Develop sits down to talk with the MD of ambitious New Zealand-based studio Sidhe, Mario Wynands, to find out about the studio's plans for Wii, downloadable content, and the NZ games industryâ?¦Based in New Zealand, it's an ambitious independent which is working on the global stage. Perhaps unintentionally, the studio has managed to regularly break new ground business wise. It was one of the first independents to produce a PlayStation Network game, and is one of the first to be producing a game externally for the resurgent Warner Bros Interactive. Go further back, and you see more innovation in the company's history, with the studio being built by three friends who used a Sony Net Yaroze homebrew kit to get their business started.
"As friends we had previously dabbled in amateur videogame and boardgame development, but never thought of taking it further and set about careers in IT, design, and management consulting," explains managing director Mario Wynands.
"However, Sony announcing Net Yaroze PlayStation was a real spark of inspiration because we saw it as an opportunity to get into console game development at a much lower cost than using conventional dev kits. With youthful bravado, we order a Net Yaroze and started the company."
Since then, the studio has grown from just the core three staff - Wynands, and friends Tyrone McAuley and Stuart Middleton - to 73 and has developed 12 games and contributed to six others via code and art outsourcing. According to Wynands the secret to the team's success has been its work ethic, honed from those early years as an upstart independent.
He says: "Like a lot of game startups the early years were tough as we created content, built infrastructure, and searched for that elusive publishing deal. We didn't know nearly as much as we thought we did, and it almost became overwhelming at times. Perseverance and staying open minded helped get us through to the point where we actually had a viable company on our hands.
"Ten years on we have built a studio that we are really proud of. Those difficult early days are thankfully well behind us, but it was a great learning experience that helps keep us grounded and focused today."
The team's focus has taken it far and wide, with its most recent work being Speed Racer for Warner Bros. - and Sidhe has been keen to embrace the new publisher's developer-centric approach to production.
"The team at Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment has been great to work with. They have a number of key personnel who have come through the game development side, so they are especially sensitive to the challenges of production. Their approach has been very collaborative and supportive, and we have a very open dialogue surrounding development," says Wynands.
He points out that, as a game heading for Wii, Speed Racer demands that Sidhe once again tackle a new format - one Wynands says is ripe with potential.
"Like the other new consoles, the potential of the Wii is far from tapped which presents some great opportunities alongside those early challenges of getting up to speed," he says. "We think we are going to be able to get a lot out of the Wii, even at this early stage of exploration."
Such challenges and unexploited technology seem to be something the studio relishes, especially when you speak to Wynands about the development of the studio's previous game, GripShift, which it had previously developed for PSP but gave new life to via the PlayStation Network.
"Like any title in the launch window of a new console, the development of GripShift for PSN presented us with many challenges - we had a tight development timeframe of only three months, a development SDK still in flux, and a powerful yet complex hardware platform to wrap our heads around," he says, adding: "We do enjoy working with PS3 though, and were very pleased with the results given the project constraints. We'll be continuing to support GripShift on PSN with new features and downloadable content as the platform itself evolves and as we learn to exploit the potential."
The studio is actually no stranger to producing games for download, having made the titles Frogmania Deluxe, Worldjam Deluxe and Adidas Football Fever for the PC in 2002. But GripShift has, it seems, re-ignited the team's taste for producing downloadable games - the team is also looking at what they can produce for XBLA and WiiWare.
"While developing retail product remains an important part of our strategy, we'll be increasingly developing and publishing original content across PSN, XBLA, and WiiWare," says Wynands. "The console download model is a great opportunity for us to innovate with content, reach consumers directly and build meaningful long term revenue streams - all important for building creative and financial independence."
Given Sidhe is a founder member of the New Zealand Game Developers Association, that last point seems paramount, and Wynands is glad to see the local community of studios grow.
He explains: "The games industry is still quite small in New Zealand, but we are starting to see some real growth and momentum building. Several studios are starting to emerge and release product into global markets across handhelds, console and PC, while educational institutions have successfully been running game development courses for a couple of years now. Encouragingly, most of the content being released by New Zealand studios is original IP. It's a very friendly and collaborative community, and its great to be a part of as we collectively form a regional identity and build some success."
As head of the NZGDA, Wynands is also vocal about what needs to be done to support the NZ development scene further, especially when it comes to government support.
"The New Zealand government has provided some support to the local games industry, mainly in the form of research grants and funding to assist attending overseas gaming events to meet with publishers," he says. "It does however currently fall short of funding and tax incentives provided to the local film industry, and certainly pales compared to the games industry government support of some other countries such as Canada."
He's actively pushing forward discussions on how the industry can work with governing authorities closely to build the industry, as well: "The local games industry does need to be able to stand on its on merits, but if the opportunities can be created by the studios then further government support would go a long way towards accelerating growth and success. Further discussion is in progress around alternate funding possibilities such as content development funding and completion bonding which will benefit the local industry as well as publishing and development partners."
At the same time, while being based in New Zealand may have presented problems when it came to making deals or finding new stuff a few years ago, it's clear that the country's games industry has benefitted from an increasingly internationally-minded market, says Wynands:
"Certainly the relative distance of New Zealand from some key markets has had its challenges. In the early years, it was difficult to build relationships with publishers and stay front of mind for arising opportunities via email, phone calls, and an annual trip to E3. Today the world is a much smaller place and our experience, established relationships, and regular in market visits help ensure meaningful discussions and strong deal flow.
"Overseas recruiting is also becoming easier as New Zealand is increasingly recognised for its creative ability and as a lifestyle destination. Being able to offer compelling project work in such a great country has enabled us to recruit talented people from all over the world to supplement the local talent we already have."