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Psygnosis was a British video game developer publisher, perhaps best known for their Lemmings, Wipeout and Shadow of the Beast series of games. During its early years, Psygnosis was famous for their moody computer games boasting cover art by Yes album cover artist Roger Dean. It became part of Sony in 1993 and eventually changed its name to Sony Studio Liverpool.
Founded by Ian Hetherington and Jonathan Ellis, the Liverpool-based Psygnosis was born from the ashes of the defunct 8-bit game company Imagine Software, where Hetherington was Financial Director. After the collapse of Imagine in 1984, the name and trademarks were bought by Ocean Software, while the rights of the software remained with original copyright owners. The fabled mega-games being created by the company, Bandersnatch (for the ZX Spectrum) and Psyclapse (for the Commodore 64), were fused into one to become Psygnosis' first release, called Brataccas. This game was originally created for the Sinclair QL, but was instead ported over to other Motorola 68000-based machines and released on the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, and Apple Mac in 1985.
Psygnosis produced only one title in 1986 called Deep Space, a complex, difficult space exploration game. The box artwork was very distinctive with a black background and fantasy artwork bordered in red. This style was maintained for the best part of ten years, with a Psygnosis game being easily identifiable on a shelf of miscellaneous games. For the next few years, Psygnosis' releases contained increasingly improved graphics, but were marred by similarly difficult gameplay and control methods.
Although Psygnosis became primarily a game publisher, games were also developed fully or partly in-house. During the early days, artists were employed full-time at the headquarters, offering third-party developers, who were often just single programmers, a very high-quality art resource. This had the result of allowing Psygnosis to maintain very high graphical standards across the board, something for which the company became most famous. The original artists were Garvan Corbett, Jeff Bramfitt, Colin Rushby and Jim Bowers, with Neil Thompson joining a little later.
Closely following in the path of 1987 hit Barbarian with what was becoming a trademark high-quality introduction, Obliterator, released in 1988, contained an opening animation by Jim Bowers (now a digital matte painter for the movie industry) with the main character looking directly into the "camera". His face is animated with bewilderment that turns into anger, at which point he drops his guns and shoots at the observer. This short scene would further pave the way for many increasingly sophisticated intro animations, starting with 2D hand drawn sequences, and then progressing into FMV and 3D rendered movies created with Sculpt 4D on the Amiga. Eventually, Psygnosis would buy many Silicon Graphics workstations for the sole purpose of creating these animations.
While most games companies of the mid-to-late '80s (including Psygnosis) were releasing identical games on both the Amiga and Atari ST, Psygnosis started to use the full potential of the Amiga's more powerful hardware to produce technically stunning games. It was these technically superior titles that brought the company its early success, with the landmark title Shadow of the Beast bringing the company its greatest success so far in 1989. Its multi-layered parallax scrolling and stunning music were highly advanced for the time and as such led to the game being used as a showcase demonstration for the Amiga in many computer shops.
Later, Psygnosis consolidated its fame thanks to Lemmings game franchise: debuting in 1991 on the Amiga, Lemmings was soon to be exported to a plethora of different computer and videogame platforms, generating many sequels and variations of its concept through the years. After that, Psygnosis put unparalleled effort in producing Microcosm, a game that debuted on Japanese system FM Towns and was to become technical showcase and flagship title for Commodore CD32 and SMSG 3DO new multimedia consoles: although gameplay was never considered on par with technical aspects, graphics, music by Rick Wakeman and long FMV introduction were among the finest in company history at the time.
However, Commodore financial troubles with subsequent bankruptcy and the arrival of new relevant actors in videogaming scene can be considered among the indirect causes of a major shifting in Psygnosis strategy: in 1993 the company was acquired by Sony to work on their new PlayStation machine, and in 1995 Psygnosis started producing many of its games using Sony console as primary reference hardware, later porting some of them to PC and other platforms. Among most famous creations of this period, Wipeout series, Destruction Derby, G-Police, Colony Wars series. Psygnosis also programmed several of the in-show video games that were in Nick Arcade, a Nickelodeon game show from the early 90's that revolved around video games.
The original company headquarters were located at the Port of Liverpool Building at the Pier Head in Liverpool, but soon moved to Century Buildings in Brunswick Business Park (also in Liverpool), and later moved down the road 200 metres to South Harrington Building in South Harrington Dock. As the company expanded after the Sony buyout, another satellite office was opened in Century Building with later offices appearing in Stroud, England, London, Chester, Paris, Germany, and Foster City in California (as the Customer Support & Marketing with software development done in San Francisco), now the home of Sony Computer Entertainment America. The company headquarters has resided at Wavertree Technology Park since 1995.
The Stroud office was opened in November 1993 in order to attract disgruntled MicroProse UK employees. The Wheelhouse—its publishing name—was later closed in 2000 as part of the Sony Computer Entertainment takeover of Psygnosis. Some members joined Bristol-based Rage Software, but faced a similar demise a number of years later.
In 1999 Psygnosis eventually lost its branding to become known as Sony Studio Liverpool. Some of the original developers from late 80s and early '90s are still employed at the site.