Free Radical’s founder on leaving the FPS behind

Free Radical's founder on leaving the FPS behind

Free Radical's founder on leaving the FPS behind

With the Call Of Duty and Battlefield series regularly dominating the charts, it would be reasonable to conclude that the firstperson shooter genre was in rude health. But aside from a few examples (DICE’s brave misfire Mirror’s Edge, for example, or Valve’s Portal 2), few stray far from the established template. 

It’s not just FPS releases, of course: spiralling budgets and dwindling audience appetite for change place additional pressure on games to recoup their development costs. It’s a state of affairs that’s driven Steve Ellis, co-founder and former managing director of Timesplitters developer Free Radical Design and author of GoldenEye's multiplayer component, to seek solace in mobile development and the greater creative freedom and reduced risk it affords.

We spoke to Ellis about his decision to leave big-budget development behind and set up new studio Crash Lab with fellow ex-Rare and Free Radical Design stalwarts Martin Wakeley and Lee Musgrave, the condition of the FPS genre and why increasingly powerful smartphones could lead to a repeat of past mistakes.

What was behind the decision to form Crash Lab?
It’s a bunch of people who’ve worked together for ages, going back to the Rare days, so obviously we’ve been through more than a couple of console generations and seen things grow and grow to a stage where really it’s not the business that we got into. It’s not really what we signed up for at the start. And we wanted to do something that is more like it used to be in the past with small teams, working on smaller projects where you could achieve a lot quite quickly and everyone working on the project can make a decent contribution to it. Because I think that’s really a fun environment to work in, compared to the huge teams you get today where everyone is going to be contributing one per cent maximum to the game, and there’ll be people on the team you don’t even know; you certainly won’t know what they’re doing.

To resolve that kind of thing you need a whole layer of project management, sometimes even multiple layers on the bigger teams. It’s a common thing that I hear from the people that were around closer to the start of the industry, that a lot of the fun’s gone out from it, and it just seems, “Well, why carry on doing that then?” [Laughs] There’s plenty of people coming out of university who are dying to do that, so let them find out what that’s like and we’ll do something different!
Flying Rocket Defence

Is this growing discomfort driving veteran developers to found their own start-ups and work on smaller projects?
I think that’s certainly a part of it, but also from a personal point of view, it reflects what we’re spending our own time doing in terms of playing games. I used to play a lot of FPSes, and certainly when we were making GoldenEye, I was playing Doom and Duke Nukem and the games that were out back then, and that’s always been the case. But more recently I’m just finding myself wanting to play that kind of game less and less. I don’t know if it’s just getting older, or if it’s how the games have developed and I’m not enjoying them as much, but I certainly don’t spend much time playing them anymore. I played the last Call Of Duty when it came out, and I did enjoy that, but I think part of it is saturation: there’s so many of them and I can’t bring myself to go through all the cinematics and cutscenes and the story of it all. I can’t get myself to care about it as much as they seem to require you to! 

Has mainstream development become too anonymous?
I think so, yeah. It’s an inevitable consequence of having something so big. If it takes 100 or 200 people to make it, then it’s just not possible to work in the way that we used to. For me, my most fun time was when we were making TimeSplitters 2: the team probably was past 20 people at that time, but everybody knew everybody, and they all knew what everybody was doing and what they were capable of. It was a really good atmosphere because everyone had a shared vision that was easily understood and communicated without the need for team meetings and documentation and all the other things that bigger companies find themselves having to do in order to try and force this shared vision.

Crash Lab co-founder Steve Ellis

Gareth Wilson recently said that racing games thrived on new technology, and the FPS genre is arguably also a tech-reliant genre. That tech needs bigger teams, of course, but is the genre eating its own tail as it struggles to keep up with audience demand?
I totally think it is, yeah. The depressing thing is that I spent the whole of 2008 going round talking to publishers trying to sign up TimeSplitters 4. And there just isn’t the interest there in doing anything that tries to step away from the rules of the genre – no one wants to do something that’s quirky and different, because it’s too much of a risk. And a large part of why it’s too much of a risk is the cost of doing it. In doing what we’re doing now, people have come to me and said, “Well, what you should do is set up a Kickstarter project for doing some kind of quirky FPS”. My answer to that is that I just don’t think it’s possible, through Kickstarter, to raise the amount of money that it would take to make an FPS that people would buy these days. That’s leaving aside the thing that nobody really buys any FPSes unless they’re called Call Of Duty. I mean, I guess Battlefield did okay, but aside from that pretty much every FPS loses money. I mean, [look at] Crysis 2: great game, but there’s no way that it came anywhere close to recouping its dev costs.