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Focus: Relentless puts its finger on the Buzz!

Coming from a background at failed developer Computer Artworks, both David Amor (creative director) and Andrew Eades (development director) have created one of the key third-party studios behind Sony's social gaming success. Prior to Buzz!, the studio worked on some versions of Eye Toy Groove and SingStar, as well as developing DJ Decks and FX.

Uniquely, however, the company has shipped all of its products without resorting to the insane crunch times and endless overtime hours which are considered to be a standard part of working in the development sector by many in the industry. To find out more, we spoke with David and Andrew in the company's studio in the south coast city of Brighton.

Q:GamesIndustry.biz: With Buzz! now on the shelves, how many products has Relentless worked on since you started up?

David: Well, there are some which are wholly developed and some that we've just done a bit of work on. The first product we shipped was a Japanese version of EyeToy Groove, so we took the English version of Groove and added some Japanese tracks to that for the Japanese market. The main project that we did to start off with was a DJ product that Andy and I started at Computer Artworks. When that company hit the wall we kind of resurrected that and did the final year.

Andrew: It was a year from starting the company to releasing that product, because it came out in September.

David: Yeah, so that one was half done, I suppose, or something close to that. Then we did some versions of SingStar PopWorld for the Swedish and Norwegian markets, and then of course Buzz! We're doing various flavours of Buzz! for various markets.

Andrew: We also have a credit on EyeToy: Kinetic - a very small one for styling.

Q: GI: How long has the company actually been running for?

David: It's been two years now.

Q: GI: So that's quite a lot of SKUs to get out of the door in two years, isn't it?

David: Well, I think sometimes people forget that companies only really start making money when the box gets picked up off the shelf, someone takes the box to the till and the till takes the money. It might sound a little patronising, but often things will just be in development forever and ever, and people get very feverish about the development. But of course, until it's actually a boxed product that you can buy, it doesn't make anything. So we've always tried to crank stuff out - not at the expense of quality of course, but...

Andrew: No, but that's right, we have. DJ was five SKUs, EyeToy Groove was one SKU, PopWorld was three or four SKUs and Buzz! is six SKUs in fourteen languages, so we've done quite a bit.

Q: GI: You've focused on casual gaming, or lifestyle gaming - is there a specific term you prefer to use for that sort of genre?

David: Social Gaming, I think is my favourite term.

Q: GI: Is that something you had very much in mind when you started the company? Was that your main focus, or did it almost happen by accident?

David: Well, I think really it's a bit of all those things. We were working on a DJ product which, while niche - it certainly wasn't a first person shooter or a driving game or anything like that - was a bit more social than some of the other products we'd worked on in the past.

As that came to a close and we were looking at the other products that interested us, you know...I'm thirty-three now and I have a young son that I don't get to spend hours playing videogames with like I used to, but the sort of thing I was spending time on was EyeToy and SingStar, and I really enjoyed those sorts of games. I think Andy, at the same time was enjoying similar sorts of games.

Andrew: Yes. It wasn't deliberate in that sense. We didn't foresee this new genre of social gaming. It kind of appeared and we sort of fell into it, but once we were in it, we said 'right, this is exactly what we, as a partnership and as a team are able to excel in.' Because no-one else, in our view, is taking it as seriously as we do. It's about moving the bar up to triple A product in the genre. I mean, people might buy their first PlayStation 2 on the back of SingStar. Then they're going to want something new to play on it, and that's kind of what we would give to them. I hope!

Q: GI: What do you think has enabled that genre to emerge? It's something that just didn't exist a few years ago.

David: I think 100 million PlayStation 2 consoles means that it becomes more mass market because of the number that are out there, and it becomes exposed to more people. I think that some of those PS2s aren't going into little Johnny's bedroom, they're going under the television in the lounge. So as a result of just where they are in the house, people start to see what's going on a little more and understand that they can play games which aren't just regular 'hardcore gamer' type products.

Andrew: I think that EyeToy showed that you can sell games to a younger audience. And I think what SingStar has done for everyone, especially for us, is show that women are actually quite competitive and that given the right product, they enjoy playing games together. It was a revelation to me - to be chucked out of my house and have the girls come round for a night of SingStar while I have to go and drink lager with my mates...

David: Sounds awful...

Andrew: It's a hard one, I know, but try doing it the opposite way around. Try chucking your girlfriend out so you can bring your mates round and play Pro Evo, and you're not able to do it! The revolution really is what Sony has built with SingStar and then we come along with this new quiz game, which actually involves you, your girlfriend, your girlfriend's best mate and her boyfriend all playing a videogame together, in a much more social way than you can do with Pro Evo. As brilliant a product as it is, it's still a boys market. So I think what Sony especially have done, is create the idea that women can play videogames and your Dad can play with you as well. With Buzz! I've got my Dad, who's sixty, playing me at a videogame for the first time in his life.

