Setting up a studio

Setting up a studio
Jem Alexander

By Jem Alexander

February 13th 2017 at 2:30PM

All studios start out small, but only one became Supermassive. Jem Alexander investigates the developer’s early days, how they compare to recently formed companies and what aspiring studio founders should know before they go about starting a business.

Getting a job in the games industry can be hard. It goes without saying that it’s competitive and for some people, joining an established studio is a frustrating, limiting experience. For true creative freedom, the only option is to become the master of your own destiny. Make your own games.

Set up a studio. It’s a daunting thought, but also a deeply alluring one. Who knows, you could be the next Bungie. Or the next Naughty Dog. It’s fair to say that Supermassive hasn’t yet reached such heady heights, but with the launch of Until Dawn last year, and two PlayStation VR launch titles under its belt, the studio has big plans as it looks towards a multiplatform future focused on both virtual reality and cinematic narrative experiences.

Managing director of Supermassive, Pete Samuels, appears almost wistful as he reminisces about the early days of the company. “I’d been at EA for seven years when I really started to think ‘I want to do something different, I want to do something on my own’”, he says. “I left EA with that plan in mind. It’s quite hard with no reputation, and no large team, to do what I wanted to do. Which was eventually to make big and important games.” 

I wouldn’t say ‘luck’, because I think you make you own, but it’s spotting the opportunities when they come. 

Pete Samuels, Supermassive 

A lot of would-be studio heads have a similar mission in mind. To create games that have an impact, ignite passion and, sure why not, maybe make a bit of money too. So what’s the difference between Supermassive and the many startups that don’t make it beyond the first year or two? “A lot of this is to do with opportunism. I wouldn’t say ‘luck’, because I think you kind of make your own, but it’s spotting the opportunities when they come.” Being open to opportunities as they present themselves, and being flexible and nimble enough to take advantage of them, is a key skill when starting out. For Pete, the first big opportunity came in the unlikely form of the PlayStation Move motion controller. 

Before any studio was founded, Pete and his brother Joe did consultancy work. “You can’t always do exactly what you want initially when you start a business. You have to take the opportunities and grow it. We did some interim production management. Helped Sony out with a couple of projects. A little bit on LittleBigPlanet and a lot on Killzone,” he explains. This initial relationship with Sony led to the first of Supermassive’s regular hiring sprees, and the official formation of the company.

“Sony talked to me about setting up a small team in the UK to build a game for a new movement controller that they were thinking about. So we grabbed a few people that I had worked with and respected and we had to hire twenty people really quickly.” 

Going into business with a sibling is not uncommon, it seems. Elsewhere in the industry, Joe Madureira ex-creative director of Vigil Games, has also founded a new studio with his brother Steve. The pair had worked together at Vigil on the Darksiders games and now they form one half of Airship Syndicate, where they are now making a JRPG-style game based on Battle Chasers

“Pretty much all Vigil guys were our first four,” Joe says. “We now have 12 guys jammed into a little room. We’re probably insane. Everyone’s just kind of a perfectionist, you know? We kind of planned from the beginning that everything would take a little bit longer than anticipated and we just shoot for triple-A quality. So far it’s been very manageable. We just have an amazing team. I think really that’s the secret to anything. Building that strong team from the beginning and letting them do their thing.”

Another relatively new studio, Dublin-based Pewter Games, also surrounded themselves with good people as they hired for their hand- animated point and click adventure game, The Little Acre. As a fresh, inexperienced company on a low budget, they visited graduate showcases at universities in Ireland, where they found that they had the pick of the litter. “That was definitely an interesting thing, because Ireland has a very strong animation scene,” Ben Clavin, co-founder of Pewter Games says. “So there’s no shortage of jobs in the animation industries, but we were surprised going to these shows that we were able to approach what would clearly be some of the best students showcasing their work. Because there’s not a ton of game jobs going in Ireland, they were so excited and almost turned down the bigger studios to come and work for us because of the creative freedom that we offered them. But also they got to work on a game, which is unique for Dublin.”

