“This industry has a problem. It is stuck making the same games for the same people, over and over and over.” When Andrew Eades says this, quite early on in Develop’s meeting with Relentless, he pauses, as if suddenly guilty to have made the comment, or worried that he’s put his foot in it again.
Certainly, his industry commentary has rocked the boat before (see his resigning from the board of Tiga in dissatisfaction late last year). But if anything, Relentless is one of the few studios entitled to make such sweeping – and accurate, it should be said – statements.
Who is Relentless?
Having spent the past year winning some major awards (BAFTAs and Develop Industry Excellence ones, specifically) and toasting great commercial and creative success – all thanks to the Buzz! franchise, the story of Relentless – founded by Eades and David Amor in 2003 – is well known to many.
Choosing to focus on social/lifestyle games early on its history (the studio’s first game was DJ Decks & Effects), Relentless (like Zoe Mode profiled on pages 30-31 and FreesStyle who we visit on pages 27-28) the studio has enjoyed a great relationship with Sony, co-devising the third (and fastest-selling) of its more family-oriented peripheral-based series.
But now the team has some challenges on its hands – multiple-choice, if you will.
A) A team educating kids
Firstly, there is the Buzz for Schools project.
Started before the first game even arrived in stores, Buzz for Schools has had a slow gestation period as the studio, the DfES and Sony investigate how they would go about not just building the game (“it’s a bit of a no brainer,” says Amor) but then selling it into schools (still undecided) and making sure that format holder, independent studio and government department were all working to the same goal.
Through their collaboration, it seems that the studio has worked out exactly why ‘education software’ tends not to inspire the joy in children one may hope – and learnt something that the serious games industry might want to take note of, too.
“The kids in school already play games and are familiar with them – but the software the DfE was using was pretty second rate. So when you present something to kids which is good they are completely engaged,” explains Amor.
So far, work is paying off, and some extensive research in testing the game in its intended natural habitat has revealed that the social magic the extra-curricular Buzz has woven works just as well in the class room. “All of a sudden, the brainy kid becomes the centre of attention, no longer the one that’s picked last for other activities – he’s promoted to being the one holding the buzzer,” says Amor.
It’s unlikely at this point that the education-oriented Buzz won’t make it to schools, although Sony has still to confirm it. With 23,000 primary schools in the UK, the audience is much smaller than the mass-market one PlayStation is usually familiar with. But the licence/fee is dearer, and probably requires buy-in of a console and peripherals, as well. Plus, the groundwork laid by the game can only be for the best; it’s not hard to see a Buzz Family game come out of it, given that, according to Eades, the Key Stage questions can sometimes tax even parents, with this quiz game offering a more level playing field.
“The content levels the game up so that when you play as a family it has much more value as an family product,” he says. “You could argue that the other Buzz games are more for just adults, or the Buzz Junior are just for kids. Buzz for Schools could be played by everyone.”
B) A team educating itself about next-gen
Meanwhile, the company is working on new Buzz PS2 titles – and also slowly adding one or two members of staff, following a recent move into new offices, to help work on a next-gen game. Although unannounced, it’s a safe bet to expect a Buzz for PS3 – although Eades and Amor remain tightlipped.
What they can talk about is adding PlayStation 3 development to their skillbase.
EyeToy, SingStar and Buzz all arrived later in the PS2 lifecycle, ensuring not only a large userbase but also a fairly solid toolbase for development. Things have been slower moving for next-gen.
“PS3 is starting to reveal its power to us. We had some missteps in the art style, and that slowed us down – we were a bit worried at first but now it looks like a true next-gen game,” explains Eades.
“It’s been a strange journey for us as we were really comfortable making PS2 games, but when it comes to PS3 we found it harder than we thought it would be. We didn’t think it would be a walk in the park, but we found it harder than we should have. Now we’ve got in place everything we need – with the right technical people and art people.”
This has been a bit of change for the studio, whose social roots eschewed the hardcore-gamer demand for better graphics and ‘more more more’.
Comments Eades: “We weren’t founded as a technology company, we were very much an anti-technology company. We didn’t want to concentrate on building or trying to pursue that final ten per cent when it comes to technical power, because in social gaming’s everyone’s happy – most of those consumers haven’t played a game in their life.
“Buzz might be the first game they ever played. The problem is that when you get to next generation you get compared to next generation titles.”
But he adds, with a mix of both relief and pride: “We’re starting to see things on people’s screens, when walking around the studio, that really make you stop in your tracks to look at. It has taken us longer than we would have liked, but we’re really happy now.”
C) A team educating the industry
Relentless doesn’t just have a reputation for fuelling the social fabric around games, however. It’s also well-known for a dedicated focus on maintaining a strong quality of life for its team and a focused work environment with strict working hours, and atmosphere that actively avoids crunch.
Amor is convinced that the discipline is a worthwhile practice – and thinks that other teams would do well to learn from Relentless’ approach. Indeed, he and Eades only came to the decision to strictly control the working environment with limited internet access and email for staff, encouraging open inter-team communication, after careers which, between them, had one or the other of them working for the likes of DMA, Bullfrog, EA and Computer Artworks.
Says Eades: “If we wanted to apply these processes to another genre of game then it would work and we would get that game out on time. There is no reason why this way of working should be different to the work on a shooting game; why on earth should that kind of game require lots of overtime?”
“The problem is that those teams are never going to do it,” chips in Amor. “The truth is that you need 100 per cent management buy-in – we ourselves have to make sure that everyone knows the boss goes home at the end of the day, and that they are allowed the leave the office, too.”
Clearly, it works – Relentless has never lost a member of staff to another games company.
Adds Eades: “Waiting and being slow and then having crunch – that just seems really lazy. When I was a programmer and I had to solve a problem, I’d find that the best thing to do would be to get up and walk away, take a break from it and distance myself. A lot of the problems we have in the industry come from people seeming addicted to moaning about their jobs ‘Oh, I did Shooter X and worked every weekend for five years and I was divorced remarried and divorced again in that time and my children died - but I was so busy I didn’t even have time to the go to the funeral because I'm still making the game...’ Gimme a break! But I think some people like saying how over-worked they are. How boring and childish.
“Instead, people should approach their job with maturity - be grown up enough to enjoy what you do and make sure that the job makes you happy.”
(The answer, of course, is D) All of the above)