The 10 New Studios To Watch In 2008
Wednesday, 2nd January 2008 at 11:38 am
2007 may have been ‘Year of the Money’ given the large number of big-name industry consolidations and acquisitions, but it was also a year punctuated by new studios opening. We’ve chosen the ten we think you should keep an eye on in ’08…
Formed at the start of 2007, Recoil is founded by a number of industry veterans and has already scored support from independent development contemporary 3D Realms for upcoming title Earth No More, a disaster-movie themed game for release on 360, PS3 and PC. The game is the first in a new category of action-adventure games the studio wants to pioneer - 'cinegames', which the team describes as 'a fusion of emotional human drama and epic movie-like settings'.
Key to Recoil's founding is the fact that many of the development discipline leads are also part of the original management team. The studio head is Remedy and Fathammer founder, Samuli Syvahnuoko, and other co-founders are Jarkko Lempiainen (technology director - previously graphics programmer on Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory), Mikko Kautto (former Bugbear art chief and Recoil's art director), Samuli Viikinen (senior gameplay designer), Aki Raula (design director), Hans Zenjuga (lead concept artist) and Petteri Putkonen (senior deisgner).
Syvahnuoko tells us this has created a deep-rooted investment from the management, with the team advocating agile development/scrum processes under their close watch. "Instead of managing large disciplines and departments we can now form extremely nimble multi-disciplinary teams around specific goals. That's a big change and one that I think has made development more efficient," he says, adding that there are a number of lessons he's learnt after over 12 years in the industry which have informed Recoil's tech, production and management strategy.
One of these has been the decision to, like many other studios, not build complicated in-house technology for next-gen, instead licensing Unreal Engine 3. Says Syvahnuoko: "This is a big benefit and it will ensure that our core gameplay will be tested, proven and nailed down much more quickly." That said, Recoil does have a number of in-house tools it is closely keeping under wraps: "Rest assured, that we have several aces up our sleeves. If you look at the games our founders have previously been involved with there aren't too many bad looking games!"
Having been in the industry for over a decade, Syvahnuoko is also a perfect person to ask about the industry's talent churn and how that impacts new studios.
"When setting up Remedy, I and the rest of the people were only around 20 years of age. For most it was their first job and basically no one knew anything about professional software development. So, you can imagine that the learning curve was huge during the first few years. But young, motivated and energetic people usually learn fast and that's what happened - the results speak for themselves," he says, and it's clear the management team are confident they have still captured that eager magic to push forward production of Earth No More and the team's other new IPs.
But that doesn't mean they aren't keen to learn from their contemporaries - Syvahnuoko names Epic and id's dual technology/games strategies as business models to admire, and his former outfit Remedy and also Valve as key studios that have proven you don't need hundreds of staff to make a big impact in the industry.
Syvahnuoko's also a great proponent of independent studios and the Finnish game development scene, citing Super Stardust HD from fellow FInnish developer Housemarque and Bugbear's FlatOut series as favourites and great examples of how Recoil's contemporaries have contributed to gaming.
"The Finnish games industry is growing a lot faster than the global games industry on average - and doing amazingly well," he says. "There are around 60 game studios in Finland with around ten focused on PC/consoles and rest on mobile/web."
He adds: "The natural laws of the industry will make sure independent game development will always be there - and moreover I think they'll be the ones making the most innovative games. It's just the nature of the beast."
Derry, Northern Ireland
There are a number of things that are unique about Darkwater. Firstly, it's based in Northern Ireland, a country not especially known for its game development output (although Dublin, Northern Ireland is home to studios run by PopCap and Gameloft). Secondly, the company was spun out of technology firm Instinct at the start of 2007. And thirdly the team is not relying on publisher support for its crucial first few years, due to a unique deal with the local government's Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment.
All three points have been key to the studio's formation, explains Darkwater boss Mike Brown. The team was originally founded to help realise a dream of the Instinct Technology board - namely form a game studio to help prove their game technology worked - and in the last 12 months a number of things "clicked into place", presenting the opportunity to "set up a studio in Northern Ireland and tap into some different funds and create something very different to Instinct as a middleware company".
