Making Of: Hostile Waters

[Another brilliant game which should have been massive – I recall describing it as the first great game of the new millennium, which will annoy anyone who’s anal over that Popular Millennium thing. In it I interview Julian Widdows, who I – when writing this – realise I haven’t seen for years. Where are you, Julian Widdows? Also, reading it reminds me of one great videogame lost artifact – the Multiplayer Patch for Hostile Waters, which was finished but never released. For God’s sake, someone – do the right thing and leak the bastard.]

Rage's games were all big on explosions. We miss them so.

Sometimes a game’s easy to sum up. For example… Hostile Waters: Lost Classic. There was a time, however that Hostile Waters was captured in a different way. That is, “Carrier Command for a New Millennia”, for that’s what it was. The idea of taking the ancient 80s classic, and riffing furiously off it was Rage’s Dave Percival and Andy Williams, but it was never turned out to be that simple or direct a tribute.

“You may argue, having played Hostile Waters, although you can see the seeds of that in there, it’s very different to Carrier Command,” says Project Manager Julian Widdows, now of Swordfish Studios, “It became clear to us pretty early on that updating it wasn’t going to work. It was a very quiet title.” Good point. While Carrier Command was based around two eponymous carriers and a massive series of islands, explored in a freeform manner, Hostile Waters was a level based Action/RTS hybrid and made good use of Rage’s famed explosion-code. It took a while to actually reach that point, however.

“One of the interesting things about making games is that at the moment there’s few people who differentiate research and development from games development,” Julian says, “We were very much in the R&D phase at the outset, while still having to develop a game on that technology. We were building a technology base, effectively”. The primary problem in this phase that Rage Birmingham, while experienced, had never actually made a strategy game before. “You can’t just reverse engineer other people’s games and make a carbon copy. That doesn’t create a great game,” Julian says, “Sure, it’s possible… but it’s certainly not the best way to go about designing a game”. This R&D state continued for just shy of two years, before amping up to a full – yet still slender – team of eleven people, after which it took almost another year and a quarter to bring it to retail.

The end of the great era in games known as 'We really like Lens Flare and can't get enough of it'. These dinosaurs are now extinct.

“We didn’t set out with the intention of having an extended pre-production title, but we were in a position where we were allowed to build the team up to what we needed in that period. In retrospect, rightly so: it would have increased the cost at the wrong time,” Julian argues, “With all the resources in the world, extended pre-prod is incredibly useful. You can actually work out what you need to know about the game you’re creating.”

Hostile Waters cross-genre basis also proved challenging. Balancing the action and strategy elements satisfactorily proved tricky. “At the time, games like Battlezone were being released, which were very much controlled from the first person,” Julian says, “You were one person, one vehicle. One thing we always wanted in Hostile was the ability to step back from the action. If you’re always in the first person, things get confusing in terms of knowing where all your units are. How do you know what all your units are doing? Audio cues aren’t sufficient. You need to have the ability to take stock of your situation and know where it’s going wrong. But we also wanted the very immediate, visual action where you could pull the trigger yourself, and it felt good. Killing people felt really good. We knew you wanted to be on the floor, looking at the action, feeling the enemy breathing down your front. That engaging dynamic of being engaged in the action”

Their solution, they knew, had to centre on the Carrier itself. This aquatic base was already responsible for the construction of your individual units, but perhaps it could find another purpose? “What if you could take stock of the situation in the carrier as well here, in another room?,” Julian adds rhetorically. This lead to a map and the ability to add way-points, select and move around units. However, this choice lead to a pivotal moment in the game’s development. “I think the key decision we made, and probably the most important thing we did, was to pause the game while you were in there,” Julian says, “This changes the dynamic of Hostile Waters immeasurably. You really can take stock. You can think carefully in a controlled and relaxed way what aspects of the game you’d like to focus on.”

No screenshots of choppers, would you believe it. Pah.

