Fighting the tide: the struggle to revive Ecco the Dolphin

Sega's classic franchise has been quiet for years, but its creator isn't giving up just yet.

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Ed Annunziata is shy, but relentless.

When pitching games, inconsistency is the consistent rule. A handful of guys sit silent at a conference table. Yesterday it was a marketing department and a lawyer; today it's a CEO and several producers. Tomorrow it will be a man from a toy company who knows nothing about games. Meetings never happen the same way twice.

It's a dance that Ed Annunziata, the creator of Sega's ocean-based, sci-fi hit Ecco the Dolphin, is all too familiar with. To say that he's been in this room dozens upon dozens of times over the years is only half true. The location moves. The players change. Yet the goal remains the same: to pitch and pitch until something sticks.

Today's meeting with Sega is no exception. Eight men in suits are already waiting for Annunziata by the time he arrives; he almost believes he's walked into the wrong room by accident. "You aren't done with your meeting yet? Oh, but we have this conference room. We can wait five minutes." But these men are here for him, and he sits.

By now, Annunziata is nervous. His rule is four people or more, and he gets that slight breathy catch in his voice. He's more conscious of his words, and he tries not to say things twice or get lost, as will sometimes happen.

They sit and stare. They're not smiling or laughing or nodding, anything that would reassure him, warm him. They're just sitting. The responsibility to keep their attention, be clear and convince them that his idea is worth their time is a heavy weight that rests solely on Annunziata's shoulders. And right now, he hates their guts.

Nothing to lose

It's been more than five months since Annunziata took to Twitter about his meeting with Sega — a hopeful message that read "now chances of a new Ecco the Dolphin [are] x100!" Yet Sega is still withholding its decision, and it seems that Ecco's future isn't as certain as Annunziata once believed.

In 1992, Sega of America released its first original intellectual property: a game that followed titular character Ecco, a dolphin who battled aliens and time-traveled to save his fellow ocean creatures. The brainchild of a much more youthful Annunziata, it was a successful title, notable for its sci-fi elements and beauty as much as its difficulty. It was a title that worked, Annunziata says, because of its irresistible double-take value. And for the last decade, Ecco's creator has unsuccessfully attempted to revive the series.

"Deaf ears," Annunziata says of Sega. "I relentlessly present a new Ecco the Dolphin. I have over the years. They're just not into it."

Much of the problem, says Annunziata, is that few know the property well. And when Annunziata begins to tell the tale of a time-traveling dolphin, it's not hard to imagine that they only see someone yelling and waving their arms. Instead, they propose something less sci-fi related.

Ed Annunziata
Ed Annunziata
Whale Trail
Whale Trail Jetpack Joyride
Jetpack Joyride

"They showed me Whale Trail, which is sort of a Jetpack Joyride kind of game on the iPhone," Annunziata says. "And it's like, 'Yeah, that's cute, but ... it's not really Ecco.' Ecco embraces the science fiction, the sort of ethereal, metaphysical, hallucinogenic vibe."

Annunziata's pitch isn't just one game, but two. In the first, which Annunziata has dubbed Apocalypse as a working title, the world is on the cusp of annihilation. It's a traditional exploration-driven, side-scrolling Ecco title. Humans have ceased to exist, but the oceans are brimming with life. Earth itself is healthy and vibrant and full of creatures to behold — that is, until a meteor wipes out all existence. Now, Ecco must capture the DNA of all the ocean's creatures as songs, creating a Noah's ark of biological information.

"There's no risk for [Sega] ... They have nothing to lose. Nobody will look stupid if I fail."

The second title puts players into a more godlike role. It brings over their work from the first game as they respawn life and breathe existence into the world once more.

At least, that's the basic idea. It's weird, of course, and Annunziata's pitch left Sega representatives scratching their heads. "I don't want to just make him cute and give him big, stupid-looking eyes and then just have him collect coins," Annunziata says.

Now, Annunziata is trying a new approach. He's not asking for funding, not anymore. Instead, he's asking for the series license.

"They don't have any plans to pursue it," Annunziata says. "There's no risk for [Sega] to not put up any money. [They're] not going to do anything with the game without me. They have nothing to lose. Nobody will look stupid if I fail."

The road to Sega

Annunziata began making games long before even the idea of Ecco ever existed. But the man had hardly planned for it to become a full-blown career; from a young age, the dream was to be a veterinarian. Game making was something to do on the side.

At 17, with the help of a 14-year-old programming prodigy named Mike Marsico, Annunziata created a game called Pyramid Run. It was the first title for which Annunziata would actually get paid. Soon, checks started arriving in the mail.

Marsico did most of the heavy lifting, Annunziata admits, but he was able to learn the basics of video game language. "That kid gave me a career," he says.

"Once your brain is thinking that way — once I understood the way smooth scrolling worked, character graphics worked, sprites, collision detection, frame rate — you keep learning all this stuff," he says. "My brain just kept in it. It took over. I didn't aspire to [game making]. I just flourished in it."

