Ratbag Games and the success of Powerslide

How a local developer hit it big with a racing game during the prime of PC gaming.

Before Greg Siegele was at the helm of Ratbag Games, he was a lawyer in the second year of practice and not really enjoying his chosen profession. His friend from grade one at primary school, Richard Harrison, was in the midst of a Masters Degree at Australian National University was doing his own research into real time 3D graphics and AI with Silicon Graphics equipment. Keen to start a business, Siegele's and Harrison's love for games prompted them to co-found Ratbag Games to develop games in Australia.

We caught up with former Ratbag Games CEO, Greg Siegele, to find out more about the studio and its success.

Where does the concept for Ratbag Games have its genesis?

Former Ratbag Games CEO, Greg Siegele (GS): We'd been playing games together since the very beginning starting with Pong. Like many people who enjoy playing games, we naively thought we could make a better crop of games by starting up our own studio.

What challenges did you encounter when founding the developer?

GS: Turns out it's a difficult thing to make a great game. Our plan initially was to make virtual reality video games, where we would provide the hardware as well as the software. It was very ambitious for a couple of 25-year-olds with no experience and no connections. We shelved that plan in our first year when Sony and Nintendo both announced they were developing consoles with 3D graphics, and then 3D graphics cards like the 3Dfx Voodoo line started appearing on the PC. That was when we decided to make Powerslide for the PC.

How did your first PC title, Powerslide, come about?

GS: The first couple of years Richard worked alone developing the engine. Then we engaged a couple of top-flight artists for a few weeks, with one of them Greg Holfeld, Art Director on Ren & Stimpy. We put together a demo we called "Cambrian Explosion". The engine and art looked good but the gameplay sucked. We showed it to developer Tantalus in Melbourne and they accurately labelled it "Cambrian Snoozefest". That was when we decided to make Powerslide. Richard and I love racing games, especially Stunt Car Racer by Geoff Crammond, so we thought we could get the gameplay right with Powerslide.

When did development on the game begin?

GS: We took on some artists and programmers who were still at university and they worked for us over the summer making the Powerslide prototype that we took to E3 in Atlanta, Georgia in May 1997. The prototype looked amazing and ran at 60 frames per second on a Pentium 90 with a Voodoo card. It was the first time that arcade quality 3D graphics had been seen on a home machine, and predictably the publishers we showed it to went nuts. We chose GT Interactive because at the time they were number one on PC, having publishing Doom II, Duke Nukem 3D and Total Annihilation.

What happened after you secured the publishing deal?

GS: It wasn't over after E3, as we had to prove to GT that we could build the whole game. We were asking for AU$2 million to build the Powerslide game. There were only seven people in the studio at that time, none of us had any experience making a game, and five of us were still at university. What's more, we had another ten artists and programmers lined up ready to join Ratbag as soon as we got some funding. They were mostly finishing up university, too. Essentially, we were the vapourware studio from hell, but we were up front about all this with GT. The power of a great prototype proved that we had the potential to make a great game, so they gave us the green light. I am very grateful to the executives at GT that showed confidence in these raw beginners all the way over in Australia.

When did development of the game begin?

GS: After seven months of bulls#!t negotiations with GT lawyers, where they tried to win deal points by taking us to the verge of bankruptcy, we finally got our funding in January 1998. It was then ten months of flat out development carnage and sleeping bags in the office. Everyone that worked on the game gave their lives to it for those ten months.

What notable accolades did the game receive?

GS: We showed our work in progress at E3 1998 and PC PowerPlay put Powerslide on their cover and awarded it one of the three best games at the event. IGN also awarded us Racing Game of the Year. How cool is that, given it was the first game anyone in the studio had made?

How did the studio change after Powerslide's release?

GS: There were plenty of people that wanted to put weapons in Powerslide. GT was so pleased with our work on the game that they agreed to fund a car combat/first person shooter title with an AU$8 million budget. However, at this time things started to get rocky for them, and they never greenlit the project. So we blew a lot of our profit from Powerslide on pre-production for this title. When GT pulled out, we had no deals in the works and were facing bankruptcy. It's a long story, but the short of it is that our staff agreed to work for $200 a week while we developed our next two titles, Dirt Track Racing and Leadfoot, until we got a publishing deal for them. In return, they got 40 per cent of the advance and royalties from these games. Dirt Track Racing was a big hit, so we were back in business.

How did Powerslide look so impressive?

GS: As far as I am aware, Powerslide was the first 3D game in the home to run at 60 frames per second. We were pushing a huge number of polygons too, more than three times our competition. It was also the first game to stream textures into graphics memory, so it had unlimited textures. How did we do that? We had Richard Harrison and James Grieve, both with a solid background in 3D graphics, and Jeff Lim one of the best assembly coders on the planet. We had some brilliant 3D code and it was written directly to the metal. That was something we continued to do on all of Ratbag's games on every platform.

What recognition did the game engine receive?

