Rebel with a cause

Chris Kingsley Computer games have never been bigger and the industry is drawing in some of the best IT talent. Henry Tucker spoke to Chris Kingsley CTO of UK games studio Rebellion about the future of games, project failure and changing gaming perceptions.

2007 was a very good year in terms of revenue and games sold, how do you think that 2008 will compare?

I think 2008 will be better. Sony and Nintendo are really getting their act together. Nintendo particularly have had a fantastic year in 2007 and I don't see it getting any worse. They seem to only have been constrained by manufacturing and hopefully for them that's settling down now.

Sony has had a great 2007 too and 2008 is only going to get better with the Blu-ray versus HD-DVD situation being pretty much resolved. I can't see it do anything but to help Sony as I think lots of people will jump on the bandwagon. It becomes a more compelling reason because they can now say I can get my Xbox 360 and it's good but with my PS3 I get a Blu-ray player. That has always been Sony's approach for its hardware. It will be interesting to see how many people move over to that or just go over to digital distribution.

Downloads will be interesting. The question then comes down to your TV as it doesn't really matter what you plug into your big TV - Blu-ray is one option. The quality of DVD is good but the quality of Blu-ray is definitely better and it's got more room for expansion. I have made the leap to pretty much buying Blu-ray discs when they are available versus the DVDs and the quality of that image is just that bit better.

In fact it's quite a lot better actually and you start to see details that you hadn't seen before. However, I know from a lot of people it's not that big a step as say from VHS to DVD. I remember watching things like Terminator on VHS and then seeing it on DVD and noticing a huge difference. It's the same with Blu-ray - you start seeing detail in costumes that you didn't see before and things like that. So it's really quite interesting.

The point is that it doesn't really matter how you deliver it. Some people will want discs that they can hold and others will want a download and say that if it knackers up then I will just download it again. I think the way is changing from here's what it's going to be on, to being able to watch any way you want. Whatever you want it on, Blu-ray, DVD, iPod then you can get it. I would imagine that's going to happen within the next five years. I think with movies that they will have a simultaneous release across pretty much all formats as they can.

Look at this way, most movies are available on any format you want on day of release. It's just that one of them is the cinema and the rest of them tend to be pirates. So why not make it possible for people to do this legally? You will still have some piracy as there are always ways around things if you put restrictions on.

I for one don't enjoy going to the cinema anymore. When I see a film I like I think I'll just wait a couple of months for it to come out on Blu-ray and watch on a nice big screen at home. It's the same with TV, we're all changing our viewing habits.

After the death of HD-DVD Microsoft has said that it's stopped making the HD-DVD drive for the Xbox 360, can you see them making a Blu-ray drive for the console?

It's an interesting point. Microsoft has dropped the HD-DVD drive but it was a good way to get into HD-DVD. The problem from a game's point of view though is that it was an add-on. It's very difficult to get a lot of support behind an add-on. I know it has cause Sony problems waiting for the blue lasers for its Blu-ray drives but probably the pain is worth it as they that every single PS3 has got that drive.

As for Microsoft, in terms of games it doesn't need to change from what its got. I can't think of that many games that can't just run off a dual-layer DVD. Maybe there will start to be opportunities, maybe Microsoft will constrain themselves. Maybe this generation of consoles won't take advantage of the 25GB storage.

For a long time the PS3 has been the cheapest hi-def media player and it's always being updated regularly. It has also been really useful for the Blu-ray people as it has driven a lot of sales. It's a fascinating battle, luckily I guess right when I bought my PS3. 

With EA aiming to take over Take-Two, do you think that the industry needs more consolidation in order to survive and continue to succeed?

I don't think the industry needs it but it seems to be fairly inevitable. I think particularly for the bigger boys there are advantages to scale for them particularly in distribution and the deals they can get on their costs of goods and stuff like that. I think there's also an element that some of them are being defensive.

There are some guys, between EA and Activision, Blizzard there's clearly going to be a battle over who is the biggest. Activision has done a fantastic job and it's a very smart move. I think EA has to be seen to respond to that and it's a smart move for them to try and takeover Take-Two.

How it's done, whether it's worth the money they are proposing - those are issues for other people. There's no doubt that Take-Two has got one or two fantastic IPs, and I'm sure EA has been looking at those IPs for a long time, and maybe previously it was seen as being too expensive. Now maybe given their situation it's a worthwhile bet.

Do you think they were trying to capitalise on the delay with GTA and that maybe the shareholders had got uneasy about it?

As I understand it the shareholders have been quite uneasy about Take-Two for sometime. You probably could have been asking that sort of question for several years. Take-Two is a fantastic company with some fantastic IPs but some investors have considered that perhaps they have underperformed. Sometimes if you've got a fantastic IP then you're going to focus on that and you may not develop other areas. Your greatest strength then becomes your greatest weakness.

There are always costs going from one generation to another and the investment has to be there. In our industry there's a five year cycle with hardware and so people shouldn't be surprised when you have a lean year. Sony has had a few poor years, but it is starting to be profitable and I think it will start have a few good years now.

