Tim Heaton on the benefits of keeping development in-house
Hidden away between a brewery and a greasy spoon café close to Horsham railway station is our newest investment.
You can’t tell from the outside but it’s one of Europe’s biggest in-house motion capture facilities, just a half a mile or so away from our main studio, here in beautiful West Sussex.
46 cameras, 160 square meters of capture space, and as much free beer as you can manage – they put the wrong labels on a batch next door, and let us have a few.
There are some great external resources for motion capture that we could use both in this country and abroad, and indeed we’re using one at the moment for some capture that needed to be started before we finished the studio, but that’s top secret.
Many development studios would be content to continue to outsource this kind of work when they need to, but it says something about what we’re trying to do here, and what kind of studio we are that we choose to do as much as possible in-house.
AN INSIDE JOB
We think the decision to invest in infrastructure, engines, tools and facilities shouldn’t only be based upon relatively short-term financial decisions. Understanding the deep, subtle impacts these decisions can have across many areas is important too.
The motion capture studio example is a good one. Not only does it give us freedom to experiment, try ideas that might fail, learn to finesse our process, but because it’s always there it means that we never have a reason to make a compromise.
If we have some animation that is okay, but not great, instead of settling for it, or rebooking a facility – with the associated sour face of me having to sign off a purchase order for more money – our animation teams can just do what they want to do to ensure the best possible quality.
That creates a kind of tipping point, where the process doesn’t get in the way and is never an excuse.
Another example would be the many reasons why we’ve developed a custom engine for our Alien console game at a time where many are happy to buy into Unreal or CryEngine.
The straightforward ones included the fact that we had very specific requirements, we already had a good starting point, and that we knew the next generation of hardware was coming and we wanted to be able to move fast on that, and not be constrained by a third-party engine.
However, one of the more subtle reasons is that we believe ‘rocket scientists’ – team members who are technically brilliant at what they do – help us differentiate ourselves from other studios and other games.
These rocket scientists can be frontline graphics programmers, or AI gurus, or technical artists, or level designers with a depth of knowledge and inspirational ability that is eye opening. I think we already have more than our fair share, but people like that don’t want to be constrained, and so want the freedom to influence tools, pipelines and engines in a very direct way.
They don’t want to have to wait for the ‘next major release in six months time’.
These brilliant people are a vital part of our DNA, and one of the reasons we chose to develop our own console engine was to reinforce our ability to attract them and keep them interested.
Each in/out decision is made on its own merits, and we are certainly not averse to going out-of-house when it makes sense.
Recently, we chose to develop Total War Battles using the Unity engine and tools. We wanted to move fast and be available across plenty of different platforms, and we also wanted to experiment with gameplay, but not get bogged down too much in the technical challenges of platforms that are evolving very quickly.
So, it made sense to use an engine that in some respects restrained the team to consider what we felt was important, and we’ve been really happy with the results.
It’s interesting that the barriers to making games keep coming down – many of the technical and development hurdles are lower than ever. The differentiating factors now are great people and allowing them the space to do what they’re great at.
There’s a danger that doing too much out-of-house might take away some of the freedom these people need.