Chris Sutherland

Chris Sutherland
Image: Chris Sutherland

Sutherland worked as a programmer on the likes of Donkey Kong Country, Banjo-Kazooie and Kinect Sports during his time at Rare; he's also famous for providing the character voices to many of Rare's '90s hits. He left to co-found Playtonic Games in 2014, along with fellow Rare staffers Steve Hurst, Steve Mayles, Gavin Price, Jens Restemeier and Mark Stevenson.

I was interviewed there in 1989, and there seemed to be all these little pockets of cool game developers squirrelled away in the house and outbuildings.

For whatever strange reason, prior to joining, in my head I thought that game development would be a super scientific process of evaluating and discussing different techniques and ideas before implementing them, but it was quite unlike that! It was much more a case of “off you go, start making a game”, and you’d be nudged with appropriate feedback as you went along to keep the project improving.

So, for example, on my second day there I was handed a folder from Carole Stamper with some Spider-Man information and told “this is the game you’ll be working on”! Initially, you could wander around into most other areas of the buildings, but that changed a bit when we started Donkey Kong Country.

Rare HQ
Sutherland at Rare's Manor Farm HQ — Image: Chris Sutherland

Rare was generally considered a secretive developer anyway, but then (perhaps for contractual reasons) DKC development was kept under wraps even from other parts of the studio, with all the team operating in one ‘barn’.

Graeme Norgate

Graeme Norgate
Image: Graeme Norgate

Norgate joined Rare in 1994 as a composer and worked on the likes of GoldenEye 007, Blast Corps, Diddy Kong Racing, Jet Force Gemini and Perfect Dark before leaving to join Free Radical Design, creator of Timesplitters.

There were certainly no distractions. Unless you really like tractors - there was a tractor showroom up the road from Rare. We had a strict 30-minute lunchtime, so if you floored it in your car, you could get to the post office and back, but that was about it.

I had three offices during my time at Rare. The first was the music block. This was a 4-room barn shared with David Wise, Eveline Fischer and Robin Beanland. Robin's room also doubled as a makeshift recording booth. Then I was moved to what I reckon was the smallest room at Rare during my time working on Diddy Kong Racing. Originally known as the 'Dutch Barn', it has been converted into offices when Rare needed more space. Whilst on that project, the music block was broken up and each musician would work alongside the team rather than together. So after Diddy Kong Racing, I moved in with the Perfect Dark team. They had taken over the original music block and the adjacent rooms that housed the creche and the Blast Corps team. I think I was basically back in my original room. Robin's room had been converted to a full-time vocal/recording booth, so I had easy access to that.

Rare HQ
Norgate (black shirt) with Chris Seavor — Image: David Doak

My least favourite thing about the location was probably the parking situation. To work at Rare, you had to drive; there was no other option unless you lived close by and had a bicycle. As the company expanded, the car park stayed the same. You could end up rounding up six or maybe more people to move their cars to allow you to leave in the evening. The whole place resembled one of the sliding blocks puzzles where one space was empty, and you had to manoeuvre each car to allow the person to leave. If you were working late, you could be called to move your car several times whilst people went to the gym, or God forbid, actually went home on time.

My favourite memories have got to be the comradery. There was a strong team spirit and pride of the game you were working on, and for me, there was an especially strong bond with the audio team; we all made friends for life working there.

Chris Seavor

Chris Seavor
Image: Chris Seavor

Seavor joined Rare in 1994, with Killer Instinct being his first game. He also worked on Donkey Kong 64 and was the driving force behind Conker's Bad Fur Day, one of Rare's most infamous (and beloved) titles. He left Rare in 2011 to establish Gory Detail with fellow Rare alumni, Shawn Pile.

One morning on the way into work in 1994, we were stuck in traffic, and I noticed a pair of legs sticking out of a bush in a layby just as the coppers arrived. It was quite a famous case in Nuneaton – a bank manager was murdered by her husband; it was on Crime Watch and everything. I think that was within my first few weeks; I was like, 'What the hell is this place?' Despite that, I have really fond memories of the Farm. It was like an extended family all mucking in together. That pretty much evaporated when we moved down to Manor Park.

