UK game industry veterans Trevor Williams and Nick Wheelwright reckon they can inject new life into independent games development with their new studio, Playground.
As revealed by Develop last November, Swordfish founder and subsequent Codemasters Birmingham GM Williams and ex-Codemasters MD Wheelright have opened a new studio based in the Midlands that will look to exploit new business models.
Williams recently left Codemasters, a year after the UK publisher bought his studio Swordfish following Activision’s decision to sell of key Vivendi assets after merging with Blizzard. He told Develop he wants to now remain an independent developer.
“Last year was tough for me when Activision divested Swordfish,” he said. “I founded it 15 years ago and watched it grow up. I wasn’t sure I wanted to run another studio after that.
“But Nick approached me after I’d left – we’d crossed paths before, but never worked together; he had left Codemasters before I joined. And it turned out there was overlap in what we want to achieve. He’s a smart guy, a good accountant, and I build strong dev teams.”
Williams plans to build such a team – but plans to draw the line at having 20 staff.
He explained: “When it came to talking about what we wanted to do, a team of over 150 working on boxed products is a big risk. At the same time, while the online market is growing, not many have made the most of it yet.
“Indies are very well placed to take on those new business models, because if you have a 100-man internal team you move onto a new project and there is pressure to deliver straight away. If you hire 30 artists you have to give them something to do – you have to feed the machine. You have to have an ROI and P&L together before you even design anything – that’s just the way it works, but in our first year we want to limit ourselves to 20, which should allow for us to be highly creative.”
Wheelwright and Williams have already picked a few staff to join them ahead of the studio’s official opening this month. But there’s no set publishing partner yet, and the studio’s first project at least will be self-funded.
There’s also no game concept to officially talk about yet – but Williams’ forte is sports games and shooters, so it won’t be a surprise to see Playground work in those genres.
Those two genres are also entrenched in the console space, and Williams is hoping Playground can be first to mix them with the emerging models coming through in online games.
“The change is coming. Someone is going to crack it, but all the companies in the past I have worked with had to be reactive,” he said – pointing out the smaller team can help realise that goal.
“With a smaller company you can be proactive, take a risk, and find partners willing to take a risk with you.”
And at this moment, he says that another studio sell off is the last thing on his mind: “Swordfish was considered a successful company because I sold it – but with Playground we want critical acclaim, and to set out reputation on quality.
“Vivendi treated us very well – but being acquired was possibly the worst thing to happen to us. The minute you are on the treadmill you lose agility and versatility. Internal studios are always under pressure to grow, but not take any risks.
“The EAs and Activisions of the world are waking up to this – and they will have to start looking to the indies for this model.”