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Postmortem: Startopia

October 26, 2001 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

Muckyfoot Productions was formed back in '97 by four former employees of Bullfrog — Mike Diskett, Fin Mcgechie and Guy Simmons, with the later addition of Gary Carr. It was during these early days that the concepts for their first two projects came together. Mike and Fin took the lead with Urban Chaos, a departure from the style of game they had worked on at Bullfrog. This would be the primary project for Muckyfoot, and it's debut game. Meanwhile, as a secondary project, Gary and Guy decided to follow their roots and develop a sim/God style game that would compete with the "theme series" they had helped create for Bullfrog. One of the ideas they had originally proposed to EA as a follow up to the successful "theme series" of games, revolved around running a space station, and while Bullfrog and EA showed little interest in the idea, their new independence allowed them to make the concept a reality. With publisher support for Muckyfoot acquired in the form of Eidos, Startopia (or Space Station as it was called then) was born.

The style for Startopia was quickly laid down in a broad concept document developed by Gary and Guy — the game would take place within a torus with multiple decks, and would revolve around the interactions of a number of distinct alien races. The player would have some kind of indirect control of these beings, and would have to provide facilities and entertainments to keep them happy. It would draw inspiration from classic Bullfrog games as the "theme series", Populous and Dungeon Keeper to provide gamers with a familiar hook, as well as introducing some innovative elements of it's own. Above all the game would be humorous and comic, borrowing heavily from popular science fiction, and satirising as many science fiction shows and books as possible.

The original concept-document conveyed a more mature aspect to the graphic style — perhaps with little thought to matching the game style to the target market, though it was at the time nothing more than a rough draft of how the game might eventually develop. With this very basic brief in mind, the basic technology framework was laid down, and creation of game models and objects were started.

For the next year, a small team of programmers and artists generated what was essentially a graphical demo of a space station game, with little regard to actual gameplay — an unfortunate necessity when trying to acquire continued funding from a publisher who will judge the progress and suitability of a project on look rather than feel. However, the demo successfully won the support of Eidos, and Startopia was officially signed as Muckyfoot's second project.

At this point more serious thought was given to how the game would actually play, and a game designer with experience in this type of project was hired to develop the gameplay systems, levels, and interface and produce a more technical design document that the team could refer to. Taking into account the demo work already done, Startopia the game began to take shape, detailing the interactions between characters and objects, the goals of the player, scripting language requirements, additional features required, and various other gameplay details. As the game progressed more serious thought was given to target audience and target platform, resulting in some modification of earlier artwork and concepts. We chose to go with as broad an audience as possible, toning down much of the overt sexuality in the game to the level of innuendo, so the humour would still appeal to the adult gamer while being sanitary enough for a younger audience. We also decided to aim for a lower base specification machine — fortunately a reasonable under-estimate of projected target hardware in the original concept document meant little needed to be removed or changed.

While work continued steadily on the game, it remained unplayable for quite a large proportion of the development cycle. This had to do with the complex nature of the interaction between all the final game elements — everything relying on something else to work in a balanced fashion. Until almost every game element was in a near complete state, it was impossible to construct or accurately balance playable levels. Everyone had to assume the disparate pieces of code and art they where working on would mesh together as planned, relying on faith and trust that the design would not only work in theory but in practice too. There would be no time to re-write or re-design the game if it didn't work as imagined.

Much of the project's success stems from the experience and professionalism of the Startopia team. Art, design, programming, and sound were each led by an industry veteran with a strong knowledge and realistic outlook of development.

Fortunately (particularly for me!) almost every gameplay concept and system, theorized and proposed in the game design document proved accurate, and the final product differed little from the game originally imagined.

Much of the project's success stems from the experience and professionalism of the Startopia team. Art, design, programming, and sound were each led by an industry veteran with a strong knowledge and realistic outlook of development. Supported by experienced staff, the team required little in the way of management — probably much to the delight of our Eidos based producer. Tasks could be handed over to individual members of staff with only the lightest of briefings, secure in the knowledge that it would be carried out in an efficient and professional manner. The dedication shown by the team was also impressive, and certainly helped ship the product in a reasonable timeframe, especially in the last few months of development.

Despite the team's practical approach to development, the atmosphere in the office during development always remained informal and light, which helped minimise tension and conflict among staff that usually arise during the more stressful crunch periods and deadlines. This was helped by the hands-on nature of the company directors — who not only run the studio, but also work full time as project leaders alongside the staff.

Startopia also benefited from experience gained while working with Eidos' external QA and localization during the development of Urban Chaos. Learning from the mistakes and problems encountered during that project, both Eidos and Muckyfoot revised their communication channels and protocols resulting in a much smoother flow of information between the two companies, an aspect of development most appreciated by our own small internal QA department.

Though by no means a perfect project, it's generally agreed that Startopia had a relatively smooth development cycle when compared to past games that the staff had worked on.


Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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