We recently had an opportunity to get in touch with the President and Creative Director of Totally Games, a small California based development studio. Having a good number of successful projects under their belt (Secret Weapons Over Normandy, Star Trek: Bridge Commander, X-Wing series), we discuss the future of Totally Games, current projects, and what's in store for the coming years.
Shawn Snider (GamingExcellence): Hi Larry, I just want to take a second to thank you for taking the time to answer a few of our questions. First off, can you give us a little bit of background on Totally Games, and your background in the industry?
Larry Holland (Totally Games): Sure, I’m happy to answer your questions and to give people a peek into what’s happening at Totally Games, my Marin County based game development studio. Being a small developer that releases products just once every year or so, it’s a big event for us to be so close to releasing a product that we have been quietly working on for so long and hard. So quietly that occasionally I have to respond to silly questions like whether we’re still making games! The answer is a big yes, we’re still going strong! In fact we’re cooking up something very cool. In some ways it’s similar to what we’ve done before and in some ways it’s very different from anything we’ve done before. Totally Games has always been about making totally fun, totally involving games, period. And we’ve been making these sorts of games for over 20 years, since the days of the Apple II and C-64 through various Next Gen debuts and the PC game explosion right up to the latest platforms. So what’s a totally involving game? Well, I think you know the type of game I’m talking about. It’s one that immerses you so completely that time warps, hours fly by in what seems just seconds. You can’t stop playing it, you’re on the edge of your seat, and you’re in a special zone. For decades we’ve accomplished this primarily in the areas of space combat and flight action style games, both single and multiplayer. Our games have often been more recognizable than our name. Back in the 90s I felt like we should have made one of those American Express commercials that says, “You may not recognize us, but you know the games we designed and developed”, fade to shots from X-Wing and TIE Fighter. Besides these acclaimed games based on Star Wars we have had a real love of depicting the epic aerial battles of WWII, having designed and developed numerous games that put you into the cockpit during the critical air combat moments of that war, like Secret Weapons Over Normandy and the Battle of Britain.
As far as my own background, my game career has almost always been inextricably linked with Totally Games. I did have a short life outside of games and that was when I was charting a path in the fields of prehistoric archaeology and anthropology. At this time of my life the biggest mystery and challenge was to understand how we developed into human beings. On the way to grad school though I realized I’d rather dream up and build my own fantasy worlds than to dig up the remnants of old, dead ones. So I started programming games in 1982 on the C-64 and have continued designing and programming them ever since. I had a short stint with a now long defunct game company called HESWare in the early 80s before striking out on my own in 1984 to form Totally Games. I’ve been running this game company ever since.
Shawn: So Totally Games' isn't a new development studio. In fact, you've developed large and successful projects with both LucasArts and Activision, the latter being Star Trek: Bridge Commander. Looking back, Bridge Commander defined a new approach to the Star Trek games, creating a strategy game that utilized concepts typically found in a flight simulation, rather then taking the traditional RTS route of the Armada series. What did you learn from this sort of project where you've applied a lot of innovation around a series that has been primarily entrenched in a different genre? How do you feel this has helped the company develop and mature?
Larry: One of our company’s greatest strengths has always been its ability to laser focus on the quintessential elements of a property, be it Star Wars, Star Trek or even Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story and successfully deliver those elements as the core experience of our products. I think with Star Trek the challenge was greater but in the end we really honed our abilities to make this kind of game. It was a testimony to the fact that the entire development team clearly understood that we wanted to combine the captain’s chair command and control responsibilities depicted in the show with the heavyweight boxing style dynamics of large starship combat so associated with Star Trek. I think we were successful in doing so. From a technology standpoint we learned a lot as well. We made a very open system that relied on the Python scripting language that continues to offer great extensibility to modders who are still utilizing it to create expansions. Though, it wasn’t an easy task at all to build a system like that.
Shawn: Having been a developer of both PC and console games in the past, how do you perceive the direction of future games? Which market will the company be placing an emphasis on for future projects?
Larry: There has never been a more difficult time to be making decisions about what types of games to make and what platforms to develop for. I seem to be saying this same thing year after year, but it is truer now than ever. Given the plethora of devices from Next Gen to mobile devices, there is no single formula for success and so many options with lots of challenges and risks. Whether consumers will embrace all these options or turn away in confusion remains to be seen. I do think the diversity of platform type is here to stay and that it is a good thing. I’m also glad that there is still diversity of project scope and type with opportunity for small, medium, large and even giant size projects. In the near term TG will look for a mix of small and medium projects with the occasional large size project. The giant scale teams like those needed for MMOs are just too daunting at present for us. What’s more exciting than the scale of projects that we will be doing is the new directions we are headed. We are bullish on the Wii for traditional games as well as have done and will seek more projects in the emerging areas of Serious Games and adver-gaming.
