Demis Hassabis, part two
14th Jul 2006 | 10:40
In the second and concluding part of our in-depth interview with Demis Hassabis, he talks about his time at Elixir Studios, Evil Genius, other projects that were bubbling away under the surface at the dev house and future plans. If you missed part one of the interview - and shame on you if you did - then you can catch up by whizzing on over there right now. Okay, let's get on with the show...
So your next release was Evil Genius...
Demis Hassabis: Yeah, we always had a few projects on the go, but EG was the next full project we completed, and was a very fun game to make. After the seriousness of Republic, it was nice to work on something so tongue-in-cheek. We started and finished the game in two years - there were no technology issues, as we used the graphics engine and AI we'd already developed. I'm really pleased with how it turned out, EG was fresh and different in terms of its visual style and characters.
We had hundreds of ideas for EG, some of which would have taken years to implement, but we sensibly decided to break it up into bite-size chunks so that if EG1 was successful we could implement some of the more ambitious ideas in EG2.
Some of the ideas ranged from having multiplayer so you could have all the evil genius's against each other, or one person being the EG with other people playing Splinter Cell-type gameplay as super-agents against the hidden base, and actually being able to take out your away team on missions - a bit like XCOM or Commandos. That was all planned, but we couldn't fit them into EG1, as well as other stuff such as better island-building tools for more freeform beautiful islands, and other types of research.
There was probably enough stuff for two or three other EG games, let alone one!
There was a news story about some ex-Elixir folks working on Evil Genius 2 - is there any truth to that?
Demis Hassabis: After Elixir closed, all the IP was sold to various companies, including the technology, and various games. Our CEO dealt with that side, so I don't have exact details, but I believe the EG franchise is now owned by Rebellion, so you'd have to ask them. I hope they do something with it, because there's a lot of scope there for some very cool sequels.
So what happened with Blue Vault?
Demis Hassabis: We took it round to some publishers, who seemed interested - there were various licenses they were looking at to put on top of it, including at one point, Men In Black, which would have fitted quite well into the storyline. At the time it was very difficult to sign anything up, anything original - I don't think it was because it was a strategy game, but more that it wasn't a sequel or a proven IP or license, which just meant it was riskier. The demo we had was very nicely playable, and had a lot of stuff in there, but we just couldn't get a publisher to bite on it, which was a problem for a lot of UK developers I knew at that time too.
Is there still a place for the fun, strategy/tycoon games? The Movies was utterly fantastic, but hasn't set the retail world alight...
Demis Hassabis: It was worrying to see that because The Movies was a really good execution and a brilliant idea, so I don't really know why it hasn't done better. I don't know about how the marketing went - all these kinds of things become really important. On Evil Genius for example, the marketing was pretty much non-existent, which obviously hurt it. On the other hand, maybe there isn't the market for those types of games any more on PC, I don't know. It's a shame if not, as I think those are very cool kinds of games. The industry seems to be going through a major transition, so it'll be interesting to see what kinds of games are still viable in the next few years.
How do you feel about the closure of Elixir now, looking back?
Demis Hassabis: I feel really proud of what we achieved and it was done with the minimum of pain and fuss in the way that the team was treated - everyone was paid in full, for example. We did everything we possibly could really, and left no stone unturned. We tried our best on all the games we produced and had a couple of other games in development that we felt were looking really promising - such as Dreams, which I can't talk about as the IP has been sold to another company.
We felt the publisher could have taken a bit more risk on them, but in the end, decided not to. We probably could have carried on for a few months more, but we couldn't see how the business environment would improve - we could only see it getting worse. I think that's the reason a lot of games companies hit the wall at 100mph, because they do try to go to the very, very end when there's literally nothing left, and everything just implodes.
So have you any plans to set up another games company?
Demis Hassabis: Yes. Basically I'm doing various things at the moment, and currently concentrating on some neuro-science research. I'm looking at doing some experiments at UCL to see how autobiographical memory works in the human mind - which is memory for everyday life events. It's the condition that's covered in the film Memento. It's fascinating because we don't understand very well how the mind supports this memory, which basically constructs who we are.
I'm doing this because my main passion along with games was AI, and I still fervently believe that if we want games to go to the next level, and become emotionally involving, and have broader subject matter, then we're going to need better AI. This would allow us to have better characters, interaction and so on. What better way to look for inspiration than the entity that we know is the best example of intelligence - the human mind.
It's a bit of a leftfield turn for me, but I also promised myself that if I ever got a bit jaded or cynical about the videogames industry, I would take a break and re-invigorate myself before coming back. On the side, I'm getting involved in a lot of things, such as the website Prize Fight, which is run by a couple of friends and I think is a great idea, allowing gamers to make money from making the games they love playing anyway. I'm also working on a more non-traditional game project, which I won't be able to talk about for at least a year, but I'm hopeful it's going to be really interesting.