In the past 12 months, the biggest stories regarding the future of games developers have been sparked by the biggest companies.
Music giant MTV bought Guitar Hero creator Harmonix; sister firm Nickelodeon pledged to spend hundreds of millions on casual games; and Warner Bros wants to conquer the big league dominated by EA and co. via a talent-centric business plan.
Beating all of these to the punch, however, was Disney Interactive Studios’ purchase of Climax’s Brighton-based racing team, recently rebranded to Black Rock Studio.
It was a savvy move for Disney, which not only gained an in-house foothold in Europe, but also a highly-regarded studio with excellent in-house technology.
Meanwhile, studio manager Tony Beckwith and his team gained something that most other studios don’t – the chance to give the team a new name, access to better financing, and to just get on with things without a publisher-dispatched producer or, worse, the independent studio’s accountant, breathing down their neck.
“As an independent, these days with next-gen you live very hand-to-mouth,” says Beckwith, singling out the biggest contrast between Black Rock’s life today and how things were a year ago. “We all know that to compete at the table for next-gen, specifically PS3 and Xbox 360, you need the investment – but independents can’t compete there. So it’s good to be with people who have bigger pockets.
“Sometimes as an independent you have to make decisions that in the short-term make you money, but in the long term can damage you. There’s no pressure like that here,” he adds, saying that now the team can plan for future projects and technology, much better.
Disney’s finances, and its willingness to spend them on games, have already been widely publicised. The company has said that within the next few years it will be spending $350m annually on games development to build its interactive entertainment business. Via a mix of transferring Disney properties to games and building new ones, the cash will help turn Disney into a bigger player in games. After three years of building its self-publishing business via some key partnerships with UK studios such as Traveller’s Tales (for Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe) and Eurocom (Pirates of the Caribbean – Disney’s first UK all formats number one earlier this year), buying Climax Racing was a clear bid to help the company take the next step – but specifically with its own people-focused approach.
Explains European production VP Ed Bainbridge: “What was key was the fact we weren’t buying into IP – we bought into people, technology and talent. The creativity and innovation there was apparent. They really challenge the way games are made and have shown a spirit of innovation, even within a franchise.”
So with the shackles of THQ’s MotoGP cast off, the team at Black Rock is being charged with helping boost the drive behind new IP, devising wholly-new racing titles with the first due out for release next year.
It’s a nice irony that, while now part of what Bainbridge calls “one of the biggest content companies in the world” (and given that Disney owns a raft of iconic cartoon characters, Pixar, US TV station ABC – responsible for the likes of Lost and Desperate Housewives – and entertainment brand Touchstone, it’s hard not to disagree), Black Rock will be contributing to that roster rather than simply being a slave to it.
“We’re really known for licenced stuff, where the publisher calls the shots. The great thing at Disney is that we won’t be doing licences,” says Beckwith. “When we first joined Disney a lot of my mates called me up saying ‘Oh, you’re gonna make ‘Bambi Kart’, then?’ But we’re not. This is an investment from Disney to create original IP in the video game space.”
So what else has Black Rock gained in joining the House of Mouse? According to Beckwith a number of new elements have been bolted onto production and general day-to-day studio practice that are making the team enjoy their work much more.
For a start, there’s now just two main game teams at the studio – previously, under Climax, the studio would at times split into up to five or so teams to make sure all contracts were fulfilled.
Meanwhile, the Core Technology team has grown following Disney’s investment to help drive the maintenance and development of the studio’s in-house engine, Tomcat – a key piece of the puzzle for Beckwith and Bainbridge.
“We are completely behind having to develop our own engine, as we always have been,” explains Beckwith. Although the studio uses some smaller middleware to complement its own work, the team’s success with MotoGP had been driven by its technology – and Beckwith makes clear his views on why having a core solution built in-house is better than a third party one.
“Back when Renderware was around, you have to remember that it was very clear there were Renderware games and then Burnout,” he says, adding: “If you use other people’s technology it does hold you back.”
And that’s the last thing Disney wants given that Black Rock is being fast-tracked towards boosting the company’s content slate. Historically, it is a team which has built its reputation with a technology-focused approach to games development – Beckwith says that is what gives the team a competitive edge.
So Disney has also introduced the team to some Hollywood-esque approaches to help improve production.