So he became a programmer. After college, Annunziata took a job with a company called Sunburst Communications creating educational software for elementary school kids.

"I wasn't an educator," he says. "I didn't have any expertise. I was just a 6502 programmer on the Apple II computer." Educational games weren't meant to be fun. If they were too animated and smooth or too entertaining, Annunziata says, it seemed as though the educational aspects were neglected.

In 1989, he made the journey from New York to San Francisco, just days before the Loma Prieta earthquake would rock the Bay Area. The move was nothing short of tumultuous, but soon after he landed a job at Sega. It was a stark leap from educational games in more ways than one.

"At Sega, if it's fun, if it's cool, if you need hundreds of thousands of dollars to do it, go for it," Annunziata says. "I felt really lucky. I knew it, even then."

Annunizata's first game as a producer was Abrams Battle Tank for the Sega Genesis. It was followed by work on 688 Attack Sub and, eventually, Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin — a troubled game that would cause grief to no end.

"Sometimes you get these projects that just have bad luck," Annunziata says. "There's a developer working it and they don't deliver, and then the project has to be canceled. The licensor is pissed off that it's not going to hit the date. Now you have an angry licensor, and you have to find a new developer. They suck twice as much as the previous guys, but you're desperate, and now it's bad again — having to go to the executives to say 'Yeah, this isn't happening. Now we have to cancel this second developer and find another one, and no, we have nobody in mind.'

"Spider-Man was like that," Annunziata says. "Nothing went right."

But despite the project's many problems, which seemed to topple into each other like dominoes, it was still a dream for Annunziata to work on Spider-Man. Annunziata had grown up alongside Spider-Man; more than that, he'd been obsessed with the character. Both were even born in the same month in the city of New York. Problems be damned — for Annunziata, "the opportunity to produce the friggin' Spider-Man game" made him lucky.

"Not only was I determined to get it out and finish it, but for it to be good," Annunziata says. "I started to get this reputation [at Sega] of 'Ed can't do shit around here.'"

But Annunziata's boss, Clyde Grossman — a man Annunziata affectionately refers to as his Yoda — didn't blame him for the project's troubles. When the game was finally published in 1991, Grossman took him out to dinner to celebrate. Over steaks and a bottle of Stag's Leap, Grossman posed a question: What do you want to work on next?

For the next half hour, more than half of a bottle of wine in, Annunziata pitched the ocean-centric tale that had been germinating since he was in his early 20s. Story, play mechanics, visuals, even the team that would build the game — no detail was left untouched as Annunziata passionately described his aquatic creation.

When he finished, Grossman responded with one simple query.

"Who wants to be a fucking fish?"

It would be Grossman who would later think of the name "Echo," for echolocation, and Annunziata would amend the spelling.

688 Attack Sub688 Attack Sub
Spider-Man vs. the KingpinSpider-Man vs. the Kingpin

New oceans, old friends

EccoEcco the Dolphin

When Ecco made his first splash into the gaming world, Annunziata earned more than just another notch in his creative belt. He found a brother in composer Spencer Nilsen.

Both men had worked on Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin, but their paths wouldn't really cross until Ecco. Nilsen, a musician from the age of five, had spent most of his life writing and playing music, promoting artists and creating albums. He wasn't a game geek. Until Nilsen received a call from a Sega recruiter in San Francisco, he wasn't even aware games had music.

"It was so far from my world at that time," Nilsen says. "I was already 30 years old. The video games that I had played were arcade games. I didn't even realize that there was an industry building that was home entertainment console games."

But Nilsen already had a young daughter and a son on the way, and he thought working at Sega could be interesting for a few months. He built his first studio in a broom closet at Sega of America's headquarters. There he began working to bridge the gap between 16-bit chiptune music and a CD-ROM platform.

Nilsen would write music for a wide variety of games — everything from Batman Returns and Spiderman vs. Kingpin to Jurassic Park. Still, he felt different from his new co-workers.

"We're brothers. I love him. He gets me, and I get him. He thinks he's shy, but he has a lot of confidence and knows what he's doing inside and out."

"It was hard for them to accept me because I was not a gamer," Nilsen says. "I'm sure it's still that way, but it seems like everybody was just a consummate game player. If they weren't working on games, they were playing games."

Nilsen's lack of gaming experience, however, was part of what drew Annunziata to him.

Spencer Nilsen
Spencer Nilsen
Ecco the DolphinEcco the Dolphin

"It so quickly gets to a pissing contest when creative people work together and have different ideas," Annunziata says. "[Nilsen] is not a game designer; he's not a programmer; he's not all the things I am. Where we crisscross creatively, we don't get into that pissing contest."

Nilsen, likewise, was quickly drawn to Annunziata's first Ecco project. "I immediately gravitated towards it," he says. "I love the ocean. I'd been a surfer most of my young life. I'd scuba dived."

