Robert Troughton explains how specialising can help devs avoid the pitfalls that many new studios face
As many of you will already know, Pitbull Studio is a company with a very tight specialisation – we are a group of very experienced developers with a huge amount of Unreal Engine experience; consisting mostly of programmers, just a small handful of artists and a tiny management team.
When we created ‘new’ Pitbull in 2010 (‘old’ Pitbull having spent over 12 years making racing games for console and PC), we didn’t actually plan things quite this way.
Sure, we’d come off the back of making Wheelman (as Midway Newcastle), the first open-world racing game built using Unreal Engine 3, but at first we had planned to do exactly the same thing as every other studio rising from the ashes of a dead giant: we were going to make small-scale mobile and digital download games. We were going to mitigate risk by having a small full-time team and using contractors for additional work.
Very soon after starting, though, it became apparent that this business model was a bad one. It was a very dangerous time to be making those games. New consoles were on the horizon, meaning that publishers were losing interest in digital download titles for the older platforms, and the mobile market was being flooded with really great games.
Medium-to-large studios in the UK were closing on an almost daily basis – and with each closure, at least three new studios would form, all making mobile games, most using Unity, all hoping to hit it big with the next Angry Birds. Some did, and are now in a position where they could quite happily sleep on a bed of cash – like Fireproof Games, creators of the excellent The Room, for instance. Others weren’t so lucky: Thumbstar, Blast Furnace, Hogrocket and countless others.
Our first attempt to break out of this was moderately successful, but was still a huge risk. We became a work-for-hire company alongside our funded contract with the UK’s NHS, which went fairly well.
The risk here came from the studios themselves: all asked to pay us on completion or after a decent period of time (at least two-to-three weeks’ work).
A few paid us without any issues, a few paid us late, and a few didn’t pay us at all. See, there are several reasons why you might outsource work, but most notably either because you genuinely need some additional manpower ASAP, or – and this is the worrying one – maybe you can’t afford to pay additional staff. Using a contractor, you get your game finished and it either saves your studio or not.
If not, the studio closes and the contractor is left short-changed.
Our second and final attempt was the one that we did really well with. While we’d dallied with work-for-hire, I’d been contracting myself to Epic Games and working on Unreal Engine 3, developing the editor itself rather than creating games with it. This had actually been going really well and it was safe work.
After doing this for a couple of months, they suggested that we add a couple of extra people, then more a few months after that – and as time went on we just grew and grew. We found our niche.
We became a huge part of the development of Unreal Engine 4. It was annoying for a while, not being able to tell people what we were working on at first, but when the demos, licensee versions and ultimately the full public release arrived, we finally got the recognition from the industry that we’d hoped for. Our inboxes flooded with applause, the team was elated to see the responses from those trying out UE4.
So my advice to anyone who asks me now about starting up a new studio: find your own niche. Find something that you and your team are passionate about. Think about how you can make a difference and create something new. It’s a lot easier than reinventing the wheel.