Standing on the shoulder of Slave Zero

We look back at the development history of Slave Zero, one of the last titles to come from Accolade

Video game developer and publisher, Accolade, produced several games in the 32-bit era, though the game senior artist, Trevor Grimshaw, remembers the most is Slave Zero. The third person action title was an early effort for the Sega Dreamcast, one which Grimshaw describes as “one of the funnest projects” he ever worked on.

When thinking back to that time, Grimshaw remembers how he and lead artist, Ken Capelli, would bring home their PCs every single night to work on levels for the game. “We did this happily, and in many ways it was for me the dream of a highly spirited team filled with passion creating their own magic,” he said. “I try to tell the kids how it was but they don’t understand.”

The release of Slave Zero came and went, and the game is mostly remembered as the early Dreamcast title that is was. Accolade itself was acquired by French publisher, Atari (then known as Infogrames), soon after the game came out in 1999, though Grimshaw said the entire Slave Zero team has kept in touch over the years.

Through Grimshaw, Accolade producer, Matt Powers, and lead artist, Ken Capelli, stepped forward to share their experiences on the game’s development.

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How did the concept of Slave Zero come about?

Accolade lead artist, Ken Capelli (KC): It originated as a third person sci-fi cyberpunk/bounty-hunter platform shooter code-named MindFuck or MF. We had a pretty cool prototype and a lot of concept art made, inspired by the rad resin models of Japanese artist Yasushi Nirasawa, pre-Matrix 90s latex fetish wear, and architect Hugh Ferris.

Accolade producer, Matt Powers (MP): At the very first stages of development we spent most of our time creating the engine/technology. While this was occurring I was trying out various game concepts. Coming from Eradicator, myself and the team were very interested in first or third person shooter.

KC: Shooters of the day were pretty barren with lots of empty hallways, so one of our high-level goals was to portray a city with the kind of crowd density of Blade Runner, or at least to give a sense that you were in a sprawling, living city. That kind of asset density was challenging on the early 3Dfx hardware, and the best we could do was suggest crowds and traffic from afar via little ten polygon people and boxy cars.

MP: Nothing was really sticking and then I hired Sean Vesce who came from Activision after working on Interstate '76 and MechWarrior 2. He wanted a MechWarrior type game, I wanted an action-shooter and then Ken came along with Neon Genesis Evangelion. That was the birth of Slave Zero.

KC: There were a number of additional design issues we were chewing on, and during one play through Sean Vesce was like, “Can we bring those people and cars closer to the player?" I said, “Sure but they're super low poly and would look terrible unless we kept them really tiny” and his eyes lit up. He went away for a while then came back and said, “No one get too excited just yet, but what if we made this a giant robot game?" We then got excited.

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How did the concept fit into Accolade’s portfolio at the time?

KC: Accolade was known for pretty chipper mainstream action, platform, and sports games. It was one of the last founding game industry publishers from the 80’s that never went big like Activision, Acclaim, or EA, and was, as it turned out, looking for merger and acquisition exit opportunities. Dark, gritty shooters were really hot in the late 90s and the company felt like it needed a core-gamer-focused project to round out the portfolio. When Matt wrapped up Eradicator, we were given this pet project. I honestly don't think the company expected the project to sell but just for show, so we had a lot of free reign in design.

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What were the sources of inspiration for the robot design and setting?

KC: Internally it was "Evangelion meets H.R. Giger meets Blade Runner", but some of our execs were square and totally unfamiliar with the source, so we told them "Mechwarrior meets Alien in Manhattan". What they couldn't imagine was a giant robot that was swift and sexy, because they had only ever seen the lumbering machines in MechWarrior 2, but I cut together some scenes from Evangelion and Mobile Suit Gundam onto a VHS tape to win them over.

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What was the response to the concept at the time?

KC: Our bio-mechanical mecha designs focus-tested really well among core gamers, but the execs were pretty freaked out by them. So we pushed Zero's design to be more super-heroic than monstrous. Zero's original design ended up as one of the final enemies in the game. Comic artist Ted Naifeh took the character designs to the next level, animator Jeff Wilcox breathed life into them, FX artist Stephan Henry-Biskup gave us the over-the-top FX, Lee Petty created the rad opening cinematic, and Trevor Grimshaw and Mike Khoury brought the Hugh Ferris and Syd Mead influences to the city backgrounds.

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Were you surprised by the similarities to Shogo: MAD from Monolith?

KC: I wasn’t really surprised, except that it had taken that long for an actual mecha game to get made by a western developer. Shogo was straight-up 80s vehicle-mecha with strong anime flavouring. And their city was pretty empty, which was something we were trying to do differently. I was and still am a big fan of Monolith's games and liked Shogo.

