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Ian Baverstock - Part Two

The Kuju boss on the effects of the maturing videogames business, rebranding studios, and how Tiga is faring with CEO Richard Wilson

Following part one of the interview with Ian Baverstock, here the Kuju boss explains how the industry has matured, the benefits of rebranding studios, and he gives his evaluation of the progress of developer body Tiga under CEO Richard Wilson. Do you think original IP is more exciting than working on licenses or franchises?
Ian Baverstock

I think the people making the games often think it's more exciting, which is obviously a very important part of it. From a business point of view there are swings and roundabouts. If you've got a big license, or you're working on somebody else's big license, then you're reasonably guaranteed the product's going to be successful and get lots of marketing support, and so on.

With original IP it's harder to make that kind of thing to stick, so it depends on which aspect of the business you're talking about.

I think what we've increasingly tried to do in Kuju studios is make it clear to the staff that these are the type of games this studio makes - and because the industry is maturing, if you want to make great games, you have to make them in a space that you know very well, and you're passionate about, and all the rest of it.

I think the days of developers randomly doing this type of game, and then that type of game, then another type of game... you're almost certainly getting people who don't want to make one of those types of games in the team. It's better to be completely clear - if you don't like this kind of game, it doesn't mean to say you're not a good employee or person, but you shouldn't be in this studio. Is that part of the rebranding exercise you've undertaken in the past year or so with the various studios - ingraining an identity?
Ian Baverstock

Absolutely - we started off with it as much as anything as a straight market positioning tool. I believe that publishers want developers who are experts in a field, they don't want second best. So we needed to tell them what we do. It was that simple business logic.

But the great win, which we didn't originally anticipate, is that the staff are now saying they want to work in a specific studio because they know what it does, and it's what they want to do. And also the ones who don't want to work on that stuff can move on to do something else - you don't necessarily want them in your studio, however good they are. How difficult a process is it to go through those rebranding processes?
Ian Baverstock

It's getting harder to be imaginative... but there aren't any more to go now, in that we've rebranded all the existing studios. How much time did it take to go through the process?
Ian Baverstock

Well, the studios have to own it, so I sit there with a veto, and if they come up with something that I just don't think is going to work, then I'll tell them. But it has to be their image, their brand, their brand statement - they have to believe in it, not me, so really they drive that process.

I think for each of them it's been very time consuming. For me it's been a little bit of time overall. For you personally, your role has changed significantly as the company's expanded. Is it as fun as it used to be?
Ian Baverstock

The fun bits are different. It's a business for me, so I'm not so close to making the games as I was - I don't get to enjoy the buzz of delivery. Frankly the things that go well in Kuju tend to go well without much input from me. That's the great stuff - I don't get to see all of those really great projects come to life, and be a part of them in the way that I used to - so I miss that.

But equally, I get to do the bigger business planning that I couldn't have done before. Chris Taylor used a great analogy when he spoke to us recently, that for him running a company was like getting the rocket launcher in an FPS - he couldn't wait ti get it, but when he did he found it didn't have the same rate of fire, it was heavier, and so on.... What's it like to go through that change?
Ian Baverstock

I think you can't be in this industry and not be willing to embrace pretty much constant change. In Kuju, at some level, we do some re-organisation or redirection once or twice a year. Not all of it's externally visible, but things will change. We're about to go through another exercise of changing the way some of the corporate functions work, which is really boring stuff, but actually to the studios it will make a difference to the way things work.

You have to constantly look at those things, whether it's big things, like the name of the business and how you present yourself outside, or little things like how you sort out your accounts and store the information on your people. Because the industry changes all the time - you can't reliably look more than about two years out as a developer, because you can't really predict what kind of environment you're going to be in much beyond that. Cevat Yerli believes that if he was starting out now, setting up Crytek in the current business climate, he wouldn't stand a chance. Do you think it's tough to start out in this industry now? What advice would you give?
Ian Baverstock

What is true now is that there is almost a career path for development companies, not just developers. I think you can go through these recognised steps and I don't think that used to be as true.

It used to be true that you had to be very successful, very quickly - and now I think that people will actually recognise a variety of things, perhaps a bit of outsourcing, a little project here and there, and people will see a curve and recognise the quality within that trajectory, or not. So I think that's easier.

But you can't do this quickly now - that's the difference. You used to be able to get breaks and do it quickly, because it was more random, more unpredictable - stuff happened for good or bad. There were great people running great companies that had random bad luck.

There was a comment made on one of the panels I was on at the Develop conference that talked about an evolution at work - and if you fail as a developer it means you're not very good. But I don't think that's fair, or true. I think there are some smart, clever people who were doing great work, but the publisher went bust, or the license wasn't very good, or the movie flopped, or whatever.

There are things way beyond your control as a developer that, on a certain scale, can be fatal. But the industry is definitely becoming less random, I think that's true, and there's a maturity about the whole evolution of the businesses as well as the people - which is a good thing. Fred Hasson left Tiga earlier this year, to be replaced by Richard Wilson - what's your assessment of the job he's doing so far? Is there fresh momentum?
Ian Baverstock

There is. Fred did a fantastic job, and he was absolutely the right person for the start of Tiga - but like every organisation it helps sometimes to bring in new ideas, build on the successes of the past but add in new things.

Richard's clearly put a lot more time into reaching out publicly, speaking publicly through the media - whereas Fred did a lot of his work face-to-face, in a less visible way. I think that's definitely a good thing for Tiga. I wouldn't want to knock Fred, but equally Richard seems to be bringing in and adding on some good things to that which Fred already achieved.

I'm happy with the way that it's going, and it's good to see big companies who had resisted before now joining. Do you see the political landscape in the UK changing?
Ian Baverstock

Well, yes - it's part of a bigger political picture I think. We're certainly seeing more interest in the industry from, for example, the Conservative Party - they've definitely shown much more interest in the past year than they had done previously.

And as an organisation, looking at where the polls are standing, we can't not talk to them - that would be a really silly thing to do. And also the government is realising that some of the things people have been saying to them for a long time, they do seriously need to consider. You can't push people away for ever, and say "We'll think about it next year," because "next year" might not come. There are some interesting moves occurring in Europe - is it a time when the various developer bodies need to come together and work together more now?
Ian Baverstock

There's a lot of debate about the different national organisations' stances. You've clearly got different views, which is classic European politics I guess, in different countries. In this case the UK makes up by far and away the largest part of the development industry, but equally if the French for example go and do something nationally in France, it does influence everybody else's thinking.

So there is a lot of classic Euro-haggling that goes on within the EGDF as to what a position on any given issue might be. You can imagine there are some quite diverse opinions that have to be accommodated in one statement if possible. It is quite hard to get statements that everybody will agree to sometimes.

Ian Baverstock is head of Kuju Studios. Interview by Phil Elliott.