This guy is truly the business. Founder of Pyro Studios, responsible for the fantastic Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines, he and his team truly put Spanish game development on the map in the early nineties. Now enjoying epic success in the film industry with Ilion having produced Wonder Park and Planet 51 (starring The Rock and Jessica Biel of course), the legend that is Ignacio Pérez Dolset managed to spare a few moments to answer a few questions from our Adrian about film, working with Hollywood stars and of course the wonderful Commandos series.
Ignacio, thank you so much for talking to us. You’ve had an illustrious career in film and gaming but what are your earliest and fondest memories of playing video games while growing up?
That is many years ago. I was 4 years old when I played Pong in 1974. It was the very first in thousands of games.
How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry?
I started working as a video games distributor back in 1991. I was 21 years old.
We are huge fans of Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines here at Arcade Attack. How did you first get the opportunity to work on this masterpiece and can you reflect on the early planning stages of this game?
I started the company back in 1996. We had the idea of making a game that we could do with a relatively low budget, 1 million dollars, but that could compete in the market. Strategy was the most popular genre back then and it offered a lot of opportunities to create something new. That was the central idea from beginning, making something original that could have a chance in the market. I have always been a big fan of World War II, big fan of movies, and wargames. Commandos was a consequence of all of that.
As the co-designer on Commandos, can you give us a quick summary of some of the main challenges of programming for such a complex and detailed game?
The two biggest challenges were designing a game with a new style of gameplay and doing it with top graphics that could recreate World War II better than any other strategy game before. We were working on the idea of the specialized group of Commandos and with this new type of gameplay based on our intuition until after one year of development we could do a first test of gameplay. It was a huge relief that the idea was working even on this first test. We did not have money for doing a prototype so it was a huge leap of faith. Second challenge was offering graphics of a superior quality to any strategy game before. We had to work on our own engine because of that and we had to stay away from the classic tile system that was the standard back then. The great news were that Commandos looked better than any strategy game before, the bad news was that creating missions was painful because it was impossible to build a mission creation tool. All the maps were unique and the logic of them had to be implement manually. That is why we could never do a mission editor for Commandos as many fans were requesting.
Is it true that this game was far from easy to complete, and if so, how do you reflect back on the overall production of this title?
We always knew that it was not going to be easy. The idea was making a game that was easy to play, hard to master. A substantial part of the beauty of the game looking at it 20 years later was this difficulty level. We did try versions that were easier to play but we ended up going with the version that was published as it was the one that we thought that had the best gameplay experience. Probably looking back the only thing that I would have done a different way would have been a couple of additional tutorials and a softer learning curve.
On first appearances Commandos looked a little like a Cannon Fodder clone, however, it includes very deep and complex gameplay mechanics. How did it feel to be working on a very original game and did you know from day one that you were working on something so special?
We always thought that Commandos could be special after the first gameplay tests and how addictive the game was. Looking back I think that it was a huge risk doing something so different but back in the 90’s that was possible.
Today it is more difficult to innovate with games as it looks that nearly everything has already been done. I made a bet one month before the release that the game would sell over four hundred thousand copies. Our publisher did not believe that it could do more than one hundred and eighty thousand. The game ended up doing more than two million copies at full price becoming the second best selling game worldwide in 1998 only behind Tomb Raider.
Do you have a personal favourite Commando, and if so, can you explain who it is?
I think that Jack “Butcher” O’Hara was the favorite of all of us. It was the most versatile in terms of gameplay and the most charismatic visually and it ended up being the icon of Commandos .
Why do you think Commandos became such a huge hit across the globe especially from quite an unknown developer at the time with Pyro Studios?
I think that we reached an audience that did not play games often. That was because the setting in II World War attracted people that did not play with games often. Also I think that game mechanics worked for this audience. It is true that Commandos was very difficult, but it was very difficult to progress through it, to complete the game but it was easy to play with a very simple interface. Back in those days strategy games had big and complex interfaces with thick manuals: It was difficult to learn how to play with them but Commandos was very easy to play with a simple interface: The difficulty as I said before was on completing the game. This attracted new players but also strategy game fans.
Commandos 2 took the great elements of the first game and improved across all areas. Were you involved in the creation of the sequel and how did you aim to improve on the original?
