Staying still is the fast track to extinction in the game business. And you can’t survive simply by ‘tweaking’ the tried and tested formula – just look at the names we’ve lost in this millennium age.
For Blitz Games Studios, a company founded over 20 years ago, the answer has been to diversify. From games consoles to PC, handhelds to handsets, Blitz develops for them all – and, according to its calculations, has so far sold enough titles to circumnavigate the moon.
As well as developing for a broad span of platforms, Blitz’s games vary in size, they vary in genre and, in fact, some aren’t even ‘games’ at all.
On Develop’s recent visit to Blitz HQ in Leamington Spa, we found a studio in transition, and one that’s already taking a running jump into the next generation.
LISTEN AND LEARN
When people think ‘next-gen’, they can’t help but think of burgeoning team sizes as more hands are needed to cope with increasingly complex development cycles. Taking on the number of platforms that it has such growth was inevitable, and Blitz’s headcount now exceeds 220 people.
But with more than five projects on the go, each of them pitched at a different audience, there is a sense that every single member of its personnel is needed.
Its headline project, Epic Mickey 2, sequel to the Warren Spector-led Wii game about Disney’s iconic mascot, is a major coup for the studio, which is tackling development duties for the 360 and PS3. But this is also a project of gargantuan proportions, with over 700 people worldwide contributing.
“You’re just one small cog in a huge machine,” acknowledges Blitz Games Studios’ CEO Philip Oliver. “Whereas when you look at iPhone games, it can be completely original and creative.”
The spectrum between the biggest and the smallest games Blitz is creating is now wider than ever. It’s got serious games, mobile titles and even a potential board game in the works.
Richard Smithies, COO at Blitz, puts its multifaceted evolution down to a liberal studio culture, where staff are encouraged to operate autonomously.
“We believe it’s wrong to suppress staff creativity,” he says.
Studio design director John Nash is keen to add to his colleague’s assertion.
“A product director at Blitz has immense freedom over the way that they manage, plan and grow their projects and their teams, and we trust them to do so,” says Nash.
“We pride ourselves on listening to people, then we try to filter that information back to relevant members of our team and our projects.”
For an example of this freedom, look no further than the studio’s first iOS game, Kumo Lumo. This delightful sidescrolling puzzle game was born out of six weeks of experimentation time that the studio’s new iOS team (Team Lumo) had after finishing work on its previous project.
With Kumo Lumo now released and downloaded over one million times, this small team is already well under way with its next project, a card game with the visual flair of a Frank Millar pin-up and gameplay similar to Top Trumps or Bang!
KING OF USABILITY
All of Blitz’s projects are undertaken by highly specialised groups. The advantage for its designers, artists and coders having to adapt to the demands of different skill sets, explains Nash, is that they develop a “holistic knowledge about the mechanism of entertainment in all those different areas”.
When it comes to the future of interactive entertainment and services, Blitz is betting heavily on both infrastructure and interface.
The studio has made 22 motion control games, seven of them for Kinect, and Oliver is resolute that they are the first step towards entirely controller-less interfaces.
“If you think about the long-term, why are you trying to adapt the player to the computer, when a computer will have enough power and intelligence in the future to adapt itself to you? That’s the way it should be,” he says.
“Natural user interfaces are the progression of that, and a camera – or eyes and ears – have to surely be the future.”
The next phase in Blitz’s commitment to natural user interfaces is Vitalize, a development by its serious games division, TruSim, that’s being created as a rehabilitation aid with the support of the US Department of Defense*, the Center for the Intrepid, a US military rehabilitation facility and Blue Marble, a research expert and developer of game-based rehabilitative training solutions.
Two of the biggest challenges physiotherapists face is motivating and monitoring patients who are recovering from the traumas of combat.
Blitz aims to make life easier for both parties through Vitalize, which monitors a patient’s progress, offers feedback and allows qualified staff to prescribe specific exercises for that patient. Forget stem cells, the future of physio is already here.
NO ORDINARY WEBCAM
As if pushing the boundaries in interactive healthcare wasn’t enough, Blitz has yet another piece of potential star software on its hands in the form of a new character-led original IP.
MoogiMoko is a commercial demonstration for as-yet-unannounced motion sensing camera. The game features an monkey-like character that reacts in
real-time to facial expressions and other motions from the player, displaying detailed emotional states that change as the interactions progress.
Though early in production, Blitz’s vision that its new IP could become a showcase title for the new hardware demonstrates that the developer is putting many of its beliefs into working practice.
“One of our goals is to become a world leader in natural user interface,” Nash adds. “The ultimate end goal is for you to interactive with digital entertainment in a very naturalistic manner.
“Many of us believe that characters are going to be the next interface. You’re not going to see a cursor, you’ll speak to the character and good things will happen. But there’s an awful lot of technology and understand required to get us there.”
Much has changed since the Oliver twins and friends founded Blitz in 1990. With each new console cycle, game development has become more complex, more time-consuming – and more risky. In the digital era, the competition has become fiercer still, as everything from TV to social networks fight for consumer attention.
Blitz knows what’s at stake and by diversifying its studio it has giving itself the broadest range of opportunities.
Of course, is Blitz in danger of becoming a jack of all trades?
“The expression may come to mind,” Smithies agrees. “But if you look at each project, you’ll see that for each of those we’re actually a master of that.”
So thanks to its breadth of projects and belief in its staff, Blitz appears to be ready for anything. Certainly, few studios will be feeling as confident as its does about its options in the next generation.
“Rather than just saying: ‘Hey, games are going to be like this in the future’, we want to make that happen, and the only way to make that happen is to crack on with it,” says Nash, brightly.
“And that’s a big difference with the studio here compared to a lot of others that I’ve visited. We don’t just talk about it, we think how we can actually make it happen.”
*Acknowledgement of support: This work is supported by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command and the USAMRAA under Contract W81XWH-11-C-0066.
Disclaimer: Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations are those of the authors and should not be construed as official Department of the Army position, policy or decision unless so designated by other documentation and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAMRAA