Pivotal decisions

Pivotal decisions

By Develop

November 23rd 2007 at 1:12PM

Managing director Jim Bambra and technical director Alex McLean talk to Develop about whatâ??s changed for Pivotal in its yearâ??s as an internal team and as it works on a next-gen titleâ?¦

How has Pivotal changed over the years as it moved from being independent to in-house following SCi’s acquisition of the studio?

Jim Bambra, MD: Structurally things have changed quite a lot, but we still have our own autonomy. There isn’t much different between being independent or internal as we still run the studio. There’s no sense of corporatism coming in. The real difference we’ve gone through has been the way development has changed. Our teams are bigger, the overheads are bigger so we need to start looking at doing more projects. In terms of being part of a publisher, we generally get on with our own thing. There are of course things they want to talk to us about and be involved in, especially when it comes to things like marketing. It’s probably very different for us compared to some other studios because the company we are owned by is in this country. That has a significant benefit so we resolve things very quickly.

You mentioned marketing there, but outside developers looking in always suggest there will be an element of tension in those relationships between an in-house team and the publishing people…

JB: Well, from them we take a lot of direction about the market that is invaluable. Many developers live in their development world and could do with some outside input, or someone to offer alternatives on how you approach things.

Alex McLean, technical director: That’s something that’s changed about the industry. Until a few years ago marketing had little bearing on the quality and success of a game, but now it has as much bearing as anything else. Publishers are starting to market games with the same kind of money spent on production and treat other things seriously. They realise you need to have a united front across development and marketing in order to ensure that success – which has gone on in other industries for such a long time.

JB: I think in the past there was some naievity amongst developers who thought that you could do away with the marketing people and manage it yourself.

What’s been the biggest change for the studio in moving to next-gen?

JB: Like everyone else it’s scale. Our production team has grown significantly. We have great quality veterans here but the big thing for us now is adding to that team and making sure new people are well integrated into that. That brings with it lots of management requirements – a while ago it didn’t take many people to make a game, but now at our peak we’re at 55 people on a game. Before we were at 35. A big thing for us has been managing those peaks – we know that games start with just a few people, they get small in the middle, and then they go down again. So one of the jobs we have today are managing those people out because there aren’t as many people at the end. With production these days we’ve learnt that you need the art team to be done early, too.

Have you had to adjust your practices to working more long term given that the previous Conflict titles were yearly releases?

JB: Well, back then we were even actually working with two teams on a two-year timeframe for each game – one of the best kept secrets about Pivotal is that we were multi-team. But I’d say the biggest leap for us has been the technology side.

How so?

AM: We’ve built our in-house technology very much geared towards a multi-processor environment and designed for a multi-threaded framework. The most important thing that we identified straight away was that it won’t cut it if we’ve got the code running on just one of the cores on the Xbox with the other two sat their idle – nor can we do the game if we aren’t effectively using the SPUs on the PS3. So what we’ve done is set up a common framework for both those platforms and multicore PCs, that distributes the various key components across the processors as it becomes available.

Is all your technology proprietary?

AM: It has been historically, although we have no objection to using third-party technology. It’s my personal opinion that middleware is just another sign of maturity in the industry. Every other industry over a certain size sub-contracts to a certain extent and buys stuff in – I think the games industry doing so is just a sign of doing that as well. We use a small amount of middleware, such as SpeedTree. But we’re also looking at a new product about to go into production in which we will be using a third party solution. We’re happy to use both in-house and out-of-house tech – it’s not an ideological thing it’s about making the right choice and getting the right tool for the job rather than being precious about where it originated.

Next-gen’s impacting your studio and technology – has it had much of an impact on how you’re finding staff to populate and make those things? Are you facing the recruitment issues others are?

JB: If you’re targeting the highly-qualified veterans, then you are going to find it hard. If they’re happy and in a good job, they aren’t going to want to leave their post and join you. So for us we’ve been targeting younger staff and trying to get new people into the industry. Previously we’ve hired people new to the industry who were once the new boys, but are now veterans.

AM: From a programming point of view over the last few years we’ve done great in hiring new graduates. What we do is focus on the top tier graduates from maths, physics, astrophysics, and computer science courses from the top universities – I don’t think games experience is particularly relevant because if they are that bright, and they are decent people it won’t be hard for them to get their head around
making games.

Does that new blood bring something special to the process that veterans don’t give?

AM: Definitely. We learn from them as much as they learn from us. Those veterans here, a lot of them have been in the industry since the 8-bit days when we had to teach ourselves. That contrasts nicely with younger people with a more formal education and a knowledge of the latest developments and changes in language. We tend to partner those new hires with a more experienced guy when they start, but it’s a two way thing and everyone learns that way.