At this year’s Game Developer Conference I had the opportunity to speak briefly with Eric Peterson, President of Vicious Cycle, developers of Dead Head Fred and Puzzle Quest for the PSP, a series of children’s television and movie-licensed products (Dora The Explorer: Journey to the Purple Planet, Curious George and Flushed Away) under the Monkey Bar brand, and creators of the Vicious Engine, a multiplatform middleware solution.

At the time, Peterson had some less than flattering things to say about game reviewers who expect every game to be Halo (“We’re the real developers”) and comparing rapid release licensed kids’ games to blockbusters produced by developers with multi-million dollar production budgets and three-year production cycles. His comments created somewhat of a firestorm.

Following GDC, I was invited to take a tour of Vicious Cycle’s Chapel Hill, NC offices and to meet with Peterson and Vicious’ Director of Business Development, John O’Neill. We talked about the company’s multi-platform middleware solution, Vicious Engine, why their booth was swamped at GDC, the Wii-based FPS they aren’t making and how Eric’s incendiary remarks at GDC may have been misinterpreted.

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The first part of our conversation revolved around our meeting at GDC, where I’d made an appointment weeks ahead of time, but got bumped (politely) by throngs of potential customers for the Vicious Engine. (Why talk to a reporter when the customers are already lining up at the door?) Peterson was kind enough to talk with me for a few minutes in the aisle, before dashing back to his booth to woo more potential clients. Afterward, at the Vicious Cycle offices, I asked him what all the fuss was about.

In addition to having exclusive first looks at Collision Studios’ 300: March to Glory, developed for PSP using Vicious technology, on the same day the movie was released, a lot of folks had stopped by to get a glimpse of Vicious Cycle’s new first-person shooter for the Wii. The only problem was they weren’t making a first-person shooter for the Wii.

“That was actually the tech demo for [Vicious Engine on the] PSP from last year’s GDC,” Eric said. “We ported it to Wii in a day and a half.”

With interest in the Wii at a fever pitch, even a rumor about a shooter utilizing Nintendo’s revolutionary control scheme was enough to turn heads and jam the aisles around Vicious Cycle’s booth. But the real story is more impressive. Making a tech demo in a day and a half is one thing. Building an entire game from scratch in four months is another.

“Early on … we went about trying to save time and resources,” said Peterson, referring to the early days of Vicious Cycle, after layoffs at MicroProse’s North Carolina studio left the Vicious Cycle founder looking for work and a way to ensure the survival of his fledgling company. “I think we luckily took the right step forward initially to make sure it was easy for us to move Robotech: Battlecry for PS2, GameCube and Xbox simultaneously without any effort. We didn’t really think of it as porting at that time. … We utilized the same art assets and everything.

“When we did a revision of the engine in 2002, we made some changes [and] all those things that we learned went with it. … Curious George (released in 2006) was four SKUs in four months from scratch. That was when we knew the engine really worked.”

He says when they started, like a lot of companies, they had no idea what they were doing or how to make it work. “We shipped a game, we got great reviews and sold tons of copies, and [things] couldn’t have been better,” he said. “Then we stumbled … and had to rebound off of that.

“One of the things we learned after trial and error over five years was: Don’t ruin a brand to get more games. … Don’t sign a kids’ title and ship under the name Vicious Cycle, which is what we did with Dynotopia. Big mistake. … We want everything that’s under VC to be hardcore and niche, whereas the family stuff is Dora, Flushed Away and Curious George. … That was a lesson [we] learned over time.” They eventually formed Monkey Bar as a spin-off for their family games, in order to preserve Vicious Cycle’s hardcore image.

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I asked him how a company like Vicious Cycle survived long enough to learn and implement those lessons.

“There’s luck involved,” he said. “I would be a liar if I didn’t say there was luck involved. We’re [also] really doing a good job of making the corporate culture good, so people want to stay here … and [of] having [good] business relationships. If you’re a go-to guy with a publisher, that’s a good place to be.

