There are many words I’ve used to describe Sega’s decision-making process in my time at Creative Assembly. Several of them are positive.
However, until recently, fast, decisive and self-assured wouldn’t have been on that list. That all changed on January 23rd when Sega bid to buy THQ’s Relic Entertainment.
A few days beforehand, I’d been invited, together with colleagues from Sega Europe, America and Japan, to travel to Vancouver and perform ‘due diligence’ on the studio.
This brought back fond memories for me – back in the glory years (I’m being gently ironic) I used to work for EA Partners, the business unit within EA, dealing with external developers. We spent a lot of time visiting studios, mainly in Europe, but also in the US and Japan. It was a fun time. EA’s pockets were deep and with an EA calling card you usually got treated with a great amount of eagerness and hospitality.
SOME FOR LUCK
This generosity was often mixed with a certain amount of salt thrown over the shoulder, cloves of garlic and a wooden stake ready for action too, just in case the evil spirits from a big, scary publisher got too much. We always said we were the friendly face of EA, although if you’ve seen our faces you’d have to wonder.
It was a great privilege to visit nearly all the key independent studios in Europe. As a studio manager, life can be quite isolating – your competitors are not typically going to throw open their doors, and although it seems better now than ever before, really interesting information is rarely disclosed publicly.
Calling in on developers, and doing due diligence opened my eyes to the different characters of development teams. Sure, we’d look into tech, tools and pipelines. We’d tick boxes to make sure they had strong IT practice, a good support structure, bonus incentives, etcetera.
In the early days, every team thought they had some bit of tech that would be their silver bullet; a bespoke project management system, a sexy rendering technique, an interesting tool to do something.
But, of course, what really mattered was the character of the studio. What were their key tenets, their driving forces? Identifying that was important, and it wasn’t actually that hard. After all, if they’re your driving forces, they should be pretty obvious. It comes out in everything you do.
We just looked at what the key staff were interested in discussing, tried to understand what they felt was important, and how they organised their teams to deliver that.
So, when we visited Relic it quickly transpired that there was a real opportunity. It shouldn’t have been a surprise – within Creative Assembly, Company of Heroes and Dawn of War are highly respected. However, it was great to realise we had a lot in common – the core aspects that generate a studio’s character.
Some clues included how they discussed their games, their staff retention, despite fairly turbulent times, their pragmatic attitude and attention to detail, along with plenty of other pointers. They’re proud to be part of Relic, like we’re proud to be part of CA.
Some have asked what on earth a company that makes arcade and Sonic games would want with a PC strategy developer. That’s simply answered by looking at Sports Interactive and Creative Assembly – PC strategy games at their core, they’re very successful for Sega, and not only allow iterations on strong IP, but because of the nature of those games, they allow experimentation in new delivery methods and new markets.
Before the flight back, in a hotel meeting room like a post-nuclear war bunker, six of us put a financial plan together and communicated back to Japan. Within days, the board had approved a bid, Sega representatives went to Delaware to bid, and we were all really happy with the outcome.
It made me feel happy that Sega were back out showing confidence and spending money, and that senior management can make this happen in a very motivated way. And it makes me happy that Creative Assembly and Sports Interactive can get to know the other developer in the list of the top three best strategy games developers in the world.