Keeping a low profile is an interesting approach for a development company. Most developers shout, sing and dance about their achievements - often before they've even achieved them - and it can be easy, if unfair, to assume that a developer who isn't shouting, singing and dancing mustn't be doing anything very interesting.
Not so DC Studios. While the company has certainly kept its head low over the past few years, it isn't because it didn't want attention - it was because it was too busy working to worry about attracting it. With two studios, one in Montreal, Canada, and one in Glasgow, Scotland, the studio has established itself a formidable reputation as a work-for-hire outfit, and enjoys strong relationships with many key publishers around the industry.
Now, suddenly, with a strong track record of delivering titles to publishers under its belt, DC Studios is making some noise. The next stage of the company's evolution is at hand, and it's hoping to branch out into developing its own IP - with its boldest move yet in that direction being the founding of a new (albeit small) studio in Bristol, headed up by football game legend Dino Dini, and beavering away on a brand new football (soccer to the North Americans in the audience) title which the company hopes to challenge the established order of that lucrative market with.
The Beautiful Game
When we catch up with Mark Greenshields, a genial Scot who is the managing director of DC Studios, he's full of enthusiasm about the new project - which, it transpires as we ask about its genesis, isn't the first time he's worked with Dino Dini, creator of the much-loved Kick Off and Player Manager series.
"What happened," he explains, "is that I met up with Dino Dini last year and we started talking - as you may know, after Dino stopped working with Anco on Kick Off, I started doing other versions... So I wrote Kick Off for the Nintendo consoles and so on, between around 1990 and 1994. Then we fell out with Anco as well, and other people took it on - and it really went to pot after that."
"I've always had a desire, from that point, to do a football game that was really kick-ass, rather than just the weak efforts that a lot of people have made, but I've never really been in a position to be able to do it right. I met up with Dino last year. He at that point wasn't working - he'd been with a company that had just gone bust [Italian developer Trecision]. We just started talking, basically - we knew each other before that anyway. I just thought, this makes a lot of sense - let's do it together."
Talking about other titles in the genre as "weak efforts" is fighting talk, but Greenshields certainly has confidence in the game that Dini is building - although there's no doubt that he's still a realist in his outlook. "Well, of course!" he exclaims when we ask if he's hoping to take market share from leading titles FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer. "If I wasn't trying to do that, what's the point?"
"I'd love to say we're going to beat FIFA," he says. "The likelihood is obviously that we won't, because EA are superbly good at what they do, but there is room for another player, and we aim to be that other player. We strongly believe that; there are other people coming into the market with football games, and there are two main ones now, Pro Evo from Konami and FIFA from EA; obviously Sony do quite well with theirs [This Is Football], Codemasters have got one... But I wouldn't say there's any clear third place. I'm not saying we just want to be third, but if we can manage third with our first iteration, I guess we'd be reasonably happy!"
Indeed, for the company - which only employs sixty people across its three offices - taking third place in a race of such magnitude wouldn't be a bad accomplishment at all. "We'd be very happy," Greenshields reaffirms. "For what is in essence a sixty-person developer - which I guess is a mid-sized developer, not a small one - we're aiming our targets high."
"Ultimately, yeah, I'd love to beat FIFA," he muses, and then adds jovially: "I'm sure there's one or two people on FIFA who will try very hard to make sure we don't. We don't have their resources, of course."
David and Goliath
For a tiny studio like DC to take on the might of Electronic Arts and Konami seems like folly, but Greenshields believes that their unique approach to developing the title will help them to create a "kick-ass" football game with far less resources than the major publishers can afford to throw at their games.
"We've developed a football game in a different way than, say, the EAs or the big boys," he claims. "Because we're financing it, and we understand football and especially understand the way that Dino's code works, we did the logic and stuff first. Now we're just getting to the point of starting to add all the visual effects and fancy stuff. So the logic team is based in Bristol - you're only talking about five people, so relatively small. There have been some other people in the Montreal office helping, but the core team is five. Of course, that's really starting to expand now."
With the core gameplay in place and the game now arriving at the point where it requires serious input in terms of art assets and so on, DC is now contemplating how to best use the outsourcing model to complete work on the title as efficiently as possible.
"This is something we're still deciding on," Greenshields tells us. "With a game like football it is feasible, because you can lay the detail of how you want to structure it, how your art is done, and your art team can actually do all the rules and how everything must look, do the test models and all that sort of stuff, and then outsource. It's feasible for that kind of game because there's actually not a lot of interaction, other than the animation - which is crucial."
"Things like stadiums and menu structures and so on - there's not a lot of interaction with the programming, so you can actually outsource that," he continues. "A more traditional game like Grand Theft Auto, for example, is harder because you're in the game, and the art actually forms an intrinsic part of the game. In football, although it looks like an intrinsic part, it's actually more separated - so we will probably use some outsource, in fact probably a reasonable quantity."
"That's the stage we're at now - basically, the core game is done. There's a lot of tuning and a lot of adjustment, and of course they'll be doing that for a long time, but the core logic is built. We know what to achieve, we know how the rules all work, and therefore we can now actually determine how much we're putting into the presentation and the production values - the sounds, the atmospheric effects, the weather effects, the number of strips, the number of stadia - all this sort of stuff."
Pro Revolution Soccer
Fans of Dino Dini's Kick Off titles will claim that they were among the most uniquely playable sports titles ever created, and gamers often spent months honing their skills in the games and encountering new depths to the gameplay as they progressed; but in a modern context, the classic gameplay might have trouble holding up against the likes of Pro Evo. The new title will draw inspiration from its origins, Greenshields promises, but it will be a very different beast...
