Pt 1: Studio head Mark Betteridge discusses how Rare Birmingham will differ
For the last eight months, the famed UK studio Rare has been searching across UK towns and cities to find the ideal location for its new second studio, before finally deciding on Birmingham.
The developer’s decision wasn’t based on having found the right patch of land or the trendiest building. Rare had found what is still the most valuable asset in game production; the right people.
Rare Birmingham will draw from the pools of talent and expertise in the area - including local students - and offer work, particularly art and design, on a temporary contract basis. However, as the craft of game design rapidly expands out to different audiences and tastes, so does the idea of what the ‘right person’ for the job is.
And as Rare is making more games for those unexcited by traditional core game concepts, so it must find more non-gamers to offer feedback. A humble passer-by in Birmingham will be offered a neat pay packet for a few hours of NDA, play, and say.
Develop sits down with studio head Mark Betteridge to discuss what the Birmingham studio will mean for the company, and what it will mean for its new employees.
How exactly will the new Birmingham studio differ from a traditional development outfit?
The two main areas we see for it are in art and testing. In regards to art production, we’ll be hiring a lot of staff, and sometimes their contracts will last as long as eighteen months, and they can be quite substantial work contracts depending on the project they’re doing.
In regards to testing, this won’t just be bug-testing - it’ll be QA and usability testing that will tailor the experience for our target customer. So there will be a bigger push into that area as well, but predominantly, this is going to be a flexible, scalable production facility.
The thing about work that’s categorised part-time or temporary is that the workers don’t have full-time rights that you have in permanent employment. Obviously, you’re saying that some at Rare Birmingham are going to be there for as long as eighteen months on a temporary contract, so I imagine that these won’t have the same employment protections that full-time staff will have.
We’ve been very anxious that when we have contract staff in now that they are not made to feel like a second-grade citizen compared to everyone else. We’ve gone out of our way to do everything we can for our own people.
I see things a lot of times from the opposite way. With the work we did with the NXE avatars, we were able to offer work and experience to people on a three month break from university. They’ve gone back to their university course with that on their CV, and so I think some of the opportunities we can offer are very strong.
But certainly, if people are working for us day-to-day for an extended period, it’s absolutely not our intent for them to be seen as inferior.
The reality of the contract market is that, if you want a specialist for a certain amount of time, I guarantee you’ll be paying them more money on average than you would your own permanent staff.
Perhaps in a sense this is fairer. You’re being straight with people and telling them they’re going to be working on a contract basis, and not forever, rather than offing loose promises.
Yes and the fact that the work is temporary gives new people new opportunities - you don’t need years of coding experience.
There are people who are working in and around Birmingham with temporary jobs right now - and we’ll be looking for those people to come down and test some games for us for a couple of hours. That gives us flexibility, and flexibility is key.
It’s encouraging to hear studios talk about the importance of usability testing. Last year Black Rock’s Jason Avent told us that good usability testing practices can improve a game’s review score by as much as ten per cent.
I’d agree with what he said. Ten per cent, if not more. The industry is maturing in some areas, especially the core market, and we know those customers and how they react and what they’re looking for, but as the industry expands and we start to bring in new players, it is quite striking the different perception new customers have to the same content.
It’s going to be very important to test games with the relevant target customers, and then use that data to balance a game for the right demographic.
There are a lot of things you take for granted when delivering content for the core market. Things like user-interface, for instance. Working with Natal is very exciting but a lot of [problem-solving] has come through user-testing, as opposed to a team of artists, designers and programmers calling a meeting and scratching their heads.
The new facility in Birmingham is also much larger in size than here at Twycross. During production, a lot of times you want to bring in different types of people for usability testing - just even for small two-hour sessions at a time. So, our Birmingham studio has the convenience of a city centre location.
It’s quite bizarre to see how developers go about usability testing. These studios - with highly specialised staff, all sworn to secrecy about their projects – just go out on the streets and ask random people if they want to play a game for a couple of hours.
Yeah it’s interesting, some usability testing that Microsoft has already done has involved the company go up to strangers and ask ‘do you like video games’. Those who said they didn’t were allowed to come in and test these games for pay.
Trying to gauge gameplay reactions of people who are not our customers - nor do not see themselves as potential customers - is very interesting!
An example with NXE avatars is that, as we look at new content and new experiences, we’re also able to recruit key expertise in certain areas. With avatars we hired ten to fifteen fashion students to design the clothing, and historically old Rare would have used an internal artist for that.
Sometimes it’s better to draw in ideas from wider media and other industries, be it TV and fashion and so on. These are the sort of things that appeal to the customers we don’t have at the moment and that we’d like to have.
What kind of staff are you looking for in the Birmingham studio?
It’ll range from product to product. A lot of the time we’ll be looking for young graduates with an interest in digital media, whether it’s Maya or just concept art.
The people we want don’t necessarily need to have a background in computer games, or even a huge interest in it. Sometimes it’s better to get new ideas and new trains of thought.
On the testing side, it’ll be a huge variety of people. We’ll be testing with all sorts, young to old and male to female, some of which are completely outside our customer base.
It’s fantastic to see you’re on the hunt for aspiring graduates specifically.
Yeah, most people at Rare I would say haven’t worked anywhere else. That certainly shows our stability, which is very critical to creativity and bringing a product out. Rare’s background is very much in grass-roots recruitment, and bringing people up with us.
Will this new approach lead to job losses in any way? The roles that you are creating in Birmingham; will this make some positions in Twycross expendable?
No, no not at all. I expect some people at Twycross will move to Birmingham, because obviously we won’t just have contractors based there. For those here, it’s an opportunity to move up and manage a group of fifteen artists or whatever it may be. It isn’t our aim to reduce people here and take on at Birmingham.
I know people here at Twycross see it as an opportunity to have a bigger job with more responsibilities. The idea, though, is that Rare will have more people - we need to have a company structure where, if we have a brilliant idea, that idea should not be prevented from coming to market because of production capabilities.
We need to structure ourselves so we can scale our production ability to bring our ideas to market when the timing’s right.
In the traditional development model, we might have a great idea but realise we can’t implement it for another year because other staff are working on other projects. In a hit-driven business, timing is everything, and the aim here is to recruit more people to take advantage of opportunities before they pass.