Other key memories: Watching Hollis and Doaky dressed like Russian agents stalking around the graveyard opposite on a ciggy break. I'm amazed the cops weren't called on them!

The custom-built barbeque didn't leave any expansion for the bricks it was made from, so one day it exploded... This would definitely have killed people had it happened 10 minutes later!

KI Team
The Killer Instinct team, photographed in Rare's motion capture room around 1994. Top row, from left: Rob Harrison, Martin Hollis, Mark Betteridge, Chris Tilston, Robin Beanland, Ken Lobb. Bottom row, from left: Chris Seavor, Graeme Norgate — Image: Robin Beanland

Grant shouting 'BALDY!' at Norgate across the car park just as Chris Stamper walked across. The funny bit was Grant's attempts to point out it was directed at Noz, making things much, much worse...

Amazingly, there were no fights at the Christmas parties, despite how much all the teams loathed each other!

The Killer Instinct barn had a good vibe. You got your head down till 5pm, then it was more relaxed until midnight. We had take-out Chinese food most nights! To be honest, I did my best work during the evenings. Conker: Twelve Tales was made in that location for a while, then we moved to a recently-converted Dutch barn, next to the music block. That's where Twelve Tales set fire to itself, and Bad Fur Day rose from the ashes.

The one thing I don't miss was the stupid hours!

Grant Kirkhope

Grant Kirkhope
Image: Grant Kirkhope

Kirkhope joined Rare in October 1995, thanks to his connection to Robin Beanland, whom he had played with in the rock bands Syar and Maineeaxe. He has composed music for the likes of GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, Perfect Dark, Grabbed by the Ghoulies and Viva Piñata. He left the company after working on the music for Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts and would compose the soundtrack for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, moving to the United States in order to do so. He became a naturalized United States citizen in March 2017 and recently worked on Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope.

I thought it was awesome. As somebody who'd been on the dole for 11 years, more or less, to actually get a job and to be somewhere so fantastic was amazing. It felt like this kind of family business; the canteen was there, where the Stamper's mum and dad worked, Tim and Chris' brother looked after the grounds, Tim's wife Carole worked in the office, as did their sister, Carole's dad worked in the admin department – it was totally family run.

I felt it was like Disneyland. I had no idea what a video games company would be like. I did the interview and got the job; Robin (Beanland) was there, and I knew him before from playing in bands together, but I had no idea what it would actually be like to work there.

Rare HQ
Paul Machacek: "Brick thing on left is the chicken shed. The raised grass area here was flattened in '90s to increase parking (The Morgan was Tim Stamper’s). The top left 1st-floor window in the farmhouse was our first internet room from 1998; a terminal was installed that we could go online with. Also, I recall sitting at that window in the mid-'90s for about three months whilst playing with a Virtual Boy, which we dropped after I got headaches." — Image: Paul Machacek

Your key was coded so you couldn't get into any of the other barns – you could only get in the one you were working in. I was in the room called the chicken shed because the music block was full of people – it had David (Wise), Robin, Eveline Novakovic and Graeme Norgate in it; there was no room for me, so I got put in this little rectangular room. I think it used to have arcade games in it, but they cleared it out for me to be in there. It was next to the canteen... there was a room next to it that I think they used for motion capture, but it was tiny. I remember Kev Bayliss saying he jumped about in there for motion capture stuff.

The worst bit was the parking, as I'm sure everyone else will agree. You had to get there early to get a space, which meant that you couldn't leave at a reasonable hour at the end of the day as you'd be blocked in. If you got there late, you couldn't get a space. There were lots of expensive cars in there as people got paid a lot of money... so, for someone like me, seeing cars made by Ferrari and Lotus in the car park was pretty amazing.

