Before settling on the concept of a university simulation game, Two Point Studios had a few ideas.
The team, founded by the original creators of beloved 1997 PC game Theme Hospital, was enjoying phenomenal success with its debut title: Two Point Hospital. Even from the beginning, the founders Ben Hymers, Mark Webley and Gary Carr had a vision of creating a series of sim games set in the fictional world of Two Point County -- with several potential settings for the next one.
"[Parent company] Sega had a bigger preference for one of the others, Two Point Precinct," Webley recalls. "But we were so excited by the idea of Two Point Campus, because we kept coming up with new ideas."
Carr continues: "That's the problem with a name. If we had said we are going to do Two Point Time Traveller... that sounds amazing compared with Two Point Library. Ben [Hymers] always says our next game is Two Point Box Factory... meaning, start with something you can build upon, rather than something that is already exciting and has potentially been done. When we were thinking about Campus, Sega was latching onto sexier sounding games. And we kept saying 'stop worrying about what it sounds like, it isn't where it's going to go'."
These business management sims, or 'little people games' as the team call them, may sound mundane compared to some of the more outlandish titles on the market. But it's exactly this familiarity that has made the genre so popular, and with people you wouldn't normally expect. Carr and Webley tell GamesIndustry.biz how they're worried about a fan called Rosie, a retired nurse who has played more than 4,000 hours of Two Point Hospital.
"I am just frightened we're going to lose her," Carr says. "She plays every DLC to completion. She's an ex-nurse, so she might not find the appeal of Campus."
He continues: "The familiarity stuff we lean into. Whether it's Hospital or Campus, there's some familiarity there, and even if we play around with it, there's something everyone has some opinion of or has some memories of. I've never been to space, so that's something I can't related to."
We last spoke with Webley and Carr over four years ago, and a lot has changed in that time. For one, they have a fancy new office in Farnham, UK, which they've finally moved into following a number of lockdown-related delays. It's a far cry from their previous small home on a trading estate, although Webley has fond memories of their previous dwelling.
"It's great when you can put a team together like we're a little garage band, and we're all kind of realising we're on the bottom rail and that makes it exciting again," he says. "So being in these slightly more salubrious surroundings... it just kind of feels a bit wrong. We liked working on top of each other. It was fun and exciting."
When we last spoke, Two Point Hospital was yet to release, and today it's a proven hit. The company initially set a 650,000 sales target, but it has already brought in five million players. Some of that is down to Xbox Game Pass, where the game continues to be popular.
"We're on the third sign up phase on Game Pass," Carr says. "Our unique user monthly rate is so high, [Xbox] keep coming back and saying 'please stay on'.
"Being in these slightly more salubrious office surroundings... it just kind of feels a bit wrong. We liked working on top of each other"
Mark Webley, Two Point Studios
"I think people get round to a game like Two Point Hospital. It's not necessarily a day one purchase. Players will get to it, but maybe after Assassin's Creed. We've had a really interesting three and a half years to get to that number."
Webley tells us that the last sales figure he'd heard for 1997's Theme Hospital was four million units, and most of that came later in life as a budget-priced game. Two Point Hospital is on a similar path, and it has been designed for the long-term.
"The style we've gone with... it's meant to be almost timeless, it's this claymation look. It looks handcrafted, bespoke," Carr explains. "We think this will have a long shelf life."
The team has released a hit game, they've got a new office, but perhaps the biggest difference between the Two Point Studios today to the one we spoke to four years ago is that it's not an indie anymore: it's fully owned by Sega.
"When we started the company, we thought we'd do three or four games and then maybe someone would be interested in buying us," Webley says. "So it came a lot earlier than we were expecting. Although looking at the valuations of companies these days, if only we'd held on a couple of years [laughs]. Never mind."
He continues: "One of our concerns was we like the size we are, we like what we're doing, and Gary Dale [Sega Europe COO] and Tim Heaton [Chief Studio Officer] were pretty clear: do what you want to do, we're here more as a support organisation than the overlord saying 'these things need to be blue' or 'you need to do Hospital 2'."
Carr says in many ways Sega has helped it remain small. It offers up a lot of the background support, such as operations, localisation and testing, which is something that's become invaluable now it has five million customers to look after. Plus, Sega backed the studio's decision to bring in a COO, James Docherty, so that Webley and Carr could focus on making games.
"James does a lot of the boring things," laughs Webley. "And he's brilliant at it."
