You would be hard pressed to find a developer that has never played a game by the Stamper brothers.
With a career spanning more than 30 years and over 100 games, the pair have directly influenced gamers and games-makers the world over – making them fitting winners for Development Legend at this year’s Develop Awards.
The very mention of the Stamper brothers evokes memories of Rare’s titles for Xbox and Nintendo platforms, or – for the earliest gamers – Ultimate Play The Game. But the duo started considerably earlier than this, at the height of the coin-op industry and before the dawn of consoles.
“We were working in the coin-op industry, repairing boards and looking at how people change software to make different things happen on the screen,” Tim Stamper tells Develop. “That’s really how we got into it, that was in the late ‘70s to early ‘80s.
“We worked for a couple of companies, working on conversions on Space Invaders and Galaxian boards. We started writing software on other people’s hardware, and then selling the coin-op conversions for new products.”
Keen to continue developing games, the Stampers set up their own publishing label, Ultimate Play The Game. Rather than dedicating themselves solely to coin-op boards, they began exploring the possibilities of creating titles for new and emerging platforms, such as the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
“It looked pretty interesting, so we started to write games for it,” Stamper recalls. “Because of our experience writing for very restricted pieces of hardware, doing so for Sinclair was a natural progression for us.
“That ability then enabled us to transfer straight to the Nintendo Entertainment System – or Famicom as it was known in Japan. We got hold of a very early Famicom, before they sold 1m units, and thought we could write some software for it. That’s when we set up Rare.”
My goal at Rare was to bring products that you wouldn’t see for six to eight years and make it available as soon as possible.
Rare is, of course, the studio that the Stampers are best known for. Still going strong and marking its 30th anniversary this summer, the firm is still fondly remembered by millions for its early Nintendo titles: Battletoads, R.C. Pro-Am and countless licensed titles such as WWF Wrestlemania and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
The Stampers’ partnership with Nintendo continued as the platform holder released new devices, with the arrival of the superior Super Nintendo Entertainment System enabling the creation of Killer Instinct and Donkey Kong Country.
The leap into 3D gaming with the Nintendo 64 brought about yet more revered Rare titles, from the timeless Goldeneye to Banjo-Kazooie and Conker’s Bad Fur Day – titles that media and consumers alike said rivalled Nintendo’s own output for quality and inventiveness.
A Rare breed
For many Rare fans, these are the titles that define the studio, but how does Stamper himself define it?
“To me, Rare was innovative thinking and innovative product,” he says.
“My goal at Rare was to bring products that you wouldn’t see for six to eight years and make it available as soon as possible. I always wanted to produce the very best product we could on the very best system.”
It’s a goal that few could argue wasn’t accomplished: from the graphical sheen of Donkey Kong Country to Perfect Dark’s counter-op mode and AI-controlled multiplayer bots, most of Rare’s titles were ahead of their time.
It is surprising, then, that Nintendo never moved to fully acquire the studio, instead settling for keeping it close as a second-party developer. Certainly, Stamper is perplexed as to why the platform holder never brought them into the fold.
“I’ve no idea why they didn’t do that,” he admits. “I thought we were a good fit.”
The shift to Xbox
While Nintendo remained a strong and valuable partner for Rare, the Stampers had their sights set on bigger things. Change was in the air.
“The price of software development was going up and up with the platforms, and Rare works really well with a partner,” says Stamper. “We were looking for someone to help broaden our horizons.”
That someone turned out to be Microsoft, which forked out a whopping $375m to completely own the UK developer – at the time a new record for high-value acquisitions.
While Nintendo fans were devastated by the news, it gave both the Stampers and their staff the chance to work on new titles for the larger, more mature audience that Microsoft was attracting.
Rare’s output on the original Xbox was minimal – just two titles – but it became one of the most prolific first-party studios on Xbox 360, reviving the Perfect Dark and Banjo-Kazooie series as well as inventing new IP such as Viva Pinata and Kinect Sports.