GS: IGN gave us runner up in the Engine category in 1999, the year that Unreal won it. Magazines in the U.S. also used it along with the Quake engine to benchmark video cards and PC hardware.

How successful was Powerslide?

GS: Powerslide sold well in Europe, but unfortunately it was stillborn in the United States. We didn't know this when we signed the deal, but the VP of marketing at GT at the time voted against acquiring Powerslide. She was already developing a racing title called TransAm Racing with a start up studio spun out from a company that recreated car accidents for legal disputes. They were good at physics, but that was it. The game was crap, however, and spent forever in development. Long after Powerslide was released they finally axed it.

Did it improve the situation?

GS: TransAm Racing was bad news for us. Despite the hype surrounding Powerslide at its release, GT printed only 7000 copies of the game, guaranteeing its demise in the U.S. This same executive was also pissed that Powerslide would only run on machines with 3D graphics cards, and said they would never publish another game that was 3D only. Yeah, close the patent office, too, while you're at it. So even if you make a great game, marketing and distribution can still let you down. In this case, deliberately.

Were there any plans to port the game to consoles?

GS: No, GT was really a PC company at the time, as this was back when PC sales were big. It probably would have sold even better on those platforms and kicked on with sequels.

Why did Ratbag move onto developing dirt track racing games?

GS: We discovered many people were playing Powerslide's Speedway track online and were crying out for a full-fledged game of this type. When GT pulled out of the second game we were making for them, Wizardworks, a subsidiary of theirs and publisher of the hit Deer Hunter, came to us and said they thought there was a big market for a game like Dirt Track Racing. They were right and we made three games in the DTR franchise and it is one of the best selling racing games of all time on PC, second only to Need for Speed, the last time I looked. It will probably stay that way, too, now that PC sales have died in the ass.

What was it like working with Wizardworks?

GS: We had a great relationship with Wizardworks and they were really good people. Roger Arias at Wizardworks and I came up with the core design of the career mode in DTR. Thirteen years on, I believe it is still one of the best career modes in games today, though NBA 2K has taken the crown in career mode.

How was the transition to console development?

GS: The transition from PC to Xbox was a breeze, since it was PC based. PC to PlayStation 2 was painful in more ways than one. It was custom hardware and we had to write everything from scratch. We had the capability to do it, and in the end we made one of the best engines on PS2. However, like everyone else we underestimated how long it would take. This contributed to us losing our contract with Sony. It hurt badly, as we were making two games for them and had grown to 70 staff by that point, so we fell into financial distress and eventually had to retrench 21 of our staff. It was very nasty.

How did Midway acquire Ratbag in 2005?

GS: We had just started making a game for Midway at the time, and they were impressed with our work so they made us an offer. We accepted it, since Ratbag's owners and I had just decided to see if we could find a buyer for the company. It was a transition time for the industry, a move to the next generation of consoles that consisted of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Budgets for these platforms were north of US$10 million and independent developers like Ratbag were not getting contracts. The only next-generation games being made were internal. We could see tough times ahead and we might not survive them. It seems to have played out this way for most of the big Australian developers.

How did you react to Ratbag closing a few months after acquisition?

GS: The closure of our studio was brutal. It is devastating to have something you have spent 12 years building trashed in two days. 75 staff also lost their jobs. Fortunately, Ratbag had a good reputation and the next week companies flew in from around Australia and overseas to interview our staff, and within two weeks almost everyone had multiple job offers. When you sell your business, you give up control over decision making.

What happened to Powerslide: Slipstream?

GS: We developed a prototype on the PS2 and it looked friggin' awesome. It had a great mechanic where if you sat in the slipstream of the car in front, you built up a boost. The graphics related to this effect were eye popping and it was fun. The prototype track was set in a post apocalyptic Sydney Harbour. The team working on it were really excited about it and wanted to make the full game. However, we couldn't find a publisher. They all said there was no market for post apocalyptic games. They do that, saying there is never a market for anything innovative. Another time we collaborated with an Adelaide company called Starplayit and pitched a Guitar Hero style game using real guitars as the controller. We were told there is no market for music games. Of course, Guitar Hero made billions a couple of years later.

Where is the gaming industry at today?

GS: Today, forget about independent studios making blockbuster games. The costs are too high and those days are over for all but the established players. However, there are more opportunities than ever for start ups in areas such as casual games on PC, Facebook apps, as well as iPhone, iPad and Android apps. Great engines like Unity can be licensed and a small team can make a great game in a few months from their garage on zero budget. I went to a Global Game Jam a couple of weeks ago and it was amazing to see what a team of six people can do with the Unity engine in 48 hours.

How different is game development now compared to then?

GS: It is a great time for innovation, too. Developers who fund these small projects themselves can do rapid prototyping, iterating their game over and over. They can even release a small chunk of it, get feedback from the consumers and build this in to their next release. In the 90s, we'd design the game, get a contract from the publisher and then you were stuck to delivering what was in the contract for each milestone. That is not how creativity works. No wonder 50 per cent of games get canned half way through development with that model. That was another reason why we sold to Midway and went internal.

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