The slow evolution of service-based titles in the industry means that many of the studios now supporting such games weren’t explicitly created for the task – instead having transitioned away from discrete releases over many years.
So surely it’s better to create a wholly new studio, from scratch, that’s built for the task at hand. Though that then comes with an avalanche of decisions to make, from location, to headcount, to strategy and much more.
EA and CCP veteran Sean Decker has had to grapple with all that over the last year. With the result being arguably the most significant new UK studio launch of recent years: Wargaming UK.
Inevitably there was some direction from outside, you might have read our interview piece with Wargaming boss Victor Kislyi back in September. And the opportunity to acquire Edge Case Games in late 2018 was a major turning point. Even then, that left a huge amount to decide.
The studio was set-up expressly to deliver a service title, a “forever game” as Decker describes it, and to do that he must create a studio that’s equally built to last.
So we sit down with him at the new studio’s official launch to discuss its founding tenets and direction – starting with head count.
THE MAGIC NUMBER
“What is the maximum number of people you can have and still maintain social cohesion?” asks Decker. “We don’t want too many people, and what I mean by too many people comes from a study,” he adds.
That study resulted in what’s called Dunbar’s Number, a study appropriately done by a British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, in the early 90s. Based on the size of the human brain, and the size of early human settlements, he proposed that groups could only maintain true social cohesion up to around 150 people.
“That’s really what you want, to be able to say ‘I know everybody, and I know their names.’ As opposed to walking around and you’re like: ‘Who’s that guy?’” At present the team is around 100, with plans to move up to 150.
We wonder whether this preference was born out of Decker’s time with far larger teams? “I’ve been in studios who are small and nice and tight, I’ve been in ones which are massive, and again, you don’t know everybody, and it’s just a huge difference between them. And, you know, I really like the places where you do know everybody by their names.”
Of course, we’d probably all rather work somewhere more personable, and for many that number would be smaller still than Dunbar and Decker’s figure. But then there’s a danger that you’re letting team size dictate the game you’re making, rather than building the team needed for the game you want.
Decker is clear that the decision on head count came from him and is matched to the project. He also notes that the team will be punching well above its weight, having been built to optimise the use of both outsourced assets and externally-developed tools.
OUT AND ABOUT
“We hire people who are specific experts or who have worked with outsourcing before,” Decker explains. “For example, Nicolas Pain, our art production director, is fantastic and has done it for a number of companies in the past. He’s worked with Codemasters, Playground Games and so on. He’s used to building out great pipelines and that is what we focus on. As opposed to thinking everything has to be built in house.
“So you can expect a much larger game and again, this is why we’re choosing in many places to use middleware – Unreal for instance. Do I want 50 of my people working on the tech or would I rather have 50 people working on the game? Those are the kind of choices that we’re making.
“Everything will be directed from here, but I’m a big believer in working with partners around the world when it comes to content, no matter whether it’s VFX, art and so on. The amount that you have to make, it is almost unsustainable to build up a team to make it all… And there’s so many really good partners you can work with around the world who do it well.”
And having built a team the right size for your ongoing needs, it’s best to avoid bringing in staff for a big push on assets, only to have to let them go again later when that comes to an end.
Similar thinking has gone into the technology choices too. “It’s the reason we chose Unreal,” Decker continues. “They make a really good tech stack. They have hundreds of engineers working on it. Do I want to make that? Do I want to replicate that and try and beat that? Or would I rather make a game and focus on the game, instead of doing both at the same time?”
One thing that Wargaming UK has been building, though, is its own new office space. We’re given a tour of the well-appointed new space, with a large meeting area, neon-lit cafe, and open plan office space. The new office occupies the top floor of a large building on the edge of central Guildford, and offers great 360-degree views of the surrounding area.
And building that space, alongside the carefully selected team, is all a part of creating a new culture for this new studio, or at least the seeds of it. Publishing director Keith Anderson explains more:
“We’re still developing our new game, we’re still understanding what our new IP is going to be. If you walked into a studio that’s got some heritage, you would immediately see all their previous games. We’re building up to that, so how are we going to build a culture in the studio that represents what we want to achieve?
“So a lot of what you see around is built on ‘the games that made us’, the games that got us here. We’ve got a lot of industry veterans, as well as new guys coming in. So for instance, this room is the 8-bit room,” he gestures at the tabletop arcade game we’re sitting around and the retro graphics adorning the walls.
“That room there is the RPG room,” he points next door, where the meeting room has been fitted with a medieval-styled RPG gaming table, matching chairs, faux stone walls and an iron chandelier – it’s like something from a high-budget D&D streamer’s channel.
