At home with Wales In­ter­ac­tive, the Brid­gend stu­dio help­ing lo­cal grad­u­ates get started in games

Meet the team from Brid­gend that es­tab­lished a devel­op­ment scene for lo­cal grad­u­ates

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY JOE DONNELLY

Wales In­ter­ac­tive has come a long way since 2012. In just a few years, the team from Pen­coed, Brid­gend, has ex­panded its fo­cus from mo­bile games to PS4, Wii U and Xbox One; put out sev­eral in­ter­ac­tive kids’ books; and been recog­nised with some 12 awards, in­clud­ing a Cymru BAFTA. The 13-strong out­fit has also be­come a regular sight at gam­ing ex­pos world­wide, hav­ing most re­cently put in an ap­pear­ance at the Xbox Lobby Bar at the 2015 Games De­vel­op­ers Con­fer­ence in San Fran­cisco.

Be­fore Wales In­ter­ac­tive, devel­op­ment stu­dios by the banks of the River Sev­ern weren’t ex­actly thriv­ing. But the global at­ten­tion the stu­dio has en­gen­dered has built more than just its own rep­u­ta­tion, lead­ing the Welsh gov­ern­ment to al­lo­cate more fund­ing to de­vel­op­ers and cre­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for stu­dios across the coun­try. That’s not bad go­ing for what be­gan as a two-man firm, nei­ther ex­pe­ri­enced in run­ning a com­pany.

Co-founders and co-own­ers David ‘Dai’ Ban­ner and Richard Pring first met in 2011 at an ed­u­ca­tional ini­tia­tive, and quickly came to share views on the po­ten­tial of the Welsh videogame in­dus­try. Ac­cord­ing to Pring, at that time it was the case that if you grad­u­ated in Wales with a com­puter an­i­ma­tion or game de­sign de­gree, you then left the coun­try to get a job. “I liked living in Wales, so I wanted to stay here,” he ex­plains. “That’s where Wales In­ter­ac­tive came about.”

With a com­bined to­tal of 30 years of in­dus­try ex­pe­ri­ence, Pring and Ban­ner had the nous to bring about a shared vi­sion. By tak­ing ad­van­tage of the largely un­tapped pool of home­grown grad­u­ates, they could help de­velop tal­ent for the fu­ture and raise the in­dus­try’s pro­file at home.

Dan Pearce, the team’s lead devel­op­ment scripter, was one of the com­pany’s first re­cruits. “I had two or three months where I didn’t know what the hell I was go­ing to do post-uni­ver­sity, and there was hardly any op­por­tu­nity in Wales at all,” he says. “I was look­ing at all kinds of com­pa­nies within the UK and abroad, and then I met Dai in a pub in Cardiff about a month be­fore I grad­u­ated. I then mes­saged [him] as much as pos­si­ble with my work and what I was do­ing. I told him I’d bring my own desk, my own chair, my house if I needed to – I was so des­per­ate to get in­volved with some­one in Wales, but there was ob­vi­ously not much go­ing on. I’ve been here ever since.”

Pearce’s story is one of many sim­i­lar tales within Wales In­ter­ac­tive. The team’s back cat­a­logue boasts many mo­bile ti­tles, which helped Pring and Ban­ner, with the help of Wales In­ter­ac­tive’s more ex­pe­ri­enced staff, teach the grad­u­ate lineup the re­al­i­ties of pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment. Ap­ple’s open ap­proach to self­pub­lish­ing on the App Store – cou­pled with the draw of mak­ing games within a six-month win­dow, with eas­ily con­trolled nar­ra­tives, en­vi­ron­ments and me­chan­ics – meant that most of the stu­dio’s early projects, such as Jack Vs Nin­jas, Stride Files: The Square Mur­der and DJ Space, were de­signed for iPhone. Aside from of­fer­ing valu­able on-the-job train­ing, th­ese games also al­lowed the team to test the mar­ket.

Mas­ter Re­boot for PS3 would ar­rive in late 2013 and mark a de­par­ture in fo­cus for the stu­dio, but char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally this psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­ror game about self, mem­ory and state-con­trol was born from a stu­dent project. “The idea came from a mix­ture of ideas be­tween Dai and one of the team mem­bers, Sarah [Cross­man],” Pring ex­plains. “Stu­dents had to come up with pitches for their Masters, and it was also some­thing Dai had in his head for a very long time. It was a very sim­ple game – you would never recog­nise what it was then com­pared to what Mas­ter

Re­boot is now – but we ended up go­ing up to Sony within the first cou­ple of months of set­ting up the com­pany. We said, ‘Look, here’s a glut of games we’ve got. Any of th­ese take your in­ter­est?’ And Mas­ter Re­boot was the one they liked.”

