Kuju's Nigel Robbins

The company's new CEO talks business as he takes over from Ian Baverstock

Kuju has been a well-known part of the UK development scene for many years, headed up by Ian Baverstock and Jonathan Newth even after the acquisition by Catalis. But as their earn-out periods come to an end, both men will be moving into non-executive director roles as a new face to the games industry - former MTV Network Asia-Pacific president Nigel Robbins - takes the helm.

Here we speak to the man himself in an exclusive interview as he begins his new job - we find out why he's keen on the Kuju challenge, where he's looking to take the company and the studios next, what challenges the industry is facing, and whether or not the business is primed to grow.

Q: You've come from outside the games industry, so what's your experience coming into this role?

Nigel Robbins: [smiles] Well, I'm Nigel, Aries, nice to meet you. I'd describe what first got me into the entertainment industry as creative and content - that's been the large part of my background in terms of TV originally. I was tasked with spearheading the TV and content roll-out for MTV Networks for a number of years - I spent about 15 years with MTV, and when I look back on my career that would be the biggest slice of the cake, among other things.

But it's also what helped me develop as a manager, when I stumbled into management as we all do - I was given opportunities as a result of that which broadened into president of the MTV Group Japan, and then president of MTV Networks Asia-Pacific

What always excited me the most about all of those roles was being as close as I could to the creative content delivery process - so nothing's changed there with this role, because in the end it's all about compelling content. That's what keeps me awake in board meetings, that's what keeps it interesting.

Q: MTV Networks Asia-Pacific president to CEO of Kuju is quite a jump - why swap one for the other?

Nigel Robbins: Well, that's quite a straightforward one - my last assignment at MTV was to completely restructure the Asia-Pacific region, so I delivered that, and then stepped off the train to decide what to do next.

At that point I'd had assignments in Japan, Australia and India and had taken time in-between projects to actually scuttle up to the Highlands with my family to decide what to do next - but what was different about the last one is that I felt it was time to return to the UK, because I'd been overseas for so many years.

My intent was to immerse myself in the videogames industry - I didn't think I'd have such a clear-cut opportunity when I started looking around. I spoke to Catalis and Kuju at the end of last year and I was heartened by the fact that they were looking for someone who could bring a fresh perspective from outside of the games industry. That's the first hurdle - and I very much understand why they're doing that, but at the time I felt it could be seen as a risk.

But now, with my understanding of the Kuju group, and the strong foundations that Ian [Baverstock] and Jonathan [Newth] have established, I think it's absolutely the right thing to do - because I'm not here to help any of our guys create code, I'm here to stretch us... ask a lot of smart (and dumb) questions and find ways for us to continue to reinvent, scale-up where we can and make sure there's that continuity on the work-for-hire side of the business so we can superserve our glorious clients.

All of those challenges apply, and they've applied with previous roles I've had - but in the end it comes back to compelling content. So whichever facet of that you look at, you've got to have something that the end user - the game player - is going to use, enjoy and immerse themselves in. And of course our publishing partner needs to be completely happy with the delivery process.

Q: It's certainly an interesting time to step into the games industry - what's your impression of where the Kuju brand sits today, in terms of where it sits in the overall developer mix?

Nigel Robbins: It certainly is a fascinating time in the industry. Looking back, it's never been dull, but now we have almost this perfect storm of opportunities, certainly in terms of the technological advancements - Natal, PlayStation Move, Nintendo's 3DS, OnLive... a lot of things that, if you'd told somebody five years ago would all be happening around the same time, they'd have jumped out of their skin and gotten very excited by it.

So there's this big party going on, but not enough of us are enjoying ourselves at the moment. We need to crank the music up and start dancing - everyone's a little bit cautious, and certainly I felt that at GDC and meeting a lot of interesting people over the last few weeks.

It's understandable, on the back of a recession and uncertainty over consumer demand. Everything has thinned a little - there's been a lot of trimming, a lot of axes have fallen. But I feel now that the sun is starting to shine a little bit, and we're hoping it'll come out in a big way sometime soon - although nobody has all the answers. Nobody knows exactly what's going to happen, we just have to make sure we're nimble enough to seize opportunities, and scale back where it doesn't make sense - and not be distracted by things which aren't true to our core business.

