WHO IS RARE?
Way back in the nineties when gaming was still in its infancy, a company called Rare was making a stir. They were a group of British developers with a unique brand of humour and silliness. Rare garnered a team that were able to produce truly unique and fresh ideas, and amongst them was Gregg Mayles.
He would begin life at Rare designing the Battletoads series and Donkey Kong Country. Though many will know him as the driving force behind the Banjo Kazooie series. Not to mention brilliant titles such as Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Viva Piñata and Xbox One live service exclusive, Sea Of Thieves.
He’s a fantastic creative mind that has over twenty years of experience in the gaming industry. So we felt very blessed to have the chance to talk to him. We got chatting about current ongoing project Sea Of Thieves, gaming communities, Rare in the nineties and much more. Enjoy!
A Wild Captain Blackeye Appears!
Callum: Hi Gregg, it’s so nice to meet you and we really appreciate you making time to speak to us. How has working at home been for you guys at Rare in this mad time? I see the most recent Sea Of Thieves update just went live, so all must be going OK.
Gregg: Yes, thankfully working from home hasn’t been too bad. With Rare being affiliated with Microsoft there are a lot of people in the background that are constantly prepared for these eventualities. So we are still getting everything done that we need to.
The update did just go live, that went off without a hitch. That’s mainly down to the team having worked together for as long as we have and being comfortable with the new setup. The novelty has kind of worn off now and we are just going about things quite normally. Plus Microsoft were very proactive by getting things put in place even before the lockdown. So we have been like this for quite a while anyway.
Callum: That’s great to hear, well let’s get straight into it. So when we were chatting earlier we were discussing an article I wrote on wholesome communities (which you’ll find here) and you joked that Sea Of Thieves wasn’t on that list. It’s undoubtedly a wholesome game I admit, so how have you ensured that you built that kind of community?
Gregg: It’s been quite a thing to achieve honestly as it’s a complicated balancing act. Obviously, as it is a pirate based game and pirates are known for, let’s say certain behaviours. It can be hard to keep things fair and fun. Actions like stealing treasure is something that although not entirely moral, that we encourage as that’s a big part of the game.
However, with the likes of abuse, that is something that we aim to stamp out as well as we can without having to rule with an iron fist. That’s where the lighthearted and fun nature of the game helps us. Plus we include a pirates code, which is available for all players in the tavern. Then we happen to have our community we have built to be a generally quite a moral bunch. They do a good job of policing themselves for the most part too. Which helps us out for sure.
Though there is a grey area in the middle that we are still trying to perfect. A good example for this is spawn campers. I hate spawn campers who actively target weaker players and ruin their experience. We have looked into a number of ways to prevent this. One being that you can sink your ship and set up elsewhere away from your tormentors. Although we are aware this perhaps airs on the side of an allowance for this behaviour. Though we are constantly aiming to improve and tweak Sea Of Thieves to make the experience as good for all players as we can.
Callum: Well in my opinion, you guys are doing a great job. So onto something a bit more technical. In terms of Sea Of Thieves but extending to all your projects. What is the preferred form of playtesting used at Rare?
Gregg: Um, I’m perhaps not the best guy to ask as I have limited knowledge. As far as I know, for Sea Of Thieves we used a culmination of automated testing, our developers also helped test the game and we also have a Microsoft insider group that also aid us with our testing. Though as far as third party testing or lab based testing it’s not something we would normally use. Sea Of Thieves had nothing like that.
Though in contrast to that, Kinect Sports was almost completely lab tested through human interaction. That was a necessity due to the hardware we were working with. So I suppose it often depends on the context.
Callum: I appreciate you answering that as it wasn’t completely your specialist area. Let me focus more on your role. As you are often a creative director, what is your relationship with developent teams and AI? Do you see it as a positive or a hinderance when trying to achieve your grand vision?
Gregg: I certainly don’t see them as a hinderance. These processes are so important to the overall finished product we are making. So if they can aid our game and improve on quality I do my best to facilitate that. They also offer perspectives that are completely different to my own and take into account areas that I rarely have to consider. I have my own process that works well for me but it’s not always the best way forward.
Plus with automation included, it often leaves our engineers and developers with more free time. Time they can use on making new improvements rather than fixing old ones that have developed bugs. The way I see it, if it’s better for the player then I don’t see it as anything other than a positive.
