You’ve probably never heard of Genepool Software, the developer of X2: Wolverine’s Revenge — a video game tie-in to the 2001 X-Men sequel. Based out of a Victorian manor house in the middle of a picturesque park in Manchester, UK, Genepool was only active for a couple of years — just long enough to release one game and start work on another, a potential tie-in for an unreleased Iron Man movie. But though it never won any accolades or achieved any long-lasting success as a studio, its story is fascinating nonetheless: from Genepool’s dramatic formation, to its bizarre setting, chaotic development, and eventual closure.
The story begins in 2000 at Warthog Games, another Manchester studio, where Genepool’s co-founders, brothers Dave and Mike Anthony, and designer Haydn Dalton, had just finished working on Star Trek: Invasion together. At release, publications like EGM, IGN, and Game Informer all gave the game positive reviews. But behind the scenes some members of the team had started to feel at odds with Warthog’s direction and wanted to break away.
To Boldly Go…
As a result, the founders of Genepool Software, alongside a good chunk of the Star Trek: Invasion team, left the studio to strike out on their own, with the aim being to continue working with publisher Activision on projects independently. “It’s a very typical situation in the game development world,” Dave Anthony tells me. “There’s a lot of creative people and there were a lot of egos involved, but I think both sides were at fault. The relationship just wasn’t working. So, we decided to leave, a group of us, [to form Genepool].”
“That was a really, really hard decision for me, because I actually really liked the people at Warthog, so going was quite a big deal” says Haydn Dalton. “I wasn’t a big fan of owning a business, but I liked the creative freedom that it gives you, so I agreed to that. But it was really weird, right? I think they saw it as a stab in the back, because it was kind of like an internal group of people. And I fully understand that. Who wouldn’t?”
To make matters worse, after members of the Star Trek: Invasion team left the studio, they were temporarily working out of the same office space, leading to a tense relationship between the two camps.
“We were all at Warthog in the building there and Ashley Hall was the guy who ran Warthog,” Dave Anthony explains. “Out of everything that happened back then, I felt bad for him the most, because he was trying his best to run a business and I know that what we did made it very difficult for him. It wasn’t his fault. And it was what it was. But we were all in the building working at Warthog, so when we decided to leave, we came to this deal with Warthog. We said ‘Okay, well we’re going to stay in the building’… It was just a matter of convenience more than anything. It was awkward though.”
Genepool moved out of the Warthog offices a couple of months after, eventually taking up residence in Bruntwood Hall, a Victorian mansion just down the road. It was an unlikely location for a games studio and a million miles away from the grey office buildings and dimly lit basements that were the norm at the time. The various owners of the mansion over the years had used the space for everything from a place to breed racehorses to a town hall to office space for video production companies. According to one of its former caretakers Tom Lamb, it had also held several valuable paintings on loan from Manchester Gallery including “Webbs and Turners.” From the moment the founders saw it, they knew they had to move in.
“I loved it, because from the outside it looked like a castle with a turret,” Dave Anthony says. “As soon as I saw it, I was just like ‘I have to be here — I can’t look at any other office space now.’ There would have been a sadness in my heart, because we could have put the office in a castle.”
“I just fell in love with the character,” says Dalton. “And they also told us the tower [came] with the building, so you could go to the top of the tower. I was like, ‘Okay, brew and cup of tea first thing in morning, top of Bruntwood Park,’ — it felt like a fantasy. It was one of those places with not very many mod cons inside, but it was visually stunning, and the philosophy from my point of view was it was a place where developers wanted to work.”
The studio’s first project was to be a follow-up to Star Trek: Invasion, but Activision in the meantime had obtained the rights to the X-Men license. As Dave Anthony recalls, “They liked the [idea], but they said, ‘Hey, we have this X-Men license that has more potential.’ We were like ‘This is awesome’, because I think the first movie had just come out or was about to come out at that time, and we were like ‘Okay, we’re in.’
Dalton clarifies, “The interesting thing was the game was never made to be a tie-in to the movie. We tied the movie to it later on. Activision knew the movie was coming at some point and I presume they were like we need to tie it in some way, because we’re going to do all this money push for the movie [trailer]. But we really designed this game without knowing anything about the movie. I came up with this original story, then [the comic book writer] Larry Hama took that script and made it much better.”