“That’s another mistake that people out in the industry make [is they] work on a demo and piddle away savings they’ve made over years. When we were at MicroProse, we had a lot of times, like months, when we didn’t have anything to do. And that’s a dangerous place to be. That’s when studios close.

“It’s better to be busy than scrounging for work or wondering what to do. As a developer, that’s the worst place to be is wondering what I’m working on next. So we try to take that out of the equation here at Vicious.”

Peterson says the key is knowing where you are in the lifespan of a hardware platform, and knowing how you, as a developer, can work within that. “When the hardware curve has already started, and you don’t have an engine, it’s hard to jump in midstream and be competitive in two years,” he says, “which means you’re gong to spend a year, minimum, building that engine. And we’ve been there as developers and know how much time that detracts from building the game.

“There’s still a lot of potentially new PS2 developers on the market. All of the old developers have moved to the Xbox 360 and PS3, and there’s no one to fill the void for the PS2 games that need to be made over the next three years. … They’re going to have to look for something that’s on the market that already exists … without starting from scratch.

“We’re the 70 percent solution of the market. We don’t have to be just sports like EA, in the sense that that’s their bread and butter, or id’s bread an butter is shooters. We looked at the other 70-80 percent of the pie that we could make work for us.”

He said their engine and their willingness to work with the aging “old-gen” platforms, while simultaneously developing a new iteration of the Vicious Engine for the next generation, puts them in a “sweet spot.” But they aren’t looking to get out of actually making games just yet.

“While building a huge technology company would be great,” says Director of Business Development John O’Neill, “I don’t think we’d ever want to lose contact with the game studio.”

“We got into this business to make games, not necessarily to make technology for somebody,” Peterson says. “There’s too many people in our studio who got into this business to make games and love to make games. … That’s not to say that in the future Vicious Engine couldn’t split off into its own company.”

Speaking to the subject of his GDC rant about big-budget games and reviews, Peterson had this to say: “We all have different budgets, but nobody works any differently. We all try to make great games. … There’s just as many perils for making a three-year product as for making a four-month product. … Even people who have large sums of money and a lot of time still have to do a lot of product management properly, still have to keep their people focused in order to make that great game.

“It’s not easy to put out a 10-out-of-10 product on half a million dollars. We made Puzzle Quest for PSP for a very small amount of money … the lowest we’ve ever been paid because we felt that it was a winner … and the game is getting 8s and 9s and 10s. It’s definitely not something you can predict. Most of the time it’s pretty tough to make it happen.”

And yet the review scores make the world go ’round. I asked him what it was like working as hard as other developers (whom he would not name) and yet scoring lower in the reviews because the reviewers – not the audience – didn’t “get it.”

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“It’s really hard to judge games neck-and-neck,” he says. “When we look at children’s games vs. hard core games that have all the time, budget and manpower, it’s really hard to say … Dora isn’t as good as Halo – because it’s not Halo. Everyone wants to play Halo and review Halo, but Dora was made for 4-year-olds. Unless you can watch a 4-year-old play, maybe you shouldn’t be reviewing the game.”

I asked Peterson if he thought the uninformed reviews actually hurt his bottom line. The answer? Yes and no.

“The Dora consumer is not reading EGM,” he says. “It’s a different kind of person. … Somebody that’s looking for Curious George: all they need is to have their kid with them after seeing the movie and little Joey says, ‘Mommy, Daddy I want that.’ So you don’t need to have the review.”

But negative reviews can have a deeper effect: “Publishers and licensers sometimes link royalties to metacritic reviews. And that really is a nasty chain when you’re talking about a kids game. … A lot of times those metacritic averages need to be 75 percent or higher in order to justify … residuals. And that’s not fair.

“We’re working just as hard as anybody to ship something in a very short period of time and make a lot of kids happy. We sold about 200,000 units of Dora in the U.S., and it’s still selling about 2,000 units a month. And that’s fine, but it would have been nice to see a royalty check off of that.”

Vicious Cycle’s latest, Dead Head Fred, ships this month for PSP.

Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.

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