I was only involved on some of the missions that came from the original game. I think people could identify those as they were more similar to Commandos, but unfortunately I had to dedicate a lot of time to running the company and I could not work on the game. That is something that I still regret today.
The main idea behind Commandos 2 was making a game that was much more open than Commandos with many alternative ways to progress through missions.
Were there any gameplay elements or game ideas that were touted in the production of the Commandos games that sadly never made it into the final version?
When you start brainstorming for a game there are always hundreds of ideas that never make it into a game. Reality is always a tough filter for desires. There were many but the ones that I always missed more were some more dynamic elements for the game, like characters being able to jump from vehicles or more versatile weapons or more unique elements for each of the missions.
You were part of a team that really put Spanish game developers on the map. How did it feel to be part of such a popular game which spawned many successful sequels and later similar games?
I have only become aware of the importance of the game after many years. I have found huge Commandos fans throughout the world that tell me about the game and how much they liked it, both normal players and developers. Recently in a meeting in London with a big financial institution, when the General Manager found out about my Commandos background asked me for an autograph and had a picture taken with me. It was a surprise with a banker dressed with his expensive suit and tie. Similar things have happened to me across the world, from China to Peru, Holland, Poland Belgium or Argentina. Commandos still has a lot of fans across the world. Obviously this makes me very proud of what we did.
Commandos 3 is again a true masterpiece. What was your exact role on this game and do you feel it is the pinnacle of the Commandos games?
I was one of the designers of the game. I think it was a great game improving a lot of aspects of Commandos 2 specially with game flow with much more variety and depth. I think that it was the best game in the series although we made some mistakes like the changes in the interface which people did not understand as they were familiar with the original one. It was a game that we had to develop fast as the publisher was pushing us to get it on the market and that is why there were not many technical changes. Unfortunately the strategy market was declining then and this and most other strategy games disappeared from the market as consumers moved into new things.
Commandos: Strike Force changed to an FPS style game and sadly seemed to spell the end of the Commandos series. Do you feel it was a mistake moving the original strategy game into a new direction?
It was a mistake the way we developed the game but there were not many alternatives for us. The strategy market was gone with consumers moving into FPS. Definitely that was not our ground. Trying to make a game that retained Commandos essence but being a FPS shooter was an impossible task.
The original Commandos games look like they are going to get a HD makeover! How exciting will it be for whole a new generation gamers to experience your great work?
We are not working on it directly but we have made a deal with Kalypso to be responsible for it. We have had many approaches in recent years from companies to work on Commandos but we only took it seriously with Kalypso. They have the right ideas and even some people that worked on the original games which is guarantee for us that they will do a great job.
Are you still in contact with your ex-colleagues from Pyro and would you ever be tempted to get together again and work on a new Commandos game?
We always had the idea of doing a new Commandos but we never found the time for it. I still work with some of the members of the team, Jorge Blanco who was the artistic director of the games works at Ilion in our animation studio and is directing big budget movies. Some other artist and programmers also work at the studio. I have been working with some of these guys, now friends, for over 20 years. Also some of them are teaching at the university, u-tad, that I started 10 years ago to teach people the making of games, animation and other matters in the digital world. I am really proud of our students, the new generations that are winning awards all over the globe and now working on games like GTA, Watchdogs and many others.
Did you ever start work on any video games that were never completed, and if so, what titles do you think would have been a success?
We did a few of those. There were a couple of them that could have been big hits. We had a tactical FPS shooter called In-Zero about an astronaut coming back to earth and finding an empty and destroyed planet. We were working on that many years before the Last of Us. Also we had a great game called Cops, a tactical shooter around a group of cops. A great game but with a big budget that we could never put together.
You co-founded Ilion Animation Studios. What made you start this new journey, moving away from the video game industry and has this always been a dream of yours?
I like cinema as much as videogames but the big motivation here was the many talented visual artists that we had in Spain and all over Europe that did have to migrate to the US if they wanted to work on high quality animation. Fortunately these days there is a much more developed industry in Europe with Ilion in Madrid and Illumination McGuff in Paris but that was not the case 20 years ago.
