Keywords Studios: on a mission to imagine more

The last time we checked in on Keywords Studios, the industry services behemoth was enduring the twin challenges of the covid pandemic and the surprise retirement of Andrew Day. Two years on, Richie Shoemaker catches up with new CEO Bertrand Bodson, whose plan for growth is already unlocking new opportunities.

Almost a quarter century since its founding in Ireland, Keywords Studios remains something of an enigma. It is among the most well-connected studio groups in the world, having partnered with almost every company of note in the gaming industry in recent years (acquiring a good few of them in the process). In terms of size and reach, with more than 70 service and development studios in 26 countries, collectively it is the equivalent of almost any triple-A publisher you care to mention. Ask the typical gamer if they’d heard of Keywords Studios, however, and it would be a safe bet that a bemused look and a slow shake of the head would follow, despite the fact that Keywords would very likely have had a hand (or at least a finger) in many of their most-played games. Such is the fate of the dutiful codeveloper; to exist in the shadows.

Equally obligated to avoid the glare of gaming’s oft-misdirected spotlight (this is his first industry interview) is Bertrand Bodson, who in December will celebrate his first year as Keywords’ CEO. And what a year it’s been: since the summer alone Keywords has acquired studios in Melbourne, Vancouver and Cincinnati, and recently opened two more outposts in Brisbane and Adelaide, as well massively expanding offices in Katowice, Poland.

“We have 11,000 people now across a fairly broad geographical footprint” says Bodson, who insists the company’s outwardly unabating growth is not simply about getting bigger for the sake of it. “Why this really matters is that it allows the company, our publishers and our clients [to mobilise resources].” With its recently bolstered presence in Australia, “it gives us access to talent pools all across the world, which is really the name of the game.”

Apply the term outsourcing in relation to Keywords and Bodson winces, perhaps because it implies a master-servant relationship; obligation above enthusiasm. Rather, having a full suite of services in every corner of the world, Bodson argues, allows Keywords to be more strategically aligned to its clients and for its service lines to be fully invested in the desired outcome of helping to deliver a successful game – one that Keywords would be just as proud to put its name to as the developer that leads it. To that end, as part of its five-point plan developed by Bodson and his team, Keywords has established new roles within many of its creative studios that “can effectively be embedded within publishers, and truly think about the best needs to address a specific challenge.” In addition, Bodson is keen to find ways to bring studios within Keywords closer together to address the same issues, “but on behalf of publishers, on behalf of our clients, on behalf of our partners.”

FACING THE FUTURE

Given the fact that Keywords has more than 950 clients across the world and has worked successfully with what it considers to be 23 of the top 25 gaming companies, it’s clear that Bodson has an enviable view of the gaming landscape, not just in terms of where the global industry is at right now, but where it might be headed and the challenges on the horizon. “You’re right,” he says, “we see a lot of things across different publishers. There are many challenges that come back again and again.” He cites the obvious, such as the sustained popularity of mobile platforms and the growth of games-as-a-service pushing the need for more reliable live ops services: “You need to have solutions where the player doesn’t necessarily need to leave the game to be able to be served right away, and then you need the right concierge behind to really help them as a VIP. I would say that’s a big one for us.”

Another big push that Bodson is behind has come as a result of his spending much of his first year visiting as many of Keywords Studios’ clients and partners as possible, discovering that “to take on triple-A it now takes a 500-plus team. To make it economical you need to be live, you need to port across all platforms from day one and you need to have multiple languages.” In turn, says Bodson, companies have to ask themselves difficult questions; about the resources they have, whether they are in the right place and whether it might be better to seek out a partner better placed to get the game over the finish line – and beyond it if necessary. “It’s where QA and support comes quite naturally in. But equally importantly, on the development side, ‘How can I get access to engineers that can help me take on that demand?’ So that’s where we come in.”

Of course it’s not just triple-A that excites Bodson. The growth of indie games and indie publishing is also a trend he’s been keenly following, and is an area in which he sees Keywords building many new and lasting relationships. Teams that have a great deal of publishing experience and the funds to launch celebrated games, but that may need help taking their operation to the desired level along the full-length of the development process in order to establish their IPs.

“It starts with gamedev, usually with creative or technical artists, but I love the fact that very early on we can start a discussion about how we can help, and how we can keep enhancing the offering that we have to be on that journey [with a developer].” says Bodson.

As well as it’s offerings to potential partners big and small, Bodson is keen for Keywords to further embrace entertainment outside of games, now that game engines like Unity and Unreal have become essential tools, not just for game makers, but for those creating movies, TV and other forms of digitally generated or enhanced content. “Personally, I’m excited about how much gaming is taking over the world of entertainment, how it is converging more and more” due to “a natural adjacency”. Bodson also sees opportunities in architecture and even in the realm of education and healthcare. “I love being in a place where it is going to shape many things in the decades ahead. It’s fortunate to be in the right place for that.”

CREATE, GLOBALISE, ENGAGE

Keywords’ full-service portfolio is divided across three divisions, roughly covering the life-cycle of a game’s development. First there is the Create division, which numbers approximately 3,500 individuals and encompasses game development, engineering, tools and art. With more than 25 studios in the Create division and growing, it’s an area in which Keywords is strong and which seems likely to expand as new studios join the fold.

Next is the Globalise division, which offers testing, QA and localisation services across 40 languages. Finally there is the Engage division, made up of player support, research and eight marketing studios and agencies, most of which are situated in LA and London and together are another of Keyword’s greatest assets. “We are very strong in terms of trailers, for example, cinematics and game engine,” says Bodson, “but we have areas like performance marketing, where we’ve only started to get working right now, and influencer marketing we really want to invest in and want to bring much more within player support.”