This reverse-engineered approach to the game and its nature as a tie-in explains some of the project’s quirks — principally, that they didn’t use Hugh Jackman’s face, except for on the promotional box art. In fact, originally the game wasn’t even named after the movie, but was called Weapon X instead. One thing that did remain constant throughout development was its story, which saw Wolverine (voiced by Mark Hamill) infiltrate a well-guarded Weapon X facility to locate the cure for a deadly disease known as the Shiva Virus. The virus impacted Wolverine’s healing powers, so as a result, players needed to take a stealthier approach to the mission, creeping through the facility and using Wolverine’s other abilities such as his animal senses and his adamantium claws to track enemies and take down guards.
“The guy is pretty much unkillable and that’s the problem with someone like Wolverine,” Dalton notes. “So that’s the reason the original story I came up with was ‘Well, what if something is eating away at his healing factor?’… the whole idea was ‘If he’s just crazy all the time, when he’s going to use his animal senses and stuff like that?’ A lot of that just didn’t make sense. And if we wanted to use [those abilities], then going down a stealth route, where he could pick up on heat signatures and like smell, it just seemed to make sense.”
Playing X2: Wolverine’s Revenge today, it still feels like a novel take on the character, especially when you consider how many superhero games had emphasized action over character. But what is perhaps more impressive is the minor details found within and how the team were able to push the hardware of the different consoles the game was developed for, including the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox.
“I was particularly proud of doing some real time cape physics that you see Magneto sporting in the final boss battle,” says Justin Heyes-Jones, one of the game’s programmers. “There were some amazing talents on the team. Kevin Edwards who went on to be a key contributor of technology at Traveller’s Tales really mastered the Xbox graphics systems. Martin Turton, who later went on to work at Sony Liverpool, also did some excellent real-time snow deformation and owned the PlayStation 2 in general.”
The Battle at Helm’s Deep
Despite Genepool’s picturesque location and the industry talent involved, development on X2: Wolverine’s Revenge was far from idyllic. The team was not only working on a harsh deadline — a common theme of the development of most licensed projects in the early to mid-2000s where marketing spend was locked in months in advance of a game’s completion — but they were also having to create whole new tech and learn how to properly run a new company in that time.
“It was a nightmare and it was a big mistake by me, because I was the managing director of the company,” Dave Anthony recalls. “So I was in charge of running the company itself, but I was also the AI programmer and the mission editor programmer. Quite honestly, I shouldn’t have been running the company. I should have been doing the programming and focusing on that.”
“Everything was kind of new,” says Dalton. “New IP, new tech, new game, new studio — you’re redlining in every single area that could be a risk. But it was definitely a passion thing, and I know that there were a lot of people not that happy… but it’s just like any other studio. You make mistakes, and you look back and say, ‘Oh, I would’ve done all these things differently.”
Many who worked at Genepool now refer to the development of X2: Wolverine’s Revenge as chaotic, with the short timeline and internal problems within the studio leading to complications throughout. Programmer Marc Littlemore tells me, “The codebase was horrendous. I just remember having to put a hack in because of the fact you could do all these special moves we had something in the final boss battle where if you were in the final level, we blocked you from using one of the specials because it just killed Lady Deathstrike immediately. It was just things like that.
“Everything was based on a single game object,” he adds. “It had all these what we call bit flags and they were on or off, and they represented something. Some were very specific like “Is Wolverine…?’ But basically, we ended up where every time anyone needed some logic, you’d have to add in another of these bloody bit flags. There was one that was like ‘Am I a helicopter taking off?’ It wasn’t ‘Am I a vehicle?’ It wasn’t ‘Am I a helicopter?’ Wolverine has that flag set to zero.”
All of these problems compounded at the end of the project, when the team was a month away from launch with a long list of bugs still left to fix. As Dave Anthony recalls, “I think we were about four or five weeks from release and there were so many bugs in the database, like more than you can imagine. Rob Letts, who was the producer at Activision, turned to me [very slowly and seriously] and said ‘Dave, this is like the Battle of Helm’s Deep’. That was what it was like. It was a very difficult project… The guy in charge of all Activision’s technology [Steve Pearce] had to literally come into the studio, sit down, and code for us. That’s how down to the wire it was.”
