From The Archives: Intelligent Games
It existed for 14 years and worked on some of gaming’s biggest franchises, so it’s about time we studied the rise and fall of this often overlooked studio
Matthew Stibbe reveals how he set up his underrated games studio
It’s November 1995, and the features editor of PC Zone, Chris Anderson, is visiting the Chelsea offices of Intelligent Games. He’s looking to pen an article about its latest title, Waterworld, but he’s hopelessly lost, eventually arriving flustered, late and very surprised.
Chris is expecting “a small company” with “a handful of developers”. Instead, the offices are within an inconspicuous pair of five-storey townhouses on Munro Terrace, where 25 people are working hard on different projects.
“We didn’t get a great deal of attention at the time compared to some studios,” laments Matthew Stibbe, explaining why there was a misconception about the size of his company. And yet this was a significant developer which worked with some of the biggest names in games – selling more than 2 million copies in the process.
Much of the success was down to Matthew himself. Certainly, without him the company would never have got off the ground. He’d been a passionate gamer and created his own board game in his final year of boarding school, aged 18, drawing on an obsession with the Vietnam War.
“I then took a year off before going to university and turned the idea, design and thought process into a computer game,” he continues, of a title that became ‘Nam 1965-1975. This was duly snapped up by Domark and Matthew programmed it during his spare time at Pembroke College, Oxford. He also drew up designs for another title: the space adventure, Imperium, that was commissioned by EA.
“I remember finishing the coding and the QA on the PC version of ‘Nam in the spring of the third year when I was getting ready for my finals
– a crazy foolish thing to do,” Matthew reflects. Production of Imperium was less intense because EA assigned the coding and audio production to a programmer called Nicholas Wilson and the graphics to Carl Cropley.
“The producer was Kevin Shrapnell and Nick created this amazing thing that was almost like a Windows operating system – so fast and memory efficient,” Matthew enthuses. After graduating with a 2:1 and with both games published and selling well, Matthew continued working in the games industry and, after moving to London, incorporated the company as Intelligent Games Limited.
“One of the first people to come on board was Richard Evans who became the company’s top graphic designer,” Matthew says. “He’d work in my little rented mews flat in London and we’d create all kinds of crazy proposals.” These would be documented in great detail and give potential publishers a strong idea of how a game would be fleshed out before any code was written.
To give the documents a professional air, they were printed in colour on a Canon CLC 10, leased for £100 a month. “You’d put this shiny paper in and produce these glorious colour 300dpi prints and it really helped us produce professional-quality proposals for our games,” Matthew explains.
As part of the process, Richard would create vivid watercolour illustrations while Matthew would work on the words, scan the images and lay page designs out using Adobe Pagemaker. “That printer was the launchpad of Intelligent Games,” Matthew affirms. “If Hewlett-packard had a shed and Apple had a garage, then I had the CLC 10.”
Among the winning designs was a game called Sim Rainforest that was sent to Maxis Software. “We also developed a proposal for a naval warfare game called USS Ticonderoga: Life And Death On The High Seas which I sent to Three-sixty Pacific, the makers of Harpoon,” Matthew remembers. Both were snapped up, with Sim Rainforest becoming Simisle: Missions In The Rainforest.
“The contracts allowed me to open an office and hire some programmers,” Matthew says. “That was when things pivoted from me playing around in my spare time to developing a business.”
Matthew felt early on that he wasn’t a great programmer so he passed the task to others. “I also realised fairly quickly that I wasn’t that great at people management, either,” he smiles, so Kevin Shrapnell joined the management team. “I wanted him to run the studio while I worked on the sales,” Matthew remembers. “I was constantly on the road knocking on doors, talking to people, trying to sell things and do deals, reading contracts and arguing the toss about very small points.”
During this time, harsh lessons were learned. Three-sixty Pacific encountered financial issues, jeopardising the contract for USS Ticonderoga: Life And Death On The High Seas. “The company was struggling to pay us, and not being paid properly caused some problems for us, especially because it went on for a period of six months, leading to some fairly uncomfortable discussions,” Matthew says.
“Because of this, Mindscape picked up the game and there was a transition that didn’t really help with the development. It was certainly a
THE CONTRACTS ALLOWED ME TO OPEN AN OFFICE AND HIRE SOME PROGRAMMERS, THAT WAS WHEN THINGS PIVOTED FROM ME PLAYING AROUND IN MY SPARE TIME TO DEVELOPING A BUSINESS MATTHEW STIBBE
hectic time: I’d sold these games as bits of paper and I was building a businesses while helping develop code and launch a game at a time when the market was evolving fast.”
Matthew's experience with Maxis was better but he was spending more time in a hotel in California meeting with clients and selling games than he was in his newly purchased apartment in London. “I racked up a lot of air miles but the development of Simisle was a real high point,” he recalls. “Maxis were lovely to work for and I enjoyed meeting Will Wright.”
By now Intelligent Games was coming up with numerous designs, many of which were greenlit. Although some didn’t see the light of day – including Dark Hermetic Order, Flying Circus, Bloodline, Conjure, King Of Wall Street, Deadline News and Cops And Robbers – Kevin’s decision to move the developer towards “hit-driven, brand-led” games proved to be hugely successful.