However, they didn’t want to reduce the game to a mere distant control. “We made it as simple and easy as possible to give orders to units in the game, so you didn’t have to go back to your carrier,” Julian says, “You could say “You – go over there”, and it worked and felt satisfying.” The balancing the two desires proved awkward. But, as Julian says, “It’s what made Hostile Waters unique in its way, is that you could really take control or take a back seat depending where you are. If you want it to be a good action/strategy title. The key thing is that it has to be fun to control the vehicle and pull the trigger, because if it’s not people won’t play it like that, and just play it like a strategy title… and that would have ruined it.”

Hostile Waters also brought in an external writer, in the form of the abrasively entertaining comic-writer Warren Ellis, which added much to the game fiction. “Our strength was designing games, not script-writing,” Julian states, “We wanted a high quality story, with cut-scenes as a reward for completing the level. We also knew the challenge for this would be that the story and the game are so closely entwined, it’s very difficult to keep the script current. You have to change it endlessly.” In other words, every time a level changed, the writer would have to rewrite something. Clearly this would be an impossibility in terms of having a writer on constant demand for months. The team hit a novel solution. “We had Warren write cinematics which had nothing to do with the main game narrative: he would do backstory about the world and the carrier,” Julian says, “William Burroughs had something called The Folding Technique, where he’d say you could take chapters and re-arrange them in any order, and it would still make sense. And you could argue whether that was actually true or not, but it was certainly true in Hostile’s cinematics. We wanted to tell the game narrative in the level, but do these ambitious, different cinematics for /completing/ a level. It wouldn’t patronise you by telling you what you’ve just done.”

The fact it was voiced by Tom Baker is another major tick in the plus column, as always.

In the end, Hostile Water’s critical success and commercial failure proved bittersweet. “We’re proud that we got it out… and we’re most proud that the people who bought it really, really liked it,” Julian says, “We got some phenomenal reviews. Including stuff like “The best game you’ve never played”. And still people show interest in the game. I hate saying this, even though I say it every single time, I know that deep down in our souls, we do this for one reason, which is to do good games that people enjoy playing. There’s not one of here who’s driving around in a Ferrari, or swimming pools or a harem of girls.”

However, despite its lack of success in terms of money, it wasn’t a loss, it was far from useless. “It did a huge amount of good – what it didn’t make back in money, it made back in reputation for the companies who were involved.” It was this groundwork which helped Rage Birmingham to reform as Swordfish Studios when Rage collapsed financially. “I wish we shipped with multiplayer,” Julian Widdow says, “Then Edge would have given it nine”. As it was, the publisher didn’t want to have a multiplayer game, despite the huge popularity of strategy-based multiplayer at the time. Not that, as it turns out it stopped them. “We did actually do a multiplayer patch, and there’s a LAN version of Hostile Waters which we completed. But we completed it the day Interplay went to the wall, who were distributing it… and it never got shipped.” Due to a complicated legal situation, it was never released.

Rage’s biggest regret about Hostile Waters and now ours too.


  1. Dead Space: Some of it is Warren Ellis’ | Rock, Paper, Shotgun says:

    […] and smoking. Last time Warren contributed to a PC game was the brilliant and conceptually splendid Hostile Waters , so we have to take this as a good sign. […]

  2. Bursar says:

    If you play FPS’s with WASD then Hostile Waters is absolutely brilliant as all the ‘wingman’ commands are based around WASD key presses.

    The first time I played it I was using cursor keys in FPS’s and it never clicked. I came back to it after a couple of years during which i’d retrained myself to use WASD and it was phenomenal.

    Directing 3 or 4 wingman quickly and accurately whilst driving a vehicle yourself has never been done better in my opinion.

  3. Freeman says:

    I’ve completed this game by 5 times and i still have a question-is something like multiplayer? i really need it….thx for answer.

  4. AlexF says:

    Loved this game to bits, one of the best ever. I always wanted to reduce the gravity in it for the explosion debris, couldn’t figure out why it was so high. If anyone knew how to do this id play it again!

