Meet Edge Case Games, the UK studio with a door that’s always open to its community
Convention dictates that the walls of today’s game studios should be festooned with common reference points of contemporary geek culture. After all, what are visitors to think of your nerd credentials if your team isn’t surrounded by carefully selected boardgames, a spread of immaculate vintage consoles, and at least a handful of Lego Star Wars sets?
Visit Edge Case Games in Guildford and everything on the developer interior-design hit list is in place. Or at least, it was all in place, before somebody moved it. Something is different on the shelves at the working home of the team behind
Fractured Space, a multiplayer arena space combat game currently deep in Early Access.
The boardgames, for one, are a little well loved and piled in a slightly ramshackle heap. There are even some abandoned miniatures spread across a foldup wargaming table that may just be home-made. At least one of the Lego Star Wars sets on display is midway through construction, and the closest thing to a reception area coffee table covered in oversized design books is a pile of old Viz and Eagle issues stacked chaotically in the lavatory.
Edge Case isn’t quite untidy, but there’s enough evidence to assume the studio’s flag in the ground of geek culture is authentically placed. This, it seems, is a workplace where display pieces are also playthings.
“We joke that our boss is just using the studio as a garage,” says Jim Mummery, CCO at Edge Case, pondering the area around him. In fact, it’s something more than that, even if Edge Case’s CEO James Brooksby is by his own admission “a bit of a hoarder”.
With those words, Brooksby swings open a large door, revealing a vast spare room crammed with boxes. Some contain old floppy disks and redundant video cameras; others multiple copies of sealed PC games collected from former studio closures. And Brooksby has enthusiasm for each and every boxload.
“For me, when I had the opportunity to create a studio exactly in the way I wanted it to be – even if it has been a moving feast and evolved as the studio’s grown here – I wanted to establish a studio where people interested in working on the kind of games we make feel comfortable,” the CEO explains.
“And I also did intentionally create a place that would feel like a big kid’s bedroom, because I know a lot of people in this industry don’t want to grow up too much. I think it’s fair to say there are a lot of Peter Pans in the game-making business, and I didn’t want it to be forced, or too pristine. I want people to really feel at home here. I’ll draw the line at people leaving their pants on the floor, but if they feel at home, and pick up on that relaxed feel, I think that’s good for our team and the game.”
Sometimes staff Magic: The Gathering clashes must go on hold as deadlines loom, of course, and Edge Case is first and foremost a studio with ambitious plans for success, but it’s clear the playthings on the shelves here do something more than simply tick boxes to charm visitors.
The building itself is, in fact, a former tile warehouse (or a carpet store, depending on who you speak to), and it has its own small place in videogame history. The waters that famously flooded No Man’s Sky developer Hello Games on Christmas Eve 2013 first came rushing through the area where Fractured Space is today underway. Edge Case, it turns out, is the nextdoor neighbour of Hello, and almost as close to the River Wey, which was so overwhelmed with rainwater that fateful December.
Today, things are much calmer in the converted warehouse, and a murmur of conversations about designing spacecraft is about the most dramatic tangible force. The team has been working on Fractured Space for as long as Edge Case has existed under that name, as it strives to build a title that successfully combines the energy of a shooter, the depth of a core strategy game, and the drama of the space combat scenes that made the 2004 iteration of Battlestar Galactica so beguiling.
Edge Case actually grew out of Born Ready Games, the outfit behind another space combat game, Strike Suit Zero. And while Born Ready continues to exist, today much of its development talent operate as part of Edge Case, where they’re crafting a game with the full involvement of an Early Access community.
While there’s not much unusual about adopting the Early Access route to release today, Edge Case is taking things a little further than most, having initially debuted Fractured Space at a time when a basic prototype with extremely primitive visual assets was released to a player community in part built up by Born Ready.
“Because we’re an arena multiplayer game that’s quite intense, we need to approach it this way. We simply have to have an open dialogue with our community to make something like this, so we can get it to where we want things to be,” Mummery explains, sharing his belief that a game that on release will be driven by a community should be approached the same way when in development. As such, Mummery and his colleagues have shared almost every detail of Fractured Space with their existing playerbase, and even streamed internal playtests that spotlight game builds that are far from polished.
“We also have to treat that community of players with respect,” the CCO continues, touching on the point that what is set to be a free-to-play game is – in its Early Access form – currently paid-for content. “And it could be tempting to treat them as a free QA environment. But we would never throw the stuff we throw at QA at our players. Our community is so dedicated to our game we have to treat them like any other players.”
