Licence to thrill: Behind the scenes at Beenox

Licence to thrill: Behind the scenes at Beenox
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

November 23rd 2015 at 10:35AM

It may not be Activision’s most well-know studio, but Beenox has worked on the publisher’s most important franchises. Craig Chapple finds out more about the dev's role in these multi-billion dollar operations

Founded in 2000 in Quebec City, Canada, Beenox became known as a reliable porting house for game developers.

The studio was bought by Activision in 2005, and until last year it largely worked on famous licences, including Bee Movie, multiple Spider-Man games and Monsters vs. Aliens. It’s also a key QA house for the firm.

But now the developer is transforming itself again. Last year it worked with Toys for Bob on Skylanders Trap Team, and it developed all the racing elements for September’s Skylanders: SuperChargers. It’s now also finishing work on Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, for which it is helping port the blockbuster to last-gen consoles PS3 and Xbox 360.

No longer working on the Spider-Man IP, the studio is now entrusted with development on Activision’s biggest, billion dollar franchises. 

Supercharged

Speaking to Develop, co-studio head and creative director Thomas Wilson says it’s all been part of a journey with Activision, starting with Bee Movie, to prove it was able to create successful products while showing off its creative and technical abilities.

Eventually, the opportunity to work on Spider-Man cropped up, for which the studio decided to develop Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, released in 2010. The title received average to positive reviews, and paved the way for its work on three more games related to the IP.

But with shifts in the industry, such as more powerful consoles, rising expectations amongst consumers and the death of mid-tier development, things were about to change for Beenox.

“Eventually, as you might see in the industry, the projects, they get bigger and bigger,” said Wilson. “That was right along the time where there was a slate of projects that were what we could call mid-tier projects, a project that sits in the middle with an acceptable budget. And at the time we could almost pick and choose projects.

“But now you look at the projects, you look at the size of them, and you’re looking at the focus Activision’s putting on things like Destiny, Call of Duty, and Skylanders, and now they’re going to re-launch Guitar Hero. And these projects require a lot of people.

“So eventually, as we proved our ability as a development studio, we started working on these important franchises. Because, let’s face it, there’s a lot of content to develop. We supported Vicarious’ vision and Toys for Bob on Skylanders, and now we’re working on Call of Duty, the biggest franchise for Activision. So I’m pretty happy with how it evolved.”

Duty calls

The pressures of working with Activision are obvious. With such big, annual franchises and a lot of money riding on each release, Wilson says delays are out of the question. Indeed, Activision has never postponed a Call of Duty or Skylanders game, and they release running smoothly without any noticeable bugs. The alternative is just not a situation the publisher will entertain.

Wilson admits, however, that while the likes of Black Ops 3 wouldn’t be delayed, there has been an increase in resources and the number of people needed to make such games. He notes that in a graphically realistic series like Call of Duty, everything from the trash cans and phone booths to the main character requires detailed work.

“We see that nowadays, even with our competitors next door, if you think of a game like Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate [led by neighbouring developer, Ubisoft Quebec], it’s developed by multiple studios,” explains Wilson. “And even the studios that are working for the company will also deal with outsourcers to create assets.

Despite traditionally working on licensing projects, and now alongside other developers on Activision’s own IP, Wilson says there’s still plenty of opportunities for the team to flex its creative muscle.

In fact, he says, in many ways, the constraints are something he loves working with. He explains that while people may historically brush aside licensed games because many are historically bad – and he admits that the budget for these titles can often be limited – it provides an opportunity for creativity to stand out.

As we proved our ability as a development studio, we started working on these important franchises. Because, let’s face it, there’s a lot of content to develop.

Thomas Wilson, Beenox

Finding creative

“Basically when you know the boundaries, and you know how you can be creative within those boundaries, from there I believe emerges creativity,” he states. “So what we would do is make a case in point of thinking about how this game could surprise everyone.”

Wilson adds that working on a movie tie-in, such as it has done with Bee Movie and The Amazing Spider-Man, also has numerous benefits to support development. These include the fully written script, greater exposure to the public and a huge amount of creative talent behind it. Even if this doesn’t necessarily include large investment from the studio itself.

“If you’re working on an animated movie and you’re making a game with it, you get tonnes and tonnes of concept art and things that are coming out. It’s almost like you have a concept art army with you that you can use to leverage the quality of the game you’re putting together,” he says.

“Most of the games sometimes will only have three to four artists, but when you’re thinking about all the content you get from a world that’s been created by another group, this is where it gets exciting. So I was looking at all this stuff, I was like a kid going to DreamWorks, meeting the directors, meeting the artists. And when they were showing this stuff, and the movie’s not even out yet, you get this wall of concepts and you have these figures, and you’re like ‘oh my god, this is cool’.”

Last-gen versus new-gen

The studio’s most recent work on Black Ops 3 has been more constricting, however. Beenox, along with Mercenary Technology, has been given the task of squeezing Treyarch’s bombastic triple-A new-gen experience onto the PS3 and Xbox 360.

The gap between hardware generations has become larger, and, as a result, Activision has had to drop the single-player campaign completely from the last-gen releases. The publisher is also targeting 30 frames per second, the first time in years the franchise has moved away from the 60fps it’s famous for.

Despite such difficulties, Wilson is adamant that releasing Black Ops 3 on last-gen consoles is still worthwhile.

“Because Activision is a big family, they started looking at how we could still have the same experience for the last-gen version,” he explains. “And Treyarch, in this case, will focus entirely on delivering the most kick-ass game on new-gen, and on our side we focus on providing the best last-gen experience.

“What happens is they make their game, they hit their deliverables, and then we take that content and we figure out how to make a great experience. So the new-gen experience is not impacted by what goes on in the last-gen version. And also, there’s so many players out there that still have a PS3 and don’t own a PS4, and we believe they deserve to have that Call of Duty experience on their consoles. So that’s why we’re making it.”

You don’t want to make that great game that nobody buys and the studio shuts down. There’s a big process in coming up with an idea and showing it so that everybody agrees that this game can be successful. It’s definitely easier said than done. 

Thomas Wilson, Beenox

While the studio has much of its history steeped in licensed games and supporting Activision IP, Wilson says its ambition, and indeed the dream of any creative developer, is to work on its own, original game and lead development. He teases that Beenox is currently at work developing an unannounced game, but can’t reveal what it is or the extent of its involvement in the project.

But, while creating an original game is the ambition, Wilson admits that as part of Activision, it needs to be an idea that will sell, and sell well.

“To be honest, when you start thinking about it and what it actually means today, to release a new IP that’s going to be successful, don’t forget that at Activision, we make great games that sell,” he explains.

“You don’t want to make that great game that nobody buys and the studio shuts down. So you have to be very careful in the way you plan out your new IP, and in the Activision world, that means a lot of planning. There’s a big process in coming up with an idea and showing it so that everybody agrees that this game can be successful. It’s definitely easier said than done. But yes, working on something that’s wholly original is the cornerstone of every developer."