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Interview: Carmageddon's Comeback

The Splat Pack are back

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I was a typically world-hating, violence-lovin’ teenager during the early 1990s, and that means I’m as pleased as the next man-child that ultra-sadistic racing/pedestrian-splatting game Carmageddon is finally, finally due for a comeback next year, with a new game called Carmgeddon: Reincarnation. Having rescued the rights from the ashes of publisher SCI, original developers Stainless Games are back at the helm. Here, I chat to Stainless co-founder Neil Barnden about what took ’em so long, whether or not they’ll be changing the aesthetic and the humour for more modern times, how they nearly sued Los Angeles, whether they want to court controversy again and why they’re not bothered about the original games being on warez sites.
RPS: First and most important question: why’d it take you long to bring Carmageddon back?

Stainless: After we’d done the first two games and parted company for SCI, they went off to do another game but after that the brand just sort of collapsed and fell into obscurity. We sort of got it back via discussions with Square Enix, who’d taken on the license. We had a friend within Square who we were able to talk to, so it was an in, as it were, to start negotiations going. I never thought we’d get the rights back to Carma. We’d talked in the past about what a laugh it would be to do another game, but it was always sad – ‘It’d be great but it’s never gonna happen…’

RPS: You didn’t think about doing something that was similar but with a different name, or would that have been too unhappy?

Neil Barnden: We actually did. We worked on a couple of titles in the interim. After the Carmageddon days, we were sort of known as driving game people, so we did some other stuff along those lines. But one project was cancelled after a couple of years, just because it no longer fit the publisher’s plans for that particular time, and that also happened with another title. So, yeah [laughs]. After a while we just thought ‘let’s find something else to do.’

RPS: Must be so bewildering to be right there at the top then find yourself blocked from doing it any more.

Neil Barnden: Yeah, we were really upset when, after we’d done Carmageddon, we then did the Splat Pack which was as much content again as the original game, and then we did Carmageddon 2. We did all that within the space of a couple of years, and at the end of Carmageddon 2 we said to SCI ‘can we just have a break for a while, and do a different sort of game?’ They said ‘yeah fine’, but this was their big cash cow, so it was naive of us to not realise they were instantly going to go off and find somebody else to do the next one. And that was that.

RPS: And now you’re bringing it back…

Neil Barnden: Yes. Very, very happy indeed.

RPS: In this age of brands and new IPs struggling so much, it must be an enviable thing to have this legacy, this established thing, so you can hit the ground running.

Neil Barnden: Yeah, that’s what we’re really pleased with too. Because it’s our baby, it’s how we started Stainless. It got us our start, and at the time it was almost exactly the game we wanted, and to have another chance to make a game that’s exactly the game we want but for today is just a fantastic opportunity.

RPS: One thing occurs is, looking at Duke Nukem Forever, there was this debate about whether or not recreating 90s values can work in a contemporary game. How much are you conscious of that with the new game? Is staying loyal to the original more important than updating its style and tone?

Neil Barnden: I think loyalty to the existing fans is important, but we’re different people. There are almost 15 years now between when the first game came out and today, so it’s going to be different because of that. However, we’ve still got the same stupid senses of humour as we did have, so as much as possible we want to develop the game in the same way that we did the first one – which was basically we have a design, but during development if somebody comes up with a great idea we chuck it in.

So you’re not tethered to a particular design, and that’s what we feel was part of the main success of the game – that anybody on the team could say ‘what about if we do this?’ or ‘can we stick one of these in?’ and we just did it. And we’ll know if the game’s working, because – and this happened with the first one too – you can get the game engine running pretty fast, and you get to be running people over pretty fast, and then you start trying things out and seeing whether they work or they don’t. So you self-test it as you go along, and if everyone in the studio is crowding around someone’s monitor while they’re testing some aspect of the game and pissing themselves laughing, you know it’s working.

RPS: You’re also coming into a post-GTA world this time: how much does that change things for a game about running people over?

Neil Barnden: Yeah, the sort of game we’re designing, given we’re thinking very much of download (and what platforms we don’t know yet, that’s not set out), we know we can’t compete in terms of scale as we’re not going to have that budget for a download title. So we have to play to our strengths, which is very much in the gameplay and the larks and the humorous ultra-violence.

RPS: Why download-only?

Neil Barnden: When you’re going out and talking to investors in this sort of thing, they’ll look at the track record of the company in terms of what else they’re doing. And of course for several years now we’ve been concentrating on that area of the market, with stuff for XBLA. So it makes sense to go to people and say ‘we know we can do this.’ We’ve got experience, we know a lot of people at Microsoft, for instance, and so that gives them confidence – gives the people with the money confidence.

