The splintering of developers is a natural process. Eventually, someone is likely to want to try to strike out on his own, either through dissatisfaction, a desire for more autonomy or momentary madness. Sometimes it speeds up. There are periods when a large, critically acclaimed developer sheds dozens of these seeds. It’s normally because they’re dead, or as good as. In the late ’90s, development legends Bullfrog, absorbed into Electronic Arts, sent a bunch of developers flying. They went on to form Lionhead, Elixir, Lost Toys, Intrepid, Big Blue Box … but the first shop to come together was Mucky Foot. And, at the time, everyone thought they were mad.
Or at least Gary Carr thought so. Their Bullfrog colleague, Carr was busy finishing Theme Hospital when Mucky Foot was in its infancy. “Bullfrog had basically sold itself to EA, which wasn’t necessarily seen as a massively negative thing,” he says. “Peter [Molyneux] was making it seem we were all going to be super rich and making these fantastic games – which I think he believed at the time. [Mucky Foot] just threw away those share options. … You could have at least sat it out for three or four years and have made lots of money.” I’m talking to the Mucky Foot primaries, 11 years later. There’s an audible pause. “If I’d stayed there, those share options would have been worth half a million pounds,” Mike Diskett sighs. “We’d have been wearing hats made of money.”
Founders Guy Simmons, Mike Diskett and Fin McGechie had long considered striking out alone. “We always spoke about it,” says Fin McGechie. “Myself, Guy and Mike, as we lived in the same house, worked and drank together [and] after a few beers plans would get made.” It came to a head when the project Simmons was working on, the much-hyped Creation, was canceled. Simmons had been chatting to them about an idea for a game – Nanoworld, a god game about microscopic robots – which Bullfrog never actually made. He decided to leave; Diskett and McGechie chose to join him.
For McGechie, staying at Bullfrog was becoming untenable. “The EA rule book was brought in. I remember Gary and myself getting told off for running in the corridors,” he says. “That was it for me.” In a pub – and Mucky Foot is a developer whose story seems primarily told in pubs – they decided to hand their notice in on a Friday. They’d had enough. “Then, on the Thursday, Guy decided he’d had ‘even more of enough’ and handed in his notice,” McGechie says. “Then myself and Mike did it on the Thursday. By then, I think, everyone had realized.” Diskett elaborates, “We’d actually put very little thought into it. It’s like they say, … you spend more time choosing a pair of curtains than you do choosing the house. It was like that setting up Mucky Foot. We went, ‘Shall we?’ ‘Yeah, c’mon.’ We went off in great ignorance of what it would entail.”
The team managed to lure Gary Carr into joining them as a director, despite his early bewilderment. Urban Chaos, their first title, was already underway. It was a GTA-preempting, living-city action game for the original PlayStation and PC in which you play a police officer rather than a criminal, complete with driving, shooting, platforming and close combat. It was precisely the sort of action game you’d imagine a bunch of ex-Bullfrog designers making. It’s also not what they had planned.
“Our goal was to remain small,” says Diskett. “We intended to try and do games with just the three of us. We were hoping to get money from a publisher to just fund the three of us … but somehow we ended up with lots of money and had to hire lots of people to go and make the game.” It’s a result of the pitching process, shaped by speaking to publishers and seeing what they were actually looking for. “A 12-man team who’d do a game in 18 months, which would be a AAA title,” says Diskett. “Nobody was looking to fund a small group of three people doing games which might be quirky and fun, but didn’t have the big production values. That’s how we ended [up] changing our pitch as we went along.” It wasn’t just the scope of the game that changed. Urban Chaos was originally conceived as a Double Dragon-style game, with the environment-as-weapon flourishes of a Jackie Chan movie. In a cafe across the road from Eidos, five minutes before their appointment, they decided – pretty much on a whim – that they would actually pitch an open-world-combat-driving-everything game. It was exactly what Eidos was looking for.
This sudden expansion challenged the team. Like most creative types who set up a company, they found themselves wrestling with entirely foreign business issues. Their account with an unethical bank led to debit cards that didn’t seem to be accepted anywhere in the civilized world. “The funniest thing about that bank was getting a check for half a million pounds plus VAT in my wallet, and not being able to find a branch to pay it into,” says Simmons. “I walked around with a check for £650,000 in my wallet thinking, ‘I don’t know what to do with it.'” During the same period, Carr was rejected for a £50,000 loan to buy a house, despite ample proof of how much money was passing through their company.
“The problem was, we weren’t paying ourselves particularly [well] at that time,” he says. “You’ll have to remember, we were trying to fight for good wages for good developers. We actually said we wouldn’t pay anyone under £30,000.” For a long period, they paid their initial staff £30,000 or more, while they themselves received salaries in the low teens.
While Urban Chaos was signed first, it came down to the wire. Startopia – then Spacestation – had garnered interest from Psygnosis, but Mucky Foot signed with Eidos based on their chemistry with the publisher. “After seeing the way EA were handling Bullfrog and – me at least – still feeling bitter, Eidos felt a little more homey and familiar,” says McGechie. That Ian Livingstone came down to hang out with the team was another bonus. “You didn’t often get the top dog at a publisher courting you,” says Carr. Startopia eventually followed Urban Chaos onto the shelves, both via Eidos. It’s a fairly radical take on the “Theme-” concept, running a multi-level Toroidal space station with eight different lifeforms inside it, and rife with Douglas Adams-esque humor. It was a genuine, classic British strategy game.
