Change is in the air at Guildford, the south-of-London city which has always been a key spot for games development in the UK but has seen a resurgence of late. From the recent spate of newly-opened outfits – such as Kuju’s Doublesix and Codemasters’ new studio – through to hotly-watched independents like Media Molecule and its Microsoft-owned alma mater Lionhead, the area is booming.
Things are no different at EA’s Bright Light studio, the recently-rebranded and now casual-focused group in EA UK which towers over its Guildford contemporaries both literally (thanks to its lofty spot in the newer Electronic Arts Guildford high-rise offices) and historically (the team proudly toasts a heritage that includes the likes Theme Park, Syndicate, Populous and Dungeon Keeper by way of EA’s 1995 Bullfrog acquisition).
In mid-2008 Bright Light finds itself at an interesting time in EA’s overall history. With CEO John Riccitiello returning to the lead the company last year, the ‘Change Agenda’ he has since put in place famously restructured the firm into four labels – one of which is the Casual Entertainment imprint Bright Light now reports to.
At the same time, EA has been on widely-reported hunt for new ideas and fresh IP. Skate last year helped usher in this new era, outselling rival Tony Hawk by almost two to one. But EA being EA it doesn’t want just one fresh new franchise, it wants a stable of them, ready to set the company up for future success. And a few years ago, the team at Bright Light (back when it had just been organised into its previous incarnation EA UK), was charged with tackling this same challenge.
You won’t be surprised to hear that Bright Light’s developers say their answer – a new Nintendo DS children’s rhythm-action game called Zubo set for release later this year – proves that lightning can strike twice in corporate confines, creating and fostering a new idea from nothing. But what might surprise you is how the team’s rule-breaking insistence and focus, and a willingness to argue back with their bosses, helped contribute to EA’s new corporate culture – which is being watched by many in the industry.
Zubo’s rule-breaking nature was inherent at the start of its inception – back before it even had a name, explains executive producer Rob O’Farrell. Early on it was decided that the team, which originally cut its teeth as the handheld-focused Fusion unit creating the likes of Burnout Legends, would be flexing its muscles toned making the portable Harry Potter titles to build a new kids IP. O’Farrell and concept artist Jacques Gauthier took a cue from that licence and chose to focus from the start on something that would be just as character driven and distinct.
“We wanted to be able to build a world through characters, and something which could have strength and longevity,” O’Farrell explains to Develop in a room at EA’s UK studio base (Criterion are on the next floor) that is filled with Zubo concept artwork. “I didn’t want anything where you could say ‘I’ve seen this before’,” he explains, pointing regularly to a Zubo poster which features the games 55 individual ‘Zubo’ characters, which young players meet in the gameworld.
But games for children – “good games for children,” O’Farrell stresses – are hard to get right. “In kids’ character games you’ve got to see the characters and go ‘wow’ straight away and see the life in the characters,” he says, pointing out that the biggest kids game hits of recent times, Lego Star Wars and Pokémon, worked their charms via animation and stylism. And while ‘make the next Pokémon’ is easy to write on paper, it’s not something you can magic out of thin air, even after years building digital recreations of Hogwarts.
So the team shut itself off from the rest of EA and rejected a timetable for production, instead kicking about ideas and character concepts for a number of months – a stark difference to many other games, whether produced at EA or not, which can have a somewhat rushed concept art phase.
“It was very different, being allowed to let everything go. It means we were asking more questions, but it was much more liberating in a creative sense,” says Gauthier, who adds that the months spent refining the concept work meant that the style of the game was very definite before a single line of code was written.
Indeed, Develop’s first encounter with Zubo, back when it went under another name, was during a previous visit to the EA Guildford office over a year ago and a chance wander past the Zubo team with its walls covered in character artwork. The watchful eyes and ushering hands of a PR quickly dragged us away – but even then the artistic vision was as clear as it is on our cover artwork and across these pages today.
But the secretive nature meant that the team was under the radar for quite a long time at EA – for both good and ill. Explains O’Farell: “We started becoming referred to as this secret-type project that people heard about, but didn’t really know anything concrete on. We didn’t have a SKU plan at that point – something unusual for EA because that means no ship date.
“It caused arguments – because it was an unusual thing, that not every one knew about, and it had no revenue against it but was spending money on pre-production,” he admits, but the team took a chance and chose to ignore the accountants. “We just wanted to get a feel for the characters. And because we kept quiet, there was ultimately no interference.”