  5. Rock, Paper, Birthday: We Are One | Rock, Paper, Shotgun says:

    […] with Developers on the origins of classic games Collect them all by clicking the Making Of tag. Hostile Waters Freedom Force Harvey Smith Rise of Nations Laser Squad Nemesis Arx Fatalis City Of Heroes The […]

  6. No ‘Freakangels’ Week says:

    […] after all this time, a few folk out there still talk about it.  How very charming of them. No Comments, Comment or […]

  7. Demonsslayer says:

    I releaized after some cleaning that my copy had been lost. I have brought it out from time to time and have always had a “blast” through out the game. I was hoping if they had gone ahead with a sequal that they expand the reclimation since the game always seemed to have something reclaiming more then just metals and also wished to make Outpost of my own and such so the carrier was a start point later in the game. It is so tempting to see if a group or another Company could get the rights to allow it to be remade as Hostile Waters: Antaeus Resurrection which continues the story even a few years later or something. Well back to playing the game :)

  8. John says:

    You can get this on that great new website/company that is getting a lot of buzz at the moment – ‘Good Old Games’ ( It was $5.99 for a download that had no DRM and was guaranteed to work in XP and Vista! I have already bought Fallout 1 and 2, and those games are playing great! If you’re into classic games, go check out!

  9. cheeba says:

    Indeed, I just bought it from there myself. It didn’t click with me first time I tried the demo way back, but I’m buggered if I know why now. It’s absolutely tremendous, and I’m only a handful of missions into it.

  10. John says:

    Good to hear cheeba! We all need to shout about to every corner of the gaming web! :) I am doing my bit anyway! :)

  11. Wurzel says:

    Well, there is a nw Carrier Command game in development; hopefully they decide to go down the HW route of blending RTS, squad strategy and third-person shooter. Even now, it’s still the only game of its kind that I can think of (glad to have kept his CD in pristine condition.)

  12. Mr. Weedy says:

    This game is awesome. I STILL have the original cardboard box, the cd, the manual and the key layout sheet and it still is AWESOME fun. I have had this game like 7 years now and I have played it 69 times through. I’m about to start playing it once again and play it 70th time through.

    This is Undescrivably awesome game. Rage indeed did their career’s very biggest error when they went to bankcrupty and didn’t manage to release that multiplayer patch for this game. This game would have sold millions, millions and millions and even more millions of copies and made literally massive amounts of money.

    Just so awesome. 69 times played through, doesn’t that already tell something?

    Normally I play games through maybe once or twice, barely ever three times because nowadays they are just utter shit. This isn’t. Next best game which I have played second most through is Jeff Wayne’s The War of The Worlds game which I have played throug roughly… maybe 8 times.

    69 times and 70th is about to come up.

    Just think about that. Awesome game, can’t say anything better than that because I can’t find enough awesome words to represent the greatness of this game. :D

  13. John says:

    Mr. Weedy – you the MAN! :)

  14. MadMart says:

    I got on this GOG site, registered (back in sept.), and It still will not let me past the title screen. WTF?

  15. John says:

    MadMart – GOG is now public beta – so anyone can now login in, Their servers were down for a while, while they changed, so maybe try again.

  16. Jubaal says:

    Hostile Waters has to be one of my favourite ever games on any platform. It has the exact kind of gameplay I love i.e. the ability to manage units from a strategic level or get in there and dirty yourself.

    The background story and cut-scenes are nicely put together and with a narration cast like Paul Darrow, Glynis Barber and Tom Baker you can’t go wrong.

    What puts the icing on the cake for me is the personality of the characters and the banter between them. Listening to Patton say “Son, this is not a gun” if you dare to equip him with any weapon smaller than the statue of liberty still makes me smile.

    Personally I always tried to allocate the characters the same vehicles, Ransom was my main chopper pilot, Borden flew my Pegasus, Koralev was my healing scarab, Patton had a Rhino etc. What about the rest of you?

    I’ve started playing it again and I’m surprised how much I am still enjoying it. So often when you come back to old games you loved they never quite live up to how great you remembered them, however I’m loving Hostile Waters this time as much as I did the first.

    It is such a shame to hear that the multiplayer code was never released. To be honest though I would have preferred a plain skirmish mode where the game creates a randomised island based on some user defined settings e.g. island size, difficulty setting etc.