Stamper looks back on this period fondly: “I like Microsoft. They had a great system, and there’s a lot of good people at Microsoft.”
In 2007, Tim and Chris Stamper made the shock announcement that they were leaving Rare – the studio they had nurtured for more than 20 years – to “pursue other opportunities”. Tim Stamper says that, as with the Microsoft acquisition, change was necessary.
“Chris and I needed to take a new direction to produce some better, greater products for the future, and we thought the only way we’d be able to do that was to take a step sideways and pursue a new venture.”
The first hint at that new venture is FortuneFish, a new Nottingham-based mobile studio that set up shop back in 2013. The company is headed up by Joe Stamper – Tim’s son – but the elder Stamper says FortuneFish is just one piece of the puzzle.
“There are actually a number of new ventures,” he says. “FortuneFish is run by a few guys – I’m an investor in FortuneFish and so is Chris. I spend some of my time there, and it’s being run by Joe and a chap called Phil Popejoy. That’s been going for two years, and it’s going well.
“Joe’s been involved since he was a baby. He was our first junior games tester – he knows games in and out, and knows the thorough history of all of our products. Joe’s well versed in working on new, unique products and keeping them secret.”
So far FortuneFish’s output includes two mobile titles: physics-based puzzle game That Bouncy Thing and maths puzzler Cat Logic, a title that was soft-launched in the UK during the Develop Awards.
Based solely on these two titles, FortuneFish seems to be a different beast to the Rare of old – and perhaps rightly so. It is, after all, a new studio for a new age. But would it even be possible to set up a company that captured that Rare magic?
“I don’t think it would be difficult,” says Stamper. “You can still produce a studio like Rare; it would just need to have its own direction, its own idea stream and product stream.
“Ultimate and Rare made dramatic changes to the type of software available throughout their history and that’s why I don’t really want to sit back and look at what’s been done before. We need to push forward to the future – that’s why the move from Microsoft was made, that’s what I’m doing now, and that’s what I’ve been doing with Chris for the last eight years or so.”
The Stampers’ Return
Further proof that it’s possible to set up a ‘new Rare’ came earlier this year in the form of Playtonic Games, a group of ex-Rare developers determined to build new games in the style of the Stampers’ classics. Tim deems it “a great honour” that such a studio has been set up, but he has avoided any news of the Banjo-Kazooie-esque Yooka-Laylee.
“I purposefully try not to look at other people’s products because I don’t want to be steered from the direction I’m taking,” he says.
So what direction is the veteran games developer taking? “Well, I can’t tell you that yet, but you’re going to find out hopefully by the end of the year.”
A day spent doing an interview somewhere is a day that’s not spent on development and design – and that really bothers me.
Still so secretive. The enigmatic nature of the Stamper brothers is part of the reason they have become such revered figureheads. They are as famous for keeping their cards close to their chests as they are for the incredible games they have created. But why the need for such secrecy?
“It’s not secretive, exactly,” Stamper explains. “We have a goal to produce the very best product we can, and that takes all of our time. A day spent doing an interview somewhere is a day that’s not spent on development and design – and that really bothers me.
“I’ve done this my whole life, I’m still doing it now. My time is very valuable to me. Yes, coming to events and doing interviews is wonderful, but what about those ideas that I would have developed if I had stayed at work and carried on pushing in the direction I need to push?”
But no matter what direction the Stampers try to push, they will always be known for their time at Rare and Ultimate Play The Game. Arguably two of the most influential UK developers in our industry’s history, the pair can be cited as the direct inspiration for many of today’s games creators.
A humble man, Tim acknowledges this and urges new and upcoming developers to continue stretching the limits of what we consider to be a video game.
“I hope our studios had a dramatic impact on people’s thinking about the sort of software you can write,” he says.
“I want to continue that trend. Software’s a wonderful, wonderful thing – games in particular – and I hope people keep pushing the boundaries, and you can be sure I’ll be doing the same. When you look at my product, I want you to be surprised and delighted.”