Rare HQ
Image: David Doak

Twycross Zoo is just up the road. It's quite a famous zoo; when I was a kid, there used to be a show called 'Animal Magic' which Johnny Morris used to present, and he always used to go to Twycross Zoo to see the monkeys!

We had these very powerful Silicon Graphics machines and they had guest accounts so you could log into someone else's machine and play audio out of it. So, you'd copy a sample across, you'd log in, and there was a set of code you could type to make sure the audio was turned up to 10 and unmuted. I used to be working there by myself, so I'd have my speakers turned up quite loud.

One night about 8pm I was sat working away when all of a sudden, I hear this enormous chimpanzee-like screaming sound, and I nearly had a heart attack – I thought there was a monkey in the room! I nearly shit myself. That, of course, was Robin playing monkey noises out of my machine. From that point onwards, it was all about how could play what out of each other's machine at full volume – and we created lots of little jingles about people and played them out of each other's speakers.

Manor Farm was a really magical place. I couldn't believe I was there. Getting that job changed my life. Up to that point, I was just a bloke playing in rock bands. Some did well, some did shit. So to end up there, at that particular company at that particular time, was such a fluke. If Robin hadn't have done it, I'd never have done it.

Steve Mayles

Steve Mayles
Image: Steve Mayles

Local lad Mayles – who is from nearby Coalville – joined Rare in 1992 aged just 18. He worked as an artist during his time with the studio on titles such as Battletoads & Double Dragon, Donkey Kong Country, Donkey Kong 64, Banjo-Kazooie and Grabbed by the Ghoulies. He departed Rare in 2014 to co-found Playtonic Games. His older brother, Gregg Mayles, is currently creative lead director of Rare.

I thought it was a very characterful place - and cool to have a hi-tech industry like video games being made inside a historic Elizabethan house. As the home of Rare, it had already been elevated into legendary status in my mind, anyway! Having grown up playing Ultimate games on the Spectrum, to be working for the geniuses that made those games... it was amazing. In the early days, it was very much a family business, with the Stamper's Mum doing the cooking and Dad a constant, enthusiastic presence! The house may have had character, but with character comes draughty windows – it was pretty cold in the winter!

I was a car fan, so it was hard not to be impressed by the fancy cars on display – I dreamed if I worked hard enough maybe I could upgrade my old Mk1 Ford Fiesta!

As the company grew, the small rooms and multiple floors weren’t suited to larger teams, so we slowly spread to some of the many outbuildings as they got developed. This was the time secrecy increased, with certain employees having access to certain areas via a specially coded key – most people only went where their project was based. It was really, really frowned upon to be caught in another outbuilding without express permission!

GoldenEye Team
The GoldenEye team with visitors from Nintendo, standing out side the converted outbuildings — Image: Brett Jones / Bea Jones

Music wasn’t allowed during regular work hours at all, so when 5 o’clock rolled around, people would crank up their personal stereos and treat anyone left working to their often dubious taste in music. When I hear certain songs, it takes me right back to late night working on Donkey Kong Country. As you’d expect, the work after hours had a more relaxed feel to it, and the Stampers were always appreciative of any extra work that people did.

Around 1993-94, the Killer Instinct team was based in the stables, whereas the Donkey Kong Country team was on the top floor of the barn. Downstairs in the barn was the famous Silicon Graphics Challenge supercomputer that served us so well in the early days of 3D rendering. Around 1996, the 'Dutch Barn' was ready – upstairs was the Diddy Kong Racing team, and downstairs was Dream (which, of course, turned into Banjo-Kazooie). I was downstairs and only went up once or twice, and it would be a specific invitation to look at how something was done – the security doors ensured no one could just wander around. It seems quite draconian now, but at the time, it was the norm, and we were putting out hit after hit, so it didn’t really bother me.

Rare HQ
A newspaper clipping from around the time of Donkey Kong Country's development — Image: Chris Sutherland

Some of us worked very long hours, putting everything we could into making the games as good as possible. When teams were still fairly small, any extra work made a huge difference. The Donkey Kong Country and Banjo games you know and love wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good without this extra effort. But it was up to individuals; only during the very end of the project – or to meet a specific deadline for a demo – were people expected to go the extra mile. I was always there because I loved what I was doing and the games we were making felt special; I wanted to have as much content in them as possible!

