Decades of Distinctive Developments: Inside one of the UK's oldest studios

The UK firm celebrates its 20th anniversary this year – and its story often mirrors that of the wider games market
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Distinctive Developments is one of many UK studios that have thrived on the mobile market – but not just in the age of smartphones and tablets.

The 20-year-old firm’s first major success was its 3D Pool series, released with I-Play between 2004 and 2007 and boasting sales of more than 3m units. It was also responsible for ten years worth of mobile FIFA games, as well as its own Football Kicks – a free-to-play title that hit No.1 in 67 countries and racked up 23m downloads.

In fact, since switching to mobile development, Distinctive has achieved more than 50 million sales.

But, given that the studio first opened doors in 1994, its first foray into games development was a little more traditional.

“Keith Birkett and I worked at Krisalis Software in Rotherham for several years developing for home computer platforms such as Amiga, Atari ST, Acorn Archimedes and early 32-bit consoles such as 3DO,” says managing director Nigel Little.

“We could see that there was about to be a big shake up in the industry as 3D consoles started to appear and our plan was to take full advantage of this revolution.

“Being in our early twenties, we had a healthy disregard for the risks we were facing. However, it didn’t go entirely to plan. We should have had a third founding member but unfortunately he backed out at the last minute and we found ourselves starting a studio with two programmers but no artist.”

FIRST PORT OF CALL

The duo’s debut project was from Probe Entertainment – later an Acclaim studio – with Probe’s Fergus McGovern entrusting Little and Birkett with converting arcade fighter Primal Rage to the 3DO. The pair proved to be so efficient, they ended up also handling the Atari Jaguar and Sega Saturn ports.



Little remarks on how different it was back then: “It seems crazy now but these machines had a total memory of 2MB to hold all of the code, graphics and audio. I remember when we first compiled the code for Primal Rage it came out at 4MB and that was without any graphics or audio. It then had about another 25MB of beautiful stop-motion animated dinosaurs. We literally spent months squeezing the code and graphics down to fit.

“Compared to now, where we have phones with 2GB of memory and 128GB of storage, it is a world apart. Having said that, as developers, we still always want to do more than what the hardware can cope with but ultimately it is much easier to work on current devices than ones from 20 years ago.

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“I saw this as an amazing opportunity to get into an industry at its inception and grow the business as the market grew. So we focused 100 per cent on mobile development in 2001 and never looked back.”

Nigel Little, Distinctive Developments

Little adds that the same applies to team sizes: “In 2000, we had grown to a team of eight people and you really needed about 20 people to develop a good quality title within a reasonable time frame. With all of the middleware, asset stores and brilliant tools we have now, recent graduates look at me like I’m crazy when I say this but it was a very painful reality that we faced at the time.”

MOVING TO MOBILE

Distinctive continued to create console titles, but the arrival of the new millennium saw the rise of alternative markets, which Little and his team were keen to take advantage of.

“There were various emerging platforms,” he says. “The dot-com boom was in full swing, interactive TV set-top boxes started to appear, but most interesting of all was mobile phones’ ability to run Java code.

“I saw this as an amazing opportunity to get into an industry at its inception and grow the business as the market grew. So we focused 100 per cent on mobile development in 2001 and never looked back.”

The studio enjoyed relative success in the years that followed, but it was the rise of Apple’s now dominating mobile marketplace that truly defined what Distinctive is today.

“When Apple opened the App Store, and the opportunity arose to self-publish games on smartphones, we thought long and hard about our strategy,” says Little.

“We decided we should use our experience of developing sports games and look for popular sports that were being underserved by other developers and publishers. This resulted in Rugby Nations and Hockey Nations.

“Rugby is an inherently difficult sport to simulate so our main goal has always been to develop the most accurate and enjoyable rugby experience possible. Obviously, you have to continuously improve the visuals and audio as the devices improve but the main focus has always been the gameplay.”