One of these has been the addition of a pre-visualisation department. Not entirely new, but this fast-prototyping and production of visual ideas – pretty key when consumers demand racing games today provide visual spectacle as well as visceral high-speed thrills – has meant “the bar has raised dramatically” when it comes to the team’s output, says Beckwith.
Plus, the team is finding itself in close contact with some world famous Disney teams, contributing to and attending the company’s internal technical conference and art councils. Some Black Rock staff recently attended an internal creative conference to mix with the people behind Lost, Desperate Housewives, and Pixar, sharing advice with fellow execs.
“It gives us access to things that not only we would never have had before, but which no one else would ever have had either,” says Beckwith.
He adds: “The day we were acquired we got an email from someone at the Imagineering department [which builds the rides for Disney’s theme park] explaining that he had lots of 3D assets used for the rides that we could use or look at if we wanted. That’s just amazing.”
Despite all this, however, Bainbridge says he’s been careful to make sure that Beckwith and co. don’t feel like they are being controlled or managed: “We work very closely, but when you buy technology and talent you have to maintain the spirit of the studio. We didn’t want to meddle,” he says.
SCHOOL OF ROCK
Instead, the two are keen to stress that Black Rock is instead informing the Disney business.
Although the 115-strong team seems like a minnow compared to the overall Disney staff roster of 130,000, it is charged with a big task in devising new ideas, ones which may even have the potential to go beyond games and into the other mediums that Disney is strong in. Think of how Pirates of the Caribbean made the transition from theme park stunt to box office smash, or how High School Musical went from made-for-TV movie to music industry money machine.
“Yes, we have a lot of well known brands, but we are a massive content company. We want to break new ideas in the games space – and if they can move over to other mediums then great. If an idea can translate across to other areas of our business – and in terms of the project Black Rock is currently working on, I think it can – then we’re well positioned to make that happen immediately,” says Bainbridge, although he’s quick to add: “But the focus is on making games.”
Adds Beckwith: “The key for us is to focus on the game because the results aren’t strong if you come up with any old idea and then try and reverse engineer it.” (But he can’t help but admit it would be “the icing on the cake” if the Imagineering team called up to grab some assets from Black Rock to help build their next ride - racing games and their pure-thrill mechanic are clearly a perfect match for a theme park ride, after all.)
At the same time Black Rock plans to make sure its game production is focused by aligning its staff strategy with Disney’s to place an emphasis on the people at the studio. Disney’s culture, although corporate, is specifically structured around creative teams creating ways to entertain. With Disney’s help, Black Rock is upping its graduate recruitment strategy, while also making sure that there’s much personal interface between Black Rock and its owners.
Now the team is focusing on building its talent base in the long term. “Talent was always our mantra anyway,” adds Beckwith, pointing out the the creative people the studio is looking to take on and already in place at Black Rock are supported because the location, in Brighton on the UK’s South Coast, is conducive to that mindset. Back when it was Pixel Planet (which was even prior to its life as Climax Racing), the team was the first Brighton-based games development studio and laid the foundation for a vibrant industry scene in the city.
When it comes to finding those talented people as well, it’s the company’s grad and interns program, which of course helps get new blood into the studio on a yearly basis, other studios should take note of – as the studio is now a stepping stone for a big Disney career. The studio has been aided by fellow Disney stable-mate Pixar in building its own graduate strategy, and it’s clear that from the excitement when the Black Rock team talk about this that they’re finding future stars of the studio, if not the business itself.
THE BRIGHT STUFF
But amongst all these things, says Beckwith, is a staple point relevant not just to the relationship between Disney and Black Rock, or even all the new big media companies and the developers they are courting, but how developers should be embracing the chance to collaborate with their publishers, marketing people, anyone.
“When you’re an independent developer the marketing people are a faceless entity,” he says by way of example.
“Whereas here at Disney the relationship is much different – they visit us all the time. So we’re really shaping the direction of the game all together, rather than making a ‘product’ and then just handing it over to some other team we never get to see. There’s bucketloads more collaboration – and we all agree, together, on how the games we are working on will develop.
“And I think that will help the studio in turn, with the games we’ve got coming we can use all our talents and stake our claim and get noticed.”
Adds Bainbridge: “Throughout Disney there is a strong drive to excel – and we as Disney Interactive Studios as a whole are part of that culture. Working with Tony and the studio is going to take Disney on a journey to place that it hasn’t been before.”