Last month, a peculiar request was sent to all Lionhead staff by the senior management.
Everyone was asked to take two days off the group’s next blockbuster projects and, instead, come into work and design something completely new from scratch.
It didn’t have to be a game, either. An idea in itself would be good enough. It could be a character design that’s been itching the mind of an animator, or a new method for displaying lighting effects, or an old Bullfrog game put in a new light.
This was Lionhead Creative Day – a ‘design, show and tell’ project that culminated in Lionhead booking out a cinema theatre for its staff to show off what they had got up to.
The results were astonishing. In two working days (as well as a few voluntary late nights) a monstrous level of creativity had awakened within the Guildford-based studio.
Some people had designed entirely new game concepts for Fable, while others decided to test Kinect in ingenious and innovative ways. Others, like the two games highlighted below, are too impressive to remain mere concepts.
“Big modern games do tend towards becoming a bit of a production-line,” says Neil Wallace, a programmer nearing his tenth year at the studio.
“These projects are so big they have to be well-orchestrated, and I think you lose a bit of creativity and innovation in that sense.”
Whether these small and splendid ideas will ever become full development projects is another issue entirely. But the staff Develop had spoken to made it clear that Lionhead Creative Day isn’t about pitching a multi-million pound game design, it’s about blowing off steam, throwing caution to the wind and awakening artistic passions.
Here are two key games exhibited on Creative Day
Team: Tom Lansdale, Virgil Tanasa, Kevin Fairbairn, Annes Stevens, Charles Griffiths
Idea: Shuffle follows a classic 2D Mario template that has been completely revitalised with inventive use of Kinect. A standard controller is used to jump and run through the levels, yet Shuffle’s sketch-drawn hero can also respond to player arm movements to reach for items and attack enemies.
Yet the game takes a dazzling post-modern twist when Kinect’s own camera view is displayed in a small preview window. In an ingenious moment, Shuffle allows that preview box to become an in-game item. With the player pictured inside the window, arms can be extended outward to hold onto objects, punch enemies, and drag the preview image across the screen.
The potential of this is explored when both Shuffle’s in-game hero and the preview box are used in collaboration to solve puzzles and defeat enemies.
Interview: Charles Griffiths
What was the mood in the studio when Creative Day was announced?
The moment Peter mentioned that we were going to be doing Creative Day, I thought that it was a really brilliant idea. We got our team together very quickly and decided to actually start working on our game idea before the official two days that were allotted to it. Not by too much; just a few weekends.
The only thing me and Tom [Lansdale, Lionhead programmer] thought about was, okay, our game isn’t going to be made into something real later on, so let’s not have any silly hopes for it. We just thought that we were going to make something really cool that we could show to everyone at Lionhead to really entertain them.
Even, secretly deep down inside, you had no hope that Shuffle could one day become a full project?
Well if other people say that, then that’s fantastic. To me, it’s always been about entertaining people.
How much time did this project take out of your schedule?
We actually spent a couple of weekends in the office to get a lot of the work done outside of the two-day period. So early on we began storyboarding and talking a lot about how the game would actually work, while at the same time sorting out the base technology.
During the actual Creative Days it was great fun, and great to see so many people creating interesting things. Some people had great ideas that were not even related to games.
I think the whole idea is a great outlet for us, and everyone had so much fun doing it too.
Do you think this exercise is something more studios should do?
I think, if you come at it with the right expectations, it can be a lot of fun.
I can see why some places don’t do it, because you have developers that are putting their heart and soul into this, they’re going to get there hopes up, they’re going to make something really cool, and they’re going to be crushed when a publisher doesn’t come forward and offer a hundred million pounds to sign the game.
We’re not holding out any hopes. That wasn’t the point. We just wanted to meet up as an entire studio, show each other stuff and have a good day. If you come at it with that attitude, I think it’s a great benefit for all studios.
Are there any practical benefits to the Creative Day, then?
We’re finding out more about ourselves and the ideas we have. People get to know more about each other. Lionhead’s a big company and it’s good to hear more about people who you wouldn’t always have the chance to meet. It’s fun.
Team: Neil Wallace (Solo)
Idea: Players drop spinning cogs onto a blank screen and, with the use of string, can create a network of conveyor belts. Wooden boots and detached hands can be stuck onto these conveyor belts to bang drums, swipe turntables, hit high hats and pluck harps.
The beauty is in the game’s straightforward visualisation. In order to build a music track the only thing a player needs to know is how a wheel works.
The simplicity allows for depth too; a complex contraption of wheels, boots, drumsticks and turntables will look like a mad scientist’s breakfast-maker, but can sound rich and pleasant.
Interview: Neil Wallace
It’s always seemed so obvious that developers would have their own dream game ideas.
Yeah exactly, and in fact I remember in the older days at Lionhead we used to do a games competition every Friday lunchtime to come up with cool ideas for projects. It’s amazing what you can get done in an hour. This is very much in the spirit of that, and some of the ideas we’ve seen today have been amazing.
Tell us a bit more about your own project, because it received one of the biggest rounds of applause at the end of your demo.
Well thank you. I think a lot of people were showing a lot of amazing ideas that could be commercially viable. I wanted to go the other way, really. I just wanted to show off something that I found really funny.
I only had the idea a week before the Creative Day thing started. A few random things clicked into place.
What were the practical benefits of this whole exercise?
I think the main thing is that it’s good to step away from your day-to-day roles. You can’t predict these interconnections, and you can’t wait for an idea to come, you have to work on something and hope some bright ideas happen.
It’s a terrible shame that most of these projects won’t now turn into a produced game.
I guess it’s difficult. Games these days are so big and complicated. I think Creative Day has been a fantastic opportunity for people to blow off a lot of steam. Hopefully these ideas will materialise in some way.
Have there been hints that these ideas can turn into a project?
Well, I certainly haven’t gotten too hung up on that. I know that, back when this Creative Day announced, there were a lot of people who were wondering if we were essentially giving our ideas over to Microsoft. I don’t really know, it doesn’t really matter to me so much, I just want to create fun stuff.
But actually, Microsoft have a really good moonlighting policy. We can work outside of work, obviously as long as it doesn’t impact on their own games.
I think there is a bit of a danger here because everyone’s enjoyed this whole process and I think Lionhead may have created a bit of a monster.
You get the impression this whole process will energise the team?
Yes I think we’ll come into work with a lot of food for thought. After these two days working on stuff there was a really great buzz in the office.