Ex-Rare dev: Company is "a survivor"

Former Rare developers talk about the challenges and changes Microsoft brought to the company

A new feature on UK developer Rare has revealed former employees' true feelings about the Microsoft acquisition in 2002, and explained why it was so essential.

"I think what has happened to Rare really just reflects what has happened in the industry at large: larger teams, larger budgets and reduced risk," said Phil Tossell, director of gameplay and HCI at Rare until September 2010.

"In that sense I think the Rare of today is in a better position to deal with the demands of the modern game industry. It was undoubtedly a challenging process for everyone at Rare and I'm sure at Microsoft as well, but ultimately I think it was necessary for the continued survival of Rare."

Tossell shared his views in an exclusive Eurogamer feature, detailing the history of the Banjo Kazooie developer.

"The games industry is driven by certain cycles, and with escalating team sizes and production costs, I don't think the Rare of old could have continued as it was."

He also admitted that while the 100 per cent acquisition was vital to the survival of the company, it also bought cultural changes that many on the development team struggled with. He particularly mentioned a feeling among the employees that control and trust were somewhat lacking.

"There was also a gradual introduction of certain Microsoft behaviours that crept into the way we did things: lots more meetings, performance reviews and far more regard for your position within the company," he said.

"While these weren't necessarily good or bad per se, they began to erode the traditional Rare culture and way of doing things. Many of the people who'd been there a long time found these changes extremely hard to accept."

Justin Cook, who was a principle designer at the company until November 2011, agreed with Tossell's views, and saw a strong future for his former employer.

"You can't compare 'old' and 'new' Rare because the comparison is no more valid than comparing steam engines to bullet trains," he argued.

"What is incredible is that Rare still exists. It is still making high-quality games that millions of people play. There have been bigger and more successful studios but there aren't many that are still in business and going strong. Rare is a survivor and as we approach the next massive upheaval in the games industry it would be foolish to write off a studio as talented and adaptable as Rare."

For more insights from Rare employees and Microsoft, and unique insights from Microsoft's Ed Fries, read the full feature.

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Latest comments (22)

Kris Ducote6 years ago
Where is the new Killer Instinct?
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I dont know, personally prior to MS acquisitions Rare was producing some really decent stuff. Post MS acquisition, its all abit lacklustre IMHO and kinect centric (I appreciate its a good base to spearhead Kinect related products, at the same time the introduction of MS contractual practices means Rare is but merely a shell and name only that remains).
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Good question @Kris.
I was one of the very first regulars at Rare Central and one of the great majority that hate the new focus of the company... But I understand that they have to do things these way to survive.
This article is very important to open the eyes of people who really hate Microsoft for 'destroying' the old Rare.

In fact, this is a very important question @Kris: Where is the new KI???
I mean, its a game that could really make Rare important again for the hardcore fans, and they are crying, praying and wishing for it for years! Why not?
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Show all comments (22)
If you look at it a different way, where is the neo Rare killer instinct as well
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Well - you can look at a range of MS game devs that were acquired, that enjoy the same malaise. Its just that the masterplan has changed significantly towards a more family friendly focus - which might not be every gamers cup of tea
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Benn Achilleas CEO and Founder, Playabl6 years ago
regardless of what they say, new Rare sucks because it is Rare only in name. They should of just renamed the studio and done away with the name. Renamed it something like 'yawn' or 'meh'.
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It could have been worse.

If Disney had bought them, they would probably have been forced by a board of directors to turn into a social game development zombie for a couple of months, until a suit said "no go" and everybody would have gotten fired.

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Ian Jarvis artist 6 years ago
Have Rare done anything worth mentioning since the N64 days?
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 6 years ago
Rare is a survivor? To me its pretty much dead. They havent done anything since the they were with Nintendo. Killer Instinct, Perfect dark (The first one), Jet force Gemeni, BattleToads, Golden eye007, donkey kong Country, Diddy kong racing, Jetpack... compare that back catalogue to Viva Pinata, the new Perfect dark Zero, Kameo, Kinect sports. They signed there death warrent when they went exclusive with micrsoft. They certainly arent creating the software that they used to. To me rare died as soon as they departed from Nintendo. just an opinion. Not based on statistics or facts or anything.
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Anthony Gowland Consulting F2P Game Designer, Ant Workshop6 years ago
Wow, what a comment thread. Thought I was on an industry site, not Kotaku.
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I think there are strong feelings about game studios that once represented the jewel of the crown in the British isles being taken over and not living up to expectations/legacies. Such feelings as such are not easily diminished no matter what way its spun.

