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“We just don't like having a boss” - The Outsiders

Ben Cousins and David Goldfarb discuss the motivations and vision behind their new studio, and why they'll never return to triple-A

It was perhaps inevitable that the first game from The Outsiders - the new studio from former EA veterans Ben Cousins and David Goldfarb - would be an RPG told from the perspective of the monster.

The PC and console game takes inspiration from John Gardner's Grendel, and tells a story from the point-of-view of the misfit, the outcast... the outsider. It's a concept that rings true with what this new indie developer is all about. This is a team that shuns corporate structure and rules - hence the name.

"The people that we hire are always people that are a little bit different, because in a lot of studios those people are demonised or walled off or they're called difficult - I know I've been certainly called that," says Goldfarb, who acts as CCO at the new outfit. "That was why I gravitated towards calling us The Outsiders."

CEO Ben Cousins chimes in: "Part of the reasons we called ourselves The Outsiders rather than Outsiders Games or Outsiders Studios, is that it really annoys me that the people in the games industry are not acknowledged. You call yourself 'something studios' or 'something entertainment' and it doesn't reflect that there is people involved. So the reason we are called The Outsiders is because it is a description of the people doing the production.

The Outsiders was founded by David Goldfarb (left) and Ben Cousins (above)

"The people we're hiring just don't fit in to a corporate environment, and we don't have one of those. We don't mind people who are a bit quirky and have their own way of working, as long as they produce good stuff. As the triple-A industry gets more and more codified, then these people who may have flourished in previous years may find themselves a bit constrained, or sidelined, or ignored. We really encourage individuality and trying to work around people's personalities, rather than mould them into a set structure."

Goldfarb and Cousins are no stranger to corporate structures. They both worked together at EA on the Battlefield series, before Goldfarb joined Overkill Studios to create PayDay 2 and Cousins found himself at mobile specialist DeNA.

"The people that we hire are a little bit different, because in a lot of studios these people are demonised or walled off or they're called difficult."

David Goldfarb, The Outsiders

"My motivation [for setting up on my own] was about forgetting big business ideas, and just getting back to enjoying development and hanging out with people I like and wanted to work with," Cousins explains. "Although I love this game and was really inspired by it, the product didn't matter to me as much as working with Dave, focusing a bit more on the team and having a bit more creative freedom. I wanted that more than trying to solve or experiment around a big business idea."

Goldfarb adds: "I just wanted to make this thing, and I didn't want to have to make somebody else's idea. When we started this studio, I went to Ben and said: "This is what I want to do." Which I did because I don't really know anything about starting a studio. Originally, it was me just going: "Help, I don't know what I'm doing". And then it became clear that maybe our interests aligned, so we ended up doing this."

Project Wight was shown during Unity's latest Unite event, and it looked visually impressive. Yet this isn't a triple-A project and The Outsiders is nothing like the major studios that Goldfarb and Cousins have worked within in the past. The team is currently 12-strong, while during its first year there were just five employees.

Goldfarb says: "I don't like having a boss, I think. I don't think there is a good way for me to be in the triple-A environment without having a big team, which I'm also not interested in. I am not interested in management, or in sitting in meetings, or the 100 little arguments you have every day about doing something. My life is too short for that shit. I don't want to do it anymore. The product that you get out at the end is not necessarily any better, and it's certainly less individual. So I would rather do something that I 100 percent believe in and want to make, and I don't think I can do that at a triple-A studio. At least not in any I've been in."

"I am not interested in management, or in sitting in meetings, or the 100 little arguments you have every day about doing something. My life is too short for that shit.

David Goldfarb, The Outsiders

Cousins agrees: "I never worked directly on a triple-A game. My time on Battlefield, I was very much acting in a delegative way. I've always actively avoided getting on a team of that size. From a personal relationship point-of-view, it is not nice working with strangers. So keeping the team to the size of a hunter-gather village, it helps the human brain work around all the constraints. And also, as Dave says, there's no avoiding politics when you're working on something with such high economic stakes. If you're spending $200m of a public company's budget, there is no avoiding oversight - which is completely understandable. Some people like it, but it took me a long time to realise that the main cause of stress for me wasn't complexity, or problems, or conflict, it was just simply having a boss."

Project Wight marks a return to the PC and console space for Cousins, who has spent the past half a decade working on and promoting mobile games.

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"I think there is still a lot of open goals on mobile, every couple of years there appears to be something else that beats the previous record," says Cousins. "Pokemon Go was the latest one. So I am really looking forward to someone cracking shooters or driving games or some of these other adventure genres on mobile. I'll probably feel a little bit sad not to be involved in that, but I made my decision to work with friends and having fun at work, rather than solving those big problems."

Despite his experience in free-to-play, Cousins says he won't be forcing that business model onto Project Wight. He says the game will feature an upfront payment, although players can expect additional content releases over time that may be charged for.

"I would love to keep working in free-to-play, it is such a great business model. But when we looked at this project, it was a new team, a new IP, we were going to build a new company around it and the game itself is really innovative, so one of the areas where we decided to de-risk was basically around business model. David is so talented, that I didn't want to be lecturing him on free-to-play while he is trying to build this game."

"When we started, we realised that self-publishing a game as a three-man studio and it just magically turning into Minecraft just wasn't going to be possible in a few years."

Ben Cousins, The Outsiders

Another area in which the team is looking to 'de-risk' is by partnering with a publisher. The Outsiders says it has secured a currently unannounced business partner to help it launch Project Wight.

"The thing that we predicted with quite a lot of accuracy when we started looking at this over two and a half years ago, is that we knew that it would be a complete nightmare when it came to the glut of content coming out, particularly on PC," Cousins explains.

"This idea of self-publishing a game as a three-man studio and it just magically turning into Minecraft or Spelunky or something, just wasn't going to be possible in a few years time. Or if it was, it would be a bit of a lottery. That is part of the reason why we were always looking for serious business partners who would be able to contribute either financially or strategically through marketing, rather than us just taking cash, or bootstrapping, and doing it ourselves.

"We saw these discoverability difficulties a long way out just by looking at the number of games being published on Steam. It made me realise that no matter how good you are in certain circumstances, you are just going to get lost, and whoever we ended up talking to needed to have some form of clout, either financially or strategically, and would be able to make us visible."

Project Wight is a unique concept. Comparisons have been made to Dark Souls and Shadow of Mordor, but Goldfarb insists he deliberately avoided playing other games because "you end up not thinking about what is right for your title."

The project has some real industry talent behind it, too, and with the demand for higher-end indie games (or triple-I titles, to coin a phrase), you would expect that The Outsiders were inundated with interested partners. However, to begin with, that wasn't the case.

"We started pitching this thing around in 2014 before all that demand for triple-I games started," Cousins says. "The reason that it took us more than a year to get a deal is because we are really picky with who we work with and the terms of the contract. Also, people were either saying: "We love the concept, but the budget is too high." Or "We love the concept, but the budget is too low." It was just around the period that we got ourselves a deal that this triple-I demand kicked-off. But we are absolutely making that sort of game. And it became a lot easier to describe what we were doing when the No Man Skys and the Firewatchs, or whatever, started to be shown. People could figure out what it meant to have a good-looking 3D product that was built by a small team."

He concludes: "If you're a core gamer, there isn't a lot of triple-A stuff coming out. The stuff that does come out is amazing, but you need to snack between your Dooms and your Assassins Creeds and your Halos and your Battlefields. I am a big fan of big triple-A games, even though I don't want to work on them, and I am twiddling my thumbs a bit between tentpole releases. I think that is also part of the thing that is driving demand for this sort of middle-range title."

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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