Nestled in the East Midlands countryside, surrounded by acres and acres of beautiful greenery, like the Secret Garden of games studios, is Rare HQ. It’s the kind of place you’d expect to find some boutique rehab centre, or the kind of celebrity plastic surgery locale that requires you to arrive by helicopter, all floor-to-ceiling glass and pond-studded vistas that would imply that its developers actually look out of the window from time to time.
It’s the kind of place that gives the impression that Rare is doing well – or at least, has done well in the past. It’s one of the finest and oldest game studios in the UK, especially now that fellow Microsoft-owned studio Lionhead has been “shuttered”, and understandably people are starting to get a little nervous.
Some took the opportunity of Lionhead’s closing to talk passionately about Rare, expressing hope that it wouldn’t meet the same fate. Perhaps the timing was a bit too soon, but they had a point.
A lot of British studios have been struggling in the last year, and it’s understandable that some people have been concerned for Rare. Maybe Britain is becoming a less cost-effective place to run a studio, maybe fears of a certain referendum have put people off investing, or maybe it’s just an unlucky coincidence, but after the sudden and unexpected closure of Lionhead, it makes sense to worry.
Especially as Lionhead was a similar case to Rare – industry veterans owned by Microsoft and managed from afar, who had gone from making sprawling RPGs to making Fable Legends, a game that didn’t seem to be gathering enough traction. The comparison between the two was too worrying to ignore.
We don’t know Microsoft’s game plan, but there’s a clear difference in Rare’s Nintendo output and its Microsoft output. That was always going to be the case with two very different companies, but there was a period of a few years where Rare seemed to be put on Kinect duty and doing little else, making games like Kinect Sports Rivals and the Kinect-enabled reboot of Killer Instinct.
There’s nothing wrong with Kinect, really, it’s just that Microsoft gave up on it quite quickly, selling consoles without it as early as 2014. Getting Rare to develop games that relied on you prancing around your living room yelling “I AM IN FRAME YOU STUPID PIECE OF TECHNOLOGY” was a far cry from its console-defining output of the ’90s.
Of course, Rare has made some fantastic games while under Microsoft, because it’s a great studio. I would argue that Viva Piñata is one of the best games of all time, and Rare Replay made us go all tingly inside with nostalgia. Now it’s making Sea of Thieves, and by all accounts it’s wonderful.
Then again, Lionhead was making Fable Legends just a few months ago.
Then again, Fable Legends wasn’t doing so well.
Legend has it
But Rare is doing really well. Perhaps its continued existence at Microsoft depends on the success of Sea of Thieves, but so far the signs are good: it’s been put on nearly every gaming site’s list of Best of E3, it’s been generating a Twitter storm, and it had a live pirate band, for pete’s sake. It has never been easier to love Rare for being Rare.
And if push comes to shove, and Microsoft let Rare go? It will be fine. If it becomes an independent studio, it will be fine. Look at Playtonic, founded by and staffed by former Rare employees: it’s just a fraction of Rare, and it only went and did the highest-funded UK video game in Kickstarter history.
One of the wonderful things about Rare is that the people who work there have worked there for ages. You don’t see that in many other studios – you’ll find people working on the game design, the sound design, the character design, who did one of the voices for Conker or one of the Pinatas or some soundbite that recalls your N64 childhood.
Rare is steeped in video gaming history, and just like the people from Lionhead will go on to bigger and better things. Talent doesn’t just dissipate. It spreads out into the industry, it finds new doors to open, new possibilities to explore.
Consider Kojima, who is now free to make whatever weird, surreal games he wants to make after being let go from Konami. He’s still Kojima, he still has a head full of incomprehensible but probably brilliant ideas.
Hideki Kamiya helped establish Platinum Studios after Capcom’s Clover Studios was closed, and now we have Bayonetta and The Wonderful 101 and Scalebound. Many of the members of the Bioshock team have splintered off, making exploration-survival games like Submerged and, uh, exploration-survival games like Flame in the Flood.
Peter Molyneux… well, actually, let’s not go there, but he’s still having ideas, and that’s what’s important.
Creative flow is preserved just like the conservation of momentum – when talented people go from one thing to the next, they retain all their artistic momentum, all their ideas and thoughts and personality.
No matter what happens to Rare, nothing will happen to the weird and wonderful stuff that happens in their brains. If it sounds like I’m gushing, it’s because I am. I love Rare, I love its games, I love its style and its humor and have I mentioned its incredible office? I love that too.
Rare is doing fantastic work, and it seems like it’s being given a degree of freedom that lets it do what it’s best at. I might not be confident about the future of a lot of things in gaming, but I’m confident about Sea of Thieves, and I’m confident about Rare.
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