‘Who killed Rare?’ That was the headline to a consumer article written three years ago, and it’s hard to imagine how the team at Rare felt about it – particularly when you consider they weren’t actually dead.
The angle of the feature was that Rare, a ‘90s icon of UK games development, had faded into obscurity under the corporate gaze of its new owners Microsoft. It was a viewpoint backed up by the fansite MundoRarein 2010, which closed down with a scathing open letter to the studio it once idolised.
Yet the mood has changed. In August, Rare topped the UK charts for the first time since 1998’s Banjo-Kazooie – 17 years ago – with Rare Replay, a compilation designed to celebrate 30 years of the studio. What’s more, this was a collection put together with the care, depth and, most importantly, irreverent humour that the studio had become famous for.
It makes you wonder that perhaps Rare was actually alive all this time.
“The idea Rare isn’t what it was a few years ago… to me, I grew up as someone who played Rare games,” explains Adam Park, lead producer at the Twycross studio.
“I grew up near Rare. It was like Willy Wonka’s factory. I didn’t quite believe that this place that made all these things that I loved was local to me. Now I work at Rare, and there are people here that have been here since the Ultimate Play The Game times.
“Yes the industry has changed. Games are bigger, budgets are obviously a lot bigger and games take longer to develop. But Rare still has that sense of being a small group of people free to work independently. It still feels like I imagine it did back in the Ultimate Play The Game days, only on a greater scale.
“As with any studio, people come and go. Rare is in a fortunate position, particularly with being 30 years old now, we still have people who were there from the start. When you are working with people like Greg Mayles, who created Banjo and Battletoads, on Sea of Thieves, it helps maintain that sense of what Rare is.”
Of course, Rare has changed. Back in 2000 and 2001, it released three of its most iconic games – Perfect Dark, Banjo-Tooie and Conker’s Bad Fur Day – within ten months of each other. Such an output is impossible in triple-A games development today – not unless they expand exponentially, which would risk that ‘small group’ ethos that Park says is important to Rare’s culture.
Another change is in how the studio works together. Back in the 1990s, Rare’s multiple teams were each hidden away in different barns, with access only granted to those within the same team. It created fierce internal competition.
One such rivalry was between the Conker and Banjo teams, and when we discussed that with former Banjo developer Ed Bryan, he responded with: “I best be careful what I say, I don’t want to get beaten up.”
This ‘friendly’ conflict between teams was a key aspect of Rare’s culture, but with team sizes growing and the need to share tech, art and ideas becoming increasingly important, these former rivals have merged.
Yet although this has impacted the quantity of Rare games – out of its 120 game catalogue, just 16 of them have launched in the last ten years – according to critics, Rare’s games still hit the right quality bar on the whole.
However, certain fans were still not happy. Rare may be making good games, but they weren’t building a new Conker or Perfect Dark. Instead, the iconic UK studio decided to make Kinect Sports.
“The whole Kinect Sports-era is something we look back on very fondly,” says Park. “Everyone is very proud of that. They were hugely innovative, massively exciting games.
“And we still kept these games uniquely Rare. With our last game [Kinect Sports Rivals], we had a lot of nods to previous Rare IP in there. We had things like Battletoads, Kameo and Perfect Dark, all featured in there. With Kinect Sports: Season Two, if you did well you got celebratory licensed music, and if you did badly you would get dejected licensed music – you could even be Rick Rolled. So we tried to keep that sense of fun Rare is known for.”
Grabbed by the future
Kinect Sports and its sequels were a misstep in the eyes of fans. These were gamers that didn’t want to jump around in front of their TVs with their parents. These weren’t the games they expected from the teams behind GoldenEye and Donkey Kong Country.
Nevertheless, the Kinect Sports series was more in-line with Rare’s heritage than some give it credit. The Rare Replay collection highlights how frequently Rare tries new things. Battletoads, Killer Instinct, Donkey Kong Country, Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark, Viva Pinata… this is a developer with a reputation of retiring franchises and even entire genres in favour of doing something new.
