A glimpse into the life in the driving seat at Bizarre Creations, this year’s Develop Award Grand Prix winner…
If Family Fortunes asked 100 developers what the UK’s best development studio to work for is, chances are Bizarre Creations would probably feature often as many people’s top answer.
It has a purpose built 18,500 square foot building which ensures a leading and future-proof working environment. In fact, employee welfare is paramount – the studio was the first (and only one of two to date) developer to be awarded the UK government’s ‘Investors in People’ award. Little surprise, then, its annual staff turnover rate is allegedly just one a year.
And with one is how it started. Martyn Chudley, Bizarre’s MD, started writing games in 1985 on the Commodore 64 he bought with saved paper-round money. From there he moved onto the Amiga and Mega Drive, before the arrival of PlayStation in 1994 persuaded him to employ permanent staff. And Bizarre Creations was born.
Few companies will have made as noticeable an entry into the 16-bit, 3D era as Bizarre managed with its first PS release, Formula 1. In 1996, on console, there was simply nothing to match it. The success encouraged an improved sequel, before Bizarre’s technological achievement resulted in its racing engine being utilised in several third party titles. (Further evidence of the developer’s technical prowess came when 3DFX commissioned it to create the Beyond Bizarre demo to highlight gaming on its high-end SLI Obsidian 3D Cards at GDC.) Soon after, the studio turned its attention to a new generation of hardware with cartoon action in the guise of Fur Fighters.
But again, Bizarre’s biggest 32-bit splash would come courtesy of another driving game, Metropolis Street Racer, which subsequently evolved into the Project Gotham series for Microsoft’s consoles so many know and love (the original Xbox iteration remains the best selling racing game on that platform).
Anyone criticising the developer for rapidly turning into a one-trick pony will no doubt have welcomed the release of Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, one of the highlights on Live Arcade (and the reason Bizarre walked away with the Best Use of Online Develop Award). But they shouldn’t be surprised. Beneath the impressive technical polish, the Gotham titles have traditionally demonstrated a fundamental grasp of solid game mechanics and an appreciation of the delicate balance required to make a game experience both enjoyable and accessible to an uncommonly wide audience.
Ask him about his studio’s unusual level of competence, however, and Chudley responds with trademark modesty. “I don’t know if we’d say we were any stronger than our competitors – there’s some excellent studios out there! But we’ve always worked to maintain the small-and-friendly approach to our team, our environment and our activities,” he says, even now that the developer has grown to around 120 staff. Then again, it’s never been about size. “We’re not here to rule the world or be the biggest – we’re just here for the games, and hopefully that shines through in the fruits of our labours.”
Press him, however, and Chudley eventually concedes that if there is an advantage it is down to the strength of the people Bizarre employs. “We don’t recruit in the normal way – talent and enthusiasm are more important than experience or qualifications,” he reveals, stating that three quarters of his staff – particularly programmers and artists have no relevant experience in games. In fact, for over a quarter of the company this represents their first job, while a third join from unemployment. “And there’s that Bizarre spark that’s all-important – fitting in with the rest of the team. We try and ensure everyone gets along, both in and out of work, and in that way, we’re all pulling in the same direction when it comes to the games.”
Obviously it helps to have the appropriate working arrangement and Bizarre’s recent restructuring (which sees it support its two main development teams with a number of shared groups – see boxout) is already proving itself. “It’s actually settled down and is working extremely well, thankfully,” says Chudley. “We think it’s the best strategy for us with our multi-platform game development, and might work well for other teams in a similar position, too. But each studio’s ethos and work practices vary so much, it’s probably going to be a case-by-case basis.”
Also varied is how you’ll soon be able to describe the studio’s output. Marking a return to multi-platform development – and, crucially, a move away from racing – is The Club. “We’ve always had people here with a real passion for shooters, and some of them got to dabble on the outskirts of the genre with Fur Fighters, which really fuelled the passion,” Chudley explains, before going on to state that while the IP may be new, the approach is typically Bizarre: following on from the work done with PGR and its Kudos system, for instance, this latest project plans to take an existing genre and add a novel twist in order to deliver something fresh.
“Hopefully The Club will do well and we can continue in this genre, too. And maybe branch out again some time – we all enjoy many types of game so it’d be nice to see where we can try our hand. Although I don’t think we’ll be doing hardcore sports or anything very specific like that,” the MD reveals.
What you can expect is a commitment to make the very best games it can, backed with a tradition of achieving that goal. And it’s not in order to chase industry awards and Metacritic success – much as the team obviously enjoys the praise. For Chudley, the highest reward comes, perhaps predictably, from the people representing the most relevant critics. “Nothing tops overhearing lads in the street saying your game is great, or seeing someone walk into a shop, scoop up a console and a copy of your game,” he says, proudly.
Which is why it’s no surprise to hear his reply when asked what, going forward, the aims for Bizarre Creations are: “To continue producing great games that everyone enjoys – simple as that!”
That would clearly be the top answer if you asked 100 developers the same thing. It’s just Chudley’s comes across as more convincing than most.