There were four or five German Shepherd dogs that lived on the grounds – you’d be working away late at night on Donkey Kong Country, it’s all quiet, and then, all of a sudden out of nowhere, there is a bear-sized dog snuffling at your arm! I never quite got used to the stealth dogs...

Violet Berlin

Violet Berlin
Image: Violet Berlin

Famous as a presenter on the groundbreaking children's video game TV show Bad Influence, Berlin has produced, written and presented several successful TV and radio shows across all of the major U.K. channels and now works in the field of interactive storytelling and scriptwriting, covering films, video games, 360-degree environments, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality. In 1994, she was one of the few games journalists to be granted access to Rare's Manor Farm HQ in a segment which appeared on Bad Influence.

The trip to Rare was a highlight of my time on Bad Influence! One of my fondest memories across all four series. I mean, I travelled to Japan, the States, seeing the latest games and hardware, but who knew what wonders were going on in Twycross!

The Stamper brothers and the entire team at Rare also were just amazingly welcoming. So full of warmth and fun. It was such a vibe! Afterwards, they sent me a Xmas card, signed by all, and a framed picture of Donkey Kong with their signatures, which I treasure to this day.

Violet Berlin's signed DKC picture, which has been hanging in her hallway "for decades" — Image: Violet Berlin

Leaving Manor Farm

Rare Manor Farmhouse HQ
Image: DJP Drones / Time Extension

They say all good things come to an end, and as the millennium drew to a close, it had become abundantly clear that Rare had outgrown Manor Farm. "Since Rare started in 1985, it expanded, initially slowly (I was employee #17 in 1988) and then more rapidly as generations of consoles expanded team sizes," recalls Machacek. "4 acres ultimately is not enough for more than 200 people, and this problem was seen coming. Manor Park came up for sale in the mid-1990s, and it was our neighbour, lots of space, an 'easy move' – but it had a dilapidated old house (Cliffe House) and a new office facility needed to be built."

"There was an old couple living at Cliffe House, and they were Names [a 'name' contributes limited cash when joining a syndicate and accepts unlimited liability for its obligations] at Lloyds of London," recalls Machacek. "There was a really bad year for Lloyds – oil tankers and satellites crashing or something – and lots of people lost large amounts of money, including this couple. They were forced to sell Cliffe House. I didn’t go inside, but I was told it was an absolute mess. It was a relatively large house, but the couple only lived in one part of it, a flat if you will, and the rest of it had been 'sealed up since WWII' is how it was described. It was hidden behind the trees that border the A444, so you couldn’t really see it from outside, somewhat like you can’t see much of our buildings today."

Christmas at Rare
"Not sure of date, somewhere around 1989/90 I guess," says Machacek. "This is the field at Manor Farm, notable here for having no trees, it was empty, unlike today. You've got Gregg Mayles with Stephen Stamper (Right) and Tim Stamper holding Joe Stamper. The snow in the field melted, but this thing practically became a block of ice and it took ages to finally go. The trees in the distance in the top/left corner are the Cliffe House site, which became Manor Park. Those trees hide our car park today" — Image: Paul Machacek

To secure the land, Rare had to jump through quite a few hoops. "The original driveway came out onto the main overtaking straight on the A444," continues Machacek. "Which wasn’t a problem as it was a legacy thing, and there were hardly any vehicle movements through it; however, when applying for planning permission, the council didn’t want hundreds of cars a day queueing on that straight, so we had to put a new driveway in through the grounds and a new entrance on Watery Lane, where there was already a junction at the end of the A444 straight. We also 'persuaded' the council by funding the building of a small roundabout at an awkward junction at the other end of Twycross between what is now 'Turpins Bar & Grill' and 'Starin' Tractors'. Remnants of the old driveway exist today, and the space is used for storage by the ground staff. The old gates are still there, rusting, chained up, looking like ghosts."

