Blitz Games Studios' Philip Oliver
The CEO talks Kinect, looking after employees and the ever-changing market
A major industry figure since he and his twin brother created Dizzy for the Spectrum and Commodore 64 in 1986, Phillip Oliver went on to found Interactive Studios in 1990 - the company which has today become Blitz Games Studios.
Focusing on licence work and middleware development has meant that Blitz has developed a diverse and healthy business, taking on work from publishers around the world whilst fostering indie development with the Blitz 1UP initiative. A keen proponent of new technology, here Oliver discusses the company's latest favourite toy - Microsoft's Kinect.
Q: Let's start with a quick overview of your presentation at Develop Liverpool this week, what will you be covering?
Philip Oliver: Well, it's titled: Kinect, a Whole New Business. So what we're going to talk about is, not so much what Kinect is or the gameplay and design challenges or that kind of stuff, because I believe other people are going to head that sort of thing off - I've got to talk about how it's changed our company and what sort of learning we've got out of it and therefore what sort of thing I can share with other developers.
So, we've kind of broken it into three things which we believe are strengths of the company - those three things being: new business, how did we win new business and contracts; creating it and making it and what we learned in that phase and then the management and the logistics for the studio - what did it mean having so many titles in development for Kinect.
We currently have five titles in development, well, one's already shipped - The Biggest Loser came day and date with Kinect.
Q: So Kinect is a significant investment of staff time and energy for the studio then?
Philip Oliver: Certainly.
Q: Not too long ago you were making a considerable investment in 3D technology, is that something you're still pursuing alongside Kinect?
Philip Oliver: The thing about 3D is that we started evangelising about 3D four or five years ago, before you could even go to the cinemas and see it, it was kind of only in theme parks. But right then we saw that people get more immersed the higher the quality of visuals and that 3D is the next level of visuals - before holograms, but that's another conversation - I'm not going to evangelise about that one quite yet!
So what we actually found was that we believed that there was the power in the technology of the consoles to start delivering 3D and we were quite surprised how reluctant others were to see the future and to see the belief in where we thought it was going.
So yes, we proselytised it, yes we made a big noise about it, and yes we started building it into games - and I understand, although I haven't any time to play it yet, that Black Ops is now supporting the 3D format - so what we were predicting four years ago, and being ridiculed for by some of the gamers - well look now, we were right, we were ahead of them.
It's now built fully into Blitztech and we can support 3D on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, just in our libraries when and where clients want it.
Q: Would you say that Kinect is a bigger development than 3D?
Philip Oliver: I think it will have a bigger impact, and I think the reason it will have a bigger impact is that we were only talking about a visual impact with 3D - what's happening with Kinect is that Microsoft is, very cleverly, absolutely broadening the market for gamers - well actually for people to play games, I won't say gamers because they are trying to address people who, even after they've played these games, wouldn't call themselves gamers.
They're trying to address the mass market and make games ten times more accessible than they've been in the past. For their machine, which in the past has traditionally been for hardcore gamers, it's a brilliant move.
There's no need to evangelise about 3D anymore, it's an accepted part of the future. It will be built into more games going forward - kind of old hat to us now! [laughs]
Q: There's obviously a bit of a barrier to getting 3D into people's homes because of the equipment though...
Philip Oliver: Well there's the adoption rate - changing the big TV in the living room. I guess what's going to happen over the next few years is... We're not asking people to throw out their great big flatscreen and go and buy another one with 3D, it will happen over time, as people need to replace their TV, they'll end up getting one that supports 3D.
So it will come in slowly, but it is inevitable.
Q: Going back to Kinect, what have you found the main challenges of working with pre-release hardware to be? How up to date have you been kept with the hardware revisions?
Philip Oliver: We first learned about Natal 18 months ago - there was a great deal of secrecy and confidentiality about it. Initially we had to keep it in locked rooms with only named key personnel working on it and nobody else was allowed to know about it - and that caused a few interesting logistical issues, creating these sort of areas, creating more confidentiality in the studio than we would normally like.
Obviously as time went on that got easier. As with all new consoles and equipment, you get to see prototypes and basically they're not as good as the finished version, you have to believe and trust that that's just the process. So in the early days you get pieces of kit that don't perform as well as the finished version, and we accepted that and lived with that. But it's okay because we too were developing our code alongside.
As for kits turning up and revisions, there were several different kits that turned up, different hardware, and then the revisions were coming in every six to eight weeks - big new software drops. You lose a few days while you revise and fit your code back to their code.
Q: And was that a two-way process?
