If there's a question that vexes game designers, it is what to do with all of the processing power of the new video-game and computer systems. Some companies are trying to create a "new level" of gaming, resulting in a seemingly endless list of titles with "new levels of freedom" and 3-D worlds.
Unfortunately, it takes a great deal of skill, time, talent and money to create new forms of gaming, and most have fallen short.
Enter Boss Game Studios, a 2-year-old Redmond-based company and its refreshing lack of interest in changing the way in which games are played.
Colin Gordon, vice president of product development at Boss Game, says his people are interested in using new technology to improve traditional games rather than finding entirely new ones.
"I don't believe that you can set out with revolutionizing games as a goal," says Gordon. "Our goal is to make great games that sell."
This philosophy is apparent in Boss Game's first project, a game called "Spider," published by BMG Interactive for the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation. Spider is a "platform game," meaning that it features a main character running through a side-scrolling world. "Sonic the Hedgehog" and "Super Mario Brothers" are platform games.
"A lot of companies are abandoning platform games and saying they're outdated, but the reason so many people have played platform games is because they're a lot of fun," says Gordon.
Tapping into the storage of CD-ROM and the processing power of the new generation of 32-bit videogame consoles, "Spider" begins with an animated story showing a scientist building a cyber-tarantula. When assassins break into his lab, he transfers his thoughts into the mechanical spider as a way of keeping his mind alive.
As the game begins, players take control of the spider. They must guide it across the city through air vents, sewers and alleyways in search of a way to bring the scientist back to life.
"Spider's" story may sound ridiculous, but the game play is inspired. The robot spider is easy to control as it travels through attractively trashy locales filled with enemy wasps, black widows, rats and evil cyberbots. Best of all, the game is as addictive as it is simple to play.
"The whole problem with the new systems is that a lot of things are far more complex than they need to be," says Seth Mendelsohn, Boss Game Studio's creative director. "What happens is people pick up a new game, ignore the manual and end up scratching their heads."
Mendelsohn and technical director Rob Povey are counterparts, lieutenants working directly under Gordon. Mendelsohn, who helped design such ultra-successful games as "Aladdin" and "The Lion King" while working at Virgin Interactive Entertainment, brings an air of sensibility to Boss Game. Povey also worked on "The Lion King" and adds a hardcore gamer's enthusiasm. Together they are responsible to see that the final version of "Spider" is not just another platform game.
So far, the two have succeeded. Along with excellent animation and intuitive controls, "Spider" has one of the best musical scores in game history. Only "Donkey Kong Country" and "Streets of Rage," two mega-hit 16-bit games, stand out as having the same movie-quality theme music that Scottish composer Barry Leitch has created for "Spider." Leitch has even created a 1950s style electric guitar surf theme for one level in which the tarantula rides a discarded carton of Chinese food through a sewer.
Spider is one of three projects Gordon hopes to release in 1997. Another, a computer game called "Kill Team," is mostly under wraps. The sections of the game that Gordon has shown quietly are of a futuristic hovercraft flying through a canyon. Unlike "Spider," however, "Kill Team" appears to be set in a 3-D world in which players can fly in any direction - as long as they don't run into mountains or buildings.
A third game, "Top Year Rally," is being developed for the new Nintendo 64 game system, which is scheduled for a September launch in the United States. Looking around the offices of Boss Game Studios, it's easy to think the company makes movies instead of computer and video games. A plastic cube inside the lobby houses a grotesque mask of a vampire used in the motion picture "Fright Night." The halls are lined with movie posters, especially from "Star Wars.
Boss Game Studio is actually an independent arm of Boss Film Studios, the four time-Oscar winning special effects house that put the technical wizardry into such movies as "Ghostbusters," "Die Hard" and "Species." Its founder, Richard Edlund, worked under George Lucas in the creation of "Star Wars."
"We don't want people to think Boss is an average company when they enter the lobby," says Gordon. Not much chance of that. Even if you miss the mask and posters, there are coin-operated video-game machines along the halls, and then there's the Boss Zoo.
Several employees keep their pets at Boss - with pets like this, who can blame them. The menagerie includes two tarantulas, two large geckos, a tank with two giant oscars, a desert lizard, a water dragon, and a gigantic scorpion that just had babies.
The corporate culture around Boss Game is designed to keep creative people motivated and interested. Gordon seldom shuts his door and wants designers to approach him with questions. He even holds weekly raffles in which he gives away Saturns and PlayStations. "It's a small monetary investment for us, and it means a lot to the people who win them," says Gordon.
It also serves another point - it keeps employees interested in their industry.
With two games nearing completion and three more projects in the early stages of development, Boss Game Studios is not one of the bigger companies in electronic entertainment. It does have an appealing approach to creating games, though, and that could lead to significant success in the near future.