Grateful for the offering he’s inherited and confident that Keywords continues to offer a good mix of services across the board, Bodson has no room for complacency. “Gosh, yes, we have a lot of work to do to really bring it all together to get the best value for our clients, and how we can imagine more for them.”

LEVERS FOR GROWTH

Earlier this year, soon after being unveiled as Keywords CEO, Bodson revealed that he wanted to double the size of the company, to 20,000 people, which would put the company on the scale of the Embracer Group, Ubisoft and Netease in terms of headcount. Already in his first year Bodson has seen Keywords grow by 35%, which, despite all the acquisitions over the last twelve months, more than two thirds of which has been achieved organically. “We’re all searching for the right talent, but ultimately” he says, “It’s [about] really strong demand; the extra demand of content everywhere – that dimension of many things that need to land at the same place at the same time.”

In his first months at the helm, Bodson and his team identified five levers for growth, the first of them being around establishing more strategic partnerships with client studios and publishers; to be more predictive of issues and opportunities rather than reactive. “We can look forward – what does 2027 look like? What titles are coming up? How do we plan the resources accordingly? What kind of talent do we need to have? What kind of pain points do we have? What teams-per-game do we need?” Bodson wants each studio within Keywords to keep its core strengths and continue to run their own business, while being ready to develop more embedded and interconnected relationships with partners.

Bodson has also recognised growth opportunities in technology, citing his early experiences at Amazon as indicative of his long-standing interest and regard for digital innovation. As an example, he brings up the recent acquisition of Mighty Games, a mobile studio known for its AI-based testing platform. “It’s fairly simple, but what it does is plays a game 20-50 times the speed of what a human would do.” The benefits of such a system are immediately obvious. “It’s actually pretty cool to see,” adds Bodson. “As a dev, instead of doing a linear path of developing the game, I’ll pass it on to the QA team and you can see in real time where are the bugs, how much it’s improving, what’s the playability like.” While the system can’t supply emotional responses of the kind a human player would give, having that kind of scalable real-time feedback delivered at high speed clearly has benefits.

“We’re doing the same in localisation, where one of our partners, Microsoft, gave us a set of titles [saying] we need the translation turnaround time to be 48 hours.” Fifteen games in 31 languages, no less. To achieve this feat required not just cutting edge AI systems, but a community of translators and reviewers working dynamically to deliver on time and to scale. The aim is to use the same approach that’s been applied to QA and localisation and embed it across more and more service lines, not purely for the sake of it, but to be able to process future content demands to the kind of scale Keywords sees coming in the years ahead.

Third on the list of aids to growth focuses on core values and key principles; what Bodson calls One Keywords – “the common spine of what brings us together”. Fundamentally it’s about collaboration, but also amplifying the voice of each studio while allowing them to retain their “entrepreneurial DNA” on which the previous Keywords CEO and his successor place so much stock.

Talent is fourth, and while it’s tempting to assume the acquisition of talent will occur naturally as a consequence of the organisation’s strident M&A strategy, the truth is that Keywords faces the same skills shortage and onboarding issues as every game creator. As a means to offset this, Keywords is developing academies across the world, an example of which is Destination India, a program in the process of being established with the Indian Government to tempt some of the million software engineers that graduate every year towards a career in gaming. It’s about, says Bodson, “how can we embed gaming skills in partnership with Epic, in partnership with Unity, and in partnership with publishers, to create more of those talents in the third year at university and then to take them as internships or in boot camps with us.”

The final growth lever brings us back to what Bodson was talking about in terms of natural adjacencies, not just in terms of supporting media and entertainment productions intended for streaming or broadcast, but investing in LiveOps as a kind of amalgam of player support and content creation, to better support GaaS efforts, and to give more serious thought to the obdurate and much maligned metaverse as it might exist in the future – as a cypher for the kind of adjacencies Keywords is increasingly keen to embrace.

IMAGINE MORE

As Bodson looks back on a first year in post, it’s surprising to hear that, despite heading not just one of gaming’s largest service organisations, but one of the largest global gaming companies full stop, he looks upon Keywords almost as if it’s journey has just begun rather than one that has been steadily gaining pace for almost 25 years. “What I love is it really feels like a start-up, still today,” he says. “It really feels small. People know each other well. It’s truly entrepreneurial. That’s what I love. There is no professional manager here, like in many firms. It’s really people who care about the business. They run studios, or the cluster that they are taking care of, but also how can they make the best of Keywords abroad. I love that. I think there’s something really unique about that.”

Bodson’s enthusiasm for Keyword’s feels genuine to the point of infectiousness, and it extends to the whole industry to which he is still a relative newcomer. You get the feeling he wishes he’d made the switch sooner, although of course it’s unlikely that it would have been the right time for both parties that it subsequently appears to be.

“I’ve loved it,” he says of his first year. “It doesn’t feel like a job at all, so far. Maybe I’m still a bit in the honeymoon period, but I’m really enjoying every moment. Gaming is something where I find there is very little ego.” Bodson pauses, wistfully recalling the final day of this year’s Gamescom, where he cleared his schedule of meetings and spent the day stalking the halls, experiencing the crowds and the queues, and perhaps for the first time really appreciating the cultural appeal of games and just how many titles Keywords has contributed to – even if those around him had no idea who or what Keywords was. “It’s a joy! That’s where the passion really counts.”

About Richie Shoemaker

Prior to taking the editorial helm of MCV/DEVELOP Richie spent 20 years shovelling word-coal into the engines of numerous gaming magazines and websites, many of which are now lost beneath the churning waves of progress. If not already obvious, he is partial to the odd nautical metaphor.

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