Developers have taught themselves to be wary of publishers. Subsequently, the men in suits that turn a studio’s creative projects into capital are often greeted with some very cynical glances, and that’s if they are lucky.
It doesn’t matter if it is the system so many developers bemoan that affords them the luxury of biting the hand that feeds; publishers are frequently posed as the industry’s bad guys.
And then you meet System 3’s Mark Cale; the CEO at the helm of a UK publisher with almost 28 years in the business behind it. Cale is a man with a furious energy for the games industry; a publisher who clearly cares very deeply about games, and who isn’t afraid to talk some tough truths about the industry’s shortcomings.
Cale might well be a suited publisher, but he is also the kind of executive who can enthuse for twenty minutes on the majesty of a particular boss fight in a classic arcade title, or talk with passion about a developer’s elegant emulation of his favourite pinball table’s ROM chipset, even if those conversations mean missing his lunch.
System 3, which is currently defying all known conventions with an initiative that sees a wealth of current and forthcoming releases recieve near simultaneous launches on both digital and physical platforms, is a company that has never shied away from releasing more hardcore, ‘gamer’s games’.
While the firm can lay claim to the PS2’s first true budget range, and has long ties with the history of the casual movement, it is also the company that chose to bring the likes of Silent Bomber and Guilty Gear to market in the UK. System 3 has experience in developing too, having created the iconic International Karate series back in 1985.
Undeniably then, System 3 has a heritage with all the right credentials, but then so do some of the publishers that arch the backs of even the most affable studios. The difference is, says Cale, that System 3 understands developers, and isn’t afraid to get involved at the creative source. That’s something else we’ve all heard before, but when it comes from a man like Cale, who rarely sugar-coats his words with PR-spin, it seems a great deal more sincere.
“We offer something unique that a lot of other publishers seem to have forgotten, and that is that we offer the ability to help people that have great technology, and need to translate that technology into playable games,” says Cale.
System 3’s working methodology is one that sees it getting involved with a development studio at the very inception of a new idea, meaning it can call on all of its development experience to help the studio at a level atypical of that which most external publishers offer.
“We’re always involved intimately with the creative process, and we will not accept anything that does not join with our belief,” confirms Cale. “Of course, there are always areas in any product where things could be done better, and time prevails as an issue.
“We realise that. There are limitations to the hardware and technology and tools at hand to the developer you work with. There are restrictions that stop you from pushing something all the way, but we always believe that we have to be involved right from the start through to the end to get the best possible experience out of the tools and the technology and the teams. I think that’s a very important difference in what we do.”
A case in point would be System 3’s work with driving game specialist Eutechnyx, which has developed the publisher’s flagship racing series that has just reached its third instalment with Ferrari: The Race Experience.
“If you look at Eutechnyx prior to when we started working with them on Ferrari Challenge on the PS3, they started of life as Zeppelin Games and have had a number of hits in their time, and I don’t want to be disrespectful to their talent or the history they have had in the industry,” says Cale.
“Prior to starting on Ferrari Challenge, and fundamentally at that particular point in time, they had some of the best racing engine technology going, but they had failed to exploit that well and make great products. Their products were things like Pimp My Ride and The Fast and the Furious.“
At that point, System 3 will work with the creative team and technology to better realise its vision of a company’s game, building a framework around existing technology. It’s a relatively distinct approach, and one Cale and his colleagues are proud of.
“I believe we are one of the few companies that give that input and feedback to the developer at that level, and most of the developers we have worked with have always said that is one of the big assets System 3 offers,” states the CEO. “We care about the product, we care about the teams, we support them, and we try to make their good products into great products.”
OUTSIDE THE TICK-BOX
Cale isn’t afraid to criticise the conventional publishing model either. While System 3 has specialised in helping developers realise the potential of their tech, according to Cale, the traditional publishing model is still struggling to rid itself of an unhealthy obsession with a studio’s technological arsenal over the merits of any title in question.
“There does seem to be a hang up with a lot of publishers that there needs to be certain things; a tick-box approach if you like. They think studios have to be using certain technology and software; they feel people have to have a certain number of people and be doing certain things, or they can’t do a project,” says Cale.
“We don’t think that. We look at how good a team is, and firstly look at if they have the ability to listen to ideas to be more creative. Secondly, we ask ‘do they have the available technology?’. That’s not in terms of hardware; it’s about their routines being good enough for them to produce what they want to do. We don’t look at the actual machinery on their desks and the size of their team; it’s about the technology along with the drive and the passion.”
Cale certainly has the experience to offer that service. He can remember receiving orders for games via telex, and talks fondly of the time when the arrival of the fax machine felt like it had the potential to revolutionise the pace of the industry.
He’s also a man whose ambition hasn’t suffered as a result of years weathering the storm of tougher periods. In fact, Cale has set himself something of an opus.
“My heart is honestly focused on making the perfect game,” reveals the CEO. “There’s no such thing of course, because by the time you’ve got something done, something new is emerging that can beat where you’re at, and there’s someone else trying to do better, but that’s what you have to do. It’s a race against time, and things are always changing and technology is always evolving, and I really enjoy that side of the industry. And I also really enjoy playing the games. Playing the games and trying to help developers make the best play experience is really important to what a publisher should do. It’s a passion of mine. I want to play everything that comes out.”
Give Cale five minutes of your time, and within 60 seconds, you’ll be in little doubt that he’s being absolutely sincere. He isn’t afraid to serve as one of gaming’s harshest critics, but that, it seems, is his duty as a man besotted by the medium and its industry.
With Ferrari: The Race Experience, Putty Squad, Super Fruitfall Deluxe, Williams Pinball Classics and a wealth of other titles set to leave the System 3 stable on a diverse range of platforms both digital and physical this month, it’s been a busy time for the publisher, and based on the past 28 years, that trend is set to continue.