Right on the virtual heels of my feature on Regional Game Developers, I went out and into the trenches (or cubicles) to find out what went on behind the scenes of game development in my own backyard. I’m lucky, as my city of Brisbane is host to over 40% of the developers in Oz.
Krome Studios, developers of Viva Pinata: Party Animals and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, are the largest and most successful studio in Australia. Consisting of three separate studios stretched over three cities, over 400 staff and over 19 commercially released games, they are the control standard for games development down under.
They are also a standup bunch of guys who sat down with me to dig deep inside their flagship Brisbane studio to find out a little bit more about their success, as well as what really happens behind the glamour of making games.
James @ Gamer Limit: Thank you for letting me interview you today, could you please introduce yourselves and let us know what your positions are?
Fergus Carroll (On the Left): My name is is Fergus Carroll and I’m an executive producer at Krome.
Lindsay Palmer (On the Right): My name is Lindsay Palmer and I’m producer of our technology team at Krome.
GL: So how long have you both worked for Krome?
Fergus: Oooh, all of about seven and a half months.
GL: <Laughs> so you’re a newbie then?
Fergus: <Laughs> yes, I am. I wish I was a newbie to everything, but unfortunately not, I’m very old. Yes, I’m a newbie to Krome, but I’ve worked with them for about two and a half years.
GL: Where did you work before Krome?
Fergus: Well I was in Singapore running the games team at Lucas Animation, before that I was in the UK working for EA, Infogrammes and Psygnosis.
GL: So you go way back in the Industry then?
Fergus: Yes, Yes. <smiles>
Lindsay: I’ve been with Krome since 2001, so just over eight years.
GL: Your titles vary from new IP, such as TY the Tasmanian Tiger, to established brands like Spyro, Star Wars, and Transformers. How do you choose your projects?
Fergus: I think all developers would like to be in a position where they could say, “This is our strategy for the next four years, we’re gonna do two or three original IPs, then a few licensed games,” but I think the real world is a little bit different. The key is to play to your strengths, so you know, if I was gonna put my hand up for an action game, particularly a 3rd person action game, since we have experience and background, in particular now with our studios in Melbourne and Adelaide, we have a driving (genre) background. Or something like an original or new IP. So yeah, we aren’t just going to put up our hand up for an huge RTS or an RPG.
But as to “Yes”, we’re going to do this game or that game, you very much try to work to your strengths, but at the same time you are at the mercy of what’s available.
GL: Do you have a preference on which console you prefer developing on; for example, you have only done one PS3 release, is there a reason for this? Are you limited to a certain number you can or will develop for?
Fergus: Ah.. I’ll revert back to Lindsay in a sec. <laughs>. But, yeah, there are three major consoles out there. And we do have a proprietary engine that deals with all three, but on that point, over the last couple of years, we have done games that are specifically designed from the ground up with the Wii, like Lightsaber Duels and also the Transformers titles. I would argue that Krome is developing a specialty in delivering top rated Wii titles, but I wouldn’t say that we’re only going to develop for the 360, we’re only going to develop for the PS3. There’s no need to do that. And we have an engine that allows us to go further, don’t we Lindsay. <smiles>
Lindsay: <laughs> That we do! So our Mercury engine, that’s PS2, PSP, PS3, PC, 360, Wii – if you want to include the original Xbox and Gamecube, it supports them too. The strength of it is that you write once, it works on all consoles. So it comes down to either what we want for our own IP or whatever the publisher wants it on, in terms of tools and support and that sort of thing its all across it.
GL: Ok, so does money or budget come into it, I mean, the PS3 is said to be more expensive to develop for, is this something you have come across?
Fergus: Well, there’s an advantage to developing specifically for a console, I mean, you see that when you play some of our Wii titles. But there’s different advantages to doing it cross platform, because you can leverage the work done. So, for example, you can have a character artist who will build a character model, so it can works across all six, well, not instantly, but through a process, it will work on PS3 or 360, and with some reduction it will work on the others. So one piece of work gets translated across six consoles, rather then having to do six separate ones. So there’s an economy of scale, but yes, the PS3 and 360 both have their challenges, and yes, the PS3 has proved to be a powerful console, but its forced developers to work hard to harness that power. I don’t think you will necessarily chose to stop doing it because of that.
