UK studio Splash Damage has traditionally worked with id Software properties, previously creating Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, but with the upcoming Brink it's striking out into its own territory. Still independent but working very closely with new publisher Bethesda, it's now seeking to make the transition from PC multiplayer shooters to larger, console audiences.
At the recent Eurogamer Expo, GamesIndustry.biz sat down with gregarious CEO and game director Paul Wedgwood, for a discussion which covered the dangers of mediocrity, the skyrocketing costs of triple-A development and the importance of paying developers well.
Q: What's it like attending a UK tradeshow for a change?
Paul Wedgwood: It's not bad. I realised getting off a plane in LA a couple of weeks ago that it was the 28th flight that I'd taken in 12 months. So it's been a pretty crazy year. We've just been everywhere, from spending a lot of time in Washington DC talking to Bethesda, to trundling out to places like Dallas and Bentonville to do distributor meetings and sales meetings in Cannes... The consumer shows, which are my favourite now, are QuakeCon, PAX, GamesCom, Eurogamer here - there isn't the Leeds one this year, but it's been really cool. I love this point we get to where people are playing hands-on because up until then everything is technically smoke and mirrors.
You just don't really know whether your crazy ideas actually make any sense to other gamers. You hope that because you're a gamer other people are going to be thinking the same way that you're thinking, but really our job in the games industry is to predict what we really want to be playing in two or three years' time, and if no-one else is doing, do it ourselves. That's quite a challenge sometimes. You see studios make really compelling things, but they're just slightly left of where they need to be. But for us this time around I think Brink seems to be working out. At Eurogamer we've got the biggest stand, but we've got the biggest queues as well - two, three hours down there.
Q: It's amazing, the lead time problem - we've seen it happen in films a few times, where you end up with three giant meteor movies at once, but it seems newer for games. How much do you still relish that long tail, or is making something in a couple of months starting to look appealing?
Paul Wedgwood: Oh God no, we've never done that. Everything we've ever done, we've had really long pre-production periods. In the case of Brink, we spent a year and a half on pre-production. With a decent-size team, just prototyping and iterating on ideas and trying crazy things out, iterating on things that didn't work... While the game that we have today largely matches the kind of high-level concept that we wrote in early 2008, the same key features are there - freedom of movement, a world that you haven't seen before, the floating city, blurring the line between singleplayer and versus mode - the game as it is exists because of dozens of people iterating endlessly on the same ideas, and throwing things out that don't work, bringing new ideas in. That's the way that we've always developed stuff. Enemy Territory: Quake Wars was four years, Brink will have been three...
Q: Did you think 'this time it's going to be different - we'll get this one nailed in two years?'
Paul Wedgwood: I think every developer starts out on every project believing that they now finally know everything about the game development process, and it's going to be straightforward. The problem is that the projects that are most interesting are quite often the ones that involve the biggest risks. And I think if it pays off then you end up with something brilliant. By the numbers development is the kind of thing that leads to perfectly predictable release dates, for movie cash-ins and merchandise and that kind of market. For Splash Damage it just wouldn't sit well with us to create something where somebody's spending a third of a week's salary on a single videogame and then they feel ripped off by the developers with something that wasn't worth their time.
Longevity is something for us. Wolfenstein Enemy Territory seven years on is still one of the top three most-played multiplayer games worldwide. We've had 15 million downloads of that game, half a billion matches completed: and we gave it away for free. So that's pretty good value, right? But if you go and you buy a game that only lasts you five hours, that's Ł8 an hour to play a videogame. That seems like a ridiculous proposition. What we hoped with Brink is you play it for a couple of hundred hours over a couple of months, and you're paying 20p an hour. And that seems fine.
Q: How tough is it to get that word out there in the current market though? People seem to hear what's the current greatest thing and then stick doggedly to it, and if for any reason word on the street is that a new game isn't as good as that it can end up in trouble. We've seen a lot of that with Red Dead this year, which apparently stymied stuff like Alan Wake and Blur.
Paul Wedgwood:Yeah. Well, I mean for new IP we're definitely with the right partners. For all intents and purposes, Oblivion was new IP - I know it was part of the Elder Scrolls series, but people weren't buying it because of that. Fallout 3, most of those six million people that bought that game didn't play Fallout 1 or 2. And in both cases they were hardcore role-playing games that translated incredibly well to the console, that scored in excess of 90 per cent. So it can be done. I think there's proof that with a really talented publisher you can get the word out there about new intellectual property. With Brink, everybody knew that we were a hardcore PC multiplayer shooter studio, but we came out right at the beginning and said we're making a multiplatform game that blurs the lines between solo, co-op and multiplayer, and we're still a hardcore shooter developer, it's still going to be incredibly deep. We're not trying to nerf things, as though some sort of simplified interface is the way to solve the newbie problem. It isn't the issue. The learning curve isn't solved by dumbing your game down. And anyway, there aren't two markets that like softcore and hardcore games: there are just people that are new and people that aren't.
Q:Tackling a project of so much bigger a scale than your previous games must have thrown up some quite unexpected problems...
Paul Wedgwood: I think during the first two commercial games that we made, I was more of a tyrannical dictator. And I think that during the process of Brink's development I learned much more to trust the talent, the people that had great ideas, let them go and iterate on them, and ultimately their execution was so much more important than that silly idea that I had at the beginning. No matter how attached I am to it, how much I believe that it was so unique and different, it just isn't worth anything. We have so many ideas for so many games that we're never going to make, and all of them brilliant, right? If they ever turn out to be successful it will be because of the execution. The thing I learned, the one thing I urge any other British developer to do if their bag is the triple-A blockbuster stuff that really gets attention and they want to sell millions of copies and really good review scores and everything else, is to recruit the best talent that they can, and pay them properly.
