Fall Line boss talks Disney and development

EXCLUSIVE Q&A: Scott Novis, boss of Buena Vista Games' Fall Line team discusses why the company set up a Nintendo-exclusive studio and how it plays in Disney's development activity.
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Novis was previously general manager at THQ-owned Rainbow Studios, where he grew the staff from 30 to 200. At Fall Line Studio he serves as vice president and general manager, looking after a team of developers focused on small-team projects exclusively conceived for the Nintendo DS and Nintendo Wii.

Fall Line is charged with devising both new properties and use the ones owned by its parent company Disney, and is based in Salt Lake City, Utah acting as a sister studio to nearby Avalanche Software, also owned by Buena Vista Games.

In the past few months, establishing Fall Line has been just one step in Disney's games activity - late last year it acquired Climax Racing in Brighton, UK, signed up Isle of Wight team Stainless for an Xbox Live Arcade title, and told investors that it was lining up a production warchest of over $300m.

Develop: Can you talk us through the background to founding Fall Line Studios?
Scott Novis: My entire career in games has been with THQ and Rainbow. We did well there and I ended up managing a good group of studios and great number of people. But you get so far away when you're managing that number of people, so it felt like a turning point for me when this opportunity came up.

We were discussing what we would do if we could build a new studio from the ground up and what I was looking at was whether or not there was a model that meant smaller teams with more creative focus would do well. We've all done the big project thing and that has a distinct characteristic and feel to it. So we looked at handhelds but when we really started looking into the Wii we realised that what Nintendo is introducing and the demographic that's likely to appeal to looks like a really powerful combination.

What is it about the DS and Wii that lend themselves to that?
One of the things that is the novelty of the interface. If you step back and look at what next-gen is: bump mapping, normal-mapping... can you point to anything, other than visually, that points to a new experience? It's a higher challenge, there will be great games with all that stuff in it, and we're starting to see some of that – but right at the start Nintendo has given the consumer something they don't have to think about so hard.

Look, from our point of view making games is always challenge - but now we're also asking, what can designers do when you give them a novel tool as an interface?

A good example is from PSP to PS2 - what could you make that is different between them? But on the DS you can make a game unlike anything on another platform. On the Wii you can make something unlike a game on another platform.

Does it mean that the game design role in production is now more important than before?
Well, BVG is platform agnostic - everyone publisher is - but you have to be aware of what you do to make a game work on its platform. This is the maturity of the industry - where production processes and techniques, understanding assets, it's all understood.

Now what we have to focus on what separates us from other forms of media - and that's the control interface. We tell stories in the second-person, and have to make the gamer feel engaged. If that's the core focus then it felt reasonable to have a team dedicated to answering 'what can you do with this new controller?'. We'll always make games that are multiplatform, but having a team focused on the novelty and exploiting the brands seemed like the best way to go.

Some tend to compare the Nintendo Wii's hardware to the GameCube - it's perhaps a misnomer when it comes to certain specifics, but in general what kind of advantages does that architectural overlap, which doesn't exist between PS2/PS3 and Xbox/360, give you?
Any time you radically shift the underlying hardware you are working on what you introduce to developers is a fairly lengthy learning curve. You just have to do things differently. Usually that shows up in other launches where you have some power out of the box but those teams have spent most of their time relearning what to do.

With the Wii, being able to take what we already know and enhance that, our focus naturally settles on the new novelty the [controller 's] additional functionality provides. That means you can use smaller teams, and people that already know how to make things for the gameplay. And that means there will be better games for the Nintendo Wii early in the lifecycle.

There's an active drive behind new IP at Buena Vista and Fall Line. Do the Nintendo formats and their unique interfaces encourage such aspirations?
Overall, when you look at Disney as a company, they're a number two media company, and every major division in Disney is a significant player in their media format. They aren't just using their properties they are always creating new ones.

Games absolutely have to step up and be another major media division and that means not just capitalising on the existing brands – we have to contribute back as well. It's not enough to spin a movie out into a game, so you have to ask what you can bring back to the medium. In everything we're doing development-wise – from the Nintendo games to things like Spectrobes, Turok, and the games we can't talk about – there's a very real desire for Disney to master this media.

That's quite a change from the way things were with big media companies that got into games in the past…
Absolutely. The Hollywood Model of 'how can we exploit this?' is gone. Part of that is because games is really such a weird business – it's software development, but it's story-driven, and it's interactive. Is it a toy? What is it? Some movie guys historically went in and thought 'Oh it's just like toys' and were only there to exploit an idea. That is what's different with Buena Vista Games - where we understand it's a media format and an entertainment medium and that we need the right people who can harness ideas that make it work.

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