David: Who won?

Andrew: Well, I did, but that's because he's rubbish at music!

Q: GI: Sony is showing a lot of confidence in the product - it seems to be one of the biggest titles in the line-up between now and the end of the year. How did you reach that point with them?

David: It started as being something that Sony was interested in. They saw that they'd done well with SingStar and some of the stuff on EyeToy, and this was something that sort of fitted into the same, social gaming genre I suppose. So we started it relatively quietly, with a relatively small team and then we decided to add the buzzers, because I decided that it just wouldn't work with the standard Dual Shock controllers. It was pretty easy to put a prototype together; we came up with some ideas for rounds etc. and then over the course of time, it built up momentum within Sony.

They thought that the game was kind of like SingStar and EyeToy - only one of the things that maybe stopped people playing those two games was that you have to be a bit of an exhibitionist and be prepared to make a fool of yourself when you're playing, whereas that's less so with Buzz! You can just sit and quietly answer the questions and you don't have to be ready to do that much fooling around. So I think in that sense, that it's even more approachable than even EyeToy and SingStar.

I think one of the things that really helped was that Sony have a get together every now and again to show each other their products - Sony Japan, America etc. and they just put it in a corner at their parties and had crowds and crowds of people round it. They must have thought, if it's having this effect at our own internal parties, then it could probably do something similar in other people's parties around the world.

Q: GI: You've got a very close working relationship with Sony and everything you've done so far has been with them. Are you doing anything else at the moment or are you looking at working with other publishers?

David: Well, Sony keep putting a lot of work our way and they're a very good partner. Certainly there are a lot of Buzz products that will keep us busy, we hope, for a good while yet.

Andrew: There are good commercial reasons for us to choose to stick to one publisher. At the moment that publisher is Sony, and for the ongoing future it will be Sony. Relentless Software and Sony are a good fit, partly because we were born with a Sony contract in our hands, practically. That's the sort of relationship we're trying to keep with our publisher. I wouldn't want to have to serve multiple publishers. It's hard enough doing the right thing with one set of people, and having to do that multiple times, for us, is a step too far.

David: Also, I think Sony is one of the few publishers that 'get' social gaming. Whether they're the only ones who are willing to take a bet on it, I don't know, but I don't see EA rushing to do a game like Buzz! and I'd be very surprised if that ever happened. So from the kind of products that we're doing now and intend to do from now on, I think Sony is a really good fit.

Q: GI: You've got quite an unusual take on work practices in your office and how you run your business as well, haven't you?

Andrew: Unusual for the games industry, but I wouldn't say unusual for everyone else in the world! We do something really strange, which is work 9 to 5, and something really bizarre, which is not to let people surf the Internet whilst they're supposed to be working.

They're not actually that strange - they're very strange for the games industry, but for us it's just normal. People benefit from having a social life and from having the time to think about stuff, you know? We demand a lot of our employees whilst they're here, but when they leave the office, we don't demand anything of them, apart from getting a good night's rest to come back tomorrow fresh faced, with some good ideas.

David: We kind of made a pact, you know? Because particularly at the end of Computer Artworks where Andy and I worked, and I think for any company that's in difficulty, we were having to work really, really hard and do long hours, and it wasn't pleasant for anybody involved. So, we thought that there had to be a better way of making games than that, and it was nice because we were starting afresh with Relentless.

We sat down with the guys and we said, you know, we really think we can make this work. If we do this, that and the other, then we can all go home at 5pm and we won't have to work weekends. What do you think? Want to give it a go? They were all kind of 'what do you mean I don't get the Internet? What do I do in between when I'm compiling, and how do I look at games sites?' that kind of thing. We said well, how about you do it after 5pm?

There are lots of little things like that. We're not big on games in the office, and everyone always looks at me and frowns, like I have to let people play games, surely? But the connection between playing Counter Strike and making Buzz games is pretty minimal if you're really honest. They're both interactive I suppose, but you'd gain more relevance just watching a TV game show or something. I'd just rather that people worked at work, and then have enough time to go and do what they want at home.

Q: GI: How have you managed to keep to that pledge? In the run up to shipping stuff have you had to work the long hours at some points?

David: No, because I really do, more now than when we started, actually believe that it's bullshit to think that you get a lot more out of people when you get them working really long hours. It's not a sound-bite; I absolutely, completely believe it now. And sometimes someone would ask what the resourcing level would be over the weekend, and it's nil. It never will be anything. As soon as we start asking people to make exceptions, then it doesn't work anymore. Because we've made this deal with the guys and as soon as we break that.... And apart from that I just don't believe it works.

