Stu­dio Pro­file

The work-for-hire stu­dio that’s rein­vent­ing it­self at the fore­front of VR pro­duc­tion

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY BEN MAXWELL

In­side Cli­max, the 28-year-old work-for-hire spe­cial­ist rein­vent­ing it­self as a pow­er­house in VR

To gain ac­cess to Cli­max Stu­dios’ premises, we have to en­ter a four-digit code into a jury-rigged key­pad that sits above the lift’s stan­dard con­trols. And as if to fur­ther un­der­score this com­pany’s re­la­tion­ship with videogames, the num­bers on the four keys that we need are all but rubbed off, while the re­main­ing but­tons look brand new. We’ve seen this ob­sta­cle in games be­fore and, us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of the smarts gained from a re­cent fort­night spent break­ing into build­ings as Adam Jensen and, er, the re­cep­tion­ist telling us which com­bi­na­tion to use, we as­cend to the of­fice un­hin­dered. That your first act on en­ter­ing the build­ing im­me­di­ately calls to mind a videogame puz­zle is ap­pro­pri­ate, but those worn-away but­tons also sug­gest a long­stand­ing rou­tine.

Un­til re­cently, such a charge could be rea­son­ably lev­elled at the stu­dio. This is, af­ter all, an in­de­pen­dent com­pany that owes its 28 years of sta­bil­ity to a solid foun­da­tion of work-for-hire pro­jects. Its first cred­its, in fact, were late-’90s con­sole ports of War­craft II: Tides Of Dark­ness and Di­ablo, but Cli­max has pro­duced its fair share of orig­i­nal work, too. Af­ter ac­quir­ing Brighton-based Pixel Planet in 1999, later re­named Cli­max Rac­ing (a stu­dio that went on to be­come the now-de­funct Black Rock Stu­dios af­ter its ac­qui­si­tion by what was then Buena Vista Games in 2006), the group re­leased a se­ries of rac­ers in­clud­ing Rally Fu­sion: Race Of Cham­pi­ons, ATV Quad Power Rac­ing and seven Mo­toGP games. An early shot at an MMORPG based on the Warham­mer uni­verse, started in 2002, went awry when Games Work­shop pulled the plug on fund­ing, but the JRPG-in­spired Sudeki emerged in 2004 un­scathed.

One of Cli­max’s most no­table moves, how­ever, was tak­ing the reins from Kon­ami’s Team Silent, a switch that man­i­fested in 2007’s

Silent Hill: Ori­gins, which orig­i­nated in LA but was brought over to Portsmouth af­ter a trou­bled start. At the time, Her Story writer and di­rec­tor Sam Bar­low headed up a Cli­max team that rewrote the script, re­designed the lev­els and re­made all of the crea­tures in the space of a week. Kon­ami was pleased with the 2007 re­lease, earn­ing Cli­max a rep­u­ta­tion as a pair of safe hands, and the breath­ing room to cre­ate

Shat­tered Mem­o­ries, a reimag­in­ing of the orig­i­nal game. Kon­ami’s new-found trust in the stu­dio also led to other col­lab­o­ra­tions with Cli­max, in­clud­ing Rocket Knight and the PC port of Castl­e­va­nia: Lords Of Shadow.

The stu­dio’s grow­ing rep­u­ta­tion and ex­per­tise landed it work with other prom­i­nent pub­lish­ers too, lead­ing to Eyepet & Friends, the PS3 and Vita ver­sions of Re­so­gun, and Dead Na­tion’s PS4 and Vita it­er­a­tions. It’s also be­hind the

As­sas­sin’s Creed Chron­i­cles tril­ogy, a 2.5D spinoff from the main se­ries span­ning China, In­dia and Rus­sia. Over the past three years, how­ever, the stu­dio has un­der­gone some­thing of a meta­mor­pho­sis, ditch­ing large team struc­tures in favour of mul­ti­ple, smaller pro­jects – it cur­rently has nine games in the works – and a zeal­ous fo­cus on VR and AR.

“It’s nice to be at the cut­ting edge for once,” CEO Si­mon Gard­ner tells us. “We missed the boat with mo­bile – we were just way too slow. There’s a lot of work in those early days, and it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make fi­nan­cial sense when you look at it on pa­per. So you think, ‘I’ll wait a bit’. Then, by the time you jump in, you have such a lot of catch­ing up to do. So re­ally that was one of the driv­ers for us for get­ting into VR. I was like, ‘I’m not go­ing to miss this – let’s just do it’.

