Eutechnyx's Darren Jobling and Todd Eckert
The studio on the challenges facing independent teams, the future of the games industry and an upcoming casual MMO
The past couple of years have seen a spate of high profile UK-based racing games developers being bought out by larger studios and publishers. Eutechnyx is one of the last remaining independent studios - with its anticipated title Ferrari Challenge set to come out for the PlayStation 3 shortly.
GamesIndustry.biz sat down with Eutechnyx's co-owner and director of business development Darren Jobling, and director of North America Todd Eckert, at the GameHorizon conference to discuss the challenges facing independent studios, the future of the games industry and the studio's upcoming casual MMO.
Q: What's the biggest challenge you are facing at the moment?
Darren Jobling: I think the biggest issue is maximising potential. If you think about it in terms of independent games development - I think Eutechnyx is currently the only independent driving game developer that's got a multi-format next-gen engine.
So I think our biggest issue is selecting the right projects that we want to work on because we've only got a certain limited capacity and it's making sure that we make the right choices.
Q: Do you think that you would be freer to focus on select projects if you were no longer independent? Do you find it difficult to focus?
Todd Eckert: We don't have any giant corporate minders telling us what to do and so, so far, we've been able to put as much focus into whatever we've chosen to do as we've needed to. The nice thing is that we know when we decide to make the coolest motorcycle culture game, or the coolest Ferrari game, or whatever it is we want to do, there's no chance it's going to go back to some sort of distant all seeing eye that's going to say 'that doesn't fit into our overall corporate structure, we're sorry you're going to have to change this, this and this'.
Darren Jobling: We strongly believe in independence and we really, really see that as being the creative lynch pin, and that's because we have sold our company historically and bought it back. Everyone that comes to buy your company will sell you the line 'you're going to have so much creative freedom, you can really just concentrate on doing the games,' and you'll find out in a short space of time, just like we did, that you're very restricted.
Q: How do you find being an independent when so many UK-based racing studios have been bought up?
Darren Jobling: It's good for us because my three major competitors have been taken out of the market. You've got Evolution, Bizarre Creations and Climax Brighton - so it just presents enormous opportunities and as an independent you're free to select which opportunity you want.
What happens is you've got great studios that get turned into factories, with the big company culture once you've got one type of game that's successful you'll carry on producing that's sequel again and again and again.
Todd Eckert: I think it's also important to note that we're independent by choice because there's been no shortage of people trying to buy us.
Darren Jobling: I think there's been three in the past six weeks. I personally think that if we sold the company now it would be tremendously undervalued. I think the value of content creators is going to go, over the next three years, is at least going to double. If you sell your game company now you're selling it way too early.
Todd Eckert: If you have a company that has the technology base by which to create whatever they want and this dedication to independence, this belief that we can be whatever we choose, than remaining independent is beneficial.
Q: How is developing across platform, is one platform harder than another?
Darren Jobling: It was really interesting on Ferrari Challenge, which by choice was done on PS3 not Xbox 360, and it was really great to have the opportunity to concentrate on one format and really, really maximise the potential of that format.
I think we've defiantly done that with Ferrari Challenge but I think that... the more formats you put it out on it does provide issues but Eutechnyx is known for our technology, we're very well known for our technological capability so it's actually, we enjoy the challenge of doing multi-format stuff.
Q: How do you feel your products on the Xbox 360 and PS3 compare? Do they look the same?
Darren Jobling: There is a difference. We've got a common interface engine, so basically the standard gameplay instructions to the CPU go through a common interface but under each team we've got people writing specific code for the PlayStation 3, specific enhancements for the Xbox 360. So they do tend to look different just because they're optimised, so say the rain effect on Ferrari Challenge on PlayStation 3 could never have been achieved on the 360.
Q: I know you're racing focused, but you said you had a character driven title in development, can you talk about that?
Todd Eckert: We can't talk too much about it, but we have a title that we're in the middle of developing which utilises our existing engine but expands it. So you have a lot of character development - we've looked at character development mostly because there's a real demand, a lot of the companies of which we work are saying 'We want to see the same level of quality in characters that you guys are giving us in vehicles, can you do that because we want to blend them?' So we're pretty excited about what's coming up.
Darren Jobling: We've been trading for 21 years so we've done over 350 titles, in the old days we did everything from football management games to soccer manager, you know, all sorts of character stuff it's just really since about '96 that we specialised just in driving games, but we have done a lot of character based stuff.
I think that's where things are going where they'll want you to do everything in one game. Where the company is currently split in terms of there's one side of the business maintaining next-gen console work and the other side of the business is working on a casual MMO.
Todd Eckert: This is an area of giant excitement for us. And although it's a casual MMO any similarity between what we're doing and most casual MMOs will be purely coincidental. It's a very involved project.
Darren Jobling: What we're doing is using the skill set from the console games, and the visual quality and applying it to a casual environment. We really see it as being a really unique idea, and that's well underway and well under development and due for release 2010.
Q: What is its business plan, is it subscription based, advertising, micro-transactions?
Darren Jobling: It will use a combination of all that basically. You'll have to amend it for different territories; one model that will work in China will not work in the US. We've always amended our games to be customised for different territories and we'll continue to do that.
Q: Can you go into it a bit more?
Darren Jobling: Basically, some 20 guys came up with this idea and we've backed it. This game would never have gotten made with a movie studio, it's a different business model, it's a different outlook to what games could possibly be in the future and that's the beauty of being an independent developer you can take these measured risks.
Q: What is the main goal of the new US branch?
Darren Jobling: The games industry is currently a US dominated industry, everything we had left in Europe has pretty much been decimated.
Q: What do you mean by "decimated"?
Darren Jobling: I was talking about it on the publishing side - obviously there's only Ubisoft and Eidos of any size and I think that's pretty much it. What concerns me is that if you look at publishing what happened was Infogrames came in buying up Ocean, buying up Gremlin and the whole thing collapsed - and that just worries me about these people coming in buying developers.
They're going to come in buy developers - especially movie companies - find out its tough, and this is just a repetition of what we've seen the past. They'll come in and buy somebody, it won't work out and the whole thing will just collapse. I wouldn't want what happened to European publishing happen to European development.
Q: What new developments do you see as causing a major change to the racing genre?
Darren Jobling: I defiantly see multi-player, online and digital distribution - which has totally changed business models. You already see in Korea it's impossible to go into a store and buy a game... that's where we think it will go.
Q: Increasingly games do seem to have elements of different genres in them, do you see this as an inevitability?
Todd Eckert: As you have expanded technology you have the ability to incorporate many more interesting attributes that earlier weren't even an afterthought because you simply didn't have the means to explore them technically. I think at this point when you get into really powerful machines then you can allow your mind to wonder a little bit.
Darren Jobling: I think technology wise, as a driving game developer you're well placed because you've already got the physics systems in your code and it's comparatively easy to add the character element to it. Whereas if you're a character game developer it's pretty damn tough to squash in all the physics and the driving engine.