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Interview: Ed Annunziata, creator of Ecco the Dolphin

Let me set the scene for you. Chris sends me a text message that says, “How would you like to have an interview with Ed Annunziata?” For those who don’t know, Ed is the creator of Ecco the Dolphin. I was instantly excited about the opportunity to interview one of the biggest legends in SEGA’s history.

After setting up the interview, I was instructed to go over to the W Hotel that was just outside of the conference. When I got there, I was greeted by Elizabeth Olson, who handles public relations for Ed. She stepped outside for a moment to call him on the phone.

A few minutes later, Ed came down and we found a relatively quiet place to have the interview. We sat down upstairs at an empty bar. I knew immediately this interview was going to be fun. Ed is a really nice guy, definitely the kind that loves to talk, and you can tell he is very passionate about The Big Blue. After exchanging a few pleasantries back and forth and talking little bit about Ecco the Dolphin, it was time to get into the interview.

Ryan: Big Blue sounds a lot like one of the Ecco sequels that you pitched to SEGA. Now you’re creating an underwater game without the SEGA license; what has changed from the Ecco sequel you envisioned?

Ed: Big Blue is about hard science fiction. It has real science. It’s really taking the biology and science into the game. Big Blue is a really big deal and it should be treated like it. It isn’t like,  “Oh, mankind has polluted the world. Now the world is dead, and now there are zombies.” There’s really an interaction, and we really have input into nature. It’s not a game to preach that, but you’re experiencing it. You’re concluding it on your own. The Big Blue is much more experienced and meaningful.

Ryan: Since you worked on a Ecco the Dolphin, how do you feel SEGA has changed from a publisher standpoint?

Ed: I don’t know because I don’t really know them that well. I had a few meetings, and met a few people, and they were really nice and really smart. When I worked there it was the best f**king place in the world. Maybe it was just me and the few other people who got lucky with Ecco, and it was a big hit. They were like, ‘Go for it.’ I got to hire my own producer, I built my own team, and I got to make a bunch of crazy games for eight solid years. Even to this day, the love coming off Ecco, I still get to enjoy it. I mean you want to talk to me about the game, and I built 20 years ago. So I obviously owe that to SEGA.

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This rough sketch shows some of the creatures players will meet when they dive underwater with Big Blue.

Ryan: One of the reasons I like Ecco so much is because it was simple in the way was presented. It took you a little bit to figure it out, but once you got into it is one of the most beautiful gaming experiences there were. I don’t think people gave it the love that it deserved, but for the ones who did, it’s always going to be in their top five or top 10. There’s a reason for it. You can see the work that you put into Ecco, and we all loved it

Ed: You couldn’t have said anything better just then.

Ryan: SEGA rejected your proposal for new game and also wouldn’t let you have the license. Do you think they’ll ever make another Ecco game?

Ed: SEGA has been awesome to me. They’ve sort of maintained a mild interest in Ecco for the last 20 years. Just not enough to actually fully get behind it. Do you remember that judge who said, “I don’t know how to define pornography, but I know it when I see it.” If they see something and it looks awesome. Like, you know in five seconds, that’s it, or people will love that when they see it whether it’s quirky or not. They’ll go for it.

It’s so hard to explain something to get someone to see. The first Ecco took me over a year to get them to agree to give me a tiny budget just to do a prototype. It took them year. In fact this is a true story.

I resigned (from SEGA) because I accepted a position at EA. Then (SEGA) asked what it would take to make me stay. So they were going to renegotiate. I said I needed a bonus, I need $10,000 because I don’t even have a car. I was getting paid really low. I moved out from New York. Then I said, “Give me $10,000, and let me build this prototype for this Ecco game that I’ve been trying to pitch to you.” and they said fine. So I built it, and once you could see it, then it was obvious.

For a year, I’m explaining it to them and I’m showing beautiful images. It looks like this, and it looks like this, and this is the way it’ll feel, and no one could get it. It has to kind of exist, and then you get it really quickly. I’m not really sure if I could convey it, but I’m sure any publisher, SEGA included, if they could jump into my mind for five seconds, run through and jump back out that they’d say, “Let’s sign a contract,” or “Let’s get this funded.”

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In Big Blue, players will control a variety of underwater creatures to complete a variety of quests.

Ryan: I really wish they would. If anything for the fans. It was one of those games that you could feel. Everything down to the movements and animation was perfect. You knew your character was a dolphin and when you jumped out of the water, it wasn’t just a jump. It really looked realistic as if it was a real dolphin.

Outside of Ecco the Dolphin I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game that resembles reality as much as 16-bit could of done at the time. It was something nobody had ever done yet. Now they can do it with technology they have but there’s heart in Ecco. That’s always important and that’s what is important to the fans. There’s a whole new audience there that would be able to enjoy it.

Back to Big Blue; can you tell us a little bit about the characters and how it plays? Also how they interact with each other?

Ed: Well, there are some creatures that are lower down the the food chain. If you could talk, you can sing songs. Basically, if you’re a sea mammal or a few other creatures that have that ability. Your quest can be to help them, protect them or kill them. You could also play a school of fish or a jellyfish. More of a mindless creature that is in a character that can get the places were you can’t. So the jellyfish doesn’t need to breathe, so it can go down really deep where the dolphin can’t go. So you have to get down there and sample some DNA from tube worms.

