Relentless co-founder discusses overtime and Buzz imitations

Q&A: David Amor, part one

Developers reading this are likely to reflect on two things when thinking about Relentless: Buzz and overtime.

It’s these very two observations of the Brighton-based studio that co-founder David Amor (pictured) is aiming to change.

That’s not to say he isn’t pleased with what the studio has achieved. On the contrary; over our two-part interview you’ll read about the pride Relentless has with its influential quiz game and its unique zero-overtime policy.

But Sega is worth more than Sonic, Valve is worth more than Half-Life and now – in working on a new self-published title – the Relentless team are trying to show you the extent of their talent.

Part one of our interview takes a look at the studio itself. Part two will see Amor discuss Playstation 3, Natal, casual games, digital titles and a bit more on the studio’s newest project.

When you’re interviewing potential new workers, what do they often say attracted them to Relentless?
There are a few things. Some people like the games that we’re working on, others are interested because it’s a solid place to work – y’know, Relentless isn’t a studio that suddenly going to go under in a few months’ time.

We have a good track record, a good relationship with Sony that people see as a value, and I do think some people come here because they may be a little burnt out from other places, obviously we’re quite vocal about our pledge of no overtime, so I think we could be more attractive to people looking for a life beyond work.

How does your policy of no overtime and no crunch periods actually affect development?
We’re very organised when it comes to development. But because we say we work seven-hour days, that doesn’t mean that we do any less work than anyone else.

Having worked at other companies, from my personal experience, when we were working longer days we tended to do a day’s work but just over a longer period, if that makes sense.

From my experience, after-hours developers tended not to be particularly focused about what they were doing because they knew they were going to be there until 10pm. That was certainly the case for me.

At Relentless we just make sure everyone is working when they’re in the office; it’s well-structured and organised.

There’s nothing hugely radical about it aside from the fact that people tend to keep their head down. It’s no less creative as a result, there’s certainly lots of interesting things going on; the policy just means that rather than developers spreading their work out over a long day, they are instead doing it in a shorter and more solid period.

Now looking at it, calling ourselves Relentless seems a bit forceful. Really it meant that we work at a consistent rate.

It’s a comfort to know that, what you’ll get out of someone one week, you’ll also get out of them the next week. What we get out of people in the first phase, we get during the phase from beta to final.

Why is it that so many studios don’t seem to be replicating your position on being free from overtime?
In the past I’ve found that – as a team manager – I’d get a pat on the head and a nice bonus for having my team work weekends and in the evenings.

I think there’s a feeling at the top that, if you’re working all hours, then it feels like more work is getting done, which is something the heads at studios and indeed publishers like to hear.

But fundamentally, we don’t believe anymore gets done.

As projects and budgets continue to get bigger, and as the stakes for success get higher, do you feel Relentless will be able to maintain this policy of no crunch and no overtime?
Well, we’re six years in now without ever needing to do those things. I think the policy would have failed by now if it didn’t work.

Bear in mind that we’ve stuck to this strategy whilst going through a tough platform transition from PS2 to PS3. I mean, some people say to us it’s easier because historically we’ve made mostly quiz games, but I think we’ve had a similar set of challenges to other developers where we have had to deliver high quality on new technology.

If a project is more risky for us, then we add more contingency time.

In some respects I regret drawing attention to our working policies. People say “Oh, Relentless? The place where you do 9-5 with no crunch” and while I’m really proud of that fact, we’re also a successful independent UK company that’s consistently developed high quality multi-million selling games. It’s a shame that people tend to focus on our no-crunch policy, although in fairness we banged the drum about it a lot in our first few years.

Does Relentless carry a plan for expanding its studios?
Well right now we’re in a nice position where we’re being offered more work than we can do. We’re exclusive with Sony and we get on well with them, and they’re happy to commission Buzz games and other games.

So I have more work than I have people, but then again I don’t want to make the mistake of hiring people in a hurry because when I’ve done that in the past it has broken the work culture and caused other unexpected problems.

So I think you’ll see steady growth in line with the demands of the products, but I don’t want to start hiring ten new faces a month all of a sudden. We’ll grow strategically.

Relentless has been around since 2003; what is your ultimate ambition for the company?
Y’know, when we all got together at Relentless in the beginning it was to finish a game we were working on. With the company we were working at before Relentless [Computer Artworks], our prime motivation was to finish that game off. We didn’t think much further than those six months [laughs].

Now our biggest challenge is to prove that we’re not a one-trick pony. The Buzz franchise has been fantastic for us, but I want to demonstrate to the world that we can do this again, and again.

I believe that we at Relentless look at games in a different way, and that’s how Buzz came about. We didn’t put out C-team on it, we gave it our all, we polished it until we were really happy with it. And I think that we really treat the social game market really seriously and don’t just think about the hardcore gamer, but the whole family as well.

I think that puts us in a really good place to make games for non-gamers. We really challenge our preconceptions about what a game should be, and we did that a lot with Buzz – I don’t think that shows so much on the surface, but we put a lot of thought into these things.

Well, it was a format that was certainly copied.
[Laughs] Yes! Sometimes I wince about that; we went through a lot of design studies and thought really hard about things, and then we saw certain games that just happened to be very similar to ours.

It is interesting to me to see those who have copied us have gone down a traditional game design route. It’s easy to do the same things, but I think you really need to think hard when developing games that are aimed at attracting wider audiences.

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