One particular area of concern was the GameCube version. “I remember we had some very hard to reproduce problems on the GameCube,” says Matthew Brooks, another of Genepool’s programmers. “Some class A crashes and we just could not reproduce them and they kept coming back to bite us. So Mike Ferenduros [one of the technical leads] went through the game engine to make everything absolutely deterministic, i.e, all the random number generators would be hit at the same time, they would always give you the same things. So you could guarantee from the joystick input that you could guarantee it would do exactly the same thing… That was a nightmare.”
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A Stark Reality
Despite Genepool’s best efforts, X2 wasn’t a great success by any margin, earning middling reviews from the games press alongside disappointing sales when it first released back in 2003. But the team still look back on the title fondly, because of what they were able to achieve amidst the project’s many development problems. After finishing work on X2, the studio went looking for another project, contacting Activision to see whether the publisher wanted to work with them again. While the previous collaboration between the two didn’t set the world on fire, there was still hope that Genepool could produce something amazing with the experience it had acquired.
“The reason we got the Iron Man contract was the guy who was running studios at Activision at that point was called Larry Goldberg…and he knew that we had given that project our all,” Dave Anthony says. “He knew that it didn’t work out as well as anyone wanted. But he really appreciated the effort we went to, and I think he knew that we’d grown from going through that process, and he gave us another shot.”
Iron Man, similar to Wolverine, was set to be an extremely loose tie-in to a potential film project that was in development in the early 2000s. Concept art for the game reveals that Black Widow was set to make an appearance, while the demo featured Iron Man attacking an underground base, flying around and fighting off a number of robots and machines.
“There was a lot of work done on the game engine and tools [for Iron Man],” says Justin Heyes-Jones. “After Wolverine’s Revenge, we had hired a number of people that all came from another studio that had shuttered. These included Tony Crowther and Stephen Robinson who are both very distinguished in the industry and are now technical directors at Sumo Digital in Sheffield. They had very similar ideas on how to build a development platform that would speed up development by letting game designers have more control over how to build and script the game. I was leading the AI team and we had a similar focus on tools for describing behaviours and realistic looking path-finding.”
According to those at the studio, everything was looking up — but then one phone call brought things to a stop. “I will always remember,” says Dave Anthony. “I was sat in my office with [Iron Man producer] Jason Blundell and I had a phone call. It was like a minute-long and I just looked at him and said, ‘the project has just been canned.’ He was just as dumbfounded as I was, because we’d just had a review of the game where we were told it was one of the best prototypes they’d seen.”
Reasons for the cancellation remain a mystery, with one popular rumor suggesting that the film had entered development hell and that the rights had reverted from New Line back to Marvel. Nevertheless, the news was devastating for the studio. Not only had Genepool spent in excess of six months working on the project, but it had no chance to repurpose the material due to the specificity of the license and the tools that had been created, most of which had all been tailored around Iron Man’s flying abilities. Another problem was that, due to the failure of X2, Genepool didn’t have enough funds to give the studio time to breathe either. In other words, it was a death sentence.
“Don’t forget what you’re good at and what you’re not good at,” Dave Anthony tells me. “Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should. I absolutely made the mistake of taking on too much responsibility for different kinds of things. First and foremost, I was a programmer — I wasn’t a particularly great one, but I was okay. One of the things that I take responsibility for on the failure of Genepool was what happened when Iron Man was cancelled, because I didn’t have a coherent enough plan for a situation where the project was cancelled that quickly.”
Ex-Genepool staff later spread across the industry, with Dave Anthony going off to Activision, where he worked on Call of Duty and later served as creative director on Call of Duty: Black Ops. Others joined him there, including his brother Mike and Jason Blundell, but some moved to other studios much closer to home in the North West of England, including to the neighbouring TT Games and Sony Liverpool. For Genepool, the fairytale was over, but its influence on the industry can still be felt today through the talent who came through the doors of Bruntwood Hall.