Apple’s Svengali-like sway over the tech news media can spin the announcement of, essentially, a large iPhone into a historic moment in electronic entertainment.
But for all the company’s hubris and hyperbole when first unveiling the iPhone, even Steve Jobs didn’t predict the full impact the smartphone has made. The iPhone is shifting the axis of game development. To what extent remains up for debate, but the industry is seeing huge, high-profile talent move away from big studios and form their own small outfits. Adding to the growing list of iPhone defectors is former Rockstar Leeds’ lead engineer Lee Hutchinson – who is now forming his own Double 11, along with another long-serving Leeds employee.
We speak to Hutchinson about his studio’s new ambitions, as well as the shifting development sector itself.
An escalating number of high-profile developers are breaking away to form their own microstudios. Why?
I would say it’s a combination of factors. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the industry at the moment and people are fearful for their jobs. Those who think they’ve got what it takes to go it alone are thinking "what do I have to lose?"
I think also that a lot of developers are sick of huge all encompassing next-gen projects and want to get back to grass roots bedroom coding like it was in the 80’s and is for a lot of iPhone developers today. People want to keep their jobs exciting and that can soon wear off when you’re working on the same project year after year. I personally always like to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
How important is the iPhone in this ‘democratisation’ of the development industry?
The self publishing model is very attractive and social media marketing has made it possible for people to successfully market their own titles on shoe-string budgets. The combination of these two things has really levelled the playing field between indies and large publishing houses.
Is Double 11 going to keep to App Store games, or are you considering other mobile and social platforms? Also how about iPad-specific games? Android?
We are considering all platforms at the moment. I’d love to do a project for an android phone as it would be a great learning experience. I guess we are going to see where the wind takes us.
What is Double 11’s design philosophy? What types of experience to you want to create with the iPhone? What do you want to avoid?
Have fun, try anything no matter how crazy and fully utilise the unique qualities of each device. Always keep it interesting and try to avoid getting bogged down with any massive/long projects.
When are you set to release your first project?
We haven’t really put a time frame on it as we have so many options available to us at the moment. Ultimately we would love to be doing nothing other than self publishing our own titles but If we get offered the right job working for someone else we will seriously consider it. We really hope we’ll have something of our own which we are happy with by the summer.
What were the reasons for departing from Rockstar Leeds?
We both felt that it was time for some new challenges. Our successes in the past have been backed by large established franchises and we think that now is the time to take the plunge and try to make it of our own accord. We are looking forward to having the freedom to choose exactly what we do, which is a privilege that not many people have as employees of large companies.
Rockstar has faced a number of strong accusations regarding the treatment of its staff. From your own experience, did you think the ‘spouse’ accusations were fair?
It’s not really our place to comment on the spouse allegations although we can say that we both thoroughly enjoyed our time at Rockstar Leeds and the spouse allegations had no effect on our decisions to leave.
I think that unless you’ve actually been there and worked in their studio, you can’t really get a full picture on what a studio is like.
A number of people have worked there for a week or month, just helping out on things, but unless you’ve been through a whole project you cannot possibly understand how the company works.
Every game goes through crunch through some point, and Red Dead Redemption was one of those games, but you can’t really get an idea on how things are there unless you’ve been there for the beginning of the project.
How will your collective project experience at Rockstar help you on?
We’ve learnt a lot about what goes into making a great game at Rockstar and we know that some of that magic has rubbed off on us. We hope we can apply some of it to our own games. Also the experience we’ve gained across a range of handheld and mobile platforms will be invaluable to us in the future.
At Leeds you were involved in both Beaterator and Chinatown Wars projects. Was there a sense from management that the iPhone is now a key platform for the biggest studios and publishers?
With its huge and ever increasing install base it’s not surprising that everyone wants a piece of the pie. I definitely think it’s causing large publishers some problems though as their old retail based publishing pricing model doesn’t really work anymore.
But doesn’t a publishers’ presence places pressure on the smaller indie iPhone studios? Surely in a saturated market, the backing of a big publisher is ideal?
Hopefully there is room for everyone. The App Store has certainly had its fair share of ‘giant killers’ coming from small independent developers and, in a lot of cases, individuals.
What we want to do is make great games both for ourselves and for other people. With the rise of social media in the last couple of years it’s clearly being seen that if you make a great game people will tell their friends and then their friends will tell their friends and then they’ll tell… well you can see where I’m going here.
There must have been an element of fear in deciding to go it alone and walk away from a secure salary. What was the feeling when you and Matt began to realise you were about to walk away from Rockstar and commit to a new venture?
If there was any fear it was masked by a far greater amount of excitement. We are lucky to have enough pennies saved up to be able to concentrate on making Double 11 as successful as possible which certainly made the decision easier.
We always thought it was the right choice, it’s everyone else that thinks you’re crazy for leaving a regular pay cheque. For us, working in games is all about having fun and now we find ourselves in the lucky position where we can maximise the fun we have by making exactly the games we want to make. We hope some of that fun will find its way to the people who play our games!
Finally, must ask; why the name Double11?
It’s my lucky number! In the past it has brought me good fortune on so many occasions I’ve lost count… even at a roulette table.