Getting to know the Real U
Inside the new Singapore studio that's aiming to break ground in MMOs
Think of a games studio in a major Asian city (Shanghai, say, or Seoul) backed by a Western publisher, and you probably picture a vast, modern office housing a hundreds-strong development sweatshop of cheap local talent, "insourcing" art assets for prestige titles, or churning out rebranding exercises for the local market. And in most cases, you'd be right.
Step inside the offices of German publisher dtp's new subsidiary Real U, however, and you instantly know it's a different story. This is no cubicle farm in a business park, but an elegant colonial shop house in Singapore's old town, converted in strikingly modern style. A showy, mirrored entrance leads into a sunlit atrium; branching off are the roomy, open-plan offices, where team leads sit amongst the workforce at capacious desks. It feels like a boutique affair, a hothouse for talent.
This is the house that Andrew Carter built. The softly-spoken, casually-dressed Australian CEO was previously at EA's Singaporean operation, but before that, Oz legends Melbourne House. He's brought a kernel of veteran Melbourne House talent with him, including art and audio leads, and melded them with a truly international cast: we meet a Korean server technology developer, a Japanese cut-scene director, an English producer. Barely a year old, Real U already has some 80 staff.
The aim is to bring Asian and Western development expertise together in the creation of an ambitious massively multiplayer game for both Asian and Western markets. That game is Otherland, adapted from a science-fiction novel series by the American author Tad Williams. Announced yesterday, Otherland is a virtual world about virtual worlds, in which players will move from one self-contained fantasy (or realistic) setting to another. (You can read more about it in Eurogamer's preview).
The Real U story started two years ago, with the acquistion of the licence to the Otherland books by dtp - Williams being a popular author in Germany. "The founder of the company, Thomas Baur, had read the books and was fascinated by it, was investigating how we could get a game running with this multiverse," explains dtp's laid-back COO, Markus Windelen. "He loved those books. We had to turn him down several times, we said no, it's too big, it's too risky, we don't have the means development-wise or finance-wise."
Eventually Baur won out, and the acquisition of the licence coincided, in an "alignment of the planets", with Windelen's arrival at dtp from Atari and the beginnings of talks with his old acquaintance, Carter. "We... were keen on finding a project to work together," says Windelen. "Andrew and I go back together quite some time with Atari, we know what to expect from each other we know to trust each other. I know most of the core team which he's relying on for this."
dtp's venture with Real U may be founded on personal enthusiasms and relationships - but the German publisher, which Windelen admits is "coming out of a niche market", is deadly serious about Otherland. "It's an internationally competitive budget," says Windelen, putting it in the "high double-figures of millions of Euros". Certainly, the care lavished on Carter, his team and their surroundings doesn't suggest cut corners.
Although most Western publishers view Asian offshoots - espeically in China - as a cost-saving measure, that's clearly not the case here. "You don't come to Singapore to save money," says Windelen of the wealthy and highly Westernised city-state, although the generous incentives being offered to game developers by the Singaporean government at the moment probably helped. Why, then, do you come to Singapore?
"You don't find anywhere else in the world which is at such a strategic crossroads of Asia and Europe and to a certain extent, the US as well," says Carter. "If you want to be in Asia, you can go to Japan and make games for Japanese people - and, with the right people, you can make some stuff which works everywhere else, but they're console games. You can go to Korea and make games for, on the whole, Korean and Chinese people.
"But Singapore is a really, really international city, and it's very easy for us here to bring in people from anywhere in Asia and in fact anywhere in the world, in order to create this melting pot that we have at the studio. Also, I would say it's an appealing place to be, it's a happening place."
Windelen chimes in with a more practical point. "Singapore is the only place where you can have an Asian experiment with a safety net," he says. "It feels like a Western city in the middle of Asia - you have copyright protection, which in other Asian territories is an issue, you don't have that functioning infrastructure."
"In Singapore, you can do business both the way you do business in the West, and also the way you do business in Asia," agrees Carter.
