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Making a Splash

Studio owner Paul Wedgwood talks about Bethesda, being an independent developer and why tax breaks won't help the industry

Splash Damage made its name as a mod-maker for some of id Software's best games. Eventually it moved onto developing entire games based on Quake and Wolfenstein IP, creating the successful Enemy Territory franchise. Earlier this year Splash Damage announced a deal that will see it partner with Bethesda Softworks on an as-yet-unannounced title.

Paul Wedgwood, the owner and creative director of Splash Damage, talked with about the company's relationship with its new partner, being an independent developer in the UK and why tax breaks won't help the industry at all. How is everything going with Bethesda?
Paul Wedgwood

Really good. When we made the transition from Activision to Bethesda Softworks - actually it was more of a transition from id Software to Bethesda Softworks - it was with some trepidation because we'd been with Activision since founding the company. We'd never, ever worked with another publisher, had no idea what the relationship was going to be like, they could be really aggressive, they could be really difficult to work with - not about Bethesda in particular but any publisher that we might work with.

The other thing is that the relationship we had with id Software was really one of partnership, where we would collaboratively design and develop the game and we would receive a lot of mentoring on areas of the business, game development and game design. Back with the id Software guys, we had never done motion capture animation when we came to do Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, so we'd fly out with id and go to a motion capture studio with their lead animator and he'd take us through the whole thing. It was a big part of our life and we enjoyed having these people that we could go to and ask questions.

Then we met Vlatko Andonov, the President of Bethesda Softworks, who is a incredibly loud and very charismatic man and I got on with him really, really well. I really enjoyed just his company and his views on the games industry, not making crap, and how focused Bethesda are on Morrowind and Oblivion and now Fallout 3. They scooped up so many awards at E3...and we're known, I think, for shamelessly pursuing critical acclaim. That being one of our main goals as a company, we really enjoy making games that review well and get lots of awards.

So we wanted a partner that was also focused on essential stuff, where it wasn't a product to them, or a franchise, it was actually an experience that someone was going to have and they really cared whether a 16-year-old taking it home hadn't wasted his money and been ripped off - because that's important to us as well. So we started working with Bethesda Softworks and were really happily surprised.

They have a team, Todd Vaughn who is the vice president for external development and Jonathan Williams who is their VP of Technology, and those guys were just brilliant. They came in and taught us about technical due diligence and how to appraise what was going to be problematic, and bear in mind during the whole of this not only are we moving publisher but we're also making the transition from fairly hardcore multiplayer combat developer on the PC to a multi-platform game developer as well.

They basically mentored us through that stuff and now my relationship with Vlatko is great, we phone each other all the time at all hours of the day and I'll ask him questions about business or with recruitment - a couple of months ago I started talking to him about the challenges we were facing and trying to get the right people on board and they have really good strategies for that kind of stuff - it's worked out really, really well.

We have the ability to create something that's completely new, an original intellectual property, which we've never had the chance to do from scratch before. We created the Enemy Territory franchise but it was generally done on the basis of another game and now we're dipping our toes in, playing with an office full of PS3 dev kits, Xbox 360 dev kits and just having fun with it and really enjoying the time. So your next game is definitely a cross-platform title with original IP?
Paul Wedgwood

It's for Bethesda to announce what we're making and which platforms it's going to be for and all that kind of stuff. But as a form of research and development we're trying out all kinds of stuff on different platforms - we've been working with the PS3 first, for a few months, and we're really enjoying that. We didn't want to become the endless sequel game development company and it's quite good for us because we actively want to beat things like review scores we've done in the past and do better than that and do better on the awards and create an experience that people really, really love.

We couldn't really do that if it was just using an intellectual property that was a movie franchise, or whatever - we had those offers from publishers that have wanted us to go work on various things for them but for us...we just really wanted to create something that's completely new. So how is it being an independent developer these days?
Paul Wedgwood

I love it. I just really, really love it... I loved Command & Conquer and then I saw Westwood be purchased and then disappear...we've just seen this happen over and over again. There are developers in the UK who are working on a string of sequels - one doesn't do well and suddenly you hear the studio has been shut down because of it and it's so frustrating.