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Andrew Coleman Indie game developer 6 years ago
I dunno, this all sounds like legitimate criticism to me. Rare isn't what it once was.
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Ste Hickman Writer 6 years ago
I spoke to an ex-concept artist at Rare a few months back who was on board during the Nintendo/MS transition and the general gist was that it was a painful time for employee's used to Nintendo's guidance.

In all honesty, I only used that opportunity to find out where Jo's American accent came from in PDZ and found that it was Microsoft's decision, as was the reworked design that focussed less on stealth allegedly.

By all accounts, Rare wanted a semi sequel to Goldeneye/ Perfect Dark. MS wanted a Halo clone for the 360's launch, Hence the uneven design overall.

I still wouldn't say no to PD2, however.

I have no time for their Kinect output though; It's not why I bought Rare games for over 20 years and I expect, perhaps unfairly, a different calibre of software from them. If casual titles are what's meant by "survival" here then it's probably best that Rare and I go our separate ways for good.

Still, I wish them all the best for the future.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Ste Hickman on 8th February 2012 8:27pm

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Kevin Patterson musician 6 years ago
I know everyone remembers Rare's Nintendo days with more fondness than Rare's current games. However, I really enjoyed Grabbed by the Ghoulies, Kameo, and Viva Pinata. I didn't care much for Perfect Dark Zero but that is the only game by Rare since the MS purchase I haven't enjoyed. I don't own a Kinect so I cannot comment on those games.

I want a next gen Killer Instinct, Kameo 2, and maybe a new Viva Pinata.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters6 years ago
As an ex-Rare employee myself, I've always found it a little sad that I've never known any game developer receive such a disproportionate amount of abuse for everything they do. It's probably the curse of being so once highly regarded, but it seemed to me that a lot of fans had already made their mind up that Rare would "fail" the instant Microsoft took them over, like they'd "gone over to the dark side", before they even played a single post-Nintendo game.

Take Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts. People often tell me it's one of their favourite games of all times, yet any mention of it on the internet is a torrent of abuse that it wasn't a straight up high def clone of the originals, with the occasional person chiming in with "actually I thought it was great". All the talk of lack of innovation in games these days, and is it any wonder? Rare tried making something unlike any other game and got ripped to shreds for it. Most of the time I wonder did these people even play it? Because most people I know in person who actually did tend to speak quite highly of it. When most companies make a game that doesn't quite hit the mark, most people tend to just ignore and forget about it, but if someone's not happy about a Rare game, they're still ranting about it years later. I didn't like the new Kinect direction, hence why I left, but I don't blame them for turning their backs on their traditional audience for which they couldn't put a foot right, and going after a new audience that actually appreciates their efforts.
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Ste Hickman Writer 6 years ago
I'd have to agree with a fair portion of that Dave but my take on it is that the rot set in once Dinosaur Planet/Starfox Adventures shipped for Gamecube. I genuinely wasn't surprised when Nintendo sold them (You?) not long after. My problem wasn't that it wasn't an on rails affair like the series was known for but that it was an uninspired romp through a dull world that held the players hand with design conceits like Auto lock on as soon as your staff was drawn.

In all honesty, I think my expectations of the Starfox brand got in the way too but years later i struggle to think of many redeeming features apart from maybe the fur shading (?) for the grass.

Then we come to the fact that it was a spin on the 3D Zelda template and if you're riffing on Ocarina and Majora's Mask you better do it well. SFA didn't.

A lot of their output under Nintendo were excellent takes on Nintendo franchises. For Mario Kart there was DKR. Mario 64? BK and DK64.

SFA hurt their reputation but I was more than willing to give their 360 output a good go. Kameo was OK and Duncan Botwood's (correct me if i've got the credit wrong) 32 Player MP mode on PDZ was exceptional entertainment that was only topped with CoD4, especially the CS inspired Dark Ops.

