MCV/DEVELOP ISSUE 963
THE ART AND BUSINESS OF VIDEO GAMES
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The next generation invites everyone to
CARRY ON GAMING Thousands of compatible games, two incredible consoles, next gen is all set to be the biggest yet
Join us for the... ...livestream event on November 25th at 4pm
Inside: Our judges address the biggest issues facing women in the industry today
THE SHARKMOB IS COMING TO LONDON • AMAZON LUNA: CAN IT ECLIPSE ITS RIVALS? • KOCH + VERTIGO: WHY VR NOW MAKES SENSE • WHEN WE MADE... PARADISE KILLER 03 MCV 963 Editorial Inside Cover_v4FINAL.indd 1
05 The Editor
Less divisive, more attractive
06 Critical Path
The key dates this month
10 Women in Games Awards
All the details for the livestream
12 Industry Voices
Comment from around the industry
16 Next Generation
Carry on gaming
26 The State of Play
Women on working in the industry
36 Ins and Outs
This month's hires and moves
37 Rising Star
Creative Assembly's Yasmin Curren
38 Levelling Up
Playdeo's Sophie Knowles
39 Iterating for Better
More than 'ticking the boxes'
42 Sharkmob in town
There's sharks in the Thames!
46 Outcasters Splash Damage talks Stadia 50 Amazon Luna
The experts' opinion
56 Koch + Vertigo
When investing in VR makes sense
62 When We Made...
66 The Final Boss
Atomhawk's Darren Yeomans
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“Such playground thinking is just one of a myriad of reasons why there’s still a gender gap in games.”
TheEditor Less divisive, more attractive The US election, or rather the ongoing messy aftermath of the US election, reinforced everything that we already knew about Trump and the corrosive nature of his divisive politics. Though let’s await the outcome of Brexit before we throw any stones. Whether you’re a major world power, a small island off Europe, or a console platform manufacturer, such playground-like squabbling is unbecoming. So it’s great to see that our own commanders-in chief, in this case Xbox’s Phil Spencer and Sony’s Jim Ryan, have continued the decades-long shift away from such divisiveness. While both companies aren’t above the odd sly dig, the public dialogue around this month’s unveiling of the latest consoles has been respectful on both sides. While the platforms are undoubtedly in competition, they are not antagonistic to each other. After all there’s space for everyone in our growing market and we should be very thankful of that. Elsewhere, times are much tougher, we’ve even seen Burger King tweeting its support of McDonalds and KFC, encouraging people to get out and eat out, even if it is in a competitor’s franchise. Returning to consoles, this kind respectful competition is actually a key part of why our market keeps on growing. While the fanboys can still be found in the usual places, a mass market consumer can come and buy a console, enjoy fantastic games, and never be made to feel like they’ve backed the wrong horse. And that’s doubly so with the latest generation of devices, where both consoles look to be excellent choices for almost anyone. Their excellence shows a different kind of maturity to the industry, one were the hardware may have converged, technically speaking, but that simply allows the platforms a steadier canvas to express their own ideas about gaming, and how they wish to conduct the relationship between them and the consumer, through their designs. The combative debate around console choice, well before you’ve even started playing, was one just aspect of what made gaming so unappealing to so many for so long – and reinforced the view that it was all rather childish. These outlooks may appear dated, but issues from a decade or more ago are still impacting the industry today. Such playground thinking is just one of a myriad of reasons why there’s still a gender gap in games, something we hope to help close with the Women in Games Awards 2020 in just a week’s time. The event will celebrate the women in our industry, and hopefully attract yet more to join, as they see that their contributions will be recognised. We really hope you’ll join us at www.womeningamesawards.com on the 25th of November at 4pm for what is always our favourite event of the year. Seth Barton email@example.com
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Here are the key upcoming events and releases to mark in your calendar...
Critical Path Playstation 5
Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
It’s finally here – A week after the US, as Sony (understandably) decided that the UK doesn’t deserve nice things, but it’s here! With last week’s launch of the Xbox Series X|S, the next gen is finally among us (you can read more about that on page 16) The PS5 is launching with a host of titles, some of which you’ll see across these very pages.
Insomniac Games’ followup to the hugely popular Marvel’s Spider-Man is releasing exclusively on PS4 and PS5. This time around the player will be stepping into Miles Morales’ Spider suit, which is all very exciting – but I’m much more interested in his cat companion. Tell me about Spider-cat, you cowards. Tell me about Spider-cat immediately.
Ever since the launch trailer for Young Horses’ title was revealed back in June, I’ve not been able to get that theme song out of my head. Every waking moment, I’m talkin’ about Bugsnax. My mother won’t answer my calls anymore. Maybe once it finally releases on PS4, PS5 and PC, I will finally be free. The previous-gen version of the game is actually out on the 12th, but due to the PS5 launching late in the UK you’ll have to wait for talk about Bugsnax on the PS5.
With the launch of two new systems, Codemaster’s Dirt 5 has not one, not two but three release dates. Originally launched for the PS4 and Xbox One back on the 6th, it was released again on the 10th for the Xbox Series X|S, with its final release date coming to coincide with the launch of the PS5. That all sounds exhausting to me, but as the fourteenth game in the Colin McRae Rally series and the eighth game to carry the Dirt title, Codemasters has plenty of experience here.
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Cyberpunk 2077 Well, releases this year don’t come much bigger than this (or more delayed, having moved across months and finally to the very edge of this page). The long, long awaited new title from CD Projekt Red, and its first outside the Witcher IP, is launching on… basically every platform under the sun. You don’t need me to tell you what the game is about, but rest assured I’m counting down the days until I can gaze into Keanu’s dreamy, digital eyes.
Demon’s Souls It’s interesting that one of the few true next-gen exclusive titles is a remake of a PS3 game. On paper that sounds disappointing, but if trailers are to be believed, Bluepoint Games have done a phenomenal job on this now 11-year old game, making the predecessor to Dark Souls feel like a truly next gen experience. Still not sure about that apostrophe, though, just whose souls are they?
Immortals Fenyx Rising Ubisoft’s Immortals Fenyx Rising (formerly Gods and Monsters) is launching on both old and new generation consoles, Stadia, Epic Games Store, UPlay and Stadia. Drawing no small amount of inspiration from Breath of the Wild, the game is the result of the Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey developers discovering a bug that changed the humans on the player’s crew into giant cyclopses.
The Game Awards As if all that next-gen excitement wasn’t enough, Geoff Keighley is returning to close out the year once again with the Game Awards. Officially taking place in the early hours of the 11th UK time, if you want to be a pedant about it, the event has had to make some changes due to the pandemic. This year the Game Awards will take place globally, in three locations: Los Angeles, Tokyo and London.
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We’re Playing... CONTENT Editor: Seth Barton firstname.lastname@example.org +44 (0)203 143 8785 Staff Writer: Chris Wallace email@example.com +44 (0)203 143 8786 Design and Production: Steve Williams firstname.lastname@example.org
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Ooohhh... shiny new boxes! They are everything I hoped but I now have the attention span of a gnat. I’ve started playing (for testing purposes of course) around a bazillion games and have no idea which one to actually stick with. And by the time you read this, there will be a bazillion more. I’m drowning in content and I love it.
What am I PLAYING, you ask? Well, since my Xbox pre-order looks like it is going to be late, I’m not playing your typical video game, oh no, my sweet summer child. I’m playing the sweetest game, the game of revenge. With God as my witness, I will tear this country apart with my bare hands. You have pushed me too far this time, you rat bastards. Chris Wallace, Staff Writer
This month I’ve been sinking my teeth into Wunderling, from Retroid. On top of that I’ve been revisiting the Lego Star Wars games. On the topic of Lego, I’m led to understand that Chris is about to tear our very civilsation apart, as though it was all loosely held together by so many Lego blocks. Alex Boucher, Senior Business Development Manager
Seth Barton, Editor
Paws the game The best furry friends the industry has to offer. Send yours to email@example.com
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Pet: Bella & Rosie Owner: Kaiha Puckey Owner’s job: Communication and events exec, Bandai Namco
Pet: Winnie Owner: Claire Sharkey Owner’s job: Head of comms and PR, Modern Wolf
Pet: Edith & Edgar Owner: Tim Scott, Owner’s job: Head of policy and public affairs, Ukie
Bella loves to swim and play hide and seek when out on a walk, but her sister Rosie always gives her away and chases her when she plays fetch.
Winnie the pug, as you can clearly see, is truly a majestic and graceful lady. Winnie, and Winnie alone, will be spared from Chris’ righteous fury.
Edith and Edgar are mother and son. Lockdown has been an interesting experience for them, as they enjoy zoom bombing the daily team meetings…
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MCV NOV-DEC20 CONTACT SALES:Layout 1 02/11/2020 11:33 Page 1
4pm November 25th WITH THANKS TO
Join us for an inspiring livestream awards on November 25th at 4pm We’re very excited to announce that we’re just ONE WEEK away from the awards. And we really hope you can all join us on the day to celebrate the contribution of women to the UK’s games industry. This year’s event will be livestreamed. We’re working with game event production experts ADVNCR on the awards this year, and you can watch the event with us at www.womeningamesawards.com. We’re super excited to have two incredible hosts for the event, with Charleyy Hodson (Xbox) and Elle Osili-Wood (BBC), both of whom had made our shortlists before
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coming onboard for the event. We’ll also have some special guests in the studio and joining us remotely. Our shortlisted nominees, opposite, will also be joining us live. A big thanks to all of our judges for putting in the time and eﬀort to choose our winners. You can read about our judges’ take on the state of play in the industry for women on page 26. Finally, we’d like to thank our sponsors for this year’s event, without whom it would not be possible: Rare, Facebook Gaming, Unity, EA, ADVNCR, Amiqus, Creative Assembly, Hangar 13, OPM Jobs and Splash Damage.
WOMEN IN GAMES AWARDS SHORTLIST 2020 Rising Star of the Year – Development Sponsored by Creative Assembly • Hannah Rose, Bithell Games • Inês Filipa Brasil Lagarto, Lab42 • Jasmine Moore, Sumo Digital (Nottingham) • Jessica Sham, TT Games • Julia Shusterman, Sports Interactive • Vicky McKelvey, Supermassive Games Rising Star of the Year – Business Sponsored by EA • Christie Moulding, Team17 • Emily Horler, ReedPop, UK • Emma Withington, Bastion • Eva Poppe, Unity • Shazina Adam, SIEE • Katie Laurence, Ubisoft Creative Impact of the Year Sponsored by Facebook Gaming • Anna Hollinrake, Mediatonic • Helen Kaur, Rocksteady • Jess Hyland, Wonderstruck • Julie Savage, Supermassive Games • Karoline Forsberg, nDreams • Lily Zhu, Splash Damage
Technical Impact of the Year In association with Made with Unity • Amy Phillips, Media Molecule • Anastasiia Tsaplii, Bossa Studios • Cheryl Razzell, Polystream • Michelle Chapman, Sumo Digital • Mohrag Taylor, Creative Assembly • Nareice Wint, Lucid Games & Party Llama Games
Journalist of the Year • Elle Osili-Wood, Freelance journalist and presenter • Jessica Wells, Network N • Lara Jackson, GameByte • Louise Blain, Dialect/Freelance • Vic Hood, TechRadar • Vikki Blake, Eurogamer & NME
Comms Impact of the Year Sponsored by Splash Damage • Amy Hughes, Square Enix • Charleyy Hodson, Xbox UK • Haley Uyrus, Mediatonic • Taylea Enver, Frontier Developments • Sola Kasali, EA • Zuzanna ‘Zee’ Inczewska, Team Adopt Me Businesswoman of the Year Sponsored by Amiqus • Gemma Johnson-Brown, Dovetail Games • Korina Abbott, Neonhive • Maria Sayans, Ustwo • Nusrat Shah, Exient • Tina Lauro Pollock, Brain and Nerd Ltd • Lauran Carter, Liquid Crimson
Career Mentor of the Year Sponsored by Hangar 13 • Caroline Miller, Indigo Pearl • Korina Abbott, NeonHive • Melissa Phillips, Silver Rain Games • Romana Ramzan, Glasgow Caledonian University • Tara Mustapha, Code Coven • Anisa Sanusi, Limit Break Mentorship Games Campaigner of the Year Sponsored by OPM Jobs • Cinzia Musio, Splash Damage • Fey Vercuiel, Studio Gobo • Lauren Kaye, She Plays Games • Marie-Claire Isaaman, Women in Games • Michelle Tilley, Sony Interactive Entertainment • Roz Tuplin, Games London Outstanding Contribution Sponsored by Rare The recipient of this award will be announced
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Covid-19 Is Changing the Gaming Industry for the Better Paul Grant, Pivot
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!
COVID-19 has forced a number of changes in the industry. First off, let’s talk about working from home. A topic I discussed with Maria Vasilchikova, a Women in Games Ambassador and HR Manager at Unbroken Studios. The Unbroken Studios team in Los Angeles are currently WFH and have been since mid-March, and Maria told me that their WFH policy has worked out well. This didn’t surprise me. The request for WFH has been growing throughout the industry for some time. Pre-pandemic, I found that the studios who’d implemented WFH initiatives were much more successful in hiring talent. Talking to people at various studios, many feel like they’re more productive. Unbroken Studios have found this especially true for engineers: “We did observe immediately that engineers were more productive. We had metrics to prove it,” Maria said. However, WFH hasn’t been easy for everyone. Maria explained that many of her team with families had struggled. Childcare and schooling difficulties make it hard to devote time to work. To support people that were struggling WFH, Unbroken Studios decided to make sick policy unlimited straight away. Maria explained: “We don’t want people to be worried about sick time or let work get on top of them while they’re dealing with things at home. So, we offered unlimited sick time and that’s worked out really well”. Even for people without families, WFH can be tricky. Artists and designers thrive off collaboration, which is harder to achieve in zoom calls or teams meetings. It’s for these reasons that there’ll always be a plan to return to studios. This is something that Maria joked to be talking about with her leadership team every single week. And it’s not just WFH where we’ve seen the gaming industry adapt (and possibly evolve).
When the initial COVID-19 wave hit, there was a great deal of uncertainty. Marketing plans and deadlines had to be moved, meaning that contracts had to be changed. However, both Maria and I agreed that a lot of publishers and a lot of large gaming organizations have embraced these challenges, using their own platforms to feature their content. Maria even went on to argue that it will make companies think twice about attending these events in the future. “Maybe we don’t need GDC or PAX to be successful. Everybody’s got their own way to feature their own content. That means they’re not subject to the dates that are set by these events. They’re not subject to the costs, incurred with these events. “I haven’t seen any data specifically comparing the two, but I suspect that they’ve had more success with this model.” I think the events are still needed because they offer a chance to interact with the consumer directly and are one of the very few times that studios have time to network. However, they carry a lot less impact that they did ten years ago. If anything, the success that we’ve had taking everything online during COVID-19, should drive these events to comeback stronger. They will need to try harder than ever to convince studios and consumers to attend. And that can only be a good thing. Overall, the way that the gaming industry has adapted has been amazing. I’m excited for the future because I really do believe that in the last six months we’ve seen the gaming industry evolve and change for the better. Paul is a recruiter at Pivot Search specialising in programming and engineering helping the largest international brands in video games find top talent.
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Fostering a nurturing environment for mental health and wellbeing amidst a pandemic Andrea Wearmouth, Double Eleven
The fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic has completely upended our way of life at every turn. With all it has thrown at us, we want to ensure that all of our staff at Double Eleven are getting their social and emotional needs met during this trying time. To do that, we’ve set up a series of practices that cater to the wide gulf of situations our employees may have found themselves in during this pandemic. One of the biggest hurdles is that of raising children while working remotely. Raising kids requires a ton of work even outside of a pandemic, so we as a company were quick to remind the wider team to show empathy and compassion towards their parenting colleagues. We told everyone to expect delayed responses and variable availabilities as typical “working hours” became a more mercurial concept. Others on staff have found themselves on the opposite end of the spectrum by living alone. To help those in such isolated situations, digital support bubbles were erected within the company to ensure people could virtually buddy up with colleagues. Another group this has been a challenge for has been those who started at Double Eleven in the midst of the pandemic. Since lockdown, we’ve hired around 40 full-time employees and this number is still growing. To ensure that this onboarding goes smoothly, all of our recent recruits have regular contact with their team leads, ensuring that they still receive the same level of mentorship, feedback and engagement as they would pre-Covid. As a company that has expanded significantly over the last year, it’s important that our efforts to support the wellbeing of everyone grows in line with that. Some teams have ‘sanity chats’ every morning, where teams get together and talk about what they’ve been up to outside of work. While we miss the post-work rounds of drinks and football games during lockdown, technology has made it easy to keep that social element. People are creating and running weekly quizzes, D&D has continued remotely, and online gaming has made for
Nowadays, we still meet for virtual monthly lunches and the company kindly picks up the tab for everyone’s meal. Another small gesture is having the company cover everyone’s tea, coffee and biscuit expenses in lockdown, retaining our creature comforts from before. Internally, as the HR & operations supervisor at Double Eleven I have been talking to every single member of the team, checking if we make their work-from-home lives more comfortable. We know that people are dealing with this in different ways, so we adapt what we offer on an individual basis. We’ve even reconfigured larger teams so that everyone gets regular one-to-one support from the person who oversees their work on a daily basis. We’ve always had an open door policy as a company, encouraging people to talk to their manager so they can collaboratively find a solution. We acknowledge that there are people who do not feel comfortable talking face to face, and prefer the anonymity of external resources, so we offer information to help with this. Talking therapies and other counselling are available for those who want them, and our team is able to help guide anyone through the referral process, ensuring that they get the help that they need. Double Eleven is constantly looking for better ways to work during the Covid crisis. Some of these practices have been so effective that we may continue them after the pandemic is over. In the meantime, localised spikes in cases and the use of national contact tracing will continue for the foreseeable future, so we have a working group that meets weekly to discuss how the tide is turning. If there’s anything 2020 has taught us, it’s that we must take things one day at a time, as we can only predict so much. Ultimately we will do whatever we need to in order to keep our people safe, and ensuring that they have all the mental health support they could want is our top priority as we navigate this troubling era together.
many impromptu social gatherings. Prior to lockdown we would meet for monthly team lunches, encouraging people to mingle with folks outside of their department.
five years and is their HR and operations supervisor. She continually supports the team with her focus being on staff wellbeing and work-life balance.
