It's been a tumultuous decade. Two console generations have passed, metamorphosing from simple, stand-alone games machines into connected, multimedia and social hubs en route. Mobile gaming is finally fulfilling the promises of its longterm evangelists and free-to-play has thrown a large, hungry economic feline in amongst the bloated and complacent pigeons. In that ten years, which has seen the advent of Facebook, iPhones, Android, tablets, the Wii and Steam, very little has remained constant.
Wherever there is change, there are casualties, and many companies small and large have fallen by the wayside. Those that have remained are invariably very different creatures than they once were.
Relentless is a prime example. Formed from the ashes of Computer Artworks' Brighton office in 2003 to complete PS2 project DJ: Decks & FX for Sony, it wasn't long before the studio found itself mining a rich vein in a new market by helping to pioneer gaming's populist revolution with family quiz series Buzz! That series went from strength to strength for five solid years, but even the deepest veins run dry. In early 2011, the deal with Sony came to an end and Relentless branched out, creating new IPs in the shape of Quiz Climber and Blue Toad Murder Files.
Fast forward nearly three years and things have changed again. Having survived some testing times, Relentless is now a leaner beast with 30 members of staff. Co-founders Andrew Eades and David Amor have parted company, with Eades taking sole ownership of the studio going forward. What remains is a pugnaciously determined outfit looking to restaff and focus on the task in hand, courtesy of new investment and fresh opportunities. We caught up with Eades in Relentless' Brighton office to find out more.
Q:Can we start with a quick run down of the last few months?
Andy Eades:I've just recently taken over 100 per cent ownership of Relentless from David Amor. We founded the company ten years ago in 2003 and I've been working towards restructuring the company, taking over and changing some of the way the studio works. It's taken a long time, it's taken all summer, but we're finally there and looking forward to the next ten years.
"I've just recently taken over 100 per cent ownership of Relentless from David Amor"
Q:Would it be fair to say it was a bit touch and go for the company?
Andy Eades:Not from my perspective but externally it might have looked like that. I think there was a lot of rumblings in the industry. In February we had to make some redundancies and there was naturally a decision point about what the future of Relentless was going to be. Some people didn't agree with the direction I wanted to take it in so some people have left because of that. But mainly we've got a great bunch of people in the studio now who are really eager and working on some great new projects.
Q:How many people are with the company?
Andy Eades:We've got about 30. We're on a recruitment drive. To be honest we signed contracts later than I'd hoped so we've kicked off the recruitment drive later than I'd hoped. We've got two new games being made for release in 2014 and we're also working with Hasbro on the number one toy in the world - Furby.
Q:That change of direction - you made a play into mobile and you've played around with various business models with Blue Toad - what was the crux of that change?
Andy Eades:I see an opportunity because the whole publishing of games is becoming democratised. I believe that Relentless should be owning its own IP and publishing its own games if possible. We don't exclude other possible business relationships with partners like Hasbro and Microsoft historically. We've worked really well with partners and if that's the right thing for the game then that's what we'll do. I hope we do that in the near future, as I say, we're working on the number one toy. But there's a renewed balance, we're balancing it more 50/50 to self-publishing and other stuff. Before that it was more 90/10. You're never going to get these numbers exactly right but I feel we're in a better, more balanced position than we've ever been before.
Q:So you wouldn't want to go back a relationship like the one you had with Sony in the past?
Andy Eades:Well, never say never. That agreement worked really well for us at that period of time and it stopped working so well for Sony and Relentless in 2010, which is why we decided that wasn't the way forward. It's been a tricky time in the games industry since then as well and I don't think many people would have predicted where we're at now. New consoles are launching, which is really interesting, but I think we're a long way away from the PS2, which is where we started. It's been a challenge to convert the company from a one-product, one-platform company to a much more diverse set of products and platforms.
"It's been a challenge to convert the company from a one-product, one-platform company to a much more diverse set of products and platforms"
Q:That 10 years has been a ridiculous sea-change in terms of products and business models…
Andy Eades:Yep, if you remember the PlayStation 2 was barely network capable, it had an adaptor but I don't think anyone used it' It didn't have a hard disc and it was a very different business then. I think we did really well then and so did Sony and all the big publishers. It may have been a simpler business to understand. But now we've got digital distribution on our side and I think developers are finding their feet in publishing.
Q:You're one of the few studios that has made that transition from product heavy to digital fairly incrementally, with DLC for Buzz then testing different business models. What have been your key learnings from all of that?
Andy Eades:Buzz was the first of many, many things, including one of the first free games supported by DLC. It's extraordinary that such a so-called simple game was the first at many things - the first to have PlayStation Trophies. The first Sony game to have Facebook Connect. There's a lot of firsts under the hood of Buzz so we've always been innovating.
