Keeping it Realtime
Studio manager Colin Macdonald on life in Dundee, and what's behind the local games industry community
To kick off Scotland Week GamesIndustry.biz spoke to Colin Macdonald, studio manager of Realtime Worlds - one of the biggest games companies in the country.
Following the multi-award-winning Crackdown last year, the company is now hard at work on its next-generation MMO, APB. Here Colin talks about the sense of community in Dundee, where the local business sprang from, and why we've not heard about it much until now.
Q: How would you describe the community in the Dundee area?
Colin Macdonald: Yeah, we tend to agree I guess. It's generally quite a friendly community. At the end of the day a lot of companies here are run by people that aren't in it just to make a quick buck, aren't in the business to screw anyone over - they're here because they're passionate about what they're doing. And they're nice people, so they make an effort to have good, stable companies. They make an effort to get on with other companies in the community.
So we do have a reasonable amount of collaboration, we do all know each other, we do all meet up for a dinner or a pint every so often - it's quite a collaborative, friendly community.
Q: Most of the people I've met seem to be linked to DMA Design [the company run by Dave Jones which spawned Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto, among others] in some way or another - was that the oak tree that's shed lots of acorns, which are now growing up?
Colin Macdonald: I think so, yes. I'm sure there are a hundred contributory reasons, but DMA's certainly the most obvious one. I know, speaking from my point of view, what I learned from DMA goes through what I'm trying to do every day here - there's things that we did really well at DMA that I try to emulate, that Dave tries to emulate. There are things that didn't pan out so well there when the company scaled up, and those things we tried to avoid like the plague here.
But I think there are lots of knock-on effects that nobody could really have seen - you've had some of those acorns that were spun out of DMA, you've had things like Abertay's games courses - although they didn't start the courses because of DMA, it must have been a major factor in setting it up.
And the industry, all the regional support, has just all grown up together - and over the last ten years it's turned into something really great, and it would be hard to pinpoint something - one thing - that's been responsible for it all.
Q: Abertay's managed to get quite a reputation for quality, helped by the Dare to be Digital competition - how have you supported that over the years?
Colin Macdonald: We've tried to be pretty involved, although I don't think we were right from the start. I think we got involved in year two, but we've always sent along a couple of mentors for the students, we've always gone along and done a couple of lectures - I do a lecture every year on the importance of having and meeting milestones, planning projects.
We've always got various people on the different judging panels, and part of that is altruistic - we're trying to help the university, we're trying to help the students - but part of it is because we recognise that the calibre of people coming through the course, the competition, can be incredibly high. So obviously we want to know those people as well as we can, and identify the real stars.
What we've found is that what those folk learn in ten weeks is absolutely valuable - it's like a microcosm of a whole game's development - they've got deadlines, they've got to produce demos, they've got to learn to get on with other disciplines in the team...all those things you never really learn at university, and only learn once you're in the industry. But it can take you a year or so to learn in the industry, but they get a huge amount of that in those ten weeks, so for us, you get some real superstars coming through the competition - so we're always keen to be involved.
Q: Time and again people talked about the role of Scottish Enterprise - not so much the financial side of things, but advice and support. What's your view on SE, and why is that happening so effectively in Dundee?
Colin Macdonald: That's certainly the sense we get, we're really happy with support we get from Scottish Enterprise here, and we get the sense that it's not happening to the same degree anywhere else in the UK.
I think perhaps it's historical that Dundee was one of the first hubs of games success, or digital media success, and I think Scottish Enterprise as an organisation recognised that and allowed the scope for there to be a focus on that.
But as much as anything else, it's individuals, the personalities that work at Scottish Enterprise and Interactive Tayside that are helping Dundee - and I think even with Dundee's success in that area, if there were individuals there that weren't that tuned in to the sector, we wouldn't be finding the organisation to be particularly helpful.
So it's a bit of a mix of all that, but certainly we find them invaluable. They're always there to help us, giving us a shout every so often just to check. We had a visit a couple of weeks ago, and the point of it was them checking if there was anything they could be doing for us - which is pretty unusual in business, to have somebody knocking at your door, only wanting to help you, not looking for an angle on something.
Q: You're a company that needs to attract people from around the world - the best people aren't necessarily going to be from the UK. But Dundee doesn't have the best reputation historically - how has it changed in the past decade?
Colin Macdonald: I've seen it change over the last 15 years or so. Previously it wasn't that great a city, but now it's a city that I think's up there with pretty much any other city you could choose to live in, in the UK. It's got everything you'd want, but for its size it doesn't have a lot of the problems that really big cities have.
We've seen a lot of investment into the city in the last 15 years - there's been some lottery money come in, and there's also been recognition from the private sector that actually there are good jobs, good money here. So we've got award-winning night clubs, theatres, art centres, we've got about three casinos being built at the moment, countless hotels...there's all sorts of stuff going on.
We did a big concert with Radio 1 the other year, he get Arctic Monkeys and KT Tunstall coming to do gigs here - there's pretty much something going on for everyone, which is great for the people that are in Dundee.
The problem is, as you said, that there's this reputation, and people outside Dundee don't realise we've got all that. So what it often takes is people to come up to interview with us - sometimes we need to twist their arm a little bit - but they come up, spend the night in the area, and they love it.
Obviously they love the company and our projects, but they love the area, the house prices, the price of a pint of beer...and it makes a great package. It's getting over that preconception.
Q: Do you feel any responsibility - as the biggest company - to help champion the region and support some of the other companies?
Colin Macdonald: I think we feel a responsibility towards the area, just because of our size, we've got the scope for doing more financially and in terms of manpower then most of the other companies here could do.
We're not going to run around and look after the other companies as such - they're perfectly capable of doing that themselves. But yes, I think we get more involved in various things that the council tries to do, the city tried to put on - so we'll sponsor music concerts, that sort of things. But in terms of a percentage of our budget we'd probably contribute the same as most other companies do, it's just that our scale is at a bigger number overall.
Q: A lot of the companies in the region tend not to talk about themselves much - why is that?
Colin Macdonald: I think, certainly as Realtime Worlds, we've been pretty cautious of seeing some of our peers being hyped, championed, way too early, and it all being a let-down. And that's just not who we are. We're people that need to make sure there's a good awareness of what we do, and at the end of the day we want our products, our games, to be talking for themselves.
So with something like Crackdown we could have pushed Microsoft into hyping it even earlier, but as it was we felt it was done too early as it stood. We'd have rather waited until much later, until more people had seen the game and were impressed by it - rather than seeing the early versions.
We just rather our games do the talking. It's maybe not necessarily the most conventional way of going about publicising yourself, but I think if we can build up a reputation for consistently delivering great games, then hopefully we won't need to come out with the hyperbole that often comes out with games - and often never comes through.
Colin Macdonald is studio manager at Realtime Worlds. Interview by Phil Elliott.
This article is part of Scotland Week on GamesIndustry.biz, sponsored by Dundee City Council and Realtime Worlds.