As far as Kuju's perception is concerned, one thing I'm a great fan of is the independent branding exercise that was rolled out in the last 12-18 months - I think that was a masterstroke of genuis, given that now every studio has its own identity, which is important in terms of any clients we're working with. They get it, they understand who that studio head is, and what that creative team is all about.

But also, it gives them a healthy sense of autonomy, so there's not this thick corporate layer at the top which can often hinder progress of a company like this. I've seen that in previous roles, and I've always been a fan of creating autonomy - but at the same time pulling everyone together where it makes sense creatively so we can break out and have those sessions you need to develop new and compelling IP and product.

That's important for Kuju, because we're the right size to be able to do that and have the best of both worlds - have the autonomy and independent-spirited brand in Vatra and Headstrong, Zoe Mode and doublesix, and then a very thin corporate layer of Kuju management.

But also within Kuju an innovative arm, where we can develop new projects, and make sure everbody's a part of that when we look at developing activities that are perhaps outside of our comfort zone. We shouldn't be held back, if that's the case, in terms of ambition.

I think Kuju's structure is perfect for that, and with Catalis as the parent company, they're very encouraging when it comes to making sure we're delivering on both fronts.

I'm fortunate in that we have some remarkably talented and passionate teams working in each of our studios, and the studio heads are at the top of their game. Ian and Jonathan have been true innovators at Kuju and it's very positive that I have the luxury of their time and talent, both during the CEO transition and beyond.

Q: Something we've heard a lot about in the past 12 months is a reluctance from publishers to commission. Because Kuju is a known quantity, do you feel it's in a strong position to leverage those relationships moving forwards?

Nigel Robbins: I do, if we're smart about it. Kuju's reputation is one of "on time, on budget - a safe pair of hands." That's important for any developer. But at the same time we'd like the studios' reputation to be that and one that's appropriate to the platform of the genre each studio is focusing on.

I've spent the past week visiting and speaking with a number of Kuju's key publishing partners in Europe, Asia and the US. The one message that is consistent with them all is the need to focus on quality. With fewer titles rolling out presently the need for production excellence has never been more important, whether you're a developer delivering a triple-A, big budget titles or a more nimble digital download project.

In the end, the publisher is more concerned with the studio head and the creative team that's working on their product, rather than the CEO of the corporate entity. However, I'm very keen to be a part of the process so that we can make sure we do super-serve clients and deliver the objectives - and make sure the follow-through is there.

Has Kuju been affected by the events of the last 12-18 months? Yes, I think every developer pretty much has, but I think Kuju is robust enough, and has the track record and foundations so that we can today have a strong structure that will stand us in good stead for the opportunities that will roll out in the future.

But I think it's certainly a key few months for the industry - everybody needs to start dancing again, and make sure that the content is going to be rolled out with gusto. Caution isn't good for anybody - prudence is, but it's certainly time for things to move a bit faster than they have in the past 12-18 months.

That's one change I think we'd all like to see.

Q: "On time, on budget, safe pair of hands" is a strong business argument, but the industry is populated by a lot of creative people, and maybe that mantra isn't the most aspirational. When you say "super-serve" are you looking to give talent a little more room to flex their muscles in that area?

Nigel Robbins: I suppose there are several areas that are important for what we're doing at the moment.

First there's the current work-for-hire model, so where we have a very strong relationship with a publisher. When I say "superserve" I suppose it sounds a little corny, but it just means showing more empathy - showing more understanding of what their objectives are.

We certainly don't deliberately disregard a milestone, or any legal commitment, but it's about making sure we're giving that as much importance as the content creation process, and having in place a good structure that ensures we can highlight any potential delays that could cause friction or tension.

Now, there hasn't been a great deal of that - I'm not referring to any particular example - I just feel, with my background at MTV Networks, we placed so much emphasis on serving clients' needs as though a lot of this was just a natural process in a way where a creative would place as much importance on that as they would on the 80 per cent of the work they're doing that involves content creation.

So we need to make sure that the clients and partners we're working with continue to value that relationship, and that we can give them what they want.

The second part is the creative pitching process internally. I should think every studio head of every studio never has enough time to spend with their creative guys on break-out, creative think-tanks, and all of those wonderful things.

Unless you make the time for it, and create the culture where that is part of what we're doing - and it's not something we're just beavering away at on the plane - unless you get to that point it's always going to be... not so much an after-thought, but you'll never have the time you needed to finesse the pitch.