There is part of the game that I see in my mind where you are controlling your dolphin and there are a whole bunch of other creatures behind you. Like a mass of creatures. I think that just that and building up to that is magical in this game.

Ryan: You announced a couple of stretch goals on your Kickstarter that would add co-op and even possibly turn into an MMO. How do people feel about the MMO? Then what can you tell us about the co-op gameplay?

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Players can collect and trade Creature Cards to be used within Big Blue.

Ed: Everybody hated (the MMO idea), and I was like, “Wow”. Co-op play, you know, me and you, I think is fabulous and doesn’t even change the game mechanic. There has to be challenges that only two of us can do where only three of us can do.

(He then pulls out a Creature Card.)

I love this. Personally, I love that there’s creature codes. Just like DNA. Just like the songs. This is a physical embodiment of that. I can give this to you. You can type this in and you can get that creature. Now this creature is in your environment and now you own it. Since you own it you can control this creature directly. If you want to give it to me you do something in the game, it goes away, and it goes back to the card. Then you say, “Here, it’s yours.” It mimics the game, this whole mechanism.

So when we’re two players in a shared environment and we go out into the game, collecting creatures, winning quests, you come back to this environment, and you add all of these creatures. Now we’re building this coral reef or giant lagoon and bringing it to life. Where doing it together. If I go and see that we put a sea dragon in there, I’m like, “We put a sea dragon in there!” I love that they game won’t be any different. It’ll just be quests that are designed knowing that there are multiple people working together. We just share the creatures, and we share the environment.That’s why it’s strictly co-op.

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Bear McCreary (above) is teaming up with longtime Ecco the Dolphin composer Spencer Nilsen to create the music in Big Blue.

Ryan: Another aspect of Big Blue that really excites us is that Spencer Nilsen is teaming up with Bear McCreary to handle the game’s music. How familiar will the Big Blue soundtrack be for fans of Ecco the Dolphin?

Ed: Well, I don’t think you’ll be able to escape its genetic origin to Ecco. The reason why Bear is involved is because he personally was inspired by Spencer’s music and has been affected by it. I love the music for Battlestar Galactica. The intro music just kills me. I had no idea about him. I didn’t even know he existed. That music has validated what could have come off as a really silly show.

If you were an Ecco the Dolphin soundtrack fan, you will hear Spencer. I can hear it in the Sonic music. I can hear it in the Batman music. That’s Spencer. So having Spencer and Bear, who is inspired by Spencer, both of them being inspired by the gameplay and the visuals, I think it’s goosebumps city. I can’t wait.

Ryan: What more can you tell me about the Big Blue soundtrack?

Ed: One thing is, it’s simple. It’s a loop that plays. So it’s like a metronome. Then, there’s lots of other loops that are constructed along emotional spectrum. (Here, he simulates a heavy music mimicking danger). That means combat, like, “Holy shit! You better get serious now.” Then, there’s a soft sound, and the lights are flickering and various other parameters are filtered in. It’s almost like a remix on the fly driven by controller input and story events.

Ryan: How do you feel about microtransactions and their involvement in gaming today? Will Big Blue have any type of microtransactions?

Ed: Microtransactions are really important. From a game design point of view, I love microtransactions, but there is a fine line. There’s a microtransaction that gets you emotionally invested and you really want something; then you have to pay to get it. That’s the game designer *raises middle finger* doing that to you.

If it’s a real, fair money-for-time trade and you can go either way and it’s up to you, I think it’s good. What I really love about it is that you could catch, sample and own the Sea Dragon, but they’re really rare. If you see it, you have to chase it, corner it then get the right song. It’s not easy. However, if you get it, you own it. You can give it to someone, or you can keep it.

I also can sell it for $100. It’s now a macrotransaction, not a microtransaction. If I say, “This is $100, and if you want one, you can buy it.” When you find one in the game, it’s worth $100. So the feeling of capturing it goes through the roof. So I like microtransactions because it helps you value elements of the game even more.

Some people don’t know this, but I invented microtransactions with a game called SmallBall Baseball in 1999. You would get your team for free, and then you could buy all this stuff to add to your team, to train your team, to buy stadiums, and you could buy steroids. You could do all this stuff. The reason I started assigning the dollar value to it was so that when I gave them away as prizes for tournaments, they had more value.

So what microtransactions do for the game designer is inflate the emotional value above and beyond what the game was originally going to do. It helps the game designer. You can’t just let the economist guys from Zynga come in and just say, “We’re going put a game here and charge this much.” You’ve got to prevent this.

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Ed Annunziata (left) and Ryan following their interview during the Game Developers Conference.

At that point, the interview ended. We talked for little bit, and he handed me a few of his creature cards, one of which we will be giving away soon. Honestly, when it was over, I kind of felt like I had just met a rock star. Someone I looked up to for years and finally got to meet and have a one-on-one with. Ed was very passionate about Big Blue as he was with Ecco the Dolphin and all of the other games he created for SEGA.

As stated in the interview, he does have a Kickstarter for Big Blue. The goal is $665,000. The goal is high, but the passion is higher, and fans should definitely get in on this. There are some awesome reward tiers from the $5, $10, $15 and up range that are actually really neat that you should check out.

Ryan Goddard

Been of fan of gaming in general ever since I can remember. I still feel that the 16-bit era was the golden age of gaming. I also love SEGA to no end. Even when they release terrible games like Aliens: Colonial Marines.

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