An Au­di­ence With…

The founder of Evo­lu­tion Stu­dios and Dig­i­tal Im­age De­sign now has his sights set on the strato­sphere

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY NATHAN BROWN

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

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