In the UK, Jonathan Ross is a superstar. In his 25 years in the media spotlight he has served as a high-profile television talk show host, radio presenter, film critic, comic book writer and comedian.
His celebrity is such that he knows what it is to feel the sharp end of the tabloid press, and yet he remains hugely popular with a public that today know him as a household name of mainstream entertainment.
And as of late last year, the celebrity has a new skill to add to his CV, for Ross now runs his very own games development studio.
Named HotSauce Interactive, the studio is based in the same converted industrial building that also houses part of Ross’ television production outfit HotSauce TV. Tucked away in a quaint industrial corner of Camden, North London, it is a building filled with talented staff, big ambitions and boxes of toys. More on that later.
HotSauce Interactive debuted late last year with the launch of its first game, iOS auto-runner Catcha Catcha Aliens; a well-polished effort with enough individual mechanics to distinguish it from the genre-dominating giant that is Temple Run.
Spend a few minutes with Catcha Catcha Aliens, and it's clear HotSauce Interactive is taking making games seriously. It is utterly a commercial release equal to much you’d see from more established iOS studios, and nothing about it suggests it being the product of a vanity project.
Ross is, of course, a famously devoted gamer. He is a collector of old and obscure gaming platforms; evident in the boxes stacked in piles around HotSauce’s office space. They contain, along with some of Ross’ immense toy collection, the likes of Dreamcast Divers and NeoGeos - hardly the possesions of a reluctant gamer.
In conversation with the broadcaster, all it takes is a single nostalgic sentence about a particular game and Ross shoots off, returning clutching a handful of Famicom Disk System titles, an Atari Lynx, or any other curio from the medium’s history.
It’s an obsession Ross shares with his family, and it’s largely the reason he today finds himself heading up a games studio.
“It comes from us being a family that have always played video games,” says Ross of founding HotSauce Interactive.
“Then a few times I got asked to do voices on games, and I’d almost always say ‘yes’, because if something sounds fun, I’m generally up for doing it, and – despite the way the press made me out for several years – I’m not actually that money motivated.”
A chance meeting at the 2009 Video Games BAFTA’s led to a voice work offer on Fable III, where Ross met a number of Lionhead staff and formed a good relationship with Georg Backer, who at the time was audio producer at the studio.
“Jonathan and I talked about games for something like an hour, so I just suggested to him maybe he could think about making games,” reveals Backer, who now, like all the staff at HotSauce Interactive, embraces multiple roles at the studio.
And so it was, around May 2011, that together Ross and Backer assembled a team and, many months later, began work on a number of prototypes.
A FRESH START
But why would a man who must have the pick of enough potential projects to fill every hour for decades, and immense success in so many other arenas, take on an entirely new career path at the age of 52? In short, when Ross decided against renegotiating his longstanding contract with broadcasting organisation the BBC, he began to look at life a little differently.
“I had a slight reappraisal of my career when the BBC thing happened,” explains Ross. “The thing about being at the BBC was that it was great for me, but it was very limiting. You were working so flat out – even though I’m not ever complaining as I was paid handsomely – but I was kind of working six days a week for 44 weeks of the year. It was solid and it was reliable, but in a way it was a little bit boring towards the end, because I knew exactly what I was doing every day for months in advance.”
Ross admits that the technical challenge of making games previously prevented him from considering the idea. But in an era of accessible games tools and creatively empowered consumers, he has finally stepped up to involve himself in a medium he has long adored.
LEADER OF THE PACK
Ross’ role at the studio is largely as a creative lead. He is joined by four other full-time staff, and employs a number of freelancers. Along with Backer, Dominic Clubb heads up the artistic process, Guy Simmons serves in a project lead role and Ross’ son, Harvey Ross, stands as a co-writer and contributor in various other ways.
Meanwhile, Ross’ film writer wife, Jane Goldman, is also leading a project at the studio, again offering creative input and guidance.
A glance at Catcha Catcha Aliens’ credits reveals Backer as executive producer of the game, but the HotSauce Interactive staff are typically coy about overemphasising definite individual job titles. In reality, they all contributed across the game, and insist the studio’s culture is one of creative democracy.
“The creative culture is great actually,” says Simmons of HotSauce Interactive, before drawing a comparison with his previous employers. “It feels a lot like the early days of Bullfrog and Muckyfoot, where everyone had a voice, which is the beauty of small teams really. There’s no real hierarchy and you don’t need to be loud to be heard, which suits my mouse-like personality perfectly.
“Obviously, the key difference here is that you have Jane Goldman and Jonathan Ross involved too, which adds a new perspective, and brings a refreshingly different comedy and obscure geekery element to the party.”
THE OTHER SCREEN
Something else Ross and Goldman contribute is experience from television and the broader entertainment industries. Any observer of the global games development space will have heard the talk of television and game production methods, staffing structures and technologies growing increasingly similar, but for Ross, what he brings is something rather different.
“The one thing I’ve brought to this is a certain confidence in my ideas, creatively,” he reveals. “I am confident in my ideas, and if they’re wrong I’m happy to accept that. And I think you do need, if you’re ostensibly at the top of the team, someone like that.
“Georg runs the team, but it’s very democratic here; everyone is on an equal footing. Nobody says ‘you can’t fucking do this’, or ‘you have to do that.’ It’s much more that we sit down together and form the ideas together, but ultimately you do need someone there who is going to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to something. I’ve been doing my own shows for 25 years now, so I’ve got fairly confident at deciding what works and what doesn’t.”
Ross modestly claims that that may be the only thing he’s brought with him in terms of applicable experience, along with having seen almost every commercially released movie in recent times as a critic, and playing games in high numbers. In other words, he knows how to entertain, and he knows what makes a good narrative of story.
But for Ross, it’s a lifelong enthusiasm that really fuels his approach to making games.
“I think my love of comic books might actually inform this process more than anything else I’ve done,” he says.
At HotSauce Interactive’s inception, as work began on Catcha Catcha Aliens, Ross and his team also fleshed out another game with a Mexican wrestling theme that came about as a result of his involvement with an East London group called Lucha Britannia.
Meanwhile another title is underway with Goldman at the helm, and the team continually – even obsessively – brainstorm new ideas. At several times during Develop’s visit to HotSauce Interactive conversation turns onto an enthusiastic clatter as ideas tumble forth, and Ross seems to envisage ideas for games on a near daily basis.
With that enthusiasm comes ambition, and HotSauce Interactive has plenty. There’s musing about crafting far bigger games, employing more staff, tackling triple-A development and even building a whole new floor for the games team based in the building.
And, all the while, the HotSauce games team are in the unusual position of having a genuine celebrity in control, both creatively and financially.
“We all have a relationship with famous people before we’ve met them, and then you have to recalibrate your experience until the point where it’s no longer a surprise – good or bad – when they walk through the door,” says Ross of how his status impacts a process like founding HotSauce Interactive.
“That always takes a few weeks to settle down, but now it’s totally normal for us all to sit around together like this.”
His celebrity has, of course, afforded Ross a level of financial security, and that means, for the foreseeable future, Ross will operate HotSauce Interactive as an indie. It is not supported by any outside funding, despite much interest from investors.
Certainly, it’s not the kind of indie where a duo of devs work from a parent’s garage for pennies, but still, the team behind Catcha Catcha Aliens is small, youthful and boasts all of the spirit of an ambitious new microstudio.
“It’s just us, and that’s the way we want it to stay for the foreseeable future,” confirms Ross. “That way it’s more fun, and we can do what we want. It’s the same reasons we haven’t ever sold any shares in our television company, even though people have asked over the years, especially as I’ve had volume work guaranteed, so its an attractive proposition. But why get someone else involved if you don’t need them?”
As for the tools at the heart of Ross’ studio, it is a familiar combination for a new outfit.
“We’re using Unity as our games engine for now, which has been great in terms of prototyping quickly,” explains Clubb. “Even an artist like me was coding at the beginning thanks to Unity, and then there’s art tools like 3ds Max and Photoshop.”
Does that mean Ross is already au fait with the nuances of the Unity editor? Not quite, but while frank about his ambitions as far as getting his hands in the code is concerned, Ross is not opposed to learning more about the finer details of making games.
“I have a minor interest, but not really,” he initially says of seriously learning coding. “I mean, I quite like the idea, and I like to think I have some worthwhile input here in terms of design and the look of things.
“I wouldn’t mind learning something like Unity, just so I can understand more how the process works, but really I know after that I wouldn’t spend much of my time doing that, because there are people here that can do it better than me and faster than me.”
Clearly, Ross does know the games development industry, even if he isn’t an experienced programmer. One moment he’s full of enthusiasm about Valve’s creative model, and next he’s delivering an informed oration on why the video games industry need not have an inferiority complex about the film business.
Big plans may well be afoot, but for now, however, the team is sticking with smaller games using Unity. And for Ross, his devotion to HotSauce Interactive appears unfaltering.
“This is something I’m really enjoying more and more,” he concludes. “I enjoy doing things where I start from scratch, where you have something at the end of it. I loved doing my talk show and I loved doing my film show, and I’m always still doing things like that, juggling ten things at once. That’s just how my mind works.”
And with that, conversation returns to an energetic ruckus. There’s talk of a physics game concept, near shouting about Vib-Ribbon, and then it’s back to work to make other visions a reality.
Jonathan Ross and his team at HotSauce Interactive are tremendously ambitious. So far they have one released iOS game to their name, but already they are considering how they could move into triple-A development.
“This is something we would need funding for, but I would love us to make a really big world-building game that would be our Halo,” says Ross. “Something that would be our Fable or our Black Ops. Something with a really big team where we make something from nothing.
“And I’ve got a good idea for it, which I was going to do as a comic book for the year after next.”
Ross already has one comic book credit under his belt, having penned Turf, a four-part miniseries in 2010.
“I really think it might work as a game. I suppose I shouldn’t say more, but yes, I am very serious about it.”
Exactly what HotSauce’s ‘Halo’ is remains unclear, but considering Ross’ lifetime of achievements, it’s far from impossible that he might make it a reality.