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Two Halves, Together: Patrick Gilmore On Double Helix

The newly-installed head of Foundation 9's Double Helix studio holds forth on its evolution, the creative direction of current-generation games, and the current state of Los Angeles-area game development.

In December, Patrick Gilmore took over as head of Foundation 9's Double Helix Studio -- which is currently working on two current-generation projects: Front Mission Evolved, for Square Enix, and an unannounced game for another major publisher.

Formed from the combination of formerly Atari-owned studio Shiny (MDK) and The Collective (Marc Ecko's Getting Up), the studio is just one piece of the Foundation 9 puzzle -- the largest independent development organization in the West, comprised of studios in North America and Europe.

Heading up a large team of 110 developers, Gilmore -- whose background includes running the Medal of Honor team at EALA -- must figure out how to leverage the strengths of a work-for-hire studio that is looking to expand its reach with original concepts and more polished execution.

Here, Gilmore discusses the state of the studio, its projects, and the creative direction he sees the industry going toward -- more cinematic games, not less; a trend built on the back of the games that have come out in the last several months and which will continue to be released through 2010.

What did you come to the studio to do?

PG: Why was I hired, or what were my personal reasons for being here?

Those are both good questions, actually.

PG: The studio's part of Foundation 9, and they have their headquarters here in the same offices as the Double Helix studio. We're actually in separate spaces, but we share the same building. James North-Hearn, who is the CEO of all of Foundation 9, has had a very active role in managing Double Helix for the past few months. But I think they've been taking the time to find the right person and find the key direction for the studio.

I've been talking to them for quite a while, and I finally came in to basically take over the studio, to engage the people, and organize around quality and creativity. I think that Foundation 9 and Double Helix have been work-for-hire for a long time, and that company has been focused on growth, but last year, as 2009 was winding down, we were a little bit less focused on growth and now focused a lot more on taking the talent that's here and building the quality.

And what attracted you on a personal level to the studio?

PG: Shiny was around for 17 years, and The Collective was around for 12 years. So I'd been aware of the constituents of Double Helix for a long time, and I've always been interested in them as high-quality independent developers.

When I was at EA, I ran the Medal of Honor team, which sometimes got to be around 120 people. It felt like a right-size fit for me to come in and engage in some place that had amazing executional ability. These have been talented developers that have been able to offer low risk, and have been great in getting projects done in time to publishers. They've got a great track record for shipping complicated projects with large numbers of SKUs. Building on that foundation to focus on a lot more quality and creativity was something that was hugely attractive to me.


Front Mission Evolved

Front Mission has been going for a while, now, and development obviously precedes your arrival for quite some time.

PG: Yes. I can say that it looks amazing. I think the team has done a fantastic job. It's a mech game, and there's certain expectations that come with delivering a mech game, including customization and a strategic aspect.

The heritage of Front Mission has been turn-based strategy, so their whole focus has been "How do we look at IPs and imagine them in a more contemporary context?" So the first thing they wanted to do was move out of the turn-based strategy and into something that was a little more real-time and action-based, while retaining the spirit of Front Mission. I think they've done a phenomenal job of doing that.

Square Enix hasn't worked with a Western studio before. Do you have any thoughts about what it's like to work with them, compared to other studios you've worked with?

PG: I can say that they've been a fantastic partner. The last game the Front Mission team did before this one was Silent Hill [Homecoming], which we did with Konami. The team has adapted themselves to working with Japanese publishers, as much as that can be considered a specialty. They're very comfortable with the Eastern way of development -- lots of focus on quality and detail -- and they have what I would consider an extraordinary relationship with Square.

Square comes with a pretty incredible pedigree, and Hashimoto-san, the producer we're working with, has done some spectacular games, including Kingdom Hearts for Disney, and a few other products. There's a little bit of an intimidation factor, but the team is committed to rising to the occasion and delivering the vision.


I get the sense with Foundation 9 that there's an idea of the different studios under the umbrella all developing games to their own core competencies with high-powered current-gen games being Double Helix's? Is that fair to say? Or would you like to clarify that?

PG: I think that's absolutely our role within Foundation 9. If you look at Shiny, they started 17 years ago with Earthworm Jim and MDK and The Matrix. Then you look at The Collective, which was founded 12 years ago. They had Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Star Wars, and a couple of other games.

To me, the common thread is big IP handled with a lot of creativity and sensitivity, and a focus on third-person action and excitement. That's where our pedigree as a studio is now. That's where our expertise and our passion really lie.

Our focus is on continuing to nail that pedigree while expanding out into some other areas to continue to meet the demands of more modern audiences that want games that are more connected and driven by online feature sets and social media.

When it comes to bringing together these two studios, is that still an ongoing process, or had there been a full integration by the time you'd arrived on the scene?

PG: I would say that the studio had been integrated for a while, but there was a perceptible culture that you could say was the Shiny culture and then there's a distinct culture that you could say was The Collective's culture.

