How Sawfly rose from the ashes of Studio Liverpool
I was sad to see Studio Liverpool’s closure last summer, as both a life-long fan of the developer’s work – stretching back to its roots in Psygnosis pumping out titles as varied as survival horror FPS Infestation and PSOne strategy classic Colony Wars – and as a local lad and ex-employee. Prior to joining Edge I worked as a First Party Quality Assurance Tester at the studio and found the experience offered a rich and vital behind-the-scenes peek at the way games were made, from crunch-time bedlam to developer-tester spats.
There was a sense of history to the place, signified both by the many platinum and gold wall-plaques and awards littering the halls and by the boxes of abandoned and ancient promotional materials you’d often come across when one of the floors was having a spring clean. Made famous by its futuristic racing opus, there was a life before – and an ecosystem surrounding – Studio Liverpool that made it feel much more than simply the “house of Wipeout”. When staff left, whether from QA or from the development team, it was quite often to assume a role in a nearby studio – Bizarre Creations, Evolution Studios or even Traveller’s Tales.
Studio Liverpool felt like the centre of the northwest development scene: a training ground and departures lounge for those after that crucial entry-level experience before either progressing through the SCE ranks or moving onto pastures new. The bold, intimidating building – two glass-fronted wings extending from a circular lobby/hub – was even rumoured to have been modelled on the original owl logo of Psygnosis. Such rumours, however daft (but feverishly believed by some), couldn’t help but add to the sense of history and legacy of the studio.
Though the site within Wavertree Technology Park is still functioning as both home to Sony’s IP hunting and nurturing super-team XDev Studio, alongside a sizeable QA workforce, without the Studio Liverpool dev team I’ll wager it feels a lot emptier these days. As a QA minion, access to the dev team’s lair was largely prohibited, but when I did get the chance to wander its aisles a couple of years ago – this time as a journalist rather than employee – I found it as laid-back and effortlessly cool, strewn with some of the most intricate and exciting concept art pages I’ve ever seen, as I would have expected from the people that gave us Feisar.
If there’s a positive to ever come out of the negative of a round of job-losses, it’s that the talented, creative and determined staff let free of the corporate leash can often find themselves entering a new period of fresh inspiration and innovation. When Bizarre Creations was shuttered by Activision in early 2011, for example, many of its staff moved onwards and upwards, taking their unique skill-sets to the likes of Sumo Digital or setting up shop as an independent house of ideas. The latter route is the one that a particular group of ex-Studio Liverpool staff have taken, setting up in the city’s intimate Elevator office space that has an ex-SCE staff member and alumni seemingly embedded in every unique business operating from the trendy location on Parliament Street.
Sawfly Studios is the brainchild of veteran SCE staff Mike Humphrey (former lead designer at Studio Liverpool and former senior designer at Evolution Studios), Jon Eggelton (previously a senior artist at Studio Liverpool) and Andrew Jones (an ex-lead programmer at SCE).
Their fourth member is Karl Jones, now design director at Sawfly and previously one of Humphrey’s fellow lead designers when the pair were at Studio Liverpool. Jones reveals there was little warning that they’d all be going it alone as an independent studio, right up to the moment they were let go from their Wavertree home: “We definitely weren’t expecting it… it came as quite a shock. It’s always sad when a studio closes its doors, but when a big studio goes down, several smaller ones sprout up and that can be really exciting for the industry. The industry lost a great studio, but without the closure we would never have started up on our own, and we’re excited for the future.”