An interview with managing director Robert Troughton on the UK studio’s origins
[This feature was published in the November 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad]
How did you get into the games industry?
My interest in video games started back in the ‘80s with the Commodore 64. I’d always had this interest in how games were put together. I had a lot more free time back then, so I would use a piece of hardware called an ‘Expert Cartridge’ that let you inspect the machine code. With that, I would change things – how high a character could jump, for example – by finding the right piece of code. I then progressed to coding my own games, all in assembly language, along with ‘scene demos’. This was all while I was supposed to be doing my homework, of course.
After university, I got a job working at Reflections, a small Newcastle studio that had just finished up work on their Amiga title, Brian the Lion, and had begun work on a racing game prototype: Destruction Derby. The title was picked up by Sony to be a launch title on the original PlayStation. The team was small – just four programmers, one artist and a designer.
And next you co-founded Pitbull Syndicate?
I actually had a year out working for Scavenger. They took a few key people from various companies that had been working on PlayStation games and created a new studio in Liverpool just for us. It was a year out because, really, they just let us get on with whatever we wanted to be doing. With no clear leadership or plans, we had a studio of programmers and artists all working on their own engines – we had three separate engines in development – and game prototypes.
When Scavenger US came in and decided that this wasn’t really working, I started sending my CV around to see whether I could get a ‘serious’ job. I went to meet the guys at Revolution Software in York, who offered me a place to work on Broken Sword. I’d actually interviewed there the year before and had opted for Scavenger instead – that was a mistake. I promised Charles Cecil that I definitely wouldn’t turn his offer down this time round. But then I heard from some of my friends at Reflections: they were looking to leave to set up a new racing game studio, Pitbull Syndicate. So I had to let Charles down again – being a co-founder of a new start-up was something that I just couldn’t turn down.
Do you think you made the right choice? Was it easy back then as a start-up studio?
I definitely don’t have any regrets. We had a great project signed up with Accolade: Test Drive 4. We had a small team to start with – just the eight founders of the studio – and nine months to complete the game. By the end of development, we’d grown to around 15 people and with this team we delivered the game on time, on budget, and it released to critical acclaim in most of the gaming press. We went on to make three further Test Drive games, along with some side projects: a very well received Demolition Racer, Demolition Racer: No Exit and, umm, Big Air – our only foray into snowboarding games.
Pitbull Syndicate was later sold to Midway Games. How did that come about?
We were part way into production of an open world Test Drive for Atari. They decided they couldn’t really afford to fund the game so they contacted several publishers to see who might be interested. Quite a few were but Midway came in with the best deal. They’d been looking to reboot their Rush franchise and really liked what we’d been working on, so that project became LA Rush.
After that, Midway expressed an interest in purchasing Pitbull Syndicate. They were making a lot of bold moves at the time with new IP and a large investment in Unreal Engine and Unreal Tournament. They wanted us to work on racing game technology with Unreal Engine to be shared across Midway’s studios worldwide, and we’d proven our expertise in this field. We accepted the offer and rebranded as Midway Studios Newcastle. At this time, we were around 40 to 50 people.
We worked on the racing tech for Midway and developed Wheelman. At the time it was the first open-world racing game developed with Unreal Engine. When the game published, Midway was in financial trouble and had announced it was going into bankruptcy. Several months after Wheelman shipped, the lawyers and liquidation specialists arrived at the studio, advised everyone to go home – and that was that. I won’t go into detail here, but it was a sad, sad day for the whole team.
How did you go from there to relaunching as Pitbull Studio?
The team disbanded after the Midway closure. People went to work at other studios in the North East, around the UK, or even overseas. Some left the games industry completely. I went to work at CCP Newcastle in 2009. It was a year later, in 2010, that I eventually decided to leave and form Pitbull Studio.
Our first contract was with an offshoot company of the NHS, developing Circus Challenge, a rehabilitative game for disabled children. We also approached Epic Games to see whether they would let us do some work on Unreal Engine. Luckily for us, they were just starting to dabble with outsourcing at the time. We only had five employees at the time – with the rest of the staff busy working on Circus Challenge, I took the Unreal Engine work on myself.
How did you go from just five people in 2010 to 45 people today?
As we did more work with Epic, we gradually added more team members. Initially we saw the Unreal Engine work as a sideline, but every time we found a great programmer to add to our team, Epic found more work for us. We found that people were really enjoying the work, because they were working on
cutting-edge technology that they wouldn’t have had the chance to work on in any other job. Our rate of expansion was accelerating as word spread about what we were doing.
I particularly remember the day, early in 2012, when I received an email from our contact at Epic asking me to step back from programming and to concentrate on recruitment. I still don’t know to this day whether that was because they really wanted us to recruit more people, or whether they just really didn’t want me near the codebase any more.
Any message you’d like to give to developers out there?
If you don’t enjoy your job, make a change. There are some great companies out there. Pitbull Studio do things a bit differently. We have a great work culture, we work hard but we work family-friendly hours and have great benefits. If you want an exciting challenge working on the next generation Unreal Engine 4 and you have awesome programming skills, send your CV to firstname.lastname@example.org.