As a British independent videogames developer we get to choose which publisher we work with and we get to choose what we work on. Now there might be something that a publisher wants us to work on - in our case we mentioned it to them - but at the end of the day at least you still have that freedom of choice and it means that you can be as creative and crazy as you like and it's down to the publisher to decide whether you're insane or you're a potential talent. Staff get to work on things that are really engaging and they really enjoy.

I love things like Lego: Star Wars but it's because [Traveller's Tales] went out and bought the Lego licence and then went and got the Stars Wars licence and it was something that the developer put together. I think that's something that's very critical - to at least iteratively improve on where we are.

If you're owned by a publisher and you're making a game whose release date it set and there's no scope for movement at all then it's the game that's going to suffer. That's why some of the big movie licences just suck so badly and developers are just pushing that stuff out, the endless ports, and expansions and sequels and it's a shame. There are few movies where you put up with episode nine, Star Wars is probably one of the few, and here it's constant. We're into sequel number 13 of this and 12 of that, and 11 of that and it just seems a shame. But being an independent developer in the UK has got to be tough right? Are you ever tempted to set up shop somewhere cheaper or with tax breaks?
Paul Wedgwood

No. I absolutely love game development in the UK - I just don't like all this rubbish about us needing charitable handouts to be successful as an industry, it's a complete pile of toss. It isn't why we're suffering as an industry and I don't think it's going to solve it. And why do you think the UK is suffering as an industry?
Paul Wedgwood

First of all I don't think we are, I don't think Ninja Theory is suffering, I don't think Splash Damage is suffering. Recruitment's a challenge but it's good for staff because their salaries are finally going up because they're in demand and that's really healthy, there's nothing wrong with that at all. It is difficult to recruit if you pay crap money and the UK as a whole was paying rubbish money. It's simple economics, the demand for staff is high, the supply is lower so staff salaries are going up, which is a really good thing.

At the same time, companies are ring-fencing their own staff to try and stop them from leaving which is a good thing. It happened with information technology, where we thought that we could get away, in the late 80s and early 90s, with paying peanuts for people to do IT support. Well, they were moving to the States or moving out of the country to do those jobs where they were getting paid three or four times as much money. The money is there, the publishers have it, they can afford to pay staff in the UK exactly what they pay in the US - they've just got away with not having to.

It's one of those things where companies need to be more professional - at Splash Damage everybody has pensions and health care and dental and gym memberships and have done for years but you still hear about game development studios, that are making big games, where their staff don't have any proper employment contracts. If companies don't take themselves seriously then that's going to be an endless challenge. Are you saying that the businesses and organisations that are calling for tax breaks are going through some sort of knee-jerk reaction?
Paul Wedgwood

The Isle of Man has no tax at all, I don't see a massive film industry there, there's a small film industry but having no tax didn't make all of the studios flood to the Isle of Man to make movies there.

We definitely need the Tigas and ELSPAs to lobby the government for better degree courses, for better acceptance of the industry as a whole. We need to get behind organisations like Develop and BAFTA and the Golden Joystick Awards - to really support these organisations to publicise the games industry to make it clearer to people that if a game like Grand Theft Auto is making GBP 600 million we are not just becoming bigger than the film industry, we already have games that are making more money than the film industry...

I think it's a shame for the industry to stick its hand out and say "Help us!" when that isn't what actually needs to happen. It just seems kind of sad and it's given completely the wrong impression of the industry. We're a mature industry, we're much better than we have ever been in the past. Slowly companies are paying their staff better, starting to provide better benefits, we're attracting good original contracts and I think if you're prepared to pay people properly you'll get the right staff... I can tell you as the owner of a studio that, at least, has the perception of being successful, if I paid less tax we wouldn't make better games.

Paul Wedgewood is the owner and creative director of Splash Damage. Interview by James Lee.

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