After winning a DETI grant for a broadband content initiative earlier this year Darkwater started working on Dogfighter, an initially free-to-play online title due for release next year - the game was produced with the funds from the DETI, which in essence has exclusive first look rights to the property for the first year, but Darkwater has creative and commercial freedoms that outstrip those found in a usual publisher/developer relationship.
Explains Brown: "We've very much got the project under our own control - although the DETI will own it for a year, we'll be looking after it and are not beholden to any publisher and it will be up to us to turn it into something commercial after that. We can do what we like with it as there are no other major funding partners aside from the government."
He adds: “The project gives us a good basis to work from and some good funding on top of the private venture capital we have raised for Dark Water. We are building the team at the moment and have the core team in place for the DETI project, but we’re also getting ready to start on a second project that we will start talking to publishers about soon.”
Brown is, however, very honest about setting up a studio in 2007, a year he dubs “the worst year for new studios” due to the overall shortage of good programmers – but he thinks that the studio’s publisher-free status, plus its Northern Ireland location will serve it well as the team expands, despite any doubts would-be Darkwater staff may have.
“I can understand people’s reticence – it is across the water although it is part of the UK, and Northern Ireland isn’t known for a games development scene, so people have some genuine questions,” he concedes, but adds: “However we are not tied to any publishers and have a lot of money behind us. There are plenty of personal benefits to living over here too – Derry is a lovely city, has a nightlife and everything you may want, but is just five minutes from great countryside. Plus, people are always surprised to learn that you come over here and there’s no council tax or water rates – there are these great little things that Northern Ireland has going for it.”
Regionality aside, Brown hopes the studio’s first project can cater to a wide audience, with the studio also pursuing new business models that will keep it independent. As a game Dogfighter may experiment with the pay-to-play model and “we’ll be trying out sponsorships or in-game advertising to get funds in to keep things going, to get more funding and make sure we can keep a free offer to consumers and also give something back to the people playing.”
“I don’t know if anyone’s gone through a greater difference of moving from work on Tomb Raider Legend, which used 150 people around the world and cost a lot of money to produce a casual game made by a few people on a low budget.” So says Patrick O’Luanaigh, the former creative director at SCi/Eidos who in 2006 left the firm and work on a new venture. 12 months later that’s nDreams, a burgeoning new studio focused on casual games – and specifically looking into how story-based casual titles may push this fast-growing sector of the games industry forward.
“Casual games is such a rich and growing area at the moment – everyone’s diving in, but not necessarily understanding it,” says O’Luaniagh. His studio nDream’s approach is clear: focusing purely on the 30+ female portion of the casual games market, which is estimated to be able 75 per cent of the sector’s audience.
“It’s very easy to say you’re entering the casual market, but you really need to understand how games are received and distributed and get them on various sites. It’s not just about marketing games to women, it’s about building a relationship between them and your games.”
nDreams plans to do this by creating experiences which, he adds, will be populated by iconic female characters, but have an emotional pull akin to something like drama Grey’s Anatomy rather than pulpy adventure Tomb Raider.
“We really want to make sure our story is an engrossing as those in other media. Tomb Raider Legend had a great story, but I imagine a female casual gamer would be pot off by the interface and twitch gameplay,” he says, adding that nDreams will shake things up by substituting shooting for storylines in its first game, Venus Redemption. Much of the game’s production has so far “been focus tested to death”, explains O’Luaniagh, talking up the virtues of canvassing for opinions and getting consumers to play test your titles.
He explains: “That’s the only way to get things right – the industry is so used to designing for 18 to 25 year old men that it’s refreshing to learn about a new audience. When you’re trying to approach a new demographic it’s really the only way to do it because you can sit down with them and find out what they like and enjoy – that’s why we’ve focused so much on story and driving the plot forward.”
And O’Luaniagh says that unlike the megabucks publishers barrelling into casual games, his more nimble operation that will understand the emerging market better – and is aided by its status as an independent studio.
“There are now more opportunities for independents than there have been in some time. Back when Xbox and PS2 first arrived it was all about scale – you had to have a big team, and when I thought about starting a studio then I just didn’t want to because of all the people we’d need,” he explains.
“But now things have changed with the arrival of web and mobile, and then there’s DS and Wii, plus casual gaming in all its forms, from Xbox Live Arcade to PlayStation Network and PC – all of it means it’s a great time to be in development.”
Once upon a time, there was a company called Capcom, and a man called Atsushi Inaba. After working on several games at the firm, including Devil May Cry and Steel Battalion, he rose to the position of producer and, together with Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, saw the need to differentiate the purely creative aspect of their work. Together they formed a new subsidiary boutique for Capcom in 2002, which they named Clover.
Clover soon gained a reputation with hardcore gamers. Viewtiful Joe mixed a Japanese/Western hybrid art style with old-fashioned side-scrolling beat-em-up game mechanics, while their most celebrated title, Okami, married intricate (and BAFTA award winning) Japanese visuals with a vast action-adventure. But while critics and niche gamers may have sung the studio’s praises, their games fared poorly at retail, eventually forcing Capcom to order the team closed in 2006.
Never ones to bathe in the tears of otaku worldwide, the key members of Clover re-formed in 2007, this time forming an independent developer called Seeds. In addition to Inaba, who reprises his role as chief exec of the studio, Hideki Kamiya (creator of Devil May Cry and Viewtiful Joe) also returned in a senior position. Masami Ueda, who worked on the music for several Resident Evil games as well as Devil May Cry and Viewtiful Joe, also joined the company alongside his former workmates.
Mikami will also be collaborating with the studio, although he won’t be working for them directly. In 2006 he formed his own private development team – Straight Story, named after the David Lynch film – but will be working to release titles under the Seeds banner as well as act as an external board member.
And yet, even then, Seeds’ chameleonic behaviour wasn’t completely over. At the beginning of September 2007, the company merged with the mysterious ODD corporation to form the less uniquely named Platinum Games. The name apparently ‘reflects how the precious metal keeps its value, not degrading over time’.
According to the company’s vision statement, the studio exists to counteract the state of the industry at the moment. In a market where many have come to rely on sequels and it’s become difficult to release original games, Platinum exists to create new titles that will excite and shock players.
Despite the large amount of attention given to the company, Seeds still hasn’t given any hints as to what it’s working on. Nevertheless it’s safe to say that, given the calibre of its chief staff and its illustrious CV, whatever does emerge is likely to be visually unique, perhaps break numerous conventions, and no doubt get plenty of attention from the specialist press.
Big by name, but smaller by nature, Big Rooster was founded mid-2007 by a team of former execs from Human Head, the studio which developed Take 2 and 3D Realms’ Prey. Included in the founding team are chairman and CEO Tim Gerritsen, animation director Jeff Dewitt, art director Rowan Atalla and former Midway Technical Director Jason Blochowiak.
The experienced management team, however, doesn’t want to follow the well-worn path of new independent studios heading towards a mounting headcount and critical mass as it works on its first game, an adaptation of the Games Workshop boardgame Talisman for PS3, 360 and PC. Instead, the focus at Big Rooster is on selectively outsourcing various parts of the game’s production.
However simply pursuing the long-discussed but exploited correctly by few business model is not the studio’s raison d'être, says Gerritsen.
“I don’t think I’d quite say that the focus of our company is our production model. Instead our focus will be on the quality of the games we create, which is where it should be. Our production methodologies will be a big part of meeting that focus, but don’t take precedence over the games themselves,” he explains. “Outsourcing is just one of the tools in our arsenal as part of a balanced approach to development.”
That balance is crucial, adds Dewitt, not to just keep the business in shape, but also maintain product harmony and team excitement: “My experience has shown me that the dynamic of small start up studios are usually very strong and positive – but getting that to work is difficult. In time, the ability to secure work gets easier and easier but the company dynamic typically suffers as the studio grows.”
Utilsing outsource also helps support the business’ plans to grow into two teams complimented by an R&D group “devoted to fleshing out new techniques, as well as keeping an eye on fresh gameplay mechanics and seriously out-of-the-box ideas” says Jason Blochwiak. “With this group, we’ll be able to try out other things that other studios might not have a chance to, and introduce techniques to help advance the state of the art, without risking the stability of the company on something that hasn’t been fully fleshed out.”
And it would be rude not to ask such an eager and experienced team for advice for other new studios.
Offers Attalla: “As always, it’s easier said than done, but independent developers really need to plan carefully and be focused on future opportunities just as much as the projects they are working on at the moment. It’s easy to get caught up in the work of production and forget about future business development, but it’s especially important for independents to be able to look down the orad and spend some time considering what’s coming over the horizon.”
CEO Gerritsen adds: “If there is one bit of advice I could give, is that if you choose to go the independent route you have to be willing to go out a bit on a limb. I talk to so many people who state they want to start an independent studio, but refuse to do so unless they can leave their currently well-established job and walk directly into an equally well-paying job with a solid footing. That type of situation is pretty rare.
“You have to have a bit of entrepreneurial spirit and can’t be afraid to take risks. If you fear failure more than you desire success, then you keep your current job and give up those dreams of grandeur. If you believe in yourself and are willing to operate without a safety net, however, then you might just make it.”
Perhaps this lot has an unfair advantage - Voodoo Boogy is already the proud recipient of a BAFTA, having scooped the Academy's One to Watch award at this year's British Academy Video Game Awards. And in some respects, the team barely qualifies as studio in its most embryonic state, currently just a band of students that met at the University of Abertay in Dundee, Scotland.
Consisting of five students, Voodoo Boogy was one of the winning teams from 2007's Dare to be Digital, the competition run by the University of Abertay and which invites student teams from across the UK and also India and China to compete in an ten-week contest to develop a game from drawing board to dev kit and then final playable code.
Voodoo Boogy are a Dundee team consisting of two programmers, Malcolm Brown and Robert Clarke, and three artists, Peter Carr, Lynne Robertson and Finlay Sutton. Brown, Clarke, Carr and Sutton all graduated from Abertay in July 2007 - first two with degrees in games technology, the other two with computer arts. Robertson currently studies computer arts at Abertay.
After entering the Aberty University competition - which has run for eight years - the quintet devised Ragnarawk, a music action title that uses the Guitar Hero controller and which the team describes as 'Final Fantasy meets Guitar Hero'.
At the competition's climax, the game was named as the game with most commercial potential by the compeititon's judges and also won the 'people's choice'-style award which was voted for by visitors to the Dare ProtoPlay Audience at an event where the public could play the competition entrants.
Just a few weeks later, the team beat out the other Dare finalists to become recipients of the highest accolade of all, the BAFTA Ones to Watch games prize - a special British Academy award that acknowledges up and coming talent.
The team is now hard at work trying to create a demo version of Ragnarawk that can be enjoyed be a wider audience and perhaps, given the current popularity of music games, even get signed up by a publisher.
A trend running through a number of our chosen 10 studios has been key team leads from publisher-owned studios striking out on their own endeavour. Smoking Gun comes from some of the team responsible for one of the most vaunted new PC IPs of recent times, Company of Heroes, and is a studio spun out of THQ’s internal Canadian team Relic.
According to Smoking Gun CEO and creative director John Johnson, who was previously the director of franchise development and producer on Company of Heroes, the new team will capitalise on its work on the THQ title and continue to produce new IPs. Johnson’s co-founding members are fellow Relic vets Angie Radwan-Pytlewski and Drew Dunlop.
“Relic was agreat learning experience for me,” explains Johnson. “When I first started, Relic had shipped one title and by the time I had left had successfully shipped seven. I learnt a great deal going through that growth. At Smoking Gun our strategy is to focus on our strengths, which is building successful IPs and products that we can leverage.”
