Like any console platform holder, Microsoft has built up a group of exceptional studios around it; development partners who retain their independence from the software behemoth, while still forming a core part of the company's strategy to provide top-notch software for its console. When it comes to the Xbox, first-party studios like Bungie and Rare are clearly vital to its success - but the contribution of hardy independents like Lionhead, Bizarre Creations and Big Blue Box is also significant.
Another studio on that list is Day 1 Studios, a company which was relatively unknown until Microsoft - who now own franchise creators FASA Interactive - handed them the much-loved MechWarrior property, and gave them leave to make a console action title based on it. The result was MechAssault, an intense action game which proved a huge hit on the Xbox Live online service and managed to please both hardcore Mech fans and console action junkies alike.
With a sequel to MechAssault in the pipeline for the Xbox, Day 1 Studios became one of the first developers to admit to working on a next-generation title earlier this year, when the company started advertising for staff to work on new console hardware - and late last month, veteran Microsoft Game Studios project planner Jon Kimmich jumped ship to the developer, where he is now director of business development - and in charge of the development team working on next-generation technology.
Kicking the CEO
"Well, all things are relative," Kimmich muses when we ask about how it feels to move from the world's largest software company to a small, if well-regarded, game developer. "I'm not sure that I've ever actually considered Microsoft a "huge" company. GE (General Electric), now that's a huge company."
"Although," he continues, "MS is certainly bigger than when I started 16 years ago. Back then you could still trip over VP's like Steve Ballmer in the hallway. Back then, maybe a year after I started at the company, Steve B filled in for a while as the manager for our group (developer tools) and he had this habit of laying down when he had to think really hard about something. And if that happened to be in the middle of a hallway conversation, well, down he went. I was still pretty new around MS at the time, and was in a hurry to get somewhere, was looking the other way, turned a corner, and WHAM, kicked the future CEO of the company in the head. True story."
"Now, if I feel the urge to kick the CEO of Day1 in the head, well... he's in the office next to mine. So that's how it's different." Office violence aside though, Kimmich is adamant that Day 1 Studios is a company that's on the rise - and that parting company with Microsoft to move there was the right decision for him.
"Day 1 Studios was really the right combination of opportunity, people, projects and passion," he explains. "Day 1 is a studio that's ready to break out. With MechAssault, they developed what continues to be one of the largest games on Xbox Live. With MechAssault 2: Lone Wolf, they're doing things that no other game will do with Live. The people there are passionate about making great games, and the projects dovetail nicely with the kinds of games that I like to play and to build."
The Microsoft connection
One of the big questions about Day 1 Studios' admission that it is working on a next-generation title is, of course, who will be publishing it. While the conventional wisdom within the industry is that Microsoft has commissioned Day 1 to provide a MechAssault title for the next-generation Xbox console early in its lifespan, this has never been confirmed by either company - and while Kimmich hints strongly that the firm is indeed working with Microsoft on next-generation titles, he stops short of outright confirmation.
"Obviously, Microsoft Games Studios and Day 1 Studios have a pretty close working relationship, and I would expect that to continue," he tells us. "In situations where developers and publishers trade players, in my opinion it only serves to strengthen the relationship between them. You have people on both sides who understand each other's position and approach to the creative process, and business. That can only be a good thing."
As one of the companies which was first to jump to next-generation development - and allegedly one of the first recipients of Microsoft's early Xenon / Xbox Next development kits - Day 1 is a firm that obviously believes firmly in being right at the cutting edge of technology, a philosophy which Kimmich believes is at the core of the company's operations. "Day 1 Studios is focused on the future," he says firmly. "They've always been on the bleeding edge of what consoles can do (particularly online) and I expect that to be our strategy going forward."
"We're not saying too much right now about what we have coming for the future," he continues, "other than to say that we think people will be excited about the things we're planning for our upcoming games. The team we're building here at Day1 never ceases to amaze me, I see the things they're working on here and they just blow my mind. We will keep you updated when the time is right."
Talkin' bout Next Generation
Many developers will be watching Day 1's movements over the coming months with interest, because along with a small number of other companies, they will be among the first to dip their toe into the waters of next-generation console development - and will encounter the hurdles, pitfalls and realities of this area before many others do. While most developers are certain that next-generation development will lead to an increase in team sizes and costs, nobody is quite sure how big that increase will be - so Day 1 and its compatriots are really discovering new ground here.
Even at this point, Kimmich isn't sure how much costs will rise for next-generation development - just that they will certainly rise. "Well, whether it's 1.5x, 2x, 3x or more remains to be seen, but costs are definitely rising as platforms become more complicated, and production values are driven upwards," he explains. "Non-programming staffs are growing at a faster rate than programming staffs, so that would imply that the majority of cost increases are being driven by demands on the artistic or design side of projects."
However, he is confident that the next-generation consoles will be an exciting prospect - enough so to justify the increased cost of development - and unsurprisingly, says that he's particularly keen on the plans for the next-generation Xbox.
"All of the first parties are playing their cards pretty close to their vest with regard to the new innovative features of their platforms, and how they will try to differentiate," he says. "Obviously, I am most intimate with my previous employer's plans for the future of Xbox, and I'm really excited about that. In addition, what I've heard about the other first-party's plans is pretty interesting. In the end, gamers will vote with their hard earned pounds/dollars/yen/etc as to what excites them the most."
Get your Mech on
While the work on next-generation projects is exciting, Day 1 Studios has a more immediate priority - with their second Xbox title, Mechassault 2, due to hit shelves in the coming months, and already generating significant buzz, especially in the Xbox Live online communities.
"Most of the company is focused on wrapping up MechAssault 2: Lone Wolf," Kimmich confirms, "which is no ordinary crank-it-out-in-12-months-to-cash-in-on-the-first-game sequel. I think the first things people will notice are the graphical improvements and the ability to get out of the 'mech. The team's put a ton of work into a pretty total overhaul of the game's graphics engine, and boy does it show. When you fire off a PPC in MechAssault 2: Lone Wolf for the first time, it will rock your world. And the building destruction is way beyond anything in the first game."
Let loose on the topic of MechAssault 2, Kimmich talks gleefully about the new features of the game - and it's apparent that it's one he'll be spending a lot of personal time with on Live. "Of course, we let you get out of the 'mech and run around on foot, climb in other vehicles, and so on," he continues. "Each vehicle has its own abilities, strengths and weaknesses associated with it, which results in very different tactics when you are in battle armor vs. being in a 'mech. One may look like a miniature version of the other, but they play VERY differently. The tactics that our play testers have come up with have been surprising, to say the least."
"And all those tactics are available in a new, improved, and much enhanced single-player campaign. The team has invested a ton of time and effort wrapping a compelling story and BattleTech universe characters around the meaty nougat of a tactically rich MechAssault 2 experience. Kinda like a Tootsie-Pop. Only with 'mechs... that explode." Well, it's certainly a metaphor we'd never have thought of...
All the talk of next-generation development, then, shouldn't lead anyone to believe that Day 1 Studios has abandoned the current generation Xbox. There are still plenty of mechs to be destroyed, confectionery metaphors to be stretched... And the team has a few surprises in store as well, it seems. "There's a ton of new things that we're doing for Xbox Live," Kimmich says conspiratorially, "some of which we've already announced, and some of which we haven't. It'll be big news. Stay tuned..."