I understand that you use Perforce content management system, why was it that you decided to use the system?

We have multiple studios. We have a central office in Oxford, we have offices in Derby and in Runcorn. We have a live code base across all projects and across all studios and that's very important for us. It's a very challenging way to develop, but it's very important for the way that we work. We've looked at all the options and we've looked at other ones, we've evolved with the available software that's out there.

A lot of asset management software is aimed at perhaps one group of people; games are very specific. We have lots of graphics, lots of code. So often a system that's great for graphics is not that great for code and vice versa. It's a very tricky problem for us and I'm sure we'll continue to look at different ways and approaches.

The thing about games development is there are always changes, that's the one constant thing. You have got to innovate to compete.

So has the asset management software changed the way that you put games together?

Yes because teams are much, much bigger now. We're talking about teams of up to 80 people for over two years. Whereas when we first started out it was perhaps one or two people and you could do that. However, now you've got to work so much harder at communication. In the old days it was easy you would just turn around and talk to the person behind you - that was it, that was your team.

Nowadays you've people all over the place, upstairs and downstairs, in another country, in another time zone, so you really have to work hard getting the systems and processes that enable teams of this sort of size to communicate.

So would you say it makes you more efficient?

Definitely so and it enables us to work in ways that we wouldn't otherwise be able to work. A lot of people in the games industry are looking at outsourcing as perhaps being a magic bullet but there are problems with that.

We've done a little bit of outsourcing but we also do insourcing too where we try to maintain a flexible workforce that we can pull in if we need some time on a project we've got some other people we can pull in from other studios. They've all used the tech and the tools so it's a relatively easy thing to do.

We start with a big core of people who work on a project but around the edges we have a group people and we try to maintain a certain amount of flexibility so that we can get ahead and stay ahead of our milestones.

Games are notorious for missing deadlines, does asset management help?

I think to be fair to games, software in general is known for delivering late. But then the Channel Tunnel was quite late, and that's really just digging a hole! I think for the best people in software you don't have the delays because you've got your systems put together. I think for people who haven't quite got their act together as much, yes there are delays.

The people who haven't perhaps made the step up to the more modern ways of working they are still stuck in their old ways of working. It's becoming much more professional now. With the best people there's a general flight to quality with the publishers using certain developers and you've got to up your game to deliver stuff on next gen.

One of the big things that the BCS is pushing is professionalism in IT. I spoke to Peter Molyneux last year and he said that as teams are so big now that you need to be professional.

It's very true and depends on the type of company you are and the people you work with. Peter Molyneux is great and very creative. He's given the luxury that he can sort of say a game takes as long as it takes.

The type of projects that we work on, we do licensed work for other people, for example we did The Simpsons, we did AvP Requiem, we did Harry Potter, we also do our own IP, which we are more flexible on. But on the IP that's got to be out on a certain date, you have no choice and it's a very different world to it can take as long as it wants and it's ready when it's ready.

It's great to be in that position to say that but not many developers are in that position.

Games now generate a lot of money and are attracting more investors now as well aren't they?

There is a renewed interest it seems, but then there has always been interest from investors. It is a difficult business to understand, we're such a young industry that we have only been through the five year console cycle a few times.

I'm lucky that I've been through it many times so that I've seen it all before and know what the procedures are going to be such as spending some time learning. The investors are gradually learning that there is a cyclical nature to the industry. There is more interest. In fact at one stage there was more interest and it didn’t quite work out but now there does seem to be a more resurgent interest.

One of the things that came out of GDC (Games Developer's Conference) is the idea of doing away with consoles and the games are pushed down the internet on to some kind of network station.

I think that's going to be one potential way of doing things. It's an interesting thought but I think a lot of people like to own stuff and have a machine. Maybe younger kids won't care how they get it, after all it's just another delivery mechanism for them playing games. They won't care so long as they can play them where and when they like.

In many ways games have been doing this - the idea that games can be played anywhere and whenever you want. We've got the Nintendo DS and Sony's PSP, that are perhaps the leaders in the anywhere anytime thing. Nintendo's Game Boy has been out for something like 15 years now and the iPod only took off in say the last five years.

So we've had a ten year plus lead. But in the games industry we take a lot of our things for granted. I think a lot of people in the internet world shout about how great and innovative they are, but we've been doing this sort of thing with games for a long time. We just don't shout out about it. We just get on with it and make it into a business.

I remember that EA said sometime last year that instead of having three consoles and then the PC, there should be just one. Do you think the industry suffers from having multiple platforms?

It would be great if it happens. I'm not sure how it would work. Will it drive sufficient innovation? One of the greatest things about the way things work at the moment is every five years for console and every year or so for PC, we get brand new, super-duper hardware and we can do completely new things on it.

I always think, when you look at consoles, as you get the step up you reach a certain plateau - suddenly it enables you to do new techniques and things you couldn't have considered before. A lot of it's graphics driven, maybe there will come a time when graphics are sufficiently good, I have a feeling they won't, there will always be a higher resolution or more graphics you can do.

