Playgrounds for optimism

Playgrounds for optimism
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

September 13th 2011 at 9:30AM

Develop explores what's going on at Playground, one of the UK's fastest growing triple-A studio

Since being founded early in 2010 in the UK’s Leamington Spa, Playground Games has enjoyed impressive growth.

In just six months 43 new staff have joined, and the company hasn’t even announced its first project.

Develop sat down with the studio’s three heads to talk over what’s going on at Playground.

What motivated you to build a studio this large so quickly at a time when many are pessimistic about the strength of triple-A games development in the UK?

Ralph Fulton, design director:
There are numerous reasons, but one common to the three of us is that we all wanted to make triple-A games. That’s where our heritage is, and even though there is a trend away from that at the moment, that is where we wanted to go.

We still believe in high definition experiences that you play at home sitting on your sofa; that’s what we do recreationally, and it’s what we want to create. There’s absolutely scope in the UK to do that.

Trevor Williams, COO: And I think we’ve probably proven that, by our success in growing the team over the last five months.

Gavin Raeburn, development director: It may seem like a difficult time to start a new development team, but looking back for us that hasn’t quite been the case. There has been trouble throughout the industry, sure, but to be honest that’s been to our benefit, because we’ve been able to hire some fantastic people.

And it’s your unannouced project that has allowed you to expand so confidently?

Williams: Yes. We kept it fairly tight at just under 20 people until we had the projects signed off.

What has given us the confidence is our partner and our project. We were very focused about what we wanted to do.

We got offered quite a lot of other stuff, because we had a team with a great track record. We got offered handheld stuff and other types of games. We were tempted on occasion, but we managed to maintain this real focus.

Fulton: If you look back at why we set up this company up, it’s not because of those other things we were offered. We did run lean for most of 2010. You’re hearing lots about us now because obviously we’re hiring and ramping up. Last year was all about getting this place up and running.

Williams: This ties in with your first question. Was it a bad time to set up a new studio? It’s never a bad time to set up a studio if you’ve got a good team.

Our core, founding group have a track record of making great games. That mitigates the risk. In times when it’s tough for the industry it doesn’t matter if you have a great team; there’s still an opportunity to get out there and do it.

But with so many people joining so fast, it must be difficult to maintain and nurture your company culture?

Williams: We know what we want to get done, and we’re strong enough to see that through all the people. Because the founders are some of the leads of the studio, we have a core with a real belief in how we do things. That permeates out.

Raeburn: We hire in our own image as well, so we’re hiring people that will be an easy fit into the company. That certainly makes things a lot easier.

Fulton: We put quality first, and I hope that trickles down to everybody here. People have to pay attention to quality here, and have passion. Everyone here is a gamer. That’s a prerequisite, and we go quite a way into that in our interviews. People who play games learn from their experience.

And the staff buzz we have here comes from the excitement of something that is new, and knowing what we are doing and seeing the plan laid out in front of us.

Raeburn: People who come here really want to work here, and we have a really good mix of old heads and new graduates.

So you’re not struggling to find good talent being here in the UK?

Williams: Since March we’ve hired 43 people, and we’re actually quite picky. We’ve had some weeks where five new staff have joined us, but we’re definitely picky.

We do turn down quite a lot of people, but everyone we hire sticks. We do get people we’re interested in to sign an NDA, and then we brief them on the project we’re working on. We don’t expect people to come here and not know what they’d be working on.

Fulton: It’s a wider UK news story that doesn’t get told enough; there are tonnes and tonnes of really high quality developers out there, and they have a real appetite to work on triple-A games.

Sure, there’s a lot of exciting new things going on in the industry, but there’s still a lot of people out there who go into this industry to make the kind of games to play at home on a TV set.

Is it fair to say that in what it offers staff Playground is quite a traditional studio?

Fulton: We’re certainly traditional in a lot of senses, but we are very modern in our approach to game development

Williams: Yes. Our processes and the way we build our games is state of the art, but in terms of how the studio is run, we really are very traditional. Everyone works here, rather than offsite.

We do have contractors, which is a little more modern, but they still work on site. So, yes, it is traditional in some ways, but I don’t see that as a derogatory term.

And where are you finding your talent? What kind of developers are you looking to employ?

Williams: We tend to employ two types of people. The first is graduates early on in their careers who are younger rather than junior.

People who are smart, switched on and good at solving new problems. Then we’ve hired a group of big hitters.

So we tend to hire those in the top and bottom end. We have this mix of real experience and new talent. We’ve avoided the journeymen. And we’ve even hired a couple of people from Canada. We’re getting them back to the UK.

Raeburn: We’ve founded Playground to be really appealing to people because of what it offers in terms of its size. Really, for a triple-A studio it is relatively small. People enjoy the intimacy and get to work on what is a huge, huge game.

Fulton: That’s what UK studios can offer. Speaking personally I don’t want to go and work in a 2,000 staff studio with a mall in the middle of it. People love the intimacy and the feeling of family we have here.

Williams: People who wanted to work on triple-A games started to go out to Canada. They could work on the latest Assassin’s Creed or on something else at a Ubisoft or EA studio, and those companies could drain it because they could offer the projects. There aren’t as many triple-A games made in the UK anymore.

Raeburn: I think there are still some great teams here, but they’re consolidating. The talent that is left has been mopped up by these larger development teams.

Williams: And the fact that we’ve been able to create one of those opportunities means we have become a magnet for great people. Rather than go to Canada they can come here to playground.

Fulton: I would add that you can get the impression from the press that triple-A games just don’t get made in the UK anymore. That’s just not true.

All around the country from Edinburgh to the south coast, you will see triple-A games being made; maybe not quite as many as there were being made ten years ago, but that’s the case worldwide.

What does the future hold for Playground? When will you stop hiring?

Fulton: We’re a one team studio, and we work on one project at a time, and we’ll never have more than 100 staff.

www.playground-games.com