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Interview: Phil Harrison on Alone in the Dark and life after Sony

Tuesday, 27th May 2008 07:34 GMT By Patrick Garratt

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Atari rolled out the red carpet in London last week for its pre-launch showing of Alone in the Dark, flying in a tired-looking Phil Harrison from New York to intro the game and give a few interviews. Talking to the big man is always a pleasure, and this time especially so, given his recent move from SCEE where he’d been ensconced for the past 15 years.

Harrison was in the UK to talk about the Eden action-adventure, but did answer a few questions on what it’s been like to join ex-EA boss David Gardner at Atari, the future of the firm in general, affirmation of his belief that unconnected single-players games are tomorrow’s dodos, and how he’s been busy making a bunch of new friends.

After the link.

Phil Harrison: Excuse me if I rub my face. I got off a plane from New York this morning, so I’m a little jetlagged.

VG247: No problem. A general question to start: how are you finding life at Atari?

I’m loving it. It’s great.

How different is it to SCEE?

It’s completely different in many ways and it’s the same in other ways. I’ve been here two months now and I’m making a whole new group of friends. It’s like changing schools when you’re a kid.

To talk about the game, then. You showed it off in America earlier this week, and I noticed you kept saying how impressed you were with it. Are you surprised by the quality?

Not surprised. I’ve known and have respected Eden for many years as a high quality developer, so I had high expectations. I think the reason I was surprised was that I hadn’t seen anything about the game before I joined the company, so it was on my first day in March that [the developers] took me through the presentation, and I was just like, “Wow, this is great. This is like a proper, triple A product.”

And I also really admired their passion and their dedication to the cause. You know, they really believe that what they’re doing is special and different. That’s so nice to see in a developer.

You’ve been constantly using the phrase “triple A product” in relation to the game. Do you think that’s something that needs messaging?

It’s not for me to dictate it as a triple A product. It’s up to the users, the reviewers and the players to form that opinion, but I think it has all the hallmarks of a very well executed, widescreen triple A product. I think it’s right to use that phrase.

One of the concerns a lot of people have about Alone in the Dark is that there’s an awful lot of stuff going on in that game. There are an lot of new ideas in there. Do you think there’s going to be an issue with the cohesiveness of the story?

There’s no issue with the cohesiveness of the story, because the story’s incredibly compelling and will drive you through, will pull you through. The narrative structure works, the character development works and the ending is cracking. There are a lot of things that I think the player who is excited by strong narrative structure will find compelling.

At its heart, though, it is not an interactive movie: it’s a game. So you have to play it, and it’s a challenge to play. It’s not a game that plays itself. It’s not on rails. It’s not Dragon’s Lair, where you press buttons at the right time and progress through one big cut-scene from start to finish. It will challenge some players, and there are some players that will find he variety of gameplay mechanics to be challenging, but that’s one of the benefits of the episodic chapter-select structure. If you find one aspect of the game to be over-taxing, you can go and play another bit and come back to it at another time.

Online is the future, so we’re told. There doesn’t seem to be any online functionality in this game. Does that disappoint you?

It doesn’t disappoint me. Actually, I think Eden was hinting at something quite strongly in the episodic structure of the game, and their original intention was to deliver the game episodically. For some creative and technical and commercial reasons, that was not realised in the final product, and won’t be: it’ll only be available as a disc-based product at retail. But, by the way they’ve structured the episodes, and the way each episode has chapters and scenes, you can tell they were thinking about that potential future. So, I think they should be given credit for being quite visionary about that four years ago.

You’ve been very vocal in saying that the future of Atari is going to be quite different to that of the other publishers, and the impression seems to be that the plan is to expand into the casual space. This is very much a core product. Is this style of game the dinosaur of tomorrow? Do you see this continuing?

I think I’ve been picked up on saying this [Here – Ed]. I think the single-player, disconnected console game is probably in its dotage. Now, that doesn’t mean that those games aren’t relevant going forwards, but they will be enhanced by community features being embedded in them, or downloadable content becoming an inherent part of the experience, or some kind of user-generated content will be part of the experience. All of the things we see in other games, the things that we can point to in compelling games.

A relatively linear single-player game without online connectivity is going to be a challenge to green-light going forward.

So, you don’t anticipate making many more of these games at all, certainly not past this financial year. Is that correct?

Me personally? No. And I don’t think the industry will for much longer either.

What about in terms of general platform support? You were very careful in your intro today to specify that this was the 360 version. You’ve got the PS3 version coming out towards the end of the year: how important is it for you at this point to differentiate between the two products?

