Stu­dio Pro­file

In­side Su­per­mas­sive Games, the UK stu­dio on a mis­sion to live up to the am­bi­tions of its name

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY NATHAN BROWN Pho­tog­ra­phy Olly Cur­tis

W’ve seen fuller tro­phy cab­i­nets than this. They’ve been more promi­nently dis­played than this one, too, which sits at the back of the main de­vel­op­ment floor at Su­per­mas­sive’s Guild­ford HQ. There’s no shame in it: the stu­dio has been in business for only eight years, dur­ing which time it has worked largely in niches. Yet stand­ing alone, gleam­ing on the mid­dle shelf, is a BAFTA, and a cov­eted one at that: the 2015 award for Best Orig­i­nal Prop­erty, awarded to Su­per­mas­sive’s break­out hit, the teen slasher Un­til Dawn.

“It’s such a dif­fi­cult thing to do,” man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Pete Sa­muels tells us. “It al­ways has been, in our in­dus­try, to cre­ate some­thing from scratch. It’s opened some doors for us, for sure.” Af­ter eight years in which it has worked so closely with Sony that it has of­ten felt like a first­party stu­dio, Su­per­mas­sive is strik­ing out alone, work­ing on mul­ti­ple plat­forms and with other pub­lish­ers. It’s bet­ting heav­ily on VR, work­ing on a range of new hard­ware with un­fa­mil­iar tech, chang­ing its day-to-day op­er­a­tions in or­der to ac­com­mo­date its new way of work­ing. There might not be much in that tro­phy cab­i­net, but what’s in­side mat­ters a tremen­dous amount, and has trans­formed the stu­dio that won it.

Still, to un­der­stand its im­pact, you need to go back to the start. Sa­muels was on sab­bat­i­cal from his job as se­nior de­vel­op­ment di­rec­tor at EA, sip­ping a mo­jito in a ho­tel bar in Cuba, when he de­cided to go it alone. He spoke to a few friends and for­mer col­leagues, and lured his brother out of semi-re­tire­ment to be his business part­ner. Yet Su­per­mas­sive would not be of­fi­cially formed for some time. First, Sa­muels spent two years in Am­s­ter­dam, helm­ing a team of pro­duc­tion con­trac­tors who helped Guer­rilla Games fin­ish Kil­l­zone 2. That would turn out to be a vi­tally im­por­tant deal for Sa­muels and Su­per­mas­sive in the years that fol­lowed. In the short term, how­ever, it led to an im­pressed Sony ask­ing Sa­muels to put to­gether a team to make some­thing for the launch of its new mo­tion con­troller, PlayS­ta­tion Move.

“When we started to work with it, it was just a card­board box with a ping-pong ball on top,”

Steve Goss, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of de­sign and tech­nol­ogy, re­calls. “Pete was off do­ing a lot of work with Guer­rilla and other stu­dios, and Jonathan [Amor, now op­er­a­tions di­rec­tor], Justin [Rae, for­mer art di­rec­tor], Har­vey [Wheaton, stu­dio di­rec­tor un­til 2013] and I used to sit in a meet­ing room down­stairs, de­sign­ing our first game.” The game in ques­tion, the cheer­ily bonkers AR minigame col­lec­tion Start The Party!, im­pressed Sony to the ex­tent that it asked Su­per­mas­sive if it could take on a sec­ond game for Move’s launch. “That turned out to be Tum­ble, which was where it all re­ally kicked off for the stu­dio,” Sa­muels says. “We grew quickly, from six peo­ple to 40 or 50, over eight or nine months. It was the first time we ex­pe­ri­enced the pain of growth – there was a lot of stuff we’d never come across be­fore – but we sur­vived it. And out of, I think, five first­party launch ti­tles for Move, two of them were ours.”

