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Solid Foundations

Foundation 9's Chris Charla talks acquisitions and managing multiple studios.

Foundation 9 is North America's largest independent developer. Last year it continued an acquisition spree, snapping up studios including Shiny Entertainment, Pipeworks and Amaze. By the end of last year, Foundation 9 studios had released 37 titles in twelve months.

With over 750 staff and 350 games under its belt, it's a development powerhouse that has worked with all major publishers on some of the biggest brands in gaming - from Pac-Man to Death Jr, Indiana Jones to Eragon. And with games such as original title Harker and all-new comic book property Pherone in development, it's showing no signs of letting up.

Here, director of development at Foundation 9, Chris Charla, talks to GamesIndustry.biz about the possibilities of more studio acquisitions, the logistics of managing 11 different studios, and the development of original IP.

GamesIndustry.biz: Can you begin by explaining how Foundation 9 works logistically? You have multiple studios over the United States...

Chris Charla: Sure. Each company is responsible for itself and responsible for its own corporate culture. So the culture at Shiny is different than the culture at Amaze. You can't try and create a single corporate culture across 11 different studios with 700 people and have it work - I can guarantee that would fail. That's one of the things people really like about working at Foundation 9, whichever studio you're in there's a distinct personality to it.

So the best way to manage 11 studios is to let them manage themselves?

Absolutely. Conceptually they're almost running their own business - responsible for their own policies and all that . Obviously there's a huge amount of communication amongst the studio heads and the Foundation 9 guys. Foundation 9 provides a bunch of support groups that handle all the stuff that you don't want to think about when you're making games, such as human resources, legal, finance, operations and IT.

Foundation 9 was on an acquisitions spree last year. Are there plans for more acquisitions in the future?

The simple answer is yes. The longer answer is that it's not something we'll do until we find the right partners. We're taking a different tact towards game development in general where we want to build a stable future for ourselves and lower the risks for publishers.

Developers that are single team company's are a really hard business model to sustain. You can't do business development and ship a great game simultaneously. With some of our bigger acquisitions like Amaze, we're really putting together all the pieces, not just in terms of developing for every platform but also just in terms of making life easier for developers.

Shiny was an awesome acquisition move. They're a great team so getting them on board was fantastic. Amaze has been a really fantastic merger where one plus one equals three. They've bought some incredible production capabilities and methodologies to Foundation 9. We're always looking for new acquisitions but we're not trying to grow for growths sake. It will probably be a little while before you see us do something else and it'll probably be a more strategic move.

Would it be a studio outside of North America, because all of your studios are currently based in the US and Canada?

There's no requirement that we stay in or focus on North America. We're looking all over the world for great studios. There's some great development studios over in Europe.

You've got Digital Eclipse concentrating on Xbox Live and retro titles and ImaginEngine doing children's and budget titles. Is there any other niche or genre that Foundation 9 feels it needs to move into?

We're one of the few developers right now that can develop anything from mobile all the way up to the PS3. One of the places we're looking at is in casual game development. That's not to say we're going to buy up a studio but everyone is talking about casual games. It's a really interesting thing. It's tough to make the numbers work sometimes with casual games but if you can figure it out it's a really great way to try out new ideas and get titles to market quite quickly.

You've got 11 studios and you're doing a lot of work for hire for pretty much all the major publishers in the market. Would Foundation 9 ever consider a move into third-party publishing?

Not really, it's not a competency of the company at all. The skill sets of a developer and the skill sets of a publisher, other working in the games industry, have almost no overlap. It's not something we're planning to do. Would we look into self publishing a game on Xbox Live Arcade? Yes, sure. That kind of thing makes sense if you're self funding it. But trying to become a 'real' publisher is not on the cards.

A lot of your work for hire products are based in big brands. But is Foundation 9 interested in creating and owning its own original IP?

We've done a reasonable amount of original IP, the most well known is probably Death Jr. and we definitely want to do more of that. Where we see ourselves fitting into the value chain when it comes to original IP is that if we can create a product and build a support system around it, such as a tie-in comic or apparel.

We're also likely to self-fund the initial stages of a prototype. When we bring it to the publishers we can really reduce their risk by showing the amount of research that has gone into the creation of the product. A publisher doesn't have to go out and do all the research itself. That's where you'll see Foundation 9 moving with original IP. We're not looking to do anything where we bet 20 million dollars on original IP. You're going to see that what we want to do is make a lot of small bets, see which things are successful and then take it to a publisher.

You mention a support system and the creation of non-videogame products. Can you tell us a little bit about the comic book and movie production company Circle of Confusion, and how that relates to Foundation 9's development process?

Circle of Confusion is a Hollywood production and management company. The best known of their clients are the Wachowski brothers. We hooked up with them through Death Jr. and really got along well so we acquired a significant minority stake in the company and now it's basically part of the family.

They can bring IP to us very early in development, when something is just at the script stage. If it's something that we can really see the game potential in we can put together a concept document and then get attached to the property and shop it to publishers as it's moving through the movie or TV production cycle. Or we can provide that as a service which helps when Circle of Confusion is shopping a script - to know that the videogame potential has already been thought about and considered. The other important way that we work together is that we obviously have scripts and writing in our games and Circle of Confusion represents a ton of comic book writers and artitsts, so there's potential for crossover there too.

Chris Charla is director of business development at foundation 9 Entertainment. Interview by Matt Martin.

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.