Continuing our series of features profiling the key winners from this yearâ??s Develop Awards we speak to James Brooksby, head of Doublesix, winner of the Best New UK/European Studio awardâ?¦Founded in just October last year, Doublesix has a unique target market – it’s only making games for the downloadable space. Based in Guildford, the studio is currently working on three projects – South Park, an XBLA game for Microsoft, plus two other titles, Burn Zombie Burn and Underfire.
You’ve been open in the downloadable space for little under a year now – how has the first year gone?
We took a gamble to focus on just digital distribution titles - it was considered a pretty risky and brave move at the time, because the margins in digital distribution are relatively quite low, and the money going around for them is much lower than what were used to working on big PS2 or next-gen boxed products. So even though it was a short while ago it was quite nervous times. And the publishers we were talking to back during that point were very cagey about this space and we got a very lukewarm reception. Many said ‘it’s very exciting – let’s talk more’ but it was all talk.
Since then it has turned around quite rapidly, however, in just six months. One of the things we did early on was start talking to Microsoft about our ideas. And while building that relationship they realised that we were not only very creative, but part of a big business –the Kuju business. Through that discussion, and then a meeting at GDC where I think we impressed them with our vision, I think they understood our focus – which is to create high-quality games for the downloadable space, and spending our limited budgets well on high-grade games. We’re not the people for publishers that want a quick and dirty port.
We came up with a word here, which was ‘reimagineering’ – and we like to think we can do a good job for ‘reimagineering’ publisher’s properties. That’s making suggestions like ‘IP X would be great in this scenario’. We pushed that message to Microsoft and they said that we’d be a great partner for this new game they want to do, and from there they introduced us to the South Park Company. We’ve signed a deal for what we know is a high-end game based on a big property. And what is also key is that this a game developed for Microsoft, it’s not self-funded like most projects on XBLA, it’s Microsoft’s money. So it’s a big deal for them too. It’s best described as a second party relationship.
So you’ve got a fairly unique view on Microsoft and its activity in the market. How do you see XBLA evolving over time?
I think there is an inevitability around digital distribution, in that it will grow and grow and grow. But I think there is room for everyone – it’s a wide-ranging space and the variety of price points is good. I think more and more you will see games that in size and length are more like boxed games, but there will always be space for those smaller games. One big opportunity for the big guys and the small studios are the post-release sales for PDLC and add-on content.
The other functions for the 360 as well excite me greatly and I think will really add to the digital experience – things like the new dashboard and Avatars. Microsoft are at the forefront of digital distribution, and all the things they do seem to be great for our business.
But what about WiiWare and PlayStation Network – are you developing for those?
We’re developing for them all – we are not exclusive to any one platform so have anything from iPhone to PSP and everything in-between. Our thinking is that everything will be digital distribution in future, from your console to your handheld in some form, Doublesix is there to be a business with the ideas to make that work on all platforms.
You mentioned that publishers were originally sceptical about a downloadable games-only studio. Has that changed at all?
In our meetings at the Develop conference, the attitude amongst publishers had changed. They all wanted to do something big and to get going making digital download games straight away. On iPhone that was unbelievably strong; if the mood change from cold reception to hot perception had to take a year for Xbox Live Arcade, publishers have been switched on to iPhone in just two months. It’s ridiculously fast, going from publishers’ very cold ‘we’re thinking about it’ point of view to a queue of people saying ‘let’s do something, can you get it done by Christmas?’
Is that traditional publishers?
Anybody and everybody who has money to spend on games development is looking at the iPhone space. There is no one – except for Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, obviously – that hasn’t asked us about it. We were talking to Apple in early spring and we had a similar view to everyone else – we weren’t sure where it would go and thought it could go the way of mobile games. But we had a four-hour meeting with Apple and our eyeballs were well and truly widened; theirs too because they are still learning a lot about games. We got some development kit off them which has allowed us to build an engine for the iPhone and that has paid dividends as now we can offer publishers an easy way to make their games for the handset.
The iPhone story is going to be huge – the Monkey Ball numbers have made people site up and take notice. And because of the style of game we make, because of the ‘reimagineering’ element, we are now looking at ways classic IPs can come back – and a lot of people are looking at how to bring those IPs back through iPhone. With iTunes being the foremost popular digital distribution platform I think it’s going to just get bigger and bigger. It’s also a perfect route for self-publishing – I challenged one of our guys to make a game in a short period of time, and he’s done that.
What’s the team size/project split work out to at Doublesix? People think digital distribution and think smaller teams – so I’m keen to know how you’re structured.
We’re currently at 26. We tend to think on a ‘six man, six month’ average. On our first major title, Burn Zombie Burn, that has taken a slightly bigger team because of our initial technology investment – but I’m only talking one man bigger, so ‘seven man, seven months’. Otherwise we have three projects underway and some side projects going on, plus our management team at the studio, which accounts for our current headcount.
And we are expanding – we currently have a few interns working with us as well – but we don’t want to get too big, that’s another part of our message. I’ve found through my experience that the sweet spot for a studio size is sub-50 – that’s when the boss still knows the name of each staff member and when you get bigger than that that feeling is lost.
Also the studio tries to be very democratic, which our size helps – everyone gets to comment on new games and offer new ideas. When the teams are just five or six people, it’s also very easy to go off-site and have a meeting to discuss, as a group, how the game is progressing and to offer ideas. That’s the whole team at one table having the same input – you can’t get that anywhere else, and in bigger teams. There is another way working on downloadable games helps team morale and size – knowing that within months you’ll be working on a new project.
And are you planning to work on just other people’s properties or are you creating new IP too?
We’re definitely committed to new IP, but will mix and match our projects. So we’re working on a mix of new ideas and also licences, probably under work for hire contracts, too. But we’re taking a top to bottom approach as we want to explore self-publishing as well as working with publishers, plus there is all the space in between; we have one deal in place where we are only getting half the money coming in, but get a bigger royalty slice and get to keep the IP. That’s a great thing for any studio, but also as a team it creates huge buy-in amongst all of us when we are designing; so it never feels like we’re designing something for someone to buy off us with our first publishing deal, it feels like we’re working on something we can stick with, and can plan the sequels for.
Burn Zombie Burn is going to go to some very interesting places given what we have in the works for the characters – and that’s all our choice and our decisions, which is something of a luxury for an independent developer, unless you’re one of the large American studios.