Archer MacLean interview and Wheelspin hands-on

Michael meets gaming legend Archer MacLean, and spends some time with his new Nintendo Wii game...

Wheelspin

Game designer Archer MacLean has been plying his trade for quite some time. His first game, the space shooter Dropzone, came out on the Atari 800 and Commodore 64 back in 1984. Since then, he’s released games in various genres, including the fighting title International Karate, snooker simulator Jimmy White’s Whirlwind Snooker, and, most recently, the PSP liquid puzzler Mercury. Now, he’s turned his wizened eye on racing, with Wheelspin (SpeedZone in North America), which is coming to the Wii this Autumn from Fallout 3 publishers Bethesda Softworks.

Wheelspin has been designed with the Wii, and wide appeal, in mind. It is a racer in the vein of F-Zero or Wipeout, where strict, killjoy realism is chucked out of the window, in favour of high-speed thrills and accessible mayhem. While it may not be a looker in comparison with the 1080p HD creations seen on the more powerful consoles, like Burnout, Wheelspin has been tooled and tweaked for smooth, simple gameplay – maintaining a solid 60fps framerate while the cars on-screen are hurtling at over 600 miles per hour.

Built to support up to 8 player split-screen action, and compatible with various Wii controller schemes (Wiimote, nunchuck, classic and Gamecube pads, even the Logitech force feedback racing wheel), Wheelspin is positioning itself as a speedier, more sci-fi leaning competitor for Mario Kart’s multiplayer crown. However, it also offers a deep, varied single player experience, with three distinct game modes (Solo, Race and Battle) with 10 tracks each. Each track has its own specific objectives, used to progress through the game, such as finishing in a certain time, achieving a certain position, or sticking in ‘the Zone’ (a white-knuckle top-speed mode, where the music fades out to be replaced by a frantic heartbeat) for a certain time limit. Completing objectives, finding hidden spanners scattered throughout the tracks, and placing on the high-score board garners the player cash to spend on cars and upgrades – including various skins (like pansy-pink paint jobs), as well as pumping up the grip, acceleration and speed stats.  I didn’t get a shot at the multiplayer modes, and instead had a bash at some of the lower tier racetracks, using a vanilla car setup. The control scheme is very easy to get the hang of, with an approach similar to Mario Kart Wii – with the Wii-mote held horizontally, and tilted to steer left and right. Acceleration and braking are governed by the 1 and 2 buttons, and pressing down on the d-pad is for the handbrake. It’s a smooth, stripped back affair, allowing players to be zooming along, swerving between speed boosts and launching over huge jumps in no time. Although, it is not without its intricacies, as the tracks – which take inspiration from the geological space stations of Silent Running, or the multicoloured geometry of Tron – are stuffed with alternate routes and little Easter Eggs. They are also full of perilous pitfalls, loop-the-loops and sharp, barrier-less corners. That said, stabbing A after a badly-managed ramp respawns the player right back in the thick of it, with barely a second or two wasted – which, despite getting a bit close to rubber banding, and pandering to sloppy players, will most likely help ease frustration during the more intense races.

It’s certainly a solid basis for what could be an immensely fun gaming experience – especially where the multiplayer is concerned. After the play through, I had the chance to talk with MacLean himself. We chatted about his intentions for Wheelspin, why he chose to develop for the Wii, and how the game industry has changed over his 26 year career.

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Archer, thanks for talking with me. To start with, tell me, what was the inspiration behind Wheelspin?

I just wanted to do a really good racing game on the Wii. It’s the biggest selling console out there, and I’ve played quite a lot of other games, and just wanted to do my own.

Why a racing game, though?

Why not? [laughs] I’ve had a crack at most other things – karate games, snooker games, shooting games, puzzle games – how about a racing game?

It’s interesting you’ve chosen to design this game for the Wii. As you said, it’s leading this generation in terms of sales, but it has stirred up quite a bit of controversy and debate around its games library – especially about third party games not selling so well, unless they’re film tie-ins, party games or mini-game collections for ‘casual’ players.

Well, yes, there are a lot of party games, but at the end of the day, we wanted to do a really good racing game, and appeal to a younger audience as well as hardcore racers. And I think that racing is probably the biggest category there is – I’m not sure about that, are you aware of the statistics? It’s something like 40%. It’s a neverending fascination.

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Well, it’s certainly popular – especially if you open up the whole spectrum, from the pick-up-and-play, casual style racers like Mario Kart, all the way to the more ‘hardcore’ arcade racers like Burnout, Ridge Racer, and so on. Were you more skewing towards the casual audience with Wheelspin? Yeah, we wanted to provide a real fun experience that was going to appeal to the casual guys just picking it up – and girlies. And at the same time, those who want to discover the depth in the 770 hours of gameplay, that’s in there too – you’re not just channelled into doing that. And in testing, we’ve had kids as young as maybe 6 or 7 just not getting off it, they’re not getting bored. And they tend to get all their mates in, and they figure out how to use it. And, in focus group testing, we have people in their 40s or 50s playing it, including one guy, who’s got a whole load of cars, and he was sort of saying ‘ohh, you know, the balance and the weight distribution are not quite right’. And I thought ‘yeah, yeah, it’s a game!’ [laughs] Getting a little bit focused on the minor details, but nonetheless, he took it for a whole weekend, and gave us a whole questionnaire, and he’s in the credits as well.

Sounds like the game has had a broad appeal, then.

Yeah, it did appeal to a very wide age range. I don’t think we locked out one end or the other.

It would be very interesting to hear your viewpoint on the gaming industry at the moment, as you’ve been part of it for quite a while.

