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A Rare Glimpse - Part Two

Studio manager Mark Betteridge on the new Xbox Live avatars, and the importance of more and effective prototyping

In part one of the interview with Rare studio manager Mark Betteridge he talked about the studio's future, and his thoughts on what the industry needs to focus on in the future.

Here his reveals his hopes for the latest Banjo title, explains Rare's involvement in avatars now and in the future, and adds his voice to the argument for more agile prototyping. What are your hopes and expectations for the latest Banjo title?
Mark Betteridge

We hope that we can attract some of the previous Banjo customers, obviously, that know the IP - the two previous versions sold about 6 or 7 million. This time we want to bring in some players that are focused more on creativity, rather that focus just on what we've done.

So our hopes and expectations for this Banjo game is that the community will define the exciting points of how the game is played, not just us designers. That's what we're really looking for, perhaps six or eight weeks after release. One of the other big any projects has been the avatars for Xbox Live - what was the root of that, did Microsoft come to you and explain its plans, and ask you to do it?
Mark Betteridge

The concept of avatars is something that we came up with about four years ago now. We were thinking about how hardcore and spiky the previous Xbox was, and everybody was of a view that the new one was going to be more smooth and friendly. Everybody was in agreement that was the right thing.

So we pitched avatars as something out of the box with an interface where you build a character that looks like yourself, or whoever you want it to look like, and can play mini-games and things like that - but it represents you on the Live system, that's all it was based around. There were other parts of it, which have been removed in terms of what we've now done so far. So it was something we pitched a long time ago.

Now, with the launch, there are so many moving parts - as you can imagine - and it was only when we got together with the platform team more recently when the whole dash was being redesigned, it came up as an ideal thing to have on here. So we've worked closely with that team for the past twelve months to see that it's integrated in that way.

We're really pleased with it, because it's a lot of our work, some of the platform team's work, and they dovetail very nicely. There was some concern at the start how they would fit, with both teams working together, but I think it looks great.

When I saw the new dash it was being presented by John Schappert at Tokyo Games Show, and I couldn't read what was on the screen, but I saw how nice it looked because it's icon-based, and I think that presentation was the verification that we've got that right. It's just the start of it. How will Rare's involvement continue through the life of the platform?
Mark Betteridge

There's a lot of interest in avatars by third parties, as you can imagine. As standalone avatar products, we want to own that space, because we think it's a huge, huge space going forward - it appeals across genres, across age ranges, demographics, and there's an enormous opportunity there.

I'm not going to name products, because I'm sure you can imagine our time frames, but we see this as the start of avatars, not that it's now done and dusted and therefore we're finished with it. It's more the foot in the door. I was talking to an influential Japanese journalist in Tokyo this year, and he commented that the avatars would be very popular in Japan - why do you think that is?
Mark Betteridge

Well, they love the creative community aspect in Japan, rather than the destructive "I'm gonna kill everybody and take over the world". We were with Nintendo for seven or eight years before, so we've got a lot of experience with that market.

In terms of style, we went round and round with that, did a lot of work on it with the platform team and various people, and we hit on something that we thought would define a person in a way that they're recognisable, without getting into the detail of all the various nose and ear angles - we didn't want to overcomplicate it. We wanted to make it so that it was representative, so they were recognisable on-screen.

But it's a style that can cross boundaries - it's a difficult thing to do, to have a hit in three territories at the same time. Maybe our background with Nintendo, in that we've done that before - maybe avatars will be the first thing that will be popular everywhere? Banjo I know will be popular in Japan - the characters are inspired by Japanese culture, things like the boxed rucksacks that the kids have, that's where it came from.

So I'd expect the avatars to be popular there, and I think the Xbox 360 - the European sales are very strong, and certainly Japanese sales have come out of a tunnel and can see some light. And North America's always been strong. So it could be a very smart move for Microsoft's chances in Japan?
Mark Betteridge

When you buy a 360 you take it out of the box, switch it on, and it then starts to define your experience. Doing it now, with the new content, is a completely different experience to what it was before with the blades. It's a whole softening of the interface.

It's quite a bold move because updating everybody's box - it's quite a bold move, and there's been some criticism of Gears players who don't want their avatars to look like that, but we're still confident even with the very hardcore people that it will be something that will cross boundaries.

In development terms, it also gives us a project where every product doesn't have to be a behemoth, because the attraction of some of it is who you're playing in there and what's happening, not that it's got 40 hours of gameplay.

We've been very big on promoting shared code internally for about seven years or so - we've had a shared tech department for that long, and games have been built on the same infrastructure.

But going forward - I read the story with Phil Harrison on a few weeks ago, where he was talking about prototypes, and publishers taking risks, and I absolutely agree with him. He was saying that the industry needs to get into a mechanism where you can prototype something very easily and quickly with a small group of people, and find out if it's good.

Because I don't care what you write on a piece of paper - it's all down to implementation. You can't tell about something based on a flash presentation, the proof's in the pudding - show me the controls, what does it do? To get to that point, where you can rapid-prototype a number of ideas... because you don't really know which games will have the best stickiness, which will be the best fun to play, and to be in the position where you can prototype five or six different things at that level and take the best ones to take onto core production - that's the model the industry needs.

At the moment we've got these hugely bloated teams spending millions of dollars, and as soon as they've finished the last game, if it's successful the safest thing to do is start on a new one, and look at ways to make it better. It kind of stifles innovation - the publishers are reluctant to sign a cheque for seven figures to get a product that they might not even want to go forward with.

So we've been very active in look at how we can break that situation of being able to prototype a large number of ideas - we want 100 ideas, prototype the best dozen of them, and produce the best three or four. That's the way it should be.

So we've put a lot of work into that in terms process, and avatars will give us some aspects of it - but it's all about the tools, and not rewriting renderers and so on. So, as Phil Harrison said - "experiment earlier, fail more often, and fail more cheaply"?
Mark Betteridge


Mark Betteridge is studio manager at Rare. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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