Andrea has been with Double Eleven almost
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AN EVOLVING GENERATION The next-generation is here. But this is a new dawn like none before, with near-seamless continuity with the outgoing devices. Seth Barton analyses the potential of both new flagship consoles
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he new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are a next generation like no other, capable of playing host to thousands of existing titles between them at launch – exactly what the industry demanded. And it’s somewhat fortuitous, as truly new gaming experiences are thin on the ground, thanks in part to the pandemic.
Both consoles look well set to serve the industry. With each platform having its unique outlook on what a games console should be. We’ll look at their strengths and weaknesses in parallel, without the usual combative talk of a console war. The industry is best served by both platforms finding large audiences, and we think both will.
XBOX SERIES X: A TURBOCHARGED CONSOLE EVOLUTION OF INCREDIBLE POWERS
PLAYSTATION 5: THE CONTINUITY WE NEEDED, PLUS THE PROMISE OF SO MUCH MORE
Never before has so much been known about a console for so long before launch, and yet as we go to press we’re still only just seeing a fraction of even its launch period potential. The Xbox One X… sorry, the Xbox Series X, I still struggle with the Microsoft’s naming choices at times, was first shown to the world almost 12 months ago now, an unprecedented run-in for a new console. Arguably this should have been the most finely planned and perfectly executed console release ever. And then the pandemic turned the world upside down. The console has arrived on time and Microsoft should be applauded for that alone. 343 Industries was impacted, though, and laid the blame for Halo: Infinite’s delay squarely at the feet of the pandemic, and that’s completely reasonable. Meanwhile, enhanced versions of this winter’s big games are only just now rolling out, making gauging the new consoles’ power a somewhat rolling affair over the next few weeks. Though we’ve seen enough to know that we’re impressed. Still, the lack of a standout new experience, a fresh technical tour de force for the new hardware, somewhat limits our ability to gauge the impact of the new console over the years to come – a near-impossible feat even in ideal circumstances. Or does it? A new console usually means a new platform, a target for developers and publishers alike to create for and prosper from. The new Xbox isn’t a new platform (it’s not even a single new console in fact, see page 21) instead it’s new hardware that’s just one part of the multi-threaded platform that is now Xbox. Continuity is the name of the game here. Want a new console? Great! Want to play on PC? Great! Want to hold on to your old Xbox? Great! Microsoft wants to be wherever consumers decide to be. And this continuity is, conversely, the new revolution in games. The question then is what, if anything, has Microsoft sacrificed to achieve this incredible democratic mandate of gaming? Is this a brilliant, progressive alliance; or a coalition
‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is often a good mantra, especially if you’re the industry’s incumbent leader around the globe. That said, Sony didn’t get to where it is by sitting on its laurels across four highly successful generations of hardware, and this is an industry that thrives off ingenuity and innovation. However, ‘the times they are a-changin’, and this new console generation can’t make the same kind of clean break we’ve seen before. There needs to be continuity for those big service titles, such as Fortnite and Warzone, which makes a more conservative evolution the smart play, even the necessary one. Accepting that, Sony has still attempted to draw a line under the PS4 era in order to bound forwards into a new one with the PlayStation 5. There’s the out-there design, a brand new controller (that made us laugh out loud in joy), blisteringly quick SSD storage, a completely redesigned store and UI with many intriguing new features. Plus the option of an all-digital PlayStation console for the first time ever. There’s plenty to talk about here then, but not plenty to play unfortunately. As with its Xbox rival, next-gen games are pretty thin on the ground at the time of writing – although in Spider-Man: Miles Morales we do have at least one brand new cross-gen title to enjoy. The initial success of the hardware is undoubted. It will sell out everywhere from here until at least March. The question we need to look at is how well the PS5 can support and serve the wider industry going forward, for the benefit of us all. UPTURNED COLLAR To be honest, we’re still not totally sold on the PS5’s design. A console’s appearance isn’t the most important thing, but in the early days of adoption it certainly matters. Personal feelings aside, the PlayStation 5 could be considered to soar, it’s cathedral-like in a way, reaching up to the heights, it could even be seen as aspirational.
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of mismatched parts? And more specifically, how does this incredible-looking £450 console lead that vision? ENGINEERING THE FUTURE While the appearance of a console becomes less important as it matures – as other aspects, such as software or audience size become more clearly defined, at launch appearance is a key factor in generating buzz. And for us, the new Xbox is a masterpiece. Its monolithic design creates a sense of immense power in a highly practical, compact package. It looks best sitting up on a desk or beside a TV, rather than lying somewhat awkwardly below one. But upright, as it’s seen in marketing, it does not have a bad angle. It manages to be both iconic and understated, no mean feat. And, to date in our testing, it runs so very, very quietly and with only moderately warm air emanating from its top vents. Any wild speculation pre-launch of excessive heat is dismissed within minutes of turning it on. While the interior layout will interest only a few people, the Xbox’s internals are something of a hardware nerd fantasy, with every element slotting together neatly, thanks to its fancy dualmotherboard design. Form and function have been matched here on a level we rarely see with gaming hardware (with a nod to both the Gamecube and Nintendo 3DS) but this is truly Apple-class product design and Microsoft should be very proud of itself. All that engineering isn’t just showing off either. It was clear from the off that one of Xbox’s key aims in this generation was not to be outgunned by PlayStation again. And in that regard it has certainly succeeded. The numbers have been chewed over and over ad nauseum, if you care about those teraflops the headline numbers must be burnt into your retina by now, (see page 22 if you need a quick reminder, though). But in short, the Xbox Series X and PS5 are largely equivalent in most regards bar one or two. The Xbox Series X has a notable advantage in raw graphics power. Its GPU has almost 50 per cent more compute units and despite those running at slower speeds it still comes out a step ahead of its rival. Whether that advantage proves to
It’s also pretty practical, it comes with a base in the box (no add-on sales there I’m afraid) and with it can stand proud, like a Foster skyscraper, or lie down, making it more of a ZahaHadid gallery. Either way, it’s a work of art, like it or hate it, and that’s well-suited to Sony’s ambitions (and a clear differentiation from the industrial design aesthetic over the road). Turn it on and it glows in a nice understated way to indicate its status. It’s quiet and well-behaved too, unlike the airplane jet noise of my old PS4 Pro – not Sony’s finest moment and one we’re happy to move on from. And that new-found serenity is an impressive feat, as the PS5 runs its GPU hard and fast compared to the competition. With around a third less compute units, it makes up much (but not all) of the power differential by running them at up to 2.33GHz (compared to 1.825Ghz in the Series X). Processors can be roughly priced by the transistor, and here Sony looks to have almost matched the Xbox in power with what must be a significantly cheaper chip. If all is well in terms of cooling, and we have no reason to believe it should not be, then Sony may be able to be more aggressive when it comes to pricing in the future. Putting aside chips sizes and speeds, though, the bottom line is the PS5 lags behind its rival in terms of raw graphics performance, by around 15 per cent. To what extent that will be noticeable to consumers in big cross-platform titles, such as Cyberpunk 2077, remains to be seen. Developers would likely prefer near-perfect parity between the devices, but the gap certainly isn’t so large that it will cause any major headaches. Especially given that practically all major titles are still being balanced for both last-gen devices and innumerable PC specs as well. Returning to the console itself, the rest of the specification is largely in line with that of the Xbox Series X. Providing a huge step up in CPU performance to drive higher frame rates and more complex worlds. Although the new console does have a potential advantage in terms of storage speed, which we’ll return to in depth later.
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be significant in terms of visible differences in big-franchise, cross-platform titles remains to be seen. But we can be certain that if anyone has a graphical edge here, it’s Xbox. That extra hardware capability must come at an additional cost, though, which may impact the Series X further down the line when it comes to pricing. Although it’s clearly intended to be (and is likely to remain) a premium product with pricing to match. THE SLENDER CONTROLLER The new Xbox Wireless Controller neatly sums up Microsoft’s continuity approach to the Series S and X. In fact you don’t even need it at all, with the older model being fully supported going forward by all games. A move which will be particularly welcomed by anyone developing a couch co-op title for release next year. So while the new controller hasn’t even earned its own moniker, and could be mistaken for the old one at a distance, it does have a few key differences. Most notably there’s a share button now, so that function is easier to access. The d-pad is much improved, requiring less movement and having a crisper click to it. In fact the start, menu and bumper buttons all have a crisper, more positive feedback to them. The sticks resistance has been tuned to feel more consistent across the range and the trigger pulls are slightly shorter. Overall the controller has a generally refined feel, but it’s still deeply familiar. The real work has gone on elsewhere though, with Microsoft successfully streamlining the input path from your thumb to the action onscreen, something it calls Dynamic Latency Input. Testing by Digital Foundry in Gears 5 showed the average
RESISTING CHANGE? A far more visible change for the PS5 is the all-new DualSense controller. While Sony has made incremental updates to its DualShock controller design over the years. The new controller’s streamlined appearance marks arguably the biggest change since Sony bolted analogue sticks to the bottom of the original controller. With that said, there’s a lot of the PS4’s DualShock 4 controller still in its DNA. Anyone needing to design a control scheme that works across both controllers will have no problems whatsoever. The placement and spacing of the analogue sticks is essentially identical (although arguably they could do with a tad more grip on top we felt), the d-pad and face buttons are also in the same places and have a familiar feel. The bumpers have a touch more travel and more positive feedback, while the triggers have more resistance for finer control. The DS4’s largely underutilised touchpad returns, as does motion sensing, along with the onboard speaker and headphone jack. So what’s new, apart from the fact that it looks fantastic and feels great in your hands? Well, there’s a built-in microphone now, so players always have basic voice chat capabilities, even when your headset is out of reach. That potentially opens up some design possibilities, but we can’t see too many devs taking them up given that players on other consoles, or even the PS4, would need to have headsets to play too. Best of all are the new haptic feedback triggers, they’re simply a revelation. The PS5 comes with a pre-installed title, Astro’s Playroom, to showcase the new features of the controller. As soon as I was demoed the new triggers I laughed out loud in joy, they’re that
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input latency falling from 97ms to 60ms – that’s around 2 whole frames at 60fps – versus the One X. In practice that meant we found it easier to track targets and hit our shots in games. If this plays out across all titles then the Xbox might legitimately be able to claim a competitive edge in cross platform games. On the downside, the controller doesn’t do anything to excite, there are no other new features, and the AA batteries, practical though they may be, feel a bit last decade. COMING SOON Exclusive next-gen content for the console was never really the plan for the Xbox Series X. As we revealed right back in January, its first-party Xbox Game Studios are planning to release all titles on both generations, at least initially. That said, we expected at least a couple of new cross-gen titles to come day-and-date with the new hardware. Instead we’ve had to wait until the very day of launch for enhanced updates to come to this season’s third-party big hitters. Watch Dogs: Legion, for instance with its ray-traced reflections of a rainy London looks superb. And it is just one of the 30-odd titles that had enhancements at launch. And there’s so much to come. As we write this we’re waiting to get our teeth into Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War (at 120hz) and Cyberpunk 2077. Both of which will be key early benchmarks for the new hardware. It’s an incredible launch window lineup for a new console, a true game changer in how consoles are launched, compared to the spotty handful of launch titles (often one for each key genre) offered on launch day for generations of consoles gone by. The modern industry demanded this continuity, and based on what we’ve seen of titles so far, Microsoft has kept up its side of the bargain.
good. The controller is capable of stopping the trigger halfway through its pull – just like a trigger stop on a high-end SCUF controller – it can even push back against your finger, like a gun kicking back as it fires. It’s astounding and joyous and we really hope developers, beyond Sony’s own, make the most of it. Practically-speaking, Sony has moved to a USB type-C charger, and carries on with a built-in battery. Making for a sleeker appearance to its controller. All together we love the DualSense, it’s a great evolution of the DualShock tradition. There is one problem. Why did Sony cut-off DualShock 4 support on the new console? Yes, some retailers and Sony itself will be most pleased that there’s a whole new round of controller sales here. However, for developers looking to make couch co-op games over the next year or two, the lack of support for DS4 on new games is a serious setback. The only route around it is to launch your game on PS4, with compatibility for PS5, though we’re not yet certain how long that loophole will exist and Sony’s perception of it. We respect that Sony wants developers to move forward, and with the new haptics in particular they certainly have, but we can’t see any reason why supporting the old controllers (only for multiplayer titles) would overly limit innovation generally. PRE-PLAYED We’ve mentioned the pre-installed Astro’s Playroom, but it’s worth noting that there’s an awful lot more to this game than you’d imagine. It’s an extensive celebration not only of the DualSense controller but also of PlayStation’s incredible legacy – long-term fans will be delighted, and it’s a great reminder of just how long Sony have been getting things right when it comes to games and consoles. But beyond that title, the range of truly new games available to play on the PS5 at launch is somewhat limited. With the cross-gen title Spider-Man: Miles Morales being the main consideration – and with the greatest respect to Insomniac that largely builds on what has come before. The only true next-gen exclusive, a remake of Demon’s Souls by Bluepoint, looks amazing and will be available at launch, but sadly didn’t make it to us in time to write this piece and again, however impressively reworked, it’s not truly a new title. Also coming just in time for launch will be Sackboy: A Big Adventure, a lovely looking, and highly ejoyable, cross-gen platformer from Sumo Digital. The only other true PS5 exclusive, Destruction AllStars took a hard turn a couple of weeks back and will now see a PS+ launch early next year, with Sony presumably looking to replicate the success it saw with Fall Guys on the service.
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SET PHASERS TO ULTRA Looking at enhanced titles, the best example to date is Gears 5, whose graphical enhancements bring the title up to, and in some places past, top-end PC detail settings. Texture detail and effects are all bumped up to nice effect, while the game runs at a smooth 60fps in the campaign, albeit with a dynamic resolution which largely hovers below a full native 4K. It’s deeply impressive-looking, especially given this is simply a patch to an existing title. The game’s real party trick is 120fps multiplayer, which gives a silky smooth look and control response that’s unparalleled on console. DIRT 5 and indie gem The Falconeer are also both offering such a mode at launch too. For now, only a handful of players will have an appropriate TV or gaming monitor to appreciate the upgrade. But for
Now, three key titles for launch from Sony’s publishing arm is actually pretty respectable, especially given the paucity of a first-party publishing lineup across the road. Although with expandalones, remakes and cross-gen titles aplenty, Sony’s lineup still lacks a sense of excitement and ‘exclusivity’ for owners of the new console. As with Xbox, upgrades to key third-party cross-gen titles, releasing over the next couple of weeks, will largely be available at launch, giving us little opportunity to test those right now. Updates will also come through gradually to existing firstparty titles. So we return to Spider-Man: Miles Morales in order to gauge the early potential of the PS5. The standout upgrade here is undoubtedly an update to 60fps in its 4K performance mode. The experience of swinging through New York is much
NOW ENTERING TIER 2 After many years of debate about the future of physical games and optical drives, both PlayStation and Xbox have taken a middle-ground approach in the new generation. With different but similar paths when it comes to optical drives. While both new consoles, in their full-fat forms, may cost the same. The simple fact is that to make the leap to the nextgeneration the price of consoles has risen from £350 to £450 in a seven year period where wages have remained largely stagnant. Even factoring in UK inflation (which really doesn’t tell the whole story) that’s a step up from under £400 to £450. The price rise is actually very reasonable given the trend in graphics card prices over the last decade, plus there’s the addition of SSD storage. However, the high initial price and cost of production means that these two consoles won’t be dropping to family-friendly prices anytime soon. In fact they may never hit that £200-250 price bracket that makes consoles an impulse purchase, or Xmas present, and bring mass market adoption. Instead both Sony and Xbox will be relying on tier-two devices to address that market. And here the platform holders differ radically in their strategy. The Xbox Series S is a wholly new class of console, giving Microsoft an entirely new play, with a £250
price point straight off the bat. It will recoup some of that low cost through higher margins on digital games of course. However it’s achieved, the idea of a competitively priced family console from the very start of a new generation is a deeply exciting one. We hope that the additional market reach isn’t paid for in compromises in terms of pushing the envelope across this generation. Meanwhile Sony’s PS5 Digital Edition, costing £90 less at launch, also gives Sony some great options. With small discounts it could be far cheaper than the Series X and yet more powerful than the Series S. It’s a potentially strong, aggressive move, but one that the current market leader may not need or want to make. And Sony will need to be careful in balancing stock between the two essentially identical consoles, and maintaining a sensible price difference. Otherwise they could be criticised for trying to push consumers unwillingly to a digital option. Either way, the second-tier consoles are a considerable blow to the already shrinking physical games market. Both platforms will need to treat specialist retailers with care if they still want a high-street presence for their devices – the first example of which has already been seen in Microsoft’s deal with GameStop in the US, giving the retailer a cut of digital sales over the lifetime of devices sold.
