Pavel Barter talks to Drogheda’s John Fuller, producer of Mad Max the game.
In 2002, John Fuller travelled from Dublin to Finland to meet Remedy, the studio working on ‘Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne’. As part of the team for Havok, the Irish physics middleware company, his task was to help the developers upgrade from Havok’s first iteration to Havok 2. This required breaking the game’s engine, so tensions ran high.
“After the first hour, Remedy’s team was going ‘This is never going to work. We should never have started this’,” recalls Fuller. “I convinced everyone that we should stick it out and give it a chance. Markus Maki, Remedy CEO at the time, agreed. We took the computers into a large conference room in the studio and sat there all day and night. On the evening of the fifth day, we started to get systems back online.” Havok’s integration had worked.
As one of Havok’s earliest recruits, Fuller had plenty of experience working on games with big budgets for big publishers. “I probably saw 40 AAA game engines,” he says. “On some of them, I sat with the team and coded Havok integration into parts of the game.”
This experience primed the Drogheda-born developer for a career in the AAA industry. As senior producer at Avalanche, the studio behind the open world Avalanche Engine, he shepherded one of this year’s biggest blockbuster releases: Mad Max. Avalanche Studios, which is based in Stockholm, Sweden, is renowned for open world games such as the Just Cause franchise and specialises in sandbox adventures.
“It doesn’t have to be literally sand,” jests the producer about his desert-set post-apocalyptic adventure. “We have a strong emphasis on physics. We have a credo in the studio ‘If you can see it, you can go there. If you poke it, it reacts’. We want to make large, immersive worlds, filled with potential for exploration. Just Cause and Just Cause 2 was the birthplace of that style.”
Mad Max – released for PS4, Xbox One, and PC – stays true to these values. The company worked on various projects set in post-apocalyptic environments before landing the Mad Max IP. Fuller started the project as technical director before moving into the position of senior producer; he was part of the creative and the business process.
Initially, the team consulted with Mad Max director George Miller. “It was very important that we faithfully represented his vision of the world. It was important that we understood the mind-set of the character. We wanted to understand George’s aesthetic vision too. We’ve tried to capture that in the game. It’s not a bleached, worn-out monochromatic wasteland. It’s full of colour and life – as much as is possible in that desolate landscape.”
Avalanche sent a team to Costa Rica to research vegetation and landscape materials, and Namibia to study desert environments. The game began to take shape. “In conjunction with George Miller, we had a new vision of what the world should be, how horrific the regime is, and what kind of life exists there,” says Fuller. “We also re-imagined the gameplay. Max is much more of a skilled fighter. He’s not necessarily a ninja or elite fighter, but he’s definitely an accomplished hand-to-hand fighter in our game and the Fury Road movie, whereas I don’t know if that was the case in the first three films.”
Avalanche’s game is not a spin-off of this year’s blockbuster movie Mad Max: Fury Road. Fuller is not even sure if that film’s success helped the studio. “It’s a double-edged sword for a game based on a film licence. Every developer wants to be evaluated on the merits of their game – and only that. From a critical point of view there are plusses and minuses. From a consumer point of view, it has been so long since the previous Mad Max films were released, the film did a lot to reawaken love and enthusiasm for the character and franchise.”
Fuller is one of the few Irish developers to have experienced the highs and lows of leading a AAA game. With bigger budgets, investment and development time span, the potential loss is always greater.
“The worst thing you can do is start second guessing yourself and changing direction. Our team peaked at just over 100. Ultimately, I’m the manager of all those people. It’s like a little company. You have to focus not just on the game’s content, but also team dynamics, individual interactions, making sure communication flows, keeping people enthusiastic, making sure everybody understands the vision, and disseminating information.”
In Ireland, where the industry is mostly made up of smaller teams, such problems rarely arise. But the producer knows how huge operations can bloom from tiny start-ups.
He began his career with a Computer Science degree at Trinity College during the mid-1990’s, when there was a large pool of talent emerging from Ireland but not much of a development scene. “It was a bit like the English Premiership League – most people had gone to England where there were big studios,” he recalls. “I remember going to the Core Design office when they were working on a Tomb Raider game. Half the accents were Irish. There was definitely grassroots talent.”
