Stu­dio Pro­file

Why out­sourc­ing frus­tra­tions led a group of Cri­te­rion alumni to cre­ate their ideal com­pany

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY BEN MAXWELL

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”

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