The Rip­ple Ef­fect

In­side Splash Dam­age

3D Artist - - CONTENTS -

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.

mak­ing Waves

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

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