Last week, GamesIndustry.biztalked to Splash Damage CEO and game director Paul Wedgwood about the dangers of mediocrity, the skyrocketing costs of triple-A development and the importance of paying developers well. In this final part of the interview, he covers the risks of being independent, why the Bethesda partnership works, how the company's culture has evolved over 10 years, and whether there are lessons to be learned from the collapse of Real Time Worlds.
Q: You expanded your studio substantially for Brink – is the plan that they move on at the end of the project or do you plan to build a permanent team?
Paul Wedgwood: No, at Splash Damage the entire company, every staff member, has share options in the studio. We think of everybody as being an owner. We have a team of about eight directors, the biz guys are in the same rooms and the same meetings as the product directors. So we the finance director and the studio director, they sit in the same meetings that the art director, audio director, creative director, technical director sit in. So there's no difference for us between running the business and running the games. We treat that as one task. It's well-supported these days because we realised early on that we weren't going to make that growth transition by taking things a bit more seriously. We have a proper IT team, an IT manager who used to run a game service provider as the technical director, supported by two engineers, an HR manager who's about to be supported by an HR assistant, we have our own production testing team, we have our own marketing and PR team who are kind of our evil ministry of global propaganda for Splash Damage. Because nobody is worried whether Splash Damage does well – they care about whether Brink does well, as a brand and what have you.
So there are a few things like that which have changed, but fundamentally we're just making games, no different than a movie studio making movies or a TV studio making a TV series. It only works if you've got a bunch of really talented people, and they can work just as effectively for a short period of time out of an aircraft hanger as they could out of our swish offices. You could start a game developer tomorrow on a credit card if you had the right people to come together to make the game. Now, the downside to the contractor model is that much of the greatness that you get from that collaboration comes from people really getting to know each other and understanding each other's tastes. And which fights they're having because they truly believe that something is brilliant, and which of those fights are subjective. I think we're at that point now with Splash Damage where our management team, all of the leads and all of the directors have been with the company for more than two years. Half of them have been with the company for six or seven years, and so everybody knows each other really well. If someone says "I hate that, do they hate it do they hate its impact?"
Q: How strong is your confidence about financially supporting and sustaining all this growth, given it's been a couple of years since you put a game out?
Paul Wedgwood: Well, we couldn't afford to buy in a city-grade financial director, because they are incredibly expensive. If you want a CFO from a publicly-listed company, it's gonna cost you £150-200,000 per year. It's just impossible for an independent developer. So we hired one for one day a week [laughs]. So we have a guy who's floated companies – things that we'd never do – built companies from small to really large, sought investment, worked with private equity, worked with VC firms, who was himself an accountant at one of the Big Four audit firms: Ernst and Young. He's on site for a day a week and he helps us model the operations of the company, the way we structure the business, the way we plan for the future. All the basic things like management accounts, profit and loss statements, balance sheets and everything else. It takes all that stuff seriously. We always did everything by the book, largely because I had two or three business failures before splash damage, which were as a direct result of me not doing things by the book.
So when Splash Damage started, everybody had a proper employment contract that had intellectual property clauses and confidentially clauses and respected European working time regulations.
Q: So down to just 22 hours a day now, eh?
Paul Wedgwood: Well, not quite. I think we do three digit hours rather than two... So it was a combination of that and, with our staff, everybody in the company that's permanent with us gets private health care, gets a proper pension, gym membership, and a ride to work scheme, and BUPA, dental, optical, all that stuff. Which is think is really important, because we're supposed to be a grown-up industry and not working above a sweaty laundrette, pushing out games and being exploited by whoever. We take ourselves really seriously, but the risk is massive for independent developers. In terms of your production team, if you're doing anything good it's very difficult to have more than one game, so if you're a good independent developer you're probably only working on one big game at a time. Which literally means you have a single source of revenue, which means that you're actively tied to that publisher support for whether you live or die. Every independent developer faces that, and it's almost always the reason why they go bust. They fall out with the publisher, things go wrong.