“We wanted it to reflect that we’re all gamers, we love games, we have a passion for games, there are certain games that drove us to get to the stage where we are, and we are making games that will hopefully get a new generation of gamers coming in and loving games.
“So we wanted the studio to have a feeling of embracing all the games that have influenced us and got us to this stage. So that’s why you see the eighties-style arcade setup in our canteen. The occult library next door, like a Resident Evil kind of thing. That’s the kind of vibe we looked at when we looked at building a studio.”
It looks like it will be a fun place to work, though obviously at this early point, everything is unused, but once they get the shrinkwrap off those board games, and put a few tea mug rings on that table, it’ll feel much improved.
The meeting rooms, along with a testing room and two audio production suites, are the only places we see where you can close a door on the rest of the studio. It’s part of an open and transparent culture that Decker is set on creating.
“Personally I become much more engaged when I’m sitting around listening to people and catching conversations, rather than sitting in an office and then you have to venture out. Just that one door is a massive barrier… I don’t want that. It’s not the culture we want to build out.”
“From a cultural point of view, we try and be very, very open. We’re always having conversations. I’m having a conversation about whatever – finance, branding, whatever else it is, and everybody around me can hear that conversation going on. The only conversations you have outside that are those which are sensitive for HR.”
And that spirit of openness will extend beyond simple, everyday conversations.
“Every time there’s a milestone, everybody goes and shows all their work. We have an AMA every month, and all of our questions are submitted anonymously. Everybody gets to see all the questions, and I stand up and pick the most uncomfortable ones I can find in the list to answer.
“That’s the kind of culture we want, to be able to have open and honest conversations. I’ve been in too many places where there’s too many side conversations going on, and the actual work isn’t getting done.
“One of our main purposes is really, as leaders, to walk around and say: ‘Hey, you two need to talk. Because you said something, and you said something, and they’re not quite in agreement. Just sit down and have a conversation about it’.
“And that’s the other reason why we shuffle the teams around and move people from seat to seat. Because your work changes as it goes along, and you need to sit next to the people you need to talk with. As opposed to, this is all art, and that’s all design, and silo them all out. Our teams don’t work that way, so we have coders that sit right next to the designer, and they’re working hand-in-hand with art.”
“I’m a big believer in working with partners around the world when it comes to content. The amount that you have to make, it is almost unsustainable to build up a team to make it all.”
Location, office design, culture, all important parts of the puzzle, but Decker is keen to point out that it’s the people that really matter.
“It’s really about the people we hire, this environment absolutely helps that and it helps the creativity and the openness and the sharing of ideas. But really, it is about the people that we hire and their attitude and their thinking about what is fun.
“We’re making a fun game, something that is going to be a hobby and something that people will enjoy for many, many years to come,” Decker states confidently. “At the end of the day it’s a hobby, hobbies are all about emotion, as far as I’m concerned, and whether your hobby is golf, or fishing or making modern trains, you do it because you enjoy it.”
And enjoying being at work should therefore help the team make a game that’s more enjoyable. A game which, at present, Wargaming UK is being understandably cagey about. Though there are some hints as to what area the team is targeting.
“I do really enjoy the idea of forever games, you look at League of Legends, you look at Dota, you look at Fortnite, you look at World of Tanks. Games that have just gone on forever. And that is really where my heart lies, in terms of making things that can be expanded for a long period of time.
“Players want to invest in their hobby, in terms of time, and they want to be assured that it’s going to be there, that it’s going to be supported,” which is something that Wargaming as a whole can certainly claim to have delivered on in the past.
“And then much more tactically, I think there’s a lot of interesting things in terms of games that power up within the session itself. So, League of Legends. You don’t bring a tonne of progression in with you, you have it within the match itself. And then other ones, games which are massively loot or progression based, Destiny is a great example.
“There’s all these great places you can play around with, mix with, and so on and so forth. And so it’s been a lot of fun having everybody thinking it out. And one of the ways we work from a creative point of view, is as we’re diving into something very particular, we have the team, for a sprint, to just go nuts, just go crazy.
“So, as an example, if you were going to make a new Diablo let’s say – we’re not making a new Diablo – but if you’re doing that, then the team goes nuts for two weeks on crazy stuff. ‘I’m going to have pink ponies come out of my spear!’ And the great thing about that is they can explore the space, they can be super creative and get all those juices out. And there’s a couple of things we’ll pick out of that. And then everything else: OK that was trash, throw it all away or think about it way down the road.
“And I love that. And those are the kind of people we want, who can take that in and structure it into something that is fantastic.”