Planet 51 was a big success. How exciting was it to be involved in one of Spain’s biggest ever budgeted movies?
To us it was a big accomplishment. Releasing a movie worldwide, with big stars like Dwayne Johnson or Gary Oldman, opening in 3000 cinemas in the US and ultimately setting up the record as the biggest box office for an independent animation movie was a big achievement.
Were you personally involved in the movies tie-in game and did your prior expertise in the gaming industry help you?
I was involved in setting up the team but not in the game itself. I think that Planet 51 game was a great game thanks to the experience in the company in many previous games.
Wonder Park has been another big hit for your company. How proud are you of your movies so far and do you have a personal favourite?
I am really proud of the work we have done at Ilion. It is very difficult to penetrate the US major system as they have been dominating the cinema business for over a hundred years. Wonder Park has been a turning point to us as has being chosen by a company like Paramount to be the production company for a big budget movie like Wonder Park was a major achievement.
It is not easy to take one of this productions out of North America and it was only the immense talent of the artists at Ilion that convinced Paramount executives. Now we are working on two new movies, based on Ilion ideas, with Skydance, the biggest independent production company in Hollywood. John Lasseter, the founder of Pixar, is Skydance Animation president so we are working directly with him. This is a dream come true that we could not have imagined when we started Ilion. I think these new movies have all the ingredients to become massive hits worldwide. My favorite one of our movies is Planet 51, being the first one we made.
Would you ever consider making a video game based animation film and if so, which gaming franchise would you most like to work with?
You never know. Maybe something around Commandos? Why not.
Do you feel Commandos would work well as an animated or feature film and would this be a project you would ever consider?
We have thought about it many times and have even done some work on it. The main difficulty is doing these for the right target. We could not make a movie for the standard animation audience which is Kids and families as a World War II setting does not sound appropriate for this public so we would need to create a movie for a 13+ public which is a more difficult audience in animation.
Can you reveal what your next project will be and do you think you will ever work in the video game industry again?
As I said before, we are working on two big budget movies with Skydance and John Lasseter. It is exciting times here working with some of the most talented artist in the world of animation, apart from John Lasseter who is the true God of 3D animation and a wonderful person to work with. No plans to work on videogames again although at the University we are helping a lot of new studios with their first projects.
Is it very different animating video games compared to films and do you have a personal favourite?
It is very different in many aspects. The daily dynamic of an animation studio is very different from videogames. Biggest difference is that in animation it is all script driven while in videogames game design is King. The one thing in common is that if you do not have a clear idea of what you want to do, either in terms of script or of game design, you get in a lot of trouble. Both works have been amazing in my life. I always try to enjoy what I do. My videogames days were wonderful and I dedicated all my heart to that for nearly fifteen years. My heart is now at the animation studio and the University. And I hope there will be more adventures in the future.
Your films have boasted the amazing voice acting talents such as Dwayne Johnson, Mila Kunis and Gary Oldman. Did you ever get to meet these wonderful actors and what were they like in person?
Yes, I have spent many hours of voice recordings with many of them. Anything around these big stars is complicated. You have to deal with their agents, managers, coaches before you can actually start the work. But once you get in the studio and things start flowing, you can see magic happening. I specially remember a wonderful session with Gary Oldman. He is a wonderful actor with an immense talent.
Are you a gamer in your own time, and if so, which are your three favourite games of all time and why?
I have been a gamer all my life although know I do not play as much as I used to. There are many games in my favorites list but Civilization shines above all of them. The best and most influential design ever. An absolute masterpiece. I love PacMan as it is the game of my childhood. Colin McRae it is still for me the best driving game ever made and I also love the Total War series. There are many other like GTA, Half Life, the original Medal of Honor or the old Lucas Arts graphic adventures or even these days Hearthstone from Blizzard as good as everything these guys do.
If you could personally be friends with any of the Commandos elite squad who would you choose and why?
I have always liked more the sophistication of “Duke” the sniper than the rudeness of O’Hara.
If you could go for a drink with any video game character, who would you choose and why?
Lara Croft would be a great option although I am married these days.
We can sympathise with you there! Again, thanks so much for stopping by and answering our many questions. Readers, you can check out what Ignacio is up to via his Twitter page.