INTERVIEW: Denki Games

INTERVIEW: Denki Games

By Owain Bennallack

November 28th 2008 at 11:24AM

Award-winning Scots studio Denki carved out a unique niche with its early entry into interactive TV development, but now it's having another sniff around DS and PSP, as well as looking at iPhone. MD Colin Anderson and internal development manager cum industry legend Gary Penn answer our questions...

What are you working on at the moment, across each of the two teams? Any highlights?

Colin Anderson: Highlights? As if we'd ever work on lowlights! Right now we're beavering away on a couple of brand new Denki Games, one for Xbox Live Arcade and one for the Wii. We're also finishing off a few interactive TV games and then we'll probably be turning our attention to the iPhone. We've no shortage of great ideas we want to turn in to Denki Games - our only limitation's going to be time and people. So it's a case of picking out the ones that really get our creative juices flowing.

Was the recent splitting into Internal and External dev teams driven by game design considerations, or by the different attitudes required when dealing with external companies and their IP?

Colin: It's a bit of both I guess - there's that old cliché about 'never serving two masters', and we'd learned the truth in that one the hard way. We figured we needed to create a clear focus for the teams so we'd make the best games for ourselves and our customers - sometimes what our customers want isn't what we would choose ourselves, and it's important to respect that. Creating two separate teams really helped us deliver both.

How do your 20 staff split across the teams?

Colin: Until recently we've been about 65 per cent work-for-hire and 15 per cent on our own stuff, but now we're in the process of switching that around. (The remaining 20 per cent of staff are focused on general business development and admin).

Is there much cross-fertilization and physical switching about between the teams, or does that defeat the purpose of making the split?

Colin: There's been no physical switching - yet - but the teams share the same passion and vision on how Denki goes about making games, at the very least.

Has the Interactive TV market moved much in the past few years, both from a development perspective and from that of the audience's expectations?

Colin: Not as much as we would've liked. We've pushed it as far as it'll go for the moment and reached a point where we're not learning anything new. The potential's still there though, particularly with the coming of IPTV, so we'll be keeping a close eye on how things develop. We certainly know a thing or two about making games for TV audiences as soon as the right opportunity appears!

What's the roadmap for the next few years for Interactive TV from a hardware point of view?

Gary Penn: Quite honestly, we don't care what the hardware and technology does. The main - in fact, the only - challenge is the same for us as it is for everyone: create great games that people want to play.

So you don't have to take hardware revisions to the various platforms into account at all? Do you write for a software platform?

Gary: Obviously at some point we have to deal with the hardware, but we've done so many games now that we know all the foibles. And really, what's going to change? You'll still be using the remote control, so the types of game you're able to play won't change any time soon.

Do you still own the IP to Denki Blocks, and would you say it's your most significant product so far?

Gary: The clue's in the name! It's ours, all ours and it's currently still the best representation of what Denki's all about - although that's likely to change soon. It's definitely in our plans to bring it back sometime, but we'll only do that when we find the right opportunity for it.

What are you plans for future internally-developed IP?

Colin: Gary's leading development of our two brand new Denki Games, so you can bet they'll be special. We've learned a lot in making 174 games for a TV audience, and that'll definitely help guide the new games. Obviously we're excited about making them. We're looking forward to reminding ourselves and everyone else why Denki's first game won both Handheld Game and Overall Best Game of the show at ECTS back in the day.

We know we're unlikely to make games that appeal to everyone, and frankly we don't want to. If you try to please everyone, you just end up pleasing no one.

You've worked with some impressively blue chip brands in the past. How do you punch above your weight?

Colin: I'm not sure we've been punching above our weight particularly: the companies we work with are some of the best in the business, and so are we - it's a perfect match!

In our case, we were in the market early enough to build up some real expertise, and then we proved ourselves to them time and again by caring for their brands and products as if they were our own. We've had repeat business from every single customer we've worked with, so that approach obviously serves us well.

Are you in the 'was that it?' camp when it comes to mobile phones, or do you see more potential going forward?

Gary: Mobile phone gaming still sucks ass, which is really disappointing after all this time. Don't take that the wrong way - there's some really good games out there despite everything, but the process from "I want to play a game on my phone" to "I'm having fun" totally sucks ass. We were right in it at the start, and were passionate supporters of it for a while afterwards, but we hoofed it straight back out as soon as we realised what a truly appalling experience it was for gamers and developers alike.

Denki Blocks! was one of the first games released for Java phones back in 2002, but never, ever again until someone sorts out the mess of formats, devices and platforms. It's an awful deal for everyone except the networks and, arguably, the publishers - it's certainly not great for anyone wanting to play a good game in a hurry.

Until the industry figures out how to make devices that are actually convenient to make calls on, never mind play games on, we'll be staying well clear of it.

What about iPhone then? Are you in?

Gary: That's a different matter - iPhone's been conceived from the start as a software platform, so we're definitely in. Though we've yet to choose exactly what we'll be doing with it. Not looking to make a fast-buck like most other people seem to be though. That's for sure.

I think I'm right in saying you've not yet released games on DS or PSP. Do you prefer to be a big fish in a pond?

Gary: It wasn't as calculated as that. In 2001 digital TV was this revolutionary new distribution platform - where else could you finish a game on a Friday afternoon, have it in front of six million paying customers by Friday night, and then know by Monday morning if it was a hit? That was much more interesting to us than making games for DS or PSP. Digital distribution's become mainstream now, so we're interested in looking at them again. That's all it was I'm afraid - nothing clever!

Will you self-publish on DS and PSP via digital distribution then? Can we look forward to dual-screen Denki Blocks action?

Gary: It's great to see Sony and Nintendo finally tackling this, and all I'll say is that no platform is safe from Denki.

Scottish development seems to have had a pretty torrid time in recent years. Do you think there was anything systemically awry with the sector, or was it just a case of it being largely represented by independent studios, who've been hit hard everywhere?

Gary: Actually, I think the Scottish scene's never been stronger than now. Certainly, we've had our losses, but Scotland's not unique in that. I think when you look around at what's happening here, we're beginning a new 'Golden Age' of Scottish development, and fortunately Denki's still around to be front and centre in that.

Finally, how are you finding recruiting people to Dundee, and any plans to expand in the coming months?

Colin: Great people always want to work with other great people, so we don't really have an issue in bringing new folk in. Essentially, we're in hiring mode all the time, because the best people don't become available all that often. You've got to move fast when they do. And yes, I'd guess that Gary's going to be needing a few more people to help him make our games even better in the very near future!