The re­la­tion­ship with Sony was crit­i­cal early on, and has been ever since; the PlayS­ta­tion maker has ef­fec­tively kept the lights on for the stu­dio’s en­tire eight years in business. Su­per­mas­sive made all but one of the DLC level kits for Lit­tleBigPlanet, ev­ery one for the se­quel, Ar­cade mode for Lit­tleBigPlanet Vita, and lent a hand to LBP3. Sa­muels’ early work at Guer­rilla yielded the Kil­l­zone HD gig, some map-mak­ing du­ties on Kil­l­zone Shadow Fall, and the use of Guer­rilla’s en­gine for the mak­ing of Un­til Dawn. Su­per­mas­sive went on to de­velop Walk­ing

With Di­nosaurs for Sony’s Won­der­book AR project. And when PSVR came along it was there, again, mak­ing two of five first­party launch games, the on-rails shooter Un­til Dawn: A Rush

Of Blood and, in a charm­ingly full-cir­cle move, a vir­tual-re­al­ity re­make of Tum­ble. In eight years the only game Su­per­mas­sive has made for any com­pany other than Sony is 2012’s Doc­tor

Who: The Eter­nity Clock. Pub­lished by BBC World­wide, it was dis­trib­uted by – well, you can prob­a­bly guess.

It has been, to the out­side observer, of­ten un­sexy work. But few could dis­pute that it has all been valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence – of­ten more valu­able than any­one could ever have fore­seen. Af­ter all, there must have been a time when Su­per­mas­sive’s early foray into mo­tion con­trols with Move must have seemed like a bad idea in hind­sight, as pub­lic opin­ion turned against the in­put method and the in­dus­try had no choice but to fol­low suit. Now, with Move the pre­ferred con­trol method for PSVR and de­mand push­ing eBay prices into triple fig­ures, it looks like a bril­liant way to have started a com­pany.

Yet as the stu­dio’s name im­plies, Sa­muels and co have al­ways had their sights set on some­thing big­ger. “The se­nior team had [pre­vi­ously] worked on big fran­chises like Harry

Pot­ter and The Lord Of The Rings,” Sa­muels says. “We’d done a lot of big stuff, but to do that in­de­pen­dently? No­body comes along when you’re a one- or two- or three-man band and says, ‘Here’s tens of mil­lions of pounds – go make us a game.’ You’ve got to build a rep­u­ta­tion.” With Sony, at least, that rep­u­ta­tion was first built, and soon ce­mented. Su­per­mas­sive was ready for some­thing big­ger.

To say that Un­til Dawn took a while would be an un­der­state­ment, but the story of its de­vel­op­ment is about more than just the amount of time it took; four years isn’t so long for a pub­lisher that has The Last Guardian on its books, in any case. Rather, it was the changes it went through. It be­gan as a PS3 game, but

“WHEN WE STARTED TO WORK WITH IT, IT WAS JUST A CARD­BOARD BOX WITH A PING-PONG BALL ON TOP”

was even­tu­ally re­leased for PS4; when it was first shown in pub­lic, it was ex­clu­sively Move con­trolled, but a rap­tur­ous Gamescom re­cep­tion, com­bined with the de­cline of mo­tion con­trol on con­soles, meant it was re­built around a DualShock. Sa­muels ad­mits that the push to get

Un­til Dawn over the line was one of the tough­est times Su­per­mas­sive has faced. “We were wor­ried about it, about how it was go­ing to be re­ceived. We knew it wasn’t go­ing to be ev­ery­one’s cup of tea. They were very un­com­fort­able times, fin­ish­ing that game off, the re­al­i­sa­tion we were go­ing to have to let our baby go. They were ner­vous times… Look­ing back, though, we had noth­ing to worry about.”

In­deed. Sales dra­mat­i­cally ex­ceeded ex­pec­ta­tions, the BAFTA quickly fol­lowed, and Sa­muels and co re­alised their stu­dio was ready to spread its wings. “I’ve en­joyed the last 12 months, visit­ing ev­ery big pub­lisher on the planet, hav­ing great con­ver­sa­tions with them,” Sa­muels says. “I’m ex­cited about the fu­ture. We’re an in­de­pen­dent stu­dio, and we kind of re­alised last year that a lot of the rest of the world doesn’t see us that way, be­cause of the work we’ve been do­ing. It’s about breadth – there are a lot of peo­ple who would love to play the games we make that aren’t nec­es­sar­ily PlayS­ta­tion play­ers. For us to build an au­di­ence, I think it’s im­por­tant for us to broaden be­yond a sin­gle plat­form.”

