History Lesson: The story of Wipeout

Like many great ideas, Wipeout began at the pub.

Developer Nick Burcombe was drinking with Jim Bowers, his colleague from Liverpool-based studio Psygnosis, at Oxton’s The Shrewsbury Arms.

A dev kit for Sony’s first PlayStation console had recently arrived at the office, and the duo was trying to think about how to make the most of the new tech.

I had recently finished Mario Kart on SNES and I had been playing it for about eight hours trying to beat the 150cc league,” Burcombe remembers. I couldn’t do it until I turned the music down and put my own tunes on – I was listening to rave and dance tracks. It gave me this level of concentration and I beat it. It was just a moment of gameplay where I was like: ‘wow, we should recreate that somehow’. I was trying to explain this to Jimmy at the time in the pub of how excited I was to have this music crescendoing with the victory.”

Bowers, meanwhile, had been messing around with the 3D capabilities of the PlayStation and already designed the now-iconic Feisar racer for a video he put together.

Jim was talking about these ships he had designed and how he had these two craft dogfighting down this track and had this big loop-the-loop in it and stuff,” Burcombe says.

We went back to the office, put music from The Prodigy over it and it just worked in an amazing way. Everyone looked at it and said: ‘This is something special’. From there on in, we knew what we wanted to make. It needed to look like Jimmy’s movie, but we didn’t know what the game was, or what the rules were yet.”

Shortly after this, Psygnosis was asked to produce a sequence of gameplay for the 1995 film Hackers.

It was a good place to experiment. We were briefed that the film had two kids who were playing against each other in an arcade-style environment. It was a good place for Jimmy to stretch his legs and experiment with some ideas,” Burcombe says.

There were these pop-up walls and targets to shoot at to open routes in the gameplay footage. We discovered doing that that it wasn’t good for the racing side of the game, it wasn’t really conducive to have all these things blocking you. So Hackers helped solidify what this game should be and how it should be as a futuristic racing game with combat and weapons. That’s where it really came from. It was going to be fast, it was going to have dance music and it was going to have Jimmy’s designs.”

In retrospect, it’s possible to look back at Wipeout and assume that Psygnosis was cynically attempting to cash in on the dance music cultural zeitgest of the time. But Burcombe insists that this wasn’t the case.

Wipeout was who we were, what we were into graphic design-wise, music-wise, gaming-wise,” Burcombe explains.

It all rolled into one moment. The synchronicity between what the dev team was making and how it was presented from a marketing point of view was actually one of the tightest I have ever; everybody was on the same page. It felt like it had a life of its own. It was just a clear direction that everyone understood. There were no mixed messages about anything, this was a cool night-club racing game. Nobody concocted that in any strategic way. It was a case of: ‘Here it is, this is what Liverpool makes’. We weren’t trying to be cool. We were just putting ourselves in it.

"There were not mixed messages about anything with Wipeout. This was a cool, nightclub racing game."

Nick Burcombe, former Psygnosis/Sony Liverpool

Wipeout was one of the original PlayStation’s launch titles in Europe, and the console’s initial success was in part attributed to the racing title. With its edgy marketing, popular music and impressive 3D visuals, Wipeout helped make games cool. They were no longer the domain of children, but something you played after a night down the pub.

All the components like The Designers Republic’s marketing campaign (pictured above), the soundtrack [featuring Orbital, Leftfield and The Chemical Brothers), Jimmy’s visuals, and how we designed the circuits, they all came together to make it feel like a futuristic sport and something that was also entertainment,” Burcombe says.

PlayStation came along with a cool new brand and Psygnosis’ marketing department did some pretty edgy stuff with Wipeout ads. Also, PlayStation was setting new standards about who gaming was for. We’re the generation that grew up with games in our lives. I had an Atari 2600 and haven’t known a life without gaming. The generation before us had very limited options. My age group has been part of shaping the industry into what it is today. Wipeout had a huge influence in Europe on the perception of PlayStation and how it was presented. I’m really proud that everyone at Psygnosis had a role to play in that. It was amazing that the series went on for another 18 years.”

But in 2012 – after eight more Wipeout games – Sony closed Psygnosis (then called Sony Liverpool after PlayStation bought the studio in 2001). A number of studios have spun out of this – Sony’s own XDev, Firesprite (which worked on the PS4 Playroom functionality) and Burcombe’s Playrise Digital.

The latter has just released its home console debut Table Top Racing: World Tour on PS4. The title is similar in many ways to Wipeout – a colourful racing game with a focus on multiplayer and weapons.

It’s a mash-up of all my favourite games really,” Burcombe says. There’s a bit of Mario Kart in there, a bit of Micro Machines, a bit of Wipeout. The way the weapons work is different to Wipeout as there’s a lot of depth to the countering system. If you know how to use the weapons you can be quite crafty with them. There’s much more to it. I’m really excited about launching our own IP. It’s got its own flavour, and you’ll see a lot of my games in there. This is the best of them.”

And though Sony has all but retired the Wipeout brand, Burcombe says that he would be up for making another entry in the series, perhaps even taking to Kickstarter to do so.

If Table Top Racing is successful, I know I can put a team together for it as I get asked every week if we’re making a new Wipeout,” he says.

But I’d have to make that PR story work on a Kickstarter level. You’d have to find out if there’s an audience for it first. I wouldn’t go half arsed either, I wouldn’t be asking for 100,000, I’d be looking at a proper undertaking on this and make it so that players can create their own tracks and really reinvent the whole thing. You’d be looking at a serious amount of money to make it. But it’s one of those where you never say never, if there’s demand there, we’d love to meet it. I know enough people who’d make a real good job of it, but as it stands right now, without the Wipeout brand on it – which I doubt Sony is about to relinquish anytime soon – it’s kind of out of the question without Sony’s blessing.”

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