In February last year, Ready at Dawn released its most ambitious project yet: The Order: 1886.
The California-based studio had a strong reputation after creating a series of excellent PSP games, and this PS4 title saw it step into the home console world. However, although The Order was a beautiful game and had generated a lot of pre-release excitement, it fell short of people's expectations.
It was a disappointment that may have knocked the confidence of some developers, but fortunately not Ready at Dawn. Shortly after The Order's release, the firm's founder Ru Weerasuriya decided to bring in some business expertise and recruited Paul Sams, the former COO Blizzard, as the company's new CEO.
It was a move that saw Ready at Dawn walk away from life as a PlayStation exclusive developer, and into a world where it could develop and own its IP.
It was actually an unbelievable experience going through and developing The Order,” recalls Weerasuriya.
Even at the launch with what happened then... it was a lesson learned. The Order was really us trying to break certain boundaries, whether it was technical or artistic. We were willing to take risks to see what would work and what wouldn't. It changed the way we are developing and it cemented certain other things that we have always been able to do well. We have always been at the high end of showcasing what a console can do visually and technically. But it also taught us how and where to take risks, how to approach certain problems and where to manage ourselves, and those lessons we have taken to our co-publishing operation. The self-management lessons we learned over the course of The Order has made us a lot smarter.”
The firm is currently working on three titles, and the first is an action arena combat game called Deformers. Arena combat has become a congested genre filled with MOBAs and MOBA-like titles, but Weerasuriya insists this is quite different. It's fast, for starters, with rounds only lasting around two to three minutes, and it's also as much about local multiplayer (people playing side-by-side on a couch) than it is about gaming online.
It is also multiplatform. The title will launch on Xbox One, PS4 and PC, ending Ready at Dawn's exclusive PlayStation status.
This might surprise a lot of people, but since the inception of the studio our lead SKU was PC,” says Weerasuriya on the challenges of going multiplatform.
That is the reason we have been able to evolve from platform-to-platform, even from PS3 to PS4, which was quite a huge jump. Our lead SKU was PC, which allowed our technology to grow without the limits of the platform itself. Because of that, we have had an easier time of going multiplatform. I won't say it is easy but we've mitigated some of the issues. Right now, we have parity on every platform and intend to launch simultaneously on all of them.”
"In this industry, retaining your own IP is a massive thing."
Ru Weerasuriya, Ready at Dawn
Yet perhaps the most interesting element of Deformers to MCV readers is the fact that retailer GameStop is co-publishing it.
We have been very traditional in many ways, especially over the last 12 years with Sony,” explains Weerasuriya. We've been very set in the model that I think the majority of the triple-A world follows.”
He continues: For a company that basically sells games in bricks and mortar stores, GameStop is actually very forward thinking. Conversations started a while ago, and Mark Stanley [who leads the GameStop publishing initiative GameTrust] coming onboard was a great thing.
We had the luxury in some ways to decide who we wanted to go with. I don't mean to sound pompous or anything, but we were in a situation where we wondered: Do we fund this on our own? Do we find a partner? And in the end, the conversations always seemed to go the right way. We wanted a light touch partner, somebody who wasn't in this because they wanted to control the development.”
For Weerasuriya, the crucial point was also retaining the rights to the games it was making.
In this industry, retaining your own IP is a massive thing when you try to do it with traditional games publishers... often they won't let you do it,” he explains. But first meeting with GameTrust, and they said they didn't want to own the IP, and that was exactly what we wanted.”
The co-publishing relationship will see Ready at Dawn keep track of its own dev milestones, while GameTrust will focus on the sales.
When it comes to marketing, we share ideas, but we trust their guidance,” says Weerasuriya. But we are not completely segregated, even on development we are keeping them up-to-date. As much as we have that internal publishing division, we are not a publisher in the whole sense of the word, because we don't have all the other assets that GameTrust has.”
There were a few elements to GameTrust that appealed to Ready at Dawn. There's the relationship with sister company ThinkGeek and the possibility of developing merchandise. We kind of dipped our toes in the water with our past games, but never truly looking at what fits with the IP. Now we can bring our heads together in
a concerted effort to make something cool in merchandising,” says Weerasuriya.
The boxed element, too, was an appeal. Ready at Dawn has always made boxed games, and that's something it's ‘comfortable' doing. Deformers might not be the type of title that automatically goes into a box, but this game does straddle the line between a boxed game and a digital-only one,” he continues.
But there are some challenges. GameStop has a strong presence in France, Australia and the US, but in other territories – especially Asia – it doesn't have the same reach.
Looking for other partners is something that we will do together in order to maximise our reach in the territories that we need,” admits Weerasuriya We've had conversations with them about that, and we are definitely open to finding the right partner.”
GameStop publishing its own games has generated quite a reaction. We've seen digital retailers sign small indie titles in the past, but to have a major boxed retailer obtain exclusive distribution rights to games from triple-A studios like Insomniac and Ready at Dawn is certainly different.
But Weerasuriya doesn't actually agree. It may be different to us in the video games space, but the wider entertainment market has been moving in this direction for some time. The movie and TV industries have companies like Netflix,” observes Weerasuriya. When they started their own TV and movie production, Netflix was told that they didn't know what they were doing. But a year into it, everybody kind of changed their minds as soon as they released their first productions, and they won awards. It was amazing to see that shift of a distributor suddenly making content.
Hopefully, GameStop will be the first in a series of companies that will do that. Ultimately, the best thing about it is that it is good for us as developers, and awesome for gam