Andrew: It doesn't work. I've been doing this for fifteen years, and doing it wrong for most of that time. The productivity levels here are higher than anywhere I've ever worked in my life. There's no shadow of doubt. The fact that we can hit every single milestone bang on, is positive proof that we're doing the right thing and, you know, we're not naive in thinking it's easy, if you're an established company, in changing to these practices, because there's a lot of bad habits. But, we had carte blanche to do what we liked, and we did was what we believed in, what we thought would work, and it has. Sometimes it's hard to convince people of that, because they don't know a different way.

David: When we have new recruits, a lot of them have come off working for companies where they have done the long hours and been worked to the bone. So the idea of somewhere where you go, okay look, the bad news is you don't get Internet at work and you all have to be in at 9am, but the good news is that you all get to go home at 5pm, honestly is a good thing. It's quite appealing to someone with a family perhaps. I get to do the school run - these things are important to me now and it's the same with a lot of other people. I love the fact that we took a company holiday to Ibiza after the Beta date on our DJ product, because we could. We were ahead of schedule, the product was in a good shape, there were no bugs on the bug list, so we went away, to 'anti-crunch' if you like.

Andrew: I had a genuine "EA spouse" moment the other day, when a friend of mine visited from Canada. His girlfriend was asking my partner if she ever got to see me, and she said, of course, I see him all the time. But my friend's girlfriend said she never got to see him in the evenings or at weekends. You know, the difference is that it works here, it really does. Okay, so we're not making Grand Theft Auto, but I actually fundamentally believe that we could do it 9 to 5, with the processes we have in place here.

What we've enabled, which I'm very proud of, is we've enabled Sony to bet a large amount of money on making buzzers for Buzz! because they know that the software will be there on time. We give our publishers the confidence they need to really go for it with Buzz! If we were two weeks late, or the software was full of bugs, they wouldn't put this money behind us. So it clearly works, in a commercial sense, in a lifestyle sense, in an ethical company sense - in every sense.

The other thing is that there's a European directive on working hours and with hilarity, I heard the French complaining because the UK is exempt from having to force its workforce to work less than forty hours per week or something ridiculous. The French were saying that that's a competitive advantage to the UK, but I say that's ridiculous, because I know from my own personal experience that Relentless Software as a company has a competitive advantage over other software development companies precisely because we don't work very long hours. We don't work more than forty hours a week, and that gives us an edge.

David: The funny thing is, I realised the other day that, you know, we make a thing about the Internet being on but as it turned out, the Internet has been on for months, but nobody had realised. Just out of habit. It's like smoking I guess; you just sort of itch for it and think 'ooh, let's see what's going on'. I think the Internet is great, don't get me wrong, but I just think that you have to understand what work is and what's not work.

Andrew: We didn't proscribe the use of the Internet. What we did was say "those four computers over there, they're connected to the Internet and you can sit there all day if you like, I don't care." But of course, if you give people that opportunity, they'll go "oh no, I couldn't do that, because you'll notice that I'm just sat surfing the Internet all day." Guess what? That's what most game developers are doing anyway.

If you say to someone, "yes, you can do it, but you have to move desk" - and I'm not saying this in an evil way, all I'll look at is the results and I don't care how you got there, necessarily. But I bet you can't do it from sitting at the Internet all day, I mean obviously you can't. You can't program a computer game by sitting and surfing the web. At Computer Artworks, on one day, there were 3,000 posts on one particular topic [on an internal mailing list]. In one day, 3,000 posts at a small developer?

Quite honestly, I don't understand it. I cannot think of why I'd personally invest my time digging out yet another funny picture of a kitten in a hat or whatever, rather than doing something which I find really rewarding, which is making games. And then beef about your game only getting seven out of ten or spending the next week working until 9pm; it just doesn't make any sense.

David: It just seems to have been caught up in some really bad habits and I don't really know why. I think a lot of people just assume that that's how games are made, but I don't think they have to be.

Andrew: You can take another job - take lorry driving, for instance. Now, there are laws preventing lorry drivers from doing a pretty... forgive me, all you lorry drivers... doing a pretty simple thing, which is steering a lorry around the country, not being very creative. But they're not allowed to do it for more than eight hours at a time because they will crash. Give a programmer the same kind of idea - that you're going to make them program for sixteen hours - and do you think they're going to crash, i.e. make a bug, or do you think they're going to do a good job and reach their destination? They're clearly not going to get to their destination as well as a well-rested person.