    Right, I’m off to perform a ritual sacrifice and bargain my soul in return for the development of Hostile Waters 2.

  17. John says:

    Let’s not forget, amongst the names mentioned, the Sean Connery sound-a-like! :) Made that first cutscene sound like a movie or TV show! :)

  18. Jubaal says:

    If only I could alt+tab without the game crashing *sobs*

  19. John says:

    Many games don’t let you ALT-Tab, so don’t blame a single game about it! :) Anyway, plenty of very average games don’t either – so having a great one like Hostile Waters makes it easier, surely! :)

  20. Jubaal says:

    Bah no. If it was an average game I wouldn’t care, but as I love Hostile Waters so much it makes me a sad monkey. :(

  21. Mr. Weedy says:

    The game is old and I don’t think the developers at that time imaginated that anyone would alt+tab back then because the computers weren’t powerful enough for that. I still remember how my old computer choked up because of my PCI graphic card instead of AGP. The AGP cards were very high-tech back then. :)

    Anyway, if someone can offer their help in the sense of creating a game, know what it takes to create a game and you know what Steam program is, feel free to contact me: minimister [at] gmail [dot] com.

    Antaeus may raise again. ;)

  22. Jubaal says:

    Just found out from some helpful soul at that if you create a shortcut to the HostileWaters.exe file, and add a ‘-windowed’ (Minus the ‘s) at the end of the target line in the shortcut properties, the game runs in windowed mode. So you can alt+tab to your hearts content. Yay!

  23. John says:

    Jubaal -great! Thanks! Gotta love that GOG!

  24. Jubaal says:

    My pleasure. Spread the Hostile Waters Love!

  25. Hostile Waters Retrospective at Resolution « Wordcore says:

    […] Things have been a bit quiet on the games front for me lately, besides playing more of the Heroes of Newerth beta and planning my article on it and other Defence of the Ancients-inspired games for The Game Reviews. Something I’ve had festering for a little while has seen publication today though – I’ve put together a retrospective of one of my favourite games, Hostile Waters, which is waiting patiently for you at Resolution. It’s one of those overlooked classics, doomed to relative obcurity by various unlucky occurrences around its release in 2001. It’s still fairly widely available on budget, mind, so if you like the sound of this great hybrid strategy game, it shouldn’t be too tricky to track it down. Also, if you’d like to read some more about its intriguing development, those kindly men at Rock Paper Shotgun did a “making of” article a while back, which can be found here. […]

  26. Smirnoff says:

    A shame to see another year and a half gone and still no leaked MP patch or sequel. HW is a fantastic game, even now it looks ok, plays and sounds fantastic and has a nice balance of difficulty, I would love to see this updated graphically with some new missions, equipment and maybe even vehicles, but mostly it needs the multiplayer (co-op and versus modes).

  27. Jubaal says:

    Just found this thread again whilst doing a google search for “Hostile Waters 2” and “Hostile Waters skirmish” in the vain hope that there is a sequel in the making or a skirmish mod had been brought out. Sadly nothing :(

    If ever there was a game which would benefit from Kickstarter it would be Hostile Waters 2, though I’d fear for my bank balance if it did ever happen.

    For those still looking for the original game Greenman Gaming are currently selling it as a digital dowload. Even though I already own the game I’ve just bought it from them in some vain hope that this demand will trigger the creation of a sequel. Desperate and foolish I know!

    Here is the digital download link: link to

    Right after looking at my uninstalled list of game on Steam and sighing I’m off to install Hostile Waters again for my 4th play through. That may not sound like a lot but from someone who completes about 5% of games he plays and pretty much never replays those he does finish, it certainly says something about my love for this frickin’ game.

    “I drive tanks son”

  28. URL says:

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  29. Marvin widdows | Barflowers says:

    […] Making Of: Hostile Waters | Rock, Paper, ShotgunDec 7, 2007 … In it I interview Julian Widdows, who I – when writing this – realise I haven’t seen for ….. 08/12/2007 at 21:34 Marvin the Paranoid Android says: … […]

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