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competitive games it could become something that developers should strive to include, especially for cross-platform titles, as high-refresh rates are increasingly standard on PC. Elsewhere Forza Horizon 4 now runs at a silky smooth 60fps at 4K, making an already amazing looking game now look and feel even better to play. Again, it’s roughly analogous to having a serious gaming PC. Meanwhile the already pretty The Touryst is being rendered at a whopping 6K and then downsampled to match the output resolution, giving it a near-Pixar level of visual sharpness. It’s a neat use of all that extra power and it’s also one that developers of less demanding titles would be wise to experiment with. Arguably, while the latest graphical effects are fantastic to have, it was the old consoles’ CPU, rather than the GPU, that was limiting the design space of games going forward. The processor in even the Xbox One X was starting to look woefully underpowered. The new processor runs up to 3.8GHz, up from 2.13 GHz in the One X, and real-world performance is well beyond even what even that gulf suggests. The new processor provides acres more headroom, allowing for those higher frame rates initially, but also unlocking better physics simulations and more detailed worlds with more going on in them – there’s also 16GB of RAM to match. Theoretically, the new console, with a keyboard and mouse, could run heavy PC strategy titles from the Game Pass’s PC selection even. The full capabilities of the processor will take longer to be put to use,
improved with the higher frame rate. There’s also a graphics mode, which utilises ray-tracing effects and higher detail levels, but at the usual 30fps. It all looks great, and Insomniac has done a fantastic job, not only in making a snow-covered NYC look incredible, but also in terms of plot and characterisation – we love Miles and his extended family. However, the gameplay does feel a little too familiar for our liking, especially set against the backdrop and expectations of a new console and controller. MORE THAN RAW As previously mentioned, one area the PS5 does have a clear technical advantage over its competitor is the speed of its SSD
NEXT-GEN IN NUMBERS For those who haven’t been following the endless specification speculation of the last 12 months, here’s the key points in one easy table
Xbox Series X
£450 (Digital Edition £360)
8x Zen 2 Cores at 3.5HGz
8x Zen 2 Cores at 3.8GHz
AMD Radeon RDNA Navi (10.3 Teraflops, 36 CUs at
AMD Radeon RDNA Navi (12 Teraflops, 52 CUs
10GB at 560GB/s, 6GB at 335GB/s
4K, 8K, 120Hz
4K, 8K, 120Hz
1TB NVMe SSD
5.5GB/S (Raw), 8-9GB/S (Compressed)
2.4GB/s (Raw), 4.8GB/s (Compressed)
NVMe SSD Slot, USB HDD Support
Seagate External 1TB SSD Expansion Card,
RAM Memory Bandwidth Video Output Storage Storage speed External Storage
USB HDD Support Optical Drive
4K UHD Blu-Ray Drive (except on Digital Edition)
4K UHD Blu-Ray Drive
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especially given Microsoft’s cross-gen commitment, but there’s nothing stopping other developers from finding a use for all that power sooner. FASTER THAN LIGHTNING One big impact today is the minimisation of loading times, thanks to the new SSD storage system. Even with existing titles, players can navigate games more smoothly, with no long pauses to break their immersion, which should also increase retention. Meanwhile, newer titles should be able to practically eliminate loading times altogether, when taking full advantage of Xbox’s full Velocity Architecture design. The SSD is paired with a three-game Quick Resume feature, allowing players to move almost seamlessly between multiple titles without loading them from scratch. Switch between a preferred multiplayer title, an ongoing single-player epic, plus Minecraft for the kids, all taking a few seconds each. The Xbox Series X has a 1TB drive (providing 802GB of available space). That should satisfy most users for a while, but with the ability to switch games so seamlessly, and with the very biggest titles pushing 250GB, it’s only a matter of time before some users will want more storage. Microsoft does allow expansion of that core storage via an official 1TB Storage Expansion Card, made by Seagate, although at £220 it’s a hefty investment for consumers – and goes to show how much it has cost to add such storage to these consoles to begin with. Users can also plug in USB hard disks or SSDs, in order to store titles for play later, by copying them on and off the main device, or to run backward compatible titles directly from the attached drive. It’s a well thought-out provision of storage, providing both speed and flexibility depending on the users needs. The shift to an SSD is the most clearly appreciable upgrade for the new console at launch. It really does make playing games a better experience – even if the Xbox doesn’t have any titles on the horizon that utilise the new hardware in unique ways.
storage, thanks to a custom chip that’s handling transfers and compression. That provides transfers at up to 9GB per second, compared to 4.8GB/s for the Xbox. SSD storage is already a huge step up from the hard disks of old, with even the Xbox being fifty times faster than a typical hard disk, so it remains to be seen if Sony’s technical advantage here will amount to a significant advantage in reality. Looking at the practically instant load times already on offer, my feeling is that speed alone won’t be the key. What is more likely to be a factor is the way Sony deploys its first-party development teams. We’ve already seen Ratchet and Clank’s: Rift Apart from Insomniac Games demoed, which is making full use of the SSD in its design, shifting the action from one detailed world to another at incredible pace. With Microsoft’s commitment to previous generations and to the PC platform through Game Pass, we’re unlikely to see anything that can only run off an SSD from its first-party studios anytime soon. In this area then, it’s Sony that is pushing the envelope. And while the success of that experiment remains to be seen, the attempt is to be loudly applauded. More immediately, playing as Miles Morales on an SSD is a joy. There’s no loading time coming in and out of buildings and you can fast travel in an instant across the map. It’s something you get used to very quickly but it’s no less of a step forward for it, and I certainly wouldn’t want to go back. Having an SSD keeps you more engaged and immersed. It’s worth noting that Sony doesn’t currently have a quick resume system to match Microsoft’s, which lets you switch between up to three games in a flash. Plus the PS5 has less storage space as standard, 667GB vs 802GB. Sony is yet to detail which NVMe SSDs will be compatible to upgrade the existing internal storage, but they won’t come cheap. DROPPING ON SUPERSTORE Supporting that fluidity of play from the SSD is the new UI, which has been totally revamped for the new console and to great effect. The main menu has been relocated to the top left of the screen, leaving far more space for the content to shine, with games and other menu options getting the benefit of almost the whole screen as you browse across them. The biggest change for the industry is the integration of the store into the UI. It’s still the option on the far left of the main menu, but it no longer has to load into the store, instead consumers can just navigate straight on in. The new store itself again goes big on creative assets, the menu tiles are large, which looks good but means you can’t see an awfully wide range of games at first glance.
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UNIFIED INTERFACE As a part of its continuity play, the UI, store and features of the new console are identical to that of the current devices, all of which have seen a fairly recent major overhaul. Looking back, the new interface is a huge improvement over the one we started the last generation with. The interface is now intuitive and attractive, placing the content you most want front and centre, and making it both look enticing, while providing updates and related streams. All of which is now presented in pleasingly curved-off squares. The store sits on the front page and surfaces a few top titles and offers. Players can move the store or even remove it if they prefer from the main menu, but it seems that few do this given Xbox’s well regarded performance as a digital marketplace by the publishers we’ve spoken to. It’s a seperate app, one you can access from the app menu if required, but it surfaces a lot of key content on the main menu and loads in an instant. Inside the store, everything is easy to navigate, search is quick, there’s a clearly marked wishlist section and options. Interestingly, Microsoft has added a section for hardware, allowing consumers to buy consoles and peripherals – though that wasn’t populated at the time of testing.
There’s nothing much else to report, but it all works very nicely and developers and publishers alike can expect it to keep on working for them just as well as it has to date. THE NEXT GEN STARTS NOVEMBER 10TH With the excellent Xbox One X still feeling relatively fresh, it’s arguable that the Xbox Series X wasn’t really needed just yet. That though would be churlish in the face of this fantastic piece of hardware from Microsoft. Brilliantly conceived from sharp edge to sharp edge, the new console provides lashing of graphical muscle to lavish on current and new titles. The new CPU removes any potential bottlenecks and opens up the design space. Plus we have
The upside to that approach is when you go into a game’s page and the presentation is sumptuous, as it is on the home screen, with a huge canvas for developers to publishers to really push their vision. One gripe (which isn’t particular to PlayStation), is why there still don’t appear to be high-end video assets to promote titles: 4K, low compression and even 60fps frame rate video would really help to sell next-gen graphics.
Minor grumbles aside, Sony has provided some intriguing, progressive options in the UI. There’s the ability to deeper integrate the PlayStation into a game’s own options, letting players join server queues for a specific mode directly from the PS5’s front end. A new pop-up menu is available in-game as well, providing numerous options. The most intriguing is contextual help videos, which players can watch in game, and even in split-screen to get them past tricky areas. Demon’s Souls reportedly has 180 such videos – which seems both logical (Souls games are hard!) and against the point (Souls games are supposed to be hard!). It’s great to see someone tackling the clunky ‘pause game, get out phone, YouTube search, watch ad, scroll through video, watch help, repeat steps’ method of in-game help. That said, we’re not expecting many third-party developers to go to the lengths that Bluepoint and Sony has done on Demon’s Souls. Still, even a handful of videos, to help with key sections, would be a boon for many games. We suspect that this feature will struggle if it doesn’t get immediate support, as players simply won’t think to look for help in game if there’s not broad coverage. There’s been some concerns about where smaller developers will find time, but maybe they could cut deals with appropriate influencers to provide the content in return for a fee or just pre-launch access to the game.
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dynamic latency and 120fps support, to make console games more responsive than ever before. All this makes the console far more closely aligned with high-end gaming PCs. And for developers that’s great news. It also has the power now to tackle VR, should Microsoft be that way inclined. Meanwhile, the immediacy of SSD gaming should mean that gamers can consume more content, and play a wider range of titles, which sounds good for the bottom line. Our only gripe is that there’s little to truly push (or grandstand) the console right now. Advances in software
engineering, allowing for big cross-gen games in the launch window, are a marvel. But a lack of new titles is disappointing, although given the year everyone has had, we can’t blame Microsoft or its studios for that. On a similar line it will be intriguing to see just how developers, both first- and third-party, take advantage of the console over the next couple of years. With the cost of game development, will publishers really want to make bold steps forward in design if that precludes previous hardware – say utilising the SSD or ray-tracing in their designs? That looks likely to be the big talking point over the months to come. It may be an evolution of what’s come before, but the Series X is still a huge move forward, and we can see it becoming a classic of console design. For the industry this is an incredible platform, one with huge potential that allows for the smooth hardware transition that our industry demanded. The future looks bright and the Xbox Series X should be a crucial part of what could be the most successful generation yet. All it needs is one incredible, synonymous game – a Mario 64, a Halo: Combat Evolved – to stamp its mark on history.
A TOUCH OF MAGIC The PS5 looks to be yet another incredible piece of gaming hardware from Sony. We’re a little concerned about the generation-to-generation rise in prices for the new consoles, but the all-around power, features and utility of the PS5 more than justifies the added expense. Console launches will never be these climactic, year zero resets ever again. Instead there’s a sense of continuity both here and with Xbox’s latest effort. But Sony certainly has to be applauded for creating a sense of theatre, adding a little magic to what could have simply been a more powerful box for the same job. The design of the console, the new UI, the new controller with its incredible triggers, and even the pre-installed Astro’s Playroom all made us feel that this was something new, something playful. And we hope that sense of play is felt not just by consumers but also by developers, who are then motivated to find new ways to engage consumers. In a similar respect, Sony’s outstanding first-party studios look best placed to make the most of the new generation. Right now, Sony still has cross-gen titles on its slate, such as next year’s Horizon: Forbidden West. But the first true next-gen exclusives will likely be pushing the envelope here on PS5, with Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart (below) leading the way. It’s a shame such experiences weren’t available at launch, maybe that’s the pandemic’s fault, maybe not, but it’s been a terrible year and we’re giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. Will Sony come to regret being a step behind Xbox when it comes to graphical muscle? Well, it was in the same postition with the PS4 Pro and One X and that didn’t seem to have hurt it. That said, the most competitive of gamers may well err towards the most powerful machine. For developers, the gap will be easy to bridge and most consumers still care more about brand loyalty and exclusive titles than graphical niceties. The PS5 might not quite thrill at launch but it’s packed with potential. It’s no mean feat to provide both the continuity the industry demands and the sense of the new that it craves. Even at this early point, we can confidently say that the PS5 will serve the industry admirably, and right now it looks to have greater potential when it comes to pushing back the boundaries of the form.
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Women in Games The State of the Industry
Ahead of the Women in Games Awards, Chris Wallace reached out to both the judges and industry veterans to learn what needs to be done to make the industry a welcoming place for all
Watch the Women in Games Awards live! 4pm on the 25th of November With thanks to
Join our hosts Charleyy Hodson and Elle Osili-Wood, plus special guests, for an incredible livestream event at www.womeningamesawards.com
e’re absolutely delighted to be hosting the Women in Games Awards this year, even if it is six months later than planned and will now be livestreamed instead of our usual event. But then uphill struggles are no stranger to the women in our industry, so it seems somewhat appropriate. All that said, we’re very happy with the outcome, we’re working with game event production experts ADVNCR on the awards, and thanks to their enthusiasm we’ll be doing a full live production. Whatever the format, the Women in Games Awards continues to allow us to celebrate the hard work and
accomplishments of just some of the many amazing women in our industry. Ahead of this year’s awards, we reached out to our judges and other industry veterans to get a broader perspective. We wanted to find out, in their words, how the industry had changed over the years, and the work still needed to be done. THE STATE OF PLAY “I have seen a huge change in the attitude and diverse makeup of the games industry over the last decade,” begins Rebecca Sampson, director of operations at Hangar 13. “I started in the industry fresh out of university and wanted so badly to fit in
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and make a lasting impression, as working in games was my dream career. At the start, I unfortunately dealt with leering from male colleagues, as well as muttered sexist jokes and remarks that I wasn’t sure were intended for me to hear. I was young, shy and naïve, and I didn’t know what was normal for the games industry at the time, so I kept quiet and ignored it.” This experience of dealing with sexist remarks and ‘jokes’ was a common one among the women we spoke to, as Caroline Miller, owner of Indigo Pearl attests: “I feel much more empowered to call out sexist behaviour now,” adds Miller. Comments made in the past that I would have passed off as ‘banter’, I’d no longer smile through today. But I also have to recognise that I’m older and a director, so that will have something to do with it as well. “That’s not to say that women who do feel uncomfortable and do nothing are at fault, they are not. It can be excruciatingly awkward to go against the herd, especially when you might be the only female in the room. But personally, for me, I feel a lot bolder to confront this type of behaviour now than at the beginning of my career.” Cat Channon, director of corporate communications at EA also echoes these experiences, thinking back to her days in journalism: “When I started out I was one of three women working in the editorial department of a well-known videogames magazine,” says Channon, “in a building full of hundreds of male journalists. “I recall one incident when, having reviewed a high profile racing game, (and not particularly favourably), I was trolled by one of the biggest name studios in the industry for being a woman who (in their opinion) couldn’t know about cars. The studio head even put in a complaint to my editor about it. It seems crazy looking back that my gender was even entertained as a discussion. “That simply wouldn’t fly anymore. Our communities are too aware, active and engaged to let it and in that respect things have changed but there are some aspects where there is still work to do.”
