Blitz has produced a diverse portfolio of games in the past 12 months and has a legacy that includes a number of notables. How so? And will it always be this way? Develop talks to CEO Philip Oliver to find out…
Some may scoff – and it will be little surprise if people have – but consider this comment without humour: Blitz Games might just have a more diverse portfolio, and possibly more unique partnerships, than any other publisher or developer in the UK. Who else can claim work done with THQ, Namco, big toy companies, fast food giants, the Royal Navy and even Simon Cowell?
That said, many people probably don’t realise it or have simply written the company off for being ‘just Blitz’. No, the company’s games’ Metacritic scores have yet to challenge something Valve produces. Yes, the games that make it the most money are those based on cartoon or toy properties. And, ironically, despite being British through and through it’s in the US where the company rakes in the cash.
CEO Philip Oliver knows all to well that Blitz’s image is fairly fixed in the minds of some: “It is human nature to ‘pigeon hole’ people and companies. When publishers think about developers for potential new work they often do the same,” he says, before proudly pointing out that in the eyes of many, Blitz’s reputation is for “mass market console games based on kids’ licences”.
CUTTING THINGS UP
But SpongeBob, Bratz, and a host of other brands not only can’t always be relied on – for a start, it’s incredibly seasonal and strictly tied to the whims of a publisher.
“Blitz has stayed in business through thick and thin because we do what’s commercially viable. It is always our aim to ensure that we have several offers of work as teams finish and we try to stagger teams finishing where possible so if necessary they can help on other projects before the next game is signed,” he readily admit. Yet while he has no qualms about the work for hire model, it’s apparent that changes have been put in place at the studio to secure Blitz’s independence. And last month’s opening of the company’s Arcade division has been the fourth and final step in a plan to round out the business.
The change to split the company into such imprints, however, started much further back, with the development of the company’s serious games interest and mature label Volatile. And it’s been the latter which has generated the biggest reward in the short-term.
The imprint was first used when Blitz introduced its next-gen concept Possession to publishers: “We knew that we were more than capable of creating games for a more mature audience, but would often not be considered for projects like this because of our back catalogue,” says Oliver. Volatile, he says, “has all the benefits of experienced and creative staff, powerful core technology and years of development experience without any of the pre-existing assumptions that we’d only be interested in children’s titles.”
So far, the move has paid off. While Possession has moved to the back burner, Blitz scored the Reservoir Dogs deal from Eidos/SCi and the game was released in September. No, it’s not been a Rockstar-troubler – and the team is the first to admit that’s the case – but it has opened doors.
Says Oliver: “Although the Volatile brand is still establishing itself, the publishers see us as playing equally well in both areas and are happy for us to pitch much more mature game ideas, for licensed work as well as original IP.”
The reason for splitting the company into these divisions, however, is simple says Oliver. The further Blitz can remove itself from relying on just one industry timetable, the better: “The shorter production cycles of games for our new Blitz Arcade division should further help us smooth out the peaks and troughs of work, while our serious games work for TruSim is clearly not tied into the traditional Christmas sales windows of the video games industry. That, combined with intelligent use of sub-contractors, means that we keep productivity levels as high as possible and don’t ever have people sitting around with nothing to do.
“This is a notoriously unstable industry, but by establishing a broad base of work with a varied client base and different production cycles we hope to provide a stable environment for all our staff.”
And stable seems to be the right word. In 2006 alone the company has seen the following games completed and launched: Pac-Man World 3, Sponge Bob: Creature from the Krusty Krab (one SKU of which was the first Wii game completed in the UK), Bratz: Forever Diamondz, the three Burger King Xbox/Xbox 360 titles, Karaoke Revolution: American Idol and Reservoir Dogs.
THE NEXT STEP
So how does Oliver see the company progressing now that the four different imprints are in place?
“This year saw us move into a big new HQ office with room for expansion. Our reputation is growing fast and we have lots of work on offer in all divisions. So I see us growing each of them and becoming a major developer in these categories. Obviously everything is under one roof which means technology and support teams help everyone.”
Yes – everyone. Blitz is edging closer and closer towards the 200-man mark. What does Oliver say to the claim that the big studios can’t be creative? “Creativity depends on creative people being allowed to be creative. If you’re a massive company that gets bound up in red tape and unwieldy management systems then of course the creativity can get squashed, but the reason people like working at Blitz so much is that we have established an environment that doesn’t just allow creative freedom – it actively encourages it.”
And still, when most of Blitz’s success, sales-wise, is in the US – what does he think of those people that end up being a bit ignorant (or even snobby) towards the studio and its performance?
He says: “It’s true that we have more visibility in the US than we do in the the UK, that’s because we actively target the biggest market first, to my mind that’s just sensible business. However, we are very active within the UK community, being founder members of Tiga as well as actively working with Skillset and the UK Universities to improve the quality of new recruits across the board.
“However, when people compile lists of ‘most successful developers’ and the like these are sometimes based on UK or European unit sales and so we are often misrepresented because many of our games are US-only releases. It’s a shame for everyone working here for their hard work to be ignored in this way, but it’s difficult for us to influence this kind of thing. I think that people are generally surprised by how large and productive we are – because clearly they don’t see everything we do. But I like surprising people, so I’m okay with that!”