There are some perks to being part of Sega, too. In my brief play of Two Point Campus, I discovered I could add a Crazy Taxi arcade unit for the students to play.
"Gary really wanted Crazy Taxi," explains senior producer Jo Koehler. "So we asked Sega. There was a lot of back and forth, including 20 emails over which graphic we should use. They provided certain things, but we couldn't have music because it's licensed. Sega has so many cool IPs.
Webley: "We're just fanboys really."
"We're trying to make you care more, which is always the golden chalice of any kind of sim game"
Gary Carr, Two Point Studios
Despite the desire to stay small, Two Point Studios has grown to around 40 employees. Many of the new hires have been in the engineering side, and this is because of the team's desire to make its next game a multi-platform title from the beginning.
Two Point Hospital began on PC before moving to consoles, but it's found an audience across all platforms. We've already talked about its success on Game Pass, but it's popular on Nintendo Switch, too. So Two Point Campus has been created with multiple formats in mind from the start.
"It's been quite different," Koehler explains. "Hospital was definitely a PC game, and we had to quite radically change some UI to fit console. Whereas with Campus, all the UI has been designed from day one for controller and keyboard and mouse. We've tried to make it so that there isn't a lead platform this time."
This is also the main reason for the game's recent delay. Two Point Campus was originally due to land in May, which Webley says may have been possible if they were just making the game for PC. But they needed more time for the console versions. And it was something they didn't fully realise until the team started to return from lockdown.
"We're not unique having to move a couple of months, the industry has really struggled to put dates out," Carr says. "We were sort of through our pre-production stage before lockdown. Scheduling all the tasks is doable working from home, but getting to the magic of the fun is really difficult when you're not together.
"All we're doing now, this core team, is playing, playing, playing, reviewing, working with the lead of that particular level who is owning the responsibility for the function and the features, and just giving feedback."
"Spreadsheets," says Koehler.
Carr again: "Lots of spreadsheets."
Some of the stuff the team is discovering now through playtesting are the things that would have usually been uncovered during the natural course of development, if they had been in the same office and not locked down.
"It's the meerkat thing," Carr says. "Because if someone's swearing at your level, or someone's moaning about something like a bug... you hear it and that stuff gets fixed on the fly."
Webley says: "New features and things need that air time to have people, lots of different people, play it, smile at it, or get frustrated with it."
One of the key differences between Two Point Campus and Two Point Hospital comes with the characters. In Hospital, patients would drift in and out, whereas in Campus the students are with you for the duration, and you'll need to take care of them.
"We're trying to make you care more, which is always the golden chalice of any kind of sim game," Carr says.
Webley: "The backdrop is education, but when you think about anyone who has been to college or university, or watch any films about universities, it's not about these excellent lectures you had, it's about the parties and the relationships."
Back to Carr: "I love the relationship stuff, seeing them all happy and forming relationships. And then their grades come in and it's not great because they've not been studying. It's that dilemma you get to play around with, which appeals to the kind of games we make."
Koehler continues: "You've got these items which you can place around in the world and that influences what happens. So if you want everyone to be in love you can help guide that. And we've got such customisation now."
Indeed, Koehler explains how you can choose your courses, and even dictate your student intake, which makes for more unique experiences, particularly compared with Hospital.
Carr believes controlling the intake, although far from the most exciting feature, is potentially one of the most influential. For those that are finding the game too overwhelming, they can simply dial things back a bit and take back control.
"I had spent the last 45 minutes before this interview making a room. I built a really nice door. It's the greatest door. But the game won't punish me for doing that, whereas Hospital would do. I think it hopefully appeals to a broader type of player."
With Campus nearly complete, it's inevitable to wonder what comes next. Webley and Carr like the idea of that old office and that tight team, but 40 employees is no small indie. It has a big backer in Sega, and a growing army of fans.
"When we last spoke to you, we wanted to make games again," Webley says. "That was why we joined the industry, and we formed Two Point Studio to get back to that. And we're still doing it.
"You kind of get to this point, you get promoted, and then you have a bigger view of everything that's going on. It's hard to give that up, but really the best fun is just sitting at a desk."
He continues: "There's still a lot to do before we ship. And beyond that, we know we will still be working on Campus. We do have a fledgeling third project, and it would be great to put some people back on to that. But beyond that we don't know... a fourth team? We've got some really talented people, but we will see."
Carr concludes: "We will try and stay as boutique for as long as we possibly can. And I hope that is a lot longer than just now."