I think the bottom line is that we have an engine that will cover all those, so we can make games for all those, but the choice of platform comes down to the deal with the publisher and what they want us to do. Do they want all those versions? Or just a few? Some publishers will choose just to do 360 and PS3 in house, so they can have total control over that element of the franchise, and then outsource the other consoles to someone else. Again, it ultimately comes down to what the publisher wants.
Lindsay: From a technology perspective, where the engine (Mercury) is right now, I don’t think you can say one costs more to develop then other from a purely technological perspective. I think really it just comes down to the publisher.
GL: So, they’ll say to you, “I want that version for PS3, maybe not for 360″, so you say “Ok, we’ll do that” and work on that limitation.
Fergus: They could, but they wouldn’t be likely to because we have a strong engine that does, you know, as Lindsay said, you write it once it goes to both. I think there are other developers who are capable of doing that. They are generally more likely to say, “We’ll do Gen one consoles, then you or Team X can do Gen two consoles,” and we’ll more then likely split them up that way.
GL: Have you thought about making downloadable games for XBLA, WiiWare or PSN? Have you dabbled in the arena at all so far?
Fergus: Yeah, it all happened before my time so I don’t know much about it. I’m pretty sure we’ve have had experience via Microsoft with Scene it?
Lindsay: Yeah, there was a downloadable content pack for Scene it? done by the guys down in the Melbourne studio for the Xbox 360. So there’s been a little bit of work done with the tools and that sort of stuff.
Fergus: <looking to Melissa, the lovely PR representative sitting next to him> Have we announced it yet… are we allowed to mention this…
Melissa: Ah, we know we’re doing it, we just don’t know what console it will be on yet.
<Fergus and Lindsay quickly discuss around the topic, we all have a laugh>
Melissa: <smiles> I *has* been announced that it will be a downloadable game.
Fergus: So we are doing it, we just can’t really… – <laughs>
Fergus: <smiles> So yes, we are doing our own original IP, and it will be downloadable content. Now, whether it will be for one or all it will be for, has yet to be determined. So yeah, we are aware of…well. The game’s industry is in a strange place. Because in one hand, you’ve got this rich environment, when you have these two powerful consoles, 360/PS3, then you have the Wii, which is halfway there, and half way not which is picking up a different kind of audience entirely. Then you have this digital downloads revolution going on as well, which in many ways has empowered small developers to just go straight to market and see what happens.
So on the one hand you have all of this, and on the other hand there is a global downturn going on and money just isn’t being spent quite the same as it was. You then have this fertile breeding ground for all these games to get made, and people who perhaps are just not spending as much money as they were. So, I’ll be interested to see what the games industry looks like in two years time when it all emerges, I think there will be some big hard Darwinian principles taking place.
There will be some little guys who have genuine talent and can do things with a more economic model, because they go straight to market. Thus, may well emerge out as players in the next stage of the market. Then there will be companies not as really as nimble on the feet, who don’t focus on outgoings, well, who have to make AAA titles all the time and may find themselves under pressure.
Lindsay: I think it’s going to be interesting as well, since PSN hasn’t had as many restrictions to their downloadable content, while XBL has, even though they’ve recently opened up their system to full length games. So yeah, will be interesting to see how it branches out.
GL: When you are commissioned a game, are you assigned a fixed budget by your publisher or do you have an internal budget?
Fergus: Without running into too many details, there’s an amount of money that it costs us to make a game, be it for you and ourselves. Similarly, publishers will always have a figure in mind of how much they are prepared to spend, and how much they need to spend. And, you know, the classic effort that all developers have to do is get those numbers to match as much as possible. There will always be publishers who are perhaps, you know, that have a figure that doesn’t match up with the amount we know we need to make the game. That is just what happens, and if need be, they’ll find someone else to make it.
Lindsay: And the other thing is that Krome has always been big on our own technology since day one, and that Steve and Walshy (Steve Stamatiadas and Robert Walsh, the founders of Krome) always put their money where their mouth is; they invest heavily in our technologies.