Interview: Kromeâ??s Robert Walsh

As one of the largest independent developers in the world, now with over 400 staff, it’s quite common to see Australian indie Krome Studios working on two completely different projects at the same time.

The company – dissected by its Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne offices – is currently finishing up the latest Transformers title for the Wii and PS2, though it’s also developing a digital-only 2D side-scrolling action game based on a comic book.The company, to a large extent, is a microcosm of the broadening tastes and practices of the entire development community. At the centre of this eclectic spread of projects, aims and ambitions is Krome’s CEO Robert Walsh.

Accordingly, we sit down with him to discuss a wide range of issues, from console exclusivity, to the future of digital games, to ever-rising budgets.

Having worked on Scene It and Viva Piñata Party Animals for the Xbox 360, what are the virtues of console exclusivity for a third-party developer, especially when there are so many target markets identified through all the different platforms?
The beauty of platform exclusivity is that you can get the most out of the hardware. You can design and build your game around the structure of the technology.

I think, unless a publisher specifically chooses to invest on all the platforms separately, you end up on cross-platform development always having to make a compromise, and that’s difficult.

As well as delivering exclusive titles, Krome has produced a wide array of games across numerous consoles. Is such an assignment only feasible with a large development group?
I think so. The biggest thing delivering for a number of consoles is investment in R&D and technology.

We have about forty to fifty people just working on internal tools and tech, and that’s bigger than some game studios. So a huge investment isrequired to be able to support all those platforms.

Krome has clearly developed close ties with Microsoft, having delivered two high-profile family games for the system. What’s your view on Microsoft’s push into the family market?
I think one of those two consoles [PS3 and 360] has to, because if you’re thinking back to the PS2 days, the PS2 was always perceived as a little bit more family-friendly than the Xbox was. Naturally, as a console’s install base grows, it will broaden.

Now the Wii has attacked some of that family market, but I think the Xbox is going to excel from the broader community.

Take one of the 360’s online initiatives, XBLA. I look at some of the downloads from that and see it as a way of broadening to the consumer. The same thing will happen with the PS3 too. Right now there’s a lot of things outside of ‘core games’ that makes the 360 more of a broadening device.

From a developer’s standpoint, what are the virtues of digital titles?

We’ve actually got two in development at the moment. One is going to be a 2D/3D side-scrolling action game based on a comic book character that one of my colleagues had out there for a while.

The really cool thing about the digital games platform is it allows you to test your IP in the marketplace without technically having to spend millions and millions of dollars to get to a perfect concept.

So I think it’s a really good way to try and innovate at less cost than going straight into a box product and, you know, the model works pretty well as long as you keep your dev costs in check and you have something that’s kind of cool and different.

I think it’s a great model and we can see all the guys are pushing it pretty hard now. Sony has its new first party initiative, for example, which is interesting.

Do you see Krome ever taking up that offer?
We’re definitely going to apply, put in some concepts.

The digital space is there and both [Sony and Microsoft are] attacking it for sure. I don’t know whether it will ever get rid of retail though.

Sony seems to be expanding digital distribution much more aggressively. Recently the company announced the US edition of Patapon 2 would be released as a digital game only, to which Stardock’s Brad Wardell warned: “Retailers need to be careful about this stuff. They’re kind of signing their own death warrants once they push digital distribution at the store.” Would you agree?
Yeah I agree. Maybe it might be just because I’m older, but there’s still something about walking in and holding and buying a boxed product.

Books are available to read digitally but why don’t we stop buying paperbacks?

You feel there’s still a collectability value to videogames, something that digital content cannot have?
I don’t think digital products can be collectable, by the nature of what they are. They’re almost ‘things’, but not quite. You lose your hard drive and you lose everything.

Or lose it all when you upgrade to the next console.
Exactly, and until those issues of virtual space are solved, I think people will still pay a premium for the box.

I think what the DLC stuff does is it allows developers and publishers to extend the franchise. You finish a retail game and you download another level, you download new costumes or new key features.

In that sense, would you say digital content is useful in responding to user feedback? If the community wants a new character in Street Fighter IV, for example, then Capcom can respond to that demand far quicker than with a traditional boxed sequel?
Yeah it does. The only problem with that is, with the digital content, you kind have to build it from the ground up so a game has a framework in place to make big changes. If you don’t do that properly, you’re still going to struggle on the digital side.

Which makes projects even bigger and more expensive?
Yeah exactly.

Budgets continue to rise in game development and are showing no signs of slowing down. What are the modern conflicts in today’s development era?
I think that sometimes the goals between publishers and developers aren’t exactly on the same page, and I think we’re struggling right now in the industry as a whole.

As budgets continue to rise it’s becoming increasingly harder to make money out of a title.

Thinking about just the volume of sales that are required to recoup a twenty or thirty million dollar game, I mean, you’re talking many millions of copies.

I think that’s one thing that the press, to a certain extent, is forgetting. They’re saying sales have increased over ten percent since last year or whatever; I mean, dev costs have probably doubled or tripled in the console transition.

To go back to the PS2 days, not too many people were making ten million dollar PS2 games.

Develop’s interview with Robert Walsh comes as part of our special series of interviews with some of the world’s largest and most celebrated independent developers.

Previous entries in our series includes Crytek’s Cevat Yerli, Rebellion’s Kingsley Brothers (pt 2), Grin’s Andersson brothers (pt 2), High Voltage’s Eric Nofsinger, Starbreeze’s Johan Kristiansson and Jagex’s Mark Gerhard.

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