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Black Rock Studios' Tony Beckwith

The general manager talks about working within Disney, why studios have been acquired, and developing for the racing genre

Award-winning racing studio Climax Racing was acquired and made an internal studio by Disney Interactive Studios in 2006. The developer, renamed Black Rock Studios, has recently begun gearing up for the release of its quad-bike racer, Pure, due for release on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

Here, Tony Beckwith, Climax Racing's co-founder and now general manager of Black Rock Studios, talks with about working within Disney, the benefits of being bought by a publisher, and developing for the racing genre. What are the biggest challenges you're facing with making Pure a success? Does MotorStorm 2 worry you?
Tony Beckwith

Not really. There are attributes that set the games apart. We're both arcade and we're both off-road but that's really where the similarity ends.

The big hurdle for us has been the Disney angle. When we were acquired by Disney I had friends phoning me up asking "are you going to be making Mickey Mouse kart games?" You can just see looking at user comments online now, on videos for Pure, saying "oh my God that's amazing." But people are surprised that it's coming out under the Disney label.

The key message that we want to drive home is Disney did High School Musical and the Hannah Montana stuff, but this is pushing the Disney brand further. Pirates of the Caribbean is a good example. When the first movie came out the Disney logo was small and they weren't too sure if this fit with the brand, but now it's Disney loud and proud. I think we've got a similar thing coming here with Pure. Just reading those user reactions, people say: "This game's from Disney?" And I think in a year or so people will say "Yeah, Disney do games like this". During the presentation of Pure, it was mentioned that being a part of Disney has freed you from 'real commercial pressures'. Is being an independent that hard now?
Tony Beckwith

Last year was the year of the racing developer being acquired. You had us, Evolution bought by Sony and Bizarre Creations being bought by Activision. Three big UK racing game developers all being acquired. I think to compete now there's a really high financial bar and only publishers have the muscle to do that. That's why I think a lot of independents are coming into the stable of a publisher.

I think back to four years ago, we had five teams, running five different games for five different publishers. It was a bit all over the place. First thing we did with Disney, obviously the financial support was amazing, was buckle down to two teams. The other thing was platform focus as well, so we only do PS3 and Xbox 360 here. I don't think we would have done those things as an independent, I think we would have four teams and six SKU's on each product. You showed the Xbox 360 version of the title, how is development going on PS3? Are there any noticeable differences between the two?
Tony Beckwith

It's comparable to the 360, honest to God, it's been fine. We used to work with Sony America. We worked with them for about four or five years, because we did the Offroad Fury franchise with them and so they got us a development kit really early, so close ties with Sony helped there. Have you got any plans for downloadable content?
Tony Beckwith

It's something that's been discussed, but it's probably never going to happen if I'm honest. If we're going to do it we want to do something special in that area, because everyone is jumping on the downloadable content wagon. How did being acquired by Disney work? We're you actively looking for a buyer?
Tony Beckwith

Disney contacted Climax, at the same time as a couple other publishers. I think 2006 seemed to be the year of publishers snapping up developers. It was surprising because any of the other publishers that approached Climax were the usual suspects. Disney was a bit out on left field for us, but once we engaged them to find out why, it made lots of sense. What is the relationship like between Black Rock and Disney?
Tony Beckwith

Disney has been really supportive.

When we worked for THQ or Sony America we hardly knew the marketing people and I think that's another disadvantage of being independent - you're much further away from the publisher.

Being an internal part of the publisher, we know the names and faces. So you're happy with how things are going and what you're working on?
Tony Beckwith

Yes, it was our idea, they didn't force it on us. They said right from the start 'we're acquiring talent here' and you acquire talent for a reason, because you trust it. How much do you interact with the other studios in Disney Interactive?
Tony Beckwith

There's more to it than that...we have access to Pixar university, you know EA can't do that, my guys have been out on trips and training with Disney's Imagineers - Imagineers are the guys who create all the theme park rides. Disney feature animation, obviously there's Pixar but then there's Disney feature animation's as well.

So as well as having sister videogames studios we have sister divisions that are very very creative divisions in spaces that are outside of videogames, but there's lots that we can learn from them. Why is Imagineering such an amazing thing for this studio? Well, what are theme park rides? They're one minute experiences. What's a racing game? They're all sort of one minute exhilarating experiences.

There's loads of things we can talk to them about, like pace. They're clever guys and they've been doing this for years and years, and we're a pretty new industry, a pretty young industry, and there's heaps we can learn. How do you feel about the racing genre at the moment?
Tony Beckwith

I think racing needs some real breakout innovation. Racing games have a very generic formula. I think we did some interesting stuff with Pure, some good innovations, but I think I think there could be some amazing innovations to come and I'm hoping that we'll be the studio that does that.

Far-flung future; I think there's big things along the line. I remember when games went from 2D to 3D, suddenly your toolset changed radically that enabled you to do really interesting things, and I think there's a similar jump from 3D to online.

To make a movie comparison, in videogames we're just entering the talkies phase, while online we're still Charlie Chaplin. As Climax Racing you were one of the first in the games industry to set up in Brighton and now it's home to many developers. Why did you move down?
Tony Beckwith

You look at the difference between Brighton and most places and it's just a really nice place to live. In 1999 there were lots and lots of web companies, electronic media types, it was a little bit of a mini-Silicon Valley.

I just thought Brighton would work really well and it has done. When we moved here there was us, Wide Games and Computer Artworks. I did a headcount and I recon there's about 600 people working in games in Brighton now. I think there's a huge amount more growth for the Brighton region in the videogame industry, especially with people like Second Life coming down here. What appeals to developers about Brighton?
Tony Beckwith

There was already an existing electronic community before games came down here. It's also young, artistic, bohemian and cultured here in Brighton.

Tony Beckwith is the general manager of Black Rock Studio. Interview by James Lee.

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