From Lemmings to Wipeout: how Ian Hetherington incubated gaming success

“Back the talent. Not the product.”

It’s a simple philosophy, but one that Ian Hetherington — co-founder of one of Sony’s most successful publishing studios in the 1990s — holds dear. And he says it’s not being followed as much as it should.

As co-founder of publishing group Psygnosis, Hetherington knows something about talent: among his progeny are David Jones, the creator of Grand Theft Auto, and the founders of Total War studio Creative Assembly and Ubisoft-owned Reflections.

Psygnosis pushed millions in product and its best-known titles include Lemmings and the PlayStation-defining success, Wipeout. That success is due to nothing less than an unwavering emphasis on talent over process, says Hetherington — and a model that allowed developers to work together in ways they had never been able to prior.

“I look back on that with a great deal of pride and say that there was a significant contribution to the whole industry,” he says.

It’s an optimistic appraisal of the industry from someone who was at the centre of one of its most infamous downfalls. During the 1980s, Hetherington helped run finances at Imagine Software — a BBC documentary chronicled its downfall.

In a fast-paced industry that had many young developers swept up in a craze of coding and good fortune, the extremely public disaster highlighted a truth: games are as fragile as any other industry.

For Hetherington, the failure of Imagine highlighted that to take the games industry to the next level, they needed something more than faster chips. They needed talent. And an environment to nurture that talent.

“It’s not always easy to take that step back, because you’re so embroiled in the high velocity and intensity of what’s actually happening,” he says. “It was newsworthy.”

“You still see it today. This kind of explosive opportunity, with money coming out of every orifice and opportunity all over the place. It’s easy to lose focus in that type of environment, which is what happened.”

Hetherington had been working with computers for years, first as a programmer working on mainframes the size of an aircraft hanger. The exponential speed of technological change fascinated him, and the personalization of the desktop brought together his two passions — technology and games.



To many, Wipeout and Psygnosis go hand-in-hand

Psygnosis

“I don’t think anybody saw it coming, and it unleashed a whole new force in the industry — which was creativity. And creativity focused on entertainment,” he says.

“You can kind of argue that that’s still going on today. You look at a VR headset now. People are kind of creatively struggling to find a use case and an entertainment case for it, but it will happen.”

That passion brought him to run finances at Imagine, but after its closure Hetherington knew he wanted to focus on a publisher-developer model that put the talent first. The temptation, he says, was to produce content that would simply use as much graphical power as possible — a temptation that’s easy to succumb to if you haven’t had experience creating entertainment for the everyday consumer, he says.

“I’d spotted early on the value of independent developers and providing them with an environment of creativity, so we were doing that at Psygnosis,” he says.

“I’d also still had this burning passion for innovation and technology, so you know we were first into selecting graphics; we were first into 3D; we were first into CD.”

In practice, this meant a focus on developers who put players first and a “classic gaming” philosophy at the forefront, says Hetherington. It also meant giving them everything they needed to succeed — which meant accepting failure at a time when he claims other developers may have been less willing to experiment.

Small studios worked together at Psygnosis in the same way many independent game coworking spaces have sprung up in recent years, says Hetherington.

“The philosophy was always to make the best product you can,” he says. “Now if that meant drafting in an artist, a coder, play testers, whatever it took. And giving the developers more time, letting them set their ambition, letting them fail. Whatever it took to make that supreme product, we were prepared to do it.

“So suddenly you end up with a team of people working on something where the end goal is everything that matters.

“It’s the kind of philosophy that the end deliverable is far, far greater than some of the parts or some of the capability of the group.”



Lemmings helped cement the company’s reputation

Psygnosis

That philosophy resulted in a string of hit games: Lemmings, Wipeout and Shadow of the Beast among them. The success of the company was well-known: during the PlayStation launch period, Psygnosis games were responsible for a huge chunk of sales. The futuristic racing game Wipeout helped define the vision for what the PlayStation could be — a powerful system that could actually compete with Nintendo’s dominance.

“The first Christmas we produced about 70% of the launch catalogue,” he says.

“If you add up all the talent, so you have Traveller’s Tales, DMA Design, Bizarre Creations, Creative Assembly … these firms have gone on to do many hundreds of millions of units of product. We had them all as assets.”

Sony acquired the firm in 1993, in preparation for the launch of the PlayStation. Even though Hetherington was adamant that the studio focus on developers and the end content above chasing hardware, Psygnosis was given the responsibility of coming up with PlayStation development kits.“I was driving this kind of innovation,” he says. “We were doing 3D when the hardware was fundamentally not 3D, and we were doing CD when not many pieces of hardware had a CD drive.

“But the fit was remarkable, and then you see how attractive we were to Sony because of what their ambition was.”

Hetherington is adamant much of the PlayStation’s “cool gamer” ethos came in no small part due to lobbying from Psygnosis. By releasing games like Wipeout, which focused on futuristic, fast-paced gaming coupled with edgy advertising campaigns — which showed players having nose bleeds — the studio was a driving force.

“It was a wonderful, wonderful time for me personally to have the Sony machine behind you.”

Hetherington says he constantly clashed with Sony executives over broader ideas. At one point, Hetherington even put forward the idea of a PlayStation TV with the console inside.

“I think everybody probably rues the day we didn’t do that,” he says.

More hits followed, as Psygnosis had its name changed to Sony’s “Studio Liverpool.” But the studio closed up shop in 2010. Hetherington had moved on to new ventures by then — his latest a company exploring mobile mapping options for smartphones.

At a recent Psygnosis reunion, Hetherington was surprised to find developers had gone on to work in a variety of fields — with many winning awards for their work, including Oscars. It was a validation for him that the developer-first model had worked.

“It was a wonderful, wonderful time for me personally to have the Sony machine behind you and to be able to do this, to be able to live out your ambition and to deliver this sort of thing in real-time,” he says.

Hetherington says his key take from that time has a direct connection to the vast independent scene dominating games now — a focus on care for developers and the players’ experience first. Everything else, he says, will just fall into place.

“You have to have respect for them, you have to have an appreciation for what they may add. You need a collaborative, goal-driven, product-driven focus.”

Source: Polygon – Full

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