With next-gen titles for Ubisoft and LucasArts on the cards, Free Radical is in great shape. Michael French talks to its founders about how far the studio has comeâ?¦Having worked with Eidos, EA, Codemasters and now Ubisoft plus LucasArts, how have you seen publisher-studio relations change?
David Doak, director: The landscape has changed. Publishers change agendas all the time. It was once possible to go to a publisher with an IP you wanted to keep ownership of – that’s much harder now, because publishers take a longer view as the cost has gone up. They’re looking for something that can go to franchise because something that does well only makes real profit from its next iteration.
Karl Hilton, director: But right from the moment we set up we didn’t want these long-term deals. We were confident in the quality of what we could produce – and you don’t destroy the value in that be signing yourself away for years to come.
DD: Although it’s fair to say that we’re always trying to find someone we’d like to work with long-term because managing multiple and changing relationships is a lot of hard work.
Steve Ellis, managing director: Now, it has to be a more collaborative approach. We tried doing it the way in which we kept ownership but found that publishers never treated our game as important as their own.
KH: They worry we could go elsewhere, or that marketing a game could end up benefiting another publisher. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because if they support it and the game does well we wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.
DD: The key is to make sure expectations are kept in check. Don’t surprise them by being too good early on – because over-delivering can cause issues. Fortunately, there’s definitely more maturity amongst publishers about understanding what the problems in development might be and they are now less hypocritical about what is possible because their internal teams have struggled as well.
How has the industry changed for independents since starting FRD?
DD: Well, I wouldn’t like to try and start an independent now – but then again I remember when we left Rare Tim Stamper was saying ‘Don’t do that, it’s a bad time’ and we’re still here.
SE: Now, however, when you’re facing a publisher they want to see you have proven yourself. How do you do that as a start-up? Publishers do due diligence now – that wasn’t the case originally.
DD: And that’s because when we started in the late ‘90s people would say they were starting a studio and then spend all the money on something else! For independents there’s been a few bad years. I’m sure a lot of them didn’t go bust because they were bad, but because they trusted people too much. I’m not saying publishers are evil, but market forces dictate certain actions at certain times. But it seems that now there is a bit more stability.
SE: That’s a very restrained answer – ‘I’m not saying publishers are evil’…
[All three laugh]
SE: We often find ourselves taking a defensive position to prevent us from falling into the same trap that other developers have found themselves in.
KH: Publishers ask why we behave like that and tell us not to worry because they’re different, and fortunately for all those we’ve been with, with one exception, the relationship has been good. But that one – if it had gone wrong, it would have been the end of us.
Did moving to a multi-project studio change publisher dealings?
SE: They can’t help but think they’re getting the worse end of the deal and that you favour the other publisher.
DD: And they say ‘Just make sure your best people are on this, not the other game’. Don’t they realise that even if we said we’d do that it would show dishonesty and that they could get shafted from the other way around?
SE: The worst thing is their fear of actually moving teams onto another publisher’s game – we don’t do it, but it’s hard to get them to accept that.
DD: And if you did do that, it’s a trick you could only pull off once – because after that game’s done, the other publisher knows you’ve shafted them. The problem on the publisher side is less to do with the senior people and more the intermediate people. They’re interested in sharp practice so are expecting to see it everywhere.
SE: And they’re conflicted as well over what their role is. Is it design? Or project management? If both, they’re conflicted.
DD: There’s clearly a skills shortage there, too – for skilled producers. If I was running a publisher I’d spend a fortune on that – not just money, but time and effort, because it’s a hard job. Once, publishers would take some graduate and put them in charge of a $5m project. That’s mad. Thankfully it’s gone now, but I don’t know that many people I’d trust to do that job right.
SE: And if you’re a publisher they don’t know whether or not to put those people on an external project or an internal one.
DD: They’re probably telling themselves to make sure the best people are working on the internal projects… There’s other frustrations as well, such as when pitching next-gen stuff publishers they wanted something that was safe, but also innovative. And that thing where they want it to be like Successful Game Property X, but then tell you that it’s either too different or too similar.
Have you felt much pressure from publishers to focus on ‘better’ graphics – rather than stylised visuals – for next-gen?
SE: It’s not their number one thing, but it’s a given, now – they expect it.
KH: Unless you were a Japanese company you’d have to be brave to do a stylised next-gen game. I think there’s a market for it, but it will take a while for those games to appear.
DD: But we can’t win. Everyone would say ‘Oh, we love TimeSplitters, it’s really quirky and cartoony – but when will you make something that isn’t quirky and cartoony?’ Yet then we see something like Team Fortress go quirky and cartoony and everyone says ‘Wow! Look at that!’ And then of course when someone picks one the developer will be considered ‘a genius auteur who wouldn’t have been able to do it in Europe because of his quirky Japanese view on life...’ When really the answer is no, actually, publishers are just hugely conservative.
Are you stubborn when it comes to ensuring you’ve made something that’s of quality?
SE: We’ve been insistent that publishers test our games properly and have been told by three of the publishers it’s been the most expensive test phase on any project they’ve done. Ever. Including EA.
KH: There’s no great secret about great video games – it’s testing and playing, playing and testing. The more you do that the better the games are.
DD: TimeSplitters hit EA’s year end at considerable strife for those working on it, but we kept the quality high. But when faced with a deadline it’s got a lot to do with marketing spend – and they can either spend it on your game or another. That’s the fundamental issue with independence – you try to be as aligned as possible with a publisher, but ultimately you’re not aligned; there’s friction. But, we’d be genuinely embarrassed to let a bad game get out.
Has it ever felt like you compete with a publisher’s in-house teams?
DD: Publishing has a tremendous difficulty with things like year-ends and financials, so they always end up with hypocrisy about internal development. And the economics and size of an in-house studio allows that publisher to distort the market. We have to remind them that they have a huge team they can upscale on a whim.
KH: Luckily, Ubisoft likes to encourage you by showing you products and we have a good relationship with them. But you have to be clear that while you aren’t the master of everything, you know your game very well.
SE: Publishers certainly tend to exaggerate achievements. The worst is when they say ‘Our internal game is much better than yours – but make sure yours is better!’ EA was good at that with the new GoldenEye. When we signed up they came here and said they’d seen the new Bond and that it would blow our game away. Then down the line it turned out they’d seen some pre-rendered mock up and they’d talk about it less and say less enthusiastic things about it.
DD: It was funny because every time we’d speak we’d make jokes about the game – and then in one meeting we made an asinine comment and they agreed. It was as if Riccitiello himself had confirmed the game was a dud. And of course there was a double irony of banging on at us about GoldenEye, something we were involved in so long ago [at Rare]. Specifically with TimeSplitters EA’s view was that we had something successful and just needed them to take it to the next level. That didn’t happen, because as far as they were concerned there was possibly more valuable things to spend money on.
SE: But of course the first thing EA wanted to do when it saw TimeSplitters was change it. ‘It’s a bit successful, but we don’t know why, so we’ll try and change it to something we understand...’
KH: But it’s not like there’s a daily competition between us and the in-house teams – currently we’re talking about our projects and their projects and learning. Our publishers at the moment know that this is a method that needs to be used.
Are you hitting the same staffing hurdles as other teams?
SE: We’re past 120 staff now – we might get to 140, but going past that, who knows? We get loads of applications from graduates, but finding experienced people is the tough one. Our best way of doing it is getting graduates and waiting. But it’s hard to do quickly, of course.
DD: A big problem is the industry cannibalising itself. It’s a shame because one of the things that helps make good games is creating a team that works well together. When you’ve got people who have been through technology changes or have shipped something, they know they can rely on each other. Another problem is that other publishers like EA have a headhunting department.
SE: And headhunters are blatant about it, emailing people at their work address and just say ‘Come and work with us’. We’ve had a fair amount of that kind of thing – but it’s calmed down a little now.
KH: It comes off the back of PR – any exposure or show of doing something successful, especially on next-gen.
DD: The big sign is when someone rings up looking for ‘a long lost friend’, but when it turns out they aren’t here they say, ‘oh, but there was another person I wanted to speak to’ and it’s the next person on the list of the credits.
KH: We’ve never been afraid of finding people who aren’t from the industry and have the skills or are passionate about games or have a good portfolio. You don’t have to headhunt because there are always those great people out there. DD: For art, the level of competent people has gone up and they’re actually starting to be taught the right stuff on games courses. But programming’s gone the other way as higher education turns into a farce. We get people who claim to have programming degrees but can’t count. But the design side is really hard – it’s something you can’t teach, and the courses that do it don’t teach it very well.
You all seem quite dissatisfied with the games education sector…
SE: It’s bizarre because you have people being taught to make games by people with no experience at making games.
DD: Or people that have failed at making games.
SE: Sometimes we have applications from people actually teaching these courses and the salaries they are claiming to be paid are not that different from our starting salaries for graduates – it makes you wonder.
KH: It’s partly because of the age of the industry. There isn’t yet a body of developers that have quit for academia. I did the computer animation course in Bournemouth and that’s something we still get applications from and I’ve been down there to talk. That course is good because it’s not aimed at games and is more to do with computer graphics, so the graduates have a good grasp of what’s going on behind the visuals.
Has outsourcing, or freelance staff, helped the burden?
KH: No, because the truth is that teams that know each other work best. Otherwise it’s paint by numbers: they turn up, do their bit, and go.
SE: How is freelance good for the people doing the work? It’s all short term.
DD: The employment sector in this country has changed – people don’t expect to stay in jobs for long. Art is the easiest thing to do that with – there’s always a production line element to that skill. For our games the art demands, the pipeline and the tools are still changing, but if you’re on the second or third iteration of something then everything is very much the same and you can do it.
With the team growing how do you manage scale versus creativity?
DD: We’ve always said it’s the idea that matters and not where it came from, but obviously that decreases as large teams are less agile. There is a Holy Grail that people think exists where you have a well-developed design and you take it to a small team and then you upscale… but the reality is that ideas change all the time. And you have people spending more time thinking than actually doing anything. We used to be able to solve that problem by talking all the time, but 70 people can’t talk in that way.
SE: The cell-based thing works to an extent because we have groups of artists, designer and programmers that we pair up for a particular level – that works well.
DD: But then you have a problem spatially in the studio. Do you want all the designers to sit together so they can share ideas and techniques? If so what about the artists? For the games industry the problem was always that it had this ballsy ‘make it up as we go’ approach where quality control came from each team member’s personal quality control. But then the industry turned into this world where projects required thousands and thousands of manhours with no way of working out how to do it. That’s where we still are.
KH: And unlike film it’s harder to predict what the game will be – we all have it in our heads how it will be but then you implement it and find out it doesn’t work.... that leads back to testing again. It’s harder to nail down the specifics because making good games requires playing and testing and communicating.