Nestled away in Nottingham, you might not have heard of Monumental – or, if you had, perhaps they’d been pigeon-holed as a middleware company, having previously focused a lot of its efforts on licensing its online-focused Monumental Technology Suite. But the company has been rapidly, albeit quietly, growing its internal development efforts, to the point where it now employs over 100 people – making it one of the larger independent studios in the UK, and one of the few British developers focused on pioneering in the online space.
The reason we might be slightly in the dark about the company’s growth and efforts is possibly due to its insistence on taking a different path from other independent developers. Its two most recent management-level hires – Mark Howell, chief financial officer, and Jeremy Middleton as non-executive director – have come from outside the industry, from MediaSquare and PriceWaterhouseCoopers respectively.
“These people from outside of the games industry are more than prepared to say the way this industry works is insanity, and it needs to get better,” says Paul Mayze, Monumental’s chief operating officer.
“If we don,t change these development models then there aren’t going to be any developers left. You know, you read a lot about developers in trouble, and I think a lot of the time it’s because there’s better deals to be had that mean more stability.”
Rik Alexander, CEO of the studio, explains that this stance has been the focus from the get-go: “We’re breaking boundaries in terms of developer-publisher business model, were doing deals that are not traditional at all – which is one of the reasons we set this company up, actually. We didn’t want to do just a normal publisher-developer model, it didn’t make any sense to me. 18 to 24 month cycles and then spending your profit in those between times before you get more work – that doesnt strike me as a very stable business.”
DEAL WITH IT
Its first MMO, the free-to-play Football Superstars, is a prime example of such broken boundaries – Alexander sits on the board of the game’s publisher, CyberSports, and Monumental owns a stake in the company. Its second title, an internal IP based around another outdoor sport, has no publisher – instead kick-started with funds from East Midlands regional screen agency EM Media.
But while having such a fair relationship is something that every developer in the world would like, how do you begin to find and pitch those relationships – especially when online games have such considerable startup costs that some publishers have shelved more MMOs than they’ve actually released?
“Our stance is that we never really try to pitch anything,” explains Alexander. “Its more a case of: ‘This is what we do. If you want to come on board, then come and have a conversation with us, but we’re not going to pitch it.’ We will be doing this stuff regardless of anyone getting involved with it, its just going to happen. We’ve always been able to generate enough business to be able to fuel our ideas regardless of what publishers want to do, that’s just how we approach business – we always want to make sure we can be self-sufficient without having to go and get a publisher deal.”
This focus on self-sufficiency has gone as far as to see the studio open its own outsourcing studio in India – an ambition long-held by Alexander, but on hold until he could find the right people to run it. “You have to have someone who can go over to India or Romania or wherever, and can understand things like their laws and taxes,” he says. The model is a natural fit for a company focused on MMOs, where maintaining several such games entirely in-house could easily see the company balloon to an unmanageable level.
Alexander is clear on the benefit – or perhaps necessity – of outsourcing for online companies. “Outsourcing is a staple part of game development now – if you’re not outsourcing, you’re not really thinking of your schedules properly. It’s a headache, but once you get through that you have some good partners. MMOs are all about content, and having a couple of hundred people here isn’t necessarily a good idea, bar the fact that its really hard to hire them. So going into India makes sense.”
The Indian office has opened with five staff, and is planned to grow to about ten by the New Year. The initial focus will be on artwork – the first thing is to make sure it works, they stress – but the plan is to grow it to handle code as well. The benefits, bar the immediately obvious cost ones, are more about how effectively the process can fit in with the existing team, says Alexander.
“They have direct leads into the team – if they’re working on environments, they’ll be in contact with the senior environment lead here and they’ll talk daily and feed directly in to it. So, essentially, they’ll work as an extension rather than through the filter system that normally occurs when outsourcing, when you’ve got everything going through one person on each side. It gets through a lot of the problems there, so we’re relatively confident we can make it work.”
But it’s not just into other countries that Monumental is pushing – it was also, perhaps surprisingly, one of the two companies to save Swordfish after its closure by parent Vivendi, purchasing the defunct developer’s Manchester studio. But why would a company that’s just moved into a brand new office buy part of another developer? The answer lies in Monumental’s desire to not only cover the PC online space but also to diversify into the console market.
“They’re one of the few developers in the world that have actually done Xbox Live SP,” says Alexander, explaining the process of taking Xbox Live from the common peer-to-peer connections to a server-based model. “MMOs need a server because the clients can be hacked. Monumental Manchester is one of the few developers in the world that has solved this problem, they’ve been working on technology to facilitate that. It’ll help bring persistence into the world, and open up possibilities for meta-gaming.”
But besides from just wanting to use this in its console titles – the first of which, an online-focused racing licence, has been signed with a big publisher but so far not announced – this tech forms part of the MMO middleware that it still sells to other developers as well as using on its internal games. And with the notion of persistence and community within games fast becoming a must-have selling point, the timing couldn’t be better, explains Alexander.
“We build online technology, we sell online technology, and we develop with online technology – that’s what we do. There is a gold rush on with everyone wanting to get into persistent virtual worlds and thriving communities, and we don’t just sell the shovels – we know how to dig.”