From The Archives: Atomic Studios
David Crookes tells the story of this developer-for-hire that made a name for itself throughout the Noughties
Having already become firm industry veterans, Jason and Darren Falcus heralded the new millennium with a new startup company which they hoped would prove to be out-of-this-world. As a developerfor-hire, it had some great early success
To survive the Nineties, studios not only needed talent but also wads of cash. It was, after all, a decade of huge change – a ten-year period that had swung from 8-bit computers to 64-bit consoles. If devs were not grappling with CD or 3D, they were seeking expensive licences. What’s more, nothing could be taken for granted: who had really foreseen that Sony would smash the stranglehold which Nintendo and Sega had so long enjoyed?
Jason and Darren Falcus had seen this rapid growth first-hand. They were aged 18 and 19 when they launched Optimus Software in 1988, and they’d noted the rise of consoles. But, to capitalise on this flourishing market, they’d made a decision to go international, selling Optimus to Texas-based Iguana Entertainment in 1993 which, in turn was acquired by the New York giant Acclaim in 1995.
It’s hard to say whether Optimus Software would have survived alone but with so many big names falling by the wayside during the Nineties, chances are it may have struggled to cope with the demands of the new gaming landscape. By selling, new opportunities presented themselves. “It was great to be part of a big international team of talented people and we made many friends during our time with Iguana and Acclaim, learning invaluable lessons about being part of a huge international publisher and developer,” says Jason. Even so, by 2000, the Falcus brothers were confident in a more calmer environment to give the running of a games company another go.
“Towards the end of the Nineties, Acclaim had started to go through a difficult period and it had begun to make some layoffs,” Jason says. “So while we’d enjoyed the opportunity to work on franchises such as NBA Jam, and develop original games based on licenses such as Shadowman, we missed being independent and being more in charge of the kind of games we worked on.”
At first the brothers had discussed the possibility of buying their studio back from Acclaim. “But we didn’t have the resources to do this, and to support such a large studio as an independent was too risky,” Jason surmises. Instead, they left what was then-named Acclaim Studios Teeside in February 2000 and founded Atomic Planet Entertainment. “We agreed with Acclaim that we could employ anyone that was made redundant so we were able to quickly recruit around ten to 15 good people, some of whom we had worked with for a long time,” Jason says. By May 2002, Acclaim Studios Teeside had closed but Atomic Planet was well into its stride.
“We accepted that we had to develop work-forhire, but we wanted the opportunity to work on lots of platforms and genres,” Jason says. We also wanted to get back to running a smaller team with more of a close-knit family feel.” As such, the team started small, creating Dinoisland for mobiles in a deal with network operator Orange. Atomic Planet also made good use of the Falcus’ relationship with Codemasters by signing a contract to develop Mike Tyson Heavyweight Boxing.
“Phone games were quicker to develop, and so Dinoisland was our first release,” Jason explains. “We did develop two other phone games for Orange – Blood And Sand which was a strategy game based on Roman gladiators, and a dating game, but then Orange changed focus and moved away from developing and publishing phone games, hence the gap before our next release.”
Mike Tyson Heavyweight Boxing was released in 2002 and it allowed players to assume the role of the famous boxer. The title played on the circus that tends to surround boxing matches, although thankfully it did not include some of the less savoury stuff that tended to follow Tyson around.
“We’d looked at all the boxing games at the time, and thought we could develop something which had more of an arcade look and feel and was more accessible,” Jason explains. “We’d also worked closely with Jon Hare on the design.”
Jon, had, of course, made his name creating the football hit Sensible Soccer. “We also licensed several other boxers for the game and we were fairly pleased with the results, but the game could have benefitted from a little more time to balance the gameplay. ”
Nevertheless, Atomic was up-and-running. By this stage it had assembled a team with lots of experience across all platforms including some old school developers. This worked in its favour, particularly when the opportunity came to develop GBA versions of games like Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo. “We were in a strong position to develop it due to the expertise of our team,” Jason says. “We were very pleased with the end product, and this led on to repeat work from Capcom.”
Other GBA games included Zapper: One Wicked Cricket which was a handheld port of a Blitz Games title, and Aero The Acro-bat, again a port but this time of David Siller’s Mega Drive and SNES platformer from 1993. “In the two or three years leading up to 2004, we had built up three main teams, and we were getting lots of work-for-hire projects for many large international clients,” Jason says. “Some of the major projects which prompted this were Jackie Chan Adventures for Sony and Mega Man Anniversary Collection for Capcom.”