We've been lucky. For 10 years we've collected every milestone payment that's ever been owed to us, we've never defaulted on a creditor, we've never had to make anybody redundant, we've never have a project cancelled... But nobody's a psychic, it's always impossible to know how things will go. So I think that the best thing any developer can do is make stuff that they can stand by. For us, that's been the reason why we've survived for so long – publishers know ultimately that, no matter what we're doing, we're ultimately doing it because we believe that it's going to be good. We've never made anything that's crap, we've never compromised on iterating on something until we felt it was good. We've always been really prepared to cut content that isn't fun. Even Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, we had four complete maps that we didn't ship with the game. One was a perfect-scale replica, fully textured, of Colditz. We invested probably 18 man months of time in it, but it just wasn't fun. Ed [Stern] wrote the story for that over and over again, trying to solve building the glider that you used to escape from that map at the end.
Ed Stern (senior game designer): You know they did build a glider in Colditz? It's hilarious. Colditz was the place where all the people who had escaped the POW camps were sent to, it was supposed to be inescapable. Within six months, they had copies of every key in the entire building, and one of the guys said "y'know, we could build a glider." They knocked it up, they did this thing and then the word came through [from the Allies] that "we've invaded Europe, we'll be right with you: don't try to escape." "Aw, but we've built this glider..."
Paul Wedgwood: So we made this mission, but we played it and played it, and it just wasn't fun. Everything we tried to make that map fun didn't work, so we cut it. We've done that with Enemy Territory: Quake Wars too – we were at a point where we'd completed 12 maps, and we cut all of them and started again. Every single map that we'd been working on – we kept one, Canyon, because it was the only one that was proven to be fun. So we said "that's got to be the template for what we continue with." It's been no different with Brink as well. That real zoomed-in focus on quality is quite important – we haven't suddenly, overnight become Epic or Valve or someone like that. That business model somewhat relies on alternative revenue streams. Epic make their money from the Unreal engine in additional to making very good games, Valve make their money from Steam and so on. There aren't that many opportunities to do that kind of thing in the games industry, and many of those exist only because you were around at the end of the 90s or the very beginning of this century, and were there at the point to make that happen.
Q: That said, id are with Bethesda now, working on just a couple of games rather than being based around an alternative business.
Paul Wedgwood: Well, I don't know, I guess people might view that exist as Bethesda winning; others might view it as id Software's owners winning. Who's to say? It would be impossible to speculate on who was the winner in a deal that doesn't have any details announced. But I think that, for the most part, when I look around the industry I think that you can see there are many US companies that we can look up to for guidance on what it means to be a strong, independent developer of really good triple-A games.
Over here in the UK, if Crytek achieves success on the consoles with their game they'll be in the same position, because they have an engine that I think people would be crying out for if it was multi-plaform. So with Splash Damage, we wanted to create something completely new, we wanted to prove to ourselves and I guess the world that we can create a new universe ourselves, it would be credible and well-researched and well-written, people would enjoy it – and so maybe our goals a little a more modest.
We started out at the very beginning of Splash Damage with two basic goals: the shameless pursuit of critical acclaim, whilst ensuring our staff could pay rent. So far, to date, we've just celebrated the tenth year anniversary of achieving those. But they're not goals that you ever achieve, because the shameless pursuit of critical acclaim and ensuring all your staff can pay the rent are not things that ever stop. You can't say "what we want to do is get a 95% and quit."
Q: Does what happened with APB scare you? That was, according to ex-staff reports, a case of management saying "no matter what people say, no matter how much we spend, this is going to work."
Paul Wedgwood: I don't know, it's so easy for people to point fingers at those guys and say they failed because it wasn't a critical success or because it wasn't a commercial success or it was mismanaged. I don't think anyone will ever have the true facts, but there's no doubt that if you create a game that is both a commercial success and a critical success, the likelihood is that you'll succeed. And of those two things, the developer only has control over one of them generally. If you're not self-publishing all you can do is make something good and hope your publisher does a good job of selling it.
So maybe part of that has something to do with, for us, Bethesda. They'd already had massive success with Oblivion, Fallout 3 went on to sell six million units as well: this is a publisher that has demonstrated their ability to market and sell and handle PR in a very professional and efficient way. We've always been impressed by that aspect of the company. So I think we're in good hands. If it didn't work out, it would be difficult to say that it was because it was a bad game or because it was badly marketed.
Paul Wedgwood is CEO and game director at Splash Damage. Interview by Alec Meer.