At the end of March, just two weeks after Microsoft shut down Lionhead, the UK development scene was struck another blow. Sony was closing the doors of Evolution Studios: the studio behind WRC, Motorstorm and DriveClub. Fifteen years of top calibre racing pedigree was to disperse, and although Sony expressed regret that many of the talented staff from the Liverpool outfit wouldn't be taking up its offer of relocation, there was nothing to be done.
Except, this time, there was. Today, Codemasters has stepped in with an unprecedented deal to keep the team together and working on new projects, bringing Evolution Studios as a whole into the fold and making it a part of the Codemasters family. Most of the staff, including co-founder Mick Hocking, will be joining Codemasters as a separate team, working together from the same offices to produce brand new IP for the British racing specialist. Previous IP remains in the hands of Sony, but Hocking and his team will, essentially, continue Evolution Studios' work under new ownership.
"We want the team to remain to remain the team that they are," Codemasters CEO Frank Sagnier told GamesIndustry.biz. "We want to benefit from everything that they've learned as a team together, we want them to create their own games. Of course there will be synergies, of course we will share stuff, but we would like to make sure they retain their identity and stay together as a team to do what they're good at. What we don't want to do is bring in a team of 50 people and start having some work on one game and some on another, on existing IP. The whole point is to keep their DNA and build a new game."
"We want to benefit from everything that they've learned as a team together, we want them to create their own games"
Frank Sagnier, Codemasters CEO
It's a brilliant match. Codemasters has spent much of the last year or two refocusing its business on core values: racing, racing and more racing, and Hocking's team fits that remit to perfection, with all the experience, passion and talent needed to hit the ground running. Hocking himself will be taking on the role of VP of product development for Codemasters as a whole, responsible for all of the company's studios, and he couldn't be happier.
"The core of the Evo team have been together for 15 years and we really love working together," he explained. "We all love racing, we're all petrol heads. This is just an opportunity to bring those guys across, keep the team together, keep all that knowledge and all that expertise together, and combine it with the fantastic talent at Codemasters.
"We've got the opportunity to write new tech on multiple platforms for the first time, to work on new ideas. It's really exciting. It's really the core team we've brought across."
Sagnier, who took over from Rod Cousens in April last year, is predictably pleased with the result, assuring us that there was "no financial element" to deal whatsoever, meaning he's significantly bolstered his team with proven talent in a deal which has cost his company nothing at all.
"We've known each other for a while," he says. "It's always the same thing when you're in the same business, we talk regularly. Mick found out a couple of months ago that there was a decision from Sony to move forward, and at that point we thought 'that's a match made in heaven.'
"We're looking to scale our business, we're absolutely focused on racing, we want to only do AAA racing, which is exactly what these guys are about. We share DNA, passion, talent. So it was sort of lucky that Sony took that decision, and I'm very happy about it. We were Ferrari and Mercedes, now we're the same team.
"We've made a job offer to all employees and I'm happy to say that most of them have accepted and are joining us. We're only hiring employees, we are not taking any of the IP or the technology. It's purely the people we are after"
Frank Sagnier, Codemasters CEO
"So we've made a job offer to all employees and I'm happy to say that most of them have accepted and are joining us. We're only hiring employees, we are not taking any of the IP or the technology. It's purely the people we are after."
It's not been an easy road for Codemasters, however. Its recent history is littered with difficult decisions, with several rounds of redundancies and office closures, but Sagnier feels like the company is now in the right place to start growing again by building on what it does best. Nonetheless, the decision must come as a surprise to anyone who has been following Codemasters' headlines, even if that surprise is a pleasant one. I put that to Sagnier.
"I think that's fair," he admits. "But we are in a growth cycle again. We've got some 25-30 jobs open in addition to the Evo team. It was important to us to really refocus on racing. So yes, we had to let some people go, we had to drop some projects which weren't strategic. We also dropped some company functions - I've no interest in distribution any more, we've got partners to do that - we just want to focus on making great racing games. So we've been able to focus on what we're very good at and now, with the company being healthy financially again, we can invest further and be even better. Evo is definitely a huge coup for us, but we are continuing to hire because we have a lot of projects in our pipeline which we're very excited about. We want to be the number one racing studio in the world.
"It's really a win-win-win, everybody wins! We win, Sony wins, Evolution wins. It's a great story. Nowadays you really have to be the absolute best at what you do, you can't just be one of the field if you want to be successful. Bringing Evo on board should make us great at what we're already good at."
A remarkable story, then, and not least because of the amity of the whole situation. As Sagnier says, Sony certainly benefits from the team continuing to make great content for its platforms, but were they consulted on the deal itself?
"No, they weren't involved in the process," says Sagnier. "We obviously asked them, once we decided it was a great decision, if they were happy with that, and they were very happy. They were happy for the team, for the fact that it was two British companies coming together. They felt it was a very good match, but we didn't ask permission in the first place."
Hocking says the perspective from Evolution was similar, and bears no bad feeling towards his previous employer.
"Once we realised that the decision had been made to close the studio, that Sony didn't want to go forward with Evolution, there was an amazing opportunity for me and Frank to come together and do a deal. I think Sony were really happy that we get to go forward. Obviously, we're going to be making PS4 content, so they're happy about getting more great content for the PlayStation going forward. It works for everyone, it's a really good news story.
"We've always had a great relationship with Sony and it's been a real privilege to be involved in the development of tech and new platforms with them. We worked on some great IP together and it's been a very amicable parting of ways. We've still got a great relationship and PS4 is definitely going to be a key part of our strategy going forward, so we'll be maintaining those relationships. So I think it's all been handled really well, by both companies. It's very positive. We're very happy to be able to go forward and work on multiple platforms and work on new IP here. Sony will still be getting the output from our studio, certainly for our next game, which we hope will be really successful on PS4.
"In terms of why these big businesses make these decisions...there are many different reasons for that. It's often an opportunity for new startups, but this is a great thing for the UK industry"
Mick Hocking, VP of product development, Codemasters
"In terms of why these big businesses make these decisions, there are many different reasons for that. It's often an opportunity for new startups. But this is a great thing for the UK industry, that we're able to build this racing powerhouse: a UK studio which is hopefully going to be the world number one in racing."
Sagnier also had the backing of Reliance, the Indian conglomerate which is Codemasters' main investor. His mission from shareholders was simple, he says: make Codemasters great again.
"The shareholders have invested a lot of money in the business, they really see it as important. The remit they gave me was to rebuild value in the company, so I did my homework and clearly the first thing we needed was to put the company in a healthier position and get focused. They didn't dictate anything other than letting me decide what the right thing to do was. They've been extremely supportive and I think they're extremely happy today - we're healthy and we're growing fast. Next year will be a good year, and the year after will be even better, because Mick will have a new product for us! [laughs]
"They didn't guide the decisions on a granular basis; they believe in games and it's important for them as a conglomerate. They wanted to find the shine the company once had and bring operations back to profitability. The opportunity here was really to get everyone together as a team. Great talent is everywhere, but the reality is that getting a team which has worked together for ten years is absolutely invaluable."