Manor Park, the building in which Rare resides today, wasn't going to be a repeat of Manor Farm. Rather than try to fit Rare into an existing structure, the decision was made to create something entirely from scratch – although the influence of the old farmhouse complex could still be felt. "Tim and others worked with the architects to design something state-of-the-art around the concept of a main admin building with satellite 'barns' for development teams to be locked away," Machacek continues.

"These barns were considered to be sized for N64-size teams, which wasn't very future-forward thinking. I do know there was an early plan that the barns would be circular, with a central services/kitchens/lift/stairs core surrounded by offices on the perimeter and spread over two floors. I recall a Saturday at Manor Farm where Tim marked out the footprint of a round barn's actual size in chalk in the car park and divided it up into two-people offices, and we had to give opinions on what we thought of this. The new facility was planned much the way you see it today, although, during construction, Barn A was not built due to cost and need at that time. A couple of years after moving in, we finally built Barn A and also extended Barn D by a couple of office lengths."

Rare HQ
Karl Hilton's desk during the production of Perfect Dark — Image: David Doak

In March 1999, Rare finally bid farewell to the place it had called home for almost 15 years. "The day we moved was well planned," recalls Machacek. "We hired some vans that we could drive – the largest ones I think we could hire without special licences – and we packed everything up into marked boxes, loaded vans, moved them up the road and unpacked again. The staff were split into teams. Some teams moved boxes out of all buildings into the vans at Manor Farm, others drove the vans, and others unloaded the vans at Manor Park and moved boxes to their designated rooms. I drove a van with Gregg Mayles. We raced it as fast as possible on the short stretch of the A444 between the old and new blue gates."

As you might expect, Machacek wasn't immune to emotion as he finally said goodbye to Manor Farm. "The last time I ever stood at Manor Farm was when I went back to collect my car. I walked around this empty husk of a studio, seeing the tranquil private residence it would become. It was full of ghosts; very melancholic. It was an exciting day; an exciting future lay ahead, but also sad to walk away from a place I'd spent 11 very long years of my life. I can't imagine I was the only person feeling that. Looking around, you had flashbacks of key meetings, games developed in certain places, parties, arguments, power cuts, fast cars being jetwashed on weekends, running RC cars and trying helicopters, too. Chickens, dogs and horses. But most of all, the people – people you'd worked with, known, some moving with you, others gone already. There was also a sense of the unknown, where we would be going in terms of products and success?"

Rare HQ
One of the Rare offices around the time of Perfect Dark's development; it would be one of the final games created at Manor Farm before the move to Manor Park down the road — Image: David Doak

The start of a new millennium saw Rare and Nintendo's previously harmonious relationship begin to break down. According to Tim Stamper, the rising cost of development meant that Rare needed a partner which could match its own ambitions and make a significant investment – but Nintendo, for some reason, decided against purchasing the remaining 51 percent of the company, something Tim Stamper still doesn't understand. So, it was decided that another potential partner would have to be found. That partner was Microsoft, which purchased Rare for $375 million in 2002. Star Fox Adventures would be final game to be produced under the Nintendo/Rare partnership, although Rare would continue to develop games for the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS. 2003's Grabbed by the Ghoulies was Rare's first Xbox effort.

It's fair to say that while Rare as a company has changed since that day in 1999, much remains the same. As we've already established, Machacek and Beanland are still with the firm, retaining that connection between the glorious past, the successful present and the exciting future. "Most of my time at Rare has now been at Manor Park – we've been there for almost 24 years," explains Machacek. "Manor Farm is a bit like my old school; glimpses of memories, some good, some bad, and a faded sense of personal history. In some ways, when there were only 20 of us, I miss the sunny Saturdays washing fast cars and grabbing ice creams from across the road in between the long working hours. We were young, and the future was long."

Rare HQ
Rare's current HQ, Manor Park, which it moved to in 1999. It's just a short way down the A444 from Manor Farm — Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension