Wip3out: The game that changed my life

Flashback

Wip3out: The game that changed my life

WipEout 3 vector cover art

20 years ago this month, WipEout 3 was released for the original PlayStation. In September 1999, I had no idea how that futuristic racing game would come to shape the next ten years of my life and beyond.

I’d had my PS1 about a year at that point and had played Gran Turismo to death. I was ready for something new and different. During one lunchtime, spent as usual at the shopping centre near work, I was browsing the games in Dixons. The PlayStation was a hot consumer item at its £130-ish price point and the breadth of games being released by then was almost overwhelming.

Yet on the crowded shelves, the striking isometric cover design of Wip3out caught my attention. As I’d been late to the PlayStation party I’d missed the first two games in the series and, from the box, I couldn’t tell exactly what it was or what the gameplay would consist of.

With my curiosity piqued, I got back to my desk and checked out the website for the game. It was mostly done in Flash and filled with cool, interactive animations and ambient sound effects but didn’t really explain much about it.

It’s not that the website was bad – far from it – the visuals had been crafted by the famed Designers Republic and they had absolutely nailed the corporate identities for the racing league and teams. It’s just that it was presented as if this was all taking place right now, for real, and that operations like FEISAR and AG Systems actually existed. Ultimately, I gleaned that Wip3out appeared to be a racing game set in the future. Sweet!

Hooked on the premise, I returned to the store to buy Wip3out after work. I couldn’t wait to get home to play it, yet when I did I found a incredibly steep earning curve. I didn’t know, of course, that compared to WipEout and WipEout 20197, this third instalment on the PlayStation was actually somewhat forgiving!

The floating anti-gravity ships were challenging to pilot around the twisting tracks and there appeared to be no way to upgrade them. Instead, each ship had different characteristics with some suiting certain tracks over others. The level of concentration required for me to do a clean lap was ridiculous and at the end of each race, I’d have a sore jaw from clenching my teeth!

Initially, when I wasn’t being hit by weapons launched by the AI, I hit the walls anyway and went off course so many times that the rescue bot was an almost constant companion. The experience could have sent me back to the comfort of Gran Turismo but there was something compelling to me about the vision of the future it depicted. I was captivated and it seemed like with every lap, I got a little bit better.

I remember being desperate to get home from work on the days and weeks that followed so I could spend the rest of the night practising my technique to shave time off each lap. I wanted to win convincingly at every track in every ship before I’d move onto the next track or ship that unlocked.

In short, I was hooked and played Wip3out relentlessly for months after, really only tailing off when I’d managed to score gold on each track with each team.

WipEout 3 SE and WipEoutZone

On July 12th 2000, the day before my 28th birthday, I bought the newly released WipEout 3 Special Edition. I would have to start from scratch as saved games from the original didn’t carry over. However, with the special edition, the team at the Leeds Studio had recreated 8 classic tracks and included some previously unreleased prototypes.

I was so proficient at the original WipEout 3 tracks and lower speed classes by then that it was a breeze to go through and unlock them all. In the process, I became completely enthralled by the game all over again.

Inspired to create a fan site, I registered the domain WipEoutZone.com and set about crafting an online tribute. I didn’t quite know what WipEoutZone was going to become but I just felt I had to make something to tell the world how awesome I thought the game was.

It was whilst searching for information that I came across the W3PA site – the WipEout 3 Pilots’ Association. This site had been put together by a German developer, Carlo Zottman, and allowed registered users to enter race and lap records for each track. I was blown away by how clever it was – I was an ambitious almost middleweight web developer at this point and a lot of the things in the site were beyond me.

Although part of me was crestfallen that somebody better had beaten me to the punch, I was delighted to find a thriving community attached to the site via an EzBoard forum. There was lots of active discussion on the WipEout universe, the tracks, the techniques for mastering them, and excitement for the sequel that was in the works; WipEout Fusion.

Diving into the W3PA community, I parked WipEoutZone with the idea that I’d throw myself at it later in the year “when I had more time.” However, as Y2K draw to a close, Carlo contacted me to say he’d had enough of running things and was looking to hand over the site and the administrative responsibilities for the EzBoard forum.

I was daunted by the prospect and fearful of a backlash from the community, who might not like a relative newcomer coming in and taking over. Carlo seemed to trust me though and sent the code for the main site in a zip file towards the end of the year.