If there's one thing we suffer from in the UK, it has been this continuous exploitation of game developer talent until we drive them into the ground and they become cynical and burned out and hate the industry and everything else. I think that at Splash Damage we've always believed in paying people more than the industry in general, giving proper benefits and being respectful of work/life balance. We suffer from the same challenges that every studio does, we crunch 6 day, 7 day weeks sometimes: it can be really, really challenging. But to be honest with you, when the studio isn't in crunch we still have people working 6 or 7 days a week because they like what they're doing. People are still around at 11pm in the evening: maybe they're playing a game at their desk, maybe they're downstairs in breakout room. If you're at the office and you're having fun, then you're on the right track whether you're working out of hours or not.
Q: How much did losing that tyrannical dictator thing mean you had to consider employees as that much more important individually?
Paul Wedgwood:I think really it was that sense of wanting to get the right people before going wherever we were going to take the studio next. We started that in 2008 and just would not compromise on the people we were hiring. Everybody had to have shipped multiple, high-scoring, triple-A, multi-platform games, or we just weren't going to talk to them at all. And so we slowly built a directorial team that was people like Richard Hamm who did Fable II, Olivier Leonardi who did Prince of Persia and Rainbox Six: Vegas, Dean Calver who did Heavenly Sword, Tim Appleby who did Mass Effect...
We just kept plugging these people in, alongside the people who had been with the studio for eight years until we had a team that was exactly the right balance of hardcore multiplayer obsessive crazy people like me, and people that were just as focused on execution, on making something that was really polished. And that's been our focus. We won't know until we ship whether we got it right. But if we go by simply the reception of shows, at the end of Enemy Territory: Quake Wars for the PC - you know we didn't do the console versions, which weren't great - but we did do PC version of that, which scored very well, got about 120 awards and nominations... It was kind of the end of the PC era, I think, at that point, and we felt really proud of the things that we'd done, but it was declining market, sales weren't hugely strong - unless you were World of Warcraft and had some sort of subscription-based model...
Q: Or Team Fortress 2, which was some unfortunate timing for you guys...
Paul Wedgwood: Right, right. And Activision chose to launch us the same week about Halo 3, a week before whatever that year's Call of Duty was, so that was a little bit of a challenge. We also wanted a deal with a publisher where they weren't going tobe launching three shooters at the same time as ours. Cos it's too hard with a new IP to get attention, it's hard enough as it is without having to compete internally with your publisher. So that really worked out well on the Bethesda software side, in their slate for the coming year you have Fallout: New Vegas coming out now, you have Hunted, you've got us, you've got Rage announced but not coming out at the same time as us. Bethesda marketing and PR are very focused - it just works out very well for us.
Q: Do you feel any pressure in being a British studio, that this has become a difficult place to make games? Every week there seems to be a report of another UK studio going under.
Paul Wedgwood: I think we're fine, because I said, and I have said every year since we started, we're AAA or bust. There's no middle ground. If you can go bust making boring, mediocre things, you might as well take the risk and go for something as brilliant as you can. There's an old adage, I think it comes from the film industry, and I don't know if it's strictly true: "Nobody ever remembers how much it took or how much it cost, just whether it was any good or not." I don't think that's something a developer can live by, because there's a certain reality factor, publishers make a significant and massive investment in the game that you're making. Games now cost tens of millions of dollars to develop and produce. I was just thinking about audio today - we've been to a quarry in Nevada with 50 or 60 automatic weapons and 21 microphones, just to get reference for the way that we design our audio. We've rented Shepperton sound stage, we've been over to Prague to hire a philharmonic orchestra. It's changed so much, but fundamentally games are about interaction, right - so you need a whole of that kind of glitz and razzmatazz to be able to make something really compelling. And I guess that's part of what makes a game triple-A or blockbuster. But at the end of the day, if it's rubbish it's rubbish.
The biggest problem with game studios is it's too easy make the transition to working on many, many projects simultaneously and all of them being mediocre. And there are lots of publishers that are happy to pay for games knowing they're going to score 60 per cent but will be out on a certain time and a certain date. The risk with those is the studio continuously works for lower and lower tier publishers, until they're eventually dead. Or maybe they get some crazy venture capitalist or private equity firm to come in and invest, and really that's no different than the problem they had before.
No individual game developer is going to make the kind of money in the business market that exists today that competes with the money that a publisher will make for exactly the same thing. So if you're a VC or a private equity firm, you'd be a fool to invest in a developer because they just don't get a big enough piece of the pie to make that investment really rise. This is why most of the successful independent developers and independently owned and only ever make the transition to ownership with some fantastic exit, like the one carried out by Bizarre or Traveller's Tales or Rare, Bioware and so on... Since the VCs and the private equity firms can't make any reasonable judgement about hits, it's only the self-publishing ones that are going to do really well. That basically means the Jagexes, the Zyngas. It's such a different model.
I can tell you right now that nothing out here [the Eurogamer Expo] on this floor that's made by an independent fits into that model of world domination. Most of the games here that are really high quality are just like the film industry. They have a very passionate creative director, art director, audio director, technical director who's just trying to make something brilliant. They probably aren't being paid extraordinarily well for what they're doing, but they're incredibly passionate. You can see that happening whether it's Ubisoft with a massive production with something like Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, or whether it's one of the smaller things on the other side of the floor. It's still fundamentally that same thing. It's just a team. The interesting thing to watch for would be whether the games industry starts to take the movie industry's thing of having very talented contractors who come on board for the projects and see them through to completion, then move on and do something else. I can really see that being a good way to run it, because independents can't afford to hire staff, outsources only provide a part of the solution to that reduction in having huge headcounts - so I definitely think that third-party contractors will play a larger part in development.
Paul Wedgwood is CEO and game director at Splash Damage. Interview by Alec Meer.