Black Sheep: Why the Bodycount developer went back to the bedroom
Stuart Black on unfinished projects, the blame culture and going it alone
Stuart Black is a game developer with two things: a reputation, and opinions. Lots of opinions. Once well known for his work on seminal shooter Black at Criterion, he has since struggled to find satisfaction with other projects like Bodycount and Enemy Front.
"From a personal point of view, you really do start to question 'what the hell am I doing wrong?' You don't get this unlucky all the time, I have to be doing something."
So now he's going it alone. No more "stale" shooters or management meetings, he promises GamesIndustry International, and no more big publishers.
"All I care about is making games. I really just want to make a really fucking cool game."
Last time anyone saw Black on the industry circuit was a press tour in May, where he was showing off his work on the City Interactive WW2 shooter Enemy Front. A game he thought was going well, and a game, he says, he was determined to finish. But just weeks after the press circuit he found himself suddenly and unexpectedly redundant.
"I don't really have an answer for why, nobody ever really talked to me about any problems either with how I work, the quality of the work that was being done. It was kind of the opposite, everybody was really happy with the work."
"The only thing that I can think is that when I was off doing my thing in the States telling people there's going to be a Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare kind of vibe to the game rather than the Saving Private Ryan reverential vibe, and actually they were going 'no, we actually want Private Ryan.'"
It's clear that the redundancy hurt Black. He explained that he felt it was blow to his credibility and his reputation. After all, he'd also had to leave Codemasters' Bodycount before the project was completed.
"When I joined Codemasters I didn't do it to make Bodycount, I went there to make an open world cop game," he says.
He did about a year and a half pre-production before the project stumbled and was cancelled. And so Bodycount was born, a shooter that Black felt confident he could deliver in a speedy time frame.
"It wasn't my life ambition to make another shooter after Black, but it was something we could do relatively easily."
But Black left a full year before the game shipped, leaving a game that scored a metacritic of 53 in his wake.
There's been a lot of talk about Black's departure from Codemasters, but ultimately, he blames office politics. Black is not a man with a lot of time for the managerial back and forth of larger publishers, and has strong ideas about the failings of the game publisher model as a whole.
"I think you could argue that Codemasters and City, they're sitting in that middle band in terms of quality," he says of the tricky art of creating triple-A titles.
"I don't think their problems are in the ideas or the creative side, the problems are in production, in getting stuff made... You keep missing dates, assets don't come in on time, and you just start having to shave that design down. And that tends to be where your quality goes as you go through the course of production, and why you end up with something that gets released and it's not very good."
Codies declined to comment about Stuart's time a the company.
He's also damning of the blame culture in large studios, where time will be wasted trying to find out who is responsible for problems rather than just fixing them.
"It wasn't my life ambition to make another shooter after Black, but it was something we could do relatively easily"
"It all becomes about whose fault is it that that didn't happen? Weeks chasing around to find who is the person who is to blame for this thing, rather than spending that time on how do we catch that up and how do we solve that problem?"
As he talks there's a clear look of bafflement on his face that people consider this sort of thing important. It explains why he wants to steer clear of big publishers in the future, away from responsibility beyond making a game.
"The higher you get on that ladder, the further you get from real development. You just turn into a manager of other people. And that's never been my thing, I still like to get it and actually make stuff."
And so Stuart Black is heading out on his own from his home in Guildford, which, helpfully, is a hotbed for UK development talent.
"Calling it a 'new studio' is a bit grand," he explains.
"It's more freelance than studio. I'm open to working with anyone, developer or publisher, just not as an 'employee', where any creative rights are automatically attributed to the employer."
"I'm prototyping a game for potential release through Steam. A third person action/adventure thing about survival and creation in a fairly hard sci-fi context. Planning to have something to show in the new year. And I'm looking at a cute iPad/iPhone idea that Leading Light have."
He's excited by the digital and mobile markets, and the reemergence of "bedroom" development. He says he's currently obsessed with Subset Games' FTL: Faster Than Light on Steam, something that never would have had a chance finding support from a larger publisher.
"With the digital markets we've seen the reemergence of that bedroom attitude. Small groups of people saying 'I've got something I believe is a really cool idea,'" he says.
"With a really small group of people it is possible over a 6 to 9 month period to put something good together. If you've got the right people, the right idea, you can make something happen. So that's what I'm trying to do."
Maybe it's because he's been burned by triple-A (not that it's put him off playing games like Skyrim in his spare time) but again and again throughout the interview Black is keen to point to flaws in current development methodologies. Like aping the production schedule of a TV show instead of films, the lack of talent coming through the industry at the moment ("there's a real disconnect between the perception in [universities] of where the quality bar is and where it really needs to be,") and the need for the industry to have its own marketeer and recruiter free games festival. Whatever else has happened to him, Stuart Black has lost none of his opinions.
"I'm not very easily managed," he admits as the interview winds down.
"I just believe in honesty. The only thing that matters at the end of the day is what you put on the screen."