Time hasn't been kind to the memory of the Nintendo 64. While it was extremely well received upon its release 18 years ago, and still holds a special place in the hearts of many gamers, it signalled a turning point in Nintendo's history. The company's controversial decision to opt for a cartridge-based system over CD-ROM stacked the odds against it, with many long-time third-party partners dropping or drastically reducing support in favour of this cheaper, higher capacity technology.
As a result, the N64 gets a bad rep for not having many games, especially when it comes to its third-party offerings. While the system's 387-game library is very small, even when compared to those of its predecessors — not to mention that certain genres are woefully under represented — to reduce the N64 to just its first-party line-up would be an egregious error. Plenty of third-party studios took great creative strides with their games — names such as Sucker Punch Productions and DMA Design spring to mind — although none were arguably able to achieve the unique and dazzling heights that were reached by the talented Pickford Bros and their former studio, Zed Two, with their offbeat puzzle game, Wetrix.
And it's fair to say all these years later that there really isn't anything else like it — well, except for its PS2 sequel, that is. It's difficult to sum up Wetrix in a single phrase; the concisest description that comes to mind is a terraforming, lake-creating and water-evaporating puzzle game. If memories of the Water Cycle that you learnt about in school are coming to mind then immediately dispel those thoughts, because Wetrix's entertainment value far exceeds anything you'd find in your everyday classroom.
We recently caught up with Ste Pickford who, with his brother John, makes up the legendary duo known as the Pickford Bros, to find out more about how Wetrix came to be. Their experience in the video games industry dates back to the early 1980s and includes an impressive selection of classic titles, most notably Plok and Equinox on the Nintendo side of things.
Infogrames really weren't interested in Wetrix. It was too small. It wasn't a million dollar game, it wasn't going to 'make' the career of any executive or marketing person.
Just like the gameplay concept behind it, the game's origins are both incredibly interesting and unique. Wetrix was actually borne out of another idea for a game at the time called Vampire Circus. Although never released, work began on Wetrix when the brothers founded their indie studio Zed Two in the mid-90s. Ste describes it as a kind of local multiplayer game in a similar vein to Gauntlet Legends, with an overarching vampire theme. “Thinking back, as the game was based around hordes of enemies (hence the Gauntlet inspiration), it would have been an early entry into the zombie game genre, that subsequently became very popular," Ste points out.
So how did the brothers make the leap from hacking and slashing vampires to a puzzle game based around the flow of water? “John had come up with a few programming techniques that he wanted to experiment with," Ste explains. The first, he tells us, was to come up with a way of having hundreds of independently moving enemies filling the screen, which at the time would have been a very uncommon feature. However, it was the second idea that opened the door to Wetrix. “[John] also had some ideas for dynamic environments where almost every element in the levels could be smashed or set on fire, and each level would also have water represented as a volume of dynamic fluid," Ste clarifies, “as opposed to a plane representing water level at a certain height, which was — and still is — the common method of handling water." This water would then flow around the level as blocks were destroyed or burned, and maybe even evaporate if close to areas on fire.
Both ideas were very ambitious given the available technology and what other games were doing at the time. Nevertheless, work began on a playable demo to pitch to publishers, and soon an early prototype was created to show the feasibility of having numerous enemies on-screen at the same time. According to Ste, it worked really well: “We had a test level with tens of thousands of these zombie vampires milling around, in isometric 3D."
Once this task had been completed, the next goal was to see to what extent the dynamic water idea could work. Rather than work this into the actual Vampire Circus demo, John created what Ste calls a separate “testbed" project. This enabled John to work out the theory of a dynamic water system, to write the code and to do so without having to worry about graphics or assets for the water. At this point in time, the game was still a single concept, with Ste noting that he was working on the design of the monsters and backgrounds while John explored the water idea.
We felt that we could get a simple-ish water puzzle game finished much quicker than the big Vampire Circus game, and we hoped it would be an easier pitch to publishers, as it was a smaller and less ambitious project, and therefore cheaper and less risky.
However, the testbed project grew into something much more substantial; the very foundations of what would become Wetrix. “[It] consisted of just a flat plane grid, drawn in vectors, on to which drops of water were added, and pools of liquid were allowed up build up, then flow, and then drip off the edge of the plane," Ste elaborates. “Then John added the ability to raise and lower individual cells in the flat plane, in order to create hills and valleys and walls to test the flow and movement of the water." For those who have never played Wetrix, the description Ste gives is essentially how the final game played, albeit with some more specific goals and additional features.
By this point, the brothers knew the water idea would work once integrated into Vampire Circus, but they had also realised that the water demo was immensely enjoyable to play in its own right.
Then came the Eureka moment: what if the water testbed were transformed into an actual game? “We felt that we could get a simple-ish water puzzle game finished much quicker than the big Vampire Circus game, and we hoped it would be an easier pitch to publishers, as it was a smaller and less ambitious project, and therefore cheaper and less risky," Ste explains. The plan would then be to follow up with Vampire Circus, the hope being by that point that Zed Two would be a more established studio in the industry. Wetrix was officially born, albeit in demo form and, at this point, just for PC.
It's a plan that is as sensible as it is logical, and one that would certainly have merit in today's bustling indie scene. At the time, however, the industry was a very different beast, and not one that was particularly receptive to either small studios or small games. “It turned out we were completely wrong; a small, cheap game was exactly the wrong thing to make at the time," states Ste. “Publishers only wanted big, ambitious expensive games, and weren't interested in cheap, small games, even if they were profitable."
The brothers found this out the hard way when they went to pitch Wetrix to now-defunct publisher, Ocean, who weren't interested as the game was too small for them. The two-man team returned home, a bit dejected, to discover an unexpected message waiting for them on the answering machine. “It was Ocean," Ste exclaims. “They said something weird had happened."
As we tend to make original games, we always have the problem that our games don't necessarily match players' initial expectations.
After Ste and John had left Ocean's offices, the testers had kept on playing the demo of the game - they were playing it for pleasure and not because they were being paid to do so. “To their credit, Ocean recognised that this was significant," Ste tells us.
The duo were invited back to Ocean's headquarters the next week, and this was when they both saw with their own very eyes what an impact the demo had had on the company. Upon announcing themselves to the receptionist, she responded by asking “Oh, you're the guys who wrote this?" while pointing to her computer screen. Lo and behold, it was their demo, which she had been playing in between answering phone calls. “We knew we were on to something at that point," Ste says. “We did a two-game deal with Ocean to develop Wetrix, followed by Vampire Circus."
It was a huge win for the brothers and their small studio, although certain events that followed the closing of the deal resulted in some pretty big — and in some instances, immovable — obstacles for them to contend with. Wetrix was actually the last game Ocean ever signed, for only a week later the company started the process of selling itself to Infogrames.
“Infogrames really weren't interested in Wetrix," Ste says with justified disappointment. “It was too small. It wasn't a million dollar game, it wasn't going to 'make' the career of any executive or marketing person." And while the game was nevertheless funded and released on PC, N64, Dreamcast and even Game Boy Color, Infogrames didn't see it as a game that fit their profile of “mega-hits", despite it making a good profit in percentage terms. “[Wetrix] should have done a lot better, as Infogrames France slashed the orders that Ocean US wanted to make for the N64 version — probably to divert money to one of their massive loss-making 'mega' projects — so it's more of a niche game than it should have been, and we made a lot less money from it than we should have," says Ste. It was a huge mistake on Infogrames' part, as Wetrix is without a doubt a game that deserves to be celebrated today for the creativity and fun it brought to the table.
While there was some disappointment on the sales side of things, Wetrix was nevertheless warmly welcomed by both critics and players at the time. It was a novel idea, and although very original in its premise, it was the sense of familiarity that Ste and John worked into the game that arguably drew in players and then kept them playing. “As we tend to make original games, we always have the problem that our games don't necessarily match players' initial expectations," Ste clarifies. “So we ended up deliberately making the pieces look a little bit like Tetris pieces to add some familiarity to the game, and shave off a little bit of the originality." In fact, near the beginning of development, the game was originally given the joke title of “Wetris", although Ste says that this was eventually changed as it was deemed a bit too close to Tetris for comfort.
