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Free Speech

David Doak of Free Radical Design discusses next-gen development and the problem with publishers...

Free Radical Design has survived a console generation, and it still owns a best-selling franchise to prove it, even after falling in an out with multiple publishing partners.

Now well into the development of two next-generation titles, GamesIndustry.biz caught up with director David Doak at this years' Game City event in Nottingham, to talk about new projects, the importance of IP for independent developers, and why you can't make a meal if you haven't got any "f**king cutlery".


GamesIndustry.biz: How are your two next-generation projects coming along, and how are you finding working on new technology?

David Doak: We're starting to enjoy it now. Ourselves, and every mother's son in the games industry, underestimated how big a leap this generation was going to take. New products are going to be great and they're going to turn peoples' heads but it's not a revolution, it's an evolution. It's an incremental step.

Really, from a developers position in terms of re-engineering and re-tooling, it's as big a step as we've made since we all went 3D. All of the rendering and how everything is being done has been re-tooled from scratch. As an independent not using middleware engines, we've sunk a year and half to two years of effort into building this technology.

We have all this technology around us to make games, and then we all switch to new tools and new engines. I was saying to someone the other day, it's like going into a new house and thinking, "let's cook dinner. But hang on, we've got no f**king cutlery. And we need to make the pots and pans. Right, let's start making them." Everyone is asking us what dinner is going to taste like and we're too busy making the pots and pans.

Now, post-summer, there might be tools that we still want to refine, but it's like we can see the pipeline is all there, so we can now really shape the games.

Does the games industry move too fast for its own good when it comes to new technology?

It can feel like it's moving too fast. But it's an inevitable part of new technology. It's a commercial landscape so with first-party companies - Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo - they're always going to be competing with each other and trying to steal the march. And companies always want to sell new things, so it's always going to be a big part of it.

You can see that the flow of product coming through to retail has stumbled with the transition. Hats off to someone like Ubisoft for the games it has done on 360, because its profile on 360 is amazing compared to what it was on last-gen stuff. Even if we weren't working with them and you asked me to point out a publisher that has done very well on the 360, it's Ubisoft. Microsoft has admitted itself that there has been hardly any first-party software this year after they busted a gut to get games out for launch.

How are relationships going with you publishing partners, Ubisoft and LucasArts?

In terms of the two partners that we're working with, I hope we've got the best two partners we've worked with so far. Ubisoft has a really great passion for what it's doing, and real passion for the quality and the product as well, which isn't often seen. Also, it has got a good track record for doing original games IP.

With LucasArts, it's just been a fantastic opportunity to be working with a company which has such a long heritage, and with its internal development it's also trying to really push the envelope with some exciting stuff inside its technologies.

You're working on Haze, which is a first-person shooter. What can you do with next-generation technology that you haven't been able to do in the past?

Probably one of the most significant things you'll see in Haze is what we're doing with the run-time rendering. A lot of the game is about perception - how the world is presented to you, what you see and how truthful that is. We do mess around with perception and what the player is seeing. And that's something we couldn't do before, there's no way we could have done the processing. Obviously, the fidelity and complexity of the environments has increased over what we've been able to do before.

Is there any new concepts that you can introduce that haven't been touched upon before? How do you differentiate Haze from other first-person shooters that are in development?

It's got some very obvious differentiations in the things that are going on with different characters. We have things that are linked into the narrative which also directly affect the gameplay on a moment to moment basis. But the majority of that is under wraps for the moment.

I'm assuming there's going to be online, multiplayer capabilities, and Haze is in development for the PS3 as well as the Xbox 360. What's your take on the online PS3 service?

I think Sony will get it sorted out because it absolutely must get it sorted out. It was okay to concede the goal to Microsoft with Live on last-gen, because Sony was in a stronger position. But to do that again would be very damaging. I think what we saw with last-gen was that everyone had wanted to go online and there has always been this will to put games online. Infrastructure was always the first problem, but once the infrastructure got sorted out developers suddenly realised that they needed things like lobbies and a whole bunch more interface features. We saw over the course of Live on Xbox a very rapid and strong evolution of that into a format that people have now agreed is how it should be done. Microsoft's clever insight there was to acknowledge what needed doing and it dealt with it.

There's a clear model that works, and I think that Sony has to follow that. How it deals with the revenue streams and pricing for it is going to be down to them. There's a thing there where there might be a deep inconsistency in there goals because it's saying it wants the service to be free and to be good, but who's going to do it?

But Sony will get it sorted out because it has to. It has a lot of resources out there that it'll bring to bare on it. Whether it works as a free-form thing as it did on PS2, we'll have to see. If you wanted to play PS2 online you could, but it had broken Nintendo's rule of console gaming - it should be plug-in and play. When something isn't plug-in and play, people switch off.

You've worked with different publishers in the past - EA, Eidos, Codemasters - and now you're working with Ubisoft and LucasArts. Is it a conscious decision to work with new publishers' every time you create new IP?

That was never the intention. The intention was to find a good fit and to stick with it. But part of keeping relationships honest is that they have to know you may go elsewhere, otherwise there's possibility for exploitation in the relationship.

I think our match with Eidos was actually quite good looking back on it, but we were maybe a little too youthful and naive, or idealistic. We were looking for more out of it. But when we split with Eidos it was having a troubled time and Sports Interactive threw in the towel at a similar time. In retrospect it might have been better to stay with them.

Working with EA, and talking to (Oddworld Inhabitants president) Lorne Lanning recently, it sounds like we shared exactly the same experience with EA. We were both company's that were doing really great stuff and it was developer-owned IP, and in both cases we were approached by EA who saw it as something they could have.

