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Free Thinking

FreeStyle Games on why videogames can't exist within there own little world.

FreeStyle Games released its first title this year, the PSP and PS2 title B-Boy. A hip-hop dance game, the title managed to genuinely and creatively represent a culture that has previously been mined by the games industry for its violent associations and thumping soundtracks.

Here, commercial director of FreeStyle Games, Chris Lee, explains the thinking behind creating B-Boy, why developers should be more respectful of the cultures that influence them, and why it's important to measure your products not just against other games, but the rest of the entertainment media as a whole. You've recently released B-Boy - are you pleased with the results and how does it feel to see it in consumers' hands?

Chris Lee: It's a good feeling and we're really pleased with it. It was a long project, which we knew from the beginning. It was challenging technically and from a game designing perspective. But it's nice to see it out there. We're receiving good reviews and what was really important for us was that we received good feedback from the community of people that we were trying to represent.

It's a very genuine game that comes across as authentic to the culture it emulates - that must have been something you were very conscious of achieving with the end result...

It was vitally important. We really wanted to engage with the community and we wanted to get real hip-hop artists, graffiti artists and b-boys in the production of the game. That was the only way that we could produce something credible. We were really concerned and so were a lot of the people we collaborated with. Too many games look at a culture and think it's a good opportunity to exploit. There's no investment whatsoever to genuinely understand it or what it's about.

We just don't believe that's what entertainment is about, and that's not what FreeStyle are about either. We spent a huge amount of time getting into the belly of the culture of hip-hop and understanding breakdancing. And we worked with some awesome people, some great characters and good consultants who really helped make the project happen. Delivering the game in an authentic way was absolutely critical in making B-Boy an interesting product.

There's a problem with games companies seeing something happening within popular culture, latching onto it and not giving anything back in return. It's something similar to what happened with extreme sports a while back - some games did the culture justice and were credible, others shamelessly stole from it...

One thing that FreeStyle is very aware of, and one of the real reasons why FreeStyle exists, is we understand as an industry that we're competing and should be judged against every other form of entertainment media. Whether it's film, music of TV, we have to stand up next to those and we have to be as credible and authentic and innovative and creative as they are.

There's no longer any justification for a games company or a franchise to just steal influences from other media and create what they believe is decent game. You really have to respect all of the other entertainment disciplines and create content that's complimentary and helps move entertainment forward. One thing we've seen with B-Boy is that it's now being used in the breaking culture, with some of the virtual rounds in the game used in real-life. We're thrilled that it's been adopted so much by the people that love what we're trying to represent.

Why choose a dancing game for FreeStyle's first title? Why not go for the big guns and fast cars we see all over the charts?

There are a couple of answers to that, and one has to do with the reason why FreeStyle was started in the first place. There were three fundamental things that we believed weren't really happening how we thought they should in the industry. The first was just the basic development process. The way in which games were being made three or five years ago wasn't an efficient process. And with many development studios it still isn't.

We also still believe now, and it was certainly prevalent some years back, that the industry was making the wrong games. I'm not sure our audience and our consumers really have got 20 - 25 hours to sit in front of a product and repeatedly try over and over again to get to the end. I'm not sure that's where games need to be.

And finally we wanted the whole process to be fun. We wanted to enjoy the process ourselves and for our team. That all worked well when we considered working on something like B-Boy - we attended events, we recruited people that were crazy about hip-hop music and it just started to gel really well that actually this was going to be a consumable product in terms of being able to pick it up for 15 minutes, battle mates, and then walk away from it.

And also at the time Sony approached us and said it was looking for original IP on the PSP, and it needed to have four-player WiFi play and be appealing to those that want entertainment on demand. That's really where it all came together and became the perfect product for us to start with.

Was it also a conscious decision for FreeStyle to stay way from violent games in general?

Yes, I think it was. It's always easy in hindsight to say these things. I don't think we have any specific axe to grind or issues with those types of games, but there's a culture within the company that we're very proud of that involves working on products we can relate to. Delivering games that are almost synonymous with the way a lot of the guys who work here live their lives. I think it's unreasonable to expect someone to come to work in the videogames industry and expect them to work on a product that they have absolutely no emotional connection to whatsoever. And I'm not sure of how many people are out there that we could recruit with experience of shooting and killing people.

It's not something where we sat down from day one and said, "we're not doing guns and we're not doing gore," but I feel very happy with the culture that we've created based on the type of products that we genuinely want to deliver.

