Why outsourcing frustrations led a group of Criterion alumni to create their ideal company
Meet Fireproof Games, the Criterion alumni who set out to create their perfect company
Fireproof Games’ commercial director and co-founder Barry Meade is warm and welcoming when we arrive – he immediately asks how we like our tea – but he’s feeling slightly downhearted. The studio behind The Room series is set to move to larger offices shortly, and Meade is disappointed that our visit has occurred too soon for him to show off the new digs. He takes heart in the fact that the cosy current premises are still scattered with years of awards, artwork and desk trinkets instead. Fireproof is, after all, a charismatic studio, and we would much rather see it spread out in its natural state than packed away into moving boxes.
Fireproof’s founders bonded at Criterion Studios while working as artists on the Burnout series. By the time Burnout Paradise was in production, the collective had all ascended to senior art roles and formed a tightly knit, productive team. When that working relationship was threatened, however, they were forced to take action. “There was a lot of talk internally after
Paradise about what was going to happen next with the studio,” Fireproof’s creative director and co-founder Mark Hamilton tells us. “We were concerned that we were going to start being ferried off to dive into different projects – a little bit of that, a little bit of this – and we felt like we wanted to stay together as a team.”
The natural solution to this problem, of course, was to start their own company. Given their skillset, it made sense to work with other studios and the six Criterion alumni were, ironically, inspired by the difficulties they’d faced working with external art companies during their time on Paradise. “We had gone through a period making
Burnout Paradise where we had dealt a lot with outsourcing and found it massively lacking,” Hamilton says. “We thought we could do a better version of outsourcing as a way to get a wage in and start a company. And Media Molecule had, like, one-and-a-half environment artists at that point, so they were like, ‘We may actually have work for a team of guys like you if you did start up.’ We thought, ‘Oh right, there’s at least one client.’ That was enough to make us go: ‘Well, why not?’”
Despite the significant gamble, none of Fireproof’s founders had any doubts about the validity of their plan. “We thought, ‘If we were in this position making a triple-A game, we know that there are 20 other triple-A games being made in the UK and they’re bound to have the same problems that we have,’” Meade says. “I was sure everyone was in the same position that we were.”
Determined to stay together, and encouraged by a solid business plan, the group founded Fireproof in 2008. It couldn’t have been more badly timed. The financial crisis hit soon after and, while Media Molecule remained a regular client, much of the other work that Fireproof had provisionally lined up began to disappear.
“That period was hellish,” Meade tells us. “We started in September, and that Christmas we had some subsistence money – our quitting money, basically – but it was so bad, we were just like, ‘We literally can’t run the company anymore, and if nothing changes, we’re going to come back in January and wrap it up.’”
Meade and his colleagues were prepared to spend every penny of their savings to keep the company going for long enough to build some momentum. Their confidence was buoyed, too, by the fact that they had all worked as leads on a huge game; even if the company did fail, it wouldn’t have been hard to find work. Even so, the uncertainty over the studio’s future took its toll, and it was no small relief when the founders’ commitment started to pay off the following year. The phone started to ring – something Meade predominantly puts down to the financial year ending – and business started to pick up. But there was still an uphill struggle to deal with due to the team’s unusual vision for an outsourcing company, one that was initially met with significant resistance.
“Today, it’s pretty much a given that if you’re making a massive game it’s going to be [done with] satellite studios all over the world,” says Hamilton. “It’s not just outsourcing where a company is delivering assets back to the main studio; it’s a studio over here for this bit of the game, a studio over there for that bit of the game. That’s kind of what we were trying to do back then. We were part of the studio, but we were off-site – we would be part of the team making the game. We weren’t just going to create some buildings to plug into the levels. We’d build the level for you.”
“It just wasn’t done,” Meade adds. “No one was outsourcing design back then – certainly not artistic, level or environment design. I mean, you could be involved in building an environment, but you weren’t designing it. Someone else was doing that. Whereas we were trying to say to people, ‘If you give us the whole job, you have so much less to think about, right? So in that way we’re being a much more effective outsourcer.’
“People didn’t believe it at first. I think we got a lot of custom from people who heard what we said, went away and tried the other options, and then came back to us after six months or a year of having a bad time and said, ‘Yeah, maybe your thing will work now.’ We were cheap, too: we weren’t trying to make loads of money out of people. It wasn’t just people thinking, ‘Oh, you’re awesome, we’ll totally hire you’; it was a package, and part of that was that we never got greedy. It took time, and in the first year, it was just like, ‘Nope. Nope. Nope.’ But all we
“WE WERE CHEAP, TOO. IT WASN’T JUST PEOPLE THINKING, ‘OH, YOU’RE AWESOME, WE’LL TOTALLY HIRE YOU’”
needed to do was to survive long enough for these people to come back to us, and that’s what ended up happening.”