MP: I was a bit surprised, really by the fact that the giant robot idea wasn’t just us. We shouldn't have been surprised though, as everyone loves giant robots, right?

KC: Our single-unique-humanoid-hero-against-waves-of-enemies storyline was closer to classic Go Nagai anime like Grendizer and Gaiking but with a western sci-fi tone. It was darker, grittier, and without the overt anime sheen. It was closer to Blade Runner and Akira than Transformers or Patlabor.

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Were any other console platforms considered beyond Dreamcast?

KC: The original PlayStation was briefly talked about early on but it was really low-powered compared to what a 3D-accelerated PC could do, and remember this was supposed to be a showcase portfolio title so PC was its only intended platform. The Dreamcast deal happened right at the end of our PC development.

MP: We were approached by Sega prior to the launch of the Dreamcast. They had seen our PC game and wanted us to be a launch window title for the console. Based on the hardware of the Dreamcast, we felt it would be possible to do and we signed an exclusive deal with Sega.

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How was development of the PC game?

KC: The PC title was ready to ship in early 1999 but Sega wanted Slave Zero to launch on the Dreamcast simultaneous with PC, so the company code-froze Slave Zero while the team ported to Dreamcast over the next nine months. The shame of it was that our PC marketing budget for full-page ads, covers, feature articles, and endcaps for stores was already spent for the early-1999 launch, which never happened due to the Sega imposed delay.

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What was the outcome of this?

KC: Lots of ads came and went in the PC gaming press with no game to buy until the PC version appeared quietly to die on store shelves nine months later. At that point the ads were only for Dreamcast version. Anecdotally, most gamers never knew there was a PC version, which is a shame because the Dreamcast port was shabby. It had lower poly counts, no background music soundtrack, and fewer enemies, people and cars. The PC version had a pretty good industrial-electronic soundtrack that I wish more people had heard.

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Why was the PC version a Windows ME exclusive?

MP: I don't remember that.

KC: I don't recall that either. We were developing on 95/98 and I’ve never had a Windows ME computer. Maybe it was a branding thing done with Microsoft to push ME, but I don't recall any technical reason why.

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Did the acquisition of Accolade by Infogrames effect on the game?

KC: Except for a desire to make the game less creepy and more heroic, the company was pretty uninvolved in the overall development until the end. At that time of the purchase I don't think the exiting Accolade management cared about the state they left the project in with the Dreamcast delay and the misfired PC launch, since the port deal helped pave the way to their payout. I don't think Infogrames knew what to do with the project, except get it out the door since it was already in the pipe with Sega.

MP: It’s hard to say what effects the acquisition had. Overall, I believe the biggest challenge Slave Zero had was that Accolade was the Bubsy and Hardball publisher. This internal team had this crazy, Evangelion inspired, giant mech, action game and they didn't know what to do with it.

KC: There were some lingering elements of the Accolade/SEGA reverse-engineering lawsuit of the 80’s that were holding up the Infogrames acquisition, and the Dreamcast deal on Slave Zero helped unblock those.

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How did Slave Zero perform after release?

KC: The sales were abysmal and the worst of any game I've worked on. By the time the PC and Dreamcast versions were released, the Dreamcast was dying in the shadow of the PlayStation 2. In the 3D accelerated PC gaming market, a nine month delay meant releasing something almost a year out of date with its competitors, with no advertising or sales incentives.

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What do you feel could have been done differently?

KC: The biggest shame, creatively, was the PC code freeze. The full team was still on staff. In those nine months we could have rebuilt and polished so much of the game. Just imagine if we had nine months of extra development time to apply the lessons we learned in the prior 18 months. We petitioned for it but were shot down and were only allowed to down-res existing art for most of that time.

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Was there any talk of making a sequel?

MP: I had started on some designs for a sequel but unfortunately the game didn't do well enough to warrant a sequel.

KC: During downtime we started preparatory design sessions on a sequel with PlayStation 2 as the main SKU, but Infogrames wasn’t interested in any further game development at the studio. There were some interesting ideas in the mix such as modular upgradeable bio-mecha, multiple bigger cities, wall-crawling mechanics, and pilots. The team was pretty excited to start something new.

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Any legacy of the game left today?

KC: The lead designer on the project, Mike Wikan, went on to lead the design of the Metroid Prime games at Retro Studios. I'd like to think that some of the design lessons learned on Slave Zero found their home at a developer committed to releasing great games.

Want to read other video game interviews with key figures from Sony, Microsoft and more? Then check out Good Gear Guide's complete interview archive.

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