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MCV ISSUE 953

LEAMINGTON SPA Our regional spotlight points at the UK’s gaming heartland

MATT BOOTY The head of Xbox Game Studios on his next-gen dev plan

THE ART AND BUSINESS OF VIDEO GAMES

Welcome to

BUILDING A BRITISH UBISOFT 2K’S CLOUD CHAMBER We talk to the new head of the new BioShock team

Can Catalis and Curve build a truly British big publisher?

JANUARY 2020

MCV/DEVELOP AWARDS SHORTLIST We need you to vote for this year’s winners... see page 10

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2020 Yorkshire Games Festival featuring: King Rare Bithell Games British Esports Association nDreams Team17 Coatsink Sumo Digital Plus: Pop-Up Usability Lab, Meet the Developers, Career Surgeries, Northern Games Showcase Full programme and passes: yorkshiregamesfestival.com

@YorkshireGamesFest

@yorksgamesfest


JANUARY

05 The editor

New decade, same problems

06 Critical Path

The key dates this month

10 Vote for your winners!

The MCV/DEVELOP Awards shortlist

12 IRL

Real life events from the industry

16 Industry Voices

Our platform for the industry

20 Xbox’s Matt Booty

2020 is looking bright for Microsoft

20 26 Ins and Outs

30

And all our recruitment advice

30 Leamington Spa

At the heart of the UK games industry

40 Cloud Chamber

2K’s new BioShock studio

42 2020 in games

48

Looking ahead to a new decade

48 A Catalis for growth

Building a British Ubisoft

54 Arise: A Simple Story

A developer born out of a mid-life crisis

58 When We Made...

Katana Zero

62 The Sounds of...

58

Sarah Schachner

66 The Final Boss

EA’s Samantha Ebelthite

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“I doubt the government understands games any better than my struggling sibling.”

TheEditor New decade, same problems In the run-up to Christmas I received a much-dreaded text message from a sibling: “Which is the best console???” The exchange then played out over a total of 39 further messages, before we decided that we had to actually speak to each other to get anything sorted. Said relative was looking to buy a console for the use of “kids in general” to play “Mario, Just Dance, FIFA and Fortnite.” That seems straightforward, get a Switch… but it was not. First I had to inform them that the SNES Mini was not a new console and wouldn’t run new games. And that while Fortnite was indeed free, it would still need Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus to play online. To which a reply of “is Fortnite an online game?” really showed that we needed to start at the very beginning. And then “is it safe?” Which as we all know is a long and complex answer, much like: Is it safe to play a sport? Or cross the road? Basically “yes, but you need to take the necessary precautions,” I explained. Having discussed all that, the sibling, who had done some research brought up Xbox Game Pass! “Brilliant” I said, “tons of games” but not FIFA I had to qualify, and in a return to an earlier point: “No. Mario is only available on Switch.” A quick chat about Minecraft, again “yes you can play it online,” but this time “no, you don’t have to.” But at least the game was available everywhere, I explained. It was tempting to think that as our generation, who grew up with video games, became parents themselves that they would better understand the process of playing games. But things have changed so radically since the ‘put cartridge in console’ days that they might as well be starting from scratch. It’s times like this that you realise what a sterling job bricks-and-mortar retail does in bridging this knowledge gap. And also how it’s still so easy for parents to struggle with managing their kids’ gaming desires. Speaking of which we have a new government, or possibly the same old government that’s had a bit of a spritz. Either way, its manifesto decided that ‘loot boxes’ were not only worth targeting but were mentioned in the same breath as a review of the Gambling Act and credit card misuse. Whatever your thoughts on such mechanics, that is not where we want to be. I doubt the government understands games any better than my struggling sibling, but their shared knowledge gap is a serious problem for the industry and one that we all need to fight harder to close, both through education and best practice. Welcome to a new decade, we’ve come so far, the opportunities are endless, but there’s still plenty to do, so let’s get out there and make it ours. Seth Barton seth.barton@biz-media.co.uk

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Here are the key upcoming events and releases to mark in your calendar...

Critical Path Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot This highly-anticipated action RPG will be hitting the PS4, Xbox and PC early this year, allowing fans to relive the events of Dragon Ball Z as they fight, fish eat and train across the Dragon Ball universe. The game also includes a brand new character designed by Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama.

Journey to the Savage Planet This colourful co-op exploration game, coming to PS4, Xbox and PC from Typhoon Studios and 505 Games, sees you as an employee of Kindred Aerospace, proudly known as the 4th best interstellar exploration company. You are dropped onto an uncharted world with little equipment and no plan, other than to explore and catalogue the local flora and fauna to determine if the planet is fit for human habitation.

JANUARY 17th

Tokyo Mirage Sessions FE Encore The plundering of the Wii U’s more successful titles continues, as the Shin Megami Tensei/Fire Emblem crossover RPG makes its way to the Switch from Atlus. The game’s story details a group of aspiring and established Japanese idols fighting evil spirits known as ‘Mirages” across Tokyo.

23rd

28th

Sony Dualshock 4 Back Button Attachment Sony’s new accessory adds customisable back buttons to the Dualshock 4. It’s a curious time to release a new accessory, so late in the PS4’s life cycle. We wonder if the PS5’s Dualshock will feature rear buttons as standard.

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Interactive Futures

Royal Spa Centre, Leamington Spa The event is returning for its second year. Featuring talks from figures across the industry, Interactive Futures 2020 will bring together everyone from game enthusiasts to designers. It will provide the opportunity to discover developments, new releases, collaborations, plus networking and to celebrate the future of game development. Speakers this year include Mike Brown from Playground Games, Jethro Dunn from Codemasters, KTN’s Fiona Kilkelly and Rare’s Jessica Baker.

FEBRUARY 31st - 1st

4th

5th-9th

Zombie Army 4: Dead War The latest entry to Rebellion’s zombie-themed spinoff to its Sniper Elite series will release on PS4, Xbox One and PC – and will allow players to fight the undead horde across 1940s Europe, from a venetian canal to a zombie-infested Croatian zoo, featuring bloodthirsty creepers and zombified tanks.

Yorkshire Games Festival

National Science and Media Museum, Bradford The Yorkshire Games Festival returns for its fourth year, following its establishment in 2016. This year’s event features talks from a wide array of industry veterans, such as Mike Bithell talking about the recent John Wick Hex, Team17’s Chloe Crookes talking about quality assurance and Alysia Judge giving advice on how to talk to games media and get media attention for your game.

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CONTENT

We’re Playing...

Editor: Seth Barton seth.barton@biz-media.co.uk +44 (0)203 143 8785 Staff Writer: Chris Wallace chris.wallace@biz-media.co.uk +44 (0)203 143 8786 Designer: Mandie Johnson mandie.johnson@biz-media.co.uk Production Manager: Claire Noe cnoe@datateam.co.uk

ADVERTISING SALES Business Development Manager: Vanessa Joyce vanessa.joyce@biz-media.co.uk +44 (0)7815780182

MANAGEMENT Media Director: Colin Wilkinson colin.wilkinson@biz-media.co.uk +44 (0)203 143 8777

SUBSCRIBER CUSTOMER SERVICE To subscribe, change your address, or check on your current account status, please contact: subscriptions@bizmediauk.co.uk ARCHIVES Digital editions of the magazine are available to view on ISSUU.com. Recent back issues of the printed edition may be available please call +44 (0)203 143 8777 for more information.

Looking back at lists of the best games of the last decade I’ve done pretty well, the last year not so much. I’ve been enjoying Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order of late, it does feel like it was a little rushed to hit the deadline (I know the feeling), but it’s still a great Star Wars romp, and a rarity as an actually good licensed title.

Between illness, deadlines, and the rapid decline of our country into a Mad Max dystopia, I’ve lost a lot of sleep this month. One thing I was happy to lose sleep to was Sam Barlow’s Telling Lies – which I played from start to finish until a stupid hour of the night. While I think it was worth being useless the next day, Seth might disagree... Chris Wallace, Staff Writer

Vikki Blake, News Writer

Seth Barton, Editor

INTERNATIONAL MCV and its content are available for licensing and syndication re-use. Contact Colin Wilkinson for opportunities and permissions: colin.wilkinson@biz-media.co.uk

As we look back at the best games of the decade, I’ve spent a little quality time with a handful of games that made the 2010s particularly special for me. I’ve replayed The Last of Us, and then reacquainted myself with Dishonored and its sequel. Also squeezed in a couple of guitar solos in Rock Band 4, too!

Paws the game The best furry friends the industry has to offer. Send yours to chris.wallace@biz-media.co.uk

MCV/DEVELOP has an exclusive media partnership with Famitsu – Japan’s leading video games analyst and news source

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Printed by Buxton Press Ltd

Biz Media Ltd, Axe & Bottle Court, 70 Newcomen St, London SE1 1YT All contents © 2019 Biz Media Ltd. or published under licence. All rights reserved. No part of this magazine may be used, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any way without the prior written permission of the publisher. All information contained in this publication is for information only and is, as far as we are aware, correct at the time of going to press. Biz Media Ltd. cannot accept any responsibility for errors or inaccuracies in such information. You are advised to contact manufacturers and retailers directly with regard to the price of products/services referred to in this publication. Apps and websites mentioned in this publication are not under our control. We are not responsible for their contents or any other changes or updates to them. This magazine is fully independent and not affiliated in any way with the companies mentioned herein. If you submit material to us, you warrant that you own the material and/or have the necessary rights/permissions to supply the material and you automatically grant Biz Media Ltd. and its licensees a licence to publish your submission in whole or in part in any/ all issues and/or editions of publications, in any format published worldwide and on associated websites, social media channels and associated products. Any material you submit is sent at your own risk and, although every care is taken, neither Biz Media Ltd. nor its employees, agents, subcontractors or licensees shall be liable for loss or damage. We assume all unsolicited material is for publication unless otherwise stated, and reserve the right to edit, amend, adapt all submissions.

www.biz-media.co.uk

Pet: Barry White & Jean Grey Owner: Dean Abdou Owner’s job: Video Producer and Host at Gamer Network

Pet: Polly Owner: Kelly Rist Owner’s job: Marketing Manager, Venom Ltd

Pet: Peanut Owner: Sam K Owner’s job: Content creator at ElderlyGoose.com

Barry loves to hit ping pong balls against bedroom doors at night, while Jean enjoys a good solid scratch on the head or on the butt. Classic cat move.

Polly loves playing fetch and zooming around like a loon. When she’s had enough, she’ll crash out to watch Vikings and Bob’s Burgers with her humans.

Peanut loves to loaf around and stuff his face. He likes to chew his way through the garden like a lawnmower when his brother stops bugging him to play.

+44 (0)203 143 8777

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Thursday 5 March 2020 The Brewery, London Book your table at: www.mcvdevelopawards.com

Development Tool of the Year GameMaker Studio Quixel Shotgun Unity Unreal Engine Wwise

Visual Innovation of the Year Bithell Games for John Wick Hex Codemasters for Dirt Rally 2.0 Media Molecule for Dreams SIE London Studio for Blood & Truth Supermassive for The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan ZA/UM for Disco Elysium

External Development Partner of the Year Cubic Motion Elite3D Keywords Studios Sumo Digital Virtuos Warp Digital

Audio Innovation of the Year Billy Goat Entertainment for Supermarket Shriek Creative Assembly for Total War: Three Kingdoms Foam Sword for Knights and Bikes Media Molecule for Dreams Sam Barlow and Furious Bee for Telling Lies SIE London Studio for Blood & Truth

Recruitment Agency of the Year Aardvark Swift Amiqus OPM

Gameplay Innovation of the Year Bithell Games for John Wick Hex Denki for Autonauts Inkle for Heaven’s Vault Media Molecule for Dreams Sam Barlow and Furious Bee for Telling Lies ZA/UM for Disco Elysium

Major Studio of the Year Codemasters Creative Assembly Frontier Developments Media Molecule SIE London Studio Sumo Digital Indie Studio of the Year Bithell Games Chucklefish Foam Sword Hello Games Ustwo Games ZA/UM

Narrative Innovation of the Year A Brave Plan for The Bradwell Conspiracy Inkle for Heaven’s Vault No Code for Observation Sam Barlow and Furious Bee for Telling Lies Supermassive for The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan ZA/UM for Disco Elysium

THANKS TO OUR GRAND JURY! Our shortlists were selected by our MCV/DEVELOP Awards Grand Jury, which consists of industry veterans from every aspect of UK development and business. They nominated their most-valued partners and most-respected peers from across the industry, with only those receiving substantial support reaching this stage.

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Vote for your industry winners today at: www.mcvdevelopawards.com/vote

PR Agency of the Year Bastion Indigo Pearl Lick PR Little Big PR Renaissance Swipe Right PR

Major Publisher of the Year Capcom Nintendo Sega Sony Square Enix Take-Two (Rockstar Games and 2K)

Creative Agency of the Year Adam&eveDDB Fourth Floor Gamer Creative ICHI Worldwide Studio Diva Studio Qi-ni

Indie Publisher of the Year Chuckefish Curve Digital Sold Out Team17 Wired Productions

Campaign of the Year Borderlands 3 – 2K It’s Time to Play – PlayStation UK Mortal Kombat 11 – Warner Bros Pokémon Sword and Shield – Nintendo & The Pokémon Company Resident Evil 2 – Capcom Xbox Game Pass – Xbox Media Brand of the Year Eurogamer IGN PC Gamer PCGamesN Rock, Paper, Shotgun

WE NEED YOU TO PICK THE WINNERS! We want the whole industry to have its say on its brightest and boldest from 2019. So we’re asking MCV/DEVELOP subscribers to vote for our winners. You’ll need your subscriber number for this, which is above your address on the magazine wrapper. Then head to www.mcvdevelop.com/vote and make your selections.

Platform of the Year Epic Games Store Google Stadia Microsoft Xbox Nintendo Switch Sony PlayStation Steam

Retailer of the Year Amazon Fanatical GAME Green Man Gaming Sainsburys Argos Smyths Toys Distributor of the Year Advantage CentreSoft Click Entertainment Exertis Genba Digital Koch Media

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IRL

Real Life Events from the industry

THE GAME AWARDS 2019 The Game Awards returned in December, on election night no less, in what is undoubtedly the most spectacular of all the gaming award shows. Geoff Keighley remains the lynchpin and host of the industry’s swankiest night out, with the big award of Game of the Year going, somewhat surprisingly (though no less deservedly), to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

Right: Green Day was just one of many acts performing on the night Below-right: FromSoftware’s Hidetaka Miyazaki collecting the award for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

Above: Capcom’s Hideaki Itsuno collects the Best Action Game award for Devil May Cry 5 Right and far right: Main man Geoff Keighley and Death Stranding star Norman Reedus

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UKIE CHRISTMAS PARTY Ukie’s annual Christmas party went off with a bang, or so we’re told as MCV/DEVELOP’s team was struck with horrible lurgi and unable to attend, so hopefully we saved you from one infection vector prexmas. Attendees were well inoculated as usual, though, this year with DOOM DOOM-branded Bone Vodka [1]. Yum! The event also saw Solomon Ezra [2], the chair of the Rabin Ezra Trust, giving a £2,000 cheque to the winners of the Ukie Student Green Game Jam: Team Sickly from the National Film and Television School, who we covered last month. (Rabin Ezra worked at Criterion Software, and was one of the key minds behind Renderware, the engine that powered Burnout and also GTA III and Vice City).

2

1

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WARGAMING UK’S STUDIO OPENING

Left (left to right): Wargaming CEO Victor Kislyi and studio head Sean Decker

Wargaming celebrated the official launch of its Wargaming UK studio in Guildford last month. The new studio is working on an unannounced new IP and the new office space has been designed and equipped for the task at hand, with everything from a testing room, voice recording studio and even a dedicated board games room. The launch event also saw the studio host a 48 hour game jam, which pitted teams against each other. Current staff is around 60 but the studio is looking to grow to double that number, making it a serious new entry to Guildford’s established scene.

Right: Wargaming’s new studio has an eighties inspired cafe and dining area

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GAME AND BELONG OPEN UK’S LARGEST GAMING ARENA On December 12th, GAME and BELONG opened the largest gaming arena in the UK on Oxford Street, London. At 7,500 square feet, the new arena sits below House of Fraser, which was recently bought by GAME parent Sports Direct (soon to be the Frasers Group). The arena has the largest number of PCs and consoles permanently set up for competitive gaming in the UK. Visitors will be able to participate in Battle Royale tournaments with up to 100 other competitors. Additionally, the new arena features BELONG’s first ‘pro-room’, designed for professional esports players and upcoming amateur teams, fitted with streaming stations for established or budding influencers, and two purpose-built gaming rooms for parties and functions.

Above: The new space neatly integrates the gaming arena alongside retail space

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Right: The Excel esports team attended for the opening day

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XXXXXX

Industry Voices

Flying the rainbow flag over gaming Robin Gray, Co-Founder, Gayming Magazine

MCV/DEVELOP gives the industry a platform for its own views in its own words. Do you have a burning hot take for the world of games? Get in touch!

PROMOTING and fostering diversity in gaming is a hot topic at the moment and it will continue to get hotter. LGBTQ representation specifically, while improving both in the industry and in games themselves, is still very low. This inspired me to do my bit in tackling this issue of inequality. Last year I was involved in the creation of two major earthquakes in the LGBTQ games world – the launch of Gayming Magazine in June, and helping form the Out Making Games initiative later in the year. Working to celebrate LGBTQ video gaming, its culture and its development over the past year has been an honour for me. This industry is full of inspiring LGBTQ people - all contributing to the biggest entertainment sector that generates hundreds of billions of pounds of revenue globally. That this work also feeds into the wider diversity conversation in games is equally important, and I recognise and celebrate the hard work undertaken by everyone in the industry to promote, increase and foster diversity of under-represented groups. Gayming Magazine grew out of the recognition of several challenges: The gaming world is very hetero-dominated; There is poor LGBTQ representation; Storylines and characters are often very heteronormative; Only a handful of games have positive LGBTQ characters or storylines – though this is improving; There is an exceptionally high amount of homophobia in the community, particularly during online gaming; There is very little advocacy for LGBTQ rights in gaming industry; and gaymers feel isolated and struggle while growing up and even into adulthood.

Gayming regularly features industry interviews and stories to inspire industry readers and to demonstrate to LGBTQ consumers that the industry is changing. Within six months of launch, Gayming already has a monthly readership of over 22,000 people. In October we held a week-long celebration of LGBTQ video gaming in Central London with our event ‘Gayming Live’ which was attended by over 500 people and watched by many more. In November we launched The Gayming Podcast, which discusses the latest news and hot topics in the LGBTQ gaming world. This outpouring of love and support shows how needed this resource was and how if you make something with love, diversity and good production values, people will come! Out Making Games is another LGBTQ initiative that I’m honoured to be involved with. It was born out of having seen the work other diversity groups like Women in Games, G into Gaming and BAME in Games do. Convinced it was time for an LGBTQ industry network, we launched in November and the response from industry has been huge, both from LGBTQ people in the industry and studios/ organisations wanting to support us. This all demonstrates that the LGBTQ community faces a wide range of issues within the industry. I am proud to be a part of this group and am excited to see what we can do together in 2020. Robin Gray is editor and co-founder of Gayming Magazine and part of the Out Making Games LGBTQ initiative. Check out Gayming Magazine at www.gaymingmag.com

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Safeguarding players Dr Richard Wilson OBE, CEO of TIGA

SAFEGUARDING players should be our top priority – because it is the right thing to do. Games are economically important, bring enjoyment and can be used for education, training and business. However, in recent months concerns have been expressed about excessive play, game mechanics and online harms. Earlier this year, the UK Government published an Online Harms White Paper. Companies in scope of this new framework (namely, those who ‘allow users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online’) will be subject to a new statutory duty of care. An independent regulator will be established to enforce the new regulatory framework. Not all games businesses will be subject to the Government’s new framework for online safety. We have therefore drawn up five TIGA Principles for Safeguarding Players and we are inviting games businesses to provide feedback on them. The Principles are voluntary and are designed to be proportionate: a large multimillion pound games business will be able to do much more than a small games business. Our first Principle focuses on protecting children: Take particular care in the design of games that are likely to appeal to children and provide the necessary tools and information about content for parents and guardians to enable them to manage all aspects of their children’s enjoyment of games Secondly, games businesses should: Deal with players as consumers in a fair manner at all times, in addition to complying with all relevant marketing, advertising and consumer protection law.

Thirdly, games businesses should: Make every effort to ensure that online communities and interactions are safe and do not expose players to harm. Fourthly, games businesses should: Take appropriate and proportionate measures to fulfil the seven data protection principles under the General Data Protection Regulation and comply with all other relevant data protection laws to ensure that players’ rights to personal data privacy are respected. Finally, games businesses should: enable players to manage the amount of time and money spent on games through appropriate design and proportionate measures. This could involve a range of proportionate measures, including: providing controls to enable players and/or their parents and guardians to monitor and restrict the overall amount of money and time spent within each game and on the platform as a whole; and including game design features that enable players to manage the time spent within a game (where proportionate and technically practical). Our industry should always strive to be mature, diligent and responsible when it comes to issues of player safety. Our Principles for Safeguarding Players should help developers, publishers and platform holders to play their part in safeguarding players. It is the right thing to do. TIGA is inviting games businesses to provide feedback on the Principles and the ‘Positive Practices’ before 20th January 2020. TIGA will then review all feedback before formally publishing the first set of Principles in January 2020. Comments and feedback should be sent to: suzi@tiga.org

“Our industry should always strive to be mature, diligent and responsible when it comes to issues of player safety”

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2019 has been another record year for mobile gaming. Sensor Tower Store Intelligence estimates previously predicted that user spending in games across the App Store and Google Play will hit over $62 billion globally this year. As we move into 2020, the mobile games market is predicted to reach $75 billion. While many of the current top tier games won’t exactly fade away, there are a few trends set to run into next year that will gradually impact on growth and the makeup of this industry.

In October, 10 of the top 30 mobile games were ones that began as PC and console franchises. In November, that figure fell to eight, but still shows the impact these IPs are having. The success in recent years of Lineage 2 Revolution, Lineage M, Dragon Quest Walk, Roblox, and now Mario Kart Tour and Call of Duty will give publishers confidence that there are many routes to mobile. With games such as Diabo Immortal on the horizon, 2020 could see more console and PC publishers pick up a larger share of the market.

SUB SUCCESS

Season passes, big IP, Asian influence: Mobile trends for 2020

I previously wrote about how in-game subscriptions and season passes are helping some developers generate greater revenue. Examples include PUBG Mobile’s Royale Pass – helping user spending surpass $1.5 billion globally – to Clash of Clans’ Gold Pass, which sparked a 72 per cent month-on-month jump in the game’s revenue to $71 million during its first 30 days. Nintendo included a monthly $4.99 subscription into Mario Kart Tour and recently added two new subscription options in Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. As developers find interesting ways to implement these systems in their games, it could even start to become a defacto business model for the top titles in certain categories.

FRANCHISE FRACAS

Craig Chapple, mobile insights strategist, EMEA at Sensor Tower

2019 saw the mobile launches of two major flagship console franchises, Mario Kart Tour and Call of Duty: Mobile. Activision’s shooter, developed by Tencent, generated 172m downloads in its first two months and approximately $87m in player spending. Nintendo’s racer picked up close to 133m unique installs and more than $56m in its first 60 days.

ASIA’S INCREASING INFLUENCE The increasing influence of Asia’s mobile games market over the global industry is hardly new, but it will continue in 2020. China’s big game licensing freeze will become a distant memory as the country’s new regulatory body catches up with its backlog. Sensor Tower Store Intelligence estimates forecast China’s mobile games market on iOS to be worth $13.6 billion in 2020. Chinese games companies are also looking the other way. Tencent’s international investments are well-documented, while rival NetEase has invested in studios including Bungie and Behaviour Interactive. Such ventures help ensure they aren’t beholden to changeable local market conditions. China’s giants are not the only big M&A players. South Korea’s Pearl Abyss and Hong Kong’s Animoca Brands have made moves this year, and other companies like Netmarble could follow suit. In a maturing market, these deals won’t come cheap. Craig Chapple is mobile insights strategist, EMEA at mobile intelligence firm Sensor Tower and was previously senior editor at PocketGamer.biz.

“Sensor Tower Store Intelligence estimates forecast China’s mobile games market on iOS to be worth $13.6 billion in 2020”

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CELEBRATING THE PC AND TECH INDUSTRY March

4th

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Xbox’s

2020 is looking bright

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Microsoft looks to be in great shape for the upcoming generation shift. Seth Barton talks to Xbox Game Studios’ Matt Booty about Xbox Series X, competing with Sony and games with a beginning, middle and end

I

t’s now been over six years since the troubled launch of the Xbox One and another 10 months or so until we see the release of Microsoft’s Xbox Series X. Yet despite all that, we’ve never seen a platform holder less in need of a next-gen boost than Microsoft is now. That confidence came through in every interview, and casual chat, we had at Microsoft’s X019 meeting late last year. Across the board there’s momentum, fresh ideas and a sense of focus around Microsoft’s gaming arm at present. The platform is buzzing. The current Xbox One X is among the best console designs of all time, the new console looks groundbreaking, the xCloud preview is progressing well, Xbox Game Pass is the closest thing gaming has to Netflix, and the company’s swathe of studio acquisitions are starting to bring their creative firepower to bear. In charge of the latter is Matt Booty, head of Xbox Game Studios, who we caught up with to discuss how Microsoft’s now 15 internal studios were faring, how they fit into the plan for the Series X and whether any more acquisitions were on the cards. GENERATION X It would be easy to think that Microsoft’s veritable army of developers would be targeting the Series X’s launch day. But Booty agrees with us when we propose that this will be a very different kind of launch, with compatibility across all Microsoft’s hardware, existing and new, ending the usual platform reset. “As our content comes out over the next year, two years, all of our games, sort of like PC, will play up and down that family of devices,” Booty explains. “We want to make sure that if someone invests in Xbox between now and [Series X] that they feel that they made a good investment and that we’re committed to them with content.”

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Right: Grounded is an upcoming suburban garden-based survival game from Outer Worlds developer Obsidian, an Xbox Game Studio

Left: Life is Strange creator, Dontnod, is working on Tell Me Why, an Xbox and PC exclusive to be published by Microsoft, which features a transgender protagonist

And just as importantly (for both first and third-party developers), there will be little to no pressure from the platform holder to turn out exclusive titles for the relatively tiny day-one audience of Series X owners. Of course, Microsoft will still be wanting to show off its new hardware to best effect. “Our approach is to pick one or two IP that we’re going to focus on and make sure that they’re there at the launch of the console, taking advantage of all the features. And for us that’s going to be Halo Infinite, which is a big opportunity.

“It’s the first time in over 15 years that we’ll have a Halo title launching in sync with a new console. And that team is definitely going to be doing things to take advantage of [Series X].” VERSUS BATTLE We’re yet to see in what ways Infinite will utilise Series X’s huge rumoured power. But it will be the first test to see if Microsoft’s new first-party army can compete with Sony’s current-gen masterclass of first-party releases.

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Left: Details are slim about Rare’s brand-new IP Everwild, but it promises to offer “new ways of playing in a natural and magical world”

We frankly ask if the Master Chief and Xbox Game Studios are ready to go toe-to-toe and compete with Sony this time around. In reply, Booty immediately acknowledges the huge role that Sony’s first-party has played in this generation. “First of all, Sony’s done a fantastic job just across the board in terms of what they’ve done with building an audience, selling consoles, obviously, a number of amazing, great games that have come out of their first party teams. I try to stay away from framing things as a head-to-head bout with Sony, instead I think that it’s just up to us to focus on three things. “First of all, we need to deliver on the promises that we make. So if we say a game is going to ship at a certain time, we’ve got to get that done, we just need to get better at executing.” This is an intriguing statement as Xbox hasn’t, publicly at least, missed many release dates in this generation. Though Booty did oversee the delayed and then cancelled Minecraft Super Duper Graphics Pack. But maybe this just shows that the platform wanted more of its own titles out earlier in Xbox One’s lifespan. Booty continued: “We need to make sure that we hold the bar high on quality, and that we’re releasing games that we can be proud of and that the fans can be proud of as Xbox exclusives.” So while Booty isn’t keen to make this out as a head-to-head, most Xbox fans will be measuring the games against Sony and any pride will come from being at least in parity with PlayStation. “And then lastly, we need to continue building characters, stories and worlds that can transcend

generations, devices and platforms. You know, if you look into things like the Marvel characters or Lord of the Rings, when those Marvel characters were first invented in the 1960s, nobody knew that there was going to be a thing called Netflix. “But yet, here we are. And, you know, the Marvel library figures heavily into video streaming. And so I think we are lucky to have worlds and universes like Halo, where there’s characters that can support TV series, books, comic books and all kinds of games. Things like Minecraft that can ship on 23 platforms, and is in schools, and we just need to stay focused on building those kinds of things that really will be generational and last for a while. And I think that if we do that the rest will take care of itself.” Such grand ambitions are admirable, but there’s just a touch of the Xbox One launch in this kind of transmedia talk, which makes us somewhat nervous. After all, you can’t try and create characters like Minecraft’s Creeper, Pikachu, Mario or Lara Croft, you just try and make great content and (sometimes) they come along. RULES OF ACQUISITION Of course, having a mind-boggling fifteen studios at your disposal certainly tilts the odds in your favour when you’re trying to create something that will stand the test of time. That said, more is always helpful, so is Microsoft planning any further acquisitions? “We may or we may not acquire more studios down the road,” says Booty, hedging. “But I think that we hit a point where we had gone through a phase of adding new

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Another reason to pause that acquisition process is to help build relationships between the teams. “We have this amazing collection of 15 studio leaders, and if we’re always acquiring new things, there will always be somebody who’s the new person, you always have the the older studios and the newer studios, and what you don’t get in that situation is them treating each other as peers and sharing information or expertise.” Booty wants Microsoft’s studios on a level playing field then, rather than having a tiered feel? “Yes, we’d rather think of them as a group of peers.”

Above: Matt Booty, Xbox Game Studios

studios. And that’s a lot of work to make sure that we get the studios onboarded correctly, that we make sure that everyone feels secure. “Every studio has its own culture, their own way of thinking. We put a lot of energy into making sure they understand that their culture will be preserved, they’ll be unique,” he says reassuringly. “We’ve done enough of that and now we need to just shift over to working on the games. “That’s then a whole separate process to make sure that they have the right resources – that they’re well supported. So it’s really just been to make sure that we’re being deliberate about both phases. Because I think that we could, not that we would do this, but we could just keep going and buy more-and-more studios, and then maybe wake up one day and realise, like, ‘wait a minute, we need to focus on making the games.’ We need to keep the end goal in mind, which is to make sure that we have a steady slate of games.” Pressed on what a steady slate is from his point of view, Booty replies: “The capacity to deliver, say, a game every three or four months, which is our goal.” Which goes a long way to explain his previous comments on “ship[ping] at a certain time” as with a release schedule that busy, games need to launch in their chosen windows or else things will get very messy, very quickly.

PRAISE AND APPRAISE The studios might be set up on a level playing field, but someone, Booty in this case, still has to manage and appraise their progress. So how involved is the executive in the games of his charges? “As a principle, I try to stay out of the creative process as much as possible The last thing our studios need is me coming in. I enjoy making games, I enjoy the craft of games. And I’ll sit in our studios, if they let me, all day and talk to the people making them. But I think it’s my job to be more neutral, and really make sure that the studios are supported, and they have the resources they need, as opposed to me trying to play game designer.” An approach that will come as some relief to any team that’s laboured under intrusive management. Now, while Booty isn’t pushing his personal take on the games, he is instead bringing to bear a wide variety of feedback tools to gauge where the teams are at. “Now we’re fortunate that we have a lot of ways that we can check on the progress of a game. We have a very sophisticated user research group inside Xbox in Redmond, that’s available to test the games and get people to come in and play them, in a very systematic, scientific way, so that we can measure the progress. “We also have a number of people with 10-20-25 years of experience that will play things along the way and start to give us an opinion. And then we also work with journalists and people that can come in and say: ‘Hey, compared to other games like this, here’s how I think this one is shaping up.’ “I’d much rather work with other groups to give feedback on the games and make sure that I’m supporting them to build the game that’s in their head and see their vision through, because the last thing they need is the executive people coming in and playing game designer,” be reiterates. PULLING TOGETHER With Halo Infinite leading the charge for the Xbox Series X, it’s intriguing to find out if the game is pulling in

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resources from other studios in the group. But Booty is definite that this isn’t the case, with each studio having its own IP (or IPs to work on). “The answer is no. We do have studios that have multiple teams within them. So for example, we announced Everwild, a new IP from Rare; that is a second team that we’re spinning up under Louise O’Connor’s leadership and creative direction, that will be a second team that exists in parallel to the team at Rare that’s already working on Sea of Thieves and will continue to work on that game. So there will be two teams. While at 343 they’re working on Halo Infinite. But they’re also working on bringing things like Halo Reach to PC to join the Master Chief Collection. “But what we aren’t doing right now is for example, saying, ‘hey, could half of the Minecraft team go work on Sea of Thieves?’ I think that would just be very tough with the way we run our studios. They each have their own cultures, they each have their own toolsets, their own technology. And they certainly are sharing a lot of information, techniques and expertise. But we’re not at the point where we would want to move people around from studio to studio.” Instead the studios will use the typical external development resources to assist them. “All of our studios will work with outside development help. Games have just gotten so big and so complicated, and I think it’s really very rare for any studio to not have development partners.” THREE PART PASS So with fifteen studios all working on their own IPs. That’s a lot of content, and all that content, as we’re all aware, is there to feed the voracious maw of Xbox Game Pass. We ask Booty about his take on a comment made by Phil Spencer, about how Game Pass was a great place for games with a “a beginning, a middle and an end” as opposed to the shift to service-type titles in recent years. So does Booty feel that there should be more such titles? “I don’t think that there should, it’s a little bit like, should there be more sci fi movies, or should there be more spy novels? I don’t know. It’s based on what people want to watch and want to read. We don’t try to be directive on the content, but the great thing about Game Pass is that we don’t have to actually worry about that question,” he states intriguingly. “That’s because Game Pass becomes the service, Game Pass becomes

the structure. And now, in our green light and concept review process, I don’t need to ask: ‘What’s your service plan, what’s your monetization plan, are you going to offer any DLC later, what is your monetization?’ We don’t have to ask any of that anymore, the teams can just go design the game that they want. And we can let Game Pass end up being the service. “So to return to your question, should there be more standalone single player games that take about 20 hours to play? It seems like Outer Worlds is doing pretty good. Maybe there’s a lack of those titles right now, and that people like a game that’s about 20 hours with a beginning, a middle and an end. “But I think on a higher level, it’s something we don’t have to worry about anymore, because whether it is a game like Bleeding Edge, which structurally starts to look more like a free-to-play game, more like a servicebased game, that will do fine in Game Pass. And if we end up coming out with another game like Hellblade or Outer Worlds, which is a 12 hour or a 25 hour game that you play and enjoy, and then it kind of has an ending. That’s great in Game Pass too. So that’s really the power of Game Pass.” It’s a persuasive point. For while many have been identifying Game Pass as a renaissance for the double-A game, the largely linear titles that gamers traditionally played consecutively in the heydays of physical retail, it also has huge potential as a provider of service games, without the need to monetise players in-game at every turn. “So really, there’s the type of content there for just about any kind of gamer. And I think that’s what gamers should now expect.” Xbox looks to have its thinking straight and its ducks all in a line. It’s often the case that the approach of the parent company to a gaming arm can be disruptive, but Xbox seems to have applied Microsoft’s customercentric, platform-centric, service-first philosophies to its gaming business with some flair. Whether Game Pass ends up being the stable, longterm, development-funding goliath that everyone wants it to be is very much an ongoing question. As is whether a platform holder possessing this broad a range of development firepower is healthy for the industry as a whole. But Microsoft is undoubtedly in a good place and one that’s easy to understand from the outside. And that clarity, more likely than not, bodes well for its partners.

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Brought to you by

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Ins and Outs: Industry hires and moves 1

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JOHN LLOYD (1) has been appointed as the new community manager at Team17. Lloyd previously worked for two years as a community representative for Ubisoft. JAMES MCCAUGHERN (2), is joining Sumo Digital as a game designer in their Nottingham studio. McCaughern previously worked at Ubisoft Reflections as a junior vehicle-handling designer and a development tester.

head in 2K history. Speaking to MCV/ DEVELOP Gilmore stated: “I’m really honoured to have the opportunity to build this new team and deliver the next offering in one of the greatest game franchises ever created. I’m excited to be the first woman at 2K to lead a studio and thrilled to be joining many other talented women leaders throughout the 2K organization.” (See page 40 for more).

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Former Naughty Dog and Electronic Arts alumni AMY HENNIG (3) has joined Skydance Media to work on “new storyfocused experiences,” and is joining as Skydance Media’s new president of its New Media Division. Hennig was awarded the Lifetime Achievement award at GDC 2019 for her accomplishments as a digital artist, writer and director. KELLEY GILMORE (4) is now the studio head of Cloud Chamber, a new 2K studio working on the BioShock franchise. She is the first female studio

Dead Good Media has a new account manager, with SOPHIE CARTER (5) joining the team. Carter has previously worked at a number of different PR agencies over the last few years, having been an account manager at WixHill, Compass, Templemere PR and ICG Brandbuilders. Koch Media/Deep Silver has appointed former Travian Games CEO LARS JANSSEN (6) as its new director of studio relations. Dr. Klemens Kundratitz, CEO Koch Media states: “Being able to bring Lars on board is a strategic step forward for us as a global developer and publisher.

His extensive development and business expertise will be very valuable for the future development of our own studio network as well as partnerships with external content creators.” Since January 2018, Lars has been a member of the board of Game, the german trade association and serves as a jury member for the film and games fund FFF in the state of Bavaria. Former Ukie COO DAN WOOD (7) has joined Creative England as the new games and immersive associate. “I’m delighted to be working with Creative England,” Wood said. “The industry represents a true blend of technical skills, art and creativity and Creative England is perfectly placed to play a lead role in providing the support to continue to develop as a world-leading creator of interactive content.”

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ADAM MERRETT (8) has left his former role as senior UK communications manager at Ubisoft (and the games industry itself) to pursue “a new challenge in the music industry,” joining Warner Music Group as

senior manager, corporate communications. Merrett had a number of former roles in the games industry, including as european communications manager for Playstation and as UK communications manager at 2K. Catalis has appointed GARY HUGHES (9) as their new chairman. Hughes is a chartered accountant with broad international experience and brings with him extensive PLC, private equity and non-executive experience. Dominic Wheatley, CEO of Catalis said: “We are very pleased to appoint Gary as our new chairman. His extensive experience of the gaming sector and his strategic approach to company growth will be invaluable to Catalis as we drive the business forward through our next phase of development following the Northedge transaction.” (See page 48 for more). Developer Flavourworks have brought in HARRY HOLMWOOD (10) as managing director. Holmwood has previously taken game companies to IPO and trade sale, leading teams in UK and USA as well as heading Japanese publisher Marvelous’s expansion into Europe and launching Stardew Valley onto mobile with his mobile studio The Secret Police. “The combination of Flavourworks’ Touch Video technology with

compelling narrative and live performance gives us a glimpse of how this genre will evolve. As soon as I saw their plans for the future, I knew I had to get involved,” said Holmwood.

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MATT GLOVER (11) has joined Genba Digital as its new commercial director. This move comes after Glover’s nine-year stint with Capcom, having worked as their national account manager for UK and Ireland, and later as their digital and mobile sales manager for EMEA. Speaking to MCV/ DEVELOP, Glover said: “I`m really excited to be joining the Genba Digital team at this time of growth and using my 16+ years of games industry experience to provide additional support to such a fantastic publisher-retailer network.” Game industry marketing veteran AL KING (12) has joined Sinespace as VP of marketing. After leading multiple successful launches at Electronic Arts, including the massively successful UK roll-out of The Sims, and the highly profitable EU/North American launch of Wargaming’s World of Tanks, King will lead the consumer roll-out of freeto-play title Sinespace in the coming months.

Got an appointment you’d like to share with us? Email Chris Wallace at chris.wallace@biz-media.co.uk 26 | MCV/DEVELOP January 2020

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Rising Star

Every month, we pick the brain of an up-and-coming talent

Patrick Bonsu, associate VFX artist – Creative Assembly

What has been your biggest challenge to date? The biggest challenge so far is trying to strike a good balance of rest and creating art for myself at home. I think it’s important to keep improving yourself and learning, but equally as important is to make sure you rest, and that you’re not overwhelmed or neglecting other areas of your life. What do you enjoy most about your job? Ooh, this is hard to narrow down, because honestly there are so many things. I really love getting to see the work of other teams whenever I’m walking from place to place in the studio; at least once a day I’ll see something on a colleagues screen that makes me stop in place and nearly spill my tea!

How did you break into games? While I was studying for my Masters in Game Art at Escape Studios in London, I grew more and more interested in Real Time VFX. I went to a great talk held by senior VFX artist Stephanie Anderson, and principal tech artist Mohrag Taylor, about how they created the VFX for the massive battles in the Total War: Warhammer games, and I was extremely inspired. Shortly before graduating, I noticed they were still hiring for a trainee VFX artist role at Creative Assembly, and as my luck would have it, I got the job when I applied! What has been your proudest achievement so far? The first released title I had the pleasure of working on was the DLC Lord Pack ‘Prophet

“Seeing art I had created be front and centre was incredible. I might still be riding the high of that day.” & Warlock’ for Warhammer 2. On the day of its release I watched the trailer as it launched, which features an enormous nuclear explosion that I created, and seeing art that I had created be front and centre was incredible; I think I might still be riding the high of that day.

What’s your biggest ambition in games? My current long term goal would be to become a lead VFX artist. I really look up to my own lead and the work she does, so the idea of continuing to improve as an artist whilst also facilitating and nurturing the talent and potential of a team is appealing to me. What advice would you give to aspiring VFX artists? VFX is no different from any other artistic discipline, in that it’s so important to look at references for the art you create. Even the most alien or fantastical effect you can conjure in your editor can find its origins in the visual cues of real-world phenomena. Someone I worked with was once profoundly inspired by accidentally dropping an orange and watching it slowly roll away from them.

If there’s a rising star at your company, contact Chris Wallace at chris.wallace@biz-media.co.uk January 2020 MCV/DEVELOP | 27

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RECRUITMENT

Cherry picked advice to help you reach the next level in your career

Fourth Floor Creative’s Bex Ashford tells us what being a campaign manager entails, working with both clients and creators, her start as a data intern and the importance of proper dishwasher etiquette For clients, we work to understand what they need and facilitate working with creators, manage the whole process and making it easy. I also give market insight and advice, this being my area of expertise from having managed over 40 creative campaigns this year. My typical day starts with planning and organising tasks for the day as there are lots of projects in play with many moving parts. I’ll also check over any updates which have come in overnight as we often are talking to people in different timezones. Day-to-day tasks depend on which stages projects are in along the campaign process. These stages include idea generation, pitching, project management, content approvals and being POC between both clients and creators. What is your job role and how would you describe your typical day at work? Fourth Floor Creative is a specialist influencer marketing agency helping brands work with video content creators across YouTube, Twitch and Instagram. We run paid-for campaigns, set-up advocacy programs, organise events and make white-label content. We also have a thriving merchandise arm with branded stores for creators and brands. My role as campaign manager is to add value for the creators, their audiences and brands we work with. This is through running creative campaigns across YouTube, Twitch and social platforms. For creators, we look to bring relevant and exciting opportunities which helps them to make stand-out content for their channels whilst being supported financially to keep doing what they love.

What qualifications and/or experience do you need to land this job? I joined Fourth Floor (FF) soon after the company had started, joining as a data intern at the start of 2018. I was a recent Economics graduate without any prior gaming industry experience but I was willing and eager to learn. I did have some understanding of YouTube and online content, having been a user of the platform since the 2010/11 bubble. With a lot of thanks to the help of some invaluable mentoring from one of our now Partnership Directors, I learnt in detail about how campaigns work, helped to build the FF campaign process and became YouTube certified. I then moved on and started supporting campaigns before going on to manage my own.

I’d say that knowledge of the gaming space/ online creators would definitely help to hit the ground running for this job, but I would say that being hard working and open to always learning is more important. If you were interviewing someone for your team, what would you look for? Our team is extremely collaborative in the way we work, so someone who I’d want to work with on a daily basis. Organisation is also vital and being able to multitask across many live campaigns. I’d also look for someone who will take initiative, because we’re in a start-up environment and therefore need to be agile in everything we do. Processes and ideas also aren’t set in stone, we’re always looking to improve and hear new perspectives. These align to our core FF values, which include acting like an owner, taking responsibility and being a great colleague. Also… I’d want someone who puts their mug in the dishwasher! What opportunities are there for career progression? Progression has been great for me so far, going from a data intern to campaign manager in one year. As the business is continuing to grow this means that new roles and opportunities are opening up. Our senior management team is really receptive to hear our goals, both personal and professional, to steer our progression in a way which compliments our ambitions both in work and for personal development.

Want to talk about your career and inspire people to follow the same path? Contact Chris Wallace at chris.wallace@biz-media.co.uk

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Brought to you by

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Iterating for Better MCV/DEVELOP kicks off the New Year by tackling the thorny issue of sexual harassment, abuse and more. It’s an uncomfortable topic, but one that needs addressing, particularly when it comes to advice on what needs to be done to help prevent it from happening Liz Prince Business Manager, Amiqus IF there was one ugly issue that raised its head last year – and one of the most uncomfortable subjects to address – it was arguably that of sexual harassment towards female staff and associates by male industry executives. From allegations of improper behaviour by male management towards junior staff, to stories of studio members laughingly watching pornography whilst female staff were present, to reports of abusive and controlling actions in inappropriate relationships, and sadly, more… 2019 was the year that #metoo became an issue for the games industry. The experiences of the women who stepped forward on Twitter during the summer of 2019 have been well documented, along with the responses from the industry at large. But what can be done by games companies to avoid these instances? Liz Prince, Business Manager at Amiqus and Founder of the G Into Gaming initiative offers her thoughts: “As a woman in games personally, I found the statements from the young women who stepped forward last summer upsetting and shocking. The principles behind G Into Gaming are to support women in games, to help studios to create more inclusive and diverse workplaces – and to attract more women and young girls into games. The allegations of harassment, abuse of power, gaslighting and more painted the games industry as a toxic place for young women – when of course, and thankfully, these cases (like in movies, music and other industries) are in the minority. But we must acknowledge that this is happening in our industry. From speaking to studios on a daily basis, we know that they want to be more inclusive, more diverse and more welcoming to women. But with those allegations coming to light a few months back, it’s clear that more work is needed. And we must aggressively address these issues. Employers must ensure that safeguarding practices are in place. Female focus groups, safe spaces, proper processes for employees reporting uncomfortable behaviour by peers and, of course, for those alleging abuse, are required. Revise your company handbooks on abuse, harassment, misconduct and grievance issues. Create an action plan

“At GIG we are here to talk to, too. You can speak to us anonymously, we will help you and we will support you.” for your company to follow in case of sexual harassment and abuse claims. And encourage employees – both men and women – to call it out; make sure they are comfortable in doing so. Finally, if you have a member of staff who has been accused – and found guilty of – behaving inappropriately, act on it. That means letting go of people – regardless of how ‘important’ they are to the company – for the good of your business, and your staff. Most importantly, remember that you are responsible for the safety of your staff. For individuals who have suffered – or are currently suffering from any kind of inappropriate behaviour by senior staff, please speak out. You are under no obligation to speak out publicly, but do talk to a colleague, a line manager, a mentor, a friend. There are some great organisations you can turn to, including the Times Up initiative, which was born out of the widespread abuse by powerful men within the wider entertainment industry. At GIG we are here to talk to, too. You can speak to us anonymously, we will help you and we will support you.” Putting The G Into Gaming is a pro bono initiative founded by and in association with recruitment specialist Amiqus. To find out more email G-IntoGaming@amiqus.com or contact liz.prince@amiqus.com.

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Leamington Spa:

At the heart of the UK games industry 30 | MCV/DEVELOP January 2020

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Royal Leamington Spa has long been among the biggest hubs for the UK games industry, earning it the nickname ‘Silicon Spa’. Conveniently situated in the very middle of the country, Leamington regularly ranks as one of the best places to live in the UK. But with such a big reputation in a small town, is there room for everyone? Chris Wallace finds out

L

eamington Spa, or Royal Leamington Spa if you want to get all monarchic about it, is a spa town in Warwickshire, with a population of just 55,000 according to a 2011 census. Despite its small population, Leamington has rather a lot to brag about, having been named as the happiest place to live in the UK, according to a 2017 survey by Rightmove. We’re tempted to say this is because of Leamington’s annual Peace Festival, held in the eyebrowraisingly named Royal Pump Room Gardens, but there’s probably more to it than that. Perhaps it’s more to do with the beautiful countryside of rural Warwickshire, and being just a stone’s throw away from the metropolis of Birmingham. Maybe it’s the vibrant culture, with plenty of great restaurants, pubs and independent shops alongside the arts and comedy festivals. Or maybe it’s just as Dave Hawkins, CEO & Founder of Leamington-based Exient remarks:

“We’ve always found Leamington to be a little town with a big heart and big facilities.” Whatever the reason, Leamington has become an attractive location for business, with the local council credited for supporting and promoting local independent firms. It has certainly attracted a lot of talent from the games industry, hosting so many companies that it has become a global hub for the industry, known as ‘Silicon Spa’. It may not seem immediately obvious why this is. Leamington’s population is dwarfed by those of the country’s major cities, and a peaceful spa town doesn’t exactly scream ‘game industry’ at first glance. However, while Leamington is hardly the cheapest place to live in Warwickshire, with house prices on the rise, it’s still significantly cheaper than getting by in our insanely-priced capital city, and just over an hour away on the train.

Pictured : Video games may not say beautiful and picturesque all that often, but Leamington certainly does

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Above (from top): Chris Southall from Sumo Digital and Matt Murphy of Genba Digital

THE BIRTH OF SILICON SPA Of course, when we ask the local studios what they see as the origins of ‘Silicon Spa’, one name comes to the forefront every time: Codemasters. “Codemasters’ early successes created the foundation for establishing the area as a world leader,” says Exient’s Hawkins. “As companies go through growth and contraction, this results in the creation of many similar companies. Codies set the standard.” Chris Southall, studio director at Sumo Digital, concurs, also pointing to Tim and Chris Stamper’s Rare, situated for many years now in Twycross, just 30 miles to the north it’s in easy striking distance for anyone looking to move job or wanting to set out on their own. “Codemasters and Rare seeded what we now call ‘Silicon Spa’. Since the 1990’s talented developers set off from both companies to establish their own studios, many of which have gone on to be really successful. As to why the Darlings and the Stampers originally located in the region – that’s probably down to where their parents happened to be in the era of bedroom coders, which kick-started the UK games industry.” Southall is proved right by no less than the Codemasters co-founder, now founder and CEO of Kwalee, David Darling: “My Dad, brother and I set up Codemasters in Banbury in 1986, but within a short time we moved it to my Dad’s stables in Southam which is a small town near Leamington Spa. Ever since then developers have been moving to the area, the Oliver Twins, Peter and Andy

Williamson [Appy Nation], Gavin Raeburn [Playground Games] and many more. Although Southam is a nice little town most developers tended to decide to live in Leamington Spa. It has great shopping, restaurants and nightlife. Over the years developers set-up their own companies and existing international games companies set-up branch offices here so now it is quite a thriving community.” The success companies such as Codemasters and Rare went on to find had the by-product of attracting yet more talent to the area, which in turn lead to the founding of new studios hoping to capitalise on that concentration of talent. Codemasters and Rare laid the seeds for Silicon Spa, but the talent they brought then flowered into something much broader. Genba Digital CEO Matt Murphy addresses this directly: “Leamington is a hidden gem of game development and publishing in the UK. When Genba Digital launched in 2015, as a games distributor we knew we wanted to be part of that hub.” Of course, as Exient’s Hawkins explains, the sheer number of studios flocking to Leamington’s game industry talent has created a competitive atmosphere. “Leamington is a hotbed of talent which also means a highly competitive development environment, resulting in a high calibre of staff, and this equates to world class development. To be the best, one has to employ the best.” Given Leamington’s small size, then, it seems logical to assume there would be something of a fight for office space.

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“2,500 employees across 83 studios, making up well over 75 per cent of the districts’ digital media industry.”

So just how easy is it for new and expanding studios to find a place to put down roots? “We find there is an acute shortage of suitable office space within Leamington at present,” says Exient’s Hawkins, “but hopefully this is being addressed,” he adds. This is a point Kwalee’s Darling picks up on too, saying “I think it’s the hardest thing, to find office space.” However, this doesn’t seem to be a universal view, as Richard Blenkinsop, managing director of Ubisoft Reflections and Ubisoft Leamington states: “[There is enough space] at present, yes, but like any thriving area with an aggressively growing industry at its core, the area will need to adapt over time.” And according to Genba Digital’s Murphy, the area seems to be adapting already, with more office space on the way: “Our HQ close to the centre of town is a nice, bright working hub for our small team. We even have enough space for a games room, where many a battle of Mario Kart and FIFA takes place. A creative quarter is being invested in on the south side of the town, which will allow for even more creative and tech spaces – so any new or expanding games companies in the area will be able to stay settled in the Silicon Spa community”

“There is a huge amount of talent [in Leamington] and we need more” says Meg Daintith, recruitment manager at Codemasters. “Ours is a big studio and there is room for more diversity. As a global brand we are always keen to keep our doors open to local, national and international talent.” This global mindset seems to be a common trait among Leamington studios. While there is undoubtedly great talent in the area, there simply isn’t enough to go around, leading studios to widen their scope to attract outside talent. “The industry is expanding so quickly that there are not enough people in the local area so we look much

Above: Richard Blenkinsop from Ubisoft Below: Some of the team at Codemasters

ATTRACTING TALENT Of course, office space isn’t the only thing there’s a shortage of. The competition for talent can make it hard for studios to retain their best against their ever-growing list of competitors. But that concentration of firms also has it benefits we discover. “I think the talent pool in Leamington Spa is quite unique,” says Ubisoft’s Blenkinsop. “In 2015 it was reported that there were around 40 video games companies in Leamington Spa and approximately 1,000 people working in the industry. Right now it’s more like 2,500 employees across 83 studios, making up well over 75 per cent of the district’s entire digital media industry. This means that developers in Leamington don’t need to look far if they want a new challenge, which is great for retaining talent in the region and drawing in people from further afield.”

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Right: Last year’s inaugural Interactive Futures event

Below (from top to bottom): Kwalee’s David Darling, Dave Hawkins of Exient, and Meg Daintith from Codemasters

further afield,” says Kwalee’s Darling. “Kwalee has employees from countries all over the world, including Spain, Germany, France, the Philippines, Thailand, Ukraine, Portugal and many others.” Given all of the area’s excellent qualities, as Exient’s Hawkins explains, Leamington isn’t exactly a difficult location to sell when searching for outside talent. “We always need more, like any area – but Leamington is a lovely place to live with a central UK location and convenient access to major cities and airports. It’s an easy sell to attract talent to the location and with so many devs in the area there’s a community that feels welcoming.” It’s this sense of community that rings true with everyone we speak to. With so many studios in one place, and such competition to hire the best staff, you’d wonder if the competition ever gets a little heated. But from what we’re told, there really does seem to be a sense of community across Leamington. “Many of those in the other studios are former colleagues,” says Sumo’s Southall. “So having worked at or with Codemasters or Rare at one point or another, we do have personal relationships between the other studios at various levels, which makes for a good community.” “We’re friendly rivals and the games industry is a small place,” agrees Codemaster’s Daintith. “Rival or not we are always hugely respectful of the talent and dedication our neighbours provide. It’s great for the whole industry to have a hub like this and it provides a healthy level of choice and competition.”

INTERACTIVE FUTURES This community is set to get even more close-knit thanks to Interactive Futures, a two-day event in the Royal Spa Centre. The event brings figures from right across the industry together in Leamington. Interactive Futures was founded last year and saw over 1,700 games enthusiasts, students and industry professionals attending. The event is funded by the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (CWLEP), Warwickshire County Council, and Warwick District Council along with the support of the local industry. The event returns this year from January 31st to February 1st, and aims to highlight the region’s heritage within the UK video games industry. On the 31st, Interactive Futures will also host an Indie Investment Forum; a special ‘speed dating’ event where studios will have the opportunity to meet investors, publishers, and advisors; along with a conference which aims to highlight key issues relevant to the region and the wider industry. The next day, on Saturday, February 1st, the event will open its doors to the public and students to “inspire the next generation of talent with career opportunities the key focus for the day.” So how does the local industry feel about this fledgling event? “We attended last year and it was great to see the Silicon Spa community drawn together in one space” says Genba Digital’s Murphy. “Even though our

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Pictured: Staff at hypercasual specialist Kwalee being casual at the studio

publisher and retailer partners are spread globally, we love an opportunity to network more locally and check out any new and emerging games from nearby studios. It’s also great to show young and ambitious local talent that they have an expansive and diverse games industry on their doorstep.” “The inaugural Interactive Futures was a fantastic event,” said Ubisoft’s Blenkinsop. “It was great to see so many of the region’s biggest developers taking part and showcasing what they can do to the general public. Video game development is often shrouded in secrecy so it was great to be able to ‘open our doors’ and let people of all ages take a look inside. “It was also wonderful to be involved with various talks and panels with key industry figures, such as UKIE’s Dr Jo Twist. I can only see the event continuing to grow in the coming years and I’m extremely happy we’re going to be a part of it.” The event also helps tackle that ongoing staffing pressure, encouraging young people to join the industry as well as connecting young professionals with the local studios and businesses.

LOCAL KNOW-HOW SARAH WINDRUM is Chair of the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership Digital Creative Business Group and Board Director at the CWLEP. She explains how both support local developers. Does Leamington have enough office space? Well that depends on what size studio you are. Leamington has a wonderful ecosystem of all shapes and sizes. From large 200-plus studios to micro businesses, there are a variety of spaces that cater for all needs including co-working, incubator and Grade A offices. Leamington has seen a phenomenal amount of growth over recent years, which has meant for some businesses the type of space they need immediately is limited. However there are some exciting plans ahead to ensure there is greater high-quality provision which includes the Leamington Creative Quarter in Spencer Yard which will become a home for creative businesses and pop-up and community events.     How big a boon is the new Interactive Futures event? We are keen to showcase the amazing businesses we have located here. Often due to being anchored around a town the misconception is clusters have to form around large towns or cities which simply isn’t true. We have worked alongside the industry to develop the plans for Interactive Futures to help shine a spotlight on the area which is a bit of a hidden gem in the Midlands. The event gives people the opportunity

to experience the town, see how accessible it is to get here and demonstrate the wealth of job opportunities available.  How do local authorities support the games industry? We are very proud to have the industry firmly located across Coventry and Warwickshire with over 80 studios now operating, but with over 50 of those being located in and around Leamington. We have supported the development of co-working and incubator space, promoted the sector to overseas markets and investors, supported businesses to find new premises and access grants. We also work very closely with Ukie who have helped us commission research to support the growth of the sector further but also around skills development – and Warwickshire County Council have supported the Digital School House programme over three years.  We have also been working at a regional level to highlight the economic value that the sector brings to the region and recently we have seen the formation of the new West Midlands Screen Industry Body, Create Central and the launch of a national government pilot to support the scale-up of creative businesses. Why was Leamington voted the happiest place to live in the UK? I think it’s because it has the best of all worlds. The town centre itself is vibrant with a great mix of independent and high street names, there are great schools, beautiful parks, and a vibrant evening economy but if city life is calling occasionally it’s only a short train journey away. 

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“[Because of Interactive Futures] We have connected with a local audience more directly than ever before” says Codemaster’s Daintith. “It was great to talk to parents and allay their worries about encouraging their kids to choose a career in the games industry. We also made several great hires into our QA team!” Most importantly though, Interactive Futures is a great reminder to the industry as a whole the debt it owes to the work done in Leamington Spa, and the wealth of talent and potential present in the area – as Sumo’s Southall goes on to say: “Warwick District council worked with us and other local developers to start Interactive Futures, since we all believed it was time to further promote how active the industry is here. It was a great event, and we’ve been looking at how to make it even better for 2020 – I think it’s an important part of what the local industry is doing.” LEAMINGTON SPA: A HOW-TO GUIDE So with Leamington already such a global hub for the industry, and seemingly set to grow ever-larger, it’s certainly an appealing destination for new studios to set up shop, or for existing ones to expand. So what advice do the Leamington veterans have for would-be newcomers to the community? “There’s nothing unique about establishing a development studio in the Midlands over anywhere else in the world” says Exient’s Hawkins. “Check what government support you can secure, establish relations with the local dev community and ‘feeding’ establishments (universities, etc). Build a network and drive for success. Ultimately, success will create opportunity - be that staff, projects, engagements and so on” Sumo’s Southall agrees with this, while praising local government’s work in supporting newcomers to the industry. “Whether a microstudio or something larger, my advice is this. First, be very clear – at the outset -– on the vision

and strategy for what you are trying to do and prepare a viable business plan. Second, local businesses and entities such as the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP can be very helpful with support or advice. Third, be confident you have the right people with you to start and grow – establishing a new studio is not easy!” Of course, should you require any more advice, the local industry is bound to be on hand to share their knowledge at Interactive Futures later this month. We hope to see many future Leamingtonians at the event.

Above: The team at Exient’s Leamington Spa studio

Left: Hard at work at Genba Digital

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A new head in the clouds

Chris Wallace talks to 2K’s Kelley Gilmore about Cloud Chamber, working on a new Bioshock title, and being the first female studio head in 2K history

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ake-Two has founded Cloud Chamber, a new game development studio under the company’s 2K publishing label, which has begun work on a new BioShock game. Cloud Chamber has been established in two locations: 2K’s San Francisco Bay Area headquarters in Novato, California, as well as in Montréal, Québec, marking the first-ever Canadian office for a 2K studio. 2K’s decision to open a new office in Montréal was supported by the Gouvernement du Québec and Montréal International. Joining the trend of 2K firsts, the studio will be headed by industry veteran Kelley Gilmore, who is the first woman to lead a development studio in 2K history. Gilmore has a 22-year career in the industry, with experience in executive production, marketing direction and public relations management, including working on another of 2K’s studios, Firaxis Games, on franchises such as Civilization and XCOM. The next iteration of the BioShock franchise is still in its early stages, and will be in development over the next several years. “As we continue growing our product portfolio, we remain inspired by opportunities to invest further in our valuable IP, great people and their collective, long-term potential,” said 2K president David Ismailer. “BioShock is one of the most beloved, critically praised and highest-rated franchises of the last console generation. We can’t wait to see where its powerful narrative and iconic, first-person shooter gameplay head in the future with our new studio team at Cloud Chamber leading the charge.” For more information about Cloud Chamber, and to celebrate her new role, we spoke to Gilmore: Why is the new studio named Cloud Chamber? That’s a great question. This is a bit sciency, but a literal cloud chamber is a scientific tool that allows us to visualize particles in the atmosphere (that are otherwise invisible) by creating a space for them to mix with other elements and take shape. That contraption inspired us to think about the ideas in our creative minds as

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invisible elements … and the collaboration we engage in every day as the vehicle for bringing those ideas to life on the screen for the world to see. Hence, our studio is a human Cloud Chamber! What are your thoughts on being the first woman in 2K history to lead a studio? I’m really honoured to have the opportunity to build this new team and deliver the next offering in one of the greatest game franchises ever created. My evolution to this post came through the many opportunities I had at Firaxis to grow and learn, along with the support and encouragement of the tremendous people I’ve worked with over the years. I’m excited to be the first woman at 2K to lead a studio and thrilled to be joining many other talented women leaders throughout the 2K organization. Diversity and inclusion will only make our industry better and stronger, so hopefully, leaders will continue to emerge who embody the global audience we serve. Why is the team split across two locations? Establishing Cloud Chamber studio locations in both Novato (in the San Francisco Bay Area) and Montreal gives us the opportunity to recruit talent in two of the top cities in the world for game development. You’ll be alongside Visual Concepts in Novato, will the teams be working together at all? Cloud Chamber is focused on making the next BioShock game. Our peers at Visual Concepts are not involved with the project, but we love being in close proximity to form relationships and share ideas. What range of roles is Cloud Chamber looking to fill immediately? We’re looking to hire people for a variety of different roles. Our website and the 2K Careers website will be posting opportunities as they become available, but we are actively hiring now and look forward to growing our team. Can you name any of the BioShock veterans that have joined the new team? Several team members played key roles in other BioShock titles and are now leading development at Cloud Chamber, including Hoagy de la Plante (Creative Director), Scott Sinclair (Art Director) and Jonathan

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Pelling (Design Director). Our team also consists of game development veterans from franchises like Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Star Wars, Battlefield and Walking Dead. I’m confident that the depth and variety of game development experience at Cloud Chamber will lead to another unforgettable BioShock experience. Can you tell us any more about the directions you want to explore with the franchise? How will your huge experience from Firaxis feed into your new role? Firaxis has been recognized for many years as one of the best video game developers in the world, and it’s also a really great place to work. In my 18 years there, I gained a good understanding of what made it great – and that’s putting people first. Steve Martin and Sid Meier have created a place where people genuinely enjoy coming to work every day, so they continue to raise the bar on making amazing games that we all want to play. That experience is instrumental in helping us grow Cloud Chamber into another great 2K studio. Do you feel any extra pressure, working on the first BioShock title since the departure of creator Ken Levine? When the opportunity came up, I was equally excited and cautious. Making the next BioShock is a tremendous responsibility that does not fall lightly on any of us at Cloud Chamber. However, the chance to start a new studio under one of the most successful publishing labels in the interactive entertainment industry – all while working on an iconic franchise with incredibly talented and kind people – was a once in a lifetime opportunity. In the brief time we’ve been working on this project, I’ve developed a very high level of confidence in this team. You said that Cloud Chamber is going to create “yet-to-bediscovered worlds” – Are there then plans for new IP alongside developing BioShock? Cloud Chamber was formed to work solely on the next BioShock game, which will be in development over the next several years.

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in

Games As we step into a new decade, Chris Wallace takes a look at what to expect from the packed year ahead

THE 20 GAMES OF 2020:

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JANUARY LEAMINGTON Spa kicks off the new decade with the second iteration of Interactive Futures, running from January 31st to February 1st. The event brings together everyone from game enthusiasts to designers, who will be offered a wealth of opportunities to find out about the latest trends, new developments and current thinking in the sector. Leamington and the area is host to so many game companies that it was the obvious choice for our next Regional Spotlight (see page 30).

FEBRUARY FEBRUARY sees the Yorkshire Games Festival return for its fourth year from the 5th to the 9th of the month. This year’s event features talks from a wide array of industry veterans, such as Mike Bithell talking about the recent John Wick Hex, Team17’s Chloe Crookes talking about quality assurance and Alysia Judge giving advice on how to talk to games media and get media attention for your game. Over 9% of the UK games industry is based in Yorkshire and the Humber, making the festival an opportunity to celebrate games created in Yorkshire, in the UK and across the world at large.

MARCH MARCH is very much the month for events. GDC is returning to San Francisco from March 16th, shortly followed by the London Games Festival kicking off, starting with EGX Rezzed on March 26th. Before any of this, MCV/DEVELOP is kicking off the month with our own all-new awards. Following our recent name change, we’ve taken the chance to entirely revamp the awards based on industry feedback over the last couple of years. That means: new categories, no timeconsuming entries and an industry-wide voting system. All culminating in the awards ceremony on the 5th of March. The new awards will recognise talent, innovation, achievement, growth and cultural impact – across every aspect of the industry. See the shortlists on page 10 – and all print subscribers can now vote at https://www.mcvdevelopawards.com.

APRIL EVENT season continues into April, with two industry events on the calendar. From April 23-25, the seventh edition of the Reboot Develop Blue conference will be returning to the city of Dubrovnik, also known as ‘real world King’s Landing.’ Reboot Develop is a conference strictly focused on game industry professionals, such as game developers, artists, audio artists (both seniors and indie), managers, PR, marketing experts, or sales and publisher representatives. Following that, Unreal Fest Europe will be coming to Prague, hosting a two-day conference for big and small developers who use the Unreal Engine. Nick Penwarden, Director of Unreal Engine Engineering at Epic Games, will kick off the event by revealing Unreal Engine developments and discussing “where technology will take players and makers over the coming years.”

THE 20 GAMES OF 2020:

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THE 20 GAMES OF 2020:

MAY

JULY

MAY sees the return of the Nordic Game conference, coming to Malmo, Sweden on May 27th-29th. Since its inauguration in 2004, the conference has met annually at Slagthuset, a venue just minutes away from Copenhagen Airport. This year’s speakers include Insomniac Games’ Chris Perrella, Embark Studios’ Anastasia Opara, Otherside Entertainment’s Warren Spector and EA Ghost Games’ Lisa Kretschmer. The event has a lot to offer, including “a program filled with the best speakers from the global industry, access to international exhibitors and thousands of games industry professionals, worldclass hospitality and a host of networking events, such as MeetToMatch, Expo, the Nordic Game Awards, a Dinner Experience, Nordic Party and new Career Day.”

DEVELOP:BRIGHTON is coming to the Hilton Brighton Metropole from 14-16th of July this year. Since 2006, Develop:Brighton has brought the European Game Dev together, from large to small developers. The event also features the annual Develop:Star Awards, which celebrates the very best games and talent in the industry. Last year’s event was its largest in its 14-year history, seeing 2,871 attendees come to Brighton, marking a 21% increase year on year.

JUNE

AUGUST

MCV/DEVELOP’S Women in Games Awards returns for the sixth time this year. The event is intended to celebrate the hard work, incredible achievements and outstanding talent of women in the UK games industry. Every year, a new wave of incredible women were inducted into our ‘Hall of Fame’ in front of their industry peers during an unforgettable afternoon of celebrations, networking and inspiration! For more information, contact our business development manager at vanessa. joyce@biz-media.co.uk. On top of that, of course, E3 looms large on the calendar for June – With the seemingly inevitable further details on the new generation of consoles from Sony and Microsoft sure to dominate headlines.

THIS year, Gamescom will run from Tuesday, August 25th to Saturday, August 29th once again at the Koelnmesse in Cologne, Germany. With 1,153 exhibitors last year – up 10 per cent year-over-year – across 218,000 square metres (up 8 per cent YoY) at Gamescom 2019, the organisers are anticipating “a high demand for exhibition opportunities […] for the coming year.” Gamescom 2019 reached more people than ever before, including 373,000 visitors from more than 100 countries, 30,000+ of which were trade visitors. A press release from the organisation also revealed “millions of gamers” joined by livestream, including thousands who tuned into the event’s inaugural Opening Night Live show.

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THE 20 GAMES OF 2020:

SEPTEMBER STEPPING away from the endless deluge of events (although Tokyo Games Show is slated for mid-September, since you ask), September marks the first anniversary of Apple Arcade. Apple’s gaming service is part of an ongoing trend in games towards subscription-based models, and so far has proven to be remarkably successful. Of course, it remains to be seen if other companies can replicate Apple’s success here, without their unfathomable wealth that allows them to cut deals with mobile developers while still charging just £4.99 for an entire catalogue of games, but plenty will try anyway.

NOVEMBER THIS month will see the hugely anticipated launch of a new console generation with the PS5 and Xbox Series X. The silicon is rumoured to be more similar than ever before, with both promising huge leaps in processing and CPU performance plus instant loading thanks to SSD drives. Alongside all that will be the Golden Joystick Awards, celebrating the swansong years of both PS4 and Xbox One.

OCTOBER OCTOBER marks another, quite different anniversary. Microsoft’s streaming service and Google Stadia competitor Project xCloud launched via a preview in October 2019. As things stand right now, Microsoft certainly seems to be winning the PR war against Stadia – boasting a larger catalogue of games, and positive reviews of the preview performance. However, while the Stadia may have had a rocky launch, with many of its features missing, it has a significant head-start in terms of an actual commercial service out in the wild to build upon, alongside the huge opportunities for YouTube integration with its State Share feature.

DECEMBER ONE final event to close the year. The annual Game Awards is bound to return once again in December 2020, run and hosted as always by the one and only Geoff Keighley, who has claimed ownership of the event ever since it rose from the ashes of the Spike Video Game Awards. Coming after the launch of a new generation of consoles, this year’s Game Awards is bound to be an interesting one – Especially with such enormous franchises such as CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 and Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II releasing this year to bring this console generation to a spectacular finish, not to mention any potential launch titles for both the Playstation 5 and the Xbox Series X.

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ISSUE 952

ISSUE 952

MCV/DEVELOP

MCV/DEVELOP

NOVEMBER / DECEMBER 2019

NOVEMBER / DECEMBER 2019

New name. New awards. New opportunities. The MCV Awards are now the MCV/DEVELOP Awards, with all new categories reflecting the full breadth of talent in the industry and a new decision-making process that allows you to have the final say on who will take home an accolade.

How does it work? We’re introducing new awards that will recognise and reward the talent, innovation, achievement, growth and cultural impact of both teams and individuals. The refreshed process will start with an independent panel of industry experts identifying the companies and people most deserving of recognition and producing a shortlist in each category – to be revealed in January.

This is where you come in. These shortlists will then be put to an online vote, in which you – readers of MCV/DEVELOP – will be invited to make your voices heard by casting a vote for those you believe are award-worthy. Those who receive the highest number of votes in each category will be announced as the winners at the MCV/DEVELOP Awards ceremony, which will be heading back to The Brewery, London on Thursday 5 March 2020.

Find out more at www.mcvdevelopawards.com

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ISSUE 952

ISSUE 952

MCV/DEVELOP

MCV/DEVELOP

Thursday 5 March 2020 | The Brewery, London www.mcvdevelopawards.com

NOVEMBER / DECEMBER 2019

NOVEMBER / DECEMBER 2019

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A Catalis for growth: Building a British Ubisoft After the success of Human Fall Flat and Bomber Crew, industry veteran Dominic Wheatley talks to Seth Barton about the Catalis Group’s ambitious plans for growth and how it’s leaving work-for-hire behind

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atalis isn’t exactly a household name but the group’s subsidiaries: Curve Digital, Kuju and Testronic are all well known in the industry. And through them Catalis has had an excellent couple of years, topped off by a recent £90m acquisition by private equity firm Northedge – which itself comes with rare experience and previous successes in the sector. That means Catalis has money to spend in 2020, so we took the chance to sit down with CEO Dominic Wheatley, who took charge of the Tomb Raider in its heyday, and has similarly grand ambitions for his current business. “I had the last big British games publisher in Eidos,” Wheatley begins. “And we floated it and it was all marvellous, though I actually left about 18 months later to move back to the UK for family reasons... But three four years later, it sort of declined and then fell into the arms of the Japanese, with Square Enix. “So since then, there has been no big, and I mean really big British publisher,” Wheatley opines. “Now, Team17 do a good job but I wouldn’t say they were big. Our ambition is to become the next proper big British publisher. Because otherwise it’s all Americans, Japanese, the odd Frenchman, Yves Guillemot, and the odd German, Klemens Kundratitz.” A British Ubisoft then we inquire? Or a British Koch Media? “Exactly,” he responds to both. “There isn’t one

and we want to be it. That is our mission and I’ll give it another five years of hard work to build that.” FIVE YEAR PLAN Talking just before last year’s election, we don’t discuss Wheatley’s own political views, though he does throw in a pretty good impression of Boris Johnson for us at one point. And with his offices just a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament, and directly opposite the Department of Business, it’s hard not to think that Wheatley’s five year plan will chime perfectly with the new administration’s initial stint. That government should treasure bullish entrepreneurs such as Wheatley, who in turn should be a beneficiary of its business-centric outlook. Wheatley describes himself as a publisher, but his skillset requires him to pick the right investors as well as picking the right games. And it’s the group’s most recent investor which is behind this latest push. “We’ve got Northedge, who’s a fantastic partner,” Wheatley tells us. “I’d been strongly recommended them by [Sumo Digital’s] Carl Cavers because they’d backed him before they sold him on to Perwyn, who then took them public. So that was the connection because Carl really recommended them. And I met with them and I just thought they were great guys and they obviously knew something about the games business, which is helpful. Because it’s a bit of an enigma for some people.”

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Above: The recent release of Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is just a part of Catalis’ drive towards licensed games, with a Peaky Blinders game in the works

That’s something of an understatement, which isn’t Wheatley’s usual style, with the industry long having struggled to find capital that understood it. Wheatley agrees historically but notes: “It’s changing. There is a lot more interest in the city now, about games companies, but still, it was great to find a PE company that knew what the hell you’re talking about!” “There’s now a bucket of money set aside for me to use. So we can really build our company… and we’re looking at both organic growth and acquisitions.” THE BELGIAN CONNECTION And that’s something of a turnaround for the company, which nearer the start of the decade wasn’t in the best shape. Wheatley took charge back in 2013, when the company consisted of just Testronic and Kuju, having suffered somewhat under the previous management. Wheatley, as a non-executive director, stepped into a more active role in order to try and turns things around. The company was €12m in debt, and Wheatley went cap in hand to see “four very grey-looking Belgian bankers” to explain how it was going to pay them back. “Testronic had a name in Hollywood, a good name and it was something upon which we could build, equally Kuju had a good reputation in the market amongst publishers. So you weren’t actually starting from scratch, you had contacts, you had clients, you’d done things for people who might give you other gigs.

It wasn’t a standing start. I wrote a little business plan, for the investors. We’re going to go into games testing because that’s growing and we’ll get Kuju to do as many [work-for-hire] gigs as we can to try and pay off the bank. But then we’ll go into publishing because, of course, I was a publisher at heart. “We were given a reprieve. And sure enough we were paying back a quarter-of-a-million Euros a month… In about 2017 we managed to finally pay off the bank. To their great surprise. Did they send me a box of Belgian chocolates? No. Did they send me a bunch of flowers or a thank you note? No. Not a fucking thing, those ungrateful bastards. 12m fucking Euros!” He notes that the bank had written off 90 per cent of the debt, so it would have been bonuses all round when it got its money back. Testronic has seen significant growth in recent years, with some 1,200 employees now, with the majority based at its ever-growing Polish office. But it’s been the success of Curve Digital over the last couple of years specifically that has been eye-catching. “In 2015, I started looking for a digital games publishing company. And that’s when one of my young turks found Curve Digital. I’d never heard of them, but I clicked away and sure enough, the first thing that came up was Stuart Dinsey, who I knew rather well.” Stuart Dinsey is, of course, the creator and previous proprietor of this very publication.

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“Did they send me a bunch of flowers or a thank you note? No. Not a fucking thing, those ungrateful bastards. Twelve million fucking Euros!”

“So that was the start of a bromance,” enthuses Wheatley. “Which has been a great success. Because I think they were turning over about a million pounds then. And this year, it’ll be 30! It’s a very important part of our business,” he continues, noting the importance of Jason Perkins [managing director] and Simon Byron [publishing director]. “So we were able in 2016 to bring Curve into the group, so then we had games testing with Testronic, we had Kuju making games for other publishers, and then we had Curve publishing indie games. All three legs of the stool. That was great.” STOOL NOT STALL Those stool legs may have provided a stable base, but Wheatley doesn’t believe that balance is actually the way forward for the group as a whole. For starters, the group is no longer taking on workfor-hire projects. “The reality is, I wanted to wind Kuju down in terms of work for hire,” he begins. “We did our last work for hire gig this year, Zumba [Burn it Up] for 505 Games… It’s such a hard gig, the work for hire business. It’s never going to the moon, it’s never going to be a big payday.” That means that Kuju is now working exclusively on projects for Curve. “Kuju is really a concept now. It’s a set of studios run by Matt White [head of Kuju Studios]. So one minute we have 60 people, next minute it’s 10 people and then it’s 100. It goes in and out depending on what we’re trying to do for Curve.” And that part of the business also covers studios that have been brought onboard: “One of the studios under the umbrella is Runner Duck. Which, of course, did Bomber Crew for us. And they are fantastic guys, but in a sense, who are now looked after by Matt White.” Instead Catalis is pivoting the group more towards publishing: “My instinct is much more in the publishing world than in the work-for-hire world. Some work for hire companies are doing incredibly well, like Sumo. Actually, “we’re working together with a major studio on a special project, which is a terrific eight player,

arcade-type racing game. We’re co-funding that, which means that we’ll publish it of course but they will receive a decent share if it goes well.” So with games developed internally, under the Kuju brand, and co-productions, as well as signing up indie titles of course, Catalis is utilising all the usual means to find and create great content. And it now has more money to do so than ever before. AN UPWARDS CURVE So where will Catalis, or Curve in this case, be spending its newfound wealth from Northedge. Will it be investing in yet more indie projects, or even creating its own IP from scratch? “Well, I think the latter is really difficult to do, to try and come up with ideas internally is hard... I think the better way around is to engage with the indie dev community and be the publisher of choice when anybody is thinking about self publishing, or having a go with somebody else – No, come and see us instead and we’ll do you a fantastic deal!” But that’s just a first step in the plan. “If the game does really well, then we would love to buy you. So Runner Duck as an example. These boys left Relentless, they kicked out on their own, they did a demo, they sent it to Simon Byron, he loved it, we commissioned them, so we basically gave them the money to do it.” And Curve remains interested in the full range of titles, be they early demos or practically finished titles, as was its biggest hit to date: “Human Fall Flat, when it came to us, was pretty much done. Ready to go. It was a couple of months of spit and polish, and then we published it. So it was sort of done. Whereas Bomber Crew was just a quick demo, and needed 14 months of work ahead of it. And it’s happy to fund or just offer its expertise in bringing a game to market. “We are the publisher, and we can be the bank. Now, if you don’t need the bank, because you funded yourself or your father’s given you a few quid or whatever it is, that’s

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Above: Catalis Group’s subsidiaries: Testronic, Kuju and Curve Digital are better known in the industry than their parent

fine. We’ll just be your publisher, but if you need money as well, then we’ll fund you and your team to do it. And that’s what happened with Bomber Crew. And it came out, went to No.1 on Steam, and it was terrific. “Co-founders David [Miller] and Jon [Wingrove] are fantastic guys, and we love them. And, of course, what we realised was that Bomber Crew could continue: Space Crew, Tank Crew, Navy Crew... they could keep going. “And so I thought, gosh it’s a franchise and it’s done so well, so we bought them at the beginning of this year and they got some money, and of course some shares because that’s the obvious way you do these acquisitions. So they’re now shareholders in Catalis and it’s been a great success story for them, and indeed they’re working on the next project. So, that is literally ideal. “And that’s the model going forward and equally if we find a great games company that’s had a hit, maybe they self published, but they’re willing to talk to us about becoming part of the family, then we’re open to that absolutely, they don’t have to work for us first, although it helps, but it’s not the end of the world if they haven’t. We’re very keen to acquire IP.” LICENSE TO SELL Speaking of IP, Curve Digital has recently gone on something of a spree of licensing it from elsewhere. The recent launch of the Kuju-developed Narcos: Rise of the Cartels will be followed this year by Futurlab’s upcoming Peaky Blinders game. Wheatley has a storied history in the art of turning other people’s ideas into profit. After all, Eidos (and its predecessor Domark) had licenses for F1, James Bond, Trivial Pursuit and many more. But licensed games haven’t been terribly popular in recent times, so what’s changed? “We quite like licences, and in the case of of Narcos and Peaky Blinders, they are of course Netflix distributed programmes, which means that they are aired across the world,” Wheatley points out. “Movies come and go, and if you miss the window it’s disastrous. And so in a way I like the TV stuff, because it’s perennial, for instance there’s new Narcos coming out in February, to greet the boxed version of the game.”

And with Netflix, unlike with previous TV titles, the shows have a practically unlimited shelf-life as part of Netflix’s ever-growing back catalogue. “It’s just a part of our publishing strategy of course, we’ve got loads of indie games which are coming through which we’re sponsoring and financing and will publish in the next year. So there’s a lot in the pipe, but I think it’s quite good to have a little bit of a mix, and I quite like licences and we are talking to other IP holders about making games based on their IP. So it’s part of the strategy. “I think that’s because of my background of having done [licensed titles] in the past. And it is a bit hit-andmiss obviously, because you’re trying to make a game based just on a concept, story and characters. And so you’re almost starting from scratch. Most of the stuff we see is already at the playable demo stage, and we can immediately love it or hate it.” And love or hate pretty much sums up the critical response to Narcos to date too. “We’ve had some pretty bad reviews,” admits Wheatley. “But we’ve also had a lot of good reviews. And I’m scratching my head a bit because it is Marmite to some extent. Some people think it’s fantastic, others that we’re trying to be XCOM and we haven’t succeeded. “It’s also positioning, I think possibly we positioned it badly and that needs to be corrected. But the good news is, it’s digital, so it’s on the shelf forever, and you can change it and you can fiddle with it, and you can re-promote it and bring it to new audiences in a way that you couldn’t when it was just a physical product. “The reality is we’re still learning. And many of those lessons we’ll apply to the next one and the next one. Because again, Curve had never done this before, so there was an element of learning. It doesn’t matter if you fail, or you don’t do very well, what’s important is that you try and that you learn.” And Wheatley is still learning, despite having been in the business for longer than most. Whether that experience, and willingness to learn, can make Curve into a British Ubisoft still looks like something of a longshot, but it presently has the momentum to take a good shot at it.

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Brought to you by

Swift studio spotlights: Codemasters Codemasters is among Leamington Spa’s biggest and brightest lights, but that’s just one of the many studios it has driving forward the racing genre

Above: Meg Daintith and Simon Barlow from Codemasters

WITH three UK studios and over three decades in the industry, Codemasters are a staple of the British games industry. Specialising in racing games, the teams are growing across the country and around the world, but what is it like to work at Codies? Aardvark Swift sat down with Meg Daintith, Codemasters recruitment manager and Simon Barlow, principal game designer to find out what working at Codemasters is really like. “We’re a pretty global company I would say,” says Meg, explaining about their studios which include their QA studio in Pune, India and a Kuala Lumpur operation. “Southam is the biggest studio in terms of headcount” explains Simon, with around 280 staff, “There’s a real sense of tradition, it’s a beautiful location, and we’re only 10 minutes from Leamington Spa, with a pub on site, because why not!” Cheshire and Birmingham were once studios in their own right before becoming part of the Codemasters family and “came with their own culture which we’ve always respected,” explains Simon. “The Birmingham studio just exudes F1,” Meg adds, “you walk around a race-track on the floor and there are these maps of iconic tracks on the walls.” All the studios are part of the ever forward-thinking Codemasters operation. “We want to grow further into mobile, grow into streaming and further develop our esports presence.” says Simon. “It’s weird to sit and talk about the past because it’s not really part of the outlook here,” Meg continues. Codemasters is best known for its market-leading racing games with GRID, F1 and DiRT Rally all developed at their studios. It is a niche, but that doesn’t stop them from innovating and finding an enormous amount of excitement and pride in their work. “It’s disingenuous to say racing is just one thing,” Simon says about the perception of being a racing-focused

studio. “Nobody says that about any other genre… when you’re creating something like F1 or DiRT Rally where you’re trying to recreate life it’s about ‘how do I make that closer? Better?’ That’s where the challenge and passion comes in.” “When I got here I thought racing was just racing, but it’s really not,” explains Meg, “The diversity is huge. At one end you’ve got simulations, which for purists are an absolute joy.” Codemasters even employs pro-drivers to work with game developers. That’s how close the driving is to a real race – that attention to detail is in everything they do, “and you’ve also got much more accessible games on the other end of the spectrum, like GRID and new titles in the pipeline. The range really surprised me, racing is a broad spectrum.” With their most recent release, GRID, the team had a new set of challenges. “What I really wanted to draw out from this GRID was the racing action,” Simon said, who was literally the first employee ‘number one’ on the latest GRID project, “What we do better than anyone else at Codemasters is the on-track experience.” Simon also went into details of the innovations that GRID brings to the racing genre, “We introduced a nemesis system,” a system in which the drama you have with other drivers will be reflected in how they race against you, becoming more aggressive or passive depending on the action in the game. “It’s our version of a narrative - the role of the driver,” explains Meg, “We really wanted everyone to feel that story while they’re driving.” “It’s personal to you,” added Simon, “We could all play GRID and have different experiences. They may be the same races but they’ll never play out the same way.” GRID is out now for PS4, Xbox One & PC. You’ll be able to listen to the full podcast with Simon Barlow and Meg Daintith on the Aardvark Swift website soon.

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Chris Wallace finds out how something of a mid-life crisis sparked a creative rethink in three ad-industry veterans, causing them to shutter their profitable agency, resulting in a game soaked in pathos and inspired by Pixar’s Up, as an old man looks back on his life

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rise: A Simple Story is something of an unconventional game. Following its release in December last year, Piccolo Studio’s first title was met with a warm critical reception, with reviews praising the game’s focus on emotional storytelling and inventive mechanics. Indeed, while Arise’s pleasantly minimalist art style is typical of indie games of this ilk, the game’s emotional journey really resonated with players. The game is told from the perspective of a recently-deceased old man looking back on his life, with a significant effort on the part of Piccolo Studio to encourage the player to empathise with Arise’s nameless lead. These efforts went so far as to hinder the player’s movements: although the game is mechanically a platformer, the old man is sluggish in his jumps, and slow to get back to his feet, forcing players to feel the pains of an elderly man as they go through his journey. This emphasis on narrative to (some might argue) the expense of gameplay is far from the only thing that is unusual about Arise, however. Piccolo Studio was founded by three first-time developers, who as they entered their 40s took a drastic career change from advertising into game development. To understand a little about what prompted established figures in the Spanish advertising world to suddenly enter game development in their middle age, MCV/DEVELOP sat down with two of Piccolo’s three co-founders, Alexis Corominas and Jordi Ministral. “So the three of us have been working together for 20 years now,” Corominas begins. “And we met at a worldwide advertising agency in which we were developing interactive experiences for the web, for multimedia and all that. We were already blending creativity with technology.” “This was about eight years ago,” Ministral cuts in, “when online advertising was way more creative than

it is now. One of the things that forced us to leave advertising was that it is not that creative or peaceful anymore, it’s more tactical and all about the numbers and the marketing.” “We had our own production company” Corominas adds. “We were making money, we were winning awards. But two things happened at the same time. On one hand, we were reaching 40 and we were starting to look back – like a mid-life crisis. Because we have, you know, the same amount of time ahead of us as we have behind us. “Plus as Jordi said, this came with the mid-life crisis of advertising in Spain. Advertising started from something very creative to something very data driven, very cold. And it wasn’t fulfilling. Even though we were making money, and had a working company, we weren’t happy. We were just working, and we want to be passionate about what we do. “So just like that, we decided to create a video game company because we had always been big gamers Jordi and I, even when we were kids, we were programming our own games like 30 or 40 years ago. So there was a little discussion about what we’re going to do next, and because we love video games, we decided to do that.” “Of course, everybody around us said that we were crazy. Because we’re dismantling a working company, to start in an industry which is very risky, and very difficult when you start to raise funds for your first game. Especially if your first game is a narrative-driven emotional game with a lot of artistic values. I mean, you have to work very, very hard to convince people to put money up for that, but we were lucky and got to create Piccolo. So that’s that’s how we ended up making video games.” The move isn’t quite as insane as it first sounds. While obviously the three had no real experience in actual game development, they found that there are a

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Below: The sunflowers orienting to the sun as the player changes the time of day was one of the first ideas in the game’s development

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surprising amount of transferable skills between the two industries. “Of course, we were experienced in running a company, working with technology and artistic values, on identifying how to tell a story – all the things we brought into Arise. On the other hand, we wanted to have a fresh approach, because many times during development, we said ‘okay, normally in every game, they will do that – but that’s not what we want to do.’ “All the people that we recruited into Piccolo have developed video games, because we wanted people with a lot of experience. It was a process of blending their experience with our own inexperience – that needed to be there because we wanted to do things that are not the way they are done. We weren’t using the usual production processes and measurements of production that all companies do. We stuck with the way we produced advertising to produce a game. From both a narrative and a production perspective, we were just doing a really long advertising project.” This notion of treating game development as an advertising project confuses us at first, so Ministral steps in to explain. “When we talk to other developers they always describe their game from a mechanic first and then build up to the ideas. Like, I’m doing a first person shooter, or I’m doing a platformer. We started with the idea, with the concept we wanted to try and meet – we want this idea, this message, this emotion to convey to the user and then we say okay, which is the tool which I have available in video games to transmit that? “So whenever we chose to make a platforming section, or a section that is more action oriented, or more contemplative, there’s always a reason that goes back to the high level of the game of what we want you to feel

at that particular point. It’s applied to every decision we made in development and production. I think this is something that is very advertising because it’s always idea first, and then execution later. And this is what I think we bring from advertising that is that is quite different. We start with the idea and then we choose a mechanic that best reflects that.” Of course, being a total newcomer to game development isn’t without its problems, so the three placed full trust in the expert team they had assembled for Arise. “I think one good thing is that we were so aware that we didn’t have any experience with video games,” says Ministral. “We didn’t pretend to – what we did was find the best. I mean, [we] basically Googled ‘who are the best professionals in video games in Spain?’ and tried to pick them up one by one and build a company with those guys. Making sure that they can provide the experience that we don’t have. “We trusted them in the processes. We were very much the keepers of the higher level of vision of the game, because we had a very clear idea of what we wanted to do. And we knew that some of the things that we wanted to do that were not conventional. And since we were the ones from outside, we had to keep that unconventional approach to what we wanted to do, but when it came to execution, we trusted the team totally, since we didn’t have any previous experience.” Of course, given this dramatic career shift as the trio entered their forties, it certainly invites the (somewhat uncharitable) remark that it’s not just the Spanish advertising industry undergoing a mid-life crisis. Thankfully, it’s a reading that isn’t lost on Corominas or Ministral, so they don’t seem too offended. In fact, it provided the inspiration for the game itself.

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“Yeah I mean, we were at that moment in our lives where we were looking back,” says Corominas. “So we started to talk about the possibility of the main character being an old man. Then we decided to have a dead old man as the main character because a dead old man has no future at all – he’s forced to look back. “We started to see that when you look back at things, memories have an extra layer of melancholy. It’s not the same to have your first kiss, as to remember your first kiss when you’re an old man. So once we had the idea of the dead old man, recollecting and reliving different key moments of his life, then the next thing was to link it with love and the idea of a love story told through time. “One of the things we had as a reference at this point was the Pixar movie Up – the story of the couple is told in two minutes. We wanted to recreate that, but stretch it to five or six hours with the old man being dead and recalling his lifetime with his loved one. And because of all the talk about time and memories, we came up with the idea of playing with time, which is what drives the game in terms of pure game mechanics. So our first idea that we had was a huge field of sunflowers orienting to the sun and you go from morning to evening. “We started to find different time lapses and different environments that connected emotionally with the story that we were telling. There’s a reason why there are sunflowers and bees and cheerful spiderwebs in a level called Joy, because it’s like the world seen through the eyes of a child. It’s a very universal concept that everyone can relate to. It’s about joy, solace, love, romance, falling in love or getting pregnant, and all these kind of things that everyone can understand.” We’re not sure we can get behind the connection between a sensation of joy and the horrors of spider webs – but we take his point. But it’s this core focus on emotional storytelling that informed Arise’s title. “We’re not trying to determine philosophical questions,” Corominas continues. “We’re talking about very basic raw emotions. We decided to call it A Simple Story which we feel suits the game. Life is simple – I mean, I know it’s very complicated. But at the very end, when you face the important moments that will define your life, like falling in love or losing someone, then it’s very simple. It’s all down to feelings, to emotions, and we wanted to translate that into the game.” The game’s emotional core has certainly proved popular among players. Corominas proudly talks about watching Twitch streamers cry as they stream the end of

the game, plus Arise currently boasts a respectable 80% on Metacritic – a positive sign for a studio’s first title. Still, Arise hasn’t been wholly protected from criticism. Some players found the platforming mechanics frustrating. As mentioned before, while the sluggish movements certainly make the player empathise with the elderly protagonist, it’s a jarring change for gamers used to more traditional platformers. We understand the narrative purpose for it, but it certainly must have felt like a risk during development. “We knew it was a risky decision,” agrees Corominas. “But we knew what we were losing in pure gameplay, we were gaining in adding to the empathy that we wanted to have with the old man. It was a risk, but we still think it was a good decision. “We think we made some brave decisions like having an old man as the main character, having a character without eyes, that had to express everything with body language. Having a game without words, only using music and the body language of a man. These were, in our opinion, the bravest decisions that we made from the high level and we are very happy with how they turned out, and how people connect with them.” Corominas and Ministral confirmed that they’re working on their next title already, but they’re refusing to give anything away: “It’s like when you’re baking a cake for a long time,” says Corominas. “You want that cake to be a surprise for someone you care for. That’s how we think of the next game. We have this artisanal idea, we are closed in our studio, working at night, and then when everything is done, we show it to people.”

Above: Piccolo co-founders (from left to right) Jordi Ministral, Alexis Corominas and Oriol Pujadó

“[We] basically Googled ‘who are the best professionals in video games in Spain?’”

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When We Made... Katana Zero

actually look at you. And even with that little bit of work, with the help of the animation and really smart designers and engineers, with everybody working Chris Wallace takes a look behind the together, you could tell from the very beginning that scenes of Askiisoft’s neo-noir smash hit, its she was a character that people would really gravitate long development, the shoestring budget toward.” Quill really becomes a fullyto fleshed out character with and why it was so important make the helpmurder of the game’s strong world-building. feel satisfying As an interloper in Quill’s world, the player experiences it not through her eyes, but as an observer watching as she lives her life in her familiar setting. It’s a strangely intimate feeling, and one which gives way to joint apprehension asKATANA both the player unfamiliar ZEROand felt Quill like itenter burstnew, suddenly fromareas. the “When you go its through see Quill shadows with launchMousetown in April lastand year.you Coming from rundeveloper through there and you seeStander’s that she has a hometown, Askiisoft, Justin one-man team, the thegame feeling of hertoleaving it, of thatselling town 100,000 maybe being in on surged prominence, copies danger, you a bond,” Alderson says. “If Switchgives alone in more its firstofweek of release. that part left out, success you wouldn’t like there This was remarkable saw feel the indie title was jump to much to fight for.for Everything thatstore’s we’vetop done, the mood second place the Switch sellers – beaten settings, Quill from onerelease area to on thethe next and day, letting only bytaking Cuphead’s Switch same you rest to andStander’s take in this environment… It’s all supposed much (good natured) irritation: “It actually to would exaggerate thaton mood thatfor you’re have and beenaccentuate the top seller Switch that entire feeling. all ties back into how you connecting monthIt but Cuphead coming out are stopped that. I with mean, Above: Justin Stander Quill and her can’t world.” I defi nitely complain, but it was a little bit annoying of Askiisoft looking at the Switch store everyday to see where it’s at SAME and itQUESTION was always EIGHT numberWAYS two after Cuphead.” Collaboration key during the development of Moss, Stander’swas Cuphead rivalry aside, it’s an excellent notresult just within itself, but with the help of external for histhe firstteam commercially-released game. Prior to playtesters. People were had oftenmostly brought in to feedback on Katana Zero, Stander worked on smaller, freeware titles, such as Pause Ahead and the critically acclaimed Tower of Heaven, both still available to be played via the Askiisoft website. While Stander had received praise for his work, he realised that to really break into game development he’d have to move out of the freeware space. “I had seen Terry Cavanagh’s game, VVVVVV come out and it made me realise that everyone really cares

the game and asked questions about their experience – even if most of these questions were actually very similar. “External playtests were mostly about ‘Okay, how do people feel when they play? Do they like it or not like it?’,” Alderson explains. “At the end of playtest we would ask the same question eight different ways. The question is really ‘What didn’t you like?’, but we would ask it differently: ‘What pulled you out of the experience? What took you out of the headset? If there’s one thing you could change what would it be? If you had two weeks to finish the game, what would be the thing that you’d fix?’ “Those help bring a playtester into their comfort zone, because no one wants play sold. something that people about a game when it’sto being Cavanagh had a put a lot similar of caresituation and loveto into then turn andasay very meand – before thataround he made ‘This isof what I didn’tgames, like about Sodidn’t it takes a little while bunch freeware andit’. they get anywhere to getthe thesame playtester comfortable, andAnd we found that near attention as VVVVVV. after that finding he different waysto tomake ask the same questiongames, means game, continued a lot of freeware you eventually get the really good stuff after the fourth and they also didn’t get much attention. It really droveor fifthpoint time you askthat it. if I wanted to really have a career in the to me “I don’t thinkI would anyonehave in our ever made video games, tostudio make has something thatawas gameSo likeI guess this, soKatana I think it’s important thatofyou theto sold. Zero came out thistrust desire process. You trust playtesting and youcommercial make sure that you make a much bigger, justifiably-sold game.” allow yourself Katana some time andorigins freedom to tryborn something Of course, Zero’s aren’t entirely and then keep going. Try something new and branch out, from the realities of capitalism, as Stander explains: but“I also your from games that you’ve wasuse really intoexperience making movies and I wanted to go made be fine. didn’t As long as you’re having to film before school,and butyou’ll my parents think that was too! We enjoyed playing afun proper plan for college. SoMoss I ended up going forentire a throughout the computer science buthelps.” I’d always been making process and I thinkdegree, that really games as a kid. I guess the idea was that I wanted to make something more narratively-driven, that paid homage to all my favourite storytelling tropes and expanded on them in my own way. Because I think first and foremost, Katana Zero is a storytelling game. That was definitely a big part of it: I had a story I wanted to tell.” Katana Zero’s inspirations may come as a surprise to many. We bring up the often-cited link to Dennaton

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Left: Much of the game’s art style came together very late in development

Games’ Hotline Miami, as both games feature a similar live/die/repeat cycle, but Stander puts that one to rest. “A lot of people say Hotline Miami, that seems to be the big one. Actually, I only played the game once, and it was several years prior – I didn’t remember a lot of it, though apparently some parts of it stuck with me. “It was more like an adaptation of Samurai Gunn, which I felt was an extremely satisfying game. It really nailed making killing feel good, and a lot of that was about the one-hit kills. On top of that, it was trying to capture this feeling in Korean revenge thrillers where the main character is super fragile, but also goes out there and kills a lot of people. It’s sort of like this John Wick or Korean-revenge-thriller feeling where your main character is still just a person, but they’re also this incredible badass. I really wanted the player to feel that way, so a lot of the design pillars were focused around making the player feel badass mostly by making the challenge feel justified – so the success was earned.” Stander’s urge to make killing feel exciting was born out of a frustration with modern games that he felt were too forgiving to players in pursuit of a power fantasy. “One of the big things was that enemies needed to feel as powerful as you are – otherwise, there’s no satisfaction in beating it. I wanted it to be that if you try

to die, then it should be easy. Because that’s one thing I found really annoying. “I think I was playing Payday, and I just wanted to see how fast it would take to die. So I did everything wrong: I ran out, I stood in front of the cops and let them pummel me with bullets. And after like five minutes, I still wasn’t dead. It just didn’t feel good. It felt like there’s no challenge. So yeah, the big thing is not to give a false sense of danger. I wanted it to be genuinely real and present at all times, even from the very beginning.” So with both capitalism and murder in mind, Stander set to work. As an ambitious project from just one man, Katana Zero’s development took quite a while. So long in fact, that when we ask, Stander isn’t entirely sure. “So uh, I think it was six years, but might have been five. Six years is what I’m usually sticking with but honestly, at this point, it’s been so long, it’s kind of hard to remember. The first few years were just simple prototyping. I was still in college at the time, so it was really just a small hobby thing at that point, until I graduated to work on it full time. The weird thing was definitely the budget, because I had never worked with a real budget before. I actually don’t think I’d ever worked with any budget before. Katana Zero was made on an extremely shoestring budget – the entire cost

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Above: The main drive behind Katana Zero is the desire to make killing feel satisfying

was somewhere around $60,000 which for a game like that is practically nothing. Most of it was just not paying myself at all and cutting down costs in my own life to do nothing but work on the game.” Of course, under these tight restrictions, working (mostly) alone, Stander was bound to run into issues during development. While he had produced games in the past, putting together his first commercial title proved to be quite a challenge. “It was kind of hard to really wrap my head around. With a small game, you can really obsess over the little details. It would end up taking me like a year of work just to make a short game that can be completed in 20-30 minutes. So trying to scale that up to a full experience with branching paths and more depth and meat to it ended up being this massive undertaking. I didn’t even begin to consider how big it was when I first set out on it. I think a lot of other indie developers have the same feeling where they think that their first commercial game is going to take two years or

something, and then it ends up taking five or six years.” The scope of the project wasn’t the only issue. Following its release, a lot of Katana Zero’s praise has come from its gorgeous artstyle. The neon-drenched city of New Mecca perfectly complemented the narrative Stander had built his game around. The only issue? Stander, by his own admission, is very much not an artist. “Artists are super hard to find as an indie developer. There was a period of like, two years, where I don’t think I had any artists working on the game. I just had to draw on what little things I could and I’m a terrible artist. So honestly, getting my art team at the very end was just a complete coincidence.” In his hunt for artists, Stander went to TIGSource – an online independent developer community run by Spelunky’s Derek Yu, where the community can share their portfolios and collaborate on projects. It proved enormously helpful in putting the art for Katana Zero together, but it wasn’t without its issues.

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“Finding high quality pixel artists and getting them to stick with your project is extremely difficult,” says Stander. “If you look at the the additional artists section of the credits on Katana Zero, you’ll see that there’s just a there’s a massive amount of artists that have worked on the game, way more than any other category. That’s because a lot of them would stick around for like a week or two weeks, and some that would only do like a day and then they quit, either because they have other projects, or they feel like the style isn’t their match, or just all sorts of other reasons. “I used this big neon lighting effect,” Stander continues, “and that pretty much covered every single blemish that there could have been, because there are a lot of mismatched assets and styles in the game. But because everything has this cohesive neon glow, you can’t really tell that it’s all from different artists. That was a big lifesaver in the end.” Whatever problems Stander had securing artists, it certainly didn’t hold Katana Zero back. On top of the incredible figure of 100,000 in its first week on Switch, the game has seen ongoing success on Steam. “I’d say that Steam and Nintendo have both pushed it a large amount,” says Stander. “The big differences is that on Steam the user has a lot more control of sales – so the game has been on sale a lot more on Steam, and every time the game goes on sale, there’s this massive spike in buyers. Whereas on Switch it’s only ever been on sale twice in its entire life. So initially, the Switch version had way more buyers, but then that kind of petered out and now every time that there’s a Steam sale it spikes up and eventually Steam has caught up and surpassed Switch.” Regardless of the platform though, Katana Zero has been a remarkable success story. So, despite Cuphead

beating him to first place, how does Stander feel about the game’s reception, looking back? “It really exceeded my expectations. I mean, it’s definitely done really well. It’s actually the 23rd highest rated game on Steam of all time right now. That really blows me away. It’s just been overwhelmingly positive. “Obviously I kind of wish I could have finished the story in just one go, because it ends on a ‘To Be Continued.’ But even if I was to go back. I wouldn’t have cut down the story at all because I feel like everything that was in there I really trimmed down to its bare bones, just keeping the necessities. So if I had somehow cut it down into a much smaller project, just one small self-contained story, then I feel like it wouldn’t have had the same weight and impact.” The game’s ‘To Be Continued’ ending actually inspired Stander’s advice for aspiring developers: limit your vision. “Your game will take a lot longer than you expect to finish. And that’s fine. But keep your scope small, so you don’t end up spending over a decade on it, especially since you don’t know if it’s going to be successful in the first place. With Katana Zero, if I had finished the story all in one shot, I’d still be working right now. It was the right decision to end it where I did. Because otherwise – after working six years on a game, you question yourself so much about if it’s going to pay off, or if it’s worth all your time. If I was working 10 to 12 years on the game, that would be way worse. I’d maybe even end up scoping down the project too much, or ditching it entirely.” So in the spirit of knowing when to bring things to an end, we leave it there. Stander is tight-lipped on the future for Katana Zero, but we’re sure he’ll be back for his final revenge against Cuphead.

Above: Stander used the neon lighting effect to help blend mismatched assets and styles

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The Sounds of... Sarah Schachner

Every month, we discuss the unique process of making music for video games. This month, Chris Wallace dives into the musical universe of Sarah Schachner, who’s behind the soundtracks of Anthem, Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed Origins

What type of material do you request from a studio before starting to write the score? The developers will send any rough gameplay capture available, script, artwork, and/or plenty of story/lore info to get started. Being in the same city as the developer is always a plus. It’s great to be able to visit in person and see the game developing and experience how the music is working in action. The best part is getting to play through early builds at the studio with ‘God Mode’ enabled so you’re invincible. Do you work closely with the sound designer(s) of the game, to ensure there’s cohesion between the score and the sound effects? Not on every project, but on Anthem, that was a pretty big thing. Since we were creating a whole new fantasy world, we wanted there to be a cohesive sonic language between score, sound design, and even user interface sounds. I flew up to Edmonton early on in the process and Bioware had a full on cymatics presentation prepared to inspire people in all departments. It was so cool! As the process evolved, the sound designers and I would share sounds and discuss ideas. They’d give me any raw stuff they recorded and I’d give them some of my long modular synth improv explorations to pull from. I had used a didgeridoo in one of the main themes and they were also using that instrument as a sound source for the world itself. I even manipulated a bunch of cypher dialogue in the game using my vocoder chain from Legion of Dawn. Close collaboration like that is really exciting.

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multiple, often contrasting moods when different combinations of layers are playing together, and still sound interesting and intentional when half of the parts are muted. Finding a balance between musicality and function within those confines is a unique challenge to video games. I’m a big proponent of writing longer free-form musical suites and then editing down or building out specific assets from those key ideas. It can be easy to get lost in the weeds with all the technical requirements of a game. The most important thing for me is to get the creativity flowing naturally and create something meaningful that goes beyond layers and function. As with music for any visual medium, the goal is to connect with people emotionally and tell a story.

What are the typical challenges of writing for games as opposed to more linear narrative forms? Writing interactive game music is like writing in multiple dimensions, in that a lot of attention goes into the vertical layers of the music and different combinations of those layers that will be playing for undefined amounts of time. Interactive music systems are very dynamic: if the player is wandering in open world exploration, one variation of a piece will play conveying what’s happening – perhaps some calm scenery and a feeling of curiosity and wonder. If an unexpected skirmish begins, more active layers are brought in on top of that to create a frenetic energy or anxiety for as long as the encounter lasts. I don’t think there is any other medium where you’d have to make sure that your track conveys

Above: Writing music for open world games like Assassin’s Creed Origins requires multiple variations of the same piece

Below: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare has a unified musical vision across its singleplayer and multiplayer modes

Does your approach differ between writing for a multiplayer title as opposed to a single player narrative-driven game? Online multiplayers tend to have less music than single player because they are not usually focused on story. When there is music, it’s notifying players of a specific gameplay event, whether that’s a match beginning, character theme, a victory, or some other state change. As you can imagine, that typically means a lot of shorter pieces with specific singular functions. When working on single player story mode, the focus is on creating a dynamic and immersive experience, bringing an emotional depth to the narrative wherever possible. In the case of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the multiplayer and co-op modes actually feel like an extension of the single player campaign, so there is a unified musical vision across all modes. Gris composer Marco Albano has said the studio saw him as a designer as much as a composer as his music changed the game’s approach - does this reflect your experience? I love that. As technology has improved, the role of a composer has certainly evolved to include producer, arranger, and mixer, and not just simply writing music. On a conceptual indie game with a smaller dev team, the composer can have a lot more input on how the music functions as the interactive system is taking shape, or maybe in some cases they are also designing the system. It’s a little different on a big franchise AAA title that already has an established formula. The games are just so big and the studios pretty much have their integrative systems down to a science. I have enjoyed the times I’ve been able to brainstorm with the audio team and work together to figure out ways we can push the music system even further and I hope that kind of thing continues!

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How free are you to experiment when you take on a mandate from a studio? Very free! That’s what’s so enjoyable about scoring games. I’m thankful that the dev teams I’ve worked with have all been super open to experimenting and I think at this point, they’ve come to expect that with me. It’s good to surprise people with something a little strange and then maybe have to reign it in a bit vs just doing what you know will work right away. Because of the longer timelines, I’ve been able to do all sorts of experimental recording sessions throughout the scoring process as the sound evolves. One of my most recent sessions for Modern Warfare was with a percussionist who was free-form jamming while I was tweaking distortion and filter settings that he was hearing and reacting to in real time. We had so much fun! Do you feel like game soundtracks get the same recognition as film scores? If you mean from film/TV centric award shows and critics, then no, but it’s a generational thing and will definitely change over time. For instance, look how far the TV industry has come! Some of the best stuff is coming from television (streaming) right now. The passion for game music from the fans is like none other. The games industry is still relatively new in comparison and rapidly evolving. It used to be a rare thing for a game composer to score a film or TV project and vice versa, but now those lines are blurred. Anyone can do anything. I’m seeing composers who’ve only worked in film or TV now choosing to do game projects. It’s a really exciting industry and you can’t ignore the fact that it’s by far the most profitable.

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Above: Schachner has worked on two Call of Duty titles: 2016’s Infinite Warfare and last year’s Modern Warfare reboot

What was the most inspiring game world you worked on and which aspect did you most want to bring into your score and how did you reflect that? It’s hard to pick just one as each has been so unique and enjoyable, but Assassin’s Creed Origins is definitely near the top as the historical era was already so inspiring. Getting to play within Ancient Egypt but get to mold it into my own sound was so cool. I wanted to blend authentic historical instruments with sci-fi textures and really bring out the mysticism of the era. After the fantasy alien world of Anthem, creating music for the hyper realistic and grounded Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was a refreshing change, albeit a bit emotionally taxing due to the heavy subject matter. Do you have any tips on how can developers best help composers to make music for their game? Great ideas come from trust, curiosity, and excitement. Developers should find someone they trust and give the composer a period of time to explore and do some broad-stroke composing before getting too nitty-gritty about individual tracks and assets. If you’re building a ship, you don’t start with the thread of the sails, you lay down a solid foundation first and the rest falls into place. I call it “toothpick mode” whenever you’re crazy zoomed in on something small and technical, but maybe missing the bigger picture. Good communication is so important. The audio director and systems designers should have direct and open dialogue with the composer and not have too many cooks in the kitchen. It’s important to remember that you’re collaborating and bringing to life a vision that’s not just your own.

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Brought to you by

Making Pandora more Atmos-pheric Mark Petty, audio director for Gearbox Software, speaks on how the team deployed spatial audio in Borderlands 3 to make a more expressive mix GEARBOX Software made spatial audio a priority in Borderlands 3. Mark Petty, Audio Director, shares with us why that decision was made, how they made use of Dolby Atmos and the lessons learned. In early development of Borderlands 3 the audio team got together and discussed goals for the franchise moving forward. From an audio perspective we were looking for ways to be more expressive and dynamic with the sound scape. Ok, so what do we mean by expressive? Good question! First off, we wanted to build upon the weapon system, being a game that has a bazillion weapon combinations the challenge is to convey to the player that the attachments/combinations feel unique and add a new expression sonically. The weapon system that we put in place does exactly this. In working with my lead sound designer Brian Fieser, we started to dissect the weapon parts and create a more granular approach. Breaking the shot, for example, down to individual buckets of content. So, the mech, barrel, muzzle, and tail within each manufacturer and weapon type provided opportunities to have varied combinations sound unique, not only in source content but also in dynamic mix perspective. This approach carried over into every individual weapon part and includes reloads, mechs and iron sights. One of the other goals was Atmos support. While we didn’t have a 7.1.4 mix environment at the onset of development, our thoughts and goals with regards to implementation were based on this being our mix format. We dove into how we were attaching sounds to creatures, characters, weapons and the environments. We experimented with how we were tagging animations. Moving away from attaching sounds to the root of the asset and instead looking for opportunities where the sound could travel with the action. A prime example of this would be boss type creatures. Attaching the whoosh to a large monster’s hand instead of the root meant that if that action passed over the players head then height as well as horizontal plane information were more pronounced. Once we had the Atmos mix room up and running we discovered a couple of things. The implementation adjustments we made to support this format really paid off. The addition of heights really seemed to tie together the realism of objects in the world and positional information

“After testing in stereo, we found that the mix felt cleaner and more focused”

for the player. On the other side of that, we also were able to use the height information to fine tune the mix, make decisions to intentionally propagate content to the heights, as well as understand assets that weren’t spatializing correctly. The thing about being more positional with tagging asset locations, and listening in 7.1, is there was no way to know what was hitting the heights. Weapon reload and player foley were hitting the height channels and now needed to be adjusted to focus more on LRC. Basically, we had more information so we were able to refine the level of spatial detail beyond the 7.1 environment. People often bring up the point of “Yeah, but how many people actually have Atmos setups at home?”. In my opinion it doesn’t matter. From an authoring and mixing standpoint, the more information we have, the more we can improve the accuracy of the mix, regardless of end user format. After testing in stereo, we found that the mix felt cleaner and more focused. I think the unexpected find for us is that Atmos became a tool, a way to raise the level of detail and provide an overall better player experience. Mark Petty is a musician, engineer and sound designer. He is currently the Audio Director for Gearbox.

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Brought to you by

The Final Boss Every month an industry leader wraps up MCV/DEVELOP with their unique insight

With time at Unilever, Birds Eye and GSK, you have broad experience of consumer tastes, how are you finding the games business in comparison? Really different and I love it. I was always a gamer in my teens – my family loves playing games and my Dad and Brother would network up the house so we could play together. It’s amazing to work in the company that made the games I loved when I was younger. With the greatest respect to your current role, what is/was your dream job? When I was very young, I wanted to run a shop. My brother would be an inventor and I would sell his creations in my shop. As I grew up, I wanted to work on brands, something people could relate to. I also wanted to go to work with a briefcase just like my Dad. I haven’t got the briefcase yet, which is probably for the best! There’s been increased scrutiny of the industry by the government of late, how best should the industry respond? Listening to the players and making decisions guided by what’s right for them is incredibly important. Our games are created to give joy to those that play, and we want that to continue. What has been the greatest single moment of your career to date? Getting the job at EA was a complete career highlight. I haven’t been in the industry that long, but the culture is great and the opportunity to lead the world’s greatest game company for my home country is a complete honour. That, and meeting Jack Whitehall at the FIFA 19 launch event. Can the games industry possibly change as much over the next few years as it has over the last few? Absolutely yes! That’s what I love about this industry. It relishes change. New technology will play a huge role here and that’s what is so exciting. There are so many opportunities upon and ahead of us and in adapting to that brings even more opportunity. There’s a new wave of gaming platforms coming, both in the home and in the cloud, do you think they will generate growth in the medium term? Next gen and cloud bring with them huge opportunities for growth in the industry. EA is incredibly forward thinking and has already talked at length about the significant strides it’s taking toward cloud in particular.

Samantha Ebelthite Country manager UK&I, EA “It’s amazing to work in the company that made the games I loved when I was younger.”

Do you feel that the games industry is currently headed in the right direction? I do. I think those in the industry are incredibly passionate about ensuring that the industry moves in a positive direction. I am continually impressed with the people I meet and the companies I work with. With cloud gaming is on everyone’s minds, it will be exciting to see who gives the players the best experience here. Who has most impressed you in the industry to date? The industry as a whole has impressed me. It’s such a welcoming, informal and fun business. It embraces change and stewardship. Everyone you meet, loves and is really proud to do what they do.

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MCV/DEVELOP 953 January 2020  

MCV/DEVELOP 953 January 2020