4J's Chris van der Kuyl
The company president on the Scottish dev scene, and why the industry's business model is changing
As the founder of VIS Entertainment, Chris van der Kuyl is certainly no stranger to big projects in the games industry. Continuing Scotland Week, the man himself - now president of 4J Studios, the company behind the PlayStation 3 edition of Oblivion - offers his thoughts on some of the background to Dundee's successful games community and where the development business model is heading.
Q: Where did 4J Studios come from?
Chris van der Kuyl: Well, I'm the president of 4J Studios now, but before I was the president, CEO and founder of VIS, way back. If you look at that family tree, I didn't come out of DMA at all. I'd been out in other areas of interactive media development, but I decided in the mid-nineties - just as PSOne was coming out - that the platforms were interesting, with the 3D hardware.
So I founded VIS with a couple of guys who were leaving DMA at the time, plus a couple of non-industry techy people, and some from other creative media sectors as well. The short history is that it grew up to 200-odd people in Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, the Isle of Wight...and then sold it to Bam!
Off the back of that Bam! didn't do everything they were going to do, and they started falling off. What we did was effectively talked to the people who controlled the assets of VIS at the time and told them that the bit that we liked was the Dundee studio. We'd been running for about six years by that time, and interestingly VIS Dundee as a microcosm was the remains of DMA that Rockstar had left behind - plus a few other individuals.
I'm from Dundee originally, and I felt quite strongly that this next generation of devlopers that was going to come in - there was real strength in that pruning, allowing the next lot of stars to grow. And with the team at 4J, for me, it's like an elite team - that's what 4J is about, we were able to pick and choose the best people we had, and make a small studio but one I hope is seen as perfectly formed.
What we then did with our experience as senior people from VIS - we knew where we could get money, what to do, publisher relationships, unlike a lot of the other smaller guys around Dundee - we didn't need to get back out on that treadmill, run out and just do anything that came along.
We had a relationship with Bethesda that led into us doing the PlayStation 3 version of Oblivion, and in three and half years we've shipped seven products, and maybe a dozen SKUs. Bethesda, Codies, first party Microsoft announced at E3 [the XBLA Banjo titles] - and we've only got twelve people.
In a world when you either do small handheld, or you have 100-plus people, we've kind of taken a different approach - with the right dozen people we can bring in contractors, we can manage it and set the bar really high in terms of who's allowed in the business.
So we've spent three and a half years not doing what we did with VIS. We've been very quiet, been getting on with business, delivering products, and choosing what we thought were the right things - both from the point of view of making money, but also with the long term goal of building our own IPs that we think can work on all sorts of next generation formats...whether it's console, handheld or online.
That's where we are now - so we're a bit happier to talk about things now. We've been lucky in that we've been able to use our experience to get there, and in that time Scottish Enterprise and Interactive Tayside have been hugely supportive, and helped us look at various prototyping methodologies in things that we've done...but we've got enough experience where we were getting on with it anyway. But now, and over the next year-to-eighteen months we're turning into a different kind of business, and the Scottish Enterprise thing will kick in more strongly again.
Q: Do you think there's been a perception change in terms of the Scottish development scene over the years? It's been pretty quiet, even though there's a lot going on.
Chris van der Kuyl: I think, from a corporate point of view, there are a number of reasons to do PR, to talk to the media and build the coverage up - and I think one needs to be strongly aware of those reasons, rather than just talk for the sake of talking. At VIS there was no question that we had an agenda - growth plans, targets - and to hit those targets from the point of view of products and projects we were doing, plus recruitment, it was important we had a profile and were perceived to a big company doing big things.
4J has never had that imperative - we've never had that target that we need to have a certain number of people, and we certainly have a strong enough network in the publishing community that we know we can pick up the phone to see who's got work they need doing at the moment. So we just didn't have a reason to do it.
I do think though that there needed to be that cooling down phase in Scotland in that there were great things going on. There was a period of downtime after the Bam! thing went down, and until relatively recently Realtime [Worlds] were pretty quiet until they talked about Crackdown. Plus they've got APB coming out, so they better be in the press...!
I think Dare to be Digital has been quite an interesting brand out there - Abertay has been very good for everybody. We were in there for about ten years, most of us have been visiting professors, and we told them not to be shy about being a games course - be proud to be a games course, and I think they've done a better job than anybody worldwide in actually establishing a credible educational environment - they've really delivered something that's world class and it's important that it's recognised more.
But one of the things I think is disappointment for me is that outside Take-Two and Rockstar there aren't really any external industry investors in Scotland. You've got a lot of Scottish developers saying they've got enough trouble finding the right people without someone like EA turning up...
I say that's total bullshit - you go look at any big cluster, like the West coast of the States, Vancouver, Montreal...actually having the big publishers hovering in talent from all over the world creates opportunities for small studios to break off and grow.
So I think we do need to get those things done, and I think the time is right, because we've got a track record over three and a half years at 4J - we're a successful developer and we're really starting to deliver on the promise from the early days. And the first really significant funding round has happened in Dundee [with Realtime Worlds], great to see Proper Games do a deal with Capcom, Dynamo got the Mobile BAFTA, Denki got a BAFTA...actually there's plenty to look at, so I do think it's the right time to start saying things - but it's got to be on substance, not on fresh air. There's a lot more substance here than there is in other areas that are pushing themselves.
Q: Is that because all of the different stakeholders - Abertay, Dundee Council, Scottish Enterprise, developers in many different areas - are pulling together in the same direction? Without that, would it have been a lot harder for the small companies to survive?
Chris van der Kuyl: Yes, I would say that certainly on the smaller companies, the less experienced companies for whom this is the management's first business, there's no doubt that the work that Scottish Enterprise has done has helped. And it's not just money - in fact, it's helping them connect, helping them think, be sensible, talk to people. It's helped some to succeed, and other to realise it's not the right place for them to be.
My take on the situation is that we're the second generation of companies now, and I think there'll be good successes in this generation - Realtime have got as good a shot as anybody, with a big pile of cash in the bank, going for it on the global stage, and we all want them absolutely to succeed. Plus I think we've got a great opportunity at the moment, with experience, and so on - so this generation could turn out a mega-company, it could do.
But the next generation after this is where Dundee will generate a big, global player in this sector. People will make a good amount of money out of this generation, that's fine - but the next generation, reinvesting that cash, you've got an opportunity to do something majorly substantial. I won't make any daft predictions as to actual size, but given how the commercial market has changed - as long as you've got the cash to do it - it's possible.
Q: On the recruitment side of things, the challenges posed by other countries and their subsidies are well-documented - do you feel any of that pressure in Dundee?
Chris van der Kuyl: I feel that in the UK, especially with the dollar being where it is at the moment, it's pretty difficult to understand the model of building a large-scale work-for-hire studio - because then you're competing on price. Yes, if you're really high quality, people will want you because of that, but still...the big publishers that commission games are certainly looking at the bottom line, and if they can do something for half the price elsewhere there's a pretty good chance they will.
I think any smart developer right now is already out there doing something - it's no secret Eutechnyx have two studios in China, and I completely understand why they see their big-bulk growth extending over there.
There's absolutely no question, being cognizant of the challenges that face us in terms of cost base, outsourcing, and so on - it's one of the reasons for keeping ourselves as lean as we possibly can. But if you look at the flipside of that, which is moving towards Hollywood...I've been an advocate ever since I got into the industry of the movie studio model, which is a real hardcore of talent who are the production company - the technical leads, the animation, art, design leads, the people who can really put the game together and drive the vision - and then the production will either just get put together for a short time, from anywhere in the world, it doesn't really matter. And that will move around, wherever the talent is at the right cost.
That's definitely the model we're going down, and the model we see being positive moving forward. And hey, is The Simpsons [cartoon] made in Korea, or is it made in Hollywood? Look at the credits....but where is the real creative talent? It sits in the US, writing it, directing the scripts and originally developing the characters. I think games are going to go exactly the same way.
Chris van der Kuyl is the president of 4J Studios. Interview by Phil Elliott.
This article is part of Scotland Week on GamesIndustry.biz, sponsored by Dundee City Council and Realtime Worlds.
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