Callum: I’d be inclined to agree, so just to wrap up on design. AI is becoming something that is being talked about more and more in regards to gaming and game design. Do you see it as the future of gaming?
Gregg: I do see it as a positive thing. It can be a fantastic tool for testing or doing processes that humans simply cannot feasibly do. Though I don’t believe that it will ever be in a place to do the more human aspects of game development. I personally am of the opinion that human input is always going to be needed and preferable in these situations.
It makes me think back to our design processes for Donkey Kong Country that was completely planned out on post-it notes. Banjo was completly drawn by hand. Then for Viva Piñata, we had a whiteboard that was completely filled with magnetic animals for a visual display. It’s these processes that only humans can do and for me, they are the details that make the games special.
So I would say that AI is a fantastic supporting tool for developent. Though by no means a replacement for human developers. I can say with a good deal of certainty that you’ll never see an automation driven title produced by me.
Callum: That’s a really interesting view. So I’m going to steer away from the topic of design. I have a little palette cleanser question for you. What credit on any game you’ve worked on are you most proud of?
Gregg: If I had to name just one, it would have to be Viva Piñata. The reason being that I think it sums up everything that Rare is as a studio. It was an inherently Rare produced game. What we’d done with it was special and there is still a lot of love for it. That is solely down to the amazing community that Viva Piñata engaged with. It’s a game I often think could have been so much more. It’s rare that I look back and say I wish I could have made a game differently but with Viva Piñata. It’s a rare example, I feel we made some mistakes. Though I’m still very proud of it. So I would definitely say Viva Piñata.
Callum: And just to follow that up. Apart from Viva Piñata that you’ve already mentioned. Are there any games you think just didn’t reach their potential at Rare?
Gregg: Um, well, if you follow my twitter feed at all, you’ll be aware that it’s almost a running joke how poorly received Grabbed By The Ghoulies was. Though I still feel it had some saving qualities. Also, Donkey Kong 64 could fall into this bracket as well I suppose. I didn’t have much to do with that one though. I believe, if my memory serves me right, that I designed the end boss battle with K. Rool. So I would say those too stand out.
Conker could have easily went that way too. It played very similar to Banjo but it wasn’t as technically advanced. So we recognised pretty quick that Conker needed to change. It needed a sort of USP. So we adapted it to be a giant ball of satirical full of sarcasm.
Callum: And just to jump onto Conker for a moment, how did it come to be that Nintendo were happy to publish it considering their more family friendly library?
Gregg: Nintendo were never too heavily involved with us really. They trusted us as a company to deliver to them unique games unlike anything else for their platform. So we essentially made the titles and they would publish them. So I suppose this one just slipped under the radar. Though I’m a firm believer that those kind of developent stories only add to the game.
Callum: Great stuff. So moving quickly back to Sea Of Thieves. We briefly discussed pre-interview, the slow start for Sea Of Thieves. Do you believe that the pressure of being one of the few Xbox One exclsuives had anything to do with this?
Gregg: I wouldn’t say that it had anything to do with pressure. Sea of Thieves for Rare was something completely new. We had never worked on a live service game before and I think we underestimated the challenge that comes with that. We had to build new infrastructure to facilitate this kind of project and it took a lot of time to perfect.
To such an extent that there are still ideas and content that we aimed to include in the base game that are still in prototype. These are ideas that we still want to include into the game and aim to do so at a later date. But no, I wouldn’t say it was down to any pressure other than that of a new challenge.
Callum: And just staying with the Microsoft relationship for a moment. Seeing as you are a third party producer for them, do you ever feel that this is a restrictive partnership or is it more positive?
Gregg: I’ve been at Rare since the acquisition back in 2002. I think it was 2002 and I’ve seen it as nothing but positive. Our remit has always been to come up with new and unique games and Microsoft have always been fully accommodating of that approach. I know many are quick to point at the Kinect Sports game as a departure from what Rare are known for.
Though at the time, we looked at the hardware and fully believed that we could do something special with it. So yeah, at least in my opinion, our relationship with Microsoft has been a positive one.