B-Boy, as a game, reflects pop culture. Is this an area that FreeStyle wants to continue working - within contemporary settings and popular culture?

Yes, I think that's a really accurate representation of what FreeStyle's actually about. We look for influences in what people enjoy doing in the real world and that comes back to the way in which I believe people consume entertainment. Unfortunately, I haven't had three or four hours of free time in the past couple of years to sit down in front of a videogame. But I have consumed games everyday for half an hour. And I think that I'm fairly stereotypical in that respect. We're currently working on some new IP that should take us further into what we believe games should be about.

What are your plans for next-gen machines? If you're creating popular culture-influenced titles, do you believe any particular piece of hardware is more suited to that market?

From the research we've done we're hoping all the platforms are going to offer different opportunities. It's game driven rather than platform driven. We're working actively to explore what we can do with each next-gen platform. We're excited by gesture-based controls - what the Wii controller is providing and the tilt mechanism on PS3. That's the kind of innovation that sits well with FreeStyle in terms of trying to deliver an experience. The more engaging, interactive and laugh-out-loud and enjoyable that experience is, it's good for everybody.

What do you think to the downloadable games offerings through Xbox 360 and PS3? Is that something that FreeStyle is interested in working on?

We're very, very interested in that. We've got some IP that we're actually pushing in that direction at the moment. I think it's a great initiative and Sony's initiative in that area is going to come on really strong. From what we understand it's going to be really great.

I think the model of direct downloads really helps developers and when publishers embrace it it's going to get even better. It's great to be able to get closer to the consumer and really understand the micro payments they are making in your world - what episodic content they find the most attractive, where they're spending the most time. Anything that can bring us closer to knowing what the consumer is playing and interested in is a good thing. And as a development studio, if we can get products out there quicker and get gamers playing them quicker and start iterating based on consumer feedback so our future episodes and downloadable content are even more in tune to those needs, then I'm all for it.

From a team's perspective, everybody wants to be working on a product that is going to be in the market place as soon as possible. We don't want the team to be sat here for four or five years working on something they can't talk about outside of work and be proud about.

Can you say how many different projects you're working on?

What we can say is that we're certainly excited by PlayStation 3 EDI. We would very much expect to be doing something quite soon on that.

We're still enjoying the current generation and I think that everyone understands that as an industry we moved away from the original PlayStation too quickly. There's a massive installed base on PlayStation 2 and room to innovate and create on the format - whether that's with new franchises or current franchises - there's still going to be a lot of consumer demand for the PlayStation 2. We've still got a current generation team that are working on a great product. And then we're very excited about next-gen and we hope to be announcing stuff in the first half of next year.

So you're confident you can achieve all of this with a relatively small development team. Is the perception that next-gen development takes a massive team and millions of pounds a wrong one?

There are a lot of people throwing these big numbers around and it happened at the beginning of the PlayStation 2's lifecyle too. Even at the beginning of the Dreamcast era I remember being in a presentation for Shenmue and we were told there was 130 people working on that title. I don't think it happened again on a Dreamcast product.

I actually think that for some products, yes, you're going to need a really big team. But I also think that there's a danger of having lots of people and just retrofitting the volume of people you've got on to a project. There are some company's approaching it that way because they know no different. And then there are others who are approaching next-gen development in the same way that FreeStyle is. Which is to ask what do we need to get the job done if we're really efficient and nail our design and production plans early? How many people do we genuinely need to deliver?

Independents are going to be an exciting group to watch in terms of what it really takes to deliver a next-gen product. I don't see any reason why a really talented group of people who are ultra-focused with a very efficient tool chain couldn't deliver a triple-A product with a team of 30 people. There's nothing in the world to suggest that's not possible.

Do you think independent developers are going to teach the big companies a thing or two in the coming years?

I certainly hope so and I would expect that to be the case. I hope we teach based around two things: The fact that you can innovate and you can really deliver something that's truly exciting. That's something the industry is craving for. It's not necessarily craving for more polygons and better physics and prettier visuals. All that is going to come, but it's going to be a secondary part of the next-generation experience.

The real next-gen experience is about new forms of fun and independent studios are better placed creatively to deliver on that. And I think we'll do it with less people and we'll have a hell of a lot of fun doing it at the same time. I'm not sure you could say that for a lot of the bigger teams. If you walk into a team of 120 people and you actually only know a handful because you don't know the names of half of them it can be a little bit soul destroying.

Chris Lee is commercial director of FreeStyle Games. Interview by Matt Martin.

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Matt Martin avatar
Matt Martin: 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.