Annunziata's concept of a time-traveling dolphin living in a human-free world fascinated Nilsen. The challenges of the project, including avoiding any human sounds, were perfect, Nilsen says. It's not hard to believe that the two men became close friends over the course of the project. Both demonstrate the same kind of passion for their work, and both stand in absolute adoration of the other. Nilsen would leave the company in 1997 to form OffPlanet Entertainment with several other former Sega co-workers, but his relationship with Annunziata would only deepen.

"We're brothers," Nilsen says simply. "I love him. He gets me, and I get him. He thinks he's shy, but he has a lot of confidence and knows what he's doing inside and out. I'm in awe of what he does."

From Ecco to The Big Blue

Over the last 15 years, Ecco is a topic that's come up often between Annunziata and Nilsen.

"Hey Spencer, I'm pitching them again!" Annunziata would joke before every round with Sega. Each new pitch would be infinitely frustrating, but Annunziata is tenacious. They're good guys, the people at Sega, he says, and he's never regretted staying with them. It's Sega's decision to either publish or grant him the Ecco license that will determine his next move.

"I believe that the license, looking at it as an intellectual property, has enough value that I think I could get it funded, not only for development, but to publish," Annunziata says. "I'm not sure I'd go to Kickstarter [with Ecco]."

But the community aspect of Kickstarter does hold its appeal for him. Building from the ground up with fans at your side, involving them and having direct contact with those who care is cool, Annunziata says. Perhaps that's why it will play a huge role in his next project. Shy and nervous though he may be, Annunziata plans to give crowdfunding a shot with Kickstarter — with Spencer Nilsen at his side, of course.

The Big Blue
An early mockup of The Big Blue
The Big BlueA "low polygon test of human city ruins" in The Big Blue, according to Annunziata

The project is called The Big Blue, and it's Annunziata's latest underwater adventure game. Players will take control of different sea mammals as they explore deep oceans. The game will deal with sci-fi themes as well as environmental ones, such as the origins of life, evolution and biogenesis. But more importantly, it deals with how life survives and thrives.

"It's about life on multiple levels," Annunziata says. "The story is about how strong and resilient life can be to survive. It's not fragile. Life isn't clinging to a rock hoping to survive. It's very clever and it's relentless. It will win. Eventually, it always does."

The Big Blue is the work of Annunziata and his team of designers and animators, but also Nilsen's own studio, Illumina. Founded by Nilsen and Lisa Cooke, Illumina is an interactive media design and production company. Illumina will work on producing the game's soundtrack, as well as helping Annunziata produce Kickstarter videos and coordinate the project.

Annunziata's Kickstarter is currently set to launch in February. Sooner rather than later.


Parting ways

For more than half of Annunziata's life, Ecco has been a part of him. His love and attraction for the ocean began at a young age, when he saw Jaws. It scared the hell out him. The next time he got in the water — in this case, a pool —he found himself suddenly afraid of the watery shadows.

"There's a creepy fear that came in," Annunziata says. "All of a sudden I was scared that a shark was going to attack me. I don't know why but fear, that fear, is really inspiring to me."

The ocean is beautiful, but alien and strange. And to Annunziata, if it can kill you, it's a hell of a lot more interesting. Still, the old Ecco games that Annunziata once made are beginning to lose that "creepy fear" that made them so appealing.

"[Spencer] is helping me grow up," Annunziata says. "I go in and I talk to the guys at Sega about Ecco, and everything I say, as I'm saying it, I feel like somehow I outgrew it. It's for kids."

Annunziata compares it to the difference between the campy '70s sci-fi television show Battlestar Galactica and the recent reboot, which delves into more mature and darker territory. That's where Annunziata wants to be. No casual, cutesy stuff. No coin collecting, no big dumb eyes. He wants to go deep, weird and as mature as he can get.

"If I can't nail Ecco, I'm just going to do something completely original ... and just go for it."

"I have to do it," Annunziata says. "I'm kind of obligated to the character. I got really lucky that Ecco was really successful, and that it kind of put me on a trajectory where I get to make my own weird games. I'll always have an emotional connection. It's just huge in my heart."

But Annunziata's emotional connection doesn't guarantee Sega's commitment, or even the fans', if he gets the property ready to run on his own. He's not letting go of Ecco, but Ecco is evolving into something new. Annunziata will keep pitching bigger and better and deeper, but yes, there are more fish in the sea. Sometimes, even dear friends must part.

"If I can't nail Ecco, I'm just going to do something completely original and bring it to the next level of maturity, next level of display technology, next level of gameplay and just go for it," Annunziata says. "Come up with a new property. The next Ecco the Dolphin. And we'll see what happens."

Annunziata has spent his entire life staring into a metaphorical ocean, but the reflection that mirrors back applies to more than just his games. It's about life on multiple levels, and how resilient an idea needs to be to survive.

Annunziata is not fragile or clinging to a rock, hoping to survive. He's clever and relentless. Prepared for the win, because, eventually, he will. Babykayak

Image credits: Ed Annunziata, ustwo, Halfbrick Studios, Spencer Nilsen, Sega, Foxysen on YouTube