We’re kicking off a series of interviews here on Developmag.com that profile select winners of this year’s Develop Awards, and we’re starting with Sega, recipients of the Publishing Hero 2007 prize.
Sega’s activity in the West has been resurgent of late, with a keen expansion of its in-house and third part development – in the past two years it has acquired London’s Sports Interactive, Creative Assembly (which has UK and Australian teams) and San Francisco’s Secret Level.
Earlier this year, Develop had a chance to grill the studio leaders of each of these during an internal business summit at the publisher’s office.
Here, we present part one of the roundtable interview, which looks at how the independent teams have been integrated with the Sega operation.
For those of you that joined the Sega family via acquisition, why did you choose to go with Sega?
Mike Simspon, Creative Assembly: As an independent developer you pretty much bet the company on every game, and that makes you turn down most of the more interesting opportunities and play it safe. Very, very safe. We were looking for a partner that would give us the backing and stability to exploit those opportunities we’d previously had to turn away from. We also wanted a partner that didn’t want to “break” what it was acquiring, and would leave us as much as possible as an independent entity. No assimilation. No imposition of alien culture. The golden goose gets to keep on laying, but can pass even bigger eggs now. Sega promised to do that for us and they have delivered.
Jeremy Gordon, Secret Level: We had been working with Sega for more than a year when we first started discussing acquisition. After having worked with pretty much all the major publishers, it was clear that Sega was something special, and that they were serious about investing in making great games and great game technology.
George Fidler, Studio Director, Creative Assembly Australia: I completely supported the acquisition because I saw it as an essential step to building a viable studio in Australia. Prior to the acquisition we were a small satellite studio. The acquisition meant we now had the liquidity and publisher support to quadruple the size of the studio to 50 people, and take on a substantial project of our own. The result was Medieval II: Total War. We would not have had this opportunity without the acquisition.
Miles Jacobson, Sports Interactive: We had a very good relationship with Sega already from having been published by them for a few years, and had no intention of working with anyone else, so when it came to looking at extending the contract and the offer was made, it made sense. We'd turned down a few offers in the past from other parties, and were still staunchly independent, but the chance to retain our independent spirit, whilst being a part of a larger network of developers which would also give us access to technology and knowledge sharing between those studios was an offer too good to be refused.
Many of you started out as independent studios – have the teams managed to retain much of the spirit of an non-publisher owned team since joining Sega?
MS: In general yes, we have kept both our independence and our boutique studio spirit. We’re a bit bigger and possibly slicker and more professional than we were before, and getting more so all the time. But that is down to us, not because we’re part of a bigger family now.
JG: From the beginning of discussing acquisition with Sega, they made it clear to us that they wanted us to retain our identity and independent spirit. To that end, we have been given a very broad amount of autonomy in our daily operations; something we are hoping to reward with making great games and game technology!
GF: We've managed to retain all of the spirit of being an independent studio, but now with the added advantage of having the support of a well-funded highly talented multinational publisher like Sega. Our independent spirit drives us forward to reaching higher goals. Sega supports and encourages our quest for excellence through innovation.
MJ: From a development point of view nothing has changed at all. We still develop games in exactly the same ways as before and have a very similar relationship with the publishing division. We also have a much better office now, still very close to the last office, and had a huge amount of help from Sega in getting the space and doing it up to our specification for maximum communication amongst the dev team.
Is there much sharing between the Sega-owned Western studios in terms of technology, staff, knowledge, etc. - or are you all left to your own devices?
MS: Both are true. We are masters of our own destiny, but do our best to help each other out along the way. Staff have moved from CA UK to CA Oz, and entire game engines have gone out there and come back. We’re beginning to form links with the newer family members now, and this conference is a step along that path. It’s surprising how much we have in common despite the huge differences in the games we make.
JG: One of the most exciting benefits of joining the Sega family is the ability to freely collaborate with a group of other like-minded studios, each with their own identity, culture and expertise. To date, we have taken advantage of the other studios in sharing ideas, approaches to common problems as well as code. It’s my hope and plan to increase this collaboration in the near future to include sharing larger technology components such as in-house developed user interface tools and the like.
GF: To date, the process of sharing technologies has been rather ad-hoc. It's really been left to individual studios to make their own investigations. To that extent, we've previously sent people to various other studios to find out what technologies we could take advantage of.
This conference is about formalizing these processes. This is a crucial advantage to being part of a large organization. And it's an advantage we need to leverage. We'll simply make better products if we do.
MJ: One of the points of the dev conference is to turn the discussions all the studios have been having together into action. Whilst there has been knowledge sharing previously, and use by some of the studios of the Sega of China facility, the tech demos at the conference have been eye opening, with lots of discussions amongst the various studios about how it could be used in their games, and it's something that will start happening more and more as a result of the conference, alongside a plan for a studio wide knowledge base.
Do you think that, in joining Sega, you've changed much of your respective companies’ culture?
MS: Joining Sega hasn’t changed the culture directly, and there is no effort or intention on the part of Sega to do that. The opportunities for growth that being part of the family has opened up have meant the culture is evolving as we grow. Each new employee adds their uniqueness to the mix. But it’s natural evolution rather than imposed change, and our core values remain unchanged.
JG: Secret Level has more than doubled in size since joining Sega, and growth like that does not come without changing the company culture. When we embarked on growing the studio with Sega, we realized that the culture would change. We welcomed the changes to the culture that we saw could be beneficial, while identifying the parts of the culture that make Secret Level who we are and we concentrated on preserving those; an effort in which Sega has been extremely supportive.
GF: Our culture is based on building a small highly skilled product leadership studio. We encourage, support and reward innovation. Sega is entirely supportive of our culture and our values which made them the perfect choice for us. Their support has actually helped reinforce our culture of product excellence.
MJ: Not at all - the culture is down to the individual studios. All the studios operate differently, and that is embraced. It would be pretty silly for a publisher to purchase a studio and want it to change, as it will have been the culture, technology, talent and games that they will have wanted to become part of the organisation in the first place.
Check back next week for the second part of this feature, which looks at recruitment, user-generated content, and how the teams are living up to much-loved Sega name.