Over the Xmas holidays, I built WipEoutZone with a blue colour scheme taken from the Special Edition box palette which would replace the yellow of the W3PA. The site launched in early January 2001 and most of the community were pretty enthused by my efforts. Well, except for one guy, but I’d learn as the years went on that there is always one guy!

Running the site was practically all-consuming. I checked in on it during the day and did the same when I got home at night. There was plenty of in-fighting on discussion topics, submitted records that were disputed, and one particular guy who constantly submitted bug reports or things he’d like me to do differently. Carlo hadn’t told me about all that stuff when he was handing over the reins!

E3 2001 and making connections

Driven to find out more about WipEout Fusion, I decided to take the plunge and go on holiday to Los Angeles to attend the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in May. There, I hoped to see the game and try to speak to the developers that would be present on the show floor.

It was an event that was supposed to be reserved for journalists and people associated with the games industry. So when I registered for the tickets I just said that my site was a games related publication and it seemed to slip under the radar.

At E3 I met Rob Francis, the lead designer on the game and got to play WipEout Fusion for a bit. It was certainly different from the floaty WipEout 3 handling that I’d come to love but I knew it was still in development. I also got to meet Nino, the communications manager at Studio Liverpool, who granted me a short interview in a room we should probably never have been in!

The experience at E3 was a mind-expanding look at the games industry up close. I really wanted to be involved in some way but aside from running WipEoutZone, I couldn’t think of a path that was open to me from just being a web developer running a fan site.

When I returned from LA, I couldn’t wait until WipEout Fusion came out on the PS2. I wasn’t to know then, but the game would be delayed until February of the following year. Eager for every scrap of information, I kept in loose contact with Nino, who fed me the occasional render or screenshot to post on WipEoutZone. It was rare for a fan site to have this kind of access to those resources and I became something of an evangelist for how ‘Fusion was shaping up, even if I wasn’t entirely convinced by the gameplay during my brief introduction to it at E3.

Visiting Studio Liverpool

In late 2001 I was invited up to Studio Liverpool to interview the development team and play through WipEout Fusion at my leisure. I jumped at the chance and booked a holiday off work and a train from London up to Liverpool for the day.

I got the earliest train I could make and my excitement made me impatient during the torturously slow journey. The high-speed Pendolino class trains wouldn’t enter service for another six months, so the trip from London Euston to Liverpool was well over four hours at this point.

At Liverpool Lime Street station I was collected by Nino and whisked up to Wavertree Technology Park on the outskirts of the city. The huge, glass L-shaped structure of studio Liverpool was an impressive sight.

In the atrium, I was given a guest pass by the friendly security guard then led up to the first floor and along the corridor to the sound & video department. The walls were adorned by team banners, transforming the place into an authentic-looking headquarters for the F9000 Anti Gravity Racing League!

As I walked, my eyes widened, darted between the shiny plaques on the wall celebrating all manner of games that had been produced or published by Psygnosis and then Studio Liverpool.

A pre-release version of WipEout Fusion running on a PS2 dev kit was waiting for me in a soundproof room with a full Dolby surround sound speaker system. Before he left, Nino told me he’d leave me to play the game for a while, then I could interview the team in his office.

In the time I had, I struggled to get to grips with the slidey handling in the game and found it jarring how strikingly different WipEout Fusion was to WipEout 3. The menus, the sound effects, the music – everything about it was a dramatic change in style.

I had expected it to be different, of course. Although the first two games were made at Studio Liverpool, WipEout 3 had been created at Psygnosis’ Leeds Studio. The Designers Republic were no longer involved and there had clearly been a concerted effort to distance the game from that style.

I was still enjoying it though. In the time I had, I didn’t get to the fastest ship class but the sense of speed was ridiculous in some places, punctuated by loops, corkscrews and crazy, stomach-churning drops. The experience gave me a far better impression of the game than I’d taken from the busy and noisy floor of the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Next, I was taken back along the corridor to Nino’s office where I’d meet the head of the studio, Clemens Wangerin. Clemens was really friendly, with an accent I couldn’t quite place. His name suggested he was German (he was), but his English was flawless and at times he sounded Canadian. He had an air of approachable authority and I liked him immediately.

Within a few minutes, we were joined by a handful of the development team who were working on WipEout Fusion. With me, I had a list of questions I’d compiled, consisting of things I wanted to know and those that had been submitted by the fans on WipEoutZone.