“Doing new things is in the culture of the studio,” continues Park.
“Rare always looks to the future to innovate. That is why we always embrace new things, like Kinect. We always try to look for the next thing and move onto something new. Rare Replay is testament to that. A lot of studios can end up focusing on one type of game or franchise. But if you look at the Xbox 360 era: on one end of the spectrum you have a first-person shooter and at the other end you have a garden simulator, with aesthetics that are so different and gameplay that is so different. We don’t like to stay looking at the same thing for too long.”
He adds: “It is so gratifying that people care enough that they are asking for these sequels. But equally, although people may want another Conker or another Banjo or Perfect Dark… we would never have made those games in the first place if we had just been making sequels to Cobra Triangle.”
The good news for fans is that despite Rare’s love for creating new IP, its iconic franchises are now expanding beyond the borders of its purpose-built studio.
Killer Instinct returned in 2013 with development passing to new studios. Conker has made his way into the recent Xbox One game Project Spark. Battletoads has appeared in hit platformer Shovel Knight. Nintendo is still making Donkey Kong Country titles, this time under the stewardship of US dev Retro Studios. Meanwhile, an outfit set-up by former Rare employees is creating Yooka-Laylee – the spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie.
“Oh we love all that,” says Park. “We worked so closely with the Project Spark team and the Killer Instinct guys, we collaborated on these things. We didn’t just push these franchises away. So it doesn’t feel like we are losing a baby in any sense. We are there together with them.
“And things like Yooka-Laylee… those guys are great friends of ours and they have worked at Rare for many, many years, and we can’t wait to see what they do.”
Any negativity that hovered around Rare in the past appears to have abated with the launch of Rare Replay. In 2010, MundoRare closed, but in 2015, new fansites have emerged.
“It has been wonderful, Rare Replay has been everything we hoped for but we would never have assumed,” enthuses Park.
“We met so many fans at E3, we had the fan fests and we met some of our most dedicated fans. The studio is buzzing with the reception we have been getting.”
The company is now turning its attention to creating pirate-themed action adventure game Sea of Thieves, which is another new IP and another new direction for Rare. And one that has a lot to live up to.
“If in another 30 years we are doing a second Rare Replay for the 60th anniversary, we want to make sure Sea of Thieves is in there,” concludes Park. “And to make that happen, we need to live up to our past.”
The critics were right about one thing when it comes to Rare. The studio has changed. But then it always did.
Rare are they now?
The Rare co-founder has since set-up another studio called FortuneFish, a mobile games company. Its latest game, Cat Logic, is out now on smartphones. He has also promised even more from his next project.
Gavin Price, Chris Sutherland, Steve Mayles, Kev Bayliss, Dave Wise, Steven Hurst
The names behind Viva Pinata, Banjo Kazooie, Killer Instinct, Grabbed by the Ghoulies and more launched Playtonic. Its first game will be Yooka-Laylee, the spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie. It raised more than £2m on Kickstarter, breaking UK records.
The Conker’s Bad Fur Day creator and the voice actor is now working at his own studio Gory Detail, building the unusual platformer The Unlikely Legend of Rusty Pup. He also created the mobile game Parashoot Stan.
After leaving Rare post-Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Currington’s career led him to Rockstar before setting up a US studio for Jagex. He has now set up an indie studio called DoodleooGames.com, and his first title Party!Party!Party! has just launched.
Viva Pinata programmer Goatley has just launched Super Boost Monkey under the studio name Okidokico, with the help of former Rare composer Steve Burke.
Makin worked on Perfect Dark Zero and Kameo. He now operates Makin Games, a studio he set up with his wife. He plans to launch classic side-scrolling brawler Raging Justice next year. He works alongside former Rare devs Steve Burke (composer) and Jay Howse (art).
Perfect Dark environment artist set up Binary Panda Games in January. His first game is Gravity Hero for Android and Apple – a mission-based gravity-centric space shooter.