Creative Assembly's Tim Heaton on why appointing a new GM at the Company of Heroes studio has been central to its survival
I’m writing this on a wonderfully sunny day in one of the most beautiful and welcoming places in the world. It’s not Horsham, home of Creative Assembly. It’s Vancouver, home of Relic, our new sister studio, and at last I’m feeling like my head is above water.
I’m here because I was keen to get involved with a studio that has so many similarities to CA. What actually happened was that I said:
‘Hey, you know, if you need any help with Relic just let me know’, and the Sega bosses came back with, ‘Yeah, get yourself an apartment there for the year’. So, for the past six months, I’ve been splitting my time between CA and Relic – three weeks here and three weeks back home on average. And you know what? Running two studios is twice as hard as running one. Who knew?
UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT
On my first visit to Relic two things dawned on me through the mists of jet lag. That there was a game to deliver – Company of Heroes 2 was to launch at the end of June, and that there was very little studio leadership. The previous general manager of Relic had left well before the purchase of Relic by Sega, and although there was an executive producer on CoH 2 that was pretty much it. Nobody was leading the studio in a game-centric way from the front.
I think there are three strands that are important when you’re establishing a new infrastructure. Firstly, keep the day-to-day operations running as smoothly as possible. Secondly, be very clear in your own mind on the plan for the future. Thirdly, try your very best to communicate to the studio about what’s happening and what those plans are.
Happily, within the studio all the back-office key staff were in place. HR, finance, IT, recruitment, etcetera, already worked smoothly, but each had a mountain to climb to implement new systems that would work with Sega. This hits every part of a studio’s day-to-day activities, from new telephones, through payroll systems, to new contracts for staff. Equally, CoH 2 needed to transition from THQ QA and localisation to Sega QA with new publishing producers and procedures.
Luckily, the dev team here is full of experienced developers, who know how to maintain focus on what is important, and that changeover was surprisingly straightforward. The development team just kept working and needed virtually no interference from me. A very good sign.
In addition, I received an email out of the blue that effectively said, ‘Hey, you might not know me, but I accepted a job at Relic during the THQ days. I’m due to start next week. Do I still have the job?’. That person turned out to be a director of production, an experienced leader who could come in and work with me on figuring out the new Relic, and be the person on the ground when I was back at CA. It was perfect – had she already been integrated at Relic, I have no doubt she’d have been heavily involved in finishing CoH 2, but as it was she had as fresh a view as myself.
IN SEARCH OF A NEW CAPTAIN
The key hire and my single biggest priority was hiring a new general manager. The studio needed a leader who could instil them with a newfound confidence, both a business leader who can make the studio profitable, but also someone who could be empathetic to Relic’s core values. That person could definitely not be some Brit who just flies in every few weeks looking tired.
Luckily, Relic’s good name opens a lot of doors. We weren’t sure how hard we’d need to look for the kind of manager we wanted, but very quickly we had approaches from some exceptionally senior, experienced and clever people. For me, it’s both fun and a privilege to meet people like this, as in the general run of things I don’t get much opportunity, and this kind of meeting means we can discuss how different people approach their job.
After quite a few lunches we knew we’d found the right person – the perfect blend of leadership, experience and empathy.
Possibly the most important part of this whole last six months has been to try and keep the studio understanding what the plans are.
With a new general manager just recently in place it’s much easier to manage the bigger issues across CA and Relic, and I’ll probably be spending more and more time back in blighty. One thing’s for sure – everyone at Relic has made me feel extremely welcome, and the new future for Relic is very bright.
Relic's new GM is former BigPark studio director Justin Dowdeswell.