Wetrix's overall development history is interesting to say the least, but one of the more pressing questions on our minds is how it made its way to the N64. “John and I were setting up an indie studio, so all we had access to was PC. Console platform holders were not nearly so indie-friendly back then, so developing on console wasn't possible for a small start-up."
We would have all made enough to pay off our mortgages from Wetrix, if only Ocean US had been allowed to order as many copies as they originally wanted to.
So how did Zed Two get around this? “Haha, this was a little bit naughty," Ste tells us. “We had two friends who still worked at our previous studio who wanted to come and join us at Zed Two once we were established and had a contract. Once we had Wetrix signed to Ocean, one of the guys took the PC source code into work, and stayed behind at work for a few evenings and secretly ported it to the N64, using his devkit at work." With the game freshly burned to cartridge, Ste and John took it along to to Ocean about a week after Wetrix had initially been signed for PC. Being able to show the publisher there and then the same game running on N64 was all that was needed; Ocean signed the game immediately, which enabled Ste and John to finally employ their friends.
All they needed now was concept approval from Nintendo itself. “We got a meeting with Nintendo at E3, and took the cartridge of the PC port," says Ste. We booted up the game in the meeting room, they took one look and just said, 'Yep, we need all the games we can get!' And that was it, we were in business!"
Developing the N64 version of Wetrix was a relatively painless process according to Ste. “It was a nice machine," he remarks. “Although a bit underpowered like most of the 3D machines, it was actually much more advanced than the PlayStation in a lot of ways, with mipmapping and anti-aliasing." Even today, the way the water behaves in-game is impressive, and while the gameplay is relatively simple, Ste notes that the game is far from trivial in terms of technical performance.
When asked if he and John and would have done anything differently when making Wetrix, their first answer is that they wish they could have finished the multiplayer mode for the PC iteration. While the N64 version did ship with a competitive two-player mode, the duo had ambitious plans for the PC game in the form of a seven-player battle that would have been playable over LAN. Work began on this mode after the game released, but without any funding or meaningful support from Infogrames, it became too costly and time-consuming for the studio to debug and eventually release what would have been a free update.
Ste refers once again to the harsh blow they were delivered by Infogrames, after the company insisted on halving the total N64 cartridge order for Wetrix in the US. “The game was in profit, and had earned back the whole of its advance from UK sales alone," Ste explains. “All those extra copies would have been earning us royalties. We would have all made enough to pay off our mortgages from Wetrix, if only Ocean US had been allowed to order as many copies as they originally wanted to."
Despite this obvious disappointment, the brothers look back on their unique water-inspired creation with a sense of pride. But what is it about this creative little title that they love the most? “The Rubber Ducky!" exclaims Ste, which, to those who haven't played Wetrix before, is a reference to a rubber duck that will sometimes appear floating on top of pools of water you create in game. “We'd previously made some Sesame Street games for the NES, and we had a lot of fun with Ernie's rubber ducky in one of those games, so it felt like we were resurrecting one of our 'characters' for Wetrix." Speaking of resurrections, the Rubber Ducky has, in fact, made a comeback very recently, albeit in comic book form; Wubba, as he is now known, makes regular appearances in Ste and John's weekly Plok webcomic (which we definitely recommend you check out!)
Perhaps what is most remarkable about Wetrix — especially when you look at against the backdrop of some of today's derivative and uninspired games — is how something so unique and refreshing was borne out of a single, relatively simple idea. It stands as a testament to both Ste and John, who approached the process of creating a game with a mindset that ran counter to the norm of the industry at the time and overcame a great deal of difficult obstacles while doing so.
To us outsiders, it's seems like nothing short of sorcery. To Ste and John, however, it's just another day at the office: “Heh, coming up with an original premise for a game, or an unconventional game idea, is all we've ever done."
And there's certainly no better proof of that than Wetrix.
Our special thanks go to Ste Pickford for taking the time to answer our questions.