Climax Studios has been a part of the games industry for almost three decades. So what’s next for the veteran developer and where does VR fit in? Sean Cleaver finds out
Whenever we talk about British game studios, we often hear of the same places – Leamington Spa, Guildford, London. It’s not often that we hear about Portsmouth on the South coast. But for nearly 30 years, Climax Studios has been down on the Solent, creating digital experiences and winning awards.
Surviving in games for that long is always a challenge and, much like the British games industry overall, is a balance of creativity and risk.
“It’s a shame many of the leading lights have been acquired and ultimately either destroyed or absorbed by overseas owners, but that’s no different from most British industry successes,” says Climax CEO, Simon Gardner, who also believes that finding investment within the UK can be a problem. “Games is a creative business and finding risk capital is very difficult in the UK.
“This leads to owners inevitably looking for an exit that involves investors more willing to take risks and these are usually overseas companies. With the weak pound and political uncertainty there are probably bargains to be had. On the staffing front, there is a danger that the early lead provided by the 1980s home computing boom has now ended, despite valiant efforts from the likes of David Braben’s (and others) Raspberry Pi, et al. The country really needs to push coding in schools.”
“What is really good to see is that quick thinking, flexible studios have been able to adapt and take on new sectors, which has allowed them to flourish. I’m particularly impressed with Rebellion and Team17.”
Money is harder to come by... Think very carefully about who you share your company ownership with
Simon Gardner, CEO, Climax Studios
Climax Studios sits in a rather expansive place in the games industry. As a creator of digital experiences, the studio has history in developing games for consoles and offering technical support to big companies like Sony and Microsoft. One area that Climax entered very early on is virtual reality.
“We made and published our first VR title over 3 years ago,” says Gardner. “It was actually available on the Gear VR Innovator Edition, before launch of the commercial release. We were keen to be involved in this new hardware from the start. It was very exciting and clearly, for us, provided a fantastic means of gaining access to new technology and funding. Also, it was challenging for us and a way of allowing new channels of creativity, new ways of playing and finding new input devices. We’ve worked on around 15 VR and AR titles since that first VR release. Some of them didn’t make release, but it’s been an incredible opportunity to be at the forefront of a new sector.
“Our market lead and company recognition has given us access to new hardware that we have been playing around with before it’s even announced, let alone released. But that is only half of the Climax story. We have continued to develop console titles and we offer extensive technical, design and art resources to other companies. For example. we have been working with Amazon on their Lumberyard Engine. We built a VR demo called Elevator Pitch for GDC 2016 to showcase the VR capability of the engine and we have been working with their Seattle studio to provide example code in the form of the Starter Game project.”
One reason that Climax has excelled has been the incredible talent that the studio has been able to attract. “We are a diverse company and I think we had, at one point, 28 nationalities working here,” Gardner explains.
“You can hear all kinds of languages being spoken in the social areas of the studio. We actively hire from all over the world and enjoy the cultural mixing that this promotes. We embrace diversity and are seen as a relaxed and fun place to work. We have an A-rating with the UK Visas and Immigration service, which helps with our recruitment process. We try to support local charities and usually pay for any of our staff to enter local running events such as the Great South Run that takes place in Portsmouth each year.”
This culture at the studio means that the team can make its own IPs alongside the contracted work without any negative impact to either area. Showing you can stay at the forefront of technology is key. Climax’s most recent release, Lola and the Giant, was developed exclusively for Google’s Daydream VR headset, and the studio is always creating.
“We’ve been lucky over the last three years to have managed to operate in a work for hire environment and retain our IP,” says Gardner. “We have created eight new IPs over the last three years. Seven of these have been externally funded. This has been a big break with the traditional publisher/developer relationship. It’s been refreshing and more importantly has been achieved with no equity loss.
“In reality, we have been able to raise just under $8M of funding to make our own games. This would probably have been a big headline had we done it through some sort of external investment. We’ve built a huge lead in VR and AR technology and experience. We now need to cross the ‘gap of disappointment’ and be one of the leading players in this amazing technology. “
It was Unity CEO, John Ricatello, who was one of the first to use the phrase ‘gap of disappointment’ to explain how VR is going to have lower sales despite the quality of products that are being made for the medium. Climax is very aware of this as Gardner looks to the future and offers advice for his peers.
“We are going to keep being involved in new technologies and build on our lead in VR and AR. We have several AR projects in development and see this as a technology that will touch everybody’s lives.
“However, it will also feedback into all of the other things we do and so Climax will continue to work in collaboration with and offer its expertise to other companies in the console and handheld space. The next big challenge is crossing that ‘gap of disappointment’ that has or will greet VR and be best placed to exploit the commercial opportunities once the market rises to meet the technology. It happened in mobile and it will most likely happen in VR.
“Talk to fellow developers and companies and ask their opinions. Validate your amazing idea with a friendly publisher (under NDA) just in case you are overlooking some key information that invalidates it. Work out how you propose funding your project for at least three times as long as you think it is going to take. Money is harder to come by than you think. Amazing ideas would appear to be plentiful given the number of non- industry people that tell us they have a great game idea that we should pay for. Think very carefully who you share your company ownership with. Do they hold the same values and ethos as you and if not, find somebody else.
“I see a successful studio as being able to navigate the complexities of technology, creativity and management. The blend and emphasis of these things changes with the opportunities that arise and you just need to sometimes know when to be brave and when to hold the line. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with work for hire, you often get to work on some amazing licenses such as Silent Hill and Assassins Creed. We have worked alongside some huge, well- respected studios and contributed to their games.”