Hav­ing be­gun life on PS3, Mas­ter Re­boot has since been ported to Wii U and PC. Soul Ax­iom, Wales In­ter­ac­tive’s in-progress sci-fi thriller, is aim­ing for sim­i­lar cross­plat­form ac­cess, yet designing games for spe­cific de­vices has never been con­sid­ered a pri­or­ity at the stu­dio, the team in­stead at­tempt­ing to cre­ate me­chan­ics that stand up on any plat­form where there’s an au­di­ence for them. Se­nior lead artist and designer Chris

Phillips points to how 2013’s physics-based puzzler game Grav­ity Badgers was ini­tially de­vel­oped for mo­biles and tablets, yet found its home and a fan­base on Wii U.

“The nice thing about Grav­ity Badgers was that was a con­trolled game,” says Pring. “We’ve had quite a lot of stu­dents come through that we’ve trained up – it was a good one to put them onto. But com­pared to Mas­ter Re­boot and Soul Ax­iom, it’s just a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ket­tle of fish. Even just get­ting the nar­ra­tive el­e­ments alone in th­ese games is like com­par­ing a fea­ture-length movie with mak­ing a short film.”

And in its short life­span, Wales In­ter­ac­tive has wit­nessed the ad­vent of a new con­sole gen­er­a­tion, hav­ing to evolve along with the rest of the in­dus­try to new hard­ware. “In the time we’ve been work­ing on Soul Ax­iom, we’ve gone from 360 be­ing ar­guably the top con­sole to a whole new gen­er­a­tion, and that’s just within the space of over a year,” Phillips says.

Given how af­fa­ble the staff are, it seems fit­ting that Wales In­ter­ac­tive’s re­cent works have cen­tred on themes of self, iden­tity and men­tal ex­plo­ration. The pro­gres­sion from mo­bile train­ing games to its more craft-heavy ti­tles has marked a clear shift to­wards nar­ra­tive-led ad­ven­tures. When trapped in­side an­other per­son, Pearce be­lieves, the player isn’t nec­es­sar­ily af­forded a sense of who they are, which means they lose them­selves more eas­ily in other char­ac­ters. Yet the con­cept of self is so am­bigu­ous that it’s also

“I TOLD HIM I’D BRING MY OWN DESK, MY OWN CHAIR, MY HOUSE – I WAS SO DES­PER­ATE TO GET IN­VOLVED”

af­forded the team cre­ative free­dom to ex­plore each game how­ever it sees fit.

Again, this seems ap­pro­pri­ate given the com­pa­ra­ble tim­ing of Wales In­ter­ac­tive’s rise to fame and the indie re­nais­sance of the past few years. The ‘golden era’, as Pring puts it, has come at a time when such cre­ativ­ity is en­cour­aged more than ever, with Mi­crosoft and Sony com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing indie stu­dios. Wales In­ter­ac­tive has noth­ing but praise for the feed­back, en­cour­age­ment and sup­port from the top plat­forms. The team is still ad­just­ing to the at­ten­tion it re­ceives at shows, but its name and brand is now one known in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Award bod­ies have also recog­nised the team’s work. Along­side its Cymru BAFTA, it has gar­nered recog­ni­tion in the Mi­crosoft Beau­ti­ful Game com­pe­ti­tion in 2014, and picked up the Best Indie Game De­vel­oper App­ster Award 2014. Prince Charles even paid the stu­dio a visit, although ap­par­ently his un­der­stand­ing of what was go­ing on was limited. Pring says it’s been an emo­tion­ally tu­mul­tuous few years, and ad­mits that he couldn’t have fore­seen Wales In­ter­ac­tive’s growth in such a short space of time. “Hope­fully, it doesn’t stop any time soon,” he says. Is he wor­ried that he and his team might burn out, though, given just how pro­lific they’ve been in their open­ing years?

“One of the things we are quite good at is that we’ve re­mained hum­ble,” he ex­plains. “We’ve kept our heads on and ap­pre­ci­ate what we’ve achieved. There’s a lot more we can do and, as I say, Soul Ax­iom is a far big­ger game than any­thing we’ve done be­fore, and we’re go­ing to try to make the best it can be. We’re build­ing slowly.

“There have been times in the past where we could’ve upped the team – dou­bled and tripled the team, in fact – but it’s some­thing we want to sus­tain, this com­pany. We don’t want to just go

mas­sive and burn out. We’re try­ing to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment where the guys feel safe with us, not where they might worry about be­ing made re­dun­dant be­cause we haven’t made any plans af­ter this next project.”

