Ignition will release the sequel to its PSP launch title later in 2006. We spoke to Ignition Banbury's Studio Manager, Ed Bradley, about Mercury Meltdown and the future of the Mercury franchise.
Pro-G: For anyone unfamiliar with the first game, what is Mercury and how did the idea for the game come about?
Ed Bradley: The idea was inspired by Archer from an embryonic tech demo from one of his previous pool titles. Mercury has come a long way from that first 'gem' of an idea to Mercury Meltdown. It's a very simple idea of getting a Mercury blob from one place to another, but like they say, the simple ideas are the best. To this simple premise the team at Banbury added more concepts: splitting the blob, mixing colours, logic puzzles and dexterity tests. Creating levels is a process of combining these mechanics in a way that forces the player to have "just one more go". And to swear a lot as well, usually! I guess that sums up the Mercury experience - addictive and engaging.
Pro-G: So, how did Archer Maclean leaving affect development of the sequel?
EB: Archer came up with a 'gem' of an idea and we take away none of the credit for this. It of course came as a shock to the team when he resigned but it was very early in the design stages for Mercury Meltdown. From a production point of view I guess this was quite fortunate.
When we were working on the first game the day to day work of the team was very much without Archer. The fleshing out of the levels, ensuring they worked, tinkering and honing them was very much down to the team and his involvement with the day to day work was fairly minimal. The team of level designers very much came up with all of the ideas that have made the game so successful and the original design also changed a lot through the development cycle.
Pro-G: Which aspects of the first game were you particularly happy with and which do think could have turned out better?
EB: The core design of the game is the reason for the game's success, which will always remain in place, but with the first title we were very much under the thumb in meeting very compressed deadlines and to this effect we could not make or adopt some of the changes we would have liked. There were a number of issues relating to the first game that have been sorted out for Mercury Meltdown and the feedback from the media and gamers have all been adopted! There were comments about the erratic level progression which again was all part of the limited time line we had!
Pro-G: How are you looking to solve these problems in Mercury Meltdown?
EB: Like I've mentioned a number of times to many people, it's the simple fact that with the first title we were on very tight deadlines and in effect had to cut a few corners. Mercury was one of the PSP titles released in launch window of the handheld, which meant there were a few issues in the game we believed we could have improved greatly given the time. We were very happy with the game but in hindsight more time spent could have resulted in an even better game. Mercury Meltdown will be more like the game we envisaged with the original game design. We are a more experienced team, understand better level design, have a full knowledge of the technicalities of the PSP, had more time to sort any issues, and of course we have had feedback from the people who have played and enjoyed the first game.
Pro-G: A friend of mine loved the first game, but stopped playing after being stuck on one level. Balancing difficulty must be one of the trickiest parts of game design, but what have you done to stop this kind of sudden halt in progression?
EB: When we ask for comments or criticisms of the first title the difficulty progression is usually among the first things mentioned. It was partially a result of constraints on development time. Addressing this has been one of the primary aims of the team this time around. In short, balancing has really been perfected in Mercury Meltdown to such a degree that no one should ever get stuck on a level, and if they do they will be able to go to the next level. Also, importantly, you will be able to complete a level outside of the time limit, which means you will not make the high score chart, but once again this adds to the enormous replay ability of the game. You can return to a completed level and try to beat your previous time. Another thing that was a criticism of the first game relates to what your friend said: having a good look at the layout of the level is one of the keys to solving it. First time around you got one quick fly around/look and some of the complicated levels took you 4 or 5 goes to suss out what you needed to do. Now there is a help mode and you have full control and you can look around the levels to your heart's content!
Yes the balancing of the game has been thoroughly worked on right down to the fact we now have 7 quality control people at the studio - first time around there were two part timers!
Pro-G: Mercury Meltdown will feature several party mini-games. Are these designed to appeal to existing fans or to catch the eye of people not convinced by the first game?
EB: These games are there to appeal to everyone. The party games are to add a bit of fun - a deviation from the main game if so desired - and really come into their own when playing against a friend.
Pro-G: The PSP can play wirelessly with other PSPs, either locally or online. Are you using either of these features?
EB: Mercury Meltdown can be played with or against friends using the ad-hoc (local) wireless systems.
Pro-G: At one time you were thinking of shipping the original game with a tilt sensor. Is this something you've considered for Mercury Meltdown?
EB: To be honest - no. If this was ever going to happen it would have been with the first title. It would have been great to see it happen, but the costs and technical issues proved prohibitive.
Pro-G: Mercury Meltdown looks radically different to the first game. What made you take this route?
EB: We remain true to the essence of the Mercury brand but would you buy a game that is a carbon copy of the original? Yes, we have a new look, and this has been done to ensure fans of the game and newcomers will be offered a new visual experience, but sticking to the rudiments that have made the game a success.
Pro-G: Mercury has only appeared on the PSP. Do you see it as a handheld franchise or are there plans to move onto more powerful systems?
EB: There has been lots of talk by other people, outside of Ignition, that Mercury is not only the perfect game for other handhelds but more powerful systems. All I can say is we are listening to what people are saying!
Pro-G: Xbox Live Arcade has shown that smaller titles can do well on the Xbox 360. Do you think that kind of digital distribution is ideal for a game like Mercury?
EB: I would like to think that from the reviews and sales figures of approaching half a million sales on the original game, that Mercury on one format is classified as a big game. Yes, many are talking the route of digital distribution and it certainly looks like the way ahead for many for the future and of course it is something we are keeping abreast of. As for us, and our distribution partners, we are looking to a successful ship of Mercury Meltdown - the traditional way.
Pro-G: The PlayStation 3 and Wii controllers seem well suited to the Mercury gameplay. Do you have any ideas for games on those systems?
EB: Yes I would agree with you as would many gamers who understand the core mechanisms of Mercury.
There has been lots of conjecture about the possibility of the game coming out on other systems and we hope to make some announcements soon about the possibilities of this happening, so watch this space.
Pro-G: Finally, with Mercury Meltdown due in September, why should people be excited about it?
EB: 160 plus levels of addictive fun!
Mercury Meltdown is due for release later this year for PSP.