But while we’ve seen a number of high-profile publishing execs move to open their own independent studios, we’ve also heard a number of studio heads – including the likes of Peter Molyneux – claim that extinction is the ultimate future for independents.
That doesn’t wash with Johnson, however.
“That’s an interesting hypothesis but I just don’t see independents going extinct. As digital distribution becomes mainstream in the west it also provides more business opportunities for independent developers and as the market continues to grow so will the need for developers. It’s a fantastic time to be an independent developers and history has shown that many of the best games and franchises were conceived and developed by independent studios.”
But as a team based in Canada, Smoking Gun as an independent is still a rare thing in the territory, whose games industry is seen by many to be dominated by publisher-owned studios – but this gives the studio a differentiating advantage, says Johnson: “Having worked for both the large publishers and at Relic which it was independent, I’ve experienced both sides of the coin. There are many challenges being independent but also many rewards. We definitely feel that it will give us a competitive edge.”
Although this new studio in the South East of England owned by Britsoft publisher Codemasters is, as we have recently reported in our print counterpart and here online, currently working on an important brand new IP, things weren’t always this way. When founded in August 2007, Codemasters Guildford was intended to be a support studio for the firm’s bigger base in Warwickshire helping with the development of franchises such as Race Drive and Operation Flashpoint. Codemasters already has an art outsourcing operation in Kuala Lumpur that operated in a similar manner.
However, with Codemasters fast tracked for an IPO, the ability to prove to investors that it can also produce home-grown, original new franchises is paramount, hence the bolstering of the studio to full production capacity and given responsibility for a long-in-gestation game codenamed Project Strike Team as well as work supporting the likes of Race Driver.
Criterion’s development director Adrian Bolton was picked to run the studio since its opening, and has been managing the opening of the Guildford base and its transition to taking full responsibility for an upcoming title.
According to Codemasters Studios VP Gavin Cheshire, the choice of Guildford as a location was key as a way to differentiate from the base in Southam, Warwickshire.
He recently told us: “Guildford allows us to create new IP in a new area of the country and is ripe with talent. We’re not sitting here saying that we’re going to poach from everybody, but we’re going to offer something different to those people looking to work on something totally new, and also those people who won’t want to move to other areas of the country.”
The key point of difference for Codemasters’ approach is using its EGO engine across all its PS3/360/PC titles – the game will form the backbone of Race Driver GRID, Operation Flashpoint 2, ‘Project Strike Team’ and all future games for the ‘next-gen’ platforms, and in its earlier iteration Neon impressed the industry via its use in Colin McRae: DiRT.
Bolton says this smart approach to technology is what will put Codemasters overall in good stead both on a personal and technical level for the rest of the current console cycle and beyond: “I don’t want to build base level stuff everytime so I can effectively get 20 per cent of my game for free from reusing techology, and I do’t have to write anything, that’s great.”
On ‘next-gen’ titles, he adds, “the time frames are still the same, but the budgets are big – if we can get this technology in earlier you can balance those things. It also helps balance the size of the teams, which is the biggest problem this industry has now, it’s just mental. Culturally team size is a big deal – go over a hundred and it becomes very impersonal.”
Setting up your company in a region of the UK that already boasts studios owned by Midway and Ubisoft and also hosts large independent Eutechnyx must be a fairly daunting prospect - but Lo-Jen has found its footing in the North East of the UK via support from DigitalCity, the regional business development agency that's part of the University of Teesside.
Lo-Jen's first came to prominence amongst the local development scene in February 2007 by winning CodeWorks GameHorizon's 'Game Academy' pitching competition, with the company - which has been formed by five student friends - beating out five other contestants.
This experience of the pitching process inspired the team to build up a portfolio of working demos to show to a variety of potential partners - with all the concepts focusing on online distribution.
