The UK has incredible development talent. But, if we’re being honest, its recent record has been somewhat less impressive when it comes to creating new triple-A IPs – with Rare’s 2017 Sea of Thieves being the last notable exception.
Now, it’s true that new triple-A IPs aren’t common in the games industry. But still, is it possible that the UK’s creative spark, famous throughout the world in the TV, film and music industries, is being underutilised in games?
Sweden’s Sharkmob certainly thinks so.
“I think you’re onto something there,” concurs Sharkmob CEO Fredrik Rundqvist. “I believe that Scandinavia has shown for the last decade or so that it’s really good at creating new IPs, not only on the mobile side with Candy Crush, and the Supercell games, but you have Minecraft, Battlefield, The Division…
“You have such a wide range of incredible games coming out of Scandinavia. And I think that the UK has probably the largest community of great triple-A developers in Europe, and one at one of the best communities in the world. But they haven’t necessarily been given the chance to create new games from scratch for some time.”
And that’s why the studio has just announced that it’s opening Sharkmob London, the first new triple-A studio that the capital has seen in many years. Though, to be fair, we should also note the not too distant effort at Guildford’s DPS Games, part of the Wargaming family.
Now Sharkmob, set up by veterans from Massive Entertainment, isn’t short of funds – it’s owned by Tencent after all. But it’s intriguing that the most exciting opening in some time is funded not from the US or the UK, but rather from China via Malmö. So have we been overlooking our homegrown ability to create world-beating new IP?
James Dobrowski, the newly appointed managing director of Sharkmob London, is keenly aware of the opportunity on offer.
“We’re conscious that it has been a long time since something like this has come and hit the UK scene. And these opportunities do not come along very often. And so we’re incredibly excited both for ourselves, but also for what we could hopefully do within the British gaming scene over the years to come.
“We’re hoping that we’re going to create something, both from a studio perspective and a project perspective, that I think a lot of the British games community has wanted to work on for a long time. But there just haven’t been those kinds of games made in the UK for a long time. And I think that is one of the reasons why many people have gone to work in the US and Canada over recent years.”
Many people, but far from everyone, with Sharkmob assembling an experienced core team for its new venture. Dobrowski has experience from CCP, Mediatonic and Playground Games. And he’s joined initially by design director Martin Connor (Wargaming, Sumo, Playground Games, Rockstar), live game director Sam Barton (Digit Game, CCP, Mediatonic) and art director Benjamin Penrose (Playground Games).
And it was that core team that was the primary driver in selecting the location says Sharkmob’s Rundqvist,
“The big one was where the core team were: James, Ben, Sam and Martin. For me, the most valuable thing in our industry has always been the core teams, and especially people who work together for a long time. Who’ve known each other for a long time and are comfortable creating great games together.
“It’s very rare to get those opportunities where people are ready to come together again and try something new. That was an opportunity for me, with James and his core team, and an opportunity for them to create a new original triple-A game and to start a new studio.”
Even then, London (somewhat surprisingly) is an eyebrow-raising choice for a new triple-A team. After all, when was the last time someone decided to set one up in the capital proper?
Rocksteady and PlayStation London Studio are long-time residents, but the costs have always been considerable, and (cynically maybe) it’s arguably easier to retain your talent when you’re a bigger fish in a smaller pond.
Beyond that, London is going through a double-whammy of trauma at present, with the pandemic and Brexit, but Rundqvist is largely unconcerned with that.
“London is a huge international city, everybody knows London, obviously. And it’s really well connected and post pandemic, I think London is very attractive for people to move to. I think Brexit won’t make that big of a difference, for example for American colleagues who want to join a European studio, who want the adventure of creating a new game from scratch.”
We can’t help but agree, London has remained globally important for hundreds of years now, if it can survive the Black Death, the Fire of London, the end of the empire and The Blitz, it’s probably going to keep thriving through its current tribulations too.
But even if London remains the place to be, there’s a reason why it’s become better-known for big tech offices and mobile game studios. But Dobrowski sees the latter as a growing advantage for a console-PC outfit.
“The kind of games that we’re really interested in making are doing something interesting or innovative in the online space, in the games as a service space. While also pushing triple-A production values to their limits.
“And so when you look for somewhere that has that exposure to both triple A development and live games development, London is a very good place to be, there are some good triple-A studios in the area. There are a lot of mobile development studios in that service space. So it brings together all of the aspects of games that we’re really interested in.”
