Nick Baynes has seen a lot in his 22 years in the industry, and now he's sure he's come up with a solution for all of the problems he encountered in that time. The problems that dog independent studios and their investors, that limit innovation and make staff stay in jobs they don't love, in the hope of finding a job for life.
Here the Big Bit founder explains why he left that company in March, and what he's been working on since. Introducing Ironfist Games, a brand new studio with a brand new business model.
Q: You founded Big Bit three years ago, so what was behind your decision to leave?
Nick Baynes:For me personally I just felt there were certain things happening in the industry that I wanted to be a part of but maybe I didn't feel I was best placed to do at Big Bit. I've been in the industry for 22 years and don't get me wrong, I am really proud of games like The Snowman, but if I was given a completely blank page to develop a game from it wouldn't necessarily be that game. So I wanted to take advantage of the disruptive landscape that's out there now and really get back to making some games that I'm really passionate about making.
Q: So what is the new project?
Nick Baynes:The new studio is called Ironfist Games - I wanted a name that didn't feel too new media - and the way I'm describing it is it's more of a game production company than a game development studio.
Regularly over the last 20 years at management level we've had discussions about copying the way that movies and some TV productions are made, in terms of creating a more stable environment. I don't think there's really been the opportunity to do that until recently thanks to the games tax breaks and various other forms of investment that have come in.
"Each game that we produce will be a separate, standalone, special purpose company"
Q: How will Ironfist work?
Nick Baynes:Externally things will appear like any other regular multi-teamed development studio, however the way that Ironfist is structured is that Ironfist as a company is actually going to remain a very very small, lean group of people, probably never more than four or five people, myself and a few other experts. Each game that we produce will be a separate, standalone, special purpose company set up as a co-production between Ironfist and investors, or whoever else is a partner.
What it means is that the development team on each of the projects is then contracted directly to the project, to that special purpose company. So the Ironfist core team work on all the projects in the same way that a studio director would work on multiple projects in a current development studio environment but the benefit from the business side is the way it's structured.
So the big benefit for the studio is that there's less ongoing overheads and commitments, it means that the burn is much more controlled. Over the years I've worked at a number of independent developers and you always get feast and famine. There's always periods where there's almost too much work to do and then there are times where you're looking for work for the staff you're currently employing. With Ironfist if the games are there then people are contracted to the games, if people aren't there then people aren't contracted to it so the general cash flow and the overheads are very controlled.
It also allows us to focus much more on the creative side of things and innovation and new IP. One of of the reasons for that is partly because looking at different investment routes, when people are going to invest in a game they want to own the IP because that offers more value for them, so it does encourage creativity perhaps more than the work for hire model.
Q: What benefits are there for the investors?
Nick Baynes:For investors obviously in the last year and particularly in the last month or so there a various new investment opportunities - SEIS has been big recently, the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme, investment loans - not to mention people that are now coming to the industry because of the games tax breaks as well.
The benefits for them with this model is definitely controlled risks, the fact is that the company they're putting the money into is focused on their project and their project alone. In fact with some of these investment schemes you really need to do it this way, you need to do a joint venture to take advantage of some of the investment opportunities. And again the benefit here is that by having a very lean core production group at the heart of Ironfist it means that we're not going to be attributing any overheads of that studio to the joint venture.
Q: And for the staff working on those titles?
Nick Baynes:Firstly I should just say that I really genuinely believe that this is a way that the industry is going to go over the next few years. I don't necessarily include micro-teams with that, and I certainly don't include the massive internal publisher teams right now, but I think for mid-size teams this is definitely an attractive structure to take.
For team members who are currently sat in full time jobs initially this might sound scary because obviously if people are contracted to a game rather than a studio then theoretically that's a shorter term contract than a job for life. But what's been clear in the last two or three years is that there's no such thing as stability or jobs for life in the games industry. The biggest, most secure studios let people go
Part of that fear that people have of being freelance in some ways actually benefits the employers because if people are scared of leaving they're going to stay in their current job forever. I do think with flexible contracts and working in this kind of set-up there's a number of benefits to staff.
Games these days are services, unless you're doing a big budget boxed product there is no real end to development cycle so I'd argue that working on a Steam game or a mobile, game, that's still feasibly a 12 or 18 month gig anyway, so it's not necessarily that short term. Also when you're working in flexible contracts and especially with a contract that is directly contracted to a game it means that freelancers could negotiate higher day rates because that cost is only being paid for while the game is active.
Also there's more chance of getting a fair share of rewards. I've been at 150 person studios in the past where things like royalties or bonuses have been paid out and there's always controversy. If you're lucky enough to have been put on project A and it makes loads of money for the company and project B doesn't, does that mean you should get a higher bonus or royalty? There's arguments either side but it's not fair in that kind of set-up. It's almost like a postcode lottery.
"If this is going to work anywhere it's going to work in Brighton"
The more the industry goes to this model, and I believe it will, the more there'll be a constant flow of flexible workers and I think it's going to benefit everyone.
Q: And development costs will presumably be reduced?
Nick Baynes:When you're a work for hire studio or when you're a big independent studio you're trying to make a margin on every game you do, you can't survive just breaking even. So in the traditional model some projects budget for the rainy days. In this model, obviously scheduling and planning needs to be done very prudently and with the worst case scenario in mind but in terms of actual costs, because the money coming in is directly going to the game and because the studio is directly benefitting from IP and the backend as well… more of the money will go into the development.
Q: And you'll be based in Brighton?
Nick Baynes:If this is going to work anywhere it's going to work in Brighton because we've got… I've lost count of how many developers are down here but I think it's something like 18.
In Brighton there's also an element of collaboration between studios, in terms of helping each other out. If you need a UI artist, for example, then you can drop an email to the other studios and we all help each other out. I think that could be taken further with this model because the whole things it's built on is the idea that games themselves are co-productions and there's no reason why a co-production couldn't be done between two developers and an investor, for example.
The winners are going to be the players, because they're going to get games that are willing to take more creative risks, and the other winners are going to be the development community. It strikes me as a much more long-term sustainable model.