Students may not necessarily have the experience of working in a professional game development environment, but their price tag reflects that. “We didn’t have a very large budget,” Chris Conlan, co-founder and CEO of Pewter Games explains. “So we just had to get people who didn’t have ten, twenty years experience. Students were ideal, because a lot of them were just doing internships anyway, so for us to say ‘look, we’re offering an actual paid role, it’s not a huge amount, but it’s paid’. It was mutually beneficial. That’s also the reason then why, although there’s a lack of experience, we wanted to make sure we were getting the really talented ones.”

An added benefit is that by hiring students you are getting people at the height of their passion. Starting your own studio and picking a small group of the right people means that you can ensure that everyone’s passions align and that you’re working with people who care deeply about the project. From here, as Supermassive’s Pete Samuels says, it’s about growing organically.

“There were about fifteen of us at one point in a room,” Pete says. “Then we had to grow a bit more, so we had the wall taken down and we went into the next. And we kept taking walls down until we reached the end of the building. And then we needed to grow some more, so we knocked the walls down in a different direction. It was very organic.

“It’s not growth for growth’s sake. Right when we were only 20 people and Sony said ‘can you do another project?’, we said ‘yeah okay, we’ll find a way to do that’.”

These Move projects with Sony led to Supermassive being asked to help the publisher with a first-person horror Move game on PS3 that had been having development issues for a while. A game that would eventually become the PS4 exclusive Until Dawn. Supermassive had taken a risk getting to grips with new technology and it resulted in the studio finally coming within reach of the big, important games it desired to create.

“I talk about Until Dawn being a pivotal point for a number of reasons,” Pete explains. “One was the recognition the team and the studio got for doing something different. People talk about their project being innovative and unique and they’re easy words to bandy around. I’m not saying that about Until Dawn. What I am saying is the combination of things and the way that we applied them, and the focus that we gave certain areas. That combination gave it some uniqueness. That’s dangerous and scary and credit to Sony for sticking with that.”

Risks are unavoidable in the games industry and setting up shop by yourself is one of the biggest. But just like in a well-designed game, where there is risk, reward usually follows. Supermassive is now in a position where it can focus on its dual-channel development strategy of making VR experiences and cinematic narrative games. All because they saw those initial opportunities, weighed up the risks and committed to it.

It’s easy to not take that risk and be scared away, especially if your project is unique and unusual. “The one thing I would say is don’t get ruled by fear,” Airship Syndicate’s Joe Madureira says. “I feel like you can talk yourself out of doing anything if you start to rationalise. If people had warned me against getting into games, I might’ve chickened out. Don’t let people say ‘ugh, RPGs don’t sell well. People don’t like turn-based combat’. Whatever it is, if you’re excited about it and you do a really good job, it doesn’t matter. Nothing’s popular until it is, right? Just make something awesome.”

Likewise, the guys at Pewter Games feel their focus on hand-drawn animation is a risky move, but one that allows them to stand out from other games. “Our animation style is kind of a crazy thing to try and do,” explains co-founder Ben. “It’s expensive and it takes a long time. To have a character pick up a shovel takes a hundred drawings or more. As a whole, the industry isn’t going in that direction so if you can’t compete on a big scale, why not offer the platform holders like Microsoft and Sony something a little different. They want to flesh out their portfolio. They don’t need another first-person shooter.”

Once you’ve built your studio and have a decent talent pool, who are learning on the job and developing their skills, the trick is fostering the right environment to make sure they stick around. “I think it’s honesty that drives an open and collaborative culture,” Pete says. “To work in a place where you get to work across teams, contribute to games even that you’re not directly involved in, and to celebrate all our success as a studio. That’s what I mean about collaborative and inclusive culture. That’s why people enjoy working at Supermassive. We have very low attrition rates. For this part of the country, that says a lot because there are a lot of opportunities, but people stay. That’s enough evidence for me.

“I think what also helps is the variety of the games that we make. They’re not stuck on one thing for what can feel – in other places that they’ve worked – like a three year death march. I’d have to look and see if there has been a year where we haven’t released something. That’s important to us. It’s all about releasing stuff.”

“Setting up a business is easy. Always has been, always will be. Sustaining it for any length of time, and sustaining it even through failure, that’s the hard part.”