Mediatonic has announced the launch of the Tonic Games Group (TGG) – a developer/publisher group that, according to Mediatonic, is seeking to create the next big thing. The group, which describes its goal as to find new ways to bring original franchises to the 2 billion people who play games today, currently has 27 games in active development across its family of studios and offices.
The group has been five years in the making, and comprises three main branches: development studios Mediatonic and Fortitude, alongside publisher Irregular Corporation.
TGG is independently owned, and is designed to handle big IPs while still enabling smaller, more experimental titles – something Mediatonic has become known for, with leftfield titles such as Hatoful Boyfriend, Murder by Numbers and the upcoming Fall Guys.
The company has been steadily building behind the scenes, but plans to expand even further, intending to grow to 300 employees in the next year, who will be split between seven offices, five studios and two publishing houses, as well as sixteen independent third party studios.
It’s quite the launch – especially a climate that will see any new hires working remotely for the foreseeable future. To find out more, we sat down with Mediatonic co-founder and CEO, David Bailey.
“[The Tonic Games Group] is a new parent company that brings together a bunch of different companies and studios that we’ve been building. Until now, we haven’t had a proper way of linking them together.
The initiative first took root back in 2015, ten years into Mediatonic’s journey, after it was founded by Bailey and Paul Croft in 2005, during their final year as students at Brunel University.
“We’d gotten to a place where the company was doing well,” Bailey explains. “We were doing some really good work for hire projects – we’d made about 100-odd games by that point.
“We’d gotten to a nice place, but we had the same traumas that everyone else has had. Moving into games as a service, different platform disruptions… And we’d been working with big publishers, so quite often when they were restructuring and opening and closing studios and things like that. We got impacted by those things, too.
“So in 2015, we were just reflecting and thought well, what next? And there were two major themes that came out of that.
“One was, well, we want to do more stuff! And we don’t necessarily feel that we’re the right shape to do some of the things that we want to do. We want to make bigger and more ambitious games and ideally, we want to own them.
“But Also, we want to make small, weird games, and we want to do stuff on different platforms. So we wanted to come up with a way to basically do all of these things.
“The other theme was, really about learning from the scars, in taking the pain that comes from being dependent on one or two games, or one or two publishers. We really wanted to move on from that.”
“So we started on the mission which was like, okay, if we can really diversify the business, and build teams that are responsible for different types of game, then actually we can also be more resilient and have a nicer life as a result of it.
“With that, we said to Jeff [Tanton, creative director] and others: here’s the pot of money and time, and we’re going to use this to build out an original game pipeline and proactively invest in building stuff that’s come from the team themselves within Mediatonic. And to give that equal importance to the work for hire projects that we’ll be doing.”
It’s a strategy that has worked well for the company – with the upcoming Fall Guys as an excellent example of this kind of leftfield thinking, alongside a game that I’m personally obsessed with – the Phoenix Wright meets Picross title, Murder by Numbers.
“That business got a lot bigger as a result, but we also wanted to do some other stuff so we started building a publishing company, which is the Irregular Corporation. They’re able to make investments in teams that are maybe doing something a bit different. Like with PC Building Simulator, where no one had really made a game in that space before.
“We can make really deep games, but do it in spaces that are newer, less competitive, and also more exciting for us. So we were using money from Mediatonic to build that business and to invest in those game companies – it’s taken a little while to get that where it is now.
“The last thing was, okay, can we also build more studios? So we built more studios inside Mediatonic, like our Madrid office for example. We’ve gotten to a place now where there’s like 300 of us, and there’s a lot going on. So we wanted to make this official, and start building this out as our model going forward.”
THE THREE PILLARS
In the spirit of trying new things, the TGG will allow more room for these kinds of experimental titles to come to life. And they’re a proposition that comes as well as, not instead of, their work for hire and big IP-work. On top of that, it’s a philosophy that reaches each of the three pillars of TGG, as Bailey explains.
“So if you look at Mediatonic, I would say they’ve got this background building online services type games and mobile games. And now they’re moving to bigger, more ambitious and original titles. For instance, Fall Guys, I would say is a prime candidate for the type of game Mediatonic wants to be making, and there’s two things about that
“One thing is just when you’re making bigger games, is that they take a long time to make. So it’s quite nice to have the opportunity to do other stuff: a bit like how Pixar does short films, when they’re making a big movie, for a sort of creative renewal.