The team had another ace up its sleeve, which helped to smooth the transition. “Our super-specialist racing expertise helped, I think,” Hamilton tells us. “Personally, I ended up working on racing games, and racing-game prototypes, for about three years for various companies. There was a point where me and one of the other guys had worked on almost every racing game that was coming out in the next two-year period. We knew everything about every racing game on the planet at that point.”
But while the team was particularly wellsuited to racing games, Fireproof was fearless when it came to tackling less familiar territory, too. “We were getting thrown a new engine or art style every six months,” Hamilton says. “I certainly learnt more in those first three years than I did in a lot of the time before that. I was picking up new skills, and we were getting pitches for contracts and going, ‘Can we do a cel-shaded, hand-painted thing? Why not? Can we do a scribbled, hand-drawn, Sesame Street Kinect game? Yeah, let’s go for it!’ Seeing the idiosyncrasies of everyone’s engine was a massive education and definitely made us all better as artists. And then, obviously, we were running a company, too, so we had all that responsibility as well. It was something that none of us were prepared for, and had to pick up as we went along.”
Even as Fireproof’s outsourcing revolution was taking place, the team knew that it wanted to make its own games eventually. The plan was always to create something original within five or six years of starting the company, but the focus at that time was on a console or PC release – formats in which the company was well-versed. When Fireproof found itself in a position to actually start developing something, the staff very quickly realised that they simply couldn’t afford to produce a game on PSN or Xbox Live.
“We were faced with a decision: remain freelance artists, or pick up Unity and have a go at a mobile game,” Meade recalls. “Mobile wasn’t on our radar at all, and it meant we wouldn’t be in our comfort zone, but at least we would still be making a videogame. It would be
ours, and if we did our best with it, we’d be proud of it at the end even if it was on a platform we didn’t know or really understand. It doesn’t really matter as long as the work is good. That’s why we made The Room, because we were forced into it. We had other game ideas that we were planning for console or PC, but none of them was this.”
When development began on The Room, Fireproof was still working on multiplayer levels for Killzone Shadow Fall. A small team broke off from that project; Fireproof brought a programmer on board – another former Criterion colleague – and the game began to take shape relatively quickly. Released in September 2012, almost exactly four years after Fireproof’s founding, The
Room quickly proved popular, racking up 200,000 downloads in its first three months.
“We made our money back and then a little bit more, so it was like, ‘Cool, we’ve done alright, let’s do another one,’” says Hamilton. “But then Christmas happened, and we got iPad Game Of The Year and quadrupled our sales instantly. At that point it was, ‘Fuck, we can shut everything else down and just do this full-time.’”
Existing contracts still had to be completed, but The Room’s tremendous, rapid success meant that Fireproof no longer needed to look for work elsewhere. Three instalments of The Room later, and with VR jetpack spy-training game Omega
Agent also released, Fireproof’s willingness to take risks and commit to unproven strategies has paid off for the fiercely independent studio.
“I think we’re the kind of company that will jump from one thing to the next,” Meade says. “We’re not really going to plough the same furrow. I mean, obviously, we’re going to make lots of The Room games – that’s different, though, as The Room is kind of special to us. But we go out of our way to do ‘not- Rooms’ whenever we get a chance. I think that’s kind of got us where we are today.
“When we made The Room, we had no reason to believe it was going to take off. There was no Apple featuring, or anything like that. We won iPad Game Of The Year six months after release – none of that was there at the beginning. We were just a bunch of artists who hired one programmer to help them make a game on mobile. But I remember saying to the guys, ‘If we put all our effort into this and do something that we think is really great, and we release it and it absolutely bombs, we at least have a really good piece of work that we can hold our heads up with.’” The team ended up with an awful lot more than that.
“BUT THEN CHRISTMAS HAPPENED, AND WE GOT IPAD GAME OF THE YEAR AND QUADRUPLED OUR SALES INSTANTLY”
From left: Commercial director Barry Meade and creative director Mark Hamilton, both also Fireproof co-founders
“We don’t know what the future holds because we’re kind of following our noses,” Meade explains. “We have money in the bank that allows us to do that, and that just allows us to do the next project that we really want to do, not the one we feel forced to do”