2018 kicked off with some good news for the folks at Radiant Worlds.
After publisher Smilegate pulled the plug on its ambitious, Minecraft-style online RPG SkySaga, the fate of the studio seemed sealed. Mass layoffs were expected, if not closure.
But last week it was revealed that Rebellion, the independent games developer behind the popular Sniper Elite series, had not only acquired the Leamington-based studio but also retained its 70 employees.
The deal ended what must have been an incredibly tense time for the Radiant Worlds team - especially founders Andrew and Philip Oliver, who had been in talks with various parties about potential solutions. Last year, the brothers and industry veterans told me they were keen to find a new partner or owner that took on their entire staff - and fortunately this was found in Rebellion.
Rather than a last minute rescue, this was in fact the culmination of years of friendship between the Olivers and the Kingsleys - the two brothers that co-founded and operate Rebellion - as CEO Jason Kingsley explains.
"The Oliver twins are friends of ours in the industry, and have been for a long time," he tells GamesIndustry.biz.
"We've been in regular contact with them over the years so when we heard the news about Smilegate pulling out of SkySaga, our conversations included offering our help. It just seemed to be the right thing to do, to help them out and keep them working in games, and to get a studio in [the area]."
Crucially, the Olivers will also be retained. With careers dating back to the 1980s, the twins are known for developing the classic Dizzy series as well as countless licensed titles at now defunct firm Blitz Games Studios. The Kingsleys recognised that the duo would be valuable as part of growing Rebellion.
"They're good guys and we have a shared enthusiasm for games," Jason explains. "They're very well connected, especially in the retro scene, and they've got a wealth of industry experience and knowledge going back many years and that background is always valuable."
"When we heard the news about Smilegate pulling out of SkySaga, we offered our help. It just seemed to be the right thing to do"
Radiant Worlds - or Rebellion Warwick as it shall henceforth be known - will remain in the UK hub of Royal Leamington Spa, which is also home to notable developers such as Forza Horizon dev Playground Games and DJ Hero creator FreeStyle Games, now known as Ubisoft Leamington. (For those confused by the studio name, the two towns of Warwick and Leamington are extremely close together, giving many local businesses the option to use either).
While the Olivers deemed it vital that the team be kept together, you might have expected Rebellion to trim acquisition costs for not picking up the entire staff. But Kingsley says the firm was keen to retain all employees as this "made the most strategic sense."
"Our aim is to integrate the studio's staff into the Rebellion family as quickly as possible, so they can move quickly onto Rebellion titles already in development," he says. "A group of people who have experience of working together are valuable and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."
With work on SkySaga scrapped, the Rebellion Warwick team has immediately been put to work co-developing its new parent's ongoing projects such as upcoming co-op action game Strange Brigade, as well as franchises such as Battlezone and Sniper Elite.
"The Oxford studio is reaching capacity and almost full, so having an additional 70 members of staff come in and help us with our existing projects is fantastic"
These are a far cry from the colourful and family-friendly online RPG the team had previously been working on, necessitating a shift in mindset for the rescued developers. Given the sizeable team in Rebellion's Oxford HQ working on Strange Brigade et al, would the new studio not have been better utilised developing new IP, perhaps building on the concepts of SkySaga?
"Even though we are one of the largest independent developers in the UK, we have a lot of projects in development that we need people to work on and team sizes are not getting smaller," Kingsley explains.
"The Oxford studio is reaching capacity and almost full, so having an additional 70 members of staff come in and help us with our existing projects is a fantastic benefit."
Rebellion has been on the rise over the past few years. Not only has the Sniper Elite series grown significantly - now at over 10 million copies sold worldwide - the company is even licensing out its 2000AD comic brands, including Judge Dredd, to other studios in order to raise its profile further.
"Adding the studio will allow us to expand the scope and depth of the games we've got planned over the next few years"
Expansion for most studios of Rebellion's size is often cautious, centred around drawing in key talent and taking more risks with its projects. While the near-demise of Radiant Worlds was potentially tragic for the Olivers and their crew, it has proven to be fortuitous for Rebellion and its future strategy.
"Adding the studio will allow us to expand the scope and depth of the games we've got planned over the next few years," says Kingsley.
"The great thing about buying a studio like this is you also buy the shared knowledge, the fact they've all worked as teams together, they know their own strengths and weaknesses. They can be integrated nicely as one group rather than having to bring one person in or recruit 70 people individually, which would be quite a big undertaking."
The Rebellion Warwick staff are already being transitioned onto the firm's proprietary Asura technology, the engine that powers the Sniper Elite games and more. But there is technical expertise and tools from their work on SkySaga that may also work in Rebellion's favour.
For one thing, Kingsley says their knowledge of running games as a live service "might be applicable" as the industry increasingly moves towards longer-term engagement and community management. Meanwhile, the Adventure Director - an AI algorithm in SkySaga that randomly generated worlds complete with a main objective and subtle hints that tempt players towards it - is something Kingsley deems "interesting and [potentially] relevant to some of our games going forwards."
For all the excitement, Kingsley is keen to stress that this unexpected acquisition "won't change the direction of Rebellion at all."
"We continue to develop independent things," he insists. "We've had huge success with the Sniper Elite series of late - Sniper Elite 4 just won a silver award in Steam's End of Year top sellers list - and we're very excited for the rollout of Strange Brigade in the future.
"We've got an exciting GDC and E3 ahead of us in the coming months - and hopefully we'll have some more announcements of exciting projects this year, but we're not even halfway through January yet."