“But we were lucky – more through ac­ci­dent than de­sign, if I’m hon­est. We’ve al­ways been rea­son­ably care­ful, and that’s why we’re 28 years old. We only started with one VR ti­tle, then very rapidly be­gan our sec­ond on Ocu­lus. We kind of fell into the mo­bile side of it with our Gear VR stuff and – cer­tainly from the rev­enue po­ten­tial and in­stalled base in the short term – we’ve lucked out there. We’ve been do­ing VR for three years, and most peo­ple are only jump­ing into it now. With things like Day­dream and even Google Card­board we’ve been able to op­er­ate in that space from a po­si­tion of knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence and say, ‘Yeah, we know what we’re do­ing here’, be­cause we’ve built con­sid­er­able ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­per­tise that has en­abled us to spread our net in the VR space.”

In­deed, the stu­dio has em­braced the tech­nol­ogy whole­heart­edly and with glee­ful plat­form ag­nos­ti­cism. Along­side sev­eral Rift ports, Cli­max has put out WWII shoot­ers Ban­dit Six and se­quel Ban­dit Six: Salvo on Gear VR, while

Gun­sight will bring retro-themed run-and-gun ac­tion to the plat­form, tak­ing in­spi­ra­tion from the

Metal Slug games and the Trans­form­ers an­i­mated se­ries. Tow­ers For Tango is a SimTower- es­que con­struc­tion and man­age­ment sim by Cli­max’s Auck­land team, us­ing Google’s Tango AR tech­nol­ogy to bring its lit­tle peo­ple to life. Bal­loon

Chair Death Match for Vive sees play­ers try to shoot out each other’s flota­tion aids with a re­volver while nav­i­gat­ing a high-rise city. The stu­dio is also work­ing on an unan­nounced project for Google’s forth­com­ing Day­dream.

“We’ve had to learn flex­i­bil­ity,” Gard­ner says. “We don’t start an 80-per­son project now and think, ‘OK, that’s it for the next three-and-ahalf years’. That will change, of course – as this tech­nol­ogy ex­pands, the teams will grow and the pro­jects will get big­ger. But at the mo­ment, the teams are about ten peo­ple, peaking at be­tween 15 and 25 de­pend­ing on the size of the project. That’s tiny com­pared to a con­sole game.”

That shift has had an in­evitable and pro­found ef­fect on the stu­dio cul­ture that de­fines Cli­max, which has found a new lease of life since

“THESE TEAMS ARE ABOUT TEN PEO­PLE, PEAKING AT BE­TWEEN 15 AND 25. THAT’S TINY COM­PARED TO A CON­SOLE GAME”

fo­cus­ing on VR and AR. A num­ber of staff have moved on to other com­pa­nies as the op­por­tu­ni­ties to work on larger con­sole pro­jects dropped off, and Gard­ner and his man­age­ment team have repo­si­tioned for­mer spe­cial­ists into new, more gen­er­alised roles as new work­ing prac­tices have been adopted.

“It’s been a great op­por­tu­nity to pro­mote peo­ple within the stu­dio, to give them more re­spon­si­bil­ity within pro­jects,” Gard­ner says. “I’m a great be­liever in giv­ing peo­ple a go at stuff and help­ing them – giv­ing them the op­por­tu­ni­ties so they can ex­pand their abil­i­ties, and it keeps their job fresh and in­ter­est­ing.”

“When we started Gun­sight, it felt ex­actly like when I first started in the in­dus­try mak­ing games on PS1,” says Ian Hud­son, Gun­sight’s lead de­signer. “The big­gest team I worked on was prob­a­bly Split/Sec­ond, and there were 100-and-some­thing peo­ple on that, and it was over two floors of the of­fice. Gun­sight is just a few rows of desks, and things get changed re­ally quickly – you can try things with­out af­fect­ing loads of other peo­ple, and de­ci­sions are made quickly as a re­sult.”

Hav­ing so many teams in the same build­ing means that col­lab­o­ra­tion is easy, giv­ing teams a leg up when they col­lide with UI or game­play is­sues in VR that an­other team has solved pre­vi­ously. But it has also brought about a more tu­mul­tuous dis­tri­bu­tion of tal­ent as em­ploy­ees in­ter­min­gle and switch teams as pro­jects and dead­lines re­quire – a sys­tem that also has so­cial ben­e­fits, since ev­ery­one gets to work with ev­ery­one else, rather than ex­ist­ing in si­los.

