Develop speaks to studio manager Sion Lenton on the developer's ambitions in the digital space

Interview: Sega Hardlight

Last June Sega announced it was opening a third UK branch from the ashes of its Racing Studio.

Revealed as Sega Hardlight in January this year, the developer was focused on creating a unique action adventure game exclusively for Vita.

In an exclusive interview with Develop, Sega Hardlight studio manager Sion Lenton describes who makes up the 21-strong outfit, and how it has moved away from Vita – at least for now – and into developing digital titles for iOS, Android and Windows.

Who is currently on the team at Sega Hardlight?
Hardlight is made up of a small, agile, digital development team who’s focus is on innovation and quality. I’m not a fan of the phrase “Boutique Studio” but in our case, located in an ancient manor house in the rural outback of the West Midlands, I guess it’s technically accurate!

Hardlight was formed and is run by Chris Southall (former chief technology officer for SEGA Europe & America).

The team is made up of a wide cross-section of developers from all disciplines, the majority of them with ten plus years of development experience on multiple physical and digital platforms.

Some of them are from the original 2005 Sega Rally team, some are from Sega’s R&D team, while the rest have been hired specifically with a view to creating high quality digital products distributed on a wide range of smart devices as well as providing support for various titles such as Sonic Unleashed, Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, Empire: Total War, Bayonetta, Vanquish.

A a result of this is that they are fast, really fast. Gone are the days that I would have to wait weeks, even months to try out a new feature, now I just have to wait until Thursday.

Our overarching goal is to leverage the outstanding IP that Sega has and create new products crafted specifically for modern digital devices, this also means no virtual controllers!

How many staff do you employ?

We currently sit at 21 permanent staff. This fluctuates as a by-product of using contract staff & short cycles of four-to-eight months on digital titles. This allows us to dynamically adjust our team profile to handle multiple products.

The goal is to keep Hardlight small for now but I’m sure we will expand over time as we build upon a foundation of successful products.

Are you recruiting? How many employees are you targeting over the next year and in what positions?
Yes we are, whilst our plan for the next year is to remain at roughly the same size we are looking for some key positions. As well as engineering and design positions we are also looking for QA support staff. They will not only be involved in traditional bug testing but also reviewing prototype mechanics and preliminary builds.

We put a lot of effort into our prototypes, many of us have been burned before by being rushed and pressured to create features with little or no time spent to find out whether something will work and most importantly, if it will actually be fun.

We’ve tried to create an atmosphere that facilitates creativity and allows ideas to incubate and grow. In my opinion the key factor in a great studio culture is not about pinball machines or dogs riding around the office on Segways, it’s the staff you hire.

As a result we are very particular and take our time hiring to ensure we have the best team for the job. Everyone is expected to contribute creatively which is how it should be in small teams.

We expect our Engineers to constantly question and challenge our designers and artists – and vice versa. This allows us to strive for excellence and also mature and develop as a team.

Why did you decide to join Sega Hardlight as studio manager?
 After spending the last few years managing team sizes in the hundreds on projects costing millions of pound I felt the need for change.

The mobile market is fast overtaking the traditional console market in both numbers and most importantly innovation. This excited me far more than making another FPS or driving game.

Hardlight offered the opportunity to innovate in this sector in ways I hadn’t dreamed, the teams are small, agile and completely open to new ideas. Our development practices allow us to innovate and prototype ideas in a timescale that was frankly unimaginable a few years ago.

The great thing about this is that we can throw away ideas that don’t work, fail fast and move on. On top of that we have some frankly amazing IP to play with in Sega’s catalogue, and an opportunity to build something from the ground up for mobile devices.

The other great thing about working on these digital titles is the astonishing level of detail you can harvest about the way people play your games, from whether they skip a cut scene to how many times they’ve tried to complete a particular challenge.

This information is vital in getting to the root of what gamers do as opposed to what they think and allows us to constantly develop and tweak the product once it’s in their hands, and in so many hands.

You look at the smartphone market and see that 406 million smart phones shipped in Q2 2012 alone, that figure is pretty consistent for the previous quarters as well.

It became obvious to me that it was time for a change. Why spend tens of millions trying to target a million or so console users when you can reach out to a billion users at a fraction of that cost and create something brand new?

What platforms is the studio focused on working on? And will you be focused on just digital or boxed retail as well?
Hardlight is a digital Studio, a philosophy that is reflected by Sega’s recent focus on developing new digital content.

We are multi-platform, producing titles for iOS, Android, Windows & other OS – with a focus towards hand-held devices – although we just produced a PC version of The Creative Assembly’s Viking: Battle for Asgard as we had some spare resource during the studio’s switch over from technical support groups across the business.

As part of Sega, we have great relations with all first parties so we are able to keep up to date on all the latest hardware and software that’s coming through and figure out how best we want to use it.

What will be the studio’s main focus? Will you be concentrating on a particular genre/franchise, such as racing?
 The question isn’t "what are we going to do," the question is "what aren’t we going to do?"

We have no plans to limit ourselves to one genre, our ethos is more exploration of ideas and finding mechanics that we feel will stimulate and excite our users.

We have a huge box of toys to play with and we’ve only just begun to play with them, we are starting fairly small, leveraging Sega IP and as former console developers, learning about making games in the digital space.

As you see our roadmap develop, you’ll see some more surprising & delighting uses of Sega IP, as well as original IP.

What are the plans for the studio in the long-term? Will this be a major UK studio?
 SEGA’s relationship with its UK studios is one of developing excellence, Sports Interactive and The Creative Assembly are testaments to that philosophy and Hardlight will be no different.

We really do feel like we are at the cutting edge of innovation and technology. It’s an incredibly exciting place to be and for the first time in years I feel like I’m part of something that can really deliver experiences that make people smile. That rocks!

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