Stu­dio Pro­file

Meet Edge Case Games, the UK stu­dio with a door that’s al­ways open to its com­mu­nity

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY WILL FREEMAN

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.

98

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

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