Well, we have to differentiate between the two products, but having the PS3 [game] come later gives us a second bite of the cherry, so to speak. But today’s all about the 360 game.

Right. Can you tell us anything about the PS3 version at all? Will there be any differences?

Today we’re here talking about the 360 game.

It looks very different to the majority of action games on the market. What is it specifically about Alone in the Dark that you think makes its viable?

Execution of the idea is very high throughout. The characterisation of the game is great, both visually and in terms of the story. We talked in the presentation about fire as an enemy or a friend, and the way that works procedurally inside the environment is really clever. The sophistication of the inventory system is very clever. The variety of gameplay, as we were touching upon, gives great value, and the fact is that you can finish the game. We want everyone to finish the game. It says something about Eden’s confidence in the story, that, for your money which you’ve saved and dedicated to this game, we want you to get all of that value back through the experience.

They did research about the number of people who actually finish games, and it’s really small. There’s a kind of economic insanity about this, both from the development perspective and from the consumer perspective. You’re paying £50 or £40, and you’re not getting all of the content back out. You don’t get to see it, or experience it all. And on the developer side, there’s the passion and creativity and time and effort in crafting an experience that only 10 or 15 percent of players will ever get to see. That sounds like a mismatch to me. So I really like Eden’s approach. What they’ve done is say, “Finishing a game s OK. It’s good to see the end of the game. That’s not a bad thing.” Of course it’s OK. But very few developers actually say that.

Did you find the attitudes at Sony not quite as forward-thinking as the developers you’re working with now?

No, I wouldn’t say that at all. It’s not in any way a criticism of the talents that I’ve worked with in my previous career. It was very pleasant experience to spend some time with David and Tim at Eden and get a sense of their vision, which is as good as any I’ve come across in the industry.

One last question about Atari in general. Do you think the model you’re pursuing has more in line with the route’s Nintendo’s taken, which is basically not “the games industry” as such, but a different strand, if you like? If the more traditional games trade is Sony and Microsoft, do you see Atari following Nintendo into that broader sphere?

I think we can be influenced by and learn from a lot of the things that each of the console companies are doing. We can also be inspired by and learn from a lot of things that happen on the web. Some of the business models that happen on the web, and in the PC and mobile spaces we can bring back into the games space, but with a twist. One of the great benefits of my role is that we can experiment, and we can try things that are harder to do if you’re a platform holder, or are harder to do if you’re only a certain group of consoles. That’s what I’m finding very exciting.

Many thanks for your time.

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25 Comments

  1. morriss

    It’s not up to me to dictate if it’s triple A or not, but it is one! :D

    #1 6 years ago
  2. morriss

    I’d like to know what game these days doesn’t have some kind of on-line functionality/DLC etc. Even strictly single player experiences have Achievements. So what he’s saying there has already happened.

    #2 6 years ago
  3. patlike

    I’m trying to think of an example, but you’re right. All of the big stuff has “something else” now.

    #3 6 years ago
  4. patlike

    What about things like Silent Hill V, etc? I don’t think that’s got any DLC, etc, and it’s single-player.

    #4 6 years ago
  5. morriss

    It isn’t out yet is it. It may well have learderboards etc? Something to utilise the fact that the console’s online.

    #5 6 years ago
  6. patlike

    Yeah, it may well do. What about Bourne? Not sure that’s got anything. I think he meant more than just Achievements. He meant having connected “stuff” actually built into the game, I reckon.

    #6 6 years ago
  7. morriss

    Yeah, he was pretty vague. Tbh., stuff like NG2, SHV etc need to sell or he may well be right.

    Anyway, I’m more worried about him not being drawn at all on the PS3 version. Wtf is that? A simple it’s doing fine, but slightly late etc. would’ve done, but a flat refusal to even comment on it doesn’t go down too well.

    #7 6 years ago
  8. patlike

    Yep, not sure what that was about. He wouldn’t talk about it at all. Maybe they just want the 360 version out of the way before they even mention it. I dunno. The only thing he said about it was that it’s coming out “later this year” in the intro on stage.

    #8 6 years ago
  9. Blerk

    Probably means they haven’t even started it yet. :-D

    And morriss…. “online leaderboards” for Silent Hill V? Did you ever play a Silent Hill game? :-D

    #9 6 years ago
  10. morriss

    I’m just pulling stuff out my backside, Blerk. You know how it is! :)

    #10 6 years ago
  11. patlike

    Didn’t they say it was coming out on PS3 then say it was delayed? Maybe they just wanted to focus on actually launching it before committing to another platform. I’d be surprised if it didn’t make it out this Christmas: they’re going to need it, frankly.

