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Growth and Success

<b>Develop:</b> Jamie MacDonald and Chris Deering on commercial opportunities

From whichever angle you approach it, SCEE's London Studio is impressively successful. Whether it's radically new IP in the form of EyeToy or SingStar, an uncommonly busy release schedule or the kind of yearly profitability that will buy you a substantial palm-lined island on the Pacific, the developer is riding rather high.

How did it get there?

Its vice president of development, Jamie MacDonald, can tell you - which is exactly what he did when he shared his Develop conference session with SCEE's former president Chris Deering (now chairman of Codemasters) to highlight what the two men believe are the key ingredients for success and growth of any studio.

"My very clear and simple directive to the London Studio was, 'We want to be the best'," MacDonald begins, highlighting the need to set an obvious objective as the first in his five-point plan.

This is followed by the importance of maintaining a high professional level, and that means everything from providing your staff with adequate working conditions and equipment, to ensuring the support infrastructure - IT services, the HR processes, etc - are in place.

Included in this is also the issue of time keeping, a bugbear for MacDonald. "There was a time when some development studios thought you could only make great games if you turned up at two o'clock and worked until four o'clock in the morning. I don't believe that. One of my proudest achievements is that at London Studios we've done well by keeping normal business hours."

Sure, crunch periods haven't been eradicated but the studio's focus on ensuring a decent work/life balance for its staff, MacDonald insists, remains at the forefront of its philosophy. It's also why talent, when found, is always rewarded. Growing talent internally is vital, he argues, not just for the individuals concerned but also for the rest of the organisation so that colleagues get a sense that ability is appreciated and that careers can grow within the company.

Tied somewhat to this, and the VP's fourth point, is the notion that creativity should be harnessed within structural boundaries. "The idea of a blank sheet of paper I think horrifies most creative people," MacDonald believes, stating that it becomes far easier to be imaginative when parameters within which people can work are in place. "Too many people in the computer games industry think that creativity is some magical, mythical thing that no one can really touch - frankly, I think that's bollocks. It can be encouraged and nurtured and it's like anything else."

Last but not least is the need to develop a workplace culture, which shouldn't mean suffocating everyone with what MacDonald terms "a corporate mono-culture", but rather allowing individual teams to construct diverse and distinct cultures within the organisation. The one exception to the rule is the company-wide necessity to celebrate success. "That means you can start with small successes but if you celebrate success you encourage the culture of success which I think breeds success in itself and becomes a virtuous circle."

Defining success is another matter, Chris Deering points out, though he does concede that as a business, you have to eventually boil it down to profit. But looking at our industry, it's clear the profit to turnover ration varies widely form one publisher to the next.

"At some point you have to really say, 'How fast do I have to spin the wheel to get some juice out?' And if you really think about that it can affect how you make decisions on how to steer the company going forward and what you choose to focus on. So define success before you start figuring out a strategy for success."

On the basis of his definition above, Deering quickly highlights London Studio, Nintendo, Vivendi and Konami as the current industry high achievers. But knowing who is leading the pack won't tell you what game to make next.

Or what sku to focus on.

"Think about these things because skus are what killed the mobile phone business, for example. They cost money, they take time, they cause you to take compromises in the lead sku because you're having to deal with other versions and it is an issue. And I don't think people spend enough time on that," he warns.

The smartest studio heads will never stop thinking laterally, says Deering. "You should be thinking about the end consumer and how the use of their time is changing - how they're listening to their music, how they're watching TV, how they're socialising, etc. What are some of the things that you can sneak in with creativity and be relevant regardless of the platform and whether that's online or offline? What's going to be your little angle of difference, what's going to get you noticed? 'What am I good at and what should I get better at? And if I'm going to rise in the league of what I'm good at, is it a league worth rising in?'"

Basic soul searching questions, granted, but Deering believes crucial because there are some big trends coming this way - and anyone who's not asking those questions will miss the boat. The level of broadband adaptation may be causing online console gaming to grow - and opportunities to monetise this area clearly exist - but it's the social networking evident in things like MySpace, YouTube and Wikipedia, and particularly the creative openings for gaming professionals to enhance these other industries, that has caught his attention.

"Gaming can certainly take advantage of this phenomenon - and is already - but consumer involvement and user-generated content and actively uploading is something that's happening in the mobile world and hasn't been perhaps thought enough about in the traditionally defined game world.

"There's something going on out there that we have to realise is not limited to what we used to define as an industry. The skills, the creativity, the dynamics involved in writing games is not present in these other spaces so it's really a great opportunity for heads of companies to think about how they can add value."

It may not sound like much - but even London Studio had to start somewhere.