An interview with Nigel Kershaw

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More from Ross Sillifant, with an interview with Nigel Kershaw.  Take it away Ross!…

It is my absolute pleasure to be able to interview Mr. Nigel ‘Pig’ Kershaw, so Nigel, if you would be so kind, could you take a moment to tell our readers just who you are and where and what you’ve worked on during your time in the video games industry?

I’m a games designer by trade, always have been since dropping out of university in 1989. Back then there weren’t many people who called themselves designers, and certainly no degrees that taught Games Design. I fell into it because I used to run games of D&D for a bunch of folks who happened to make videogames. They wanted to make a computer RPG, I thought that sounded better than the burger-flipping McJob I fallen into. 25 years later, much to my parents chagrin, I’m still avoiding ’proper’ jobs.

In that time I’ve been involved in the design of about eighteen published games and a host of others that fell by the wayside. I’ve worked for numerous studios including Ocean, Psygnosis and Sony, and designed in genres as diverse as point and click adventures, space sims, racing, platformers, A.R. and text adventures.

Q) Opening question has to be…’Pig’ Kershaw? Dare we ask…lol…

‘Pig’ stems from my first weeks in the games industry, at the back end of the 1980’s. My first game design job was at a small dev. studio called Imagitec. It was quite a wild place, tales of it’s debauched parties, casual violence and the assorted rogues that worked there could fill a (potentially litigious) volume in its own right.

One of Imagitec’s shticks was that everyone had to have a nickname. Anyone my age will probably remember with fondness a Japanese TV show called ‘Monkey’ based loosely on the ‘ancient Chinese Journey to the West’ myths. There was a character in it called Pigsey, with whom I shared an uncanny resemblance. Hence the name. I wasn’t a particularly good-looking teenager…

Q) I’d like to start interview proper talking about your time with team ‘Tribe’ whilst at Ocean, you 1st came to my attention with the stunning looking HMS Carnage-a 3D flight sim, set on Mars, in an alternative, Steampunk future, featuring steam-driven tanks, elastic-banded powered aircraft etc.

Please, if you could, talk us through the process from concept to sadly cancellation. What were your inspirations, what ‘killed’ the project and do you have any code or concept art left and any plans for game to be brought back from the dead, say Kickstarter etc.? (Also didn’t name later change to Dreadnought?).

I joined Ocean in about 1994 when they were having something of an existential crisis. The market was changing rapidly, maturing and getting more serious about games. I think Ocean felt a little left behind, having ridden their movie license gravy train for a little too long and when the big film studio’s had wised up to the videogame cash cow, it became harder and harder to snag those big Hollywood licenses.

At the same time 3d was just starting to come to the fore, mainly for pre-rendered images, we’d taken delivery of a host of Silicon Graphics workstations that were just kind of gathering dust. I happened to be sharing a room with a couple of awesome concept illustrators, and a digital artist who’d taken it upon himself to master these super expensive SGI doorstops. We kind of had a thing about steampunk (pre-empting the current fad by about 15 years!) and spent some down-time time designing, concerting and turning some of these creations into test renders.

Then the whole Tribe remit came down from on high, which was basically ‘go away and make some epic games’ We didn’t need to be asked twice, and HMS Carnage was born. We wanted to make something unique and distinctly British in origin, riffing on old black and white war films, Ealing comedies and H G Wells.

In design the concept riffed a lot on the classic Carrier Command, but with a strong narrative, using the SGI’s to create a pile of full motion video to tell the story. Old hat now, but FMV cut scenes were at their zenith at the time. I think up to that point we were the most expensive thing ever filmed on blue screen in Manchester – five weeks with a host of actors against blue screen, then composited into rendered footage. It looked awesome.

Although to be honest the video side of things was a little too seductive, and stretched our small team to the max. At the same time PC gaming was going through big changes – we were developing for 486’s at the start of the project, then Pentium, then MMX and then 3DFX acceleration came along. We were constantly re-factoring code to catch up with the changing technical landscape. While we had some great gameplay hooks, and a pile of missions, we still had a game development mountain to climb.

Three years later and Ocean were bought by Infogrammes. The FMV was in its final stages of production, but the game proper was lagging behind, probably needing about another year in development. It’s uniquely Britishness made for a difficult international sell, and combined with the fact that another big chunk of cash needed to be spent to finish it led to the games inevitable canning. I say inevitable, but hindsight is a beautiful thing. At the time we desperately tried to get it finish it with out own startup, but cash, resources and lack of business acumen killed it once and for all. I’ve still got a lot of assets sat in the attic, with much of the near final FMV on VHS, but I doubt it would ever be resurrected.

Q) What was Ocean like to work for? I ask as the concept of HMS Carnage seems pretty far out there and removed from Ocean’s usual movie/TV show deals, had they learned from past history with disasters like Knight Rider, V, Miami Vice, Street Hawk etc. that it was simply not on just churning out poor products? And just how much say or creative freedom were you allowed?

As I mentioned above the Tribe teams were given total creative freedom, which felt great at the time, but was also one of the main contributors to its downfall. There just wasn’t anyone stood behind us saying ‘hang on a minute guys…’

In hindsight, with more experience, we could have made some amazing games, but at the time our raw ambition outstripped our resources ability to deliver. I wouldn’t change those times for all the tea in China though; Tribe had a great esprit de corps, and it really felt like were on the inside of something big.

Those opportunities don’t come along every day and the lesson I learned coming out of HMS Carnage have stood me in great staid in the years since, allowing me to tackle large scale AAA projects with a big long list of ‘what not to do’s’

An interesting (but unsubstantiated) rumor I’ve heard in recent years was that the Tribe games were never meant to succeed, rather they were there to make Ocean look like a powerhouse of creativity, and increase it saleable value as the shareholders wanted out. So HMS Carnage did make some people a lot of money, just not in the traditional sense of actually selling games.

Q) Can you shed any light on Daemonsgate, which I believe was planned as a trilogy (Dorovan’s Key, Nomads and Homecoming)? Key marketing aspect was that actions in 1 game would have implications in sequels, so kill an NPC in the 1st game i.e. ‘Barry pig-squealer’ and his family would come looking for revenge in the 2nd game (a concept years ahead of its time).

Which version/s was you involved in and did you have anything to do with the planned Lynx game?

Daemnosgate was my baby. I was hired specifically to create a computer RPG, and the whole thing grew from my fevered D&D obsessed teenage brain. I developed the world, the backstory and the game design pretty much single handedly. Not bad considering I had no idea how to go about making videogames when I started.

It had a difficult birth, hampered by a lack of funding at times, staff was often moved onto titles that could bring some cash into the company, but we got there in the end. While not perfect I think there were a lot of great ideas buried in there. I’d love to work on another RPG one day.

Q) Ok Motorstorm series now, something you’ve had multiple roles in over the years, so let’s see what we can put to you:

Was there genuine ‘pressure’ on you to deliver THE Triple-A, flagship PS3 game for the 1st wave of PS3, something that would not only showcase power of PS3 but be a stonker of a game to boot?

Totally. When Evolution were brought into develop a PS3 launch title we were just one amongst many studios. As the launch date grew closer, and other games slipped, we became more and more critical to Sony. To the extent that when we realized that online play was not going to make it for the Japanese console launch we stripped it from the game as we were told we could not slip under any circumstance.

We could have played it safe and just shipped something, anything, out of the door, but the fact that it’s a solid game is testament to the development team. We put a LOT of hours into MotorStorm trying to make it the best experience we could. Hence the perceived lack of breadth in the game, we shipped with only eight tracks, and not a lot of game modes, instead we focused our energy on the quality of the game play.

Q) One thing I felt that really stood out, alongside the stunning visuals was the A.I and area (sadly often over-looked as marketing don’t see it as a selling point), NPC drivers really seemed to loathe each other’s guts 🙂 and act with fear and aggression, depending on what they were driving.

How key to you/team were the A.I routines and how ‘easy’ to implement? And did they come at cost of resources needed in other areas?

The AI was actually never particularly clever, it was all smoke and mirrors, but that was kind of the point. We knew we wanted something chaotic, with personality and opponents who acknowledged and reacted to your prescience rather than just race like blind automatons.

Thus we shifted the remit for the AI from racing to ‘entertaining the player’. AI always knew whether the player could see them, and if that was the case they could execute what we called a gag… A gag was simply an action that gave the player something entertaining to look at, whether than be flicking the bird, or setting up a maneuver where two trucks crushed a guy on a bike.

None of this relied on any sort of grudge system or other complex code – it was all simple instant showmanship. But we did it in such as way that players thought there was something more clever going on. That’s one of the best bits of game design – setting up the game so that the player fills I the narrative blank, giving them just enough information so that they weave a story in their head that goes beyond what is actually happening on screen. The human brain is easy to manipulate, we WANT to see patterns.

Q) Who decided to put the ‘shunt’ move into Motorstorm: Pacific Rift? It was a superb move and made for some superb ‘Gladiatorial Battling’. Just how hard was it to retain concepts fans wanted, whilst meanwhile delivering fresh concepts?

I can’t remember where the Shunt came from, only that it wasn’t me J It came about as a result of a bunch of coders and designers messing around with the game engine at the end of MotorStorm 1. In my mind Pacific Rift is the best of the MotorStorm games as we took all the stuff we didn’t have time to do in the first one, and polished the shit out of it.

Thanks Nigel!

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