It's easy to forget that programming and all of the other creative stuff is a little bit addictive, and everyone wants to be a warrior and have their little badge that says, you know, I worked twenty-eight hours. On Monday. You know, four hours more than is possible, but "get over it" is all I can say, and just work a proper week.

Q: GI: How many people do you actually have employed here now?

David: Forty, I think. Some contracted, some full time.

Q: GI: Do you use a lot of outside contractors as well?

David: Yeah, we've always used a lot of external artists, because you get to know where the good ones are. Maybe because of something about the nature of some of the games we do, we do find it okay to outsource some stuff. It's also useful when you don't know how big the next project is going to be, so you've got a kind of scaleable workforce. A lot of the people that we have right now are writing quiz questions, so they're not your standard games industry programmer or artist types. But we're at about forty and we're getting more shortly.

Q: GI: So you're in a hiring phase at the moment?

David: Well, yes, but we're always in a hiring phase. Sony is really supportive in so far as they always say you need to be bigger. They say you never know what we're going to throw at you next, so why don't you have a lot more contingency in terms of your personal. So they're always encouraging us to hire and certainly, everybody we've hired, we've been able to find more than enough work for, so we have an ongoing hiring situation.

Andrew: I'm struggling to keep up with the amount of people we're hiring right now. But I think it's going to level off.

David: When I was at Computer Artworks we were expanding quite quickly and people sort of sucked through their teeth and said it was all too quick. I didn't really know what that meant. What I think it meant at the time, is that the bar gets dropped a bit in terms of the people you hire, because you need to hire a lot of people. So, we've been a lot more careful. Our policy has always been that we're always going to need more people, or as far as we can tell, we are. So whenever someone good comes around, we say yes, please join us, and to the question 'what will I be doing?' it's a case of we'll tell you next month!

Andrew: We hire people, rather than appoint jobs.

David: Also, it's been surprisingly easy to hire people when you're standing up and saying, look, this is the kind of working environment you're going to have. It's quite appealing to a lot of people now, I think.

Andrew: I think that's definitely a factor. There are pros and cons, because the pay structure is also built around delivery milestones, which means the amount you'll take home each month is maybe less than you'd be earning somewhere else. But then the quarterly top-ups surpass what you'd be earning anywhere else. That's just a structure that we have that reminds people that our business is building software to a certain date. Between every milestone, a big pot of money accumulates each month. Every quarter, we pay out that pot of money.

David: It was a case in the past, we both worked at developers where they turned up for work but nobody really cared if the milestones happened or not. But the company really cares because it only gets paid when the milestone gets signed off. So we said, well how about if you get a bonus providing everything is going according to quality and on time. That's what we set up, and we've always paid it out because we've always been quality and on time. But I suppose it's a consideration for some people who join us.

Andrew: We offer people the opportunity to partake in the risk that we take, but the rewards are easy. We'll never ask you to work a weekend, we'll never ask you to work a late night. We'll never buy you a pizza at eight o'clock in the evening, because you won't be here. You'll get an annual profit share and every quarter, your pay will be double. It's simple, and people really buy into it.

Q: GI: At the moment you're finishing off international versions of Buzz! and presumably you've got some more products in that range in the pipeline?

David: Yes. Without naming titles, I think it's believable that once we've put those Buzz! games out there, it's important to support them with other products. I think you can see with SingStar, what they've done with that product is that you get your two microphones and then you can buy the latest product at a slightly cheaper price. I think Sony will adopt the same model and again, without talking about exactly what those titles are, you can guess where it's going!

Q: GI: In terms of other products you're looking at further down the line, are you going to stick with the social gaming genre? Is that where Relentless positions itself?

David: Social gaming is a good one for us for so many reasons. One is because I really like those types of games and I think they're under served. I think that publishers want them and they're, frankly, easier to do than the big epic games. They can be done in a shorter time frame, so you can put lots of products out on the shelves - there's lot of good things. And it's not a particularly saturated market. There are not a lot of other developers doing that. So yes, I think we'll stay with it. I've been having some cool conversations about what we could do with a Buzz! game on the PlayStation 3, and there are some really great ideas about the things we could do with that. Working closely with Sony, those opportunities will come up and I can definitely see us sticking with these kinds of products.

Q: GI: Are you looking at anything on the PSP at the moment? Or is that something that really needs to develop its installed base before it really 'works'?

David: We're focusing on PS2 at the moment, because there's just so many of them out there and there's certainly enough to be getting on with on PlayStation 2. But we'll certainly look at the other Sony platforms.

David Amor is Creative Director at Relentless Software; Andrew Eades is Development Director. Interviewed by Rob Fahey.

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