Meet the gaming worldâ??s quiet dev giant

Meet the gaming worldâ??s quiet dev giant

By Rob Crossley

October 21st 2010 at 2:58PM

Develop demystifies Foundation 9, the industryâ??s "secret weapon"

Foundation 9 made more money from UK retail last year than Sega Studios Japan. It made more money than Capcom. It made more money than Treyarch, Level-5, Neversoft, Konami Digital, Codemasters, Bungie and Rockstar North.

In fact, it was the fifth biggest moneymaker in the world last year, based on UK retail sales.

Of course, and you’d be right to say it, this doesn’t include digital download and online subscription fees. That’s partly the reason why Foundation 9 recently issued a press release, declaring the group has made $22 million from just five of its XBLA games.

Foundation 9 is declaring itself “the industry’s secret weapon” – the group’s own way of putting a positive spin on its disproportionate obscurity. Yet with all its successes, along with six independent studios and close to 700 permanent staff, perhaps the phrase is neither fair nor accurate.

The group’s CEO, James North-Hearn, says Foundation 9 is more a b2b company than a developer or publisher. It offers work-for-hire jobs for a diverse range of publishers, and its success in doing so challenges the claim that owning IP is near-vital for independent studios.

We speak to North-Hearn about the company’s successes so far, and its reputation, as well as discuss the year ahead, and talk about developer relations.

Only four companies in the world outperformed Foundation 9 in this year’s Develop 100. Why isn’t your company as well known as, perhaps, it should be?
I think there’s several reasons, actually. We only have one studio in Europe and that’s Sumo – and when people think of that studio they probably only think of Sumo, not us.

We’re slightly better known in the US, because we have four studios here, but in reality we see ourselves as a b2b company. Acknowledgement at the consumer level is almost always going to be associated with the publishers, so we are well known though not so much at consumer level.

Having said that, if you look at some of our studios they do have their own following. Backbone Entertainment has been very successful with games like Super Street Fighter 2 HD Remix, and Sumo Digital has a great following for what it’s developed [various OutRun and Virtua Tennis titles, as well as the BBC’s Doctor Who games].

Foundation 9 is about offering publishers the support they need to produce product, while being very stable ourselves. In reality, that’s not interested to the end-user, they’re interested in the games.

You sent out a press release which described the company as “the industry’s secret success” – surely you’d rather be known as a company that is [based on UK boxed retail data] doing better than Capcom?
Yeah I guess that would be nice, particularly for our employees. It’s great to market our company, but it would be great for our development teams to know clearer of our road to success.

In Develop 100, our position is based on boxed UK product – and a lot of our titles are digital, and some of them are very American and don’t sell in the UK. We’re the largest developer on PSN and XBLA, as well.

Develop pinned your UK sales down to ₤36.8 million, how close is that to the actual global figure in terms of total worldwide revenues?
Hmn. That’s a difficult one. We’re looking at a figure now that hasn’t been fully confirmed yet – I wouldn’t want to say it yet because we don’t want to do ourselves an injustice, or present something inaccurate.

A rule of thumb, then?
Your Develop 100 document appears to be accurate, as a rule of thumb.

Are there any stigmas about the company you want to quell?
Yeah I think so. The one thing we would say is that sometimes there is a suspicion at production level that, because we have a corporate backbone, that means we’re more expensive than other independent studios. The reality is that we’re just not.

You have built a money-generating business with such a diverse range of titles, would you like or do you need a central, flagship franchise?
No not really. We’ve been associated with a lot of products. I mean, in the UK we’ve been associated with games like OutRun and Virtua Tennis, and we’ve done quite a lot of work with Codemasters on the F1 franchise in the past, and at the same time we did a Doctor Who game.

I guess we have buckets of expertise and specialist skills, but as a company, no we don’t have a central flagship franchise because we cover such a wide array of games for different formats.

Last year the company went through restructuring and staff reductions. Are further such actions planned?
We’re definitely going to grow some of our studios, that’s certain, and we’re hiring key execs and top developers. At the moment I think we’re in a better place than just about anyone else.

Does that rule out further staff reductions?
No it doesn’t, nothing’s planned but nothing’s certain, but we will expand in some areas.

Are you interested in adding another studio to the six you currently have?
Are we interested in acquiring new studios? I’d have to say probably not, but where we would have interest is in areas where we don’t have great cover.

I mean, we’re the largest DS developer in the world by team numbers, or at least we’re certainly up there, and we’re also the largest XBLA developer by titles. I think we’ve got most bases covered, but if an opportunity came along we do have the chance to make acquisitions.

But to me, the most important thing is that we deliver quality in a cost-effective manner. That’s more important than growing the company with another studio.

There’s a principle in the development community that building your own IP is commendable, and even essential. What does Foundation 9’s success – brought about by work-for-hire jobs – suggest in response?
At the end of the day, this business is about supplying great games to play, and a big part of that is working with existing franchises and existing licences. Just because a game isn’t based on original IP doesn’t mean it isn’t an original product.

We’ve done new IP from time-to-time, but it’s not at the core of our company. At the end of the day, we want to be stable and robust and productive. The key is to find the right balance and keep plenty of work coming.

Foundation 9 is valued for its reliability to meet deadlines and budget.  A common problem for game development, of course, is that projects naturally don’t always follow timelines or budget. What does your company do when a developer has three months of work to do in two months?
In reality, we have a lot of internal checks. It doesn’t mean we don’t have rushes at the end of projects; that’s inevitable. But it’s the exception rather than the norm. We take our scheduling very seriously and we have developed a lot of great tools to help us in that regard.
When we do get to that position where we are running out of time, a lot of the time we move resource from our other teams to help out.

What does the future hold for Foundation 9?
The industry’s evolving and will continue to do so, and we’re seeing new platforms and innovations – that’s the way it’s always been. Customers are constantly looking for innovation and the industry will continue to react to that. We’ll continue to support the publishers who need to react to this fluid, dynamic market.