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APPY DAYS

The success of the App Store led to a new era for Distinctive. Prior to the store’s launch, the studio operated purely on a work-for-hire basis, occasionally dabbling in its own IP such as the 3D Pool games. The digital mobile market changed not only the studio’s priorities, but also how it operated and what skills the team had.

“When the barriers to self-publishing came crashing down we had to focus much more on marketing, user acquisition, analytics and so on,” explains Little.

“Not only that but you also have to carefully manage the risks involved in self-publishing, because as an independent developer employing 35 people it’s critical to keep the money flowing in. Naturally, this change to self-publishing resulted in new roles and new processes being created.”

Little adds that the team even created its own technology to power its games: “We’re called Distinctive and we aim to be distinctive in the games we create and the way we make them. Having our own Phoenix engine allows us to perfect those areas that are important to us, allows us to be responsive to new devices and platforms and it also allows us to keep control of the entire production process – thereby de-risking the projects.

“Unity and Unreal are both amazing and have unlocked massive amounts of creativity that would never have been realised otherwise. However, sometimes you have to zig when everyone else is zagging.”

We decided we should use our experience of developing sports games and look for popular sports that were being underserved by other developers and publishers.

Nigel Little, Distinctive Developments

Success with the likes of Rugby Nations has made the studio far more independent, no longer reliant on the contracts Little and his co-founder Birkett started their journey with back in the ‘90s.

In fact, less than half of Distinctive’s projects now are work-for-hire, and Little says there’s good reason for this.
“The challenges of running a pure work-for-hire studio are well understood. You must agree clear expectations at the outset, plan the milestones so you have money when you need it, make sure the publisher pays on time and, once finished, get the staff started on a new project as quickly as possible.

“The most difficult part of this is in setting expectations. You have to find ways to communicate what you are going to be building other than just the written word. Draw sketches, make paper mock-ups and refer to other games, films, images and so on. And just go over it time and time again. Because, even when you do all of this you still find that the client expects something different to be delivered. But, hopefully, by doing all of this you can at least minimise those differences.”

Not that he regrets the work-for-hire partnerships that helped Distinctive Developments grew over the years. Little is particularly thankful of the close relationships the studio established with the likes of Atari, Acclaim, Namco, Sega, Capcom, Eidos, I-Play, Player One and iFone – to name by a few.

But it was deals with publishing giants Electronic Arts and Square Enix that Little was most thankful for: “We worked with EA on mobile versions of FIFA for ten years and it was a real pleasure to work with such a passionate group of people who really cared about making the best possible game.



“Most recently, over the last couple of years, we’ve been working closely with Square Enix on a reboot of Championship Manager as a mobile free-to-play game. They have been brilliant to work with.”

It’s not all been smooth sailing. Little says, without naming names, that some of the studio’s most awkward partners have been non-games firms.

“Games companies understand how games are made,” he says. “However, once you start working with companies outside of the games industry you start to realise how many assumptions you make when communicating your concepts and ideas. Only by learning to spot these assumptions and being able to clearly explain how games are put together do you start to successfully work with
non-games partners.”

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THE NEXT 20 YEARS

So what of the future? With two decades of experience under its belt, Distinctive is confident of a healthy business for many years to come, building on the success of its most popular sports titles.

Along with new entries in the Rugby Nations series, the firm is due to release an American football game by the end of the year – a project that has been assisted by Patrick Willis of the San Francisco 49ers.

And Distinctive will continue its partnership with hockey star Patrick Kane for more titles in that sport.

“We also have several projects in pre-production now, which will expand our sports portfolio further and utilise the new tech we are currently developing,” teases Little. “It’s a bit too early to talk about them yet but you can expect some exciting games from us in the first half of 2015.”

With a strong presence in mobile, would Little ever consider going back to consoles?

“My opinion has always been ‘never say never’,” he says. “However, what we like about mobile development and publishing is the ability to reach billions of people right around the world – where games that would be considered niche on console can reach millions of players.”

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