[This article originally appeared in the December 2007/January 2008 edition of Develop which will be available to download throughout Develop 2007 and January 2008 from here.]
There’s a lot of talk of the UK market shrinking and disappearing but that’s not true at all – there are a lot of good stories out there and I think we are one of them,” says Codemasters Studios’ VP, Gavin Cheshire.
Surveying the UK Britsoft firm’s past 12 months – and, indeed, its entire history – it’s hard to disagree. In that time, Codemasters has continued to shine as a star of the UK development scene, continually building momentum and taking on new challenges while its contemporaries face mixed fortunes.
Most recently, the company has just announced rocketing revenues, thanks to success in UK, but also booming international sales – in part fuelled by Colin McRae DiRT, which topped the charts and secured the firm’s first major US hit. Now, a possible IPO lies on the horizon next year to take the company overall forward once again. This itself would be a big enough ambition at the best of times – but the financial drive of the firm’s publishing team and board of directors is being matched step by step by the ambitions of Codemasters Studios, the internal development teams at the company which Cheshire oversees.
Talking to people at the studio, it’s clear that everyone feels that the studios part of the business has entered a new era, even if they don’t explicitly say so.
With new technology, new talent, and new IPs on the cards, it’s clear the success of DiRT and the potential of upcoming releases Race Driver: GRID, and Operation Flashpoint 2, has spurred the company on. And having proved that the team was capable of launching a praised, best-selling game for next-gen quickly in the hardware cycle, the publisher bosses have asked for more – setting out an ambitious mandate for Cheshire and co.: the team is to add a whole new game team to its internal operation every year from now on.
The first of these new teams appeared in August, but not at Codemasters’ Southam, Warwickshire headquarters – instead the company set its sights on an additional base, opening a brand new studio in Guildford, and nabbing former EA Criterion development director Adrian Bolton to oversee it.
Originally, the Guildford studio was founded as a way to plug a staffing gap and provide extra development support to the team at the Warwickshire HQ.
“It’s increasingly difficult to find all the talent we need in one area,” concedes Cheshire, who acknowledges that while Codemasters has a great main base in Warwickshire for the HQ development team, it’s still not enough to persuade some talent to sign up.
“Guildford gets us into a new area of the country and is ripe with talent,” he adds. “We’re not sitting here saying that we’re going to poach from everybody, but we’re going to offer something different to those people looking to work on something totally new, and also those people who won’t want to move to other areas of the country.”
But just months after opening, the Guildford studio is breaking out of its template, and graduating its role as a base to support games masterminded at HQ.
Plans have quickly changed, and now to support Codemasters’ ambitions, the growing Guildford team is being entrusted with what is a major step for any publisher – the establishing and development of a brand new IP. “All along we had this great new idea in the works, but simply not enough people to make it,” explains Cheshire.
Codenamed ‘Project Strike Team’, Develop first reported on the project at the start of the year, when Codemasters was getting the word out to potential recruits that it has a special new project built straight from its Neon technology, although it still has yet to enter full production, as the internal teams at Southam were busy with DiRT, Race Driver and Operation Flashpoint.
While recruitment ads, comments by Cheshire and Bolton – and even our cover art which features Bolton and the Strike Team leads – hint at what style the game might be, they stop short on the details, only confirming that, at the moment, ‘character-driven action game’ is the best way to describe it. Or not describe it, because there’s still much to be done in transferring it from concept to concrete game.
“There are some rumblings and speculation in the industry already about what exactly we’re making,” says Bolton, saying the new IP has been key to helping attract talent. “People are excited to try something genuinely new,” he adds.
Interestingly, while the game seems to have a name and overall concept originally dreamt up by the developers at Southam, the finer points of its design are to be bashed out by the Guildford team. With the game due in 2009, there’s clearly still some time to finalise the plan and plenty of long-term thinking – a challenge Bolton is looking forward to, and which he thinks will make for a better game.
“A lot has already been done on the groundwork, but I think that’s a great benefit for the new team – they can now come in with some set parameters but start adding to it in their own way,” he says. It’s clear that the board of directors haven’t handed the team instructions for a ‘GTA clone’, but rather simply set out a mandate for the development team to take its development skills and exploit them in the adventure/action category.
To make sure the move is a success, Bolton adds that team isn’t embarking on a rush to staffing up the Guildford base, taking a more measured approach to help organically grow the studio and make sure that what could eventually be its signature game develops naturally.
“It’s important to get the right people in the right positions,” says Bolton explaining that while a number of key roles on the team have been filled, others are still open as the company seeks the right people to turn Strike Team from dream to reality. Although he stops short of explicitly saying he is planning to build a ‘strike team’ of his own, the game’s codename and how it relates to his plan for Guildford is remarkably prescient.
But expansion is one thing. The smart way Codemasters is underpinning it is another entirely, because the Guildford team – and, indeed, its sister studio in Warwickshire – has an ace up its sleeve in the form of Codemasters’ in-house technology.