Havok, the physics middleware company, began as a research project in Trinity before Steve Collins and Hugh Reynolds set up a business in Dublin. In October 1999, Fuller jumped on board, initially as a coder to research networked physics.
Around that time, there had been some middleware success stories in the games industry, including graphics engine RenderWare. However, physics was a problem for game developers, often leading to project delays or cancellations. Fuller contends that Havok was initially “a lot less business savvy” than some of its competitors. “I remember at one stage doing an analysis and projecting we were losing money for every new sale,” he says. “It wouldn’t be profitable to take on any new customers, which came as a shock to everyone.”
But the start-up’s naivety contributed to its success. Whenever a customer suggested changes to the middleware, the team promptly responded. Over time, Havok built up a loyal customer base and became an integral part of the industry. Soon many AAA studios were inserting Newtonian laws into their games, courtesy of the Dublin developer.
Meanwhile, Fuller moved from engineering to sales. “We wanted to ensure Havok was never the scapegoat for projects that suffered problems. After Havok 1 [the middleware’s first iteration] most of my time was spent visiting customers and integrating Havok, assessing their needs. On several occasions I said ‘I don’t think Havok is what you’re looking for. Havok won’t provide for your ambitions’.”
In the mid 2000’s, Fuller moved to Sweden to marry his fiancée, start a family, and spearhead Havok’s European developer relations team. By the time Intel acquired the Irish company in 2007, he had worked with Sweden’s DICE (Battlefield, Mirror’s Edge) and Massive Entertainment (World In Conflict). But Avalanche Studios, founded in 2003, seemed a perfect fit.
“Their ambition with respect to physics was really exciting. They were prepared to experiment. Lots of other developers were afraid of opening up physics as a toolbox. Avalanche wanted to be playful with physics; they wanted to experiment, not remove the highs for fear of the potential lows. That was proven with the Just Cause games. As long as you give people a new toolset, and systemic rules that allow them to experiment, they are prepared to give you a little bit of licence and even tolerate certain bugs.”
In 2007, Fuller joined Avalanche as a system architect. According to the developer, Sweden has always been a hotbed of development talent. For example, Andreas Tadic, creator of classic 1991 game Alien Breed, was a senior engine programmer on Mad Max, “That was one of the first games that I played,” says Fuller. “People like him are legends. They had a high level of technical education and were active in the high tech underground demo scene.”
Sweden also has a healthy tradition of cutting edge engine development. The Frostbite engine, created by DICE, is the de facto standard within EA. Avalanche’s engine is world renowned, and the engine behind Ubisoft Massive’s new game, The Division, is also well respected. But despite its heritage in the industry, Sweden does not necessarily have more going for it than Ireland.
What would it take for an Irish studio to produce a AAA hit?
“You could probably put one together if the right team, with the certain amount of experience, was to gather top tier Irish talent that already has experience of AAA games,” muses Fuller. “Unfortunately, there’s a threshold. You’ve got to get up to a certain critical mass of technology, toolsets and processes, to get a team working productively. Now the Unreal engine and other suites are available, with the right publisher backing, a studio could minimise any initial investment. There’s a huge amount of Irish talent in the game development diaspora. You need to balance harvesting that talent and complimenting it with home grown grassroots talent – people fresh from school with a lot of new ideas.”
In 2011, Avalanche opened a development office in Manhattan, New York. “There are very few AAA developers in New York. It’s an expensive city to have an office in, but a huge amount of developers come from New York.” A similar venture could easily work in Ireland, he contends.
Fuller might have left the Irish games industry behind him, but with Havok physics an integral part of Mad Max and Avalanche’s upcoming Just Cause 3, which is released in December 2015, he has not drifted too far from where he started.
“When I jumped on board to Avalanche, it was already a foregone conclusion I would continue to evangelise Havok within Avalanche and we would continue to further develop it. With my unique knowledge of the Havok engine, we’ve been able to develop parts of it for our own use that Havok have factored back into their own tech.”
Irish talent continues to play a major part in the global games industry. The next step, surely, is to see a AAA hit being developed on our own shores.
Mad Max is out now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC