Towards the end of 2005 a new quiz game was released for the PlayStation 2 from a small company based in Brighton that few people outside of the industry would have heard of. Buzz!: The Music Quiz shipped with special controllers, and most people that played it liked it, at least enough to put a few decent reviews out there.
The problem, however, was that as Christmas got closer, nobody was really buying the game, to the point where Sony execs discussed canceling plans for further titles in the series. But suddenly, sales picked up, and since then Relentless Software as a company hasn't looked back, recently named as one of the top-selling UK studios.
GamesIndustry.biz recently spent some time with David Amor, co-founder of the company, to talk about the forthcoming PlayStation 3 Buzz! title and what it's like working on Sony's flagship console.
Q: What impact do you think that the PlayStation Network will have on Buzz!, with downloadable content, and so on – what is your expectation in the next six months?
David Amor: Well, Sony, overall – when we were making Buzz! PlayStation 2 games in the past, we had to pick a genre, such as Movies, we had to pick a subject that we thought would do enough sales to justify a boxed product.
With the download packs we can afford to be a bit more speculative, we don't have to go to manufacturers, we can just stick it on the PlayStation Network, and to be honest we can just play it by ear really.
If there's a title that seems to be picking up, and people are more interested in, we can do more on that, and we can afford to be a bit more specialised.
Not that I'm announcing it or anything like that, because it's Sony that tend to do the packs, but for example, you could imagine a Manchester United quiz that just wouldn't be possible on the PS2, but would be justified on PSN.
Q: Does it put more pressure on you when it comes to the next full iteration of the title, though – a need to add significant new features for the next set piece release?
David Amor: Yeah, I think so. I think that what you'll see, we'll continue to support Buzz!, both in terms of updates for the game and new question packs as well. But I doubt it's the last Buzz! you'll see as a boxed product.
Q: Is there anything you can say on other projects bubbling under at the moment?
David Amor: We are working on things that aren't Buzz! I think for a long time Sony's appetite for Buzz! games has meant that every time we'd build up the team to start working on something else, Sony would ask for more Buzz! games, including the PS3 game, which was a large team for us.
But now we're over 70 people, and we can do the Buzz! games cost-effectively, so we're finally in a position where we can do something other than Buzz!, which is nice.
Q: You're one of the top UK studios as far as UK sales goes. How surprised are you to be in that position after just a few years?
David Amor: Well, it's great. The real fun part was the end of 2005, when we got a call from Sony telling us that the Buzz! game they thought was so good wasn't selling that well…and then it picked up massively over Christmas, to the point where it sold a million.
And that rollercoaster ride, from the point of wondering where our next gig was coming from, to the 'we need to do more Buzz! games than we can imagine', was awesome.
To think that such a small development studio in the UK – we started off with 12 on our first Buzz! game – could end up being partly responsible for a game that sold so many…fantastic. It really felt like we were punching above our weight.
Q: How has it felt in the past year? Obviously working on a key PS3 title must be nice?
David Amor: Yes, working on the PS2, where we used key technologies such as Renderware, a lot of the work in terms of technology was already in place. But on the PS3 we didn't have a graphics system to start with, we didn't have a particularly mature network system in place either, so we had to spend a lot of our time working on those components.
So for a while we found ourselves in a more traditional videogames development scenario, where we spent a lot of time on our graphics and network technology, but now we have that in place, I think we're back to spending most of our time on the technology that surrounds the game.
Q: Looking back now, given that you've overcome those learning issues, how impressed are you with the technology leap from PS2 to PS3? People are expecting the PS3 to be around for a very long time – is that something you'd agree with?
David Amor: Yes, the PlayStation 3 is a very powerful system, and I'm sure I'm not the first developer to say that, like the PSOne and PS2 before it, it's the sort of technology that only shows itself over time.
It's a hard technology to master, and it gave us a headache this time last year, but now the engine coders are finding some fun things that allow them to do more than they could a year ago – so it's a journey of discovery, but it's a very powerful system.
The biggest thing for us as a social game developer isn't really the power of the CPU or anything like that, it's really the opportunities that the network connections bring. You can do a new set of things in terms of delivering new content, but also playing with people that aren't in your living room.
So that actually has been the most interesting opportunity as far as that platform is concerned.
Q: You say you're up to 70 people now – are there any plans to expand further? What's the business outlook like?
David Amor: I've made the mistake of saying in the past that we're not going to grow beyond a certain size…and then opportunities have come up, and I've had to revise our strategy, so I'm not going to make any commitments to that.
But we don't expand for the sake of expansion, we expand where there are good opportunities, and we found ourselves in a genre of social or casual gaming – however you define it – that ended up having more opportunities than any other in the past four years. And they continue to present themselves.
As an independent developer that's on the forefront of social gaming, we have a lot of opportunities presented to us, and I'd be foolish to turn them down just because I didn't want to exceed a certain number of people in the office.
Q: Are you tempted by the Wii? That's made a splash in terms of social gaming…
David Amor: We have a very close relationship with Sony, which rules us out of an Xbox 360 or Wii game in the near future, but also I think there are some opportunities on the Sony platform.
I think the Wii is a really interesting machine that's made great inroads as a social gaming device, but I also think there are lots of companies that are catering for that market on the Wii.
There are less on the PS3, and I'm interested in doing more things on the PS3 that can reach that demographic.
Q: You're happy that the PS3 can fulfill all of your expectations and ambitions in that area?
David Amor: Yes – I think the fact that it was a more expensive machine than the Wii means that initially it's not necessarily the same demographic that we're targeting, but I think the way that Sony has foreseen it is that they need more than first-person shooters to appeal to a wide demographic.
If you only appeal to a certain section of people, you can't get the hardware sales beyond a certain point.
I think that's something that Microsoft has suffered from – they've done great at targeting the core gaming market, but they're not getting anything too much wider. I think Sony has a wider view than that.
Q: With the price cut last year, and now that Blu-ray is cemented as the DVD format of choice, this must be pretty much the ideal time for you to be releasing your game?
David Amor: Yes – there were times if I'm honest when I was wondering what was going to happen in this round of hardware, but the PlayStation 3 is very well set up now for the remainder of its lifecycle. It's got the portfolio, the price is coming down, the PlayStation brand is immense, and it feels like the right platform for us to be on.
Q: Is this the generation that makes the serious transition from games console to wider entertainment device? Does it fulfil the mass market criteria?
David Amor: Videogames is miles away from mass market still, and although it's great to see some of the recent successes, there are 20 million people that watch Coronation Street in the UK…so the idea that we're truly mass market…it's not the case yet.
But I do think that some of the stigma that was attached to videogaming is going away, generation by generation. I mean, the PSOne took some of it away, it was positioned as a cool device, and PlayStation 2 has seen people recognise that the system isn't just for boys.
So the stigma's gone away, people are realising that it can appeal to a wider set of people, mums and dads are playing Brain Training, Buzz!, SingStar, so it's certainly going in the right direction, but we're a long way off real mass market.
Q: You've worked with Phil Harrison for a while in his capacity at Sony, were you surprised when he left?
David Amor: Yes, I was surprised because he'd been there so long, and it was hard to picture him as anything else. He's helped Sony so much.
But I've spoken to industry peers, and when you analyse it, it's perfectly understandable – he's been there a long time and achieved what he set out to do, look for new challenges.
So it's as understandable as it is surprising.
David Amor is the creative director of Relentless Software. Interview by Phil Elliott.