Last week Liverpool learned that its world-famous games developer and publisher, Studio Liverpool, was to close after releasing two decades’ worth of pioneering games across a number of platforms.
Amongst a dozen landmark titles, including Lemmings and Colony Wars, the series that Studio Liverpool became most associated with was futuristic racer Wipeout, the seminal game of the original PlayStation era.
Boasting a cutting-edge dance soundtrack that spread the appeal of the game – and platform – to the mainstream, Wipeout was a huge success for the studio and Playstation; new iterations of the game are best-sellers to this day.
The closure of the studio might have signalled the end of one incredible Merseyside story. But another tale is just about to be told, according to Nick Burcombe who, along with artist Jim Bowers, conceived Wipeout in a pub in Oxton.
Burcombe worked at Studio Liverpool in two spells, creating Wipeout for Sony’s debut console when the firm – which was founded in 1984 – was called Psygnosis. It was the first in-house success for Psygnosis, a company which employed hundreds of people at its Wavertree Technology Park home, following a move from the docks.
When Wipeout was released in 1995, Liverpool was at the cutting edge of games development technology globally, and there are signs the city could be in for another digital renaissance, says Burcombe.
“The loss of the studio is very big deal, but in Elevator Studios and the Baltic Triangle Liverpool has a hive of creative industries. You the bands and music publishers too. Game Developers like ourselves – Playrise Digital – Lucid, Red Ninja, Atomicom, Curly Rocket.
“There are other digital media ventures like Setgo, Catalyst, Ripstone, Milky Tea – the list goes on – and this is pretty much all in one building. There’s a vibrant new creative hub building itself in the city. Playrise is still finding out what really happening here and how best to collaborate.”
Merseyside has been a home as well as source of inspiration for Burcombe throughout his 23 years in the games industry. He was brought up in Ainsdale, a few miles from Southport, but moved to Birkenhead when he joined Psygnosis in 1989.
“It was wonderful,” he recalls. “Liverpool had a terrible time through the eighties, but had come through it. I, and many colleagues, were into the Liverpool club scene and remember when Quadrant Park was one of the best clubs in the world, but whilst at Psygnosis, Voodoo was an exceptional experience too.”
After legislative crackdowns on the illegal rave scene the super-clubs sprang to life and the legendary club Cream was one of the best. “There was a fantastic night called Voodoo at Le Bateau – which was our club of choice. Plastikman, The Surgeon, Jeff Mills, Dave Clarke….amazing nights.” says Burcombe.
“Not everyone at Psygnosis was like that, but a big proportion of the development crew was. It came back into our games,” he says, adding, “It may have been that Wipeout wouldn’t have been as culturally relevant without that backdrop. It was all part of what was going on and it made Wipeout brought a certain kudos to gaming and the Playstation brand and changed people’s perception of gaming in a much wider sense.”
An astute marketing team at Psygnosis identified with Burcombe’s passion for dance music and took it to clubs. That ploy was only possible because Wipeout boasted real bands on its soundtrack at a time when music was largely “8-bit blips and squeaks and plonks”.
“I used to turn off game music when I played and put my own music on,” says Burcombe. “It seemed utterly natural to do what we were doing”. It was just the zeitgeist, the right time. “I originally wrote a dream tracklist with Carl Cox, CJ Bolland, FUSE, Joey Beltram – at the time, a much more underground playlist, but it was very hard to get the music industry to listen to what we were doing.”
A breakthrough came when Burcombe met Phil and Paul Hartnoll of Orbital. “We explained what we were making and they were just into it and asked us to come down to the studio and they re-wrote P.E.T.R.O.L for the game – they totally got it. By the second Wipeout we had the momentum, could explain the model and had a whole raft of tracks. Mind, I still used my original tracklist when I played the game sometimes.”
This was a game that made sense to players anywhere in the world, but was born and bred in Liverpool. “I’m proud we made it in Liverpool,” says Burcombe.
Burcombe is now running his own startup, Playrise Digital – a mobile developer. “It’s early days at the moment,” he explains, “but I can still see that the mobile space will be very fertile ground for Liverpool.”
Playrise’s first two games are light-hearted physics puzzler called “Baby Nom Nom” and the superb looking “Table Top Racing”, a cross between Mario Kart and Micro Machines.
“We’re wanting to be part of that hub that is growing in Liverpool,” Burcombe explains.
“With all the redundancies at Bizarre Creations, parts of EA and obviously Studio Liverpool there are suddenly a lot of very capable people about.
“I’d hate to see them join the brain drain to Canada – UK tax breaks are finally coming, and the opportunities will be great in Liverpool if they can weather the storm for a couple of years.”