De­tails are scant, but Sa­muels con­firms that “a num­ber” of pro­jects in de­vel­op­ment have deals in place, and hints that an­other is im­mi­nent. What is clear is that Su­per­mas­sive has an aw­ful lot of irons in the fire at the mo­ment; while Sa­muels is at pains to point out that this has al­ways been a multi-project stu­dio, things have surely never been quite so var­ied as they are now. That’s due, in large part, to the in­creased fo­cus on VR. Around a third of the stu­dio’s 100 staff is cur­rently work­ing on a VR project, of which there are sev­eral, the need to rapidly pro­to­type new ideas more vi­tal than ever in a still-nascent space. “It’s the Wild West,” ex­ec­u­tive cre­ative di­rec­tor Will Byles tells us. “We’ll have meet­ings about how we’re go­ing to do some­thing, then we’ll pro­to­type it and it’s like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so rub­bish.’ It makes you sick, it feels hor­ri­ble. It’s much harder to plan – there’s no right or wrong un­til you prove it’s right or wrong, and some­times the thing that seems to be coun­ter­in­tu­itive works the best.”

There is tremen­dous en­thu­si­asm at the stu­dio for vir­tual re­al­ity – un­sur­pris­ingly, re­ally, for a group that started out work­ing with un­fa­mil­iar new tech, with that card­board mockup of Move. Su­per­mas­sive’s first work in VR came be­fore Sony’s hard­ware was even avail­able for test­ing, as Si­mon Har­ris, the stu­dio’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of VR games, ex­plains. “We built the ex­e­cutable, had to take it to a Sony of­fice, put it on an­other ma­chine and just sit there, cross our fin­gers and hope that it ran.”

Run it did, and while things are a lit­tle more pre­dictable th­ese days, that spirit of hope­ful ex­per­i­men­ta­tion re­mains. VR game-mak­ing is still as much a mat­ter of find­ing out what doesn’t work as what does, but Har­ris and team are even chal­leng­ing what passes for the sta­tus quo. “With Un­til Dawn: Rush Of Blood, we were just slightly bel­liger­ent,” he says. “There were a load of peo­ple stand­ing up at the early [VR] con­fer­ences go­ing, ‘Yeah, VR’s bril­liant, but you mustn’t do this, you mustn’t do that, you can’t ac­cel­er­ate or de­cel­er­ate, you mustn’t move the cam­era…’ We were just like, well, what if we do all those things? In the roller­coaster sec­tions of

Rush Of Blood, we break a huge num­ber of th­ese rules that peo­ple say you mustn’t break, and that’s pre­cisely what makes them so com­fort­able.”

Away from VR, the com­pany has sim­i­lar am­bi­tions. Byles points out the ways that Su­per­mas­sive bucked con­ven­tion in Un­til Dawn, im­port­ing light­ing and an­i­ma­tion tech­niques from the film in­dus­try, rather than fol­low­ing the gamedesign rule­book (for more on that, see E288’ s The Mak­ing Of…), and it seems that trend will con­tinue. Un­for­tu­nately, the se­nior team have been around long enough to know not to let any de­tails slip, but we don’t need specifics to un­der­stand what Sa­muels’ team is go­ing for. “As great as Un­til Dawn was,” he says, “and as proud as we are of it, un­less the next things we do are bet­ter than that, we won’t be happy.”

The re­cur­ring theme is of a stu­dio that is for­ever chal­leng­ing it­self, mov­ing into un­ex­plored ar­eas, find­ing the bound­aries and at least pok­ing at them, if not push­ing through them com­pletely. A stu­dio that has al­ways done so, in fact, but has per­haps been a lit­tle too close to a sin­gle pub­lisher for enough peo­ple to no­tice. Su­per­mas­sive, step­ping out from un­der Sony’s wing, seems set to fi­nally live up to its name. If ev­ery­thing goes to plan, that tro­phy cab­i­net is soon to be­come a lot more crowded.

“THEY WERE VERY UN­COM­FORT­ABLE TIMES, THE RE­AL­I­SA­TION WE WERE GO­ING TO HAVE TO LET OUR BABY GO”

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Su­per­mas­sive Games man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Pete Sa­muels (left) and Si­mon Har­ris, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer, VR games

Right now, Su­per­mas­sive’s Guild­forld head­quar­ters isn’t quite at ca­pac­ity – when de­vel­op­ment of Un­tilDawn was at its peak, there were around 130 peo­ple at the com­pany. The stu­dio is still hir­ing, how­ever, both for VR pro­jects and tra­di­tional con­sole games

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