It would be hard to find a developer that didn’t find itself working to the commands of a least two different voices in its head. After all, balancing the requests and scheduling commands of the publisher in one hand with the creative ideal and desire to develop a high-quality product in the other is an acrobatic trick worthy of the circus.
What is certain, though, is that Italian developer Milestone would be able to tell you a thing or two about duality. Not only does it face a confusing time maintaining its independence as part of a group of companies that also includes a publisher, the studio’s specialisation in racing titles has seen the developer courted by two different publishers to simultaneously develop rival titles.
Founded in 1996 by Antonio Farina, Milestone first developed the PC racing title Screamer for Virgin Interactive, firmly setting in place its roots as a specialist in the racing genre. From that start blossomed a company that eventually broadened its horizons to also include console and interactive TV games.
“We’ve had a typical evolution that I think everyone’s experienced,” says Farina. “We started by developing for PC, and only one console at a time. Then we switched to console, with Racing Evoluzione on the Xbox, but that was still a case of everyone working on just one project on one console.”
In 2002, Milestone joined the Leader Group, a cabal of companies that covers all areas of the game chain, including development, publishing, marketing, communication and distribution. Yet despite having an affiliated publisher, Milestone is quick to assert its position as an independent studio.
Initially, comments Farina, when the company joinied the Leader Group they only worked with their sister publisher Lago. It soon became apparent, however, that working with other publishers would actually be positive for all parties involved.
“When you work inside the same company you tend to lose sight of the market a little bit, which makes you a weaker company – so we decided to do development for other publishers and it benefits the both of us. And Lago is exactly the same – they publish both our titles and games from other developers.”
It was becoming part of the Leader Group that enabled the company to grow and accommodate simultaneous multi-platform, multi-title development. One of the titles the team is currently working on is set for release on five platforms, and yet the studio remains small, with 55 employees at the time of writing. “We use a lot of outsourcing, particularly on the graphical side, but we’re also starting to do the same on the programming side as well,” he explains.
“We’re getting organised to be flexible and make sure we can bring opportunities into the company without having to grow to strange sizes. The way we are now is a good size for keeping things under control.”
Keeping control is something the studio has to be very careful of. Specialising in racing games lead it to develop a name for itself in the field, which lead to the strange situation the company currently enjoys.
It’s not often that there are many studios that are developing two similar, competing titles for different publishers, but that’s exactly the situation Milestone currently finds itself in, with it working on the Superbike World Championship licence for it’s Leader Group cohort Lago and the PS2 MotoGP licence for Capcom.
It may be strange, says Farina, but it’s a situation that actually benefits both publishers. “The experience we get in specialising in two similar licences, from a development point of view, is something that helps publishers to be more confident that the product can be of high quality.
“There’s extra things involved in creating a licenced title – maintaining a relationship with the licensors, obtaining data from across the world, dealing with approvals etc. So we have experience in this part, which is very delicate.”
But, of course, balancing the efforts for the publishers is difficult, to ensure that neither feels that they are losing out to the other or receiving an inferior product. Key to managing this, Farina explains, was the identifying of different markets for the two titles.
“Although the two licences look similar from the outside, in reality the MotoGP licence is more mass-market, it’s stronger, while the Superbike licence is more for those with a large passion for bikes.
“So we tried to differentiate this. Confidence from the publisher comes from how professional you are in identifying the unique strengths of each product, and we try to work together with the publisher to decide how to exploit the licence in the best possible way,” he says.
And with the recent spate of specialised racing studios being bought out by big publishers, it’s a good thing that Milestone has come to terms with this sort of duality – being one of the few remaining independent racing studios puts them in a perfect position to accept more of it into its life in the future.