And, in time, the people signing the cheques eventually saw the upside as the artwork and concept designs continued to impress and capture imaginations. “This was very much out of EA’s comfort zone. We are used to sports games, used to FPS games – but not used to things like this, so we were allowed the extra time to find out what makes these things work. Because we kept quiet – and never at any point said ‘oh, we’ve got this great game here already, let’s announce it to the press’ – there was no pressure, and no one telling us what to do or trying to meddle.”
As the team refined its ideas, they found themselves continuing to push against the ‘EA regime’ (our words, not theirs). And when the time came to actually designing a gameplay mechanic that featured the characters, the team let the art drive the direction, rather than follow any corporate mandate.
Having created a cast of 55 characters, one art prototype featured each Zubo on its own collectible playing card, which proved a compulsive part of the pitching process. The team would often just take the cards to exec meetings instead of code or artwork; at a senior level, EA chief creative officer Bing Gordon was a big fan of the cards because of their tactile nature.
“Because the cards had been so popular, we looked at how that would work if the characters existed in a card game,” says game designer Dom Oldrey. “But it soon became apparent that while we were having a lot of fun, other players weren’t enjoying the game. It was becoming very strategy focused, almost like chess.” So, in another instance of the team rejecting what execs liked in favour of gut instinct, Oldrey revamped the card game idea into a battle system that crossed scissor-paper-stone with collectible card games. He explains that the result is a blend of Top Trumps mixed with resource management elements – and the invites Develop to play a physical version of it because the team, of course, had made a new mock-up of the card game, complete with cards, rules and battle board. The result is very playable, and boasts the makings of a solid core gameplay mechanic, or the ‘five minutes of replayable fun’ which any designer will admit is crucial to both core games experiences, such as Halo and Pokemon, and casual ones like Minesweeper and Bejewelled.
But even when turned into software, the team felt the idea still wasn’t perfect. “At that point, we had something that was probably okay to work from – we could have finished it and shipped it, but it wouldn’t have been the game it is now,” says Oldrey.
A software prototype of the card game soon provided more feedback – although the battling card prototype was fun, people testing the game had more fun with a last minute battle mechanic that had been put in to make players press a button at a certain time during battle to obtain more powerful attacks. It provided a brainwave moment that Oldrey says wouldn’t have come about if the game hadn’t been continually prototyped.
“It became fairly clear incredibly quickly that we should be doing rhythm action,” he says, adding that “the characters make that kind of experience a lot more enjoyable than something like the beat-matching games which are all rhythm, no action.”
It’s at this point you might think that Zubo’s story ends, with a SKU-plan finally rolled out, and the game rushed into production for anything that could host it; PSP, Wii, PC, 360… but not so for the Bright Light team. The near-stubborn, singular vision driving the team’s behaviour extended itself to the game’s target format – Zubo, at least at first, is only arriving on one system: the DS.
“We want to make a console-quality game for the DS,” says O’Farrell, acknowledging that the single-format approach goes against the conventional wisdom that says a new IP needs to hit as many formats at once to make money. “But there’s no reason why the DS should be seen as the second cousin for games content. Especially when the market is so big.”
Producer Michael Heywood adds: “I hope we’ve proven already that we’re really committed to innovation, and we wanted to use that push the platform’s boundaries further. It’s a new IP – we shouldn’t have to just do tried and tested methods with the artwork and do a disservice to the characters we’ve created.”
O’Farrell agrees. “And sticking to DS keeps us focused on quality. We’ve really had to focus on quality because we’re ultimately looking at an audience that EA doesn’t necessarily hit,” he says.
Of course music is of paramount importance in a rhythm action game – and is even more crucial to get right on a format like the DS, which head of audio Lydia Andrew says can pose a problem from the off. When it came to tackling this, EA took the same aggressive approach it took to the rest of the production.
“One the things that is most important in a game where half the experience is driven by music is to understand how players interact and treat music on that platform. And on the DS it turns out that people, on the whole, turn the sound off, so we’ve had to make music that convinces them not to,” she explains.
The game has 13 music tracks that accompany in-game battles and which players must tap the DS touchscreen in time with at key moments.
“From a technical point of view that music has been incredibly complex to write. Every piece of music has to have exactly the same BPM, tempo and key construction to fit within the rhythm of the battle’s rhythm action mechanic.”
And while the art team on Zubo was allowed to gestate and form their ideas, like-wise the audio team has been encouraged to find new ways to fulfill its creative vision.
The first of these was to do a lot of research in the spectrum of playback on the DS’ speakers, and work out how you could program audio to sound the best it can in those response ranges, explains Andrew.