That's what we're trying to do. I was always sceptical about the retail business model. We're trying to do things that mean we get access to our customers rather than retailers who have great access but have a very short shelf life. Buzz was extraordinary because it's shelf life wasn't short, it was on sale in the top ten in the UK for 12 months. That's the kind of game I aspire to make and I was lucky enough to have made one. Now we're digital we don't have this short shelf life. We have other challenges. There's a huge shelf and you can't find your game on it. There's no perfect scenario here so we have to adapt to what's best at the time.
Q:Taking over that responsibility - being the point of engagement and being the retailer - for a small company, where do you find the resources to deal with that?
Andy Eades:That's a good question and one of the key hires we're looking for. We're going to build a very small publishing group within Relentless headed up by me. But I'm a developer, I don't have a background in publishing, I'm finding out as I go. But I've got a load of great friends in the games industry who do know about publishing and their advice is free so we'll figure something out. The other thing is because we're no EA we don't need to sell 10 million copies of a game to be successful. So there's a scaling issue. The old retail business drove us towards needing millions of sales in order to call it a success. We did that with Buzz but in order to be successful on a digital platform because there's less risk in terms of inventory.
"We're going to build a very small publishing group within Relentless headed up by me"
But you do need to find your audience. We've got a great audience with Blue Toad Murder Files and we're making a new game for that audience. The team's loving it, we're taking a different angle on the same franchise and we're putting confidence in what we've already created. We also got to number one on iPad in the UK in April, and that was a significant milestone for me. It proved Relentless could get to the top of a new platform. Now we know how to do it - we made a few missteps on the way, we tried several different attempts - we know the kind of content we should be making, so we've got a new game that I can't quite reveal just yet but is aimed at that audience much more squarely.
Q:Getting on the front page is considered the golden ticket. And you had the deal with Google to have Murder Files installed on Chrome which is reaching a potentially massive audience. Have you found that success breeds success, have you been able to leverage that with platform holders?
Andy Eades:Our reputation is really important which is why I wanted the business to continue as Relentless and not change the name, because we have gone through a profound change recently. It looks the same from a distance but it feels a lot difference. But Relentless still opens doors, I've got good relationships with Amazon and Apple and Google, as well as Microsoft and Hasbro. I wouldn't have that so easily being just Andrew Eades.
Q:Can you tell us anything about the Microsoft and Hasbro deals?
Andy Eades:We haven't got a deal with Microsoft yet but we are talking about what we can do with Xbox One amongst other platforms. With Hasbro we've been working for a long time supporting this year's Furby toy which has very tight integration with the iPad and iPhone app. Actually it's on all the mobile platforms. It's interesting because it's what we call integrated play - the toys are enhanced by the apps and the apps are better because of the toy.
Q:It's an increasingly lucrative market, this screen for a physical toy…
Andy Eades:It's really interesting seeing what we can do to bring that toy to life. Furby was a great toy in the first place and Hasbro did a great job of making that an interactive experience. We can only enhance that and give you a great experience of Furby without you having to buy the toy. But the app and the toy come to life when they're put together.
"We've changed every year over the past ten years"
Q:You've got some external investment, are you free to talk about where that came from?
Andy Eades:The company invested in our projects is called Standfast Interactive. It's a boutique fund for video game projects for self-publishing. It doesn't want to be a publisher, its funds developers in order to allow them to publish. They're industry veterans who know what they're doing and I'm really impressed with how they are working with us. They have given us the financial backing a publisher would give us but they've given us the freedom to own our own games. Which you don't necessarily get with a publisher, it's really refreshing. We only signed in October but already the teams are really refreshed by it. They're surprised by how much freedom they get.
The idea is if we're successful we retain the rights to our game and we get to do it again. They idea is we build a good relationship, we return them what they want for their investment. We get what we want from it, we're all happy and we're making profitable games. Games are still a hit-driven business so you can't predict if you're going to get a hit but you can try to.
Q:What is the biggest difference in ethos for the company between now and three years ago?
Andy Eades:We've changed every year over the past ten years. In my view we're going a bit back to how it felt when we began. It's really a renewal. We've got three-and-a-bit teams - we're just building the fourth team. They are very independent, we've ring-fenced resources around the teams so they feel very solid. I've given ownership to them so they can really drive what they are doing. My job really is to facilitate the making of games and bringing in the more hard-nosed commercial aspects. Our founding principle remains making games for everyone. It's really easy as a gamer to go down a really interesting niche and make something amazing that only a few of your friends are going to understand. So we're trying to be as broad as we can and continue to do that because that's what remains of the founding vision and it was successful for ten years. I don't see why we shouldn't do that for another ten years.
Q:You're focusing on tablets, mobile, more open environments. And it looks like the console business is taking lessons from that and nurturing talent from the indie sector. Do you think that's going to change enough to tempt yourselves and others that got disillusioned about that publisher/developer relationship back?