For Jason, Mega Man Anniversary Collection was one of Atomic Planet’s standout games. “Capcom approached us for this project because they knew we had our team with old school retro coding experience, and they required a faithful recreation of ten Mega Man games across the years from 8-bit NES to arcade platforms,” explains Jason. It came at a time when Atomic Planet was literally banging out game after game. In 2003 it had developed Superstar Dance Club for Playstation, Sennari Darts on mobile and Robin Hood: Defender Of The Crown for Xbox and PC. Its Mega Man collection appeared in 2004 alongside Miami Vice for PS2, Xbox and PC, and The Guy Game and Jackie Chan Adventures for PS2.
“Another game we were proud of at this time was Dark Wind, which was a first-person fighting game that launched with the Gametrak device,” says Jason. “This was a groundbreaking device, devised way before the Wii, which tracked players’ hands in real time and allowed them to immerse themselves in the game. We designed the launch game to go with it in which players actually threw punches towards their opponent and felt like they were in the fight. It never took off in a big way unfortunately due to the price, and due to the Wii launching at around the same time but it’s still one of my favourite games that we developed.”
Dark Wind showed the team’s appetite for a challenge, and the number of games Atomic
Planet was making meant more people had to
be recruited. The company’s three core teams were each managed by a producer and leads in art, code and design. “We also had a core tech and tools team which produced our in-house 3D engine and game-building tools which were shared across all of our projects and allowed us to develop games more efficiently,” says Jason. “Occasionally there were overlaps and shared resources which worked across multiple teams, especially on the art and animation.”
Even so, 2005 produced a mixed bag of titles, including Ultimate Pro Pinball, the single-player shooter Stealth Force: The War On Terror, flight game Red Baron, first-person shooters SAS Antiterror Force and WWII: Soldier, and Taito Legends (the latter produced by working alongside Empire). There was even time for Carol Vorderman’s Sudoku. “We didn’t consciously specialise in a particular genre, but over the years we did develop a lot of retro-style games, and a lot of licensed third-person action adventures,” Jason says.
If Atomic did specialise in anything, then it was low-budget titles which were challenging in the respect that the developer had limited time and resources. “Often the publisher would expect us to produce a game to the equivalent standard of something with three times the budget and double the development timescale,” Jason says. “Miami Vice was one example of this – the result was quite a fun game but it was very difficult producing it under tight constraints.”
Still, games such as Family Feud in 2006 along with Taito Legends 2, the FPS Daemon Summoner and AMF Xtreme Bowling kept Atomic Planet ticking along. That said, Daemon Summoner, a game set in Victorian London, was truly terrible.
It’s perhaps no surprise to learn that it was made in just three months.
That, however, can be the peril of a developer working for hire. “I regret not trying to produce more of our own IP more,” laments Jason. “We tried it on a few occasions but if we had managed to get a large original game off the ground it could have changed our fortunes. Owning strong IP gives you so many more options.” Thankfully, however, the Wii launched in 2006 which opened fresh doors for Atomic. Soon it was working on AMF Bowling Pinbusters for Nintendo’s new console, along with Jenga World Tour, Arctic Tale and Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure.
“The Wii presented more platforms for us to develop on,” says Jason.
“We liked the Wii because of the increased creativity that the control system allowed us. Having worked on the Gametrak controller, we loved the idea. One of our biggest hits on the Wii was AMF Bowling Pinbusters which was developed for Zenimax.” Arctic Tale, however, suffered mixed reviews while Jenga World Tour and Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure were poorly received.
By 2009, Atomic Planet was in trouble. It had to lay off 35 staff to cut costs and projects were being cancelled. “This was a terrible time for us – it’s never easy laying off staff, and some of them we had worked with for ten to 15 years between Atomic Planet and Iguana/acclaim and were good friends,” Jason says. “Unfortunately it had to be done: the industry was changing, and we had some clients that couldn’t pay us for work we had done. We had invested everything we had personally into the business, and it was a last resort to try to keep the studio running. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough, and soon after this we ended up shutting the studio completely.”
the Wii presented more platforms for us to develop on Jason Falcus
» Atomic Planet’s work-for-hire approach to business landed it work with Carol Vorderman.
» [PS2] Dark Wind utilised the motion-controlled Gametrak peripheral, but it didn’t impress.