From The Ar­chives: Atomic Stu­dios

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS - Words by David Crookes

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.

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