RPS: I know you said you’ve not decided on formats, but is there a good chance of a PC release, on Steam and similar services?

Neil Barnden: That’s something that we really want, yeah.

RPS: What’s your feeling on that market – is Steam the only game in town or are the other clients very important too?

Neil Barnden: My personal default method of delivery would be Steam, but that’s just me. Because I’ve been using Steam since it started, I know it works and know how well it works.

RPS: Any desire to court controversy again this time around? All those headlines must have been a big help getting the original games into the public consciousness.

Neil Barnden: I think it’s more difficult now, because of what’s become routinely available in games that are already out there, but it doesn’t do any harm, I think. The weird thing is that, just this last week, the closure of the 405 in LA, it was dubbed ‘Carmageddon’. The assistant head of traffic or something like that claimed he’d coined this phrase to make it easy for people to think about what could be happening on that day. This was quoted on the LA Times, and they very quickly had to retract that – they went back to him and said ‘er, we’ve actually found that the name is already out there.’ But it’s been quite a handy way of popularising the term, and apparently Carmageddon 2 is coming next year at the same time, because they only knocked down half the bridge that they needed to.

RPS: You should work out who you can successfully sue, so you can get enough money to make the new game 10 times fancier.

Neil Barnden: That was suggested to me by a friend in LA – he sent me an email saying ‘you own the rights to this, don’t you? You could be on the gravy train for life.’ [Laughs] Unfortunately, we can’t actually stop them using it. Damn!

RPS: How much are you expecting the new game’s hopeful success to be based on goodwill from existing fans?

Neil Barnden: I’m hoping that it’s going to capture the imagination of a new generation, just because of the things that make people laugh, and have fun playing games, don’t change. As well as satisfying fans who are going to be lining up for it, you know. I can’t imagine we’ll have too much trouble bringing it to a new generation of gamers.

RPS: Yeah, kids sure do like to kill people. Do you think you’ll stick close to the original look, that sort of 90s comicbook aesthetic, or does that need modernising?

Neil Barnden: I think we all accept that because it’s a game with cars in, there’s a kind of expectation of a level of polish to the look of vehicles. Cars have got so shiny and realistic in all the games now that we have to, to a certain extent, reflect that, and obviously with the power of the current generation of machines, that’s something that we can do. Our engine technology’s up to the job. But it’s still got to have that edge to the design, that’s kind of got a surreal look to it, because we throw mad, surreal stuff into the game routinely anyway. As far as the art direction goes, I’d like it to have a distinctive style which will key into the original at least – it’s hard to describe really.

RPS: You’ve got me worried it might look like Blur, why they tried to stick fairly realistic, moody visuals around fantastical Mario Kart mechanics. It was a good time, but it didn’t win much of an audience.

Neil Barnden: It came across as a quite curious mix, I agree. Yeah. I quite enjoyed it, but it seemed to lack something in a way.

RPS: I hear that, when you were designing the first game, you found an excuse to actually buy a load of cars and crash them into each other repeatedly.

Neil Barnden: Yeah, we’ve got videos of that. Back then there was no YouTube or anything like that to get them out there, of course. I’m slowly in the process of chopping up what are quite long videos of all the stuff that we used to do. Basically, with all the money we made, we bought a farm with land and buildings and turned the farmhouse into the office, then all the fields we had impromptu banger races and airsoft sessions – running around shooting each other with BB guns – and a lot of blowing stuff up.

RPS: Of course, still having all those reference videos must make it hard to justify smashing up a load of stuff again for this game..

Neil Barnden: Well, I don’t know… they are very poor quality. [Laughs] We need to do it again in HD or something.

RPS: Is there any scope to re-release the original games too, or is that tied up in whatever’s left of SCI?

Neil Barnden: We go round and round with the discussion on this one. We do own everything, so if we want to we can – we absolutely own the rights to all the previous code, even the stuff that’s Carmageddon-related that we didn’t work on ourselves. It’s all ours. But I think because it’s so easy to go online and find a copy of Carmageddon from a warez site or whatever, it doesn’t feel to us like there’d be an awful lot of point in just rereleasing the originals. We had talked about it, but on our website now we’ve got guys talking about how to get it running on Windows 7, various patches which make it look nicer and high-res, so rather than try and shut them down and go after the people distributing the game, we just thought we’ve got to embrace that and let ‘em have it. They can do with it what they want, because there’s been a really loyal, core modding community who’ve continued to put stuff out for the games. They’re still going.

RPS: And they’re keeping the name alive, which must be so valuable when you’ve got a new one coming out?

Neil Barnden: That’s right. So, our aim is to concentrate on the new one and let the guys discuss getting the best out of the old ones openly on the forums.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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