An Audience With…
The founder of Evolution Studios and Digital Image Design now has his sights set on the stratosphere
DID and Evolution Studios founder Martin Kenwright maps out his return to the game industry
Martin Kenwright has big plans for Starship. The founder of Digital Image Design (DID) and MotorStorm developer Evolution Studios spent five years away from the game industry, but his returning venture is no traditional videogame developer. Starship, founded in 2013, has three projects in development: Playworld, a game for the underfed five-to-ten-year-old demographic; Cybercook, an interactive cookery app that lets you practise making meals from real-world recipe books; and Forget Me Not, a wearable AR memory aid for which Starship has several patents pending. Kenwright has also set up the Virtual Disrupt Fund, through which he aims to put Liverpool back on the game development map. It’s ambitious, but he’s earned the right to be confident. Here, he reflects on an industrious and illustrious career, his first E3 in seven years, the birth of DriveClub, and how taking the ‘hippy pill’ helped convince him that founding Starship was the way to go. Tell us about DID. You were young, you expanded rapidly, and then you sold the company quickly. It must have been an exciting time. It was an amazing time. The early days certainly were; maybe not so much at the end. Everything that could and can happen in business happened to me well before my 30th birthday. I had quite a humble upbringing on council estates on the edge of Liverpool. I’d had no formal training or education whatsoever; I was just spotted by a teacher in sixth form [and asked] to do some graphics for [ZX Spectrum game] Strike Force Harrier. I ended up doing a bit of freelance work. I was really keen to try exciting things, so I set up DID in my bedroom on a little council house outside Liverpool, just living at home with me mum, just doing it because I loved it. We turned up at Ocean’s door with a demo of F29 Retaliator and before we knew it, we’d had a huge blockbuster hit.
We were chasing the love, not the money, and I think it showed in what we produced. We were very prolific, and we grew rapidly. By the age of 25, I was employing 45 to 50 people, without mentoring, without help, without training and without debt. We lived a very frugal, very hand-to-mouth existence in those first few, very tough years. Money came into the [game] business in the mid’90s when PlayStation arrived; all of a sudden all of these players came in and the landscape changed – a lot of relationships and goodwill were washed away. It was tough at the end of DID. It just ended up like a Greek tragedy. Everyone was wondering what I might do next as a person rather than with DID. So I agreed a sale with Infogrames and set up Evolution.
Where you enjoyed a good relationship with Sony. What was it like to work with Sony over the years? The original PlayStation was an immediate success, but there was a sense of overconfidence to the company by the time that PS3 came around.
When they first arrived, it felt like this sleeping giant of our sector had woken up. We were desperate to do [something on] PlayStation, but being so good at simulations on PC, everyone would say, “Yeah, but tell us about your new PC flight sim.” We’d suffered from pigeonhole-itis, if I can call it that, ever since 1986, and looked enviously at our peers doing these high-yielding console games. I was desperate to move across, and when I did the deal with Sony, I realised what it was to deal with a true professional, world-class company. After coming from the hell of Infogrames… I’m a very loyal person and to finally deal with a proper heads-up professional company was just a breath of fresh air. They helped me get my confidence back; I wasn’t swimming around in a pool full of sharks. It was, perhaps, one of the single best things that ever happened to the game sector, Sony producing PlayStation. And yet you were every bit as pigeonholed at Evolution. You made driving games. Oh, God, yeah, it was even worse. The thing about growing a new company is that startup’s the easy bit. Scaling up can be hard, and we had to do it against a backdrop of yearly iterations of World Rally Championship. We’d say to Sony, “We want to make our own new IP,” and we’d get comments like, “Well, you’ve not done an original IP on console before.”
Concepts for MotorStorm and DriveClub appeared within two weeks of each other. [It was a] little bit different, obviously – MySpace was around, so DriveClub had MyRace – but it was no different to [the way the game uses] Facebook now. It’s always been problematic, the safe route of sequels. The problem with success is that people want more of the same. It’s been a constant rod for our back since 1986, with flying and with war, with driving and off-road.
MotorStorm will perhaps forever be associated with its trailer at E3 2005, which upset a lot of people because it was a prerendered sequence. Is it true
that you only learned details of the final PS3 specs hours before the trailer was shown?
You’re about to embark on a multimillion-pound launch of hardware that isn’t quite built yet, but the technical data at the time, the initial specs, certainly pointed to that kind of capability. Producing all the assets for realtime, but rendering them into a movie... [it was what] we believed would be achievable. It was a good stab, a good guess, at what we felt we could achieve; at least when you set the bar that high there’s no going back, and even if we fell short, it’d still be remarkable.
It’s quite the motivational tool, too. “We just told an audience of millions that this is what we’re going to do, so we’d better do it.”
Yeah, that was essentially it. If you love what you’re doing, you can do anything. We’d historically felt no fear because of what we’d achieved before. It was all done with the best, most honourable intentions.
Evolution was a great success, so why sell up? And why agree to stay out of the industry for five years?
I never quite recovered from DID. I had a great relationship with Sony; it felt like a good home and a good place, but I just felt so eroded, so tired. I’d been so prolific for 20 years. I’d ticked every box, and had an opportunity to take time out. I genuinely felt it was time for me to stop fighting in the same backyard as all the console developers and kind of go off. I had an option as an individual. It was almost like The Matrix: do I take the blue pill or the red pill? Do I become a hippy and disappear, or do I throw myself into this business?
