The Blur and Project Gotham studio closes on Friday; what will be its legacy?
On Friday, February 18th, Bizarre Creations’ Liverpool studio will turn off the lights, lock the windows and close its doors for the final time.
The group made around twenty games over 15 years, growing to around 200 staff at the peak of its success.
The studio officially formed in 1994 under the Bizarre Creations brand, but industry veteran Martyn Chudley had in fact established the outfit back in 1988 under a different name.
Its big break came at the dawn of the first PlayStation – Bizarre had been commissioned a Formula 1 project for the new console.
Formula 1 ‘97 was a commercial success that established Bizarre’s reputation for quality racing games. However, it wasn’t until 2001 that the group cemented its position as a master of the genre.
That year saw the release of Metropolis Street Racer for the Dreamcast – a game reflected on as one of the best for Sega’s final console.
The collapse of Sega’s console business offered Microsoft a major commercial opportunity. The Windows firm had begun its own console games business, and struck an exclusive publishing deal with Bizarre Creations to build a racing franchise – Project Gotham Racing – for its new Xbox console.
The first Project Gotham game, evidently a spiritual successor to Metropolis Street Racer, became a triumphant Xbox launch title both commercially and critically.
It became second best-selling launch game for the console (after Halo), and scored high in game reviews. Bill Gates once said it was his favourite Xbox game.
Bizarre’s relationship with Microsoft proved lucrative for Martyn Chudley and his wife Sarah, who joined the developer and went on to become its commercial director.
In 2003 a Project Gotham sequel was released, again to fame and fortune. The studio, though still independent, remained closely tied with Microsoft, and in 2005 delivered another launch title for the Xbox 360.
That game was another standout success, yet it was here – when the smaller indie games business had resurrected in a new digital age – that Bizarre produced another cult hit. Geometry Wars, an unlockable extra mini-game on Project Gotham 3, went on to become a standalone Xbox Live Arcade title – one that gave the Liverpool studio further eminence and profit.
In the summer of 2006, the studio won the Develop Awards Grand Prix, recognising its digital/physical nous when other developers had no clue.
In 2007, Geometry Wars had ported to Nintendo’s Wii – a move that still demonstrated the studio’s independence from Microsoft. That self-reliance was made even clearer when, in 2007, it was revealed that Project Gotham Racing 4 was to be Bizarre’s last game in the franchise. Bizarre was going it alone.
The studio secured a deal with Sega to develop a unique, time-trial based shooter called The Club. Sarah Chudley later would admit life as an independent had become harder than expected for the UK studio.
“We had a dreadful time signing The Club up because it wasn’t a racing game – it took us a year to sign that up,” she said in 2008.
“Given projects are getting bigger and bigger and bigger we were having to bankroll huge teams without a contract,” she added.
“Our staff rely on us for their jobs – it’s not a business, it’s a family.”
She said these difficulties were one of the many reasons Bizarre accepted Activision’s acquisition bid back in 2007.
In a forum post on the developer’s website – which has since been taken down – Bizarre staff described Activision’s buyout with an understandable degree of pride and optimism.
“Bizarre isn't a developer in financial trouble, and we're certainly not looking to be 'saved' by a bigger corporation,” the post read.
“We're a dev looking to take our games to the next level, and make the absolute best products we can possibly make. Likewise, Activision is not in the business of 'buying out' struggling developers either."
The staff posting assured that Bizarre would maintain “creative control”.
That’s a claim certainly in line with Activision’s arm’s-length studio model, yet studio sources have since told Develop that the publisher had “meddled” with projects, and failed to properly back games with an efficient marketing campaign.
Blur would not be the studio’s final game, though it was the one that defined its collapse.
Like with Metropolis Street Racer and Project Gotham, Blur was a critical showpiece. The game was widely praised and became Activision's highest rated original title of 2010.
And yet it sold poorly, in part due to a fumbled marketing campaign and the eyebrow-raising decision to release the game at the same time as Black Rock Studio’s Split/Second, and Rockstar's award-winning Red Dead Redemption.
In November 2010, when UK dev scene appeared to be in the midst of a financial storm, Activision announced it was exploring the possibility of selling off Bizarre Creations.
A number of companies, including Microsoft, had shown an interest in buying the studio. None committed to a final purchase, however, and in January Activision announced it had given up on trying to sell the group.
Bizarre Creation’s management agreed on Activision’s recommendation to close the studio. Its 200 staff are already being snapped up and snaffled by rival firms – some of which were alleged to have held off saving the studio, because buying redundant developers is a far cheaper option. That, if true, demonstrates how little a developer’s legacy is worth even to this day.
Many people are talking about how sad the studio’s closure is, even pointing the blame at Activision, yet no one has demonstrated the nerve that Bobby Kotick’s company had lost.
Under the circumstances, few would blame a touch of bitterness from Bizarre’s staff. It is to be expected.
And yet, such acid-tongued responses have not surfaced. Develop has heard Bizarre staff speak on the issue with balance, open-mindedness and grace. Dare we say it, some have complimented Activision’s treatment of staff as the studio closes down.
“It’s such a shame,” one Activision individual told us. “They are a really, really great bunch of people. Never had a problem with them all the time we’ve worked together.”
For those in love with games, Bizarre will be remembered for its landmark and outstanding racing games. Yet for those in the industry, Bizarre always will be known as the lovely people from Liverpool.
In an industry fraught by change, may both those graces continue.