Splash Damage is the classic home-grown success story - a UK developer that grew out of an amateur Quake mod team to release two highly-regarded multiplayer shooters, Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. The company then emerged from under the wing of id Software to strike a publishing deal with ZeniMax Media, the owners of Bethesda Softworks, which last year found huge success striking out on its own with Fallout 3.
Still independently owned, Splash Damage has been on a major recruitment drive throughout the last year that has grown the studio to more than 50 employees. GamesIndustry.biz sat down with studio director Paul Wedgwood at the GameCity festival late last year to talk about alternative routes into game development, developers' relationship with the critics, Splash Damage's future with Bethesda, and where the online games market is going.
Q: Do you think that route that you took into the industry - from the amateur, enthusiast mod community - is still open?
Paul Wedgwood: Yes - absolutely. In October we recruited a popular Team Fortress 2 map-maker. In 2007 we recruited Dave Johnston, who's the guy who did De Dust for Counter-Strike. We still recruit from the community, Epic still recruits from the community, id Software still does - and I think that for a mod team wanting to go professional, it's still perfectly viable.
It's just a different thing - on the PC it was mod-making existing games, and now on the console, there are opportunities coming up like XNA for teams to get together and do amateur projects and get attention that way. It's just finding the angle really. With us, we had a succession of what with hindsight was clearly lots of lucky moments in sequence, but at the time we felt was very organised and very specific.
For people wanting to get into the industry now, irrespective of whether they're on a university degree, or whether they're entirely amateur, they can still join a mod team and build a really good portfolio by working alongside really talented others who give them good feedback. That can help them get jobs, or they can just go for it, take the risk.
Q: So you don't think the tightening of the PC market and the shift to consoles is going to change that?
Paul Wedgwood: Well, for example, if you take any id Software-engine game that's released for the PC, and you're an artist and you start producing really good quality high-polygon models that you can demonstrate you've managed to get into the game and usable in somebody's mod - that's going to count for something on your portfolio. If you're a level designer and you make a really popular map for Counter-Strike or Team Fortress 2, it doesn't matter that Orange Box sales on the console are much bigger than PC. At the end of the day, a map-maker still has to make maps on a PC.
And then as you move across to things like XNA, the development is still on the PC and it's still communities using the internet and chatting on websites, so finding and putting together small teams is exactly the same.
Q: Do you think there's going to be any videogame talent encouraged or discovered by the trend for user-created content within games, like in LittleBigPlanet?
Paul Wedgwood: Yeah - I mean, all we're looking at is a different distribution medium. The reason people like the PC is exactly the same reason people like YouTube - it's uncontrolled, it's uncensored. Console manufacturers naturally want to be able to control the flow of content. So if you have complete control over a platform, then you need to stimulate user-created content. But fundamentally it's no different whatsoever from mod-making on a PC and distributing via a hundred websites. It's just new-school mod-making, the approach is essentially exactly the same.
Q: You've said before that high review scores are definitely a big focus for your studio.
Paul Wedgwood: Yes. The shameless pursuit of critical acclaim. It's not so much that it's purely the reception that we get from critics alone - we also mean critical acclaim from fans, and feeling like we've made something that they want to play. But really it's this notion that you focus on the quality of the game, you don't have a set release date irrespective of that.
It's a sad fact that in 2007, two of the highest-selling videogames were also two of the lowest-rated. So that's one of the things we're trying to get across to students - that it's better to be a play-tester at Epic than it is a lead artist at a terribly naff studio that's focused purely on getting something out in time.
Q: Having said that, what are your feelings about the pressure that now comes from publishers' Metacritic scores? Isn't it a bit arbitrary, trusting people's bonuses on what a bunch of journalists might think?
Paul Wedgwood: We don't have any pressures at all.
Q: It does happen though. Developers don't get bonuses if a game gets eights rather than nines.
Paul Wedgwood: Personally I think it's ridiculous. In the film industry, four stars is an amazing score.