Formerly called Neon, the proprietary Codemasters Studios middleware has been upgraded and significantly expanded since being built as a way to build Colin McRae for 360, PS3 and PC – and is now called EGO.
Developed by the studio’s Central Technology Group, EGO is now the foundation for all of Codemasters’ internally developed games, from Race Driver: GRID and Operation Flashpoint 2 to ‘Project Strike Team’.
In fact, it’s clear that it was this – to use and expand on an already-stable technology base (which already powered a game to the top of the UK chart) – which tempted Bolton to move to Codemasters from Criterion.
“I’ve seen a lot of people try to do shared tech, and there’s plenty of reasons not to do it. There’s plenty of reasons why you shouldn’t, because there are pressures to just get things done and out the door,” he says. “Everyone in theory likes the idea, but in the practice, in the blood sweat and tears you just think ‘we’ve just got to get the game finished’ and the idea goes out the window.”
On talking to Codemasters, however, Bolton says it was clear that the middleware had solved what was becoming for many a difficult task – making multiplatform games for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.
“Everyone talks about vertical slices, but I’ve never seen a proper one,” he adds, referring to an impressive tech demo of upcoming Codemasters titles: “Race Driver: GRID, that’s the closest I’ve seen, and that’s thanks to the technology.”
Plus, he thinks Codemasters is in the perfect position and size to prove to the industry they can succeed where others have failed at what some have said is an impossible task due to the disparity between new formats.
He says: “Looking at it from an outsider’s point of view, I’m not convinced that many companies can do it. Structurally, most just can’t do it. Many publishers just buy studios, and you can’t retro-fit them with new technology. You need to be a certain size to get it right – not too big, but not small. So people have talked about this for years but they have never done it, but now we, a big company, are doing it correctly.”
Given his history with EA, those are telling words – but also telling as to the size of the challenge Codemasters has conquered. EGO is now embedded in both the Codemasters UK studios and has united the company’s developers across not just the country, but also the world, given that they have an art outsourcing studio in Kuala Lumpur as well.
EGO also gives Guildford, ‘Strike Team’ and its strike team a head start, says Bolton: “I don’t want to build base level stuff every time. If I can effectively get 20 per cent of my game for free from reuse, and we don’t have to write anything, that’s great.”
Cheshire adds that that EGO has also solved one of the inherent contradictions of next-gen games development: “In making games for next-gen the time frames are still the same, but the budgets are bigger, the projects are bigger – if we can get this technology in earlier you can balance those things.”
Adds Bolton: “It also helps balance the size of the teams, which is the biggest problem this industry has now, it’s just mental. Culturally team size is a big deal – go over a hundred and it becomes very impersonal. People within that vast size can only impact one thing.”
Creatively, having stable tech also gives the teams edge, says Bolton, saying EGO has allowed for much fast prototyping.
“You can get things running almost straight away. We’ve all seen lots of games by other companies hit production a month or two before they are due to ship with half the features not very good, whereas we’re getting ideas tested really early. It’s nasty and dirty – all very rough – but it allows us to get down the basics much earlier. We can try more aggressive features and ideas that are unproven. So much of games development is taking the safe route because you don’t have much time, but now that’s a luxury for us,” he adds, and it’s clear that this will help support Guildford’s task to thinking up and building ideas for Project Strike Team.
In a wider sense for the entire Codemasters Studios operation, the big advantage of unified technology also means every game built on it helps improve the next, and every developer is gaining and adding back benefits as they work.
This is something which made the initial investment in the Neon engine and its EGO successor all the more worthwhile, says Cheshire – and which will help the whole firm in future.
“Not every third-party is in a position to devote resources to such an ambitious project and stay competitive,” he says, adding that Codemasters’ early investment means for cheaper production further down the line.
Engines tend to be “a double-whammy” says Cheshire – you’re paying for a game to be produced, and then licensing technology on top of that – and he points out that sometimes middleware can turn up unwritten or unfinished when you first get it, just like your internally developed tools.
“If anything it’s harder now to get a return on an individual format – you’ve got to spread your risk. So the notion that multi-format development is no longer truly possible is rubbish. It’s about is getting the best out of each platform that you can; you have to make a bespoke game for each format, but each start in the same place.”
All of which is key to the wider financial plans of the whole business going forward, plus Cheshire’s aspirations for EGO as well which could see the tech shared with the external studios that have Codemasters publishing deals.
For those still doubting that the company’s new IP and new tech gambit will succeed, Cheshire points out that the company had already beat many of its contemporaries to the next-gen goldmine with DiRT: “We’re one of the few teams in all of games development that have actually produced a good triple-A game for all three platforms. So we’ve already done it, and we’ll continue to pull ahead of the pack in future.”
And given Codemasters has proven technology now backing that drive for talent and new ideas it is, again, hard to disagree with him.