Q&A: Former Wipeout developers at Firesprite look to what's next

Sony shut down development house Studio Liverpool back in August 2012. Four of the former staffers went on to form Firesprite, a studio involved in helping Sony Japan bring The Playroom to PlayStation 4.
Sony shut down its storied first-party development house Studio Liverpool back in August 2012, leaving a lot of really talented UK developers -- folks who had worked on games like Wipeout -- out of a job. Four of them went on to form Sawfly Studios, and four more went on to quietly form Firesprite, a studio involved in helping Sony Japan bring The Playroom to PlayStation 4. Now Firesprite is working on its own engine tech, and founding members Graeme Ankers and Stuart Tilley sat down with Gamasutra to talk about what it was like to go through a Sony studio shutdown, what they learned in the process of starting their own studio, and where Firesprite goes from here. It was a real bummer to hear that Sony shut down one of its old studios. To see you guys start Firesprite and others launching Sawfly Studios is very heartening. Graeme Ankers: Yeah, it is. I guess back at Studio Liverpool, and even before that Psygnosis, there were so many great games and great people in the area. They shaped the development scene in northwestern England, and eventually across the globe in a lot of ways; the original Psygnosis studios were worldwide, from London to San Francisco. And since Sony owned them, I guess you can still sort of see the skeletal shape of Psygnosis. When we first started, it was a big thing for us to look back over our journey across all those platforms, particularly all the PlayStation ones. Some of the team at the studio go way back to the Psygnosis days. When you look back at that kind of heritage that we had, well, it was a great journey for us all to have been on, and I guess that was the kind of burning desire for us, really, was to go forward. Particularly myself and Stuart [Tilley], and the other founders, we got on socially and we had this kind of shared vision to carry on making great games. We’re lucky enough to have a lot of people around us who are still some of the best content creators out there, which gave us the opportunity to pull quite a few people together and get things going, with quite a bit of momentum for a startup. So there’s lots of development happening, and I think there are more stories to come from Liverpool and the northwest, particularly over the next few months. I think it's great to see that positive side to what happened, as well. Did you ever give any thought to leaving and starting your own studio while you were still working at Studio Liverpool? GA: I think it only came about afterwards, right? We were a very prolific studio, you know, and that meant we were very busy. Stuart Tilley: Yeah, I think Studio Liverpool had its own really great culture. Even being part of a big publisher, it was a really great place to work and everyone was really close friends, even outside of work. It was a shame when the studio was closed, but that's how it is, you know? We really wanted to keep it going, in the same place, with the same people. Nearly everyone working at Firesprite are people we knew previously, and it feels great to have some of the old crew back together. As soon as we heard the news [of the shutdown] we had a little chat, said “let’s try to keep this thing rolling.” There’s obviously a difference when you go from working for a big first-party studio to starting your own small indie developer; they both have their own pros and cons, but they still have the same energy and the same laughs and the same stupid bunch of guys making cool games. It’s not something we thought out beforehand; we were too maxed out making games. Did you have any premonition that Liverpool was going to be closed? GA: No, it was a shock to everyone, wasn’t it? ST: Yeah, but working in the games industry, you just get used to the fact that these things happen from time to time. Every developer has their own horror stories. It’s just one of those things, you know? It was a real shame for all of us, but you just have to pick yourself up and get on with things. There are no hard feelings; we have lots of friends still at Sony, and they’re all super-talented, really good guys. Tell me more about how Firesprite formed after SCE Studio Liverpool shut down. GA: It kinda happened organically, didn’t it? I remember that as the news broke that the studio was shutting down we all met in a few bars, one in particular, what’s it called? ST: Ahhh, Mango’s! It’s less exotic than it sounds. GA: Yeah, the name paints a different picture than what it really is; it’s more like an airport terminal, really. ST: Once we’d met up a few times and decided we wanted to do something, it was a case of having to really focus again. When this kind of thing happens a lot of developers will go on holiday, look for other jobs, maybe travel the world, but we realized we had to knuckle down and make this thing happen or else it wouldn’t happen. So even a few weeks after Liverpool closed we were meeting up regularly, laying out the plans for starting up a business, looking for potential offices, everything that goes with setting up a company. We were afraid that if we took our foot off the gas, even a little bit, this just wouldn’t happen. We were pretty driven, so when all the other