How teams survive a studio closure

How teams survive a studio closure

By Colin Bell

August 22nd 2012 at 2:27PM

Games development veteran Colin Bell shares personal experiences of what happens after collapse

In this OpEd, Colin Bell shares his experiences in forming a studio out of the closure of another – and then charts the progress of his team when they too had to move on and form their own businesses.

Bell was studio head for Juice Games, which formed after the closure of Rage Games, and was latterly sold to THQ where it eventually became THQ Digital Warrington before being closed last year.

It was approaching midnight at the offices of Rage Games in Liverpool on a cold January night in 2003.

I shook hands with Chris Clegg, the joint administrator from Ernst & Young, and informed him that it would not be possible to complete the deal that would see the finished Lamborghini game launched on the Xbox console.

The deal to launch it was complicated, requiring the consent of the prestige car manufacturer, Microsoft, Ernst & Young and key members of the development team.

In just a few days following the announcement of Rage Games’ demise I had had all of these pieces in place. The only requirement now was a simple ‘Yes’ from the leading publisher of the time to allow the transfer of a license from Rage Games to Microsoft.

Without their consent the deal fell apart and the plan to set up a readymade studio with premises, hardware, a racing game engine and a completed game were shot to dust in a late night call to their executive VP.

There was now nothing with which to set up a new studio… just the team.

‘Just the team’? But the team is everything! The investor was still on board, according to him ‘the team’ was the value, it’s where the investment is. Yes, a deal would have been nice but it was the people he believed in.

So Juice Games was formed in January 2003 with ‘just’ a team of 15 developers and with investment enough for three months.

The investment proved a wise one with numerous mobile and interactive TV game launches via Nokia and Sportech.

That was followed by a landmark third party funding arrangement with Fund4Games that enabled the street racing title Juiced to ride the Acclaim fall and deliver the street racing gam - and subsequently the Juice Games studio - to THQ via an acquisition in 2006.

Of course this just glosses over the tough times involved in setting up a studio. The day we started I admitted to my wife “I really don’t now what is going to happen, this could ruin us!”

Ultimately it worked out for us, but the journey was such that I have ultimate respect to anyone that sets out to determine his or her own entrepreneurial path.

LIFE AS PART OF THQ

Since becoming part of THQ a total of six small independent studios have emerged from the key staff at Juice Games.

Some out of necessity due to episodes of redundancies from enforced project cancellations and changed strategies directed from the parent company - a portent for their significant current problems. Others approached me whilst employees and let me know that they were going to leave and set their own studio up.

The first of these was VooFoo studios, set up by Mark Williams, a proverbial ‘brain on a stick’ engine coder and a key founder of Juice Games. Mark was one of a rare breed of staff that as studio principles we often discussed ‘what would we do without him?’ Hoping that day would never come.

And yet here he wanted to leave to code his own future. There was no other option than to encourage him, offer advice and be thankful for the fantastic work he did for us. I know many studio heads would act differently but really, what does that achieve?

VooFoo have since gone on to great things, publishing Hustle Kings and Pure Chess through Sony and announcing their next title Big Sky Infinity for PS3 and Vita.

Early 2010 saw our promising arcade flight-sim Stormbirds canned by THQ in order to divert funds to their bigger titles, and a number of redundancies occured.

One of these was Steve Hunt our Studio Design Director at the time. Steve was a brilliant coder turned game designer and he played a key part in the development of the Juiced franchise of racing games.

Rather than set up a studio, Steve went right back to the classic image of ‘bedroom coder’ and designed and made Beat Hazard, an arcade blast ‘em up that uses your music collection to define the levels.

Steve released this through his new company Cold Beam Games on Steam and he was relentless in marketing the title on the Internet via forums and website promotions and experimenting with pricing.

Make no mistake this has been a huge success with an off the scale return on investment for Cold Beam Games. Subsequent versions have been released on PS3 (via PSN) and iOS.

The truth of the matter is that even as the streamlined digital studio that Juice Games had become at that time, there was no way that this title would have made it through the US corporate green light process. Steve was agile, saw his goal and executed it perfectly.

Other new companies are replicating these successes.

Clever Beans, a studio formed much in the same way as VooFoo, by Martin Turton and Andrew Newton who have recently announced their new title When Vikings Attack.

Formed in 2009 they coded initially from their homes and now backed with a publishing deal from Sony they have a small Manchester based studio developing for both PS3 and Vita.

LIFE AFTER THQ

Still in their infancy there are three other companies who are banging on the door of success, and which sprung up after the closure of THQ Digital Warrington last year.

Alien Apple Studios a conceptual design company lead by Stu and Donna Jennett, who now have a string of high profile clients including Eurocom, Sony and Nomad Games.

And Nomad Games? Well perhaps you haven’t heard of Nomad Games yet, but you can be assured that you will do.

Headed by Don Whiteford this team has developed a brilliantly simple virtual board game engine for PC, Tablets and smart phones, which they will partner with top-tier board game manufacturers in order to exploit a relatively untapped niche.

Lastly D3t LTD, a company set up by Juice Games founders Jamie Campbell and Stephen Powell, have simply astounded me every time I have visited their small operation in Runcorn over the last 12 months.

Their company is set up as a service company in order to provide technology to clients in the games industry but also in other industries too.

They are not listing clients on their website and so I don’t want to steal any thunder, however the scope of their work, their repeat business and their common sense approach to planning their business gives this company the best long term outlook of all

TEAMS AND TALENT ALWAYS SURVIVES

The common denominator for all these companies is that they exist and are successful because of the people involved.

Despite the massively changing business environment that has taken higher profile casualties than my own studio 12 moths ago, the UK development scene still has some of the best and most innovative people who are willing to put themselves in a position that might ruin them in order to achieve success.

Just the team? The team is everything.