Explains one of the studio founders, Jesse Roberts: "It's a good place to start as the barriers to entry are much lower than on console or handheld. Like any small studio, we've gone through changes - at the start we were very focused on DS development but as the months havegone on our direction has changed. The kind of games we are going for are accessible in terms of the age of those who can play them and also their control systems."
However, Roberts adds that the studio is considering its options as to whether it will be working with publishers or going solo, with its most recent activity looking at distributing games through a portal.
But talk of digital distribution is no longer uncommon amongst studios, especially new independent ones (as this list attests) - so it's the Digital City involvement that is most interesting about Lo-Jen's story.
While it's easy to compare the team to indie poster kids Introversion, Roberts says that although Lo-Jen admire that originally student-founded team's approach, the backing of DigitalCity has already given has given them a head-start beyond your usual start-up
"Introversion's story is very inspiring but we are doing some things very different through DigitalCity," he explains, describing Lo-Jen as almost a 'non-independent' given the ready access to "excellent company support, financial backing, and access to industry professionals."
DigitalCity is supported by a number of government agencies, including Tees Valley and One NorthEast and is part funded by the EU - which should provide some securities for Lo-Jen in an economic climate that some say is inhospitable to new independent studios.
Roberts disagrees with the doom and gloom around independent development in the UK, however: "It does seem to be an excellent time for developers - especially in terms of deals, where something like Xbox Live Arcade can provide great royalties."
Plus, Roberts adds that Lo-Jen may also be able to exploit Digital City's relationship with other studios to support its work. While the other Lo-Jen team members have also worked on an outsourcing capacity for the likes of nearby Atomic Planet, he says that the studio may also be able to "give outsourcing work to a third party who can then port the game to mobile or PSP - wherever it's needed".
Given that each member of the team hasn't yet passed 25 and the studio already has a bustling contact book, it seems good things lie in store for Lo-Jen in future.
Eat Sleep Play
Salt Lake City, Utah
Eat Sleep Play grabs its place on this list not through any innovative business model but through who its parents are, as the team is founded by outspoken God of War and Twisted Metal creator David Jaffe and former Incognito chief Scott Campbell.
It's another studio in this list that's been formed by former publisher-owned studio execs and between the two of them, Jaffe and Campbell have overseen or created a number of big American-made Sony franchises, such as Twisted Metal and God of War.
The two clearly wanted to strike out away from the SCEA stable, however. In interviews, Jaffe says he was unsatisfied with the way developers at SCEA were treated with regards to bonus payments, and under pressure to make another mega-hit for the hardware firm, felt he couldn’t do so in that environment. After negotiations with SCEA failed, he left the company to form Eat Sleep Play – with many staff from Incognito also taking the jump.
Relations with SCEA have not soured, though - the studio's original formation, and its exclusive publishing deal with SCEA (no doubt in part a condition of Jaffe and Campbell's departure from the company) was announced by Sony itself.
The new studio will be almost entirely focused on small- to medium-sized games – a move that he has compared in a number of interviews to making “pop songs”, presumably leaving big-budget operas like God of War behind.
The studio has a three title exclusivitiy agreement with SCEA – although whether these games will appear on PSN, PSP or other Sony platforms is still undecided – but there are also plans afoot for PC based casual game development. In the meantime, the studio has busied itself with its first project (which is not part of the three-game deal with Sony) a port of the PSP game Twisted Metal: Head On to PS2.
However the move away from SCEA is not one of re-establishing creative control, says Jaffe, but one of the studio being able to own its intellectual property.
At the same time, it's clear that Jaffe already has an exit strategy planned for his independent studio. Never one to keep his cards close to his chest, Jaffe has said that he hopes to sell the company after ten years – the money from which he’d use to fund more experimental projects.
He told Newsweek: “I want to make enough money where I don't have to worry about money and then I'd love to go into more experimental game design.
“I'd love to make emotional games work. I don't see how they could work. But if I could be in a position where I don't have to worry about where my next paycheck is coming from and I could just kind of fuck around with that and see what I could do.”
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