27 Interviews

Interview: What has Rare evolved into?

By Andy Robinson on Monday Mar 17th 2014 at 6:00 AM PDT

Today's Rare is a very different company from the one we remember for its conveyor-belt of classics during the 90s.

Walking the halls of its Twycross HQ, there are more pictures of Xbox Avatars today than any of the Nintendo-era franchises the studio is known for. But the transformed developer also feels like a more contemporary, collaborative company than the one that struggled to adapt during the opening years of its Xbox enterprise.

Craig Duncan has been Rare's studio head during its recent transition and would argue that innovation, not iteration, has been the foundation of the company's heritage. We recently met with Duncan to discuss what the company stands for in the modern age.

Walking around the studio you get a sense that Rare has come out of transition. What can you tell us about where Rare is right now?

So I've been at the studio for three years now and we've always been looking at what's happening in the industry and what that means for a 21st century studio. Kinect Sports as a franchise has been hugely successful for us; the first one did five million units and the second did three million units. So it's been phenomenally successful.

Craig Duncan joined Rare in February 2011

And because we're a first-party title with close links to Microsoft, we started to talk about Xbox One and the new Kinect sensor. It was logical considering that - and I'm biased here - we made the best game for the first Kinect that we should look at the new one and think about how we could push it in different ways.

We've put a lot of focus on doing things that haven't been done before, like recreating players inside the game. And if you look at Rare throughout its history, it's always chosen to do things that are different and unexpected. If I look at what we've done with Xbox One, we've created a beautiful game and Kinect Sports is the right type of game to push the new sensor.

We're still focused on making things that are new and innovative and create experiences that delight people. I think with your transitional point, one of the things that we've really looked at is where the industry is going and 'games as services'. So in Kinect Sports Rivals, not only have we created a cool Champion creator but your character also goes off and plays in the cloud and levels up as you play.

"We're still focused on making things that are new and innovative and create experiences that delight people"

That's a game changer. And if you think about what Microsoft has done over the years with Xbox Live and cloud services... that's really part of their DNA. Games are more connected and service-driven and those worlds are really converging. So for us now it's not only about launching a game, but engaging the community with bespoke tournaments and events which really make the game come alive.

If you buy in to Kinect Sports Rivals, you're buying into something that's going to keep growing and evolving.

Rivals feels and looks a bit more like what you'd expect from a 'classic' Rare game. Was that a deliberate move, to try and inject more personality and style into the experience?

It's a great comment, so thank you. With the original Kinect Sports games we were very focussed around the Avatar and giving them a unique look. What we really wanted to do now was think up ideas that would put the motion game on its head. We've built this fantastic world where everything feels connected and alive. There are lots of things you probably wouldn't notice, like fish in the sea and birds in the sky, but they just make the world feel alive.


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Is that what Rare was known for? I'm not sure. What Rare has always been to me is a company that constantly did something different. I don't think you could really say, 'they make driving games' or ' they make shooters' because they actually did a bit of everything. What we've done in the most recent three or four years is show what you can do with the new Kinect sensor.

We'll keep evolving, keep being nimble and keep creating delightful experiences for whatever the future is - and we're always trying to guess what that is as much as everyone.

Do you feel Rare's rich heritage can sometimes become a bit of a ball a chain when it comes to innovation and moving in new directions? Fans are constantly calling for sequels and it must be difficult to satisfy every expectation.

As a first-party studio for Microsoft, we should be the bar for experiences on our platform.

I think being Rare, and having the Rare name, it's great when people tell us about games they loved and that they would like to see sequels. It's great that people feel so fondly about those games and IPs that they're willing to put those messages down on forums and Twitter.

I think we hold ourselves to a higher standard than perhaps the public does. Every single person we employ at this studio is really at the top of their game and we want to have the best dev team. My job is to make sure we give these guys the right environments, resources and budgets to make great experiences. My job is an enabling job, really. It's the team here that do the cool creative stuff.

How much do you listen to that outside feedback? I imagine it would be very easy for Rare to put out a conveyer belt of sequels...

You've got to hold your path and even doing that when things are difficult. With Rivals' Champion creator for example, we could've just upped the resolution of the Avatars and another game based on that but we decided to something that initially we weren't even sure was even possible. You've got to keep a true vision like that.

The Kinect Sports franchise has sold more than 8 million units

I think if we got swayed by everyone who says "Rare should be doing this" or "Rare should be doing that"... it's great to get the input and the community engagement, but ultimately those guys don't have to bet money on those ideas and commit a hundred developers to make them. That's a decision we need to make as a business, and we have to do that with the assurance we're going to create something new and interesting that's going to ultimately take the industry in a stronger direction.

"I think we hold ourselves to a higher standard than perhaps the public does"

Rare today feels intertwined with Kinect. Is that marriage likely to continue throughout the Xbox One's lifespan?

Microsoft is a platforms company, and I emphasise the plural. We have Kinect, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Windows 8 and touch, and as a studio we have to marry the right gaming experience with the right platform. As you've seen with Halo, that's appeared in multiple places.

Kinect Sports is a franchise out to prove what Kinect is capable of. That doesn't necessarily mean that every idea that Rare does will be a Kinect game. We've got to look at each idea, whether it's an existing IP or a new idea, and then marry that against what the right platform is to show it in the best light. That comes first.

Obviously Kinect is a very cool piece of hardware that allows us to do lots of interesting stuff that's very different to what a controller offers. So we'll always look at that and consider if Kinect enhances our ideas, but we want to think of the whole ecosystem of devices and marry the right game to the right device.

Kinect Sports is a franchise out to prove what Kinect is capable of

You spoke to us earlier and said Rare does have some secret projects behind the scenes. Obviously you can't say much, but what can you tell your fans?

We always have ideas bubbling. We've got a Rare Creative Jam happening in April where the team will all come up with another big set of ideas. And we always look at the back catalogue, but we always look at new ideas as well. We love the heritage that we've got, but what I'd say is it's got to be the right opportunity if you're going to go look at a back catalogue IP.

Nobody really wants the same game that was out ten years ago remade. People say that, but the reality is I don't play anything in the way that I did ten years ago. If it's the right opportunity, then of course we'd go look at it. But it's got to be the right game, with the right new creative idea and on the right platform. Those stars need to align.

But, of course they have every chance of aligning much the same as kicking off something new. We've just got to make sure we make the right bets.