THE WATERS THAT FAMOUSLY FLOODED NO MAN’S SKY DEVELOPER HELLO GAMES FIRST CAME RUSHING THROUGH HERE
In fact, there’s a careful process for involving the community in Fractured Space’s creation that allows the Edge Case team to take thousands of different voices and shape them into a tool that’s used to recognise audience needs, without derailing the original vision.
“Part of open development is about taking all the voices and finding the consistent notes,” Mummery points out. “So if one person says, ‘This doesn’t work,’ we take it on board, but if we hear that sentiment a few times, we have to pay attention to it. Then we have to prove that out and see how it works.”
It’s a process that all of the Edge Case senior team recognise as a complex one and understand as an important element in the studio’s own spin on hierarchy, where creative process has been democratised to a certain extent. There are no auteurs here, though Brooksby and his fellow leads do exercise a degree of control – a necessity when, for every staff member it employs, Edge Case is also managing hundreds of ideas pitched from the community.
“I don’t think we’ve entirely set our creative hierarchy here, and it can always change with every new individual,” Brooksby says. “We might bring on somebody in a particular role with a strong creative vision for their contribution, for example, and that can change things.
“And with open development, even our Early Access audience are part of that. But, I guess, there’s myself and Jim at the top, and we’re influencing a lot of what initially goes on creatively. But actually, we do have to step away at times, and then the rest of the team’s creativity comes in. We still have to make some priority decisions at the top, but the creativity comes from the whole team, who also listen to the community, who also have a creative influence over the game.”
Fractured Space itself is unashamedly influenced by all kinds of factors, not just the story of Admiral Adama’s flight from Battlestar’s Cylon threat. In part, that’s the reason Brooksby has applied his ‘big kid’s bedroom’ theory.
“If our team can be inspired by a boardgame’s cover art, or an old videogame they’re playing in their lunch break, that’s what we want,” he states. “We want to keep the creative neurons firing. That’s why we’re not afraid to say we’re influenced by what we love. Certainly, for now at least, we look around at what we enjoy, and bring those things into what we’re making, and that’s important to the games we make. Strike Suit Zero came from the fact we love X-Wing, Wing Commander and TIE Fighter, and that I love Macross. We put all those things we love into a game we loved making. We made sure we couldn’t see anybody else making the same game, and that’s important, but we did pull on the things that matter to us.”
Yet for all the love and boardgames, Edge Case isn’t afraid to position itself as a business. Brooksby wants Fractured Space to be successful for “many, many, many years”, a statement that’s of particular interest to the studio COO Chris
Mehers, who has been instrumental in working with investors, venture capitalists and partners to assure Edge Case has a robust financial future.
“We’ve really – in the last three to four months – turned our attention to the fact we’re developing a free-to-play game that’s currently behind a paywall,” Mehers says. “It’s going to go free, and we have to sustain that. We at least need it to make enough money to pay everyone’s wages. Obviously we want much more success than that, but that has to be the most important thing. We’re not the kind of team to develop based on something like increasing margins by an exact percentage, but at some point our investors need us to make some money.”
Certainly, amid the authentic spirit of playfulness – and surrounded by those toycovered walls – this is a company with money on its mind. And there, again, working closely with the Fractured Space community is seen as vital to success. “Fortunately, an open relationship with our user community means we can really see in advance how our game is going to work,” Mehers offers. “That’s really important to making it a success. I think where games are going as an entertainment property, if you like, is about building communities, and about building long-term relationships with people. I think that’s increasingly important to think about a studio as a business, and open development is the best way to do that.”
While clearly focused on the future, Edge Case has a long heritage behind it in its Guildford home, and a line can be traced back beyond Born Ready to a number of local studios that have served the famed game development hub for many years. Not that the past means the team is entirely immune to local rivalries. It turns out that a mysterious cat has been playing Edge Case and Hello Games off against one another, ingratiating itself with both studios.
“We’ve got a special spot for Jonesy,” Brooksby says, pointing to a yellow cushion at one end of a desk, as he strolls through his studio chatting with his staff. “We call him ‘Jonesy’, at least. I don’t know what Hello call him, but my team is getting worried he’s spending a little more time next door.”
The rivalry is an entirely good-humoured one. Brooksby explains that he and Hello Games MD Sean Murray like to catch up over a cup of tea when they can find the time, to talk over the game-making world throughout Guildford and beyond. Edge Case has, however, made Jonesy a character in Fractured
Space. Your move, No Man’s Sky.
Chris Mehers, James Brooksby and Jim Mummery, who between them spearhead the Fractured Space project FROM LEFT
The open development model at Edge Case means that its employees’ desktops are often shared with the world
LEFT A core concept art timeline dominates one of the studio’s walls, keeping the game’s aesthetic unified as it continues to evolve. ABOVE The company encourages a relaxed environment, with most of the team sharing a single open creative space