Reflexive Entertainment may have started out much like any small company, but that’s where the similarities end. An unlikely road through the hardcore gaming world led them to create Ricochet Xtreme, an addictive brick-buster that would bring a classic idea into the casual games arena.
James C. Smith, Reflexive lead programmer and co-founder, said that the genesis of his company is a story that has been repeated in the business world many times over.
“We just thought we could do better on our own than with the boneheaded management we were working for,” Smith said with a laugh.
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There were just four people who made up the company at the start, setting up headquarters in the living room of one of the founders’ condos. It would be a year before they would have an office of their own.
Their first game was a fast-paced shooter called Swarm. Using it as a calling card, they were able to nab a contract with toy manufacturer Hasbro. Because of legal haggling, the team worked for months without a contract, while still being paid for their efforts by the toy company.
After working for around six months on the game, which would come to be known as Zax the Alien Hunter, Hasbro refocused their efforts away from external development, leaving Zax without a home.
“They cancelled our contract that we never had,” Smith said. “Since we never had a contract, we owned all the assets, so we sold the game to another company.”
While shopping Zax to other publishers, gaming giant Activision was quick to put the team to work in one of the world’s most popular franchises, creating Star Trek: Away Team, a mass market PC title.
After it shipped, Reflexive began work on a follow-up for Activision, a Star Trek role playing game. But after plenty of work on the RPG, the massive publisher decided that it just wasn’t what they were looking for, and Reflexive was left to flounder.
Smith said that after years of living and dying by the whims of publishers, Reflexive had enough. The company decided to make its own way, creating a product of their own vision, with their own timeline. They would turn away from the mainstream gaming market and set out on their own with Ricochet Xtreme.
While Reflexive had been grinding away on Zax and Away Team, Smith and artist Jeff McAteer had been spending their free time on more classical aspirations. Just for kicks, the two had decided to update a retro game.
Their first effort was “Galaga”-based, with a plucky shrimp in the lead role, battling against underwater enemies. The duo soon found out though that there was little more to be done with the shooter classic’s formula. They moved on to another idea, influenced by Smith’s love for “Breakout” on the Atari 2600 and “Arkanoid” on the Apple IIGS. Unbeknownst to them at the time, they had struck gold.
“The ‘Breakout’ type game was the first to really work well and have new directions you could take it in,” Smith said. “It had a lot of interesting ideas.”
Smith and McAteer had spent a few months on the game before they got swept up in what Smith describes as the “death march” of trying to ship another product on time, leaving little room for side projects.
But true to its name, Ricochet Xtreme bounced back, this time at a time when Reflexive was trying to decide what game could be their opening salvo into the burgeoning casual market.
As Smith recalls: “Somebody just said ‘What about that game James and Jeff were working on? Could we bring that in-house?'”
That prototype of Ricochet Xtreme had become something of a sensation around the office, a way to kill time while not working on Zax. So when the team decided to flesh out the title, it had one major benefit working for it: It was already a blast.
In part, it was the fun of Ricochet Xtreme that let the team know that it was on to something by forsaking the mainstream market.
“With the bigger projects, it took months before you knew if they were fun or not,” Smith said. “With Ricochet Xtreme, after a couple weeks’ work it was already fun to play.”
What ultimately was able to inspire Smith and the rest of his team was the opportunity for variety in level design with a “Breakout”-style game.
“Each level can be designed differently, they can be pictures of things or little puzzles,” Smith said. “I think level design is one of the most interesting things about ‘Ricochet’ and it’s something that I think a lot of ‘Breakout’ games do poorly.”
Of course, the genre also allows for a wide variety of power-ups. Smith said that while many like the sheer destruction of the rail ball, he’s more of a strategy man, preferring the EMP with its ability to be detonated on demand.
It was this kind of imaginative design that Reflexive put its efforts into while expanding the base design of Smith and McAteer. The two men’s early groundwork meant that the title only took around three months to complete.
Even with this shortened window, they made time to separate the wheat from the chaff. In fact, Smith said that there was an entire snow level left out of the final game because it didn’t look good enough.
There was also originally a sports-based back story to the game that was soon deemphasized, though remnants of it can still be found.
At the end though, they knew they had something special. The only question that remained: How could they sell it?
The last time that Reflexive had tried to sell a game online was in 1998, when Swarm was released to an underwhelming response. The team had set up a system to email the company whenever a copy was bought, and Smith confessed to being worried about how they would organize all of the emails that came in.
“We were worried about how we were going to deal with all of the orders, but then they just trickled in,” Smith said. “There was no problem sorting through all of the emails.”
But, this was an earlier time and before the Internet had really found its stride. Smith was confident that history would not be repeated with Ricochet Xtreme.
However, there still weren’t a lot of portals through which to sell casual games as there are today. In these early days, Reflexive wasn’t even sure how best to make a demo.
“We never knew how many levels to give away, because they were either too many levels and they were fun, and people played them over and over, or if you didn’t give them enough they didn’t see the fun part, and it’s hard to convince them to buy it,” Smith said.
Their innovative solution? A two-hour trial period, which would offer gamers the chance to buy the game after the limit was up before kicking them out of the game. Then, on future plays, they could play just five minutes, whetting their appetite, while still not providing a complete experience.
Finally, the end product was released onto the public, and exceeded all of the team’s expectations. If they had set up an email alert system similar to the Swarm sales model, the Reflexive team would have received hundreds of thousands of emails by now about Ricochet Xtreme, which they estimate translates to millions or tens of millions of downloads.
In the years to come, Reflexive would go on to release two sequels to the game, Ricochet: Lost Worlds and Ricochet: Lost Worlds Recharged, and Smith hints that another iteration may not be far behind.
Meanwhile, myriad competitors have also released their own titles heavily inspired by Ricochet, but Smith said that it’s more flattering than infuriating. After all, in a business often dominated by clones, Reflexive managed to bring new ideas to the table and to blaze a trail that others could follow.
“When I was working on making Ricochet, I would talk about ‘Breakout’ clones or ‘Arkanoid’ clones,” Smith said. “And I used to say that maybe someday, people would call them Ricochet clones.”