lads were like “Oh, I’m off to the Caribbean” or “I’m off to the pub” we were like “oh, well we’re going to go drink some coffee, do some paperwork, make sure all this stuff happens.” GA: Yeah, I remember lots of flipcharts. We moved from the pub to someone’s apartment and started banging out flipcharts, getting ideas together and really getting back into the groove of the creative process again as we decided what we were going to make. So where did you get the backing to start a studio? GA: We pretty much did that all off our own back. There was no external funding to the studio, we all-- ST: We gave our time. GA: We gave our time, absolutely, and we gave a little bit of our own money to get things started. There was a fair amount of time, really, before we got started seriously working on Playroom; quite a few months passed in between. We had a lot of good contacts in and outside the industry that had done this sort of thing before, and they were a great source of advice and inspiration. We just had to manage that early financial exposure, you know? But it wasn’t a great deal in terms of money; it’s more about the time you put in. ST: Yeah, the thing about a small development studio is the majority of the cost is staff. So when the staff was just us directors knocking around together, it wasn’t much of an issue. Not that it was easy, don’t get me wrong; we could have gone off and gotten other jobs, certainly. But as Graeme said, a lot of people gave us really honest advice on how we could proceed. We just got really good at haggling as well, trying to get stuff for next to nothing or for free. GA: Yeah, free is best. That was our motto when we started. ST: Yeah, we did okay on that, didn’t we? We got a few things for free. And that’s it, really; once you get the groundwork set up, most developers are tech types so you can probably do most of your work from home. Any specific advice for devs in similar situations who might want to strike out on their own? GA: Yeah, I’d say that you shouldn’t try to think of it all at once. That can put you off, because there are lots of things you have to do: all the paperwork, the hassle of getting an office, setting the company up, all that work. But really, especially in this business, which is basically the entertainment business, it all comes down to the content and the ideas that you’re making. It’s about keeping your focus on that, really; I mean we didn’t even -- we still don’t have business cards, right? ST: Nope. GA: So focus on the things that are really important, early on. ST: I think it helps that people in this business are pretty laid back, and as long as you don’t make too many mistakes they’ll go easy on you when you’re new. If you stumble into a few rookie errors, as long as you act upon ‘em straight away and learn quickly, it’s not a problem. There’s a lot to be said for just going for it and diving in; as Graeme said, don’t try to think about the whole thing at once because your head will explode. Just do bits and pieces, keep working hard, and before you know it loads of things have happened. It’s a whirlwind, you work lots of hours and its stressful, but first and foremost you just gotta get going, haggle really hard and don’t take no for an answer. So how did you get involved in working on Playroom? GA: Well we’d just taken the gamble of getting this new office, and I remember it was just this huge space and there was only five of us in there to start with. Obviously we all worked in the industry a lot, and I’ve worked with a lot of great people in different places, so I just put a call out to a lot of people I knew that hey, we’re here, we’re set up and we have some equipment and some good ideas about what we want to do. And I guess someone from Sony Japan -- Playroom director Nicolas Doucet -- saw that, and came over and showed us some of the work they’d been doing, said what would you do with this? So we took a look and said, well, visually, these are the kinds of things we think would work, and we came up with a whole pitch for how it should look and feel, and it kind of went from there. It was really good/lucky that we managed to hit on something that was immediately quite charming and engaging, but had just enough of that next-level flash for PS4 that Sony really engaged with. From there things happened pretty quick, but it wasn’t really until January that we really got going. So it was quite a few months there that we were still forming as a team at Firesprite. I have to admit, The Playroom has a sort of slick, futuristic aesthetic that’s a bit reminiscent of Wipeout. Do you think that’s on point, or just a coincidence? GA: I’d like to think it’s on point! I remember I was at E3, and I was sat in one of the rooms near the Playroom demos, and I overheard two people say “those menus look really Wipeout” and I was sat there giggling away to myself. Yeah, there’s definitely a shared element. As a new team, as Firesprite, we hold dear the kind of production values and the sort of loving, finishing touches we had on a lot of the projects we did at Studio Liverpool and Psygnosis. Playroom was an opportunity to bring that to the table and try it out on a project that was very different; none of us had worked on anything like that AR experience before. It was also a good opportunity to work with a highly-skilled team in Tokyo, and we developed a really brilliant relationship