It saw the games as previously successful, it became something that EA was doing where they looked at it and tried to fit it into it mould. And because it didn't fit they didn't know what to do with it. It was a mismatch and was not great for the product. If you look at TimeSplitters: Future Perfect and Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath, they were both games that were healthy, fun takes on the first-person shooter, and if you look in the FPS market it's mostly military games. And they should have sold two million more units than they did.

Do you think that was a basic marketing problem - the majority of FPS games are po-faced military sims striving for realism - TimeSplitters is about killing flaming monkeys...

You can market it but you need to realise that the audience is more sophisticated than your prejudices might be about them. That's the horrible curse of the big title game industry. We were also in a position with EA where they were going to market with TimeSplitters and GoldenEye: Rogue Agent, and it could spend its money on Bond or Future Perfect. EA knew which one it had the better return on because it had a formula.

Although Haze is co-owned by Ubisoft, the majority of titles you work on are creator-owned IP. How important to an independent developer is it to retain your own intellectual property?

If we hadn't owned our own IP we would have gone out of business, because there have been times when big publishers come along and you're midway in the development of something and development is often troubled. If a property isn't owned by the developer or the developer doesn't have a stake in the ownership, one option [for a publisher] is to get someone else to finish it off. And that just destroys a company. Maybe at some stage in a development there's a struggle because you're doing something new - particularly when you're coupling new technology with the development - where's the certitude there?

Or there could simply be a case where, and it still continues in the industry, there's a terribly hypocrisy with publishers where they compare internal and external development. Internal development is always nearly always more expensive, otherwise they wouldn't be sourcing external development. But internal development expenses and costs are often concealed when people are moved around or it's an overhead that publishers have already.

One of the strengths of external development is that for independent studios, we have a company we built, we know everyone who works there, we have a personal pride and personal investment in what we're doing. Obviously there's a financial thing where we want the company to be a success and to make money, but at Free Radical we've spent seven years getting to where we are now and we're proud of that. We never want to release a shit game because I would expect people would say, "what happened there, you've sold out" What you see with developers that get caught up in something like licenses is that publishers come along and for commercial reasons say, "drop the quality bar because we need to get it out." The industry needs to stop working like that because it's just going to burn people out.

How come Free Radical Hasn't been bought by one of the big publishers? Do you get publishers knocking on the door with buckets of cash?

I don't think it's ever anything we've actively courted because we're happy doing what we're doing. I can see the benefits of it because of the security. Don't ever doubt the insecure existence you can sometimes have as an independent developer. If you're carrying 130-odd staff that's a lot of people and you need to pay them properly because there's a skill shortage.

It's a big running cost. For instance, after Future Perfect and Second Sight we were developing our current technology and we were self-funding for quite a long time. At the same time you're doing that everyone is interested in your work and publishers are talking and asking what you'll be doing in three months' time. And when they do come back they don't want to pay for the time and effort you've put in over those months.

I was talking to some people from Rare the other night and it seems to me that they might go on to make some pretty good games now. They've gotten through the transitional phase. They've taken a lot of stick. I'm sure that it makes the people that work there really grind their teeth. A lot of the people that work there are not the one's from back in the Donkey Kong days, a lot of people have been through the doors since then.

That's like saying Free Radical are the guys that made Golden Eye - it was a long time ago. You must get sick of being asked about Golden Eye

I have tremendous fondness for it. The one thing that strikes me from that team of people, particularly in the later stages of the that game, is that we were phenomenally productive. Now that I'm more involved in the management and running the company, we're always looking to see how people can enjoy what they're doing and see the results of their effort going into the game, staying in the game and working well.

To be honest, with all the next-gen technology that is one of the biggest frustrations for people - everything is so much more complicated and you feel one step removed from the final thing that it becomes difficult to make changes on the fly, and evolve and tune things. Looking back on Golden Eye we had a team of about eight people and there's a fantastic network of contacts between those people - everyone knows what everyone else is doing at the same time. It's almost like an organic thing working together. And then you move to fifty people and they can't all sit together, so suddenly it begins to break down and you need other ways to communicate. I think that's one of the biggest challenges for us.

You seem to have always been focused on big games - one title every year and a half, with bigger teams and bigger costs. What's you take on smaller, downloadable titles for Xbox Live Arcade or the PS3 equivalent - is that something Free Radical would be interested in doing?

It's something that we'd really like to do. It's the kind of thing that would help people's careers in learning to go through a development cycle. To go on a three-year march to develop big games, people only see parts of that development once. All the salient things that I've learnt about development have come from closing the product and looking back on it and seeing what went wrong and what went right. Also, you can do a game with a smaller team and it's about pushing people to the fore and letting them grow.

On the flip side, I have deep suspicions about the economic side of it.

Oh really? Some developers have indicated that Arcade titles are a nice little business model...

I wonder. We've had people internally talk about Xbox Live and say, "look at Geometry Wars, we could be making lots of money". But what about the other games? When we've looked into it our suspicions have been that it's maybe not as lucrative as it appears to be.

But on the other hand, making the big blockbuster games is not as lucrative as it used to be because the break-even point has moved massively, and with the step to next-gen it's moved even further. You need to have massive staffing levels, you need to be able to carry those staff over to the next project, you need to be planning your project before the next one is finished.

We're currently concentrating on the two projects we have but we need to be thinking about what comes next after these are done - and who are the people you want working on your next project? Well ideally, it's the best people you have. But who are the safest hands to have on a project when it's being finished off? That's your best people as well.

David Doak is director of Free Radical Design. Interview by Matt Martin.

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Matt Martin

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Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.

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