"I wouldn't say it was an evolution," he explains. "There were certain things in Kick Off and games like it which made them unique in the way that they played, and games like FIFA take a different path. So in what we've done, a lot of it is the same vision but it's not an evolution, it's more a revolution. The focus is on the player rather than on the whole game - although that's over-simplifying it a bit - but it's a more skill-based thing. The one problem with Kick-Off was that it could be quite tricky to pick up, because the ball was very fluid and you had to learn how to actually keep hold of the ball. It makes it more real, but on the other hand it makes it harder. "
"A revolution is too strong, but an evolution is too weak," he muses. "It's somewhere in between. We've purposely done it this way - we've been developing it now for nine months, and that's the core game. It's not going to be released this year. So we have still got at least the same amount of time again to take the gameplay that's there now and hone that until it's really, really the way it needs to be. We plan to get people like journalists and people who are fans involved, should they wish to, and hone the gameplay to the way it should be. The one thing we've got the luxury of in the first one is that we don't have to release a game this year."
Work on the new game - which doesn't yet have a name ("we could call it DC Soccer By Dino Dini, but that's not really an exciting name...") - is obviously a labour of love for DC Studios, and the company has chosen to fund the project internally up to this point - although it is now seeking a publishing partner to take it forward.
"We are in discussions with some publishers at the moment," Greenshields reveals. "We're a profitable company and we always have been, but let's be realistic - we're still a developer. We're good at what we do, but we haven't created a Doom or whatever - so we're not multi-billionaires or anything exciting like that! We could publish it ourselves, but the likelihood is that we're going to partner with someone in order to take it to market. We don't just want to sell it on a small scale in the UK, this is going to be an international product."
For a company which has mostly focused on development work-for-hire - and has done remarkably well out of it, with turnover that Greenshields estimated doubled in the past year - funding a completely internally originated product is a remarkable leap; but this isn't the first time that DC Studios has worked on internal projects, although it's certainly the most high profile of them.
"We've done some internal ones, but they didn't actually go anywhere," Greenshields tells us. "We did some concepts, but either the market changed, or whatever. This is the first one where we've committed to see it right through to the end - it wasn't an approach like, 'let's see how it works and take it from there' - we've been committed from day one that this is going to go as a released product. That's mainly because of the experience that I've got in the football field - we knew how much we were able to financially risk to see it through to the end. In that way, I guess it is our first fully self-funded product - which is a risk for a developer, but if it fails, we aren't going to go bust or anything."
While the venture may be a risk, Greenshields believes that it is a crucial move for the future of the company - and he's a strong believer in the importance of developing original IP and holding that IP as a developer. "Exactly," he says when we ask if this is the plan for Football. "Our company was 100% work for hire before - we're changing it over so that we aim to be about fifty-fifty. We have some owned IP, we have some licenses that we own, and some IP like football and other things like that."
Not that DC Studios is planning to abandon its well-established reputation in its existing markets. "That is where we a lot of our future, but we aren't going to abandon our roots in the work for hire," Greenshields says. "We have a lot of very good relationships with a lot of companies - they're valuable, they're bread and butter work in a lot of respects, but let's be realistic; there are so many developers that have gone bust. You've got to realise that you are still running a business, your business is creating games and great games are what matters, but if you're not around to finish them, what good is it to anyone?"
While Dino Dini's football project is the one which DC Studios hopes to put itself firmly on the map with, it's not the only high profile project that the company has been associated with recently. The firm was also responsible for developing the technology used in Majesco's GBA Video system - which has been in the news quite a bit recently, and was very well received at E3 in May.
"As a developer, we create a lot of technology anyway as part of the work that we're doing," Greenshields explains when we ask how this unusual assignment came about, "and while we were creating the Bratz game which we did for Ubisoft, we had been developing a lot of compression technology anyway - for real time. One of the things we did was to create some video technology which we were looking to use with games. I got approached by Majesco, who were looking to do stuff in video on the GBA; basically, we had a good working relationship anyway, and it just happened to be that they were looking for something that we had just created. It worked out well! At E3 last year, we signed up an exclusive deal with them, so the technology is now essentially Majesco's, although we have a tie-in to whatever happens to it, and we have the right to use it."
Signing away the rights to your technology may seem like a counter-intuitive move for a developer, but Greenshields is pragmatic about the business sense behind the deal. "There was no point in being a developer and going 'woo hoo, we have this technology!' without a partner that will actually use it properly," he reasons. "It is a market that we believe could be hugely successful, but we needed somebody who was going to put a lot behind it, and Majesco had an enormous amount of faith in what they wanted to do in video - as has been seen, I mean, they are the market leader in it, there's no doubt about it. Nintendo may want to argue that in the future, and Nintendo are doing Pokemon without the Majesco technology; it uses their own tech, which is disappointing for us. But the market currently is Majesco's, so we're with the market leader and we're very pleased to be associated with them, as you can imagine."
For a studio which hasn't made much noise, then, DC Studios is one which has a lot to make noise about. Challenging the might of EA's FIFA and Konami's Pro Evo doesn't seem to faze the studio, or its affable managing director, one bit - and with a success like the GBA Video technology under its belt, along with strong working relationships with many publishers, it's hard not to see DC Studios as a bona fide success story for the development industry. Moreover, for football game fans, the message is an exciting one; Dino Dini is back. And he's brought some old friends. The results will be hugely interesting to see.