“We were trying to take brands, films, toys and sport and create games around them,” Matthew explains. So while Intelligent Games worked on the first-person adventure Azrael’s Tear for DOS PCS in 1996 with Matthew as project lead, there was a growing emphasis on games that were more instantly recognisable.
As such, Steve Cuss coded PGA European Tour and the team worked in the add-on course, The Oxfordshire Golf Club. This led to PGA Tour: Laptop for those wanting to game on the go, as well as PGA Tour 98, Tiger Woods 99 PGA Tour Golf and Pro 18 World Tour Golf.
“There was a very strong golf contingent at Intelligent Games and there was a joke that we’d hire anyone with a handicap under ten,” Matthew laughs. “We could have fielded a pretty good golf team and it was great that we could work on niches that the developers enjoyed.”
Intelligent Games also worked on Waterworld – the game Chris Anderson was going to see. “The film hadn’t come out when we signed up to this game and we felt it was the most exciting thing ever,” Matthew recalls. “To us, it was this big feature film with Kevin Costner,
WE WERE TRYING TO TAKE BRANDS, FILMS, TOYS AND SPORT AND CREATE GAMES AROUND THEM MATTHEW STIBBE
a movie that would have lots of explosions and we loved the thought of being part of it.”
Unfortunately, the post-apocalyptic action film sank to the bottom of the ocean, and this affected sales of the game. “A lot of air went out of the room when the film came out,” Matthew says. “But in retrospect, it put us on the radar of Westwood Studios which commissioned Intelligent Games to work on the add-ons Command & Conquer: Red Alert – Counterstrike and Command & Conquer: Red Alert – The Aftermath.”
Indeed, Intelligent Games quickly brushed away the disappointment of Waterworld. Now situated in new offices in Kiln House on New Kings Road, London, the studio was being asked by Westwood to remake Dune II: The Building Of A Dynasty, a reimagining that would ultimately be released as Dune 2000. By the time it was released, the company had moved yet again, this time to IG House, in Palliser Road, Kensington. This was a developer that appeared to be on the up.
Yet cashflow was always an issue. “Between 1995 and 2000, there was a constant worry about money,” Matthew says. “I’d be spending time running cashflow projections and fretting about paying the bills, and there were months where it would be the 25th and I was like, ‘If they don’t pay me, I can’t pay the payroll.’” Trouble is, the projects were on fixed-priced contracts, advanced against
royalties by producers. There was a strong pressure to get the work done.
Even so, there was plenty of time for fun.
Around this time, Intelligent Games worked on the simulation Lego Loco, which involved building towns and railways. “We packed the game with Easter eggs and one was a Viking statue that would turn around and pull a mooney,” says Matthew. “Just as we were close to finishing the game, a very senior Lego man was being shown around the office and he was being given a demo of the game.
“One of the programmers said, ‘Look, when you do this, the minifigure does a mooney,’” and I was aghast. I was standing behind him and Kevin, with the handler of the Lego executive and the producer, thinking, ‘Oh shit, we’re going to get this game canned.’ But the Lego exec did that thing kings do in films and burst out laughing. He said, ‘You’ve got to keep that in.’ There was a great relief.”
The same couldn’t be said the following year, 1999, when Westwood Studios looked to buy Intelligent Games only for the deal to fall through. This left Matthew down in the dumps and realising he wanted to leave. Kevin, Steve and Neil Jones made an offer and Matthew sold the company to them in June 2000.
Intelligent Games continued and worked on titles such as F1 Manager, The Powerpuff Girls: Mojo Jojo’s Pet Project, Tweenies: Game Time, Lego Stunt Rally, Emperor: Battle For Dune, 2002 FIFA World Cup and a trio of Action Man titles. Reviews were generally good – Emperor: Battle For Dune was praised for its ambition, and 2002 FIFA World Cup was a crowd-pleaser.
The developer also set up a division dedicated to making software for mobile devices that developed Flipdis for Palm OS, and it made a big effort to develop for the Gamecube, Playstation, Xbox and Playstation 2 even though it became ever more clear the financial worries were not abating. It didn’t help that the management buy-out had been achieved using company money and, by 2002, the writing was on the wall.
“I remember the budgets were getting bigger – they were into seven figures per game by the time I left and that meant the roll of the dice had more riding on it,” Matthew says. By comparison his first game had cost £35,000 to make. Now the required teams were far larger and projects were taking longer to complete. In December 2002, Intelligent Games closed and its assets were liquidated. So had it simply grown too big too fast?
“In each of the buildings we occupied, we almost ran separate companies,” Matthew says. “At Munro Terrace at the start it was a group of people having fun and making games, at Kiln House we were maturing and working out how to succeed. And at IG house, well, that was the factory where we were chasing after this advancing horizon of industry and consumer expectations.”
Matthew looks back fondly, even though he's left the industry. “I have all the games we published still sitting on the shelf, and when I look back on my life, I think, ‘I did that’,” he says. “I remember wandering around the Computer History Museum in California and they had Simisle in a cabinet. For me, that’s a tremendous legacy.”