So I want to make sure that we place more attention on that - not just within the studios, but as a group just bringing the studios together so that we bounce ideas off one another, we pitch to each other and try and draw ideas from unlikely sources... not just internally, but externally as well. So we feel, when we get to the pitch point, we have the perfect concept.

Of course, a publisher may have other ideas for something that's more appropriate, but I think that's a very important part of a fresh-thinking culture that drives us and keeps us inspired.

The third part is targeting IP - things that are perhaps slightly outside of the norm. Already the games and film industries already work closely together, but I'd like to look at other opportunities where we pare back the process, and look at writing a game perhaps while a screenplay is being written - so you take it back as fas as it will go.

Also, to talk to book publishers about targeting some IP that's not yet been utilised in a significant way in games. The music industry, recording artists, TV and content animation - it's all a fantastic, vital source of compelling content.

So knock on more doors, create relationships where they don't currently exist, so that we can make better games - fantastic content that a publisher or third party, if we're looking at external funding for a project, would come to the table and be a part of.

Those are the three areas I'm going to work with the teams on in terms of generating a rich source of material for us to do with what we do best.

The fourth thing, that will sit within the Kuju group, is where we'll look at having projects under something called "K2" - these will be things that don't perhaps sit within a studio, but we'd still draw on some of the strengths within the studio group to help develop.

But they'd be projects that would be either fresh territory for us, or something that would require significant funding, so we're looking at a slightly different model. It's looking at things which don't currently exist, and would be in such areas as games with a purpose - everyone and their aunt wants to get involved with social or browser games, and it's no good just throwing ideas at it unless you have something completely relevant or innovative that's potentially going to be a game-changer.

There are other projects that would sit in that division, but the mainstay for us is focusing on those first three areas that will help us continue to grow and flourish.

Q: Do you see the current levels of staffing as appropriate for the time being?

Nigel Robbins: Well, staffing levels in the UK is an interesting one - it was heartening to see some good news in the Budget recently. Whether or not that will manifest in significant ways in the UK... we very much hope so. It might serve as a catalyst for other markets to ramp up their offerings, because it's vital that we continue to breathe more life into the games industry in the UK, and get things back to where we were in terms of innovation.

Are there enough people working on projects? Everyone will always tell you no, but clearly you can't scale things back to a point where the product is going to suffer, so we have to make sure we always prioritise that - and outsourcing is one way of contributing to that - but as much as possible you want people within your own teams, so they're as passionate about projects as you'd like them to be.

But it's interesting with the smaller, lower-budget projects, because you can have smaller, nimble teams working on those - but you really need to cover the whole gamete I think. Any developer needs to have the flexibility to have 50 guys working on a big project, or five working on a slimline project - and the space in-between to adapt as the opportunities require.

Q: The company was restructured relatively recently though - you're not looking to do anything else at this point as you come into the role?

Nigel Robbins: No, it's always the last thing you want to do, for any new CEO - you never want to lose good people. One thing that's interesting for this industry perhaps, compared to the TV content digital media businesses I've worked with is the ebb-and-flow that's not always part of the environment - but an acceptance that you do need to scale back sometimes in the year. It's project-driven.

But we want to make sure that the teams are stable and retained, and have continuity. I want to make sure that we're looking at every potential opportunity in the market so that we can secure business and create games, continue to build our teams and retain them long term.

We're a good size right now to build on, and scale up where we can with the studios and make sure we sharpen our act in every corner.

There is an appetite for growth - of course, there is in any business - and our parent company Catalis has given me a lot of leverage in terms of recommending (and receiving recommendations for) areas to explore.

So there may be the potential to grow organically, and through acquisitions in the future, if it's the right kind of partnership. I wouldn't see us needing to go beyond half a dozen studios, for example - you can become too stretched and reduce your focus.

We have a sister company in the form of Testronic Labs, and there are also things that we might potentially do together more strategically than we have in the past - but for the most part the real action is going to be in making sure we ramp up our current activities, and grow where it makes sense as those opportunities either appear, or we hunt them out.

In that respect I think we have a very good share-holder understanding, and a lot of space in which we can manoeuvre.

Nigel Robbins is CEO of Kuju. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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