Shawn: Totally Games has traditionally been rooted in flight-oriented genres? Do you see the direction of the company placing more emphasis on other genres in the future?
Larry: Absolutely! Flight is a really provocative dimension but there are many other ways to cook up action. So we’ve put the planes in the hangar for awhile and set out on foot. We’ve jumped in with both feet on action RPG style gaming as we see a great opportunity to build an immersive, deeply involving experience with some twists that draws on our science fiction credentials and our own brand of storytelling. We also have designs in other genres, so we plan to diversity our development further in the future.
Shawn: Totally Games recently announced Alien Syndrome. What can you tell us about this upcoming release?
It is our next product debut and it represents something very new for Totally Games so as I said before I’m very excited to talk about it. Alien Syndrome was originally released by Sega during the 1980s. It was an innovative and exciting arcade game for its time. A little over a year ago we realized that this classic game offered us a tremendous opportunity to take a forgotten jewel and totally pump new life into it. In essence it became a great inspiration and springboard that mixed well with our love of fast paced action games as well allowed us to use are well honed science fiction chops. The original game had a solid foundation of imaginative visuals and fast paced run and gun gameplay, and by modernizing it and enhancing it to meet the demands of the modern gaming audience, we could make something totally fun and involving. So in the end we decided to combine its core sci-fi universe with action RPG style gameplay. This gameplay definitely places emphasis on the action component of the ARPG genre by requiring the player to refine his skill with range and melee weaponry in order to progress through the game. This harkens back to the core gameplay of the original game. In addition there is plenty of loot to collect, weapons to upgrade, character skills and proficiencies to balance and an inventory to manage.
The game takes place far in the future and there is a bunch of nasty aliens on the loose. Okay, that much you might have figured out for yourself and you are probably thinking how original of us. And of course, humanity is once again faced with the deadly threat of the Alien Syndrome, but we've chosen to focus the story of the game on the personal struggles of our main protagonist, Aileen Harding, as she deals with the growing menace and her role in trying to thwart it. What adds depth to her character is that she has an intriguing history that slowly gets revealed as the game progresses. By having the player play a specific character and focusing the story of her personal inner struggle, we avoid the detached, faceless hero common to most other action RPGs. The game is all new, with new characters, weapons, environments, gameplay and a new story. Therefore this version of Alien Syndrome is not a simple graphics upgrade but a complete re-design from the ground. The result is an intense, ranged-combat oriented game with lots of strange and horrific aliens threatening to tear the player from limb to limb.
Shawn: With Alien Syndrome, why have you decided to develop on the Wii and PSP? Any plans for other consoles or the PC?
Larry: Both platforms are intriguing to us for different reasons: the PSP for its wonderful sharp screen and portability and the Wii, obviously for its unique interface hardware. Each of the selected platforms gives us a super possibility for expressing the game uniquely. Originally we started our development on this title to give PSP players a really fun, science fiction themed action title since the offerings on that platform were very limited and to some extent still are. When the Wii began emerging with its interface scheme, it was an irresistible challenge to see if we could leverage the fun even more by applying the Wiimote and nunchuk to our action RPG. We think we have come up with a great scheme that optimizes gameplay that other platforms can’t possibly do. The scope and timing of the release of these platforms also offered us a great opportunity to do something relatively risky and work on just these platforms while being able to having a reasonably short development cycle, yet reach the market with a top caliber game. Sorry to say at present there are no plans for other versions than the PSP and the Wii.
Shawn: With the recent hiring of Erick Wujcik, formerly of Ubisoft China (Shanghai), what you do feel he will bring to the team, notably in the development of Alien Syndrome?
Larry: Erick’s arrival coincides with the Beta period on Alien Syndrome, i.e. the very end of the project. However before we have put the game to bed he has been able to give us valuable input on the additional gameplay sections that are being created especially for the Wii version. But we’re having Erick focus on the future, and spearhead our R&D efforts with the creation of innovative ideas for new projects. It’s a great opportunity for Erick to flex his design muscles and to utilize his depth and breadth in RPG and games in general to help us both build on our recent new directions as well as branch out into other areas. Also we expect him to allow us to expand our game design consulting services, both domestically and abroad where the technical capabilities are strong but game design expertise is more wanting. In many ways it’s a dream job for any designer. Both Erick and I are excited by the future prospects. I’m just a wee bit jealous since he’ll get to play games more often than me, of course all part of his extensive “research”. It’s lucky that there’s one thing I like to do more than play games, and that’s to make them!
Shawn: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Larry: Get ready for a blast-a-thon when Alien Syndrome comes out! Something that neither the PSP or the Wii has yet seen. If you don’t have one yet, go get yourself a Wii, they’re awesome. Or at least get your PSP ready for one heck of an action game.
Shawn: Thanks so much for your time, and best of luck with Alien Syndrome. I’d also like to toss out a quick thanks to Shelly Eckenroth at Foghorn PR for coordinating this Q&A.