Stephen Cakebread isn’t done with dual-stick shooters, but he’s definitely done with Geometry Wars, for now. Following the dissolution of Bizarre Creations last year, the Xbox 360’s iconic Arcade franchise seems to have been lost to the share drives of Activision’s corporate headquarters. But Cakebread doesn’t see Geometry Wars in the small scope of a mere Microsoft-exclusive shooter – after all, he created the bloody thing – he envisions art installations with projections, fog machines, and lasers. “It isn’t a game for consoles, it’s a game for gamepads,” he says, referring to how well the game would work on a variety of gaming hardware, even the PlayStation Vita. Given the time and resources, he’d develop a version in 3D, or one that takes advantage of displays with external lighting (think: Philips’ Ambilight televisions) and emphasize the series’ pyrotechnic beauty and rapid-fire calamity.
A high bar for twin-stick gaming action (in which you move your avatar with one analog controller stick and shoot with the other), Geometry Wars casts you as a claw-shaped ship out to enact rapid polygonal genocide for gobs of points. The games were a critical and commercial success for developer Bizarre Creations, known most famously for their Project Gotham Racing titles. I got to chat with Stephen about his time there, how Geometry Wars came to be, and how one of my favorite developers became another notch on the United Kingdom’s growing list of reorganized or shuttered game makers.
Early Days, Project Gotham Racing
“I made a lot of shit games.” Cakebread says with a laugh, reflecting on the various experiments and prototypes he’d been developing from the age of eight. He continued to develop “a shit ton” of games throughout college and after working professionally on medical software for a year, found his way into gaming full-time by drafting a list of UK developers he was interested in. “As crazy as this might sound, I sorted them by name and started at the top! Bizarre just happened to be the first place I applied to, I wasn’t really expecting an answer as I had zero experience.” As fate would have it, Cakebread was hired on at Bizarre in 2000 and worked odd jobs on their first major Xbox game, an urban racing title with the tentative marque Project Gotham Racing.
Instead of simply matching a group of licensed cars to a group of simple circuit or point-to-point races like other popular racers of the day, PGR featured a point-based Kudos system in which players were rewarded for driving stylishly with drifts or by catching air, not unlike the Tony Hawk Pro Skater games; for Bizarre, this allowed for a plethora of interesting new gameplay permutations. In essence, Project Gotham Racing was a port of Bizarre’s previous title on the Dreamcast, Metropolis Street Racer, and programmers like Cakebread cleaned out many of the MSR assets from the game for its big debut on the original Xbox alongside the original Halo. (Stephen says that MSR, Microsoft Street Racer, was one of the many titles bandied around in e-mails as they searched for a legitimate name. They settled on, well, Project Gotham Racing.) The team had an interesting time with the Xbox as the hardware was in perpetual flux. “Things kept iterating, you’d get a little more power here, a newer controller here.” Being host to so many technical programmers and engineers made Bizarre the ideal studio to take advantage of Microsoft’s new hardware. Many of those early controller prototypes were “flaky”, inspiring Cakebread to create a program that tested the controller’s features by displaying lines and circles on screen. This was the germ of what would later inspire him to create Geometry Wars.
Project Gotham Racing 2, A Lonely Arcade Cabinet…
While PGR did well, it was in Bizarre’s blood that a follow-up should be developed from the ground up. The company spent the next eighteen months developing Project Gotham Racing 2, an epic send-up of its predecessor. Cakebread wouldn’t contribute his piece de resistance until late into development. From the outside, particularly during the Xbox generation, it would appear that the company was bound to Microsoft as a darling developer for the platform, Bizarre was always a multi-platform company. “We were always working on prototypes, many of which never saw the light of day,” Cakebread said. Bizarre had a heritage for developing demos and pitches for a variety of companies across many platforms, but this only became visible as the company got larger. During most of PGR2’s development, Cakebread was working on a number of those pitches, none of which landed with a publisher. But for his part, Cakebread was in a special situation: only a handful of people at Bizarre were able to float through the company working on other projects, which he says he did 60-70% of the time. He alludes that many of these projects would’ve been perfect Xbox Live Arcade releases, which wouldn’t exist in earnest for a few more years.