The Ripple Effect
Inside Splash Damage
Each year The Sunday Times ranks what it believes to be the best places to work for, the top 100 companies that offer the perfect balance of fulfilling work, rewarding opportunities and a suitable working environment. It’s a noteworthy achievement and in 2018 Splash Damage made its debut, ranking in at an impressive 47th. It begs the question: just what is it exactly that makes a company the best to work for?
“When you’re small it’s quite easy,” says Richard Jolly, one of the original founders of the studio beginning back in 2001, “because you’ve got this growing passion together and you know each other really well. But when you start to scale a bit larger you start to lose some of that and we certainly felt those growing pains over the years and made a few mistakes.”
If one thing became clear in our time at
Splash Damage, it was that it is a studio full of passionate people, to an extent that it felt as almost like piety towards the developer. Jolly points to one particular example of the mistakes that were made being – as he calls it – hiring for skill rather than personality fit. In the earlier days the company had the opportunity to hire a big
name from the film industry, a crossover that, at the time, never happened. “He had worked on super high-profile films, and we said ‘wow, we’re getting guys from the movie industry, we’ve finally made it!’.”
After hiring him in, however, he simply did not sit well within the company and it was clear that hiring for skill wasn’t the way that Splash Damage wanted to continue. “It was sad that you could start to lose your culture so quickly by not bringing in the right people and not growing the right way. We felt the effects of that for a long time, and that was the catalyst that made us decide how to stop this from happening in the future and ask how we could retain this friendly feel that we had.”
The result, we’re told, was a setting in stone of Splash Damage’s values, a term that Jolly himself jokingly scoffs at as “corporate bullshit”. In fact, it’s something that Erol Kentli, lead artist at the studio, is quite enthusiastic about. “I like that this place actually has values,” says Kentli, “Splash Damage actually lives by its values, all the hiring it does around them, our appraisals, the whole culture is built around them. They’re not a token gesture, and that’s one of the reasons that I joined the company.”
By testing for particular traits in a potential employee, Splash Damage can ensure it hires personalities that are a good fit for the company, ultimately adding to the driven yet relaxed atmosphere that it has taken years to cultivate. “It’s important in a way that we can’t measure,” explains Niel Venter, lead VFX artist at the studio and a long-term Splash Damage employee. Jolly himself acknowledges that so long as there is some degree of fundamental artistic skill, the required expertise and mastery can be taught and trained; it’s much harder, conversely, to fit an incompatible personality into the culture of Splash Damage.
“What I do is really technical, but it’s also really artistic,” says Venter. “But art hasn’t changed: what Greek sculptors did, we still do; the fundamentals of art never changed. You still have to be a good artist on top of your technical skills, and so we actually have a lot of programs to teach people traditional art principals like composition.” As part of its values, Splash Damage is committed to improving its artists in any way possible, whether that’s regular classes that teach varying skills to make for more well-rounded employees or the monthly one-to-one meetings that are used for self-improvement rather than as an outlet of 12 months of banked criticism. “We put much more effort on training than we actually have to,” says Venter, “we train them on stuff that aren’t directly useful to what they do. I teach life drawing classes each week, anatomy and stuff, and a lot of people that come to these classes aren’t even artists. By teaching people things, you’re developing them. A programmer knowing about art is good for the artist that he works with, because he understands what they want.” There’s even a programme called Splash Academy, where different disciplines are taught any number of new skills – even having artists learning maths that, Venter insists, helps with his day-to-day work.
With all these opportunities to grow as an artist, it’s easy to see how Splash Damage has built such devotion into its employees. It’s the opportunities to grow and a culture that rewards those who do that seems to have left a mark on its staff. “There was ultimately a transitional period while these training sessions and one-to-ones were put in place,” explains Angelo Dal Pra, lead artist at the studio and another company veteran. “That really helped us to bring everyone together to what makes Splash, Splash. The challenge is combining the art and the technical to deliver a great gaming experience. So we could do the best art in the world, but if we can’t build it then we can’t play it. If people don’t understand art, don’t understand how to convey a message or an emotion, then it doesn’t work. I think we are kind of like scientists and artists at the same time, a hybrid.”
going it alone
Splash Damage is at something of a milestone now. Though it has primarily grown by working with established clients on big-name franchises, it’s reached a point where it is ready to truly take control of the reins. “The traditional format for games is the work-for-hire relationship with a publisher,” says Jolly, “and that’s been our bread and butter for the longest time. But it’s interesting how that phase has changed over the years. The advent of digital distribution means you don’t need all these middlemen anymore.” With the path to the customer more direct, Splash Damage has been able to build a rapport with its fans, an aspect of the company that it considers to be an integral part of its business. “Our primary goal for us now is focused around our own IPS and building up the reputation that we have with players. It’s almost like going back to mod-making. We love games, we love making games. We want that creative control.”
Previous in-house projects of Brink (2011) and Dirty Bomb (2015) in some ways managed to set a precedent for this, too. Both revolved around
You still have to be a good artist on top of your technical skills, and so we have a lot of programs to teach people traditional art principals
multiplayer, both laid the groundworks for what would be the online services that underpin the studio’s work and, most importantly, both had an iconic, distinctive sense of style. In fact, it is this artistic drive to do something visually identifiable as much as technically impressive that seems to push the whole of the Splash Damage team.
“This is always one of our artistic goals,” explains Venter. “When we made Dirty Bomb, we wanted to make it look like London but we wanted to make it like our version of London. If you give yourself a little bit of licence to explore your own style, it’s as interesting developing that as it is the world, the narrative, the characters.” But there’s an added benefit on a marketing level as it can help studios to stand out from the crowd, an incredibly important asset in the games industry. “It is super scary,” he adds, alluding to one of the developer’s secret unannounced projects that we weren’t allowed to discuss, “because while we believe in it, until it actually ships we don’t actually know if it is a good thing. Because if we show it to the business people – the suits – they don’t like new things, they just want the thing that performed really well in the market.” Splash Damage doesn’t seem to accept that, and by looking to free itself from the restrictions of working with publishers it can be independent enough to work on something that might be different and risky yet ultimately rewarding.
This has all put Splash Damage on its own path, plotting a course as much for its unique identity within the games it produces but also within the culture of the company itself. It’s rare to see such a passion for a business from its workforce, and in that sense it’s clear to see how the developer managed to break into The Sunday Times’s prestigious top 100 best companies list. At now over 300 employees, a number of secret, unannounced projects in the works and intentions to look for a new office, “for that campus feel and to allow for our crazy growth plans”, says Jolly, Splash Damage doesn’t look ready to settle for ‘just’ 47th on that top 100 list. “We’ve been looking outside of the industry for more progressive ways of running things,” says Jolly. “We try to make our values the core of the company wherever possible, and I think that’s testament to the way we’ve been able to grow the way we have with the non-hierarchical structure to the company and this feeling of autonomy and friendliness that we have here.”
The studio has worked with a number of big franchises, helping to add in multiplayer to the Batman: Arkham series being particularly significant
Over the years the company has formulated its own style in its visual design, in particularly the character models
Splash Damages employees hard at work on the next big project