a port of Crystal Quest, on Xbox Live Arcade, a platform Buckland notes is “perfect for a company our size”.

“The team sizes suit the way we work,” he continues. “It also allows us to effectively self-publish - we which did with Crystal Quest and would have done with [soon to be released original IP] Novadrome had Buena Vista not stepped in and snapped it up.”

“So far, we’ve been very successful, and see ourselves as one of the world’s leading Live Arcade developers,” he proudly adds. “As well as Crystal Quest and Novadrome, we are producing six products for Atari, another for an undisclosed publisher, and are in advanced negotiations for a whole bunch of others.”

The year has also seen two more of the old team rejoin the company, including Shaun Smith, “one of three original artists on Carmageddon”, who is now the company’s creative director. “Stainless is like a family really – or maybe it’s more like the Hotel California?” Buckland laughs.

For the future, Buckland suggests that Live Arcade and Sony’s E-Distribution Initiative present the best opportunities for Stainless Games. “For the time-being, this is where we’d like to be,” he says. “However we’d like to develop and extend this into producing more original, innovative titles for these platforms – we have a few things in mind. We also have a few ideas for proper triple-As as well, that we’re talking to people about. We don’t believe you need to spend $20m+ to write a best-selling game – not if you design it around good gameplay, not bulk of content.”

As for Buckland himself, he notes with some happiness that his only wish is “to continue what I’m doing right now, which is still actually creating the games.”

“I have great staff around me that now run the company really well – better than I ever did! This allows me to do what I do best: write games.”

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