This sense of com­mu­nity binds to­gether the whole team, from the new­est mem­bers fresh out of uni­ver­sity to the co-own­ers them­selves. And even then, although busy deal­ing with the “bor­ing busi­ness stuff”, both Dai and Richard are still hands-on with devel­op­ment pro­cesses. Wales In­ter­ac­tive op­er­ates in such a way that there’s es­sen­tially no mid­dle-man­age­ment in­fra­struc­ture, which in turn cre­ates an easy­go­ing but fo­cused work­ing en­vi­ron­ment. Megan

Hug­gins, a Uni­ver­sity Of South Wales grad­u­ate and an­i­ma­tor, ap­pre­ci­ates the op­por­tu­ni­ties pre­sented by the com­pany. Af­ter leav­ing uni­ver­sity, she em­barked on an in­tern­ship that led to a full-time role in Jan­uary. Although the Welsh arm of the game in­dus­try is far bet­ter de­vel­oped now than it was be­fore, the num­ber of uni­ver­sity grad­u­ates far out­weighs lo­cal job op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“I def­i­nitely caught a break com­ing straight out of uni into the game in­dus­try – that’s ex­actly where I wanted to be,” Hug­gins says. “I think indie com­pa­nies are def­i­nitely more open to train­ing grad­u­ates rather than big­ger com­pa­nies, who all want ex­pe­ri­ence. Be­ing able to talk to peo­ple with dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence and dif­fer­ent ar­eas of ex­per­tise is re­ally great, be­cause if I’d went into a big­ger com­pany, I’d be sur­rounded by peo­ple who do the same stuff, so I wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily learn dif­fer­ent ar­eas.”

Part of Wales In­ter­ac­tive’s whole rea­son for be­ing was to bring up new tal­ent, and grad­u­ates are trip­ping over them­selves to get in­volved, but the alumni-to-jobs dis­par­ity in Wales means the stu­dio can’t pos­si­bly man­age the in­flux of ap­pli­ca­tions. Un­for­tu­nately for those leav­ing uni­ver­sity to­day, even ju­nior role ap­pli­ca­tions can de­mand as many as three years’ ex­pe­ri­ence, but Wales In­ter­ac­tive still does what it can for those in search of work.

“We still try to keep a few spa­ces free. We’ve got a few com­put­ers ac­tu­ally just for in­terns when they come in, and we train them up,” Pring says. “We don’t want to lose our con­nec­tion with ev­ery­thing, but there’s so many peo­ple com­ing off so many cour­ses. If it turns out we can’t have them here, what we’ll do is point them in the right di­rec­tion. We’ll ad­vise them to go to free stuff in and around Wales, such as games mee­tups, in or­der to find work at other com­pa­nies.

“One thing we did pave the way for in Wales is the fact the Welsh Gov­ern­ment, and peo­ple in Wales gen­er­ally, now re­alise that games are a prof­itable in­sti­tute. I know that sounds stupid, but in Wales it just wasn’t seen as some­thing that could make money be­fore.”

Wales In­ter­ac­tive has def­i­nitely proven this is not the case. And if Soul Ax­iom only matches up to the same tra­jec­tory as its fore­run­ner, it’s un­likely the team from Brid­gend will strug­gle on that front any time soon.

“THE WELSH GOV­ERN­MENT, AND PEO­PLE IN WALES GEN­ER­ALLY, NOW RE­ALISE GAMES ARE A PROF­ITABLE IN­STI­TUTE”

Wales In­ter­ac­tive’s com­bi­na­tion of uni­ver­sity grad­u­ates and ma­ture tal­ent con­trib­utes to a vi­brant work­ing en­vi­ron­ment

Founded 2012 Em­ploy­ees 13 Key staff Richard Pring (tech­ni­cal direc­tor), David Ban­ner (man­ag­ing direc­tor)

URL www.walesin­ter­ac­tive.com

Se­lected soft­og­ra­phy In­fin­ity Run­ner, Mas­ter Re­boot, Grav­ity Badgers, Stride Files: The Square Mur­der, DJ Space, Jibs Ar­cade

Cur­rent projects Soul Ax­iom

Wales In­ter­ac­tive has grown from a two-man bed­room op­er­a­tion to a team of 13, now housed in its Brid­gend of­fice (above). As the stu­dio has grown, so too has the scope of its ideas, and it has big plans re­gard­ing VR im­ple­men­ta­tion as the medium de­vel­ops

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