[Laughs] Oh, thanks! Yeah, it’s been 26 years since the first game.

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How has it changed?

I suppose in the early days it was very much a pioneering industry. Individuals like myself, Jeff Minter, all those sort of guys, who are still around. You know, we’d sit in our bedrooms, and do one game. It would take six months or whatever, and you’d sell it to a publisher. They’d sell as many as they could, pay you a bit, rip you off generally, and you’d come back with another game in a couple of months. Whereas now, it’s big teams, proper contracts, there’s proper software lore. Huge publishers, there’s marketing machines, it’s much more controlled and planned and organised than it ever used to be. But I don’t think it could operate like it used to now, it’s far too organised. You have all the big platform holders, and they’re all running it as a huge worldwide business, and the often quoted fact is – it’s bigger than the whole of Hollywood, isn’t it?

Well, there are statistics that suggest that.

Yeah, whereas, back then, it was just half a dozen guys sat in bedrooms. [laughs]

So, is it a bit less unruly with the publishers and their relationships with the designers?

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Erm, it’s a lot more organised. It’s big business. It’s like running a company, with a lot of people building one product – it takes 18 months, whatever it is. Yeah, it’s a completely different challenge. In the early days, I would just come up with a wacky idea – wouldn’t tell anyone about it – and finish it off, show it to a few people, and they’d say ‘yeah, we’ll have that’. Whereas now, you tend to agree things, with game design documents upfront, and you hone the design, et cetera, et cetera. And to some extent, this has had a lot of design thought early on, as with what we were trying to achieve, and what to eliminate. Give it another year or two, and I probably would have thrown a lot more things in there.

Do you find yourself doing less of the hands-on work nowadays, then? Do you take more of a Creative Director role?

Well, a lot of these tracks I actually designed. I might not do programming, and I might not do all the art, but I certainly am very hands-on in the studio. Probably to my own detriment, actually, as I should be doing other things! But, I enjoy it. And I don’t think I would like to do an office job. I enjoy sitting with the lads and having a laugh.

It is interesting that you mention that the guys-in-bedrooms approach is something you don’t see as much in the mainstream of games any more, but that is very much the model for the ‘indie’ games scene.

It’s come about because of mobile phones. That’s not for me at the moment, but it is good to see the pioneering spirit back with mobile phone games. A lot of them are crap, but there are occasionally some award-winning little thing that comes out that everybody has to have on their iPhone. And that reminds me very much of what was happening in the 80s, and that’s good to see.

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Well, definitely, there’s the iPhone, but also digital distribution on PC, or on consoles through Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare and PSN – which smaller development teams are using to their advantage… Yeah, but those games are very simple, they’re not very refined. I mean, this has had a huge amount of time and effort put into it. And we’ve tried to provide a well-rounded racing game that caters for just about anybody.

[PR gent informs us that this needs to be the last question] One more key question? ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ [laughs]

It’s funny you should mention that! No. I was reading an interview with you recently, which ended with a list of your favourite games [Archer laughs], and it must have been from the mid-late 90s, because you were talking about games such as Duke Nukem 3D and Quake. I was wondering if there were any games from the last 10 to 15 years that have impressed you, or stood out.

Hmm – that I haven’t done?

You could say Mercury, if you want!

Yeah, I know, I absolutely love Mercury. If I fly somewhere for eight hours, I always take Mercury. When I started out, I bought Star Raiders for the Atari 800 in 1979. And that game made me buy the machine – I saw it being demoed, and I thought ‘I have to buy that machine, to play that game’. And when I was sat on a plane going to LA last year, someone sat next to me, and he had a PSP, and it had Mercury on it! I didn’t say anything, I just said, “Yeah, that’s a really good game,” and he said, “Aw, it’s brilliant!” And I said, “How far have you got on it?” and he said, “I saw it – my son had it – and I had to buy it, just to play the game.” And when I saw that, I realised life had come full circle.

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I’ve done something great – and someone had actually wanted to buy the hardware. [laughs] So that was a good moment. But third party games… That’s quite a difficult question, actually, because I don’t have time to play games for 50 hours any more.

Recently… I wouldn’t know what to say. Other than Wheelspin, obviously, because I’ve played so much of it! I’m thinking back to things like Lemmings, which is 15 years ago now [more like 18! – ed.]. That, I couldn’t put down. I remember spending a whole weekend – day and night – sat in a dressing gown playing it. You know, eating in front of the TV. [laughs] Just trying to get to level 99! Do you remember all that stuff?

Oh yeah, although I was very little when Lemmings came out. Actually, I was thinking, during the prep for this, that I was 5 when Jimmy White’s Whirlwind Snooker came out, and I played a demo of it on an Amiga magazine covermount floppy.

Really? Well, the funny thing is, Sean Brennan, the boss at Bethesda. He was – I can’t remember what his exact role was – but he was second in command, or junior managing director at [publisher] Virgin Games when Jimmy White’s came out. So, that’s 18 years ago – yet to me it feels like it was only a few years, strangely enough.

Would you do another snooker/pool game?

[Laughs] Yeah. I get asked this a lot! Yeah, I would, especially on the Wii, because the controller choices allow you to have an awful lot more flexibility. And with the Motion Plus, in particular.

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One last question. Back in International Karate + (currently available on the Wii Virtual Console), you let the fighters drop their trousers. This quirky sense of humour runs through your games. Do you think that is something missing in games now?

Well, in other people’s games! [laughs]

Thank you very much for your time, Archer.

Wheelspin‘s release date is yet to be confirmed, although it is expected to come out in Autumn. For more information, visit awesomeplay.com. You can watch a trailer for it right here:

Interviews at Den Of Geek