Philip Oliver: Absolutely. It's two-way because we too are communicating to them what's not working with the software and what extra functionality we want. In fact there have been some great new bits of software that we've requested and that Microsoft has been very receptive to and have developed and given us.
For example, and I know that's what you're going to ask next, 'what did they develop for you'! Let me tell you about Yoostar.
Yoostar is our next release, coming out in February. It's movie Karaoke, is the best way to describe it. What we found was, when controlling the interface you needed to stand back and do all the movements to control the cursor, so you had to be about five or six feet away from the screen. But for the actual filming, you need to have the Humphrey Bogart or the Arnold Schwarznegger close in scene, we don't want them five feet away from the camera. All of our clips are that way.
So what we wanted to do was, instead of asking the player to get closer to the camera, was zoom the camera into where they were. The Kinect camera is quite a high res camera, so we actually asked that we have access to the higher res picture. But they can't give the full resolution picture, at the full framerate, because of the USB 2.0 connection. It's just the technicalities of the Xbox.
So what we said was, we just need to access a section, a piece of the image and bring that through in a higher resolution. Effectively a digital zoom. Which they gave us. That's an excellent feature. So now you don't even have to get into frame yourself. The camera can select the right bit of the high res picture and zoom in itself.
Q: There are obviously some radical differences which differentiate Kinect from other types of motion control, but do you see it as an incremental improvement or a totally separate evolutionary branch?
Philip Oliver: It's more a revolution than an evolution. Evolution would suggest that you're just refining. They made a bold and radical move to go ' We're redefining the controller so much, there isn't one, it's you'. That's radical.
Quite frankly, when it was first conceived and first spoken about, a lot of people questioned it. I have to say, being fans of Minority Report and Total Recall and things like that, we thought - 'that sounds cool!' But me and Andy, we love tech, and this is real sci-fi stuff. It's revolution rather than evolution.
Evolution would suggest moving the buttons around, changing the shape. This is in a different ballpark.
Q: Would you concede that, in order to do those things which Kinect can, which are beyond the capacity of the other options available, certain sacrifices, such as accuracy, had to be made? Do you think Kinect can ever replace the traditional controller?
Philip Oliver: I would say it's horses for courses. What is fundamental when you're producing a game is that you provide entertainment. For gamers, hardcore gamers, with their racers and shooters and that sort of thing, buttons and direct control, is the way to go. Microsoft aren't ruling that out. They're not trying to replace the controller, that's still there.
What they were trying to do with Kinect is to broaden the experiences and to go out there and create different genres, and not genres which are twitch-based. Take, for example, YooStar. It's not about, can you push the buttons quickly enough or accurately enough - it's a completely different experience. As is Dance Central, as is The Biggest Loser and all these.
They're trying to broaden genres and create games which are entertainment, not twitch-based controls and challenges. I also think that, over time, software on both sides, both the technology side and the engine side - that Microsoft's doing and middleware companies will provide, as well as the games - accuracy will improve where required.
The Kinect software, as it comes out of the box currently, had problems with doing floor-based exercises - detecting if you were doing sit ups or push ups and stuff - we developed our own libraries to detect all that. I think that you're going to see, over time, software solutions to improve accuracy. Over time it will get better anyway.
Q: How far do you see Kinect expanding the life-span of the 360?
Philip Oliver: Dramatically, I think it's a genius idea. I know that all hardware manufacturers say that developing a new console, launching a new console, getting it in to the market is such a massive investment that they need to make the lifecycle last as long as possible. Historically that lifecycle's been about five years.
When both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 were designed, I remember both companies saying that they wanted to extend the lifecycles up to eight years. Well I would say that Kinect is a genius move because I think it will do exactly that. I think it will extend it from five years to eight years.
I would say, because I think it to be true, that Kinect will be tremendously successful and it will show the future of what's required next, which hopefully will be a console which is using the same principles as Kinect. It has a controller, it also has a camera input. They're almost paving the way for what the next generation of consoles will be some years down the line.
Q: Would you consider developing for Move, too?
Philip Oliver: We're doing Move games as well, don't let me discount or exclude those. YooStar is on Move as well as Kinect. I think Sony just haven't made such a bold - risky some would say - move. I think the Move is definitely a step in the right direction - again, broadening the market and making games more accessible and making them more entertaining - less challenge-based.
So I think Move is a good move, but I don't think it's as radical, and therefore I don't think it'll get as much press.
Q: You talked about the fact that Kinect is aiming for a new audience, outside that which Microsoft has targeted previously. Do you think that the first wave of software, heavy as it is with fitness and children's titles, reflects that?