    #11 6 years ago
  12. Blerk

    I wonder if the real answer to the PS3 question is a lot more straight-forward – Microsoft could well have bunged them a bit of money towards the show. It is ‘kind of’ an exclusive for now, given that the other versions are being created by another developer.

    #12 6 years ago
  13. patlike

    Yep, that could be the case. Like I said, he wasn’t having any of it, so I really don’t know. They’ve never said why they split them out like that.

    Do you want my “full and frank” take on what I saw of the game, then? :D

    #13 6 years ago
  14. morriss

    Of course.

    #14 6 years ago
  15. Blerk

    I wouldn’t expect anything less. :-)

    #15 6 years ago
  16. patlike

    OK.

    I honestly think it looks good. My main concern is how the various gameplay elements “hang together”, but only play will sort that out. It’s got first-person, third-person, melee combat, ranged combat, indoor, outdoor, driving, action, horror, etc, etc, etc. I think it’s going to be a case of “if it works it’ll be brilliant”, but there’s a definite danger of it being too fiddly, I reckon.

    Graphically, it looks fantastic. No doubt. The horror bits were horrible and the action bits were properly “blockbuster”. The parts we saw certainly weren’t boring by any chalk. The large environments had huge scope, there was mist in the park, lights flared, etc. Very atmospheric.

    Story: hmm. Lots of shouting and swearing. “Magic” and conspiracy. Dunno. Seemed a bit “teenage”, but there we are.

    I’ve thought about the DVD chapter thing a lot, and I reckon it’s one of the things that will really make me want to play it. I know I’ll finish it, and the “previously” movies mean you’re always up to date with the plot. I like the concept a lot.

    I think that’s it. Like I said, my main concerns are that it’s sort of doing stuff for the sake of it, and some of the gameplay elements may just be too much to be bothered with, but I’d be very surprised if it reviewed “badly” as such.

    #16 6 years ago
  17. Killerbee

    Good interview and nice to hear your impressions of the game, Pat.

    I really can’t work out the reasons behind his refusal to talk about the PS3 version. Maybe it’s having problems; maybe they’re going to do something extra for it and don’t want to annoy the 360 fanboys by announcing it now…

    Was there anything said in the presentation about the PC version? That’s the one I’m actually most likely to get and I’ve really no idea whether all the different elements of the game are going to be set up for a mouse and keyboard (best for the first-person sections) or a pad (better for driving). The Wii version is also making me wonder what might be in store if I were to overlook the graphical niceties of playing it on my PC…

    Come on Atari – many people these days have more than one games console. Help us make a decision by giving us a bit more info!!!

    #17 6 years ago
  18. patlike

    Nope, they didn’t mention the PC version at all. Everything we saw was from the 360 version. They didn’t talk about anything else.

    #18 6 years ago
  19. Blerk

    I’d expect the Wii/PS2 versions to be the ‘poor relations’ of the proper versions, given that they’ve been farmed out to a completely different team. I seem to remember reading that they were hoping to get ‘most’ of the features in, but you’re still basically looking at a watered-down interpretation of what they tried to do.

    The ‘previously on’ thing is a good idea – more games should do that. Although it’s a bit cheeky for Atari to imply that they’ve invented it – I’ve played at least three games in the last few years which do the exact same thing. :-)

    And yes, my main concern is the game itself – namely that it’s trying to do too much and will end up being too disjointed. Jack of all trades, etc.

    #19 6 years ago
  20. Killerbee

    Thanks Pat. I’m expecting the PC version to be pretty much the same as the 360 from a technical point of view. It’d be nice to know how it controls though.

    Maybe I’ll have to finally give in and buy myself a 360 pad for my PC…

    #20 6 years ago
  21. patlike

    Blerk: They’ve gone to great pains to make sure everyone knows the PS2 and Wii versions have a completely different control method. It’s all been built from the ground up, apparently.

    KB: Yeah, I’d be surprised if there was much difference. Get a 360 pad! best pad ever :)

    #21 6 years ago
  22. Blerk

    Sounds pretty much like it’ll be a totally different game, then.

    #22 6 years ago
  23. patlike

    It’ll have to be, I reckon. I don’t see how PS2 or Wii would be able to do half the stuff going on the 360 version.

    #23 6 years ago
  24. Tonka

    morris : I’m just pulling stuff out my backside, Blerk. You know how it is! :)

    Please tell me that was intentional.

    #24 6 years ago
  25. Blerk

    Seems you were asking the wrong person about AitD PS3, Pat!

    http://tinyurl.com/4ymuvc

    #25 6 years ago

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