with them while going back and forth about what would work best. We tried quite a few different approaches with it to make it feel grounded; brought in some more organic elements and played around with it a bit to see how it would look next to the sci-fi, and that’s how we eventually settled on that look. We wanted something that was very charming but very polished, something that you could relate to and believe, that could sell the illusion that something’s sat there in the room with you. It had to be fun and playful, and that was a big thing for us to get across, and I think we did okay with the little AR dudes and the floating robot acting like a host in your living room. Any details you can share about what you’re working on next, or hopes on what you’d like to work on next? GA: We definitely can't talk about what we're working on next. We’re always going to be looking for something that has that kind of innovation, with those production values, definitely. We’re not a huge team, compared to what we were, so we have to pick our battles and focus on the right areas. But we have some really great technology that we’re building, and I hope the next thing we do will show how versatile our tech is; I think the future is all about how we kind of have to flex our technical muscles and create some really strong experiences. Would you ever consider moving into mobile development? GA: I think our pedigree is always that we bring a lot to the console party, especially given our past history and being involved with PlayStation launches, but the technology we’ve developed is deliberately built to be fully cross-platform. I think that’s kind of a unique area, going forward: that you can cross over between all the different devices that people are engaged with. I think it’s also that we’re just curious about the mobile market, you know? There’s great content there and we can only really learn it by doing it. ST: I don’t think we’re really tied to anything in the platform sense, I think, its more about just pushing the graphical quality of what we do, trying to be innovative, and if we’re lucky, getting to play with new hardware; that’s the stuff that gets us excited. If we get any of them angles, really, then that’d be something that we’d be up for having a crack at. And if all three happen to hit, then we’re all over it. What’s been your experience in going from a first-party Sony studio to an indie studio where you have a bit more freedom to pitch and work on what you want, but also, presumably, not having the same level of backing? GA: It’s a question of focus, you know? You’ve gotta be focused on the right areas, because we always want to aim to deliver quality with whatever we do. So we might not necessarily have the full resources we had before, but even at Liverpool it wasn’t the biggest team compared to some of the more triple-A games, so we’ve always had to work cleverly on whatever we were making. I guess that’s just amplified now; we’re able to pick and choose what we do and we know where we can get the best results, and we tend to be pretty clever about the experiences that we go for and what we pick up and do. And I guess we like to focus on things that are a bit different. The Playroom is a great example of that; it’s quite a unique project, especially for us, working directly with Japan. We like to play with new technology, and when that hits: the innovation, the platforms, and the experience, then we’re all happy. ST: I think the cultural difference is important too. It's slightly different when you’re part of a big studio; obviously you’re on a side in what I always used to think as a battle, a front-line soldier in the console war. You’re doing first-party titles, and you kind of build your culture around that. Whereas now its slightly different on a smaller team, because the guys take a more creative role in the games we do, and that's good for the culture because everyone just gets to be more creative, drawing stuff on walls, people come up with fresh ideas and put them into the game, and that's a really good thing for the people who work for us. We also slightly changed the way our dev management process works. At Sony we used to just straight up do agile dev, and I know a lot of independents will say that when you're working on a contract for a game you've gotta hit your monthly milestones, which is a bit different from working in a big publishers, because when you’re an independent that’s what you get paid on. So it makes for some slight differences in the way you approach things, but you carry almost 90 percent of your processes over from when you’re working as a first-party, to be honest. You’re always trying to push quality, you try to make sure your staff have a great place to work, you try to do your best to improve the staff who work for you, just to fit into your goals as a company and as a team, and to encourage them to add as much as they can to the game. So we take all the things we learned at Sony into where we are now. And we’re still relatively new to this, I guess, and you get a real buzz from coming into the studio every day and getting to work on what we’re doing. It’s really exciting because you’re masters of your own destiny in a lot of ways, which is great. And also scary. Really scary. GA: Yeah, it’s a real rollercoaster. Definitely.

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