Philip Oliver: More casual you mean? Absolutely. I think first generation software is always going to hit the low hanging fruit first. It was pretty obvious with dance and exercise that if you want to go after the casual market, those are both great genres to do - and look at the technology inside Kinect - it's a natural fit. So it's kind of obvious - but that's what first generation software should be. That's no surprise.
Now that it's launched and people see what it is, they're getting to grips with it and understanding it more, we can see some interesting second generation games will come to fruition. Can't talk about them yet! But trust me they will come!
Q: And do you see the repetition of certain genres in the launch titles becoming a problem in terms of sales - will it overcrowd the market?
Philip Oliver: I think that there are too many exercise games - there should have just been one, The Biggest Loser, because it is the best! You can quote me on that!
But yeah, there probably have been a few too many exercise games, I think that the problem is that everyone thought the obvious and went after them. I understand that Microsoft did dissuade a few companies from doing certain games, no names off the top of my head. I think they try to make sure there isn't too much competition.
But I think all the different developers have been bringing different takes to the exercise genre, and actually, it's proven through Wii Fit that it's a huge audience. In fact, ours is less exercise and more weight-loss, and that's how it's always been marketed.
Q: How quickly do core games need to start appearing in order for the core market not to dismiss Kinect?
Philip Oliver: I should hope that the core market are intelligent people, and have a vision - they can see what is coming. That's what they need to get their heads around - Kinect being available on their favourite console, it's made more opportunities available. Now it's up to the development community and the publishers to use those opportunities. In time those new games will come.
Q: Moving on from Kinect - let's talk about your business and the various areas of it. Obviously you seem to be doing very well - and seem very happy as an independent entity - how important is that independence to you?
Philip Oliver: All of our lives, we've never worked for anybody, so we don't know any other way. We've always just walked into work and motivated and driven things forward and gone 'hey, this looks cool, what can we do with it? Is there money in it? Does it make good business sense?'
So that's kind of what we do. To come under the umbrella of a big corporation, I don't know how we'd handle it. I would say that sometimes there are advantages. We see other companies - like Harmonix for example, we were working very closely with great people at Harmonix, because we took over the Karaoke Revolution from them just as they got mergered. For a good few years it looked really really rosy.
It's probably still really rosy now, although they're up for sale! There are lots of advantages to being part of a big organisation, ask Bizarre Creations this week about that one.
Q: Do you think they would have been better off if they'd of been an independent studio?
Philip Oliver: I think the owner of Bizarre Creations is probably on a beach somewhere, you can track him down and ask him. Think he's probably happy. As for the staff themselves...
One of the things about Blitz is, we look out for people. All of our employees are our friends and we try to do the best by them. We didn't set up Blitz to become rich, we set up Blitz to carry on making games with lots of other talented like-minded people. That's the philosophy of the company.
At the moment, we've been able to continue doing that. I won't say it's always been easy, because it hasn't. Times are tough and I sincerely wish that our UK government would be a bit more like the Canadian government. I'll keep trying and keep pushing, although it seems like a locked door at the moment.
Q: You're a very diverse business, how important has that diversity been to your success?
Philip Oliver: It's very important - and I think Bizarre Creations are probably thinking that right now. The market's always changing. To not be diverse would be a huge mistake right now. We're a huge company - we're 230 people. If we said, we're going to focus only on shooters or only racers, or only a particular area - then you can get a good few years, but you only need one year for the market to shift.
The market can shift for a lot of reasons, the product's not in vogue, or a competitor comes out with a better product or whatever, that's it! You're out and there's no going back. Having a diverse portfolio and the mentality within the studio to keep changing and addressing new challenges, it's vibrant and fun and challenging and interesting, but actually, it's safer to be that way.
As one area starts to drop off, another area starts to pick up. We kind of have this motto: To diversify is to stabilise. That's what it's all about.
Q: What about the future? Any ambition to move on from licence work and create your own IP?
Philip Oliver: Creating big, boxed product IP is something that's kind of beyond us, and something that's beyond most independents. That's because it's a changing world. If you look at where the new IP is coming from, they're not in that space so much.
In fact, I would argue that things like Moshi Monsters and Club Penguin are better examples of new IPs. So we are definitely exploring other areas of where we can create new IP, but also, IP does suggest, the way I'm thinking of it, a title.
With Blitztech we've created a phenomenal amount of technology IP and we have a few interesting things in the wings which are coming soon, which are not title-based IP, they're bigger than that. They're probably more important than that too - news of that will be coming soon.