“It’s something we know a lot of games get wrong on handheld – I loved Loco Roco’s sound, for instance, but the minute you took the headphones out it just folded in on itself and it was full of hiss. So we can’t just hope people listen on headphones – we want to make sure that if kids play it with the speakers on it grabs them and isn’t…” She shudders at the thought of low-quality audio – in the way only a game audio programmer could.
Another change has been embracing MIDI files for audio playback on the DS – a necessity as WAV files of each track would take up too much room on the cartridge. “At the very start of the project I was concerned about having to use MIDI – in my head it sounds like ‘plinky plonky’ music – and I kept asking if could have the biggest DS cart ever and just put lots of music files in there.”
What turned the situation around was a revamp of the studio’s audio pipeline, producing what Andrew calls another ‘first for EA’. The studio now has a batch processing system built into its pipeline which is set to optimise, via a series of plugins, audio files to be played back on a DS.
Explains Andrew: “It maximises every aspect of a sound to its best – and has worked wonders for us. We’ve got some sparkly sounds which you’d think would sound dreadful on a DS, but have run through the pipeline and have been boosted to work in that spectrum of sound.”
All through the extended production (the game is now into an alpha stage, with lots of bug testing already under way early in production – another attempt to buck the trends of development), O’Farrell and his team took a cue from their work with, of all people, J. K. Rowling to work out how they would continue to secure exec buy-in. And, they say, it turns out that the bosses at EA actually appreciate designers and developers who stick to their guns to maintain their vision.
“Working with Jo Rowling and learning from her process really helped us understand how to control, decide and adapt our fiction,” says O’Farrell. “Often on the Harry Potter games Jo would be very accommodating to us, but sometimes she would just say no to our ideas, and explain why suggesting something wouldn’t work in the context of the fiction. That was a great learning process. Likewise we have had to be really firm – and here we’ve learnt that they [motions skyward as if to point to senior EA execs] really respect it when you argue back.”
O’Farrell adds that in time it became increasingly clear to all involved that for a company like EA to learn about fostering an environment which encouraged new IP it would have to allow for creative push and pull – and more flexible deadlines – than it had previously.
“It was hard sometimes, because exec members – on previous projects – sometimes want a game they are overseeing to be the game they want to make, and not the game everyone else wants, or should be making. I felt that changed with Zubo – and the execs here really learnt, and we end up coming out of meetings having won our side on a certain point. Sometimes it’s not the case, and we get a bollocking – but you know they still support us and believe in our ability to deliver.
“It’s been a learning curve for us, and has been revolutionary for everyone. I think other teams at EA are now going to know that ‘if Zubo can do it, so can we’. It’s already happening at EA and elsewhere in other companies – the same kind of thing is happening with Dead Space at EA LA for instance, and I think the industry as a whole acknowledges that it needs to start generating new IPs, but find the right ways to do it.”
But the fact that Zubo survived the change to this process, and many of the problems inherent at the ‘old EA’ (for a time the firm was notorious for having produced numerous projects that were canned just before they hit alpha), is all the more remarkable. In Zubo’s behind-the-scenes lifespan, it has been under the stewardship of three different general managers as the EA UK operation shifted and changed until settling down into two separate studios – Bright Light and neighbour Criterion Games.
In chatting with the latest of those GMs, Bright Light head Harvey Elliott, Develop gets the sense that Zubo isn’t just a special project given time to breathe, but also emblematic of the mood at the studio. Clearly, the studio and its teams feel they are just as worthy of attention as Criterion and its popular Burnout franchise (and given that Bright Light is working on Zubo, a new Potter title and games based on Hasbro properties – all part of EA’s new Casual Entertainment label – it’s hard not to agree). And as the story of Zubo’s creation shows, the team wants to prove that games don’t always have to be made under the same constraints as those that went before them.
“We always wanted to have, alongside Potter, something that was original, a bit more risky and unproven like Zubo. And then further along something that united both of that and was a bit more family oriented, like our new Hasbro games,” explains Elliott on his overall plan for Bright Light.
“In making Zubo, we never really wanted it to draw on anything else – it has very much had to be its own thing, and have its own identity. And I think the fact that, while the game has been in the works for three and a bit years, it still feels fresh to many of us – there is something in it that really draws people in – which speaks a great deal to how that process has worked.
“And we’ve been very careful internally not to throw up our hands and go ‘Hey everybody, this is a franchise!’, because at some point someone has to step up and say ‘Well, this is the product’. That’s why we thought it was right to focus as much on DS as we can. Once it’s released – that’s when we we’ll figure out what might happen next. That’s been one of the great challenges, exciting and frustrating for various people, about the game, We’re learning to make these new games for new casual audiences in a totally new way.”