Exient: From ports to harbours
The UK dev is opening a new seafront studio in Malta - and Jon Gibson gets to run it
UK studio Exient is one of those studios which has been quietly producing high-quality work for big industry names for some time - keeping its head below the proverbial parapet whilst reworking games as big as Madden, DJ Hero and Need for Speed for new platforms.
More recently, an arrangement with Rovio to produce the free-to-play Angry Birds Go has meant stepping forward into the limelight a little bit, taking on a higher profile and developing the business into some ambitious new areas. We caught up with the studio's Jon Gibson to find out more about how his landscape is changing, both figuratively and literally, over the next few months.
Jon Gibson: We've been around since 2001, mainly specialising in doing ports. We did a number of ports for EA - Tiger Woods, NFL, lots of FIFA titles, Need For Speed - basically their major franchises onto other platforms. Handhelds and stuff.
So although we've been around for years, not many people had heard of us because we hadn't had any super high-profile titles. A couple of years ago, Dave Hawkins, our CEO wanted to move away from our porting work - I say porting work but all of them have actually been created with our proprietary engine, called XGS, so it wasn't actually just porting, it was re-purposing those games using our technology, technology that's built around multiplatform development.
So Dave made that decision to move into more original titles. We had an existing relationship with Rovio from when we'd done Angry Birds Trilogy for 3DS, so we approached them about doing a karting game. That was Angry Birds Go, which was an original title for Rovio - their first venture into the 3D world and their first proper fully free-to-play title. They'd done a free-to-play game for the film The Croods, which was a sort of resource management game, but they hadn't done one with their own IP before. It was certainly the highest profile and most successful original title we've put together.
"we've been around for years, not many people had heard of us because we hadn't had any super high-profile titles"
Q: You're no strangers to working with big brands, but Angry Birds is a high-profile contract. How did that come about?
Jon Gibson: We had that contact after working on Trilogy, so we just pitched it to them. They'd expressed an interest in the past in doing a Kart racing game - games like Mario Kart and Crash Team Racing were favourites of a few key people in Rovio. So we produced a pitch and a prototype, but it was a very collaborative process, developing that title together. We have two producers from Rovio who work out of Exient's office, so it's very easy to collaborate on ideas and involve them in the creative process.
I think a lot of IP holders can be very precious about how you deal with it, especially if you're presenting it in a totally new context, like moving from a slingshot game to a karting game. But most of the people at Rovio are gamers and they understand that they need to be flexible in terms of that reinterpretation. They were very open for us to do the stuff we thought was best for the game.
We obviously had the style guides and stuff from when we were working on Angry Birds Trilogy, but our graphical artist, his personal style suits the IP very well. To be honest there weren't too many difficult approval processes. They would give us guidance and advice but at no point did they dictate the specifics.
However, we did have the support of a lot of people in Rovio. Their art director, Toni Kysenius, he would frequently come over and give us suggestions on what we were doing. They've got an amazing animation department.
I don't know if you've seen Angry Birds Toons, but on every Angry Birds game there's a little Toons icon. If you click on that then you get a traditional 2D animation featuring Angry Birds characters. There's plenty of them about. So they've got a full team of traditional 2D animators who really understand the brand. They really helped us make that transition between 2D and 3D animations.
"We're interested in taking it up to the next step, having more meaningful interactions where you extend the gameplay beyond the digital world and into the physical"
Q: That physical toy crossover market is becoming increasingly important, it seems. Go was your first foray into it, which has obviously proven to be successful - is it something you'd like to stick with?
Jon Gibson: The two are so closely woven together - particularly with the Angry Birds projects, but also across a range of other products. We've got the telepods in our game, where you buy the physical toys and get the characters in game, but games like Skylanders and Infinity are really bridging that divide. I definitely want to continue working in that space, because I find it really interesting. I think we've only just started to bridge that divide. We're interested in taking it up to the next step, having more meaningful interactions where you extend the gameplay beyond the digital world and into the physical.
Especially given that the technology is getting cheaper and cheaper - you can produce very intelligent physical toys very cheaply these days, which wasn't possible 5-10 years ago.
Q: Your main office is in Oxford, and you've got a second studio in Leamington Spa, but I understand that you're about to go and run a new office in Malta? That can't have been a difficult decision...
Jon Gibson: That's right. We're in the old vaults at the ports of Valletta, it's an unbelievable location. It's pretty amazing, there's such a pool of talent in Leamington Spa, and that's kind of why we wanted to set up in Malta as well - people are amazed when we say that, but there's a really strong talent pool there, something like 20 studios already, from console games to mobile.
Q: It's not a place that immediately leaps to mind when you think of development - why has it become such a hot-spot?
"The Maltese government has been really keen to attract that industry to the country - they make it very attractive to set up there, but that's meant that this talent pool exists"
Jon Gibson: The Maltese government has been really keen to attract that industry to the country - they make it very attractive to set up there, but that's meant that this talent pool exists. It's also an awesome place to live, so it's very easy to attract people. We're expanding to about 55 people in the first year. We're recruiting in Malta, most people are coming from there, but also it's not a particularly hard sell to advertise that place to UK employees as well...
Q: Those new horizons seem to be reflected in the outlook for the studio, too. Now you've had the success of Angry Birds Go to give you a bit more profile, will you be looking to create more of your own games?
Jon Gibson: Yeah, absolutely. We're keen to work on fresh new projects. Porting has been great for the growth of Exient but I think we've proved that we can also make high-quality original products and we want to continue that. We're also experimenting with a self-publishing strategy, so we see a mix of our work for hire business and that in the future. We want to carry on building our relationships with top level partners like Rovio, but we also want to create our own products.