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