And beyond core games production, the city boasts many other useful hubs of creative talent.
“Over my years in London I’ve increasingly worked with non-traditional games teams – from the movie industry, motion capture being a really good example. When I was at CCP, I think we had three motion capture studios within walking distance of the studio.” And the same can be said of VFX studios and audio production studios.
Dobrowski also points out that a well-placed office, say around Waterloo, will give them excellent access to the Guildford hub, and maybe to one other key hub, such as Cambridge or Leamington with only an additional tube ride.
“So I’ve just come from CCP, and we were in Covent Garden,” says Dobrowksi. “We probably had two thirds of the staff living in London and a third of the staff commuting through Waterloo.”
Rundqvist adds: “Another advantage, that I think you guys take for granted, is all the partners that you have here. First party: PlayStation, Xbox. The tech companies: Amazon and Apple [plus Facebook and Google]. They’re all represented in London, either by big offices, or the European head office. It’s just great to have all of these guys within reach.
“If you work out of Scandinavia, you see those people at E3 or at Gamescom, but you rarely actually meet more regularly than that. So that’s a big, big advantage.” And it’s an advantage that Sharkmob can take advantage of as a whole, not just in its London incarnation.
A SHIVER OF SHARKS
Which brings us nicely round to how Sharkmob London will work with its parent in Malmö. The pair explain that the studio will be working on its own new IP, the third such project Sharkmob has undertaken, while also assisting with the other two based back in Malmö. So just how big will the new outpost be?
“So headcount isn’t something we’ve got a specific number on at the moment,” admits Dobrowski. ”We know we want to build triple-A projects and that obviously comes with a certain scale, and there’s a few ways we could do it,” he muses. “We could go for the big studio, we could go for a kind of more modest sized studio and look at partnership opportunities with studios around the UK, and the world.
“We’re very needs driven,” he continues. “So it very much depends on the concept or the project and the smartest way of building that kind of team up – given everything that’s going on right now with COVID and Brexit and what comes after that.”
We put it to him that the tricky challenge of new teams working on new IPs is how you go about growing the team at the correct rate to match the project. A challenge that Dobrowski is very aware of, he explains.
“I think I’ve been on both sides of the camp in terms of how you do it incorrectly. So by that, I mean that I’ve been in the place where you don’t hire the people you need until you have concept approved, or a concept well fleshed out. And that drags out your timeline.
“And I’ve been in the opposite scenario where you have a bunch of people who don’t have a great deal to do. And that always rushes your creative process when it comes to the concept, because you have to keep those people busy, otherwise, it impacts your morale and culture negatively.
“This, in my head, is a perfect opportunity to scale a studio at the pace we need it, so that we have the people for our London project, once that concept is ready for primetime. But there’s a lot of work in Malmo that can keep people busy on an incredibly exciting project.”
Which is the advantage of being part of something larger, as Dobrowski explains: “We’re not thinking of this as two separate companies. We’re thinking of it as a singular Sharkmob across the two locations, and we will support and help each other out. Both on the project in Malmö, and I think in the long term, we will see Malmö helping out the studio in London.”
As we go to press, Sharkmob has announced the first of its three current projects. Led by its Malmo team, the game is a Battle Royale title set in the popular Vampire: The Masquerade universe and coming in 2021. It’s still early days but it looks sumptuous already.
Announcing the game will undoubtedly helpthe company recruit top talent. “People in our industry are so passionate that they usually pick their employer based on what they’re working on,” says Rundqvist.
Of course the UK team’s project is still a long way off from such an unveiling, but revealing the battle royale title will give potential hires some direction along with reassurance that the studio is aiming high in terms of production values.
But for now Rundqvist is simply happy to be delivering an upside in tough times.
“I think it’s great to try and to communicate some positive news during the pandemic. We’re bringing investment to the UK, we’re starting to employ people already. James [Dobrowski] is talking to several people, I think it’s a really good signal to be sending in these times, when people are frustrated – that this is not the end, that there’s still room for people to be creative and to do new things.
“From a business perspective, I feel it gives us a sort of head start to whenever this terrible era is over, or at least less threatening. Then we’ll be all ready to go.” It certainly does seem like a good time to be in pre-production, with the lack of the usual events cycle, there’s been more space to think of late.
“Creating new games is not really about resources,” points out Rundqvist. “I mean, the ideas for new games are about more time, so we’re buying us a bit more time than you usually would have. And then we’re ready to kick in.”