Q: But in the film industry, there isn't a website that averages out scores and is studied by suits at the studios.
Paul Wedgwood: I think it's a really good idea for a developer to go to a publisher and demand that they get an additional bonus for achieving a certain review score, but it shouldn't affect their royalties or anything else. If you have a high-selling game, you have a high-selling game.
Q: How do you feel about the state of game criticism? Do you think scores are a little too generous?
Paul Wedgwood: We know that some websites score quite high and some quite low, but in general, all websites tend to score between 60 and 100. There's never a 37. It's as if that whole section doesn't exist, so zero starts at 60, so three stars, and goes up to five. It's just not really an accurate enough measure.
I think that if anything, the games press should take the pressure off themselves, and just go across to star ratings, which for films is nothing more than a recommendation that you buy it, watch it when you get the chance, or rush out and see it straight away, and it's your personal recommendation. It's not a "score". If that was all you did, nobody would hate you guys for it.
Out of ten is a good start. Percentiles put too much pressure on a journalist to justify an exact score. It puts too much pressure on the developer to try and identify these criteria that lead to very specific point increases or decreases, which is not at all what the developer should be focusing on.
Q: How do you find working with ZeniMax and Bethesda? It's quite a different set-up they've got there, very independent, and increasingly so.
Paul Wedgwood: What I love about ZeniMax and Bethesda, they have this very concentrated offering of videogames. So while the strategy of lots of publishers is to produce 50 or 60 games a year and have five or six of them be particularly high quality, for us it seemed that Bethesda focused all of their attention on one big thing, and then they move on to the next thing that they want to work on.
So the likelihood of our game being released in the same week as Halo 3 is much slimmer. And we don't have to fight with a marketing team to get their attention because they're also launching Call of Duty or something the following week. It can be frustrating for any developer to have a critical success and then not get the attention that you really need. ZeniMax really know how to do that, they take this stuff really seriously.
Their board of directors are Jerry Bruckheimer, Harry Sloan who's the chairman and CEO of MGM, Les Moonves who's the CEO of CBS Television, the biggest network in the States, Robert Trump, who is Donald Trump's richer brother, Earnest Del, probably the most powerful lawyer in Hollywood, and of course best of all Robert A Altman - who was married to Lynda Carter, the original Wonder Woman - is the chairman and CEO at ZeniMax, he's an amazing guy to work with, he's just so very, very focused.
When we first started talking to Vlatko Andonov, the president of Bethesda Softworks, who's a big huge character of a man, he just went on and on about the player experience, experience, experience, experience. That's what they're really focused on. When do you hear that walking through the corridors of a 3000-staff publisher? You're talking about attach rate, decay curve, player churn, franchise, SKU, product, all these hideous phrases that you just don't want to hear when you're creative.
Q: Do you think there's a future for multiplayer-only games as boxed products sold at retail - or are they all going to digital downloads, or free-to-play models?
Paul Wedgwood: On the PC, you can see publishers making a move towards free-to-play stuff, and developers. id Software have announced Quake Live, Battlefield is doing it with Heroes. But absolutely I think there's a future for it. It's just driven by market forces. If someone comes out with a particularly stunning multiplayer combat game that people think is worth more to them than the money that's in their pocket, they will buy it, absolutely. The question about advertising revenue is: will publishers sell a game at retail when they think they can generate more revenue by advertising and product placement?
If you look at television shows, they certainly generate some revenue when it goes to DVD, but it's nothing compared to what they make from syndication and advertising and everything else they do in the process. So there will certainly be publishers that will look at those business models and think to themselves, I can be pulling in a million dollars a day from advertising versus the uncertain world of retail. A more sure thing is that downloadable games, either purchased directly or promoted through advertising, will absolutely out-pace retail sales, and it's going to happen a lot quicker than people think.
Paul Wedgwood is studio director at Splash Damage. Interview by Oli Welsh.