Innovative and often brilliant, there was one main problem with both of Mucky Foot’s games: They didn’t sell. Urban Chaos managed a half-million, which was disappointing for a game hyped as a possible successor to Eidos’ Tomb Raider franchise. Startopia did worse, barely scraping 110,000 units sold. “That was just beyond being a flop, really,” says Diskett. “It was unimaginably bad. It was even worse, because at the time we were shipping Startopia, we had absolutely no doubt it was going to be an amazing success. I certainly didn’t. We thought it was the bees knees and we thought the whole company was just weeks away from being millionaires. And then no bugger bought it.”
Initially, since their contract with Eidos was strong, the company was relatively stable, even continuing to expand. The problem came with finding a home for their next game. While signed for Urban Chaos 2, Eidos and Mucky Foot couldn’t agree on a design doc. “I think really they didn’t want to do Urban Chaos 2,” says Diskett. Eidos’ way out was to reject three design docs, at which point Mucky Foot was allowed to take their work elsewhere. They started going around to other companies, showing off their tech and plans. One was called Skyships, a steampunk pirate game. “People took to it quite well, but at the time everyone seems to have needed something to fill a hole in a financial quarter,” says McGechie. “More often than not it was a licence of some sort.”
At which point a licence came their way, and they found themselves working on Blade 2 for Activision. They knew this would be a critical project. “Mucky Foot had two strikes [against us]. We weren’t actually making money,” says Carr. “We were just taking lots of money to make games, which weren’t selling lots. We took this contract on to kind of – I suppose – keep Mucky Foot alive. At the time, Eidos were turning their back on us – they were starting to retract. We could see them physically retracting from us. We signed the game for our own survival, to some degree.” The resulting game, while somewhat adrenalized and sporting a novel thumbstick-led combat system, was undoubtedly Mucky Foot’s weakest title. They’re philosophical about it. “We had some incredible restrictions for a small company,” says Carr. “One was having to tie in with the DVD release, with all sorts of penalties attached to Activision and ourselves if we didn’t.” Even so, it wasn’t the hit they were looking for, selling a similar amount to Urban Chaos, if at a generally higher price.
By this point, Mucky Foot had opened a Newcastle Office with McGechie at the helm. Abstractly, it was working on Urban Chaos 2, but mainly assisted the southern office on their work with two other licenced projects – The Punisher for THQ and Bulletproof Monk for Empire. All the while, they worked on other pitches – like an update of Barbarian, the old 8-bit classic featuring Maria Whittaker as a scantily clad slave girl, and ER Tycoon, an update of Theme Hospital – both of with which Carr was previously involved. Then, something happened that cut the legs from under them: THQ canceled The Punisher.
“We were halfway through development when we got this phone call saying, ‘We’ve got a new CEO. He’s going to take the game in-house. Goodbye,'” says Diskett. “That phone call was one afternoon … and that was the end of that.” With their open-world take on the Marvel hero gone, they found themselves at a clear crisis point. “We knew we were pretty screwed then,” says Diskett. “We had a certain amount of money in the bank, which could keep us going for six months or so. At that point, we could have downsized the company and survived with the Bulletproof Monk deal, but we’d have to have got rid of half the staff.” This is the one thing Mucky Foot wouldn’t do.
“These were our friends. We were all friends,” says Carr. “Any time we made hires, we took people down [to] the pub to figure out whether we wanted to be friends with them before we decided whether they were any good at their job. We took on misfits. People who’d never done a game before. People who’d done lots of games before, but seemed to be over the hill. It was a really eclectic group of people. And you can’t throw people like that out.” Mucky Foot’s employees often reciprocated the feeling. “There was a point where we talked to a few people about leaving,” says Carr. “When we talked about [how] we may have to lose people, [early member] Mark Adami said, ‘Oh, I’ll work for nothing.’ I think we all cried when he said that.”
Several months of deals followed, with the team pitching Skyships, conceiving potential new projects like a Robinson Crusoe-inspired game and – most hopefully – working on ER Tycoon. No one bit. This was surprising. “Theme Hospital was taking off even more than it was in its heyday,” says Carr. “Maybe we had become a bad smell. We got a lot of ‘It’s great – it’s cool. We like it.’ But we didn’t get the return call.” And, eventually, that was that. Just after Halloween 2003, they closed their doors.
They harbor no regrets about the route not taken. “One of the things about not downsizing – and it’s very ‘Mucky Foot’ of us – is that I don’t think we were really a proper company” says Carr. “We weren’t going to ‘make difficult decisions.'” Diskett continues, “We couldn’t go, ‘Who’s staying and who’s going?'” They remain friends with everyone who passed through their doors. They can – in Carr’s words – “still stand next to each other and call each other ‘Mucky Foot’ and wear the T-shirts.” They’d clearly have liked a hit. “I’m really proud of what we achieved,” says Simmons. “And I’m really proud of the review scores. I think we kind of went into Mucky Foot as idealists, and I know there were times along the way we batted things away which would have put us in good financial positions nowadays. But I kind of don’t care about that. There were down days, yeah, but on the whole, I loved it. I’d do it again in an instant.”
They tell a typically “Mucky Foot” anecdote – singing the popular terrace chant “We’re Shit And We Know You Are” at any opportunity. The BAFTAs? GDC? Christmas parties in front of game journalists and horrified PR professionals? Easy. And people respond. “Wherever we’ve been, there are people who stand up and raise their arms in the air,” says Carr. “And they’re people who’ve either worked or are associated with Mucky Foot or know what we’re talking about.” That is British self-deprecation. Not taking yourself seriously. Having Fun. “We didn’t think we were the best in the world,” says Carr. “We didn’t want to be the best in the world. We just wanted to have fun making games, really.”
And when they say things like that, I miss Mucky Foot all the more.
Kieron Gillen has been writing about videogames for far too long now. His rock and roll dream is to form an Electro-band with Miss Kittin and SHODAN pairing up on vocals.