Earlier this year, five former Rare developers, some of whom had previously worked on a number of triple-A games such as Goldeneye, Viva Pinata and Starfox Adventures, left behind console development to form their own independent studio with a strong focus on mobile.
Called Flippin Pixels, the Leicester-based studio was founded by software director James Ackroyd, studio director Steven Brand, art director Steven Hurst, design director Shaun Read and technical director Gary Richards, and is one of a wave of mobile start-ups to emerge in the UK over the past few years.
But having worked successfully on triple-A games at one of the UK’s most world-renowned and successful studios, why break away and go into mobile? Speaking to Develop, Steven Brand says the developers were keen to take on a new challenge, although they wouldn’t rule out a return to console development in the future.
“We weren’t keen to break away from console development per say, that wasn’t the reason, and we’re not saying that we’d never work on consoles again; it’s just a new challenge and a new opportunity really,” says Brand.
“If there’s a good opportunity to work on console again it’s something we’d certainly consider. But at the present, as with I guess a lot of indies, mobile is a nice, quick way to get something into the market and experiment with doing your own stuff.”
A scary jump
But that’s not to say it was an easy jump to make. Design director Shaun Read, says leaving a relatively well-paid job for the unknowns of indie development was a scary moment in his career, but is one that he wouldn’t talk others out of making if they have a good idea.
“It’s a scary jump,” he says. “When you’ve got a guaranteed income coming into your bank account every month, to go home and tell your wife that ‘I’m going to give up my relatively well paid job and we’re not going to get paid for a little while’ is an interesting conversation to have.
“But the experience we’ve had so far, I certainly wouldn’t talk people out of it. I’d say if you’ve got a good idea, and a good set of people, that’s what it’s all about. We’ve been really lucky that the group of people that we all decided to get together, everybody was pretty much top of their field at Rare.”
The studio’s first title is Skim it is based on the classic past time of stone skimming across water. Users are tasked with trying to throw their stones across a pond through flick gestures on the touch screen to sink small boats making their way across the waters.
Brand says the game took around four months to complete, snd having previously spent five years with Flippin Pixels co-founder Read developing Nintendo Gamecube title Starfox Adventures, released in 2002, Brand says working with a smaller team combined with faster development times has been an energising experience for the team.
“Scale is the obvious main difference. We were working with a team of five people, whereas we’d been use to working with a team up into the hundreds, so that’s the main difference,” he says.
“Speed of turnaround as well, we’ve turned Skim it around in about four months, so in terms of getting the product out there it’s been a very quick process. As Shaun mentioned before, we both worked together on Starfox Adventures, and I think that was five years of our lives.
“So it’s certainly quite energising to be working on quicker projects, and now Skim it is released we’re looking at our next project and we’ve given ourselves about a six month timeframe to get the first iteration out.”
Read says that quicker mobile development and working in a small team they control has afforded the developers room to make mistakes again as they try out new creative ideas, something console red tape and large development teams creating hugely polished triple-A titles could not always allow.
He adds that without the process of console development, “you’re not afraid to try things, and being a designer, that’s a really cool thing”.
But is that stifling of creativity sometimes experienced by developers at big triple-A studios a problem? Read says the answer isn’t as simple as that.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem, I think it’s a necessary evil,” he explains.
“If you’re making a game with a huge budget, it has to be right, and it has to be right first time. So yes, you do get that process, and maybe the idea you came up with in the first place doesn’t end up exactly how you imagined it would be, but yes, I think that’s part of the industry nowadays. There’s a lot of voices, a lot of owners and that’s the way it is, which is the beauty of working with five people I guess.”
Having now released their debut title in Skim it, and being able to constantly iterate on the fly based on analytics and consumer feedback, the studio is already working on its next title aimed at the mid-core crowd.
Read says they now have the confidence to tackle bigger projects, and would like to develop high-end games for mobile platforms similar to Naturalmotion and Boss Alien’s hugely successful CSR Racing, which generated $12 million in just its first month.
Naturalmotion CEO Torsten Reil told Develop last year that there was a huge opportunity for UK developers, given the country’s strong roots in triple-A console development, to create high quality games for mobile. This is something Flippin Pixels is keen to build on.
“I think everybody would agree here that our time at Rare, it puts you in such a good place,” he says.
“I mean Rare’s reputation was always built on making the best quality games we could. In the early days, we spent five years on a game, and it was usually a case of ‘it’ll be ready when it’s ready, and it’ll be the best it can possibly be’. And I think taking that way of thinking into any game, you just try and make it as polished as you possibly can, and hopefully that’s what makes our games stick out.”
On developing high-end mobile games, he adds: “I think that’s exactly what we’d like to do. I think if you design a game in such a way you can still make console quality looking games with a relatively small team on a mobile device. You’ve hit the nail on the head really, that’s exactly the kind of thing we’re looking at.
“I think a lot of success for mobile devices comes from that scenario where you downloaded one of the latest games on to your latest fancy phone and you just want to show your mates, just to show them what your phone can do.
"I think, like you said with CSR Racing, I think that’s what nailed that, that was a group of friends just saying ‘have you seen this’, it literally looks like something you play on your Xbox. But, the actual control of the game was incredibly simple, and it’s doable with not hundreds and hundreds of people.”
The team at Flippin Pixels have given themselves just six months to develop their next game, and are currently looking for funding and a publisher for the title.
But despite being a larger project than Skim it on the horizon, Read says development for the game has been planned out in mind with just the five developers as the core team on the project, although they may bring in freelance help.
In fact, he says, the ultimate goal for the developer is to stay as an indie studio, the freedom of which is something these former console developer developers are enjoying immensely.
“I think our ultimate goal is to stay as an indie studio. But obviously share some of the success that some of the guys out there are obviously doing,” he says.
“We’re enjoying the freedom of being an indie. Like I say, it’s all about making your own mistakes. I’ve been saying that for a while, and you kind of get to the point where you can’t actually make mistakes anymore. That sounds a bit weird but as a creative process I think you do have to make mistakes.”