“As the years have gone by, I have noticed a significant improvement in the way I have been treated and am treated currently,” concurs Sampson. “However, there is still more opportunity and work to be done.” MAKING PROGRESS? Work indeed – it’s not enough to simply be content that we have changed conditions from how they were ten or twenty years ago. The industry needs to continue to change to make it a truly welcoming place for all. Are we still heading in the right direction? “I believe times have changed,” says Sampson. “Women have more of a voice and are being taken more seriously, as well as being respected, but we still need more allies to help keep this moving forward and to drive important change to the industry. I have personally found there can be pressure to be visible and have a large social ‘presence’ in order to make an impact and be heard, especially with more women having opportunities to speak up about issues important to them.” “I think it is heading in the right direction,” adds Cheryl Savage, director, gaming EMEA at Facebook, “but it doesn’t mean it’s time to stop trying to steer it. The 2020 UK Games Industry Census showed that people of colour and members of the LGBTQ+ community are represented in the gaming workforce at higher levels than other sectors. But women still only make up 28 per cent of the gaming workforce, which is well below the national average of 50 per cent in all sectors.” “I do feel the games industry has made progress,” says Abbie Heppe, live project lead at Media Molecule, “albeit kicking and screaming in some cases as women have shared their worst and most traumatic experiences. There is a lot of conversation within the industry itself, but it takes the right people, from top to bottom, to engage with these issues, take them seriously and build better workplaces. “The industry has changed over the years, but it’s not due to an industrywide shift – I went from a company with
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Cat Channon, Electronic Arts
Emma Smith, Creative Assembly
Cheryl Savage, Facebook
almost no women in non-admin roles to a company with women in all roles that takes diversity seriously from an executive level. It makes a huge difference. Industry-wide, there is still plenty of work to be done in regards to unconscious bias, retention and career growth of women in our companies, amongst other things.” It’s important to note that the games industry is comparatively new, and constantly reinventing itself, which makes it vulnerable to the same kind of ‘bro culture’ that has plagued Silicon Valley. But as Ukie’s Dr Jo Twist notes, this youth also presents opportunities. “The industry is a young one,” notes Twist, “which means we can learn from the mistakes of others. We have a lot more work to do, but from where I sit, I see the UK industry collectively recognising that better diversity and inclusion across all teams – but especially in leadership roles – is critical to our creativity, our innovation, and success as humans and as businesses. Just in the last three or four years there are so many more brilliant advocacy networks and groups doing different things, but with the same aim, which can only be a good thing” Of course, as Hannah Jay Rees – release quality manager and women employee resource group community chair at Unity – notes, these issues are sadly not exclusive to our industry, but are the result of societal problems. “I still think that gender issues aren’t just a games industry issue but actually a societal issue too, you see so many factors such as gender equality, gender discrimination, working culture, imbalances in demographics and so on, in so many other industries, especially the tech space as a whole and even in day to day situations. “We still have a long way to go,” says Jay Rees, “but having these initial conversations about why these issues shouldn’t exist is definitely a step in the right direction. It’s really refreshing to see the games industry paving the way on these topics and noticing problems that arise as fundamental human rights. Hopefully having these hard
conversations and women having the confidence to speak out, will eventually change mindsets, enable people to see the benefits of a balanced workforce and the importance of accountability for these issues too.” “These issues aren’t unique to the games industry,” agrees Teazelcat Games CEO Jodie Azhar. “Many other sectors, especially other technical industries, face problems of career inequality. Overcoming these issues is not unique to our industry either and working with other industries and learning from them can help us not to continually repeat these problems.” SUPPORTING WOMEN The games industry may not be able to directly fix deep-rooted societal problems, but it can take steps to ensure we support the women in our companies and our industry as a whole. Emma Smith, head of talent at Creative Assembly, has some tips about how to do just that. “There are a range of proactive steps studios can do to support women in the workplace,” says Smith, “and I’m confident that Creative Assembly does a fantastic job of this. These steps extend from recruitment practices, marketing and events, to policies, processes, training and career development. “Our focus right now is in rolling out a new training programme on inclusive behaviours in line with our studio values. The core premise is for everyone to reflect and consider our everyday language and behaviours and their unintended consequences. It’s a fantastic piece of work that we’ve developed with our external specialist, Voice at the Table. We also actively work to create safe places for conversation within our Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Network. This network has an active voice in our Diversity and Inclusion work, acting as a focus group as well as an informal route for raising suggestions or concerns.” Making sure your workplace is a safe and welcoming place for all of its workers should be a basic tenet of any company. But sadly this has proven so often to not be the case, something that Gemma Johnson-
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Brown, chief operating officer at Dovetail Games can relate to. “It’s 2020 and women continue to face harassment, victimisation and microaggressions due to their gender, for some work is sadly not a safe place,” says Johnson-Brown. “The games industry, where many work because it is their passion, their love, their hobby, their craft is an extension of them and parts of the industry disregard that. “The workplace should be a safe place, a place where every voice is heard and appreciated, where you can be your authentic self and are welcomed and valued, it’s 2020 and this is a basic right for all. When recruiting, interviewing or welcoming new starters at Dovetail Games, I make a point of telling people this, it should be a given you get all these things but I know for some it is not what they have previously experienced. “My first industry event was not a pleasant and welcoming experience, it was loud, crowded and over indexed with leering men. I did consider if this was the right move for me but fortunately I got talking to a student who was a Women in Games Ambassador and she suggested I look them up, now I am part of the executive team and proud of the global community we have fostered and grown this gives me great hope for the future of the games industry.” DIVERSIFYING Attracting a diverse workforce – and keeping them safe and comfortable – is not just a benefit to the workers: it’s also beneficial to the companies themselves. By having a diverse workforce, particularly in positions of power, you can promote a healthier culture and attract more diverse candidates. “It has been great seeing smaller companies make an impact by having representation right from the top of the company and creating an inclusive culture early on,” says Teazelcat Games’ Azhar. “When potential candidates feel that a studio is going to be inclusive by seeing who is already on the team and that they are in decision making positions, they’re
much more likely to apply because they can see themselves and their ideas being taken seriously and feel that they’re much likely to grow in their professional capacity there, rather than have to fight with the systemic prejudices that still exist in our industry.” This is of course, especially true for studios founded by people from diverse backgrounds. “I’m delighted to see more games studios being founded by women and people of colour,” continues Azhar. “Not only does it provide workplaces that offer a different studio culture, but we get different types of game, or the exploration of different ideas and themes within existing genres. It’s still disappointing to see large companies not investing in female led teams, or a lack of large funding going to female run teams. “Smaller funds do now exist that offer support to female led teams, but it feels that we need radical change to shake up the industry, otherwise people who are underrepresented in our industry will continue to deal with the same challenges for the next 10 or more years. “While not every studio can have representation in their founding team there is still room to make a team inclusive. In particular ensuring you have a diverse hiring team will help remove bias in the application process and if candidates can see that it’s an inclusive team they’re more likely to apply. Large studios have the capacity to put underrepresented people in leadership positions and give them the support needed to succeed. “It’s easy to view this kind of action as giving underrepresented people an unfair advantage, however, that completely disregards the disadvantages they face constantly in their career. “So many women with great potential never make it to the top because they are never given the same opportunities as men. If we want to ensure workplaces provide equal opportunities for all then studios need to uncover this suppressed potential and give it the power to shape and improve their teams.”
Gemma Johnson-Brown, Dovetail Games
Hanna Jay Rees, Unity
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Abbie Heppe, Media Molecule
Rebecca Sampson, Hangar 13
AN IMAGE OF SUCCESS Putting women (and others from diverse backgrounds) in leadership positions is important, of course. But we also need to tackle a culture that has a very specific image of what a successful person in the industry should look and act like. “The science says that diversity of gender, (along with all kinds of diversity) leads to a stronger performing organisation creatively and commercially,” says EA’s Channon, “but I worry that there’s still a sense that to succeed as a woman in our industry we often need to exert stereotypically masculine traits, of which there are already too many in games. “When we reach a space where what are usually thought of as traditionally feminine attributes are no longer seen as a weakness and can be given space, be nurtured, accepted and rewarded for the tremendous positives they can offer in their own right, well that really will be progress. “Until we get there we all need to do and say more. We need to feel confident and comfortable in calling each other out on our behaviours, on checking our language, our approach and the support we show for individuals of every gender. I am immensely impressed by the way women, and in particular women in the generation below mine, have taken this on and challenged the status quo. The work they have done to redefine and interrogate the way we all think about issues of gender, power and representation is one of the most positive developments of recent times.” This issue of having to “exert masculine traits” is likely a symptom of the same perception issues that have kept many women out of the industry entirely. “Diverse people in games, specifically when it comes to women, are still greatly underrepresented in the industry and especially for those directly involved in development” says Amiqus’ Liz Prince. “When we look at the causes of these low numbers we’re faced with perception issues, low visibility of games as a career for entry level and experienced women,
parental influence to go into a ‘proper job,’ games being seen as a niche choice perhaps only for gamers, games are for boys or maths geeks and girls don’t think they’re any good at maths, the hours aren’t family friendly, there’s inherent sexism in games… the list goes on. These issues and more impact our ability to build pipelines of female talent and to retain them in games as their lifelong career.” While there are companies pushing for change, it’s important that businesses of all sizes not only seek change, but truly understand the problems they are trying to address. “I feel that our industry is changing,” notes Teazelcat’s Azhar, “but that the majority of change is coming from smaller studios. While large companies are hiring diversity officers, creating internal diversity groups and offering non-bias training, these are things that can exist in the company without the majority of the workforce engaging and really understanding the problem and thus fail to change the studio culture. “I continually encounter developers who don’t understand the additional challenges faced by underrepresented people getting into and advancing within the games industry. Without being given the knowledge of why it’s important for their company to make change, continual support on changing behaviours and ideas in the workplace (such as hiring and career advancement), and clear practical, enforceable steps on how to make change, very few staff who don’t already actively want to make a change will care and it will be difficult for anyone at the company to effectively do so. Without the buy in from the majority of employees the company culture can’t change enough to make a difference and become inclusive.” “One of the reasons that I launched G Into Gaming in 2018 was to help studios to focus on the ‘how’ of diversity,” says Amiqus’ Liz Prince. “My perception was and still is that the will is there for many studios who want to make change but having the time to stop and think about what to focus on first, when it’s a huge topic and there are lots of different
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messages, is a struggle. I worry that diversity is seen by many as a ‘project’ that the HR team needs to focus on rather than it being something that’s about culture, running through the business DNA. “I’d like to see more studios understand what diversity and inclusion means to them and to start a journey of discovery with their teams, benchmarking where they are now both in data and in sentiment. Then you can set goals and focus on actions. I’d encourage studios to be bold, state your intentions, hold yourselves accountable and make it a business priority.” The need for change has been made more and more obvious, as stories of abusive behaviour at major companies have made multiple headlines recently. It is our hope that the attention given to these matters will make it harder for such abuse to continue. “There have been some pretty depressing stories recently,” says Indigo Pearl’s Miller, “but we have at least shone light into the dark corners of the industry and rooted out a lot of bad apples. We can now move on to build a workforce where women feel safe and can just get on with their jobs, without this frankly draining and unproductive and at times hostile environment.” Moving on requires that the causes behind these depressing stories are sufficiently addressed, of course. “I feel that studios don’t hold to account those who create problems for women and other unrepresented employees, “ says Teazelcat Games’ Azhar. “A poor team lead can have a huge detrimental effect on the progress of their team, but those from underrepresented groups often suffer the most as they may have fewer other support channels within the studio to look for guidance or career advancement. “In cases where there has been a real problem with leadership the penalty is usually just a slap on the wrist and the person continues in their leadership position, while those beneath them are left unsupported. “In very serious cases, such as sexual harassment, it feels that companies often invest more effort in suppressing the issue
than dealing with the problem, forcing the recipients to risk their careers outing offenders in public in order to get anything done. Whether publicly denounced or not the result is usually the offender leaving the company but often staying within the industry. Not taking serious actions to remove poor leaders from positions where they can cause harm, both to the careers of women and their wellbeing, perpetuates a system where women find it difficult to advance. The lack of support for women when these issues are brought to light further compounds what they have to contend with, just to get their job done.” ROLE MODEL One way to encourage change, and support women in the industry, is for experienced senior women to act as role models and mentors – if they so choose, of course. “I absolutely feel a responsibility to be a role model,” says Creative Assembly’s Smith. “I must practice what I preach, and I also want to share good practices from this work with my industry colleagues to see others establish their own positive education programmes. “I think that those who are in a position and feel comfortable to have a voice in the wider industry can absolutely make a positive contribution. But I don’t think it’s just about that, everyone can make an impact in their teams, through their own behaviours and their own work. As a woman in our industry, I am often mindful of the silent impact myself and other women make by just being visible and accessible.” Of course, for those with the ability to do so, becoming a mentor can be a huge benefit – both to young women in the industry, and to the mentor themselves. “I’d never been encouraged to get myself a mentor until recently,” says Unity’s Jay Rees. “But It’s safe to say that women naturally enjoy communicating and building support networks. So, it just makes sense that successful women have mentors who help them along the way. Be it a guy or a girl, formal or informal, you can learn a lot from having a mentor. Having a mentor means I can go to them
Jodie Azhar, Teazelcat Games
Liz Prince, Amiqus
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Dr Jo Twist, OBE, Ukie
Caroline Miller, Indigo Pearl
for advice, knowledge sharing and a different perspective on how I am viewed within the business. “I’ve also found that there’s a lot to be learned from mentoring others. It has given me a broader perspective and improved my communication skills. Plus, helping others is a great way to pay it forward.” “Having the experience as a team lead, department director and company founder makes me want to encourage other women in their ambitions,” adds Teazelcat’s Azhar. “I don’t think everyone needs a mentor and not every woman has experienced challenges related to their gender in their career. However, sometimes it’s helpful to just have a casual chat about an idea with someone who has experience in that area. That’s something I’m happy to offer others as it’s something that has benefited me.” “I’d like to see a really robust mentoring system,” adds Indigo Pearl’s Miller. “I have friends in TV and film with amazing initiatives in place that partner women just starting their careers with women at the top. It’s really powerful. I’m a bit nervous about an overwhelming amount of ‘women-focused’ initiatives, though. Let’s focus on cleaning up the industry so that we can focus on being the best boss, developer or journalist – and not have to deal with a mess not of our making. Keep the Women in Games Awards though! That’s a lovely, wine-fuelled, fun opportunity to catch up with some really lovely people and celebrate some truly inspirational women.” WORDS OF WISDOM So with all that said, what advice can we give to women looking to enter the industry today? “I often worry if I share the things that have been hard about being a woman in this industry I’m going to put off younger women from joining it,” says Media Molecule’s Heppe. “I really hope it doesn’t.” “I’ve had some joyous experiences in games, worked with amazing people around the world and am very proud of what I’ve accomplished. I’m so encouraged to see so many people in games dedicated
to making the industry better for the next generation. Speak to women in the industry and look into companies you want to work for as best you can. Look for companies that have women at all levels and in every discipline. And learn programming, every company is always looking for a programmer!” “Don’t let your minority status make you self-conscious or stop you from being yourself,” says Unity’s Jay Rees. “It’s much better to focus on the fact that you are unique and have something great to contribute. Take advantage of your uniqueness and help other people to do the same. Build good relationships with all the women around you, every woman you come into contact with.” “For women,” adds Facebook’s Savage, “or anyone looking to join the games industry, there’s a massively diverse range of roles. I think there’s a perception that you need a tech or design background, but it’s a great environment to upskill. Take me for example, I have a sales and media background. If you have transferable skills and an interest or passion for the gaming industry, I’d encourage women to lean into that interest, network, and seek out opportunities.” “Whoever you are,” says Ukie’s Twist, “you will face frustrations, challenges, you will get talked over and you will feel people are getting credit for your ideas. This is not always a gender issue, this is about power. Do not accept abuse or harassment of any kind and use the right channels to deal with abuse. “Get into positions of decision making as quickly as you can but accept that takes time. Accept that everyone faces barriers, especially early on in your career. I was an extremely angry young woman in my 20s and 30s and I realise more recently what I was feeling was ambition. “Harness that when you feel it and turn it into positive action and change where it is needed. Have a sense of humour, get involved with advocacy groups if you can, and look after yourself by having good friends and good colleagues. Your skills are unique and valued.”
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Heading off-road and into the next-gen with DIRT 5 and Dolby Atmos Slaloming along loose shingle in the great outdoors is a thrilling experience and one packed with audio potential. We discover how next-gen title DIRT 5 embedded the audio within the world DIRT 5 is the latest installation in the exciting off road racer from Codemasters. We were lucky enough to have some time with Audio Director Stuart Ross who shares some insights into how 3D audio is implemented in the game.
Stuart Ross, Audio Director at Codemasters has over 25 years’ experience in game audio. Over his career he has won numerous industry awards including 2 BAFTA’s for audio, recognising his work in the GTA series and Crackdown – which included writing the GTA Vice City theme!
Can you enlighten us on how you use 3D audio in the latest release in the DIRT franchise? DIRT games have always been a 3D experience with roaring engines, burning exhausts and tyres tearing up the earth. In this next rendition we really wanted to add to this experience by creating a rich enveloping environment for the cars to live within. Can you give us an example of how you achieve this? The first stage would be to create an ambisonic base ambience. We record our own and have several basedon locations within the game, forests, desert, city etc. These ambience beds create a foundation for us to add more detailed localised ambience emitters around the track, such as rivers below bridges, birds in trees and church bells in high towers. With the ambisonic nature of the spatial technology provided by Dolby Atmos, it really helps immerse the player in the 3D environment, height creates that extra level of immersion.
How are you using music within the game? I heard some pretty interesting stuff going on when I was playing. We’ve spent a lot of time getting the music just right. Rather than the conventional way of having music as a soundtrack, we’ve created some tech where it is part of the environment as well as all the ambience. We wanted to create the feel of a festival and designed our tech and soundtrack around that idea. We place speaker emitters around the track at various points such as the start line where there’s lot of crowd or a grandstand for instance. These music speakers are then attenuated over distance and you can really hear them ebb and flow around the track. It really creates a dynamic experience. Of course, if you would prefer a more traditional experience, you can easily switch back via the audio options to 2D music. So does the music become effected by the environment in the world? Yes, we have a reflection system which bounces the game sound around the environment, such as cliffs and walls, and the speakers are included in that processing as well. The reflections really help give space to the environment, they reflect all around you, especially when you have the Dolby Atmos for headphones plugin enabled! The sound really is all round you. You not only hear if a car is behind you but which way they might overtake you from left or right. It helps you become a better player. You have internal cameras in your cars, have you designed anything cool in the cabin sound wise? Of course! We have various emitters around the cabin for gearbox noises, suspension and various other rattles and squeaks but also, we use an ambisonic convolution reverb. It’s great in that if you turn your head or camera the sounds not only stay where they are but the reverb in which they are bussed to also stays on its axis. It’s all these small details that when they come together, create the full exciting experience. The future for interactive audio has never sounded so exciting.
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A Swift Studio Spotlight: Tag Games At over 14 years of age, Tag Games is a unique Scottish developer retaining its independence in the mobile space. AS a co-development studio with a history and a back catalogue of working with some of the biggest brands in the games industry (and beyond), Tag Games has earned the right to call themselves a platform specialist. After an unexpected year of upheaval, James Bowers from Aardvark Swift speaks with Marc Williamson, Tag Games CEO, and Carol Clark, head of production, to see how the Dundee-based developer has found the transition to remote work and how their hiring practices stand them apart from the competition. “The whole industry is facing the same problems together. 2020 has certainly been a crazy year,” suggests Williamson. “The games industry, touch wood, is able to survive it better than most, but there’s a little bit of survivor’s guilt, seeing the rest of the economy doing pretty badly whilst games are doing better than ever.” The record-breaking consumption of software, hardware, and accessories relating to the video game industry has definitely been a trend seen not just nationally, but globally. As development teams remain scattered and remote work soldiers on, with the next generation bursting onto the scene, the need to protect the wellbeing of those that work incredibly hard behind the scenes has never been more pertinent. “We’re used to all working together in the same space and we’re just not doing that anymore. The challenge is to keep everyone sane and support the team however we can.” “Three weeks before lockdown hit, we were moving to our amazing new office. Because we’d just moved and were living out of boxes, it made it slightly easier logistically,” says Clark. “I have been so incredibly impressed and proud of how well our team has done remotely. Within hours of the vans delivering their equipment people were coming back online and working hard for our clients.” Tag Games prides itself on the people that represent it. With a reputation for being a dependable deliverer for their clients, that positive can-do culture starts during the recruitment process, before any new starter walks through their doors. For potential candidates, it’s their new team that discuss which of them will be the best fit for the role. “It’s important that the team have the opportunity to say yes, this is the next person to join us. There’s an implicit investment to making sure this person is successful, because they were part of the selection process that chose that person,” says Clark. Getting buy-in from the people already working within Tag Games during recruitment drives enables them
to build a team spirit early on, propagating an inclusive environment that thrives on culture fit and suitability. The ethos of Tag Games is something which has grown and evolved over time. Their exposure to client studios, through their working relationships, has really enabled them to strike the right balance. “We learn from our partners and clients and roll that forward into our own studio,” says Clark. “The access that we have to their work allows us to have exposure to the very best aspects of them.” Operating in the work-for-hire space affords them a glimpse into the working practices of others which very few studios have the benefit of. They certainly make the most of this transparency and it shows. As an independent entity in the mobile space, collaborating with other studios and brands as a codevelopment partner, Tag Games is certainly a unique place. “Most other mobile studios are doing their own thing or they’re working on one big product that they support. There’s not many studios like us,” adds Williamson. “Previous clients come back to us again and again, which I think is the ultimate telling point, really. We’ve got really interesting products on the way, and they’re the biggest things Tag has worked on up to this point.” You’ll be able to listen to the full conversation with Marc Williamson and Carol Clark in an upcoming episode of the Aardvark Swift Podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, third party apps, and the aswift.com website.
Above: Marc Williamsom, CEO
Above: Carol Clark, head of production
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Ins and Outs: Industry hires and moves 1
Network N has a series of new hires and promotions at the company, particularly at PCGamesN. First, BEN MAXWELL (1) has been appointed group editor to oversee all of Network N’s editorial brands. Maxwell was previously editor at PCGamesN, where he had worked for over three years, having joined in June 2017. Maxwell was previously at Future, where he spent 7 years working on EDGE magazine, as features editor. Replacing him as editor of PCGamesN is RICHARD SCOTT-JONES (2). ScottJones was previously the deputy editor, having joined as a staff writer back in October 2016. Prior to his work on PCGamesN, Scott-Jones was a senior contributor on the nowdefunct gaming website Pixel Dynamo. Next up is JORDAN FORWARD (3), who will be replacing Scott-Jones as deputy editor. Forward has been at PCGamesN for 5 years, joining as a editorial assistant and was most recently the guides editor for the site.
Still at PCGamesN, GINA LEES (4) has been promoted to guides editor, filling Forward’s previous position. Formerly the deputy guides editor, Lees joined the site back in September 2019. Lees has previously worked as a senior content manager for marketing agency Forward3D, and Lees also spent a year working as a writer and editor for Green Man Gaming. Next up at Network N, MIKE HOLMES (5) has been appointed as head of audience development. Described as an “editor, writer, presenter, and team leader rocking extensive media experience with a creative streak,” Holmes was previously editor in chief at Gamereactor, having spent nine years at the gaming website. Finally at Network N, SAM SCOTT (6) has joined the company as their new ecommerce editor. Scott joins the Network N team from Lovehoney, where she was senior content manager for five years, having joined the company in 2015 as a lingerie copywriter.
The Manchester-based Nequinox Studios has three new starters at the company. First, LEE TAYLOR (7) joins as a senior programmer. Taylor joins from Sumo Digital, where he spent 5 years as a programmer, working on titles such as the upcoming PS5 title Sackboy: A Big Adventure, as well as Crackdown 3 and Hitman 2. Next at Nequinox, BEN PARRY (8) joins as senior graphics programmer, as a graphics specialist to work with one of Nequinox’s triple-A title clients. Parry joins the company from Cloud Imperium Games, where he spent 5 years as a senior graphics programmer. Prior to that, Parry worked for Frontier Developments. Finally at Nequinox Studios, ANDREW FROST (9) is starting his games career as a junior programmer. Frost spent a brief stint as a Data Scientist at Acetelligent Group prior to joining Nequinox, and holds a first class degree in Computer Science from the University of Edinburgh.
Post-production house Molinare has further bolstered its interactive team by hiring MEGAN CLARKE (10) as interactive producer. Clarke joins from OMUK, where she was studio director.
Also joining the team at PlayerLands is CRAIG FLETCHER (14), who joins as non-executive director. Fletcher is the founder of both Multiplay and the Insomnia Gaming Festival.
Sumo Digital has announced that SUCHA SINGH (11) has been appointed as art director at Sumo Sheffield. Singh joins Sumo Sheffield with more than 24 years of experience in the video games industry.
Dead Good PR has two new members joining their North American office from January. First, STEPHANIE FULWILER (15) joins as a content creator assistant. Fulwiler is better known as Twitch partner and content creator Steph of Anime, and was also previously a lead writer for DKC Gaming.com
Sumo has also announced that PHIL HINDLE (12) has been appointed as technical director at Sumo Leamington. Hindle joins with more than 25 years of experience in the video games industry, having worked at Codemsaters, Activision and Pixel Toys. PlayerLands has confirmed that the ex-SEGA CEO, MIKE HAYES (13) has joined as its Chairman. “It’s an immensely exciting time to join PlayerLands, whose platform helps server owners make money while providing a better service to players” said Hayes.
Also joining Dead Good as a content creator assistant is MICHAEL YEE (16). Yee was previously the social media manager for StreamerSquare.com and team manager for stream group Team Catalyst. The two new content creator assistants will allow Dead Good to grow its organic content creator and influencer offering in NA to current and future clients, and is just the start of the agency’s company’s plans for 2021.
Got an appointment you’d like to share with the industry? Email Chris Wallace at email@example.com 36 | MCV/DEVELOP November/December 2020
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Every month, we pick the brain of an up-and-coming talent
Yasmin Curren, associate tech designer at Creative Assembly talks about her start in the industry, her ambition to tell important stories and the importance of asking questions How did you break into games? It’s been a long journey getting into the games industry. It started with me working as a web developer straight after leaving school and spending my spare time volunteering as a game journalist; interviewing developers and travelling to events to produce videos. I kept this side-hobby rolling while I made the decision to go to university for Computer Game Arts where my previous knowledge in front-end programming aided the development of my game design skills throughout my degree. The connections I had made and maintained throughout the years helped me to achieve my goal of breaking into the industry, not just through their advice and insights, but also by keeping me inspired with their own projects. I was lucky to join Creative Assembly who offered traineeships for Design, meaning I could train while working on their brand-new FPS IP, being surrounded by experienced game devs which was invaluable. What has been your proudest achievement so far? In university I was able to design a game based around my own insecurities called Perfection. This horror game focused on atmosphere while also tracking the players playstyle, giving them a small variation of endings and jump scares. But, it also led the player to become invested in the narrative because it was based around a universal insecurity of wanting to be someone subjectively better than themselves. After releasing the game on itch.io I was surprised to see so many people download and resonate with the game,
industry is always evolving, providing players with more realistic, larger and more advanced games to play. The tools provided to developers through engines such as Unreal and Unity make it a lot easier to create games but using these strategically with performance in mind is key.
with it being played by large YouTubers such as Jacksepticeye and Markiplier and being described by Kotaku as ‘A horror game that’s also a personality quiz’. Nothing pleased me more than the conversations that came from those who completed the game and spoke about their experiences with wanting to be seen as ‘perfect’ and realising that, just like in the game, you can never be perfect. I felt I had shared something important with others on a whole new level. Of course, I can’t talk about what we’re currently working on as it’s not yet announced, but that’s something I am really excited about. What has been your biggest challenge to date? Understanding the difference between developing something playable and something performant for multiple platforms. That has been a giant learning curve. The games
What do you enjoy most about your job? I love the multiple hats I get to wear as a tech designer at Creative Assembly. I try to keep up to date on the technical side of the project to be able to communicate this to other designers and artists which means I’m constantly asking questions and learning new things in my day to day job. I also get to dip my toes into multiple different fields, assisting with design, prototyping gameplay or helping to identify and fix bugs. There is never a dull day. What’s your biggest ambition in games? I’m in the industry to be a part of an interactive medium that can impact its audience in a lasting way. My ambition is to tell stories that explore important narratives, which can help educate and have a positive impact on the world, in a fun way. What advice would you give to an aspiring associate game designer? Never feel embarrassed to ask questions and keep asking them. In an industry as fast-paced as this one, there’s no use in trying to learn everything alone, reach out to other developers, show an interest in their work and always keep in mind that everyone that you speak to has something to teach you.
If there’s a rising star at your company, contact Chris Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org November/December 2020 MCV/DEVELOP | 37
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Cherry picked advice to help you reach the next level in your career
Sophie Knowles, 3D artist at Playdeo, talks about being a jack of all trades artist, her addiction to learning and a new-found love of game engines If you were interviewing someone for your team, what would you look for? I would be looking for someone who has a solid knowledge of the fundamentals of the 3D art
What is your job role and how would you describe your typical day at work? I’m a 3D generalist, which is somewhat of a jack of all trades artist. I do modelling, texturing, rigging and animation. So any day I could be doing any one of those things. Currently at Playdeo I’m the only artist on the team, this gives me lots of space to be creative but also it’s a fair amount of responsibility. I’m quite good at getting on with self directed work but I make sure to get enough feedback from the rest of the team that I’m not running off in the wrong direction! What qualifications and/or experience do you need to land this job? I have a masters degree in animation which helped me to get the skills to do this job,
but I don’t think that a university degree is completely necessary. When I graduated I really struggled to land a studio job, so I started taking short freelance gigs, which turned into long freelance gigs, until I got my first studio job last year. Every game required me to do something a little different, which is how I became a 3D generalist rather than something more specific. I also am addicted to learning new skills and software, I get a bit bored if I spend too much time doing any one thing. I’ve always worked in small teams where I work directly with designers and programmers. It’s important to be able to well work with people who might not have as much of an understanding of art as I do. Working collaboratively with people from other disciplines is really rewarding.
pipeline. All generalists have things that they are better at, I’m probably better at animation than anything else, although what I enjoy doing the most is character modelling. The balance of skills needed will really depend on what the team needs for the game. The key thing is having a good portfolio that demonstrates clearly all your skills. Still images are fine to show modelling and texturing work, a showreel is good for rigging and animation. You want a portfolio that is quality rather than quantity, if your showreel is only 30 seconds of really great animation then that’s fine, don’t pad it out for the sake of it being longer. It’s not necessary but it helps to have some knowledge of the rest of the game-making process. At the start of my career I really avoided working in game engines at all, now I have the most fun inside the game making sure things look exactly how I want them. What opportunities are there for career progression? Generalists are most suited to small teams where everyone wears many hats, so you see generalists in indie development mostly. If you’re more interested in working for a large triple-A studio then it’s better to concentrate on a specific skill. There’s no traditional career progression (junior, lead etc) that I’ve seen for generalists, but don’t let that put you off! If you love doing a whole load of arty things and can’t think of one to stick to then being a generalist is a wonderful and very useful job.
Want to talk about your career and inspire people to follow the same path? Contact Chris Wallace at email@example.com
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Brought to you by
Iterating for Better Amiqus’ Liz Prince explains why you need to do more than ‘tick the box’ when it comes to diversity Back in the 1990s, the Harvard Business Review carried out research across various industry sectors and multiple corporations to look at why diversity efforts were not being achieved. The conclusion back then was that workplace diversity goals were being set based simply on increasing representation, with the main focus being on the attraction of diverse candidates. 25 years later, the same authors have penned a similar article for HBR – this time warning that lessons still haven’t been learned by leadership teams who perhaps feel that their businesses are ‘ticking the box’ thanks to their commitment to a diverse recruitment strategy. Of course, I’m not suggesting that the attraction of diverse talent is a bad place to start, but it’s no good focusing on this in isolation. Creating an environment where people can be who they are, that values their unique talents and perspectives is essential to otherwise avoid a revolving door of diverse talent who will arrive excited and energised and ready to contribute, but who then leave feeling unseen and demoralised. When it comes to attracting and retaining female talent, the latest McKinsey report absolutely underlines how critical culture is, particularly in light of some worrying trends its research has revealed during the Covid-19 pandemic. The report, published in September, reveals what many of us have suspected – that women have been affected more negatively by the pandemic and lockdown. As a result of the pandemic, McKinsey’s research has found that one in four women are considering downshifting their careers or quitting work completely. McKinsey has described this situation as ‘an emergency’, with the current situation potentially un-doing many years of diversity progress. Given the warnings issued via the McKinsey Report, I urge all leadership teams in our industry to take note and reflect on
the opportunities we have to make change and improve our company cultures to, not only attract, but benefit and retain diverse talent. At Amiqus, it is our job to help studios when it comes to attracting talent and we have a commitment to encouraging more women from other sectors to consider a career in this brilliant industry. Via our G Into Gaming initiative, we can help provide guidance and advice to studios on actionable steps they can take to make change for better – in attracting and retaining diverse talent. We also seek to work with other groups and initiatives to achieve our goals. There are some fantastic initiatives in games, from Out Making Games, POC in Play, BAME in Games; Women in Games, our own G Into Gaming; the Ukie Diversity Pledge, Into Games and more. Indeed, I would like to nod towards Robin Gray from Gayming Magazine and Out Making Games. He is a brilliant advocate of supporting the LGBTQ+ community within games and has called for the industry to do more to shout about its achievements when it comes to D&I. I totally agree with him. Working together we can accelerate change and ensure the Games Industry can focus on culture that protects, supports and nurtures everyone – and make it visible from outside of the industry.
“Creating an environment where people can be who they are... is essential to otherwise avoid a revolving door of diverse talent”
At Amiqus, we have many resources available to help, so please do get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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SHARKS IN THE THAMES
Has the UK scene been under-utilised in terms of new teams creating new IP? Sharkmob thinks so, and so it has swum over from MalmĂś to set up in London â€“ with an all-British core building the first new triple-A team in the capital in many a year. Seth Barton asks Fredrik Rundqvist and James Dobrowski about their plan and their project
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he UK has incredible development talent. But, if we’re being honest, its recent record has been somewhat less impressive when it comes to creating new triple-A IPs – with Rare’s 2017 Sea of Thieves being the last notable exception. Now, it’s true that new triple-A IPs aren’t common in the games industry. But still, is it possible that the UK’s creative spark, famous throughout the world in the TV, film and music industries, is being underutilised in games? Sweden’s Sharkmob certainly thinks so. “I think you’re onto something there,” concurs Sharkmob CEO Fredrik Rundqvist. “I believe that Scandinavia has shown for the last decade or so that it’s really good at creating new IPs, not only on the mobile side with Candy Crush, and the Supercell games, but you have Minecraft, Battlefield, The Division… “You have such a wide range of incredible games coming out of Scandinavia. And I think that the UK has probably the largest community of great triple-A developers in Europe, and one at one of the best communities in the world. But they haven’t necessarily been given the chance to create new games from scratch for some time.” And that’s why the studio has just announced that it’s opening Sharkmob London, the first new triple-A studio that the capital has seen in many years. Though, to be fair, we should also note the not too distant effort at Guildford’s DPS Games, part of the Wargaming family. Now Sharkmob, set up by veterans from Massive Entertainment, isn’t short of funds – it’s owned by Tencent after all. But it’s intriguing that the most exciting opening in some time is funded not from the US or the UK, but rather from China via Malmö. So have we been overlooking our homegrown ability to create world-beating new IP? CORE TEAM James Dobrowski, the newly appointed managing director of Sharkmob London, is keenly aware of the opportunity on offer. “We’re conscious that it has been a long time since something like this has come and hit the UK scene. And these opportunities do not come along very often. And so we’re incredibly excited both for ourselves, but also for what we could hopefully do within the British gaming scene over the years to come. “We’re hoping that we’re going to create something, both from a studio perspective and a project perspective, that I think a lot of the British games community has wanted to work on for a long time. But there just haven’t been those kinds of games made in the UK for a long time. And I think that is one of the reasons why many people have gone to work in the US and Canada over recent years.”
Many people, but far from everyone, with Sharkmob assembling an experienced core team for its new venture. Dobrowski has experience from CCP, Mediatonic and Playground Games. And he’s joined initially by design director Martin Connor (Wargaming, Sumo, Playground Games, Rockstar), live game director Sam Barton (Digit Game, CCP, Mediatonic) and art director Benjamin Penrose (Playground Games). And it was that core team that was the primary driver in selecting the location says Sharkmob’s Rundqvist, . “The big one was where the core team were: James, Ben, Sam and Martin. For me, the most valuable thing in our industry has always been the core teams, and especially people who work together for a long time. Who’ve known each other for a long time and are comfortable creating great games together. “It’s very rare to get those opportunities where people are ready to come together again and try something new. That was an opportunity for me, with James and his core team, and an opportunity for them to create a new original triple-A game and to start a new studio.” CAPITAL IDEA Even then, London (somewhat surprisingly) is an eyebrowraising choice for a new triple-A team. After all, when was the last time someone decided to set one up in the capital proper? Rocksteady and PlayStation London Studio are long-time residents, but the costs have always been considerable, and (cynically maybe) it’s arguably easier to retain your talent when you’re a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Beyond that, London is going through a double-whammy of trauma at present, with the pandemic and Brexit, but Rundqvist is largely unconcerned with that. “London is a huge international city, everybody knows London, obviously. And it’s really well connected and post pandemic, I think London is very attractive for people to move to. I think Brexit won’t make that big of a difference, for example for American colleagues who want to join a European studio, who want the adventure of creating a new game from scratch.”
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Above, (from right to left): Fredrik Rundqvist, Sam Barton, Martin Connor and James Dobrowski (not pictured: Benjamin Penrose)
We can’t help but agree, London has remained globally important for hundreds of years now, if it can survive the Black Death, the Fire of London, the end of the empire and The Blitz, it’s probably going to keep thriving through its current tribulations too. But even if London remains the place to be, there’s a reason why it’s become better-known for big tech offices and mobile game studios. But Dobrowski sees the latter as a growing advantage for a console-PC outfit. “The kind of games that we’re really interested in making are doing something interesting or innovative in the online space, in the games as a service space. While also pushing triple-A production values to their limits. “And so when you look for somewhere that has that exposure to both triple A development and live games development, London is a very good place to be, there are some good triple-A studios in the area. There are a lot of mobile development studios in that service space. So it brings together all of the aspects of games that we’re really interested in.” And beyond core games production, the city boasts many other useful hubs of creative talent. “Over my years in London I’ve increasingly worked with non-traditional games teams – from
the movie industry, motion capture being a really good example. When I was at CCP, I think we had three motion capture studios within walking distance of the studio.” And the same can be said of VFX studios and audio production studios. Dobrowski also points out that a well-placed office, say around Waterloo, will give them excellent access to the Guildford hub, and maybe to one other key hub, such as Cambridge or Leamington with only an additional tube ride. “So I’ve just come from CCP, and we were in Covent Garden,” says Dobrowksi. “We probably had two thirds of the staff living in London and a third of the staff commuting through Waterloo.” Rundqvist adds: “Another advantage, that I think you guys take for granted, is all the partners that you have here. First party: PlayStation, Xbox. The tech companies: Amazon and Apple [plus Facebook and Google]. They’re all represented in London, either by big offices, or the European head office. It’s just great to have all of these guys within reach. “If you work out of Scandinavia, you see those people at E3 or at Gamescom, but you rarely actually meet more regularly than that. So that’s a big, big advantage.” And it’s an advantage that Sharkmob can take advantage of as a whole, not just in its London incarnation.
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A SHIVER OF SHARKS Which brings us nicely round to how Sharkmob London will work with its parent in Malmö. The pair explain that the studio will be working on its own new IP, the third such project Sharkmob has undertaken, while also assisting with the other two based back in Malmö. So just how big will the new outpost be? “So headcount isn’t something we’ve got a specific number on at the moment,” admits Dobrowski. ”We know we want to build triple-A projects and that obviously comes with a certain scale, and there’s a few ways we could do it,” he muses. “We could go for the big studio, we could go for a kind of more modest sized studio and look at partnership opportunities with studios around the UK, and the world. “We’re very needs driven,” he continues. “So it very much depends on the concept or the project and the smartest way of building that kind of team up – given everything that’s going on right now with COVID and Brexit and what comes after that.” We put it to him that the tricky challenge of new teams working on new IPs is how you go about growing the team at the correct rate to match the project. A challenge that Dobrowski is very aware of, he explains. “I think I’ve been on both sides of the camp in terms of how you do it incorrectly. So by that, I mean that I’ve been in the place where you don’t hire the people you need until you have concept approved, or a concept well fleshed out. And that drags out your timeline. “And I’ve been in the opposite scenario where you have a bunch of people who don’t have a great deal to do. And that always rushes your creative process when it comes to the concept, because you have to keep those people busy, otherwise, it impacts your morale and culture negatively. “This, in my head, is a perfect opportunity to scale a studio at the pace we need it, so that we have the people for our London project, once that concept is ready for primetime. But there’s a lot of work in Malmo that can keep people busy on an incredibly exciting project.” Which is the advantage of being part of something larger, as Dobrowski explains: “We’re not thinking of this as two separate companies. We’re thinking of it as a singular Sharkmob across the two locations, and we will support and help each other out. Both on the project in Malmö, and I think in the long term, we will see Malmö helping out the studio in London.”
RADIO SILENCE As we go to press, Sharkmob has announced the first of its three current projects. Led by its Malmo team, the game is a Battle Royale title set in the popular Vampire: The Masquerade universe and coming in 2021. It’s still early days but it looks sumptuous already. Announcing the game will undoubtedly help the company recruit top talent. “People in our industry are so passionate that they usually pick their employer based on what they’re working on,” says Rundqvist. Of course the UK team’s project is still a long way off from such an unveiling, but revealing the battle royale title will give potential hires some direction along with reassurance that the studio is aiming high in terms of production values. But for now Rundqvist is simply happy to be delivering an upside in tough times. “I think it’s great to try and to communicate some positive news during the pandemic. We’re bringing investment to the UK, we’re starting to employ people already. James [Dobrowski] is talking to several people, I think it’s a really good signal to be sending in these times, when people are frustrated – that this is not the end, that there’s still room for people to be creative and to do new things. “From a business perspective, I feel it gives us a sort of head start to whenever this terrible era is over, or at least less threatening. Then we’ll be all ready to go.” It certainly does seem like a good time to be in pre-production, with the lack of the usual events cycle, there’s been more space to think of late. “Creating new games is not really about resources,” points out Rundqvist. “I mean, the ideas for new games are about more time, so we’re buying us a bit more time than you usually would have. And then we’re ready to kick in.”
Below: The London studio looks set to work with Sharkmob’s Malmö team on its Vampire the Masquerade title, as it spins its own project up to full production
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Making a Splash on Stadia O
No mobile version, no cheat protection, no uploading builds... Chris Wallace talks to Splash Damage about its Stadia exclusive title Outcasters, the benefits of cloud development and the future of the platform
utcasters is the latest title to come out of Splash Damage – marketing itself as a playful, chaotic brawler. From the game’s mechanics to its toy-based art style, the game seems tailored to be more welcoming to the less hardcore among us, making it something quite distinct from its usual work. This more approachable attitude makes the game’s Stadia exclusivity all the more interesting. The platform has, maybe, not been the stellar
launch that Google might have hoped for. But it’s a sign that game developers and publishers still see hope in the cloud gaming model – and its ability to reach more casual audiences. To find out more about the game, and Splash Damage’s view of cloud gaming going forward, we sat down with Neil Alphonso, creative director at Splash Damage, and Henry Winder, technical lead on Outcasters.
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GRASSROOTS GROWTH Gears Tactics this certainly is not, but despite its toy-based artstyle and chaotic mechanics, Alphonso and Winder both see Outcasters as reflecting Splash Damage’s growth over the years. “I’ve been at the studio for more than 12 years,” Alphonso begins, “since we were a single project studio working on competitive first person shooters, compared to the 300 plus people that we are now. “And really, this game is a reflection of that kind of growth, and to a degree maturity. I mean, it’s a very funny game, but at the same time, it’s not this excessively masculine thing, it’s not about bathing in the blood of your enemies. It’s more playful, and I think that reflects how we’ve grown as a studio.” The game is the result of a grassroots effort from within the studio, an idea born out of a game jam that caught not just the attention of Splash Damage’s senior team, but captured a sense of enthusiasm in the team as a whole. “It’s not just a reflection of the growth of the studio,” notes Winder, “but the people in the studio too. This is a grassroots game coming from people from within the studio – six of us got the opportunity to work in a game jam for a couple weeks. “After a couple days, we had something really basic together, and after a couple of weeks, we were able to do full scale playtests with eight player sessions. And instantly, we knew we were onto something when people were sitting inside of a room screaming at each other. “We took this into the company breakout room, and invited people to play for half an hour. We were still there four hours later, still playing, still screaming at each other. That was when we realised that this was something we needed to pursue. “We wanted to come up with something that we could really hone in on and make an IP out of. We went around for quite a while to be honest, coming up with some different art styles and never really landed on anything. “And then, I assume because at work we have desks covered in toys all the time, someone was just like, ‘let’s make them toys.’ And we started throwing toys into the game and running around with them, and that became the natural progression of what turned into Outcasters.”
Pictured (left to right): Neil Alphonso and Henry Winder TOY STORY The toy aesthetic ultimately tied into the more casual approach Splash Damage had with the game. While Outcasters maintains the multiplayerfocus that is at the heart of Splash Damage, its casual approach marks a change in pace for a company with a history of more hardcore titles. “We definitely did try to make it more welcoming and inclusive. It’s the Nintendo mantra of ‘easy to pick up, difficult to master.’ I’m very cognizant of this, having been involved with our previous games where we targeted a very hardcore niche. We needed to be mindful of this all the time, in order to not necessarily dumb the game down, but to give a smoother entry into the game.” Outcasters’ Stadia exclusivity could definitely help with this accessibility. The perils of launching an accessible multiplayer game is the question of how many of your target market own a console to begin with. It’s the reason why mobile has long been such a haven for casual and hypercasual titles, but it’s an area in which cloud platforms like Stadia may one day be able to compete for mobile’s crown. Access to high-speed internet is an obvious hindrance to cloud gaming, but being able to divorce games from expensive gaming systems potentially opens up a brand new market. One of Stadia’s key selling points is that it’s available anywhere, to anyone with a gmail account. And while the current circumstances may keep us from gaming at other people’s houses, the ability to simply log into Stadia wherever you are makes a compelling case for players introducing friends to the game with ease. “One of the things we wanted to have,” says Winder, “was to be able to just put a controller,
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or a mouse and keyboard in your hands, and without instruction you can just play straight away. That is kind of the essence of Stadia, which is literally pick up and play. So when the opportunity came up to work with them, it was a natural step, it just made sense.” WORKING FROM STADIA Still, while we’re not able to visit a friend’s house for Outcasters sessions right now, developing for Stadia is especially convenient right now. With Splash Damage, like the rest of us, all working from home, developing in the cloud removes a lot of roadblocks for the team. “Stadia has certainly changed a lot in the way that we develop the game as we’re going,” says Winder. “Not only the making of the game, but it goes as far as play tests. We do these daily, and normally everyone’s waiting for the build to go up, or downloading it and everyone has to wait half an hour. “These days, especially while working from home, it’s been brilliant. We jump on a Discord server, and we’re trash talking each other and playing in seconds, because you just hit a button, and it’s up there. It’s been awesome, and saved so much time on development. “But there’s other factors in there as well, from a tech perspective. Any other platform that we work on, we’re having to do cheat protection and having to protect ourselves against hackers and that type of thing. We don’t have any of that on Stadia. Our client is in the cloud, our servers are in the cloud, no one can touch any of that. So really, it gives us so much more freedom and time to focus on other parts of the game.” Beyond the development itself, one thing that particularly impressed Winder was Outcasters’ visual fidelity while streaming to mobile devices. “The first time I played Outcasters through my phone blew my mind,” says Winder. “Because during development it’s always a 1080p or 4K monitor playing the game. And things on Stadia have to be really scalable, because you can have a 4K TV, or you can be playing a game on your phone. “So we have specifically made everything very
scalable. And when you say all that it makes sense. but when I was actually playing the game on my phone, honestly, it looks really good, it’s really slick. It was a genuine wow moment for me, that I just wasn’t expecting despite knowing exactly how it all works. “The amount of work it takes to get any game working on mobile, let alone optimised and the amount of extra rendering work you have to do. We haven’t had to do any of that. We’re running a PC game in the cloud. And it’s working on mobile phones, and it was kind of mind blowing the first time you see it, the visual fidelity on that smallest screen is crazy.” With all that said, we’re still very much in the early days of cloud gaming. Particularly given Stadia’s rocky beginning, the future success of these platforms is still theoretical. Google may have new competitors in Microsoft’s xCloud and Amazon’s Luna (see page 50), but cloud gaming still feels a long ways off from mainstream success. Splash Damage releasing a Stadia-exclusive title in these uncertain early days is, as Alphonso explains, one that speaks to the culture at the heart of the studio. “At the risk of getting a bit philosophical,” says Alphonso, “it’s hindsight that tells you whether it was a good idea or not right? As a part Canadian, I quote Wayne Gretzky on this: ‘you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.’ We have a long history of diversifying what we do. It’s part of why we’ve been around as long as we have as a studio, we try to not put all our eggs in one basket. So getting on Stadia and experimenting with streaming technology was a really important strategic move for us. “I wouldn’t suggest you make a super reactive twitch game. Because there’s always going to be an inherent degree of latency, but that’ll get better. But even if that’s not the case, then you’ve got a host of other advantages. I just want to second Henry [Winder]’s point about those little wins in terms of time gained, those become massive over the course of a project. “I’m going to be very optimistic about that and say, that’s one of the silver linings about how 2020 has been for us with this project. Being forced to work from home, without Stadia, this would have been much, much harder. And you know, other developers are saying the same thing. It shows the strength of the platform, so I don’t I don’t think it’ll go away.”
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In association with
The DEVELOP 100 is back for 2021 It’s been a year of turmoil, but the industry is looking stronger than ever in practically every respect. So we thought it was an intriguing time to bring back the much-respected DEVELOP 100 – with huge thanks to our partner Virtuos.
We’ve worked with the very best providers of industry data to collate the list. This isn’t simply a listicle based upon the opinions of a handful of industry insiders, instead we’ll be using revenue data from major markets around the world to create a definitive list of the best.
For those unfamiliar, it’s a simple concept: a list of the top 100 studios in the world, a list of the most successful creators of games today, to inform everyone about where success can be found.
Our team will then provide context and insight into every featured company, with the list being published in print and online at the beginning of January.
If you’re interested in opportunities around the DEVELOP 100 then please get in contact with email@example.com for more details.
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Can Amazon’s Luna eclipse its rivals? Amazon has thrown its hat in the ring to be among the first to make cloud gaming a mainstream concern, but how well placed is Luna to navigate these uncertain waters? Chris Wallace finds out
loud gaming might still be in its infancy, but huge companies are already battling it out to find their footing in this unexplored space. Google may have had something of a head start with Stadia, but they were quickly followed by Microsoft with xCloud, and most recently by Amazon’s Luna. Luna is just the latest gaming offering to come out of Amazon recently, joining the ill-fated Crucible and MMO title New World, but this is arguably its most ambitious to date. Cloud gaming is still unexplored territory, and not one that will be mainstream for years to come just yet. Amazon clearly hopes to leverage Luna alongside its existing services to help it outlast this Hunger
Games-era of early cloud gaming. And from what we know so far, it seems that Amazon may have learned from their rivals’ mistakes – both launching Luna under an all-inclusive subscription model, and as a PWA (Progressive Web App running in a browser) to bypass Apple’s strict App Store rules. It’s all very encouraging, but given the mainstream reception Stadia has received, any cloud gaming offering without an existing customer base will attract cynics. Like VR before it, cloud gaming looks to have a pretty rocky road ahead of it before, hopefully, finding its own audience. We reached out to industry experts to see how Amazon’s cloud ambitions might pan out.
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PART OF THE FAMILY One advantage for Luna is that Amazon already worked its way into players’ homes, both physically and digitally, years ago. Luna has the potential to leverage both Amazon’s hardware, such as Fire TV and tablets, as well as digitally via Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Twitch. Will these enormous audiences dovetail with Luna? “We’ll have to see how much cross-marketing Amazon ends up doing between their various services,” says Simon Carless, founder of GameDiscoverCo. “I could see Twitch and Luna providing very interesting cross-promotion in terms of being able to instantly play demos of games – or even the games themselves – that streamers are showing on Twitch. It’s definitely intended to be part of a larger ecosystem.” The Twitch integration is certainly an incredible tool in Amazon’s armoury, similar – if not superior to – Stadia’s pull with YouTube. While Twitch may be expanding out from gaming, its gaming roots remain as healthy as they ever were – particularly during the pandemic. A cross-promotion with Twitch could be reminiscent of Stadia’s State Share feature, that allows users to share game states via a URL. Being able to direct Twitch’s enormous audience directly to your game via Luna is certainly a compelling argument. This integration, which will be available from launch, puts Amazon ahead of other initiatives in this area from Google with YouTube and Microsoft with Facebook Gaming. “This will drive awareness and usage,” says Ampere Analysis’ Piers Harding-Rolls, “but I wait to see if users can demo games instantly without being a subscriber and thus frame cloud gaming within a new user acquisition-based business model. “Integration also potentially opens up new forms of mass participation gaming through interactive video – Twitch has done a lot of experiments around viewer interactivity, so it’s likely these will evolve and using cloud gaming technology will accelerate that.” “Amazon’s approach is a textbook case of exploiting platform economics,” adds Joost van Dreunen, co-founder of SuperData Research. “By establishing complementary services Amazon creates additional value for its user base, extracts more value from assets like AWS, and broadens the potential for ad revenue for Twitch.
“For that reason it can also do so at a very low margin, or even for free in some cases, because it can recoup its investment in other segments. Luna is born from Amazon’s conventional strategy that has allowed it to become as large and successful as it is.” LIKE AND SUBSCRIBE The second area in which Luna may have an edge over its competitors, or against Stadia at least, is that its games will be available as part of an allinclusive subscription model, rather than selling the games individually. It’s a move that brings Amazon’s efforts more in line with Microsoft’s, and with most people’s expectations of on-demand streaming in general. “I think a subscription play is a much stronger one than ‘pay individually for games’ in cloud gaming,” says Carless, “simply because people like paying one-off for things they feel like they have ownership of. “Cloud streaming feels less like ownership, because you have to connect to a high-speed Internet connection to play the game you bought. Perhaps this is a little illogical, but the Netflix model just seems to fit better. And we’re seeing this with Stadia too, as it’s beefing up its subscription elements.” As Carless states, illogical as it might be, an allinclusive model just feels natural for on-demand streaming. The likes of Netflix and Spotify have conditioned us to expect these services to work like that, so it’s hard not to wonder why Stadia opted to go a different route. “Google probably did the maths on a viable business model,” Carless adds, “and with executives like Phil Harrison (ex-Sony and Microsoft) involved, felt like their competitors were Sony and Microsoft, so wanted to go in with a similar style approach. This was also before Xbox had started pushing Game Pass so aggressively, so perhaps it felt too early for a subscription-only approach then. But clearly things are changing.”
Simon Carless, founder of GamesDiscoverCo
Joost Van Dreunen, startup adviser, co-founder of SuperData Research
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Piers Harding-Rolls, Ampere Analysis
It’s not just an issue of their competitors, it could also be argued that Stadia was attempting to play to Google’s strengths. “All of the different providers seek to take advantage of their respective strengths as a platform,” says Dreunen. “Both Amazon and Microsoft imagine cloud gaming as a celestial arcade that runs on their existing cloud infrastructure and charges a fee to consumers; Google has taken an approach that is consistent with its ad-based revenue model by integrating it more closely with YouTube and offering a tiered monetization structure.” PORTING PROBLEMS The third way that Amazon might stand out from its competition is that Luna runs on a Windows environment in the cloud – Making it potentially easier for devs to bring their games to the platform. Porting costs aren’t necessarily insurmountable, even for indies – and Google has made efforts with its Stadia Makers program to account for those costs. But it’s certainly a more attractive prospect if you don’t have to worry about these costs at all. Can we expect this to attract more developers to Luna? “That’s a good question!” says Carless. “I haven’t heard that this difference is a major reason why the catalogue is going to be different, since both platforms are picking just a few highlights from a very wide range of games, and devs/publishers are generally keen to get on these new platforms for incremental revenue. It may be a marginal help, though.” “Porting costs are a relevant consideration,” adds Dreunen, “especially during the initial period following the release of a new platform. Creatives will have to figure out if the player base is large enough to commit to porting their titles. I expect to see a lot of small and medium-sized companies flooding onto Amazon Luna to try and capture a first-mover advantage and benefit from Amazon’s effort to market the service.” APPEASING APPLE The fourth and final advantage to Luna, in our eyes at least, is that it is launching as a PWA. As mentioned before, being able to access Luna via your browser instead of an app allows Amazon to side-step the App Store rules that have hindered Google and Microsoft’s iOS plans. Both Google and Microsoft have fully functioning apps on Android of course, but
being cut off from Apple’s ecosystem is sure to be frustrating for a new platform. By going with the PWA approach from the start, Amazon is potentially avoiding future headaches. Microsoft seems to be considering the PWA route of late too, after being frustrated with its standalone app approach. At least, if recent comments from Phil Spencer in a internal Microsoft town hall are to be believed. “It is consistent with Amazon’s strategy in other entertainment categories to target the broadest possible audience to develop a technology that bypasses Apple’s rules by operating as a browserbased application” says Dreunen. “Google and others have, strangely, not taken advantage of this and, instead, developed applications. In theory that gives Amazon an advantage and potentially will allow it to quickly ramp up its user base.” It seems such a convenient loophole that it’s hard not to wonder why Google and Microsoft didn’t adopt this approach in the first place, at least on iOS. Are there any meaningful downsides to this method? “While a native app is preferable,” says HardingRolls, “due to performance benefits, integration into system level functionality, such as notifications, and discoverability within the App Store; advanced web technologies mean that browser-based solutions can offer some of the functionality and feel of a native app. “Even so, I consider this a sub-optimal approach and one that would be quickly superseded by a native app if Apple was to change its App Store guidelines for cloud gaming services.” “I think it’s considered a bit of a ‘kludge’ to go with this method,” adds Carless. “It’s not the best in terms of discovery or user interface to go with a PWA, so I’m sure the bigger platforms were keen to try other approaches first.” So that’s how Luna differs from its competitors – Stadia in particular. But that’s not to say Amazon and Google are exactly polar opposites here, as Harding-Rolls points out: “Amazon’s strategy is most closely comparable to Google’s given the limited first-party games studio capability of each player and the motivations of building such an overarching approach to the games sector. They are driven by largely similar general motivations: compete in cloud services, support their core revenue streams – ecommerce (Amazon) and advertising (Google) – and link together their B2B and consumer-facing platforms.
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First-party games are an important mechanism to support this strategy and also to drive incremental high-margin revenue. “What this means is that Amazon’s games strategy is not simply – ‘let’s make great games and build a games business’. There are other commercial dynamics at play here. The scale of Amazon and Google, and these other commercial dynamics, I would argue, make it harder for them to build successful first-party games businesses.” FUTURE CONCERNS Still, the success of any cloud platform feels speculative at the moment. It’s still in its infancy, and its main USP, ease of access, isn’t really a key selling point for the usual early adopter crowd. While the demands of 4K streaming (or even 1080p) restricts the audience to those with stable, high-speed internet – is that still too limiting for cloud gaming to be a mainstream concern? “I think cloud gaming currently works best as a complement to other ways of downloading/playing games,” says Carless, “which is why I think Microsoft and Game Pass has the best strategy currently. But if the value proposition is good enough over time, I don’t see why the other services from Google and Amazon can’t at least grab some market share – or create new video game-related subscribers.” “We’re still only in the early stages,” Dreunen adds. “It will take another five years before we can start
talking about cloud gaming becoming mainstream. That means the first consumers for this new type of service will be tech savvy early adopters. As broadband penetration continues to reach more households, and, ostensibly, 5G starts to deliver on its promises, it opens the market to a wider range of players. “The real challenge here lies in not making false promises: if big tech firms rush to market and create all types of expectations they cannot deliver, consumers will be disappointed. It may cause them to turn away from cloud gaming and thereby further delay its broader adoption. We’ve seen that before with VR, too, for example.” And as with VR, cloud gaming is seeing companies rush into this new and unproven territory, lest they regret not doing so further down the line. It’s understandable to want to be the first to find success in this new arena, but that very eagerness could cause problems for everyone. “There is an eagerness in the way that especially big tech firms are rolling out their services,” Dreunen continues. “The cynic in me says that we’ll soon face a market circumstance of too many firms pushing out content and offerings that are indistinguishable and bland. It won’t decimate the industry like it did in the 80s, but you have to ask whether the consumer audience can really support all of these firms. Cloud gaming is still several years out and it worries me that this rush to market may ultimately turn audiences off.”
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VERTIGO’S VR VISTA
This month Koch Media acquired Vertigo Games for €50m. So just what is the Embracer Group company getting for its money and what does it say about the broader VR Space? Seth Barton talks to those involved.
T Koch Media CEO Klemens Kundratitz
o quote Richard Branson: “If you want to be a millionaire, start with a billion dollars and launch a new airline.” And the same thinking can also be applied to anyone launching a new games platform. VR technology is undoubtedly exciting, but as Facebook, Sony and Google have found, relatively slow consumer take up has meant championing the space is a longhaul strategy for those with pretty deep pockets. So what then is the level-headed Koch Media doing moving into the space with its recent acquisition of VR specialists Vertigo Games for
€50m of cash and stock? And does the move signify a growing maturity for the segment? VERTICALLY UNCHALLENGED For those unfamiliar with the company, Rotterdam-based Vertigo Games is best known for its VR smash hit Arizona Sunshine, A zombie shoot ‘em up it launched back in 2016, generating $1.4m in revenue in just its first month, an incredible figure for the nascent days of the VR segment. Arizona Sunshine has gone on to become a perennial success since launch. It could be
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considered the GTA V of VR even, selling ever more units with every new tranche of hardware released, and making more money every year along with it. It’s now available on all major headsets, plus the company created an arcade division, licensing a free-roam version of the game to out-of-home VR installations. Based on that, it also started a publishing arm. Which last year released A Fisherman’s Tale, from Innerspace VR, to great critical acclaim. In other words, Vertigo is on a high and still climbing. ELEMENTAL TABLE Koch Media CEO Klemens Kundratitz has certainly been impressed by its trajectory, likening the company to his own: “When we look at Vertigo they are a bit like a mini Koch in the VR space… I think the organisation is well placed in this very special moment.” Kundratitz explains that all the necessary elements had come together to make the acquisition work: “There are always a number of components to a decision like this. There is a strategic component, a commercial component, an opportunity component. And in this case, these components aligned. “On the one hand, we have followed the VR space for some time. And we have always been excited by it, but we had not seen, for us as a company, the commercial opportunity. Now there is this tipping point, where we believe that the new generation of hardware,” referring mainly to the £299 Oculus Quest 2, “will change that picture and grow the market significantly. “In order to enter a market, you need to enter in the right way and Vertigo are VR experts, they are not only technical experts, which they have proven with Arizona Sunshine and other games, but also commercial experts… they are strong in partnering up with other developers and bringing their games to the market as their VR publisher. That’s the direction we want to go here.” “So we see this is an interesting entry point into a niche that will grow. And we want to, both on the development and publishing side, grow Vertigo into a substantial force in a growing market and help content providers really make the full potential of their games.
“The other component to the decision is we believe the current platform holders are committed for the long-term, I think that with Sony, Valve and Facebook being there, and maybe other people coming into the space, there are important platform holders. And we are only at the beginning of VR, even though it’s been a number of years in the market, it has a very strong potential to grow far beyond what we see today.” REACHING FOR THE EYEBALLS It’s no secret, and not that surprising, that some VR platform holders were heavily funding developers to develop exclusive titles, but Richard Stitselaar, CEO of Vertigo Games, tells us that wasn’t a key to his company’s success. “Our vision has always been, influenced by Valve in a way, to go for all platforms, to reach as many eyeballs in as many headsets as possible. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re so successful.” He notes that some platforms went down an exclusive-based strategy, “they poured a lot of money into products, but then the product needed to survive on that specific platform. But the market was so small, the studios became entirely reliant on the funding they got from [such deals].” That was the opposite of where Vertigo wanted to be with Arizona Sunshine, which also stood out thanks to breadth and depth of its content. “In the early days of VR, there were a lot of ‘VR experiences’, it was a novelty, you shoot a couple of things, and 15 minutes later, you’re done,” Stitselaar recalls, “And me personally, speaking as a gamer, I want to play games, I don’t want to have ‘an experience.’ “So we went for a full game with six hours of content, multiplayer, co-op, horde mode, the whole package, and I think combining these things together, you can make a lot of money in VR, if everything sort of aligns.”
Richard Stitselaar, CEO of Vertigo Games
Kimara Rouwit, marketing director at Vertigo Games
HEADSETS AS A SERVICE Arizona Sunshine has made a lot of money, for a VR title anyway, and that was without the kind of forward planning that most modern games
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benefit from in regards to serving their audiences. As Kimara Rouwit, marketing director at Vertigo Games recalls. “When we launched Arizona Sunshine, back in 2016, we hoped that it would become the game that it is now… most recently, the numbers are around one in every ten VR players owns a copy of Arizona Sunshine. “So that was like the dream. But realistically, that wasn’t what we had expected. we didn’t expect this amount of success. So, to be honest, we didn’t really plan for a service model with Arizona Sunshine, because nobody knew how big the player base was that you might be servicing.” Of course since then, the company has raced to launch DLC and free updates to the title in order to keep the community happy. “I think that scratches what servicing is, but it wasn’t like we went into it with that plan,” Rouwit adds.
VR: ESCAPING 2020 The VR industry, like many, has done pretty well out of the pandemic in terms of sales. After all, who didn’t want a bit of escapism in 2020? But with out-of-home setups to consider it’s been a bit more of a mixed bag. “Everybody’s at home playing games in VR, and in non-VR, so yes, there’s a huge lift for us… In VR specifically, I think the limiting factor is the amount of headsets they can produce. I think if there’s more production capacity, there would have even been more VR players. With Quest 2 to now out, the coming months are looking really good,” says Stitselaar. To specify that, we’re seeing a 10x lift in our revenue since last Tuesday,” adds Rouwit. “Which was the Quest 2 launch. And for us, it’s consistent. it’s just like Richard said, the math is constrained by hardware. And now that there’s an influx of new hardware, we see software sales go up. “As for the arcade business, yes, there was a huge impact in the amount of sales because the arcades closed down, says Stitselaar. In reaction to that the company waived its licensing fee for the game for four months. “We know they’re struggling, and we don’t want them to go down.” However the market for out-of-home continued to grow in terms of locations. “Even though the arcades were closed, we were still selling those licences, and those are very expensive licences, 10s of thousands of euros,” reveals Stitselaar. “For example, we sold one in an arcade in Madrid in the peak of their lockdown, so we gave them extra months in their annual licencing fee. But basically, there is a demand, people are still positive that once we’re out of this crisis, arcades will open up. “And, by the end of August sales are pretty much back to where they were in February for room scale sessions. So, yes, there was a huge dip, but we’re back on track, and it’s actually growing again.” Although he honestly admits that they’re “not sure what will happen in the coming months with the second wave.”
That’s all changed now, with the benefit of hindsight and a good idea of the size of the addressable VR market, Vertigo’s next game is coming fully prepared for life after launch. Or rather life after the apocalypse in this case. “Next year, we have our new game, After the Fall, on the schedule. And that is a title which is very much focused on multiplayer content and also post launch support.” Although Rouwit notes in reply to our query that it’s still a premium title, and a complete game at launch, just with a better thought out DLC and support roadmap. “Free to Play is probably not the dominant model going forward at this point. VR is still a subset, a rather niche subset, compared to the overall install base of gamers.” A subset that doesn’t yet have the massive numbers, and massive competition, that engenders free to play. LAYERING IT ON Another aspect of Arizona Sunshine’s continued success were numerous ports of the game, Stitselaar tells us: “We’ve basically rebuilt the game three times… actually three and a half times with Quest 2 now.” Beyond the original version, for Vive and Rift, it was then “built for full room scale, and then for PlayStation VR – with its different tracking systems and a little bit more limitation on the hardware side, a lot of optimization. And finally for Quest, which is basically a mobile device, we had to do it all over again.” The stark differences between those platforms, and the ongoing rapid evolution of the hardware – remember, the original consumer Oculus Rift was only four and a half years ago and we’ve numerous headsets since then – makes covering them all significantly more work than putting out an indie title on say PC and consoles. And that’s a problem that Vertigo is now fully prepared for: “With After the Fall, we have this sort of new SDK, let’s call it a technical layer of tools that we’ve built over the years. The programmers will shoot me for saying it like this, but we can basically export to three platforms with a mouse click, but there’s all this technical stuff going on to make that actually happen. But that makes it so much easier to launch a game that runs on all three platforms,” says Stitselaar. And with that comes a big prize: “One thing I want to point out is with After the Fall, we have cross platform play.”
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Cross-platform was something which simply wasn’t possible with the iterative approach to Arizona Sunshine’s release, and something the fragmented player base of VR headset owners really needs in order to achieve the critical mass required for a perennially successful multiplayer title. Vertigo Games believes that its technical knowhow will make other aspects of its business plan succeed. “We’re not just a publisher, we’re also a developer… we can offer a developer that we work with all these tools that we’ve been investing in, whether they work with Unreal or Unity, it’s platform agnostic, certain tools, at least. We can say: ‘Hey, we can publish your game, but we can also offer you this technology to speed up your development.’” And that toolset covers both the consumer and outof-home markets. “And if you want, we can bring the same game to arcades and generate even more revenue on that side of things. You do a 30 minute unique experience for arcades, with free roam. “So having that offer makes us unique in the market. And now adding Koch Media we can also use its physical distribution network, if you want to go to PlayStation, or its marketing muscle – they have local offices everywhere. We can scale and make it as big as we potentially want to.” TWO-WAY STREET Vertigo Games also allows Koch to add VR to its existing publishing capabilities in a way that simply wouldn’t have been possible had it decided to go it
alone. And there’s also the possibility that such expertise could be called upon by developers at Koch’s Deep Silver arm, and beyond that right across the full Embracer Group, including THQ Nordic and Saber Interactive. “Yes, there is big interest from various studios now to engage and how that will materialise in VR games, we need to see,” says Kundratitz cautiously. “We run our company in a sort of decentralised way, where the studios have a lot of autonomy on the one hand, but also are part of the family. And we’re gonna play it the same way with VR. Nobody will be forced to do the next game in VR. But on the other hand, if the idea is suitable, if there is an appetite from the development point of view, then we now have great opportunities to not only dream of it, but actually make it.” We can’t resist naming Metro as a possible target, with the games already having had various mods to get them working in VR: “Yes, Metro is certainly an important IP that we have, Kingdom Come Deliverance is another big one, Dead Island is a big one. So there are good opportunities in our stable of IPs,” replies Kundratitz. Some tantalising possibilities there for VR, but it is way too early to expect any commitment from those teams. And Kundratitiz rounds things off with an invitation to developers who are working in VR. “We want to engage with people that are serious about VR. We believe that VR lives off big games, high-end hardware, and that the immersive experience will ultimately win over a big portion of all gamers… It’s important to underline our commitment to build this publishing portfolio, people should know that we are open for business, “This is not strictly a sales and distribution type of conversation,” he clarified, “If it’s just exploring ways of what can be done together. We are totally open and welcoming, we want to help.” So, now you know where to go. And, all being well in the world, we can see Vertigo Games becoming a fantastic addition to the already buzzing Koch and THQ Nordic stand at Gamescom next year.
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When We Made... Paradise Killer
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 together, you could tell from the very beginning that Chris Wallace takesshea was look behind scenes a character thatthe people would really gravitate of Paradise Killer,toward.” a surreal murder mystery really a fully fleshed out that takes inspiration Quill from itsbecomes predecessors to character with the help of the game’s strong world-building. As an create something truly unique 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 as both the player and Quill enter new, unfamiliar areas. “When you go through Mousetown and you see Quill run through thereKiller, and you she has a hometown, aradise the see first that title from Kaizen Game the feelingWorks, of her is leaving it, of that town maybe being in a game that immediately invites danger, gives you moretoofother a bond,” “If comparisons titles,Alderson and yet says. somehow that partentirely was left out, you wouldn’t feel like there was feels unique at the same time. muchWith to fight for. Everything thatawe’ve done, the mood its island setting, and murder-mystery settings, Quill from one to the characters, next and letting plotlinetaking populated by out of area this world the you rest and take in this environment… It’s all supposed immediate comparison is to Danganronpa series, or the to Phoenix exaggerate andgames accentuate that mood that you’re Wright to a lesser extent – particularly feeling. all ties back into where how you connecting with in theItgame’s final trial, theare player is tasked to Quill and her world.” explain whodunnit. Above: Phil Crabtree, But this familiar groundwork does nothing to help the technical director SAME EIGHT playerQUESTION get a foothold in thisWAYS bizarre world. Paradise Killer Collaboration was key during the development is an open-world murder mystery game, yes. of But Moss it’s a, notweird just within one – profoundly the team itself, and but gloriously with the strange help of– external filled with playtesters. mysteriousPeople goat gods, were human often brought sacrifice in and to feedback the warm on mechanical arms of a sexpot called Dr Doom Jazz. The player steps into the shoes of Lady Love Dies, who is recalled from a three million day-exile from Paradise Island for one last job. Paradise’s ruling council have been massacred, and it’s Lady Love Dies’ job to find out how. It’s... certainly a lot to take in. But much like the mysterious murder at the game’s core, the world around Above: Oli Clarke, it is also best left to be experienced than explained. creative director
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 to play something that people put a lot of care and love into and then turn around and say ‘This is what I didn’t like TELL about it’. So it takes a little while EXPERIENCE, DON’T to get theKiller playtester comfortable, and we found that Paradise may wear its influences on its sleeve, finding different to ask thethe same question but it’s not afraidways to break with traditions left means by its you eventuallyand get move the really stuff after the fourth or predecessors in agood new direction. fifth you ask it. Astime technical director Phil Crabtree and creative “I don’t anyone our studio made a director Olithink Clarke Smithinexplain, thehas pairever aimed to use gamethe likegenre’s this, sohistory I think and it’s important you trustinthe both their ownthat experience the industry process.toYou telltrust a new playtesting kind of detective and you story make–sure making that you use allow ofyourself the game’s some open timeworld and freedom to give the to try player something the freedom and thentokeep investigate going. Try however something they new wanted. and branch out, but “The alsoDanganronpa use your experience connection from was games definitely that you’ve intentional,” made beforeClarke and you’ll Smith bebegins. fine. As“Ilong loveas games you’relike having Danganronpa, fun too! We enjoyed Flower, playing Sun and Moss Rain throughout and Silverthe Case. entire That process wasand the Ikind thinkofthat direction really helps.” that I wanted to take it in. “Both Phil and I are both very into very heavy worldbuilding games, and exploration based games. I’ve previously worked on Until Dawn, which is kind of a non-linear drama, but not as freeform and as open as we wanted to do with this. “I thought: ‘there’s a different way of doing interactive stories. What if we just blow the whole thing wide open, and just let the player tackle it in any order under their own direction?’ I love Danganronpa, but it’s so linear, You go to a crime scene, and you’re only allowed to
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The player is tasked with solving a mysterious murder on Paradise Island leave once you’ve found every bit of evidence and you’ve spoken to every character. And then when you go to trial, if you don’t get the correct answer, you fail and retry it. “So what we came to was: ‘what if we just don’t care about whether the player uncovers the whole truth? What if we just care that the players found something that is meaningful to them?’” MAKE YOUR MIND UP This break with the more linear storytelling of Danganronpa and Phoenix Wright was actually much more severe in early versions of the game. Originally, the game was never planned to reveal any truth behind the mystery at all, with the end-game trials being added much later to allow the player to decide how they think it all went down. Still, this nonlinear approach was an important one to the team. “We wanted people to ask themselves, ‘well, is this the right answer?’” adds Crabtree. “And then they’d go and talk to friends and other people playing the game, and they could all have a slightly different experience or a slightly different understanding.
“We never wanted to force our beliefs and our stories on you. Make your own one up, there’s so much more power in the imagination. We provided you the framework to decide what happened, but you can interpret it how you want.” To Crabtree and Clarke Smith, it was important to ensure that the player feels like a detective, and isn’t just pushing through to progress the story. It’s a point that makes Paradise Killer feel distinctly different to the more visual-novel style offerings of Phoenix Wright. “We definitely wanted to make you feel like an investigator,” says Clarke Smith, “and allow you to jump to conclusions or let your own biases affect your view of the mystery, and let you fail by missing evidence or not getting the right testimony.” This focus on finding the evidence, not just pushing through a story is behind one of the more interesting aspects of the game – You can begin the end-game trial whenever you like. But if you haven’t prepared your case, it’s not going to go well for you. “We’re not asking you to jump through a hoop to progress the game,” Clarke Smith continues, “we’re asking you to feel confident enough that you’ve got enough evidence. So if you do make the logic leap early
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The game’s character designs draw inspiration from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure
and figure out the mystery, you can go to trial. But in court, you still need evidence, even if the detective has worked it out, you still need evidence to get you the conviction. So that is where the thrust of our game is, in finding the evidence in order to prove it, rather than just getting through to the end.” A GROWING CONSPIRACY Still, setting a murder mystery in an open world isn’t without its risks. The pair acknowledge that it was a “fear and a challenge” that players could stumble upon a case-breaking clue right at the start of the game – though they acknowledge that it was ultimately a positive for the player experience, and it was something they just had to embrace. A larger problem that plagued development was the ever-expanding scope of the game. Originally, Paradise Killer was intended as a walking simulator in the vein of The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – though they had prototyped plenty of other genres too. From a top down shooter to a Crazy Taxi homage. “We tended to move quite quickly on stuff,” says Clarke Smith, “especially since we were using Unreal. It’s so easy to put stuff in, try it and abandon it or work it up. So we had a few ideas pretty quickly, and eventually settled on this one.” This creative process of trying to define the kind of game they want to make may have been a useful one – but it added significant time to development.
“We originally set out to make this game in about 18 months,” says Clarke Smith, “and then it took about two and a half years. And thank you very much to our publisher [Fellow Traveller] for saving us on that! “We set out to make something small, but when we started developing the concept, we didn’t arrive at the specifics of the concept early enough. If on day one of quitting our jobs and setting up home offices we’d said ‘we’re gonna make an open world murder mystery game, and you go to the trials at the end,’ we possibly could have shipped this thing in 18 months. “We realised that the game needed to grow, to really realise its full potential and to become a game that would sell. We kind of hit on the concept late, and I think that that could have sunk it. Because if we shipped it on time when we originally planned to, it would be a shadow of what it is now and we would be applying for jobs.” “It’s also exciting,” adds Crabtree, “because it’s our first game, we tried everything we thought might be cool. We didn’t always talk about it in advance, we’d just put it in and see what worked and what didn’t. So there’s probably quite a lot of – not necessarily wasted time, but we could have planned it a bit better had we thought more about it.” ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE The murder isn’t the only thing player has to investigate. The game starts in the middle of things, with Lady Love
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Dies returning to Paradise Island. While she’s been in exile for a while and needs to be caught up on a few things, she’s not exactly a fish out of water either. Unlike the player, Lady Love Dies already knows the fundamentals of this world. She knows its characters, she knows about the human sacrifices and the ominous goat god. The player meanwhile is thrown into the deep end, and has to learn to swim in this new world – with nothing but their AI companion Starlight (think a talking Wikipedia that solves crimes) to help them. It’s a lot of information to take in at first, but the game does an exceptional job of laying out its world for the player to discover. But it’s hard not to wonder if it was a nightmare to make sure players weren’t overwhelmed. “We rewrote the intro to the game so many different times, because we were very concerned about that,” notes Clarke Smith. “It’s easier to do a stranger in a strange land style story, because you can have a navigation assistant, like Navi in Zelda, to explain stuff. “But the way we wrote the story we really didn’t think about that, we just kind of wrote it. So then once we were in it, we were like, ‘well, this is difficult!’ So that’s why there’s so many lore collectibles to find, so that if you are feeling overwhelmed you can pick them up at your own pace and learn things on your own terms. “Originally at the beginning of the game, we forced you into Starlight to read all the biographies for all the characters. And only once you read them all were you allowed out into the world. And it was a really, really bad experience. “So pretty late on we removed that, because it was bad. But we didn’t have another solution. And then pretty late on, I just copied and pasted all of the bio text into Starlight’s dialogue files, so that whenever you meet a character for the first time, Starlight will tell you a bit about them. But then we framed it as like, Starlight knows you haven’t done an investigation for three million days. So they’re reminding you, but every character comments on it. It’s a way of giving some up-front information, but then the characters can have a little bit of banter about it and kind of ease you in like that.”
bit more a bit more human and realistic, but the answer was ‘no, they need to be big, bright, bold characters to serve the game.’” “Yeah, over the last two years, I’ve gotten really heavily into [the anime] JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure,” adds Clarke Smith. “It has these big, strange characters, they use a lot of high fashion and every one of them makes a big impression. It’s the same with Danganronpa. All of those characters are very much larger than life and make a big impression. “I think you need that when you are thrust into this world, where you’re being asked to investigate a murder mystery and you need to remember who all the key players are. I wanted to do it for artistic reasons, because I didn’t want us to make a realistic game and I like big, weird characters. But also it’s very helpful for the player to have these strange names that they can latch on to and remember. As well as have very visually distinct characters that communicate something about the world, their personality and their motives, all with just a glance.” It’s in no small part due to these characters – and the game’s incredible soundtrack – that Paradise Killer has been received as well as it has. The game has multiple Golden Joysticks nominations, including PC Game of the year. It’s a strong performance for a game that is, on paper at least, remarkably niche. “We were, at least I was, incredibly nervous right before the release date,” says Crabtree. “I was scared about it getting panned, because it is divisive. We always knew you’d love it or hate it. So the first review dropped, and it was 9 out of 10... Yeah, I almost fell off my chair.” “We always assumed this was going to be a one shot,” adds Clarke Smith. “We’d do this and then on the day of release we’d send out CVs and go back to the real world of game development in a studio. It has completely blown away all expectations. “No one’s buying yachts off the back of this, but nor are we going back to working in a normal studio, so it is a big win for us.”
GETTING TO KNOW YOU... Outside of the investigation, perhaps the game’s biggest strength is in its characters. From the incredible high fashion of some of their designs, to their outlandish and distinct personalities, the game’s central cast will stick in player’s minds long after they’ve solved the case – as evidenced by the fan art the game has inspired. “I’m glad people like the characters,” notes Crabtree. “When Oli was first pitching the game to me, it was very much about the characters. ‘It’s got to have these 80’s vogue-style poses and over the top characters,’ and I had some questions about if we should make them a
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The Final Boss Every month an industry leader wraps up MCV/DEVELOP with their unique insight
Atomhawk produces a huge range of visuals for the industry, tell us about your recent work? That’s true, we work with a wide range of studios which gives us the opportunity to work on a wide range of styles. Due to the COVID situation one of the things I really miss about the office is hearing everyone chatting and laughing over some wild character or scene that someone has created for one of the many titles we’re working on. We recently worked on some exploratory character designs for a title that gave the team the opportunity to mix a lot of animal attributes in a cartoon style, the results of which always had us all laughing during our weekly studio meetings. You worked on Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament (therefore you are a god in our eyes) what was it like? They were great days! It was the time when people were moving from creating a game in their bedroom to setting up a legitimate studio and starting the British computer game industry. Micro Machines 2 is still one of the most fun titles I have worked on. I was working for Dizzy Enterprises and we shared a small office above a shoe shop in Leamington Spa with Supersonic Software who needed our help in producing artwork for the game. The rivalry we had during our lunch time testing of a new track was epic, it was more like messing about with your mates than a job. That enjoyment and rivalry ultimately pushed us to create the great title it ended up being. Working on that title also started me on my love for VW’s, I spent time researching and creating assets for Beetles and ended up buying a convertible shortly afterwards. Can the games industry possibly change as much over the next few years as it has over the last few? COVID has shown us that working from home is now a viable option for many studios. This will ease recruitment to a point but the flip side of that is there is a risk of losing the in-house identity of the studio. Collaboration is key to any project and many problems have been discussed and solved during a coffee break. The next couple of years is going to be a very challenging and equally exciting time for the games industry.
Darren Yeomans Studio Director Atomhawk Design
“There’s a lot more opportunity for smaller independent studios to make their mark and be a sustainable business.”
Do you feel the games industry is headed in the right direction? Generally, I think the industry is moving in the right direction. There’s a lot more opportunity for smaller independent studios to make their mark and be a sustainable business. This will push creativity in a direction that the larger studios and publishers wouldn’t generally move towards, where existing formulas and genres are generally a safer option for them. It reminds me of the early days back in the 90’s where a couple of people could create a game in their bedroom, and it go on to be a hit. You were part of the recent PoC in Play #BHMGames100. Do you think the industry is getting more diverse and able to tell diverse stories? We are slowly getting more diverse and adding more variety to the mix can only be a good thing. I’ve been in the industry since 1992 and it’s only been fairly recently that I’ve noticed more people from the BAME community in the studios I’ve worked in or visited. We need to get back in the community and educate students and tutors alike that there is a viable long-term career in games. It’s not going to happen overnight but thankfully there’s a few groups like POC In Play who are campaigning and doing great, important work to put this right.
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