Games get made in a lot of different ways, but the vast majority fall into a handful of easily identifiable camps. Triple-A games have huge organised studios toiling on big franchises, indies are often made by small tight-knit teams – friends even – while big mobile publishers prefer numerous internal teams rapidly iterating ideas. All good approaches, but all very familiar.
Lee and Susan Cummings have their fair share of experience in games production, having worked on some of the biggest franchises, most notably for 2K and Rockstar. Over the last five years they had big success with Doctor Who: Legacy, a free-to-play mobile title from their studio Tiny Rebel Games, which is based in Newport in South Wales.
But with their latest title, the episodic, narrative-driven, puzzle title, Doctor Who Infinity, they’ve taken an intriguing new path in terms of staffing and production – one that borrows from the model that created the TV show itself.
RUNNING WITH IT
“It makes us sound over important maybe, but it feels like we’re being showrunners on this,” Susan begins, telling us they have “five teams to write five episodes of Doctor Who.” And not just writing them, but directing the lead voice talent too, along with different artists for every episode, giving them each a completely distinct look.
Lee and Susan act as producers and game designers, coordinating the various teams and coming up with “tile or gem-based” gameplay to line-up with any story the writers create. An intriguing change from the more usual hand-in-hand method.
“Can we take gem gameplay and add any story to it whatsoever?” Lee recalls thinking. “We did an early design for The Legend of Korra, which we were talking to Nickelodeon about. And one of the story beats was a character drowning and we thought how you can simulate that experience in a gem game? So we started doing little experiments like that over a couple of years, and we came to a decision that maybe we could just say: ‘Write any story and put gameplay in there to match’.”
Alone it’s a bold idea, but it’s also one that completely changed the development process, allowing the duo to spread their net far wider than usual for creative talent.
THE WELSH CONNECTION
The pair had recently decided to move to Wales, Susan tells us “because we have family here, and we’re partners in the brewery here.” That being the award-winning Tiny Rebel Brewery that sits next door to the studio – we hope to visit the studio in person soon.
“And we found out that Wales has this media investment budget that they were using to invest in film and television. It [potentially] included games but it hadn’t included a game. It turned out they wanted to but the opportunity hadn’t been right yet,” she explains.
“They really wanted us to involve Welsh businesses. Our last game had basically been us and a team in Taiwan, Seed Studio, and we really wanted to keep working with them – but we realised from an asset standpoint there was a lot we could do locally.”
However, the Welsh games industry is something of a “nascent space” Susan tells us, so there aren’t the art production houses you might find elsewhere in the UK. But “there were a lot of freelance comic book artists, who were working with DC and Marvel, and the more I looked the more I found,” she continues. “On the writing side there were actually great Doctor Who writers who were living locally.”
And that’s how the open-handed approach to game design, combined with local talent and public sector funding, created a rather different production model.
NEW MODEL ARMY
“We now have 26 people rolled together from all over the world, loads of creative talent from across Doctor Who,” Lee tells us proudly. “It’s a very spread out and distributed development,” adds Susan. “Which you can only do these days, with fast internet, Skype and Discord,” concludes Lee.
“What’s interesting about this is we’ve pulled in so many people who’ve never been near a video game development process before,” he tells us. “We have eight artists, none of whom have really worked on a game. And we’re pulling in writers who have barely any experience.”
“We’ve made our pipeline so easy to understand, by saying that ‘story is the king of this’. We’ve managed to get a bunch of writers and a bunch of artists all up to speed making great content, which means over time we’re pretty confident we can pull in anybody who understands comic book layouts. We can get them into this game. Anyone who’s written a short story can write something for this and we can take that and make an episode from it.”
Lee continues: “And the only way to do that is to give huge amounts of trust to the creative people on it. Every artist, we gave them some ideas and they came back with amazing things every single time. We were just so light touch with them and it was really enjoyable.”
THE LEGACY OF LEGACY
After working on the free-to-play Doctor Who: Legacy for five years the pair were keen to move away from the model: “It’s a premium experience, we don’t ever want to do a free-to-play game again, so this is our somewhere in between approach, not fully going into a full-priced product,” Susan explains.
To which Lee adds: “One thing we learnt with Legacy is that people like stories in chunks: ‘I want to buy this story, I want to have this content’. One of the reasons
that Doctor Who is so successful is that everyone has ‘their Doctor’. So the issue with trying to make a game around one doctor is you’re going to alienate a big part of the audience.”
Another strong reason for the episodic approach.
“One of the problems with announcing the Dalek story first is loads of people assumed it was a 12th Doctor game,” Lee tells us. “It’s not, it’s just the first story is a 12th Doctor story. Actually it’s a Missy story. Now we’ve announced a classic Doctor Who story, and the third one is another modern Doctor Who story,” he explains.
WORKING WITH AUNTY
“If you look back at the history of Doctor Who video games nobody has gone back and taken a second swing at it,” Lee says. “We were the first company to go back and do a second project on Doctor Who.”
That’s a pretty surprising statement, given how long the character has existed, but Doctor Who games can easily suffer from over ambition, given the resources required to create a full 3D action game that does the TV show justice.
“Anything where you’re trying to represent a normal Doctor Who story, which isn’t all about combat, which is about sneaking and thinking and puzzles, all these things are hard to do in a normal third-person engine, and people say they want story, and before you know it it’s a $100m game,” Lee calculates.
And that’s not the kind of game they want to be making, Susan tells us.
“Lee and I started our careers working on big things. The problem with big games is everytime you want to make a change it involves so many people to make that change. It’s really lovely to do something the two of us can constantly impact and change. We’re really agile in a way you can’t be on a big project.”