“When you work in smaller teams, you get more own­er­ship of your stuff, and peo­ple care and are more mo­ti­vated, which is re­flected in the end prod­uct,” says Jolyon Leonard, se­nior de­signer on Bal­loons. “[And work­ing with VR] blows a whole bunch of tra­di­tional game de­sign ideas out of the win­dow – they just don’t work any more. You have all these prob­lems and you don’t know how to fix them, so I’m hav­ing to learn every­thing from scratch again. I love it – it’s rekin­dled my love for my job.”

While Cli­max has found a com­fort­able space in which to op­er­ate, switch­ing from a pre­dom­i­nantly work-for-hire stu­dio to a mar­ket that, de­spite huge cor­po­rate and pub­lisher in­vest­ment, re­mains an un­proven one, might be seen as a risky ap­proach. Gard­ner, how­ever, takes a dif­fer­ent view of the sit­u­a­tion.

“I don’t think we’ve felt vul­ner­a­ble at all in this tran­si­tion,” he says. “The ex­act op­po­site, in fact – it’s just filled us with con­fi­dence. Be un­der no il­lu­sion: even port­ing a game is re­ally hard and tech­ni­cally dif­fi­cult. And we have some of the best peo­ple in cod­ing work­ing in the game in­dus­try be­cause the types of things they have to do are so com­plex. But the peo­ple we’ve got have been able to take this stuff in their stride. Yes, it’s all new, but it hasn’t felt risky at all.”

And Cli­max hasn’t en­tirely aban­doned its past. Dur­ing our visit, we also see a cou­ple of as-yet-unan­nounced tra­di­tional con­sole pro­jects in de­vel­op­ment. Mean­while, the stu­dio’s for­mi­da­ble tech­ni­cal knowl­edge has po­si­tioned it as a kind of un­sung hero of the in­dus­try.

“We’re do­ing en­gi­neer­ing work for peo­ple all the time – it’s some­thing we rarely get recog­ni­tion for,” Gard­ner says. “If other com­pa­nies are hav­ing prob­lems, we quite of­ten get brought in by the pub­lisher to add our ex­per­tise and knowl­edge. That’s not to say we’re bet­ter than they are, it’s just we can maybe fo­cus on some­thing that then frees up the team to fin­ish the game. Bug fix­ing, for ex­am­ple, or con­tent cre­ation. In­ter­face is an­other big thing we do – it’s a big part of how you get in­for­ma­tion across. Be­cause we use mul­ti­ple en­gines, we’ve got lots of ex­pe­ri­ence across plat­forms, and those are skills we’ve honed over 30 years.”

Gard­ner’s ex­cite­ment for the fu­ture, and his ob­vi­ous pride in Cli­max’s achieve­ments and the peo­ple that work here, are tem­pered by a mod­esty that runs through the com­pany’s DNA. This is a stu­dio that’s happy to help others achieve their best work with­out tak­ing any of the credit, and Gard­ner’s out­ward con­fi­dence in Cli­max’s grasp of VR shouldn’t be mis­taken for unchecked ar­ro­gance.

“It’s al­ways nice when peo­ple know about things that you’ve made and things that you’re do­ing – get­ting recog­ni­tion from your peer group,” he says when we ask about how he sees the com­pany’s pro­file to­day. “It’s nice when peo­ple say, ‘Hey, I’ve heard you guys are do­ing some re­ally in­ter­est­ing stuff’. We didn’t get that when Cli­max was a work-for-hire stu­dio. And we gen­uinely do be­lieve that [VR and AR] is go­ing to turn into some­thing that touches ev­ery­body’s lives. But we’ll see how we do with Bal­loon Chair Death Match. If it’s the suc­cess we hope it will be, then that will open a new chap­ter on where we’re go­ing.”

“WE’VE GOT LOTS OF EX­PE­RI­ENCE ACROSS PLAT­FORMS, AND THOSE ARE SKILLS WE’VE HONED OVER 30 YEARS”

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The Bal­loonChairDeathMatch team, headed up by Jolyon Leonard (far right). Cli­max’s small teams change reg­u­larly

Cli­max is ex­pand­ing as it moves to main­tain its place at the head of the emerg­ing VR mar­ket. Thanks to size­able in­vest­ment in the sec­tor, the stu­dio has lined up a wide range of VR and AR pro­jects, and CEO Si­mon Gard­ner ex­pects the au­di­ence for such ti­tles to grow rapidly

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