As we got going I felt really daunted by the situation. I didn’t feel worthy of being there yet I tried to conduct myself professionally as if I did this kind of thing all the time. On the low table in the room, I placed a Sony Minidisc player with a connected stereo microphone to record the interview so I could transcribe it later.

The team were very friendly and from their comments on certain discussion topics, I knew they must check in on the community regularly. I tried to stick to the list of questions but in the narrative of a reply, it was easy to stray off at a tangent. I was spellbound at getting this peek behind the curtain, so the next hour or so went by in a blur until, eventually, people had to go back to work and I had to leave for my train.

As I packed up to leave, Nino gave me a clutch of games to take back with me. He said I could give them away as prizes on WipEoutZone, although none of the games appeared to be especially WipEout related.

Once on the train, I spent the duration of the journey back to London replaying the day in my mind. It had been a brilliant experience and I hoped I’d get to come back to Studio Liverpool someday. I remember feeling content and accomplished at the day’s events.

An unexpected change of direction

After that incredible high point, later that week at work I was told that my department was being shut down. I’d receive about three thousand pounds in redundancy money and would still work there for another month but essentially I’d be out of a job just before Xmas.

Completely blindsided, I spent the next few weeks urgently applying for jobs and attending interviews as they were offered. Unfortunately, in the time since I’d moved there in early 2000, London had gone from the dotcom boom to the burst bubble that meant there were plenty of web developers to go around. Add to that the effect of the recent terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the jobs market was especially muted.

Six months down the line, that expensive trip to E3 in Los Angeles didn’t look too clever. In fact, I was still paying off the credit card debt from that holiday because the rent on our flat in Brentford was sky-high.

My company offered me freelance work to tide me over once I left, which was welcome but wouldn’t really amount to more than a handful of days each month. I figured if I watched the pennies and nursed the redundancy money I’d hopefully be able to soldier on for three months before things got serious.

During our usual correspondence, I let Nino know of my situation. He responded saying he was sorry I’d lost my job and suggested they might have some freelance work for me, tending to the official WipEout Fusion site when the game launched.

I was excited by the prospect even if it would only be a couple of days a week. It was better than nothing and, if it balanced out with the work my company were giving me, it could work out well. Plus I couldn’t have been a better fit for running a niche gaming community site, considering I already did that for free in my spare time!

Returning to Studio Liverpool

I received my second invite to visit Studio Liverpool in early December for an interview regarding the potential freelance work. Making the arduous journey by train once again, I was an even bigger bag of nerves the whole way there because this time it was me being interviewed.

As before, I was picked up by Nino at Liverpool Lime Street station and taken up to Wavertree Technology Park. I didn’t recognise the journey but there were plenty of routes for getting between the city centre and the tech park, which had several entry points.

The interview was in Clemens Wangerin’s office and about as casual as they come. I was asked to talk about what I did in my day job and how I’d come to run WipEoutZone.

I made a ridiculously cringe-worthy comment about Carlo’s code comments being in German and me trying to interpret them in pidgin German when I’d taken over the codebase. I think I redeemed myself by saying how I was trying to improve the memory footprint of the site, as that seemed to go down really well.

Clemens said he was impressed by how I’d conducted the interview during my previous visit. He said I’d been more professional than some of the actual games industry journalists he’d met! That meant a lot to me as I was a fish out of water that day and I was glad I’d come across well.

We finished up as the working day wound to a close and when we were done I felt good about the dialogue. It hadn’t been a traditional interview by any stretch and despite the nerves beforehand I felt I had given a good account of myself.

When we had made the arrangements for my visit I’d been invited to stay the night in Liverpool at Nino’s place. Then I’d come back into the studio the next morning where I could discuss the options that might be available to me. I took this as a good sign that, unless I really screwed up the interview, there would be at least some small amount of work thrown my way.

That evening I remember it being bitterly cold in Liverpool and my breath hung in the still air. When I looked around in the dark city to try and get my bearings, I had no idea where I was in relation to Lime Street Station. Glasgow, for the most part, is based on a grid. Liverpool is just bonkers in terms of layout and it kept me off-kilter.

We ate in a Cuban themed restaurant that was poorly lit. Although Nino was relaxed and a good laugh, it still felt like an extension of the interview and I was nervous in case I said something stupid that might affect my chances. I opted to ask questions and listen instead of doing much of the talking. The meal was good but I was glad to get through the it without putting my foot in it.