I genuinely was happy to take a five-year sabbatical [Kenwright was forced to take time off by a non-compete clause]. The five years was just to say I wasn’t going to turn up down the road and do a competing driving game.
“I GENUINELY FELT IT WAS TIME FOR ME TO STOP FIGHTING IN THE SAME BACKYARD AS ALL THE CONSOLE DEVELOPERS”
It suited me. I was relaxed. It was my choice and my terms, and after that I went on another remarkable chapter in my life.
So what did you do? Did you take the hippy pill?
[Laughs] I tried for a bit. It was great, but some things changed. Having a family changed me dramatically. I realised, “Oh, hang on, maybe I don’t want to be a hippy that lives up a mountain any more”. And I saw what was happening, which I’d almost predicted anyway: all of a sudden, dev became cool again. I watched the bloodbath going on, people trying to figure out how to make money from social gaming, waiting for the chaos and the gold rush of the App Store to calm down, and I thought, ‘It’s déjà vu, this. It’s 1993’. I’ve taken time out now. I feel rested. I’ve got all these great ideas. I’d been redeveloping properties, living out in the country, but all of a sudden I was starting to get this compelling hunger to do something. You need to do something that scares you every day; if you haven’t got that, you’ve got nothing. I kinda realised that there was a big empty piece of me that I couldn’t fill; I was actually missing going to work.
So you set up Starship. Why didn’t you come back to the industry with a more traditional studio?
I’ve always been on the edges of things. The most cutting edge of [flight sim] tech led to doing things with NATO, and with driving games we went on to work with rally teams and hardware companies. You realise how insular the games sector is, particularly on console. They’re too busy competing against each other to look up; the market potential is far greater than most developers really get. Like Google only scratches the surface of the deep web, there’s all this potential deep below that we could expose using things that already exist, things we’ve done before, and cheaply and quickly.
Eighty per cent of developers are still fighting over 20 per cent of the market, and I didn’t want to go and compete with Call Of Duty or Forza; it just doesn’t make commercial sense any more. What if I could create new revenue streams that didn’t exist before, and move some of the best talent in the world into untouched, unloved sectors that are worth billions? Can’t we use all our incredible 3D experience and technology to disrupt entire sectors? It does sound a bit glib, but it was [about] moving from being players in a billion-dollar sector to being key players in a trillion-dollar sector such as health, or retail. It came from a big underlying philosophy about creating game-changing products in whole new universes. Create whole new platforms and genres instead of fighting in the same backyard as everyone else.
Why are you funding it all out of your own pocket instead of seeking outside investment?
Relative to something like Evolution or DID, [Starship] is far smaller in size and turnover, but is able to generate 50-fold more revenue for a fraction of the cost or risk. I don’t want to spend six to 12 months trying to explain something and get money, because that would be me falling into the broken system. It’s me doing a show, and by the time I’ve explained it I could just make it. Then people will get it, and the floodgates will open. I’m so relaxed; I’ve got confidence in what we’re achieving. And believe me: offers and opportunities and partnerships… we’re fighting them off.
And you’re turning them all down?
Part of our role is to create partnerships with some of the biggest brands and players in the world. We ultimately want to use some of their multimillion-pound marketing channels. We’re not turning them down; it’s just our choice, our terms. We’re meeting the biggest players in the world eye to eye. We’re not looking at some parentand-child relationship. We don’t need to do publishing deals. We don’t need to do anything.
Unlike Evo, which was a mechanical process, there’s no [fixed] plan with Starship. We want to do it because we love what we’re doing, and if any of the IPs become really sought after, then we’ll all take a view on it; it’s a democratic process with me and the team. We really tried to get the best of 1993 recreated at Starship: people come in and invent things every day and it feels great. I’m always wondering: is this folly, or genius? At at the end of the day, I’ll let the market decide. All we’re going to do is try our best. I feel we’re on the cusp of something big.
You were at E3 in June – your first in seven years. Did it give you pause for thought about what you’re doing with Starship, or further convince you that you’re doing the right thing?
I felt like I’d only left [the industry] six months ago, I really did. From when I left, there’s 40 times more processing power, but I wasn’t seeing 40 times better product. It’s not the fault of developers – what they’ve done is brilliant and all that – but I just felt [only] the blood was better. Just better-quality blood. All I saw was a lot of violence, a lot of polarisation. I came away from a couple of the conferences feeling… I thought I’d be years behind, but I looked up and thought, ‘You know what? I’m years ahead.’ It was the best thing I ever did, taking time out. I could see why I felt I’d lost the love for the console sector. [There were] brilliant, world-class productions, but an awful lot of shooting games, an awful lot of blood, an awful lot of sci-fi. They’re really missing an opportunity. E3 felt so much smaller: they didn’t have all the other halls with all the little developers. Maybe it’s a great place to announce the launch of a product, but it doesn’t have the significance it once did.
A selection of hits from Kenwright’s career to date (clockwise from far left): Strike
Force Harrier (ZX Spectrum, 1986); TFX (PC/Amiga, 1993); MotorStorm (PS3, 2006); World
Rally Championship (PS2, 2001)
Founded in May last year, Starship now employs 25 staff, many of whom worked at legendary, and nowclosed, UK studios Bizarre Creations and SCE Studio Liverpool