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Deviation Games: "PlayStation has a culture where it's fearless to create"

The Call of Duty veterans and Sony's Hermen Hulst discusses the new studio and their partnership

Regular readers to will know this already, but there's a trend in games of AAA development veterans setting up their own studios.

It's not a new thing, but what is different this year is that a fair few of them have decided to sign with one particular company: PlayStation.

In March, Sony invested in Haven Entertainment Studios, which was set up by Assassin's Creed veteran Jade Raymond in Montreal, Canada. Next, in April, PlayStation signed a AAA multiplayer game from Firewalk Studios, another new team formed by ex-Destiny veterans.

And just last week, the company revealed its partnership with Deviation Games on another new IP. Deviation is a new team led by Call of Duty: Black Ops leaders Dave Anthony and Jason Blundell.

"I have been enjoying having seasoned talent get together with new partners to start a fresh outfit, without the boundaries to unleashing that creativity"

Hermen Hulst, PlayStation Worldwide Studios

"When Jason and I set out on this journey, there was only one thing we were thinking about, and it's quality," says Anthony. "We've been friends for more years than we can count. This has been our dream, since we were very young, to set up a studio together. We've been very lucky to work on some huge franchises. But when you've been working on a long-established IP, you have to work within very tight constraints. For understandable reasons. We decided to deviate from this, which is why it's Deviation Games.

"If we set up a studio with a fundamental, foundational principle that's all about quality, that changes who you look at for partners. You have to look for a partner with a track record that is absolutely undeniable in terms of a consistent string of quality hits. I don't have to tell you about Sony's track record. It's obvious. The number of awards they win. It's hit after hit after hit.

"The funny thing was, it was actually a pretty short list. And Sony made it easy for us. Now we're part of the process of working with them and we can see how they operate. What they do is promote a culture and an environment where it's fearless to create. And the way they do that is with mutual transparency with the teams.

"It's absolutely mind-blowing. For us, we have never been in a situation like this before, where we've got everything we could possibly ask for. From day one of the studio we have complete financial security for years and years to come. Now, with this partnership with Sony, we can be ourselves. And not only that, when we bring people into the studio, we can promise them that this is our culture. And we can fearlessly create and innovate and be groundbreaking."

Blundell adds: "Just to make Hermen [Hulst, head of PlayStation Worldwide Studios] blush a bit more. Sony's background, its facilities, the things that it opens up to us has been amazing. I don't want to give away the secret sauce, but Sony has the ability to speak to game developers in a way that we're used to talking. That's really where the magic happens. Not only do we have all these facilities, and this history of game development at Sony, but also they can speak in the way that we speak. And they know how to deal with imagination and how to embrace risk and how to manage it."

Deviation Games and PlayStation announced their partnership at Summer Games Fest Kickoff Live

Hulst says it's vital to create a healthy development environment in order to deliver the sort-of consistent quality PlayStation has become known for.

"It's about the trust, and not squeezing them into unworkable deadlines, or making them do trailers when they're not ready," he tells us.

"When you've been working on a long-established IP, you have to work within very tight constraints. For understandable reasons. We decided to deviate from this"

Dave Anthony, Deviation Games

"Me and my leadership team, we've all been in the trenches. I've worked on design documents. I've made games, I've designed games, I've spent hours and hours with narrative directors..."

"The other part, I would say, is that we do care about people a lot. I see the values of 'leaving your ego at the door', which these guys have. Bringing people together and really enabling them to do their best work. That's very much aligned with how I view a healthy development environment for best, creative, innovative work."

Hulst says the trend of experienced developers coming together to do something completely new is one that he's pleased to see.

"I have been enjoying having seasoned talent get together with new partners to start a fresh outfit, without the boundaries to unleashing that creativity. I am for finding the best way for creatives to do the best work of their careers. What Jason and Dave want to do requires a commitment to let them try things and fail at things.

"What I offer is all the central services that have facilitated our studios... Guerrilla Games, Naughty Dog, Santa Monica, all of that is available to them. We have incredible producers that are invited by Dave and Jason to give the harshest possible feedback. And then they ask us to give them more. It's been completely open and transparent. It's almost like we've been given a keycard to the building, although there isn't a building because they're working virtually at the moment."

One question frequently asked of Sony is whether it plans to open its wallet and pick up some studios, particularly considering the number of acquisitions happening in the market today. So could these new teams one day become internal PlayStation outfits? Hulst says he isn't thinking about that.

"We're working together with them as independents," he says. "And that's the structure that we've set up."