Callum: That’s good to hear. Just staying with Microsoft, there have been rumblings of a partnership between them and Nintendo. What’s your thoughts? Do you ever see Rare returning to work on Nintendo franchises?
Gregg: It’s not something that I have any information on, other than what’s already out there in the media. Though I would say that I’m not resigned from the idea at all. I’m always of the opinion that if it’s better for the player, it can only be a good thing. So if the opportunity arose, it would be an exciting opportunity for sure.
Callum: Well that is exciting, fingers crossed it materialises. So moving onto something a little more obscure. I just want to discuss your old studio in the nineties. Is it true that you all worked in a converted Farm house in the English countryside?
Gregg: Yes, so we did have a farm house in Twycross. It kind of fit the way that Rare as a company did things. We always had this culture of doing things differently and also to create a relaxed atmosphere. So we eventually converted all the buildings into workspaces. DK Country was completely developed in the first big converted barn. Then eventually all the buildings got converted. It led to some very alternative office spaces that were cramped due to sloped roofs and the like.
Though it became unsustainable and we had to move with the times. It got to a stage where the studio was using more power than the adjacent village. Leading to power cuts and us relying on additional generators. So we eventually moved to the current studio about a mile and a half up the road. Though a lot of the space has been made to be quite reminiscent of the old farm house. There are the same open plan, long rooms that represent the barns.
Callum: And was it true that you were sort of quarantined in your respective barns. Where one team wouldn’t be able to see what other teams were working on?
Gregg: Yeah, so that was pretty much the case. Teams for different projects were completely isolated from each other. At the time we started this in the nineties, that was very much a trend with developers. When we were primarily working for Nintendo, we visited their place and seen that they were isolating their teams. So we adopted their set up. They were pretty much unrivaled in terms of success so we seen it as a no brainer.
I think it was ideal for the time but it eventually had to give way to more modern methods. We had to open up the channels again and allow for cross collaboration. It just works better in todays climate. Though I’m of the belief that if your vision is strong enough, this type of collaboration or outside influences won’t matter.
Callum: It really was an interesting time for gaming. So just beginning to wrap up. Are their any projects that you’re working on you want to discuss?
Gregg: Well, as you probably know, we are working on Everwild which is still in development. Though beyond that, there isn’t an awful lot that I’m willing to divulge in all honesty. Though what I will say is that ideas from ten plus years ago, scribbled on post-it notes are often reassessed and implemented into new projects. Sea Of Thieves is a great example actually. We had an idea for a multiplayer pirate game a long time ago. Though it just wasn’t feasible.
Callum: Just out of interest, are there any post-it ideas that will never see the light of day?
Gregg: Yes actually, as you know, Rare made it’s name through games that heavily included item collection. To the point that Penny Arcade actually had a swipe at us. Though these games were kind of a microcosm of gaming in that era. That’s just the way it was. So we had an idea for a game that would just be collecting items. Nothing else. It was almost a piss take because of the flak we got. Though it never quite materialised and it never will. Maybe that’s for the best though.
Callum: Then lastly, what would you say is the game that has influenced your life the most?
Gregg: Oh gosh, well usually when I’m asked for my favourite game I say the game I played the most as a kid. That was Chaos for the ZX spectrum. It wasn’t nescessarilly an amazing game, but one that certainly captured my attention. I just really liked what it was trying to do.
Though the most influencial will be one of the games made by Ultimate. I grew up obsessed with the games they produced and eventually would be employed by those that helped forge my childhood. If I had to pick just one, it would have to be Sabre wulf. Another game that I just loved what it was trying to do.
It had that emergent, story making approach. You could be fully immersed, roaming around the forest and a wolf would be always on the hunt for you. Though you might not encounter it throughout your whole playtime. It was able to evoke a lot of emotions out of me and if I’m honest, I’m reluctant to return to it. Mostly out of fear that my memories would be spoiled.
That was our Rare interview!
So that was our interview with Rare’s Gregg Mayles. We thank him for taking the time to have a chat to us. It was a really pleasant one might I add. Also, we wish him and Rare every success with their ongoing and upcoming projects as well.
If you want to check out some more of our interview content, then why not check our interview with Critical Nobody Or if you’re in the mood for something more design focused. Then why not check out our UX review of Final Fantasy VII. I’m Callum and thank you for reading COG!