Andy Eades:I'm open to it and I'm thinking I might sign a publishing deal next year. But I do think it might be slightly different to the publishing deal I've signed in 2010. These are all good things. Because there's less of a lock down on the route to market developers don't all have to go down the same route. You don't have to have a publisher, you don't have to do distribution and retail and all of that other stuff which made it impossible for a small developer to get their game into a shop. We don't have that problem anymore we have 100 other different problems! The terms are more favourable, the publishers are understanding where the talent is more and more. There's still some great people in publishing that I talk to on a regular basis so I'm not saying that model is totally dead.
If you're going for a publishing deal you have to provide something that really fits with them. That might just be like a normal work for hire where you get commissioned to make their game. But all these publishers have all these huge internal resources that need to be employed so there's less of that work going on. The other thing is going and supporting a platform. Relentless has historically been excellent at supporting platform holders and working with their aspirations. If you're going down a middle route and making a game that doesn't fit with their portfolio very well and doesn't support any particular platform then you need to have a different kind of finance model. But thinking like a publisher a little bit brings a different approach to the decision making process we have when we greenlight a game.
Q:Do you think that extra responsibility puts a natural curb on creativity - not in a negative way - you sometimes need to put the brakes on that kind of stuff…
Andy Eades:The bigger the company you are the less risky you can be unless you've got so much money you don't have those risks in terms of finance. But you see it all the time, if you're a two man studio you and working out of hours you can take whatever risk you like. I love that, that's amazing. That should be happening. But if you've got a small developer like Relentless you can't necessarily take massive risks.
"If you're a two man studio you and working out of hours you can take whatever risk you like. I love that, that's amazing. That should be happening"
Q:Where ideally do you want to be in two years time?
Andy Eades:Ideally the games we're working on now will be released and successful and we'll have newer version of those or newer games coming through. The thing I've learnt over the past ten years is you can't predict what the games industry is going to be like in two years' time so I'm open to anything really. So long as we get to keep making games, and I think it's important that we make games that we want to make and enjoy making, then I'm happy. The studio might grow to up to 50 people by then but that's really the maximum over that term.
Q:You were bigger than that - 80, 90?
Andy Eades:Over 100 at one point.
Q:Is there a point where you just don't want to get bigger, you decide not to push it any further?
Andy Eades:I think 50 is a good amount of people in a company. When you start going over 50 the company structure changes radically. We had a lot of senior management that we didn't need anymore. We had a HR department to support 120 people. I don't really ever want to have a HR department again. I've got plans to grow the studio over the next 12 months and I think that will grow a little bit. We're adding about one person a month. That's about the right growth rate for us. And the offices were looking at won't support bigger than that. We can work with smaller teams. We don't have this kind of factory line of animators that are told what to animate on a daily basis. They know because they're in the project for the long term. Four teams of up to 15 people is about right. And we have contractors and freelancers to make up numbers with the core people in the team.
Q:So people have more ownership of the project they're working on. Do they also have more autonomy or do you go around telling them to stick to the brief?
Andy Eades:They're given complete freedom. I have a review once a week with each product lead and I obviously have an opinion that is listened to sometimes - not all the time - but I'm not a dictator. I enable people to do stuff, I don't want to come to work and have people reluctantly making a game. I want them to want to come and work and enjoy making a game that they care about. I'm not interested in running a workshop for game making. I've experienced a little bit of that and it's a different kind of business to the one I'm interested in running now.
Q:What sort of calibre of people are you looking for? Experienced people, those looking for their first job, people to look up to...
"There are people here who can see they will get a break in the industry and we will help them through their career, but also we can't all be newbies"
Andy Eades:All of the above. We've recently hired some great people but we need to add some experience to the mix. And I've always been happy to give people their first break in the industry. We have someone who started as a runner heading up a project right now. Our design director started at a lowly level as well. There are people here who can see they will get a break in the industry and we will help them through their career, but also we can't all be newbies. We have to have some wise heads on shoulders, we have to get that mix right. I might point people in the direction to see if they will fit in with Relentless but I won't have the final say on whether they are employed or not.
I am the HR department. I've always been everything and wore that hat. I started off as a programme and project manager then I did the finance direction, then I was the HR, then I was CEO. Now I'm El Presidente. I don't really believe in titles, people muck in and do their best. Obviously people have natural abilities but I don't like people being in silos.
Q:>You seem to be relishing the fact you're getting back to being hands on…
Andy Eades:I'm not sure how hands-on I am but I do enjoy the fact I can see what's going on in the studio on a regular basis and take part in the morning standups when I can. A lot of my work is focused on the more dreary aspects of the commercial side of the business. Trying to predict the industry is really hard but trying to at least work out what we believe we can do in the next year, two years, is really important.