Reading the instructions for getting to Splash Damage’s Bromley offices, you’d be forgiven for forming preconceptions before your arrival. “The building is white and blue, and has two entrances,” it reads. “One is for Bromley Conservative Club, and the second is ours – with no signage.”
Given the modest setting, and relatively quiet public image of the studio, it’s tempting to not know what to expect – or, perhaps more honestly, not expect that much. But, actually, those preconceptions would turn out to be completely wrong. Inside the unassuming, white and blue two-entranced building – well, above that Conservative Club, anyway – lies a studio with its head screwed on; one of the very few that has managed to make the transition from hobbyist mod team to a fully-functioning studio handling triple-A games.
But entering those offices, so different from the outside, more questions rise to the surface. How has this bunch of geographically disparate people actually managed to all get together and start their own studio when so many other dreamers fail? How do they manage to make contemporary big-budget games with only 36 people? And, perhaps most importantly, how did the Quake Wars: Enemy Territory developer manage to curry enough favour with American development powerhouse id Software to be granted one of its most precious licences?
While the Splash Damage story starts officially in 2001, in truth it’s several years before that the seeds were truly planted. It all started with in January 2000 with a Quake 3 mod, Q3 Fortress. Helmed by Paul Wedgwood, with art lead by Richard Jolly and Arnout van Meer as resident code genius – all three of which still hold senior positions within the company – the development of Q3F was similar to most mods: a bunch of gamers collaborating from across the world in their spare time.
Unlike most mods, though, Q3F caught the attention of id Software – a company intimately familiar with its modding scene – after the team managed to attract worldwide fansites very early on. They were invited out to QuakeCon in 2000, the annual gathering for id fans and mod makers in id’s hometown of Mesquite, Texas, and given their own demonstration area. They presented their work to anyone who’d look, but most importantly to id themselves. Recalling the time, Wedgwood says: “We spent the whole time networking with other mod teams and the id guys. We went drinking with them, and were completely awestruck that we were in the TGI Fridays that id hung out in after work.”
After pitching an idea that was deemed far too ambitious for such a small developer, the team returned and decided to make Q3F into a total conversion by replacing all the artwork, music and sound effects with completely new content. Simultaneously, in May 2001 the three leads formed Splash Damage, which started off working with Network of the World and Gamer.tv to produce a TV show based on Quake 3 Arena, designing maps and developing a TV-friendly HUD and dynamic camera system.
At the start of 2002, the team approached BT OpenWorld to make some maps for the multiplayer shooters popular at the time. One of these maps, Market Garden, became the most popular third-party map for Return to Castle Wolfenstein. During this period, Wedgwood had been introduced to id co-owner Kevin Cloud, who was impressed with what the team had done with id’s engine.
“After that, I pretty much ICQ’d Kevin every day, saying ‘Gimme a deal, gimme a deal, gimme a deal,’” Wedgwood laughs. “They introduced us to Activision, and in early 2002 they asked us if we’d like to make three maps for the RTCW Game of the Year edition.”
Again, one of those maps – Tram Siege – became the most popular first-party map. As a result, id also signed Splash Damage to develop the multiplayer part of a Wolfenstein sequel. Sadly, development of the single-player element was cancelled but, seeing the fun that people were having with Splash Damage’s component, Activision decided to continue development and release their work as a free game.
After Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory launched to much critical success, Splash Damage were given their first massive break when id put them in charge of all of the multiplayer maps for the massively-anticipated Doom 3. From there, it’s just a short jump to being given stewardship of Quake Wars.
While this company history – admittedly a largely condensed one – gives an idea to how the company has grown, it says nothing of how the studio’s professionalism has matured. Or actually, maybe that’s why it’s managed to make that rocky transition. But there are things about the way the studio is run that belie the hobbyist roots which anchor the Splash Damage tree.
For example: you may erroneously think that a studio with a rabidly enthusiastic mod-team core would be pretty lax with regards to letting details slip of its next project – a tantalisingly undisclosed multi-platform game for Bethesda – but meeting rooms were hurredly stripped of concept art before Develop was allowed in.
Similarly, you might think that those early years of zealous all-night coding might carry on to a studio that’s firmly stuck in the old crunch model of developing games. On the contrary, not only does Splash Damage work to allieviate crunch periods to being as short as possible, it also provides all of its staff benefits that most games industry employees dream of.
How has it managed to get its head so screwed on in such little time?
Candidly, Wedgwood admits that the success was borne from much failure. “I’d been unsuccessful in business a couple of times in the past. But each time I failed, I’d learn something about doing things above board or that I should pay attention to a certain area.
“So there I was, two or three years before I started Splash Damage, in front of the official receiver for the third time in a row, thinking I was going to get banned as a company director. The receiver said to me: ‘Paul, everybody that I know in South London that’s been successful in business has been to see me at least three times before they manage to get it right’. It was such an uplifting thing to say, because I was so depressed. I resolved that if I tried again I’d make sure everything was right from day one.”
This meant getting a grant to have a management consultant from UK Trade and Industry come in and help them build a comprehensive model that was based on ‘perfection in business’ – as far reaching as to discuss staff retention before they even had a single employee.
“Our thinking was that, at the time – 2001 or 2002 – I think the British games industry had a reputation for being a bit…” He pauses. “Crap. They were working over launderettes, or in their bedrooms; it was quite unprofessional. There was this image that people in the games industry were society’s dropouts.
“We didn’t like that idea – we’d been to the US and seen companies like Ritual, Gearbox and id, and to us it seemed like the game development industry was seen as better in the US. People sat in cool chairs in cool offices surrounded by action figures – it was nothing like the UK’s approach, which was more like a workhouse.”
So, they sought average salary surveys and made sure that they paid at least ten per cent above the average. Staff today enjoy a stakeholder pension, private medical and dental care, and membership at a local gym.
“That’s just the way we’ve done things, made sure that everything’s been done correctly. We make sure we follow employment laws, and get staff to sign in and out – it’s all just basic professional stuff that I saw when I was working for investment banks in the City, so I
didn’t have that unprofessional game development background.”
It’s this focused approach on management that probably meant the Q3F project ever worked in the first place – dissect any of the thousands of dissolved mod teams whose concepts and early screenshots litter places like PlanetQuake and you’ll see that the vast majority fall apart due to a lack of proper leadership.
And, while it may seem simplistic to say so, it’s Wedgewood’s burning passion to own a studio that’s lead to it succeeding: that desperation to make a studio work meant that the team had to jump right into commercial work, which forced them into professionalism that they wouldn’t have found if they’d remained hobbyists.
And so, as Splash Damage embarks on its project for Bethesda and takes its first steps away from Activision and id – a relationship that Wedgwood acknowledges it was extremely lucky to have as a young, unproven studio – and in to the brave new world of its own creation, does Wedgwood feel any trepidation?
“I loved working with id, and if I had another chance to work with them on just about anything at all I would jump at it. But Kevin [Cloud] has always said to us that we should be creating new intellectual property, that we should be careful to not fall into the trap of producing endless ports and expansions. We thought, on the whole, that it would be nice to be able to create something completely original.”
The new project also marks the studio’s first foray into console development – which consoles have yet to be announced, but they’re certainly enjoying experimenting – for which a ramp-up will be necessary. Wedgwood still plans to keep things relatively small, estimating growth to about 60 people, but moving to a new office is on the cards the next few months.
New size, new project, new publisher, new offices. But one thing’s for sure: that modest setting, that quiet studio, that Conservative Club; all those preconceptions are about to become much harder to form.