Multinationalism in development is important to the two men because of the nature of the game they're making. The online gaming market is traditionally bifurcated between East and West, with different game designs, playing habits and business models prevalent in each region, and dtp wants to bridge that gap with Otherland the way only Blizzard has managed to date. With that in mind, the game is being designed with "any and every" financial model in mind. "It makes sense to, but still many people don't," says Carter. "I think it's something that all of us should be doing."
But he has personal reasons for building an international, team, too. "Even at Melbourne House I had this point of view - I'm a very multinational, broad-viewed person and when developing games in a studio in somewhere like Melbourne in Australia, then you just know that those guys in Korea do certain things, in certain areas, better. Those guys from Japan do certain things better. Those guys from the US, and so on.
"I always, for a long time, tried to broaden our team in Australia with international talent, a clear understanding of the strengths that each part of the world brings to something. In Singapore, it's a chance to do that from scratch," Carter says.
He feels it's something the majority of the Western games industry, certain that its way is the best way, fails to understand. "It's, 'let's show the world what it should be', as opposed to, 'let's understand that there are other parts of the world which have different values, different appreciations, different cultures'. I've seen so many Western companies fail in Asia, because they try and do something in Asia without considering or understanding Asia."
The importance of a broadly international team isn't the only thing that Carter learned from the - often difficult - years at Melbourne House, a studio whose reputation for talent and high production values often eclipsed the quality of the raw material it was given to work with. Another, as you can tell from Real U's sumptuous offices, is the importance of the working environment.
"Yeah, this studio being the way it was was meticulously planned," Carter says. "The location, the setting, the actual studio is very, very important. This was a chance from the ground up to do it right, so that was a mini-project in itself. It's a creative environment where people can be free-thinking, feel free, and enjoy coming to work in the morning."
You sense that the creation of Real U has been something of an exorcism for Carter, who confesses he'd still love to own the Melbourne House name. "I helped build Melbourne House for a long, long time," he says. "But by the time I was in the position to run the studio it came with a lot of, uh, baggage. Building a new studio, it's interesting to see to what extent you have that kind of baggage. And so far I would say we have none; and you realise that most of these things are in fact self-perpetuating and self-created, and we could say this of Atari at that time as well."
Closing the book on the old days with one final lesson, Carter says that what went wrong at Melbourne House was, if anything, a matter of timing. "I think I've learnt that very important thing - that a game and a licence is culturally relevant at the point that it is released. You can have a great game that is in the wrong place at the wrong time. With [Otherland], we're at the right place at the right time."
Some, however, might dispute that. The cyberpunk, virtual-reality genre isn't as fresh now as when The Matrix was released in cinemas almost ten years ago. "I think it's what you do with it. The world is littered with poor interpretations of that concept," admits Carter. "I think with very few notable exceptions, The Matrix being one of them. In the game context I don't think that we have ever seen anything which is doing what The Matrix did in movies," he says arguing that his game will do just that.
Even if its subject matter is current, the game - which is conceptually very complex - seems like a dramatic departure for MMOs. Historically, only fairly conventional fantasy titles have succeeded in this market, with current darling Warhammer Online seeming to prove the point. Isn't Otherland a high-risk project for dtp to make its entry into online gaming with?
"Absolutely it is," agrees Windelen, "but we are strongly believing that if we want to get into this market, we can only get there by a bold step. We are bold, we have the financial means and we are willing to take a calculated bet."
"Every successful game company or game which has had a dominance or a huge success has, with only a few exceptions, eventually stagnated and been superceded because of that stagnation," notes Carter. "With success comes, in a way, safety, and with safety comes conservative choices and a lack of progression. Ultimately - it takes a long time - but ultimately gamers become bored with the same old same old, as we've just seen with the Wii in the console market. And so the bold ultimately succeed, and change takes place."
There's little arguing with that. With major console titles and science-fiction licences coming to the MMO market over the next year or two, dtp and Real U could indeed find themselves in "the right place at the right time". And if they don't, there's always plan B.
"Real U, today, exists to make Otherland," says Carter. "But..."
His friend takes up where he trails off. "We have plans for the time after that," says Windelen. "Once we get beyond planning for Otherland, then it would be stupid not to use what we are creating here and build onto it. There are many ways we can develop this studio."
All photos (c) 2008 Morten Skovgaard.