BK: N&B was decent but as you say, was crippled by expectation.

Still, When all is said and done, I feel that Microsoft just haven't worked a way out to use the firm in a way that resonates in the modern age outside of Wii Sports clones and, as a long standing fan, it's heartbreaking to see.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Ste Hickman on 8th February 2012 10:33pm

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Gregory Keenan6 years ago
I was once part of the "Rare is dead" group. But after being determined to play through Perfect Dark Zero on the hardest difficulty - I found the best First person shooter on a console in years.

I owned every Rare game since they moved over to Microsoft and I really believe the innovation and brilliant game play still exists in the games, but is buried under a layer of trying to be instantly appealing. Perfect Dark Zero is a brilliant example where its entire atmosphere pushes the player to "GUN HO RUN RUN RUN", but actually is a game that requires a large amount of patience and stealth to complete fully.

However, it was the move to kinect only titles that forced me to sell my 360. I only owned a 360 to play Rare games being a PC player predominantly - and at the last E3 I was very disappointed with their outlook. I also couldn't help but notice how many americans were part of the Rare team there. If Rare comes out with a non-kinect game. I shall be buying an Xbox just to play it - but in summary; for me it wasn't Microsoft - it was kinect.
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Chuan L Game Designer / Indie Developer 6 years ago
For me at least Rare begins and ends w/ the Stamper brothers, though "Nuts & Bolts" was a great idea. In fact "Viva Pinata" was good as well, but MSFT never really got behind those games enough. I liked the emphasis on player creativity in those games and will miss that design direction. Possibly they were ahead of the curve in that sense.

However, playing that and "Viva Pinata" you get a sense that there was some conflict between who exactly they were trying to appeal to. That perhaps something went horribly wrong in some conference call somewhere and you ended up with this compromise of whimsical [ insert: shoddy ] user interface coupled with potentially deep mechanics that had been dumbed down.

It's a shame that Rare became MSFT's perennial Peter Pan -- never being able to grow up in the current console generation and escape the legacy of the child-like games they made for Nintendo. Yet it seems they could never get away from all their fans either in this respect. From a business perspective there is now no reason why MSFT need to keep Rare around anyhow, except as a very expensive way to create generic Kinect content. Most of the people that worked on anything notable have left anyhow.

-- Chuan
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Fyzard Brown Sales Associate, VideoGameAdvantage6 years ago
As stated he real problem Rare had was that they were used to Nintendo holding their hand. MS treated them ash company that didn't need hand holding and tried to bring them from that relaxed world that most other companies have died off from. I am pretty sure that they would not be here still if Microsoft didn't aquire them.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 6 years ago
@ Fyzard

That's a bold statement. Go back to the early-80s and you'll find Rare making excellent games for home computers, under the Ultimate Play The Game name. Though I'll grant you that their SNES/N64 work is variable (DKC can't hold a light to Yoshi's Island, but Perfect Dark is one of the greatest FPSs ever made), I would've thought they'd still have survived and produced some excellent games if the MS acquisition hadn't gone through. The company would've definitely contracted if they hadn't been taken over, though. I think Rare comes across like a company that doesn't know what it wants. Whether that's due to internal confusion, or MS's hand in things, I couldn't say, but it means that I'm indifferent to them as a studio.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 9th February 2012 9:48am

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Liam Farrell6 years ago
Didn't most of the original team leave after the MS buyout?
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Justin Biddle Software Developer 6 years ago
I'm afraid I disagree with Dave Herod. I was very open to Rare's output when they moved to microsoft. It was why for the first time in my life I bought a console from someone other than Nintendo. I played the MS Rare games with a very open mind. Each time I was disappointed. I could see some of the old flare in each of them but sadly to me each time it was a shadow of its former self. Part of the disappointment was that I felt that in the end the MS output lacked the innovation that Dave claims the MS era games showed.

The irony is that Rare is the reason I'm now an XBOX gamer. But I got little enjoyment out of Rare's XBOX output in the end.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Justin Biddle on 12th February 2012 8:02pm

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