“The other thing is just that, sometimes opportunities come up. And even though they’re weird, they’re just too good to pass up on. So with Murder by Numbers, you’ve got Ed Fear, who is just an amazing writer. And the same with Hatoful Boyfriend, it was just like, okay, although this sounds weird, it all makes sense. We want to do this.
“And then you’ve got the Irregular Corporation, and their focus is different. They’ve got PC Building Simulator, they’ve got Mars Horizon where you can build a space agency. These are kind of really deep games for enthusiasts really, trying to get games into places that they aren’t maybe already that well served.
“And then lastly, you’ve got Fortitude, which we haven’t yet said a lot about. But James [Griffiths, game designer at Fortitude Games] talks about building games which have a darkly stylish twist. And and if you look at his background, with games like Sexy Brutale and games like that,I think there’s a kind of new niche we can form there as well.”
As mentioned before, this announcement comes with a big hiring push. Mediatonic is currently 230+ strong, while TGG boasts over 290 employees. The plan is to get to over 300 by next year. At their current growth rate, it’s likely TGG will add around 150 employees per year.
“We’ve already increased a lot. In the last year, on average, we’ve had 12 people join the group every month, some months it’s been as many as 20. We’ve actually got 35 people who just support all of the other companies, and that includes quite a large recruitment team and a people team that’s trying to onboard people and look after them properly. And so we’re really trying to amp that up, and I think that will continue. The thing is that now there are so many studios, even if they all grow just a little bit, it adds up to quite a lot, which is really what we’re finding.
“The model that we’re building is not like one of these models where you go out and acquire lots of companies. It’s all about building organically, almost like cells growing by division, and building out additional things and trying new things.”
Of course, as with everything being announced right now, there’s certainly better times to launch an initiative like this than during a global pandemic. Particularly if there’s a big hiring push involved, it’s hard not to wonder if our current crisis has thrown something of a spanner in the works.
Not so, says Bailey.
“I mean, it’s definitely been a curveball. But we’re pretty lucky in games, I think. If anything people are playing games more than ever to try and kind of escape all of this stuff that’s going on.
“We weren’t expecting everyone to be in lockdown, obviously. We were literally moving into a new headquarters, in the week we went into lockdown. We’ve got this beautiful, shiny new office and there’s nobody in it. The week that we were unpacking everything I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It all looks amazing, we’ve got all this incredible tech in the meeting rooms and really gone for it. It’s the first time we’ve ever fitted out a large space and it’s gathering dust. ”
Having recently moved offices ourselves before COVID-19 hit, we can definitely relate. We can only hope our lovely new central London office isn’t lonely without us.
I’d only just found a shop that does a decent chicken bap – you’ve no idea how many lunches I spent searching Covent Garden for one of those. Anyway, back to Mediatonic…
“The way I’m thinking about it is, I think that more and more companies will move to a model where people are more spread out. And that’s kind of helpful in some ways. You know, we’ve got someone in South Africa that was due to move to the UK, and we went into lockdown and they’ve had to work remotely, but it’s been completely fine.
“And so in that respect, it kind of shows you what’s possible, and it’s quite liberating. But I think it’s still going to be positive to have sort of regional hubs, where people can get together and collaborate. And I think we’ll probably end up changing the spaces more in that direction. So it’s less about having hundreds of people in rows of desks or something and more about, how do we get together when we need to?”
UNITED WE STAND
In fact, if anything, Bailey argues that the TGG has arrived at the perfect time: Offering job stability in a time where that looks increasingly hard to come by.
“One of the key things for me, and this comes back to this when we had all those shocks we’ve all had over the years. You know, we had the closure of Lionhead Studios and god knows how many other things, one of the things for us was, we don’t want to be a company that ramps up and down. It’s just too de-stabilising, it doesn’t lead to creativity, and it’s just a waste of talent, frankly.
“So having such a diverse group, and then being able to support each other, particularly with the newer stuff, it’s like the more mature businesses prop up the more nascent ones. And it means that we can all be much more resilient and stand the test of time.
“And I think a lot of people like that. Just because people work in the games industry, they shouldn’t have to give up job security. And that’s something that’s taken a long time to figure out.”
“The last thing for me is that I think games businesses are people business more than anything else. So we’re putting a lot of effort and resources into trying to have a positive impact in the way that we make a game. And so you know, that is about avoiding crunch – it has been for 10 years. But it’s also about how to actually proactively help people have a positive work life balance, look after their mental health and become more diverse. So it’s all of these things.
“Hopefully, if you come into any kind of Tonic Games Group company, you can come in knowing that we’re going to be people first, and that we’re going to try and look after you.”