Once back at the flat, I was shown to the spare room where I had a restless sleep. There was a lot resting on this opportunity as the chance of doing even some temporary freelance work for a client as big as Sony would definitely help my chances of getting another job down the line.

A decision to make

The next morning I woke early and grabbed a quick shower, quietly got ready and waited on my host surfacing. Nino seemed to leave it pretty late before appearing but said it was only ten minutes into the studio from where we were.

Once there, I was shown back to Clemens’ office where I sat at the same table as the day before. I was clearly showing the signs of poor sleep and a lot of nerves and Clemens told me to relax, offering me a coffee.

When we began, he placed a couple of envelopes on the table and began to explain their contents to me. One envelope contained the details of a temporary contract spanning 4 – 6 months wherein I’d manage and update the official WipEout Fusion site & community. The duration would depend on how busy the community was.

In the back of my mind, I had the nagging feeling that in doing this I’d potentially be cannibalising the community at WipEoutZone. I quickly brushed the thought aside – there was more at stake for me personally than whether a handful of fans switched sides or not.

As Clemens spoke, I nodded in understanding – this is the job I’d been told about and had spent a fair amount of time imagining myself performing ever since. Working from home in London, visiting the studio a couple of times a month or perhaps attending meetings in the London Studio.

Switching to the next envelope, Clemens said that the other option was different. Swept along by the moment I figured it would be an alternative, shorter-term contract. I’d still have to look for other jobs so this made sense to me.

Clemens told me they had been really impressed by my dedication to running WipEoutZone and my passion for building the community. He said that they also needed a full-time web developer at Studio Liverpool. So, if I was willing to move from London, there was a relocation package available to me along with a permanent position. I’d do all the things outlined in the temporary contract and also develop other web-related things required either at Studio Liverpool or the wider group of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe.

After the details of the second envelope, Clemens went into a detailed overview of what happened within the Studio Liverpool building, how that fitted in with Sony Computer Entertainment Europe and SCE as a global operation. I’m sure he’ll forgive me for not taking in much of this because my mind was racing.

My heart thumped and it wasn’t the effect of the coffee. We had only moved into a new flat in Brentford a couple of months before I had been made redundant. Fliss had changed jobs to be nearer to the new flat so moving again would be a major upheaval. But this was my dream opportunity and I couldn’t believe the offer of a full-time job in the games industry was there on the table.

I was told I didn’t have to make a decision there and then. The only thing I had to sign was a standard non-disclosure agreement. I took the envelopes containing their different offers with me so I could pour over the details later.

Before the journey back to London had barely begun, I pulled out my Palm Pilot and put my thoughts down in an email to send to Fliss. I wanted to let her know what had transpired for me in Liverpool as we’d have a lot to discuss when I got home.

I didn’t actually want to leave London. I loved the new flat we lived in and was enjoying getting to know the area around us. But I also knew I was unlikely to ever get such an incredible opportunity presented to me again. By the time I climbed the stairs to the flat I was 60% certain I was going to take the job regardless of the consequences. I just wondered how Fliss might feel.

Opening the front door, I walked into the lounge to see her sitting on the computer with a browser open looking at properties to rent in Liverpool. Before I could even speak she told me enthusiastically about how, in Liverpool, we could practically have a palace to live in for half of what it cost to live in the current flat.

And all the way home I had thought it was going to be a hard sell!

The next day, I wrote to the HR department at Studio Liverpool to accept the offer of a full-time role.

Soon after, I received confirmation and a copy of my contract with an official start date of January 7th 2002 – exactly a year to the day from when WipEoutZone had launched in January 2001. It was the kind of thing that dreams are made of.

Living the dream

I could never have known the journey that my passion for WipEout 3 would take me on. I spent just over six years of my life working at Studio Liverpool, making lifelong friends and doing some of the most rewarding work I think my career will ever bring me.

As well as the web development, I was eventually tasked with writing the backstories for WipEout Pure and WipEout Pulse. Extending the universe that I had been so captivated by, I still consider being the greatest privilege of my time there.

It seems like long ago now and it’s hard to believe that picking up a game would have such an impact on my life. So happy 20th birthday Wip3out – I will be forever thankful for the spark of inspiration it brought me.

Leave a Reply