Anthony adds: "We are focused on one thing right now: making the highest quality game possible. We are a fully independent studio, and we are independently backed and financed. Jason and I are very, very clear when we set up the studio, we don't want to have to worry about money. And we don't have to now. So we're all focused on the quality of the game, and that's the only thing we're thinking about."

Dave Anthony and Jason Blundell worked on mutliple Call of Duty games together, most notably the Black Ops series

This financial security can be seen in the team size. Deviation Games already boasts more than 100 employees (or deviators, as the founders prefer to call them), and is still expanding. And most of this recruitment has been happening during lockdowns caused by COVID-19.

"It's been fascinating actually," Anthony explains. "We've learned so much that we wouldn't have done, honestly, without COVID. We were always very insular with our teams in terms of everybody has to be local, we wouldn't have dreamed of having anyone in a leadership position working remotely. That would have been unthinkable 18 months ago.

"Even in situations with tighter restrictions, you always start by dreaming as wide as you want. Now we don't have to narrow it into the restrictions we've had in the past"

Jason Blundell, Deviation Games

"Sure, there were some challenges of building the studio in that environment. But there was also great learning. We are now well over 100 people. And it's the greatest talent density in a team that I've ever seen. And we've managed to do that within the COVID environment."

Blundell continues: "I was concerned on the production sense. We could go into hours of conversation on what going remote did and didn't do in the working environment. But I saw a great focus. When we talk about hiring and building the team, it allowed us to have a lazer focus on what we're going after and what we thought was important. It's almost like the troubles of the physical world were put aside, and it became 'this is what we're going after, and this is what's important for us'. We could be focused on whether this fits our requirement. Whenever we've added a person to the team, we are increasingly more than just a unit. It's greater than the sum of its parts. And that's a product of what was happening."

One of the things the duo talked about earlier in our interview -- and on stage during the Kickoff Live event last week -- was the ability to break free of the constraints imposed by working on something like Call of Duty. But going from having to paint a particular type of picture to being given a blank canvas, while exciting, most also be quite daunting.

"There will be some form of restrictions," Blundell says. "And if there wasn't, actually, that would be a bad thing as well.

"The way we've always looked at it... you dream and you imagine without boundaries. Without platforms. Without anything. Games at their best touch you, make you feel something and connect you with others. And those ideas should be thought about without any other limitations. You want to be able to see the idea in your mind. Once you've got that, then it's about the project management and unlocking the talent and potential to go further.

"Constraints and restrictions are a healthy and normal part of that. But even when we've been in previous situations with tighter restrictions, you always start by dreaming as wide as you want. It's just now when we come to narrowing it in, we don't have to narrow it into the restrictions we've had in the past. You always go as far as your imagination can go to look for that fun, for that something special."

Anthony adds: "We know how to meet deadlines and do milestones, and we pride ourselves on being able to do that. But there is a difference when those restrictions are imposed from elsewhere, and not from within. We've never considered in a million years making a game without restrictions. The difference this time is that we're creating the restrictions ourselves. That is just so creatively empowering, that it's hard to describe."

Anthony goes on to add that the company wants to challenge assumptions on what people want from their games, and for the 'deviators' to feel like they can take their time and be fearless. One of the core values of the company is to 'take the scenic route'.

"It's all about culture and how you think about problems, and that is what excites Jason and I the most. We have the opportunity to define that culture and that process. Already, I can tell you that we're reaping the benefits of that."

Deviation Games already has over 100 employees

Blundell adds: "If you study art, they teach you the rules. And then when you get to the higher level, they say they taught you the rules so you know how to break them. That's where the pantheon of creativity comes from. Dave and I are blessed to have such fortunate careers, and we know those rules, which gives us the ability to break them.

"If you ever learn a musical instrument... when you first start playing the guitar, you're focused on playing that instrument. But once you've been playing for many years, that's when you start playing the music. That's where Dave and I are at in our careers. That's what we're looking for from our deviators. We're looking to play the music."

We will have to wait a while before we see the fruits of this partnership. Just as we will for Haven and Firewalk. But with three new AAA development teams making new IP for PlayStation, all announced in the last three months, should we brace ourselves for more?

"I am always on the look out for the best talent," Hulst concludes.

"We are growing as PlayStation Studios quite rapidly. But teams like this need to come together. We're actively in conversations. We have a very wide network of veterans and young people. I talk to Shuhei Yoshida a lot about the talent coming up in the indie world. And it's really across all sorts of genres and all sizes and geographical locations that we look. In this instance, we stumbled upon a couple of English blokes in fancy LA. Which is great.

"But yeah, I would say you see a pattern. And I would be the last to deny that there's some intention behind that. They're all best in class talent in what they've made before. They're all fresh and new. And we can jointly innovate, focus on quality and try new things."

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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