I think it's an interesting call, and it would be great if we could have the one platform that we're all settled with but I'm not sure how that will fit in with games being very innovative. Even when you look at things like the movie business that's actually for fifty plus years it was fairly static but now the acceleration of progress is just getting faster and faster. I'm not sure it will happen because something that looks cooler, flashier, better will always be more appealing to people.

The amount of money that games can now generate, does this add more pressure to you as a studio as you are required to make games that are not only fun to play but will also make lots of money?

Yea there are lots of different ways of evaluating a game. Whether it gets good review scores, whether it sells well, whether it gets good critical acclaim. It's interesting how games are perceived. Some games that are critically acclaimed don't necessarily score that well on average and don't actually go on to sell that well.

Obviously the best thing is for games to sell really, really well and one of the things I like about the games industry is that we can and do innovate. There are pressures but then there always have been. The budgets are bigger and the potential upside is bigger too - particularly for the publishers. But to be honest the pressure is the same as it always has been. It's just bigger teams now, so I suppose there are more people feeling pressured.

Pressure, as long as there's not too much pressure, is a good thing because it makes you get things done. The key to pressure is how you deal with it as a company and how you avoid the continuous crunch that seems to affect some companies.

The great thing with us is that we're bigger so instead of just asking people to work longer hours we can pull in more people to help out and we design things, hopefully, in an intelligent way which means that we don't just ask people to work longer hours to fit more things in. We try and think about things in a smart way.

Obviously project failure is a big thing in IT, do you have advice from projects that you've worked on to help stop project failure?

Yes, track stuff as early as you can. Look for problems before they are going to happen, do a continuous process of risk assessment. We do critical stage analysis here every month on projects. You ask what's the problem, what's coming up, what's causing us to be slow?

Don't do a project post mortem, because by that time the project is over and it's too late to make any changes. It's a continuous process of self-analysis and self improvement. Just keep looking at it and when you're looking at the risks, have a mitigation strategy for everything, have dates by which you need to have decisions or solutions made or by which you can fall back to your mitigation strategy.

There's an administrative overhead in doing these things but it's relatively small. The thing with it though is that you catch things before they become critical problems. It's the old phrase, a stitch in time saves nine.

Mac or PC?

They are both fantastic platforms, for games PC is definitely the dominant platform. We have some people who are Mac fanatics but also those who like the PC because there is more choice. I think they are both great as they allow consumers to pick what they want. I use PCs as I use them for my work and it makes sense to maintain the same platform. 

iPhone, BlackBerry, smartphone?

I am a BlackBerry user but have an iPod Touch.

Geek or nerd?

I think that's a bit of a 1980s out of date thing. I remember going to an awards ceremony many years ago and they were talking about long haired, single blokes and that is such an outdated way of looking at people in the games industry. I look at people here and yes it's still male dominated in games, and that's a shame, but people here they've got families and children, they're not computer whizz kids anymore - they're just normal guys.

They are smart guys, they are family guys, and they are working in a job that hopefully not only challenges them intellectually but is challenging them creatively too. That's the thing that excites me about games, particularly from a programming point of view, is that you get to program but you get to be creative with it. you have pure thought stuff like there's something you want to do but how do you do it?

We're not database programming, we're not being told by someone how to do it. We've got this effect and we want to do it in a cool way that will work on as wide an array of machine as we can. It's creative plus programming, intellectual plus creative. Something that computer games can uniquely offer.

I find that if you say that you like computer games people think that you haven't grown up.

Yes I find that slightly weird but that always happens with any new media. A lot of new media is adopted by the young first so look at iPods, things like Facebook and MySpace - they've been adopted by younger people first.

Generally the issue is not with them being young and daft it's just that generations before them just don't get it. Computer games have that, comics have had it and so have films.

We get people who just don't understand it and think that it's just kids playing computer games, which is so wrong. It's a misperception by people who don't know a thing about it. In fact I heard that the average games player now is a 35 year old woman. It depends on the game and where you look, but it's a very different world.

Gaming is just a different form of entertainment and there are so many different games - just look at the Wii. You have so many different people from grandparents to almost anyone - it's opened things out a lot. I think the Wii is helping perceptions for different people. Games playing is just another form of entertainment.

If you weren't doing what you do now, what would you be doing?

I did a chemistry degree so I might well have stayed in chemistry research. I've always loved the creative world and creating stories. I may well have done some writing and done some books and films or TV - those sort of creative things. I may not have done computer games but I would have done something creative in a different sort of way.

If you could give one piece of careers advice, what would it be?

For programmers, get a good degree and if you want to work in computer games get good at C++. And play lots of games. There are lots of areas - it doesn't have to be programming. That's the great thing with computer games there's not just programmers: there are artists, designers, there's QA, there's producers and lots of other areas. There are lots of openings in computer games for people with lots of different skills.

July 2008