One-on-one with Aussie PS Vita developer, Tantalus

Eighteen years on, the game developer's CEO, Tom Crago, talks PS Vita, state of the Australian games development industry, and why it is hard to make AAA games Down Under.

In 1994, Australian game development studio, Tantalus, opened its doors. Throughout its history the company has garnered recognition for its work particularly with handheld consoles on Nintendo’s GameBoy Advanced.

Eighteen years later, Tantalus continues to forge on with its passion for handhelds, becoming one of the first Australian developers to work on a Sony PlayStation Vita title.

“We moved from the GameBoy onto the Nintendo DS and the Sony PSP plus we were doing home console developments as well on the Xbox 360, PS2, and the Wii,” Tantalous CEO, Tom Crago, told PC World Games. “I suppose for us, the PS Vita is a continuation of that handheld development tradition – we’re doing things for the Nintendo 3DS as well.”

He couldn’t reveal much about either of the titles the company is working on for the PS Vita and 3DS though he did note it is an original IP made in partnership with a major publisher that is close to completion.

Since the PS Vita was just released in Australia last month, PC World Games decided to have a chat with Crago to learn more about the development process for the new handheld, talk about the future of the Australian gaming industry and find out why touchpads will never supplant the good old fashioned controller.

PCW: Tantalus has worked with numerous handhelds as well as consoles. What are some of the differences and challenges developing for the two different groups?

I suppose handheld projects tend to have a lower budget and shorter timeframe so, to that extent, they are more challenging. It’s not always the case but you tend you find yourself working within more constrained surroundings.

So not only are the budget and the timeframes smaller but because the machine is less powerful there’s less you can do with it. We feel as though we have become pretty adept in getting the most out of that hardware from GameBoy Advance all the way through now to 3DS and PS Vita.

It is just a different mindset when approaching handheld console compared to something that’s bigger and more powerful where the expectations, perhaps, is that the visuals will be more impressive.

What we like to try to do is to surprise people by putting graphics that are impressive onto the smaller screen.

PCW: How do you ensure quality doesn’t suffer under those constraints when developing on handhelds?

Well, you have to make best of those constraints.

Obviously it’s impossible to make a DS game look as good as a PS3 game. You have to employ different tricks, strategies and techniques to make the most of the hardware to use it in the way that it’s designed to be used.

The PS Vita, for example, is a very powerful machine with a lovely screen so you can leverage elements of its design to produce a title that looks great.

PCW: Can you go through the process of developing a game for the PS Vita?

We are at the very early stages of developing for the PS Vita and we are developing an original concept, so an idea that we’ve come up with here internally.

We were lucky in that Sony supported us early on with the allocation of development hardware.

Initially, when we started to work with the PS Vita we were very impressed by the power of the machine. We also really liked the form factor; we felt like it was nice to hold, the controls were in the right position, and it did everything you wanted it to do from a control standpoint.

We like the idea of a powerful dedicated handheld gaming console in this market where you have the 3DS, which does what it does very well and iPhone which of course is a phenomenon. Then there’s the iPad and iPod Touch.

None of those things, really, address what we feel is a lingering demand for a dedicated powerful handheld gaming device. That’s what the Vita does.

That’s why we were excited to have the opportunity to develop on it.

PCW: What genre of games, do you think, is best suited for the PS Vita?

There will be the usual mix of core games and they will probably do well in the early life cycle of the hardware because it will be early adopters and enthusiasts that buy the PS Vita first.

But then hopefully, if the device gets broader traction, we’ll see the types of games developed extend more into family and casual.

From a Tantalus standpoint we see our strengths in the racing genre but also in that family character action and casual space. It would be great if the PS Vita finds a market there.

PCW: When you say core games, do you mean “hardcore”? So you think the PS Vita leans itself more towards hardcore gamers?

Yes. But even Drake’s Uncharted – I would describe that as a core game. A game for gamers really.

It fits better in that space.

PCW: There’s obviously a big divide between hardcore and casual gamers? Does that actually have an impact on you, the developers?

It does. You have to know your audience when you are making a game.

But in the context of Vita, it’s really interesting because core gamers will buy the device. Irrespective of what we consider whether the device is a success or a failure, it will still be bought by millions of people

Those people, people who buy it initially will be core gamers for the most part. They will be people that have owned a number of platforms over the years from PS2 to PSP and beyond that even earlier on. There will be games that are in this launch window for now to cater to those people.

Those games will do fine in terms of sales. But what needs to happen for the Vita is what absolutely happened for the DS and what kind of happened to the PSP, which is it is able to find a broader audience.

No necessarily a casual audience or people who are happy just to play games on their iPhone or perhaps bought a Wii and bought 2-3 titles on that, but a broader audience in general.

PCW: Where do you see the Australian gaming industry going?

There is this new part of the market, which is the Apple iOS. I’m talking about games that are like $1, $2 or free. That’s big business at present.

Yes, there are ultra low budget games that will be developed for all platforms even console platforms but we can’t really make those games in any competitive way in Australia anymore. They are being made in parts of Asia, Europe or elsewhere.

At the other end of the market, we have that very high end that is AAA games. We had one success story there in LA Noire (developed by the now defunct Team Bondi). But we don’t have a track record in Australia for developing AAA titles.

That may change and hopefully it does but there aren’t many, if any, AAA titles that are being commissioned by publishers for development in Australia.

PCW: Will Tantalus be looking at developing AAA titles in the future?

We would love to but it’s very, very challenging - more challenging than ever insofar as the Aussie dollar value is much higher than the US dollar.

So if your partner is American they’re going to be much more inclined to make that game closer to home.

This is another thing that happened of course when times got tough in the US.

Publishers there were much more inclined to work with local studios and they felt as though that minimised the risks associated with the development cycle in keeping it with the studios they can go visit rather than work with a company on the other side of the world.

PCW: Moving onto the topic of gaming hardware, is there a particular platform Tantalus is most excited to develop for?

Most exciting for us at the moment is the Nintendo Wii U.

You’re always inclined to be excited about what’s new or what’s around the corner but that’s absolutely a platform we are very optimistic and enthusiastic about.

PCW: I see touchpads are becoming more common in gaming devices, especially with the PS Vita. Do you think the future of gaming will rely solely on touchpads and motion control for that matter? Is there still a place for D-pads and buttons on a controller?

I think those things are in the future of gaming.

The future of gaming is always going to be about gameplay or about that moment to moment experience we have when we play games; whether we are playing them on a touchscreen or motion controller or whatever.

Those good ideas and those fun moments transcend the input device or platform or the specifics of the delivery mechanism. They will adapt to whatever the platform of the day happens to be.

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