The Collective has been historically focused on straightline execution: understanding the project from the beginning and deploying experts -- smaller teams of people focused on issues. Shiny, their culture is, "Let's iterate. Let's identify what the spirit of the project is, but let's iterate and tease out what is cool about it and learn from the software." There's nothing wrong with either culture. They've both demonstrated to be super successful in the industry. My challenge is to leverage the best of both worlds.

You talked about utilizing creativity and moving out of growth mode for Foundation 9 and into creative mode. What does that really mean on a practical level? Is it about creating new IP, or is it about executing really solidly?

PG: Historically, at least since Foundation 9 has been the parent company, the focus for Double Helix has been cross-platform games, short time cycles, often day-and-date, strict budgets, and some of the things that, formulaically, you'd look at in a big licensed product.

Some people would look at a big licensed product with suspicion, because they deal with all of those constraints. But I think at our end, what you have are some phenomenal production processes that enable our teams to deliver against challenging schedules and large numbers of SKUs.

We're focused on building on those production practices to refine ideas better and earlier in the process, and to really take the time to prove the creative concept of a game before going into production.

The talent has been here to do that, but we've been extraordinarily schedule-driven. Now is the time to make it great. We have the support of Foundation 9 and our publishers with that. Square and our other publisher have been very supportive in focusing on that.

I think there is a shift occurring. I've sensed this for a long time, but there's a feeling that you can't really get top results with those constrained budgets and schedules. But it's been harder to get publishers to put trust back into the teams, rather than just put product on the shelves. Do you think so?

PG: It's a business at the end of the day, so I think there are realities that you deal with, whether you're a publisher or a developer. There's always the discipline of matching the scope to the opportunity and focusing on delivering quality , running every feature all the way to the ground and overdelivering on the quality of the features, rather than getting stuck in that trap of trying to check every box and do a whole bunch of things but none of them super-well. With the publishers I've been talking to, they're very big on executing on quality.

I've heard that about Square Enix.

PG: Exactly. I think they're very proud of Front Mission, and they've discovered some tools at their disposal to enable them to focus on quality. The other interesting thing about Double Helix is knowing that they've been in work-for-hire mode for a while, I kind of expected to walk in and see something that was structured like a factory and was just cranking out projects.

There's certainly an element of that in production efficiencies, but something that I didn't expect to find, but did, was this unbelievable wealth of intellectual property development and prototype development and creative development that were carried out by people not assigned to projects or who found themselves with spare time. There's an amazing engine of creativity already here, and we're tapping into that to push on original ideas and some of the talent that's here.

Do you find that it's hard to get original projects across to publishers, and to get them interested in them? Is that because of the way people look at the studio, or just in the general way that publishers look at third-party developers?

PG: I think if you're a publisher and you have a big intellectual property, your first goal is going to be, "How do I create consistency for this franchise to release year-on-year and continue to deliver reliable revenue?" But if you want to grow your business, I think they're absolutely looking for measured bets on new IP. I think Foundation 9 offers a degree of stability and predictability that makes it a less risky business than it might be with a different independent developer.


Something that I find interesting with Front Mission is that you're working within an established IP, but as you discussed, it's a new way of looking at that IP. It's basically unlike anything else in the series. There's been one Front Mission action game, but that was in the early '90s and never came to America. Is that a satisfying area of creativity, working with IP but being able to shape it?

PG: It's funny you ask that, because I just came out of a meeting where I was talking to one of the development directors here, and he was saying, "This is one of the things that we're really good at -- looking at IP, understanding what drives its popularity, and then adapting that to more modern sensibilities in a more modern context."

You can look at Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which comes from film and television, or look at the team's work on The Matrix or Indiana Jones.

You've seen them exercise that formula, and I think they're at the point where they're perfecting it by going back to the roots of the IP and then rebuilding it with modern technology and with modern gaming trends -- rebuilding that IP in a different context.

Is that something you have a lot of freedom to do, specifically in terms of Front Mission? Has Square Enix let you guys go, or has it been more like a checks-and-balances situation?

PG: In the case of Square, I think there's absolutely been a checks-and-balances process. The game has very much been developed in collaboration with a team at Square. They're a very creative team. They have a very good understanding of what they want to get out of the product. But they've also given our team a lot of latitude.

They want to build a game that appeals to North American audiences. They know that Front Mission as an IP, and the concept of a mech-based game, is something that has its roots much more in Japan, but has the opportunity to achieve huge popularity in North America. They wanted the developers on the team to apply their own sensibilities and shape the game and bring that aspect of the development to the product.

When it comes to the studio, do you guys have your own engine technology, or are you licensing stuff?

PG: We have our own engine. It's probably got over 100 man-years of development in it. We keep a dedicated engine and tools team internally, so I think our pipelines are extremely progressive and efficient. We can iterate really rapidly, we can prototype rapidly, and can try out new ideas with a lot of efficiency. That's something that we consider to be a competitive advantage that we continue to invest in and nurture.


Silent Hill: Homecoming

I spoke to one of the execs from Foundation 9 some time ago, and I was under the impression that the studios at Foundation 9 were left to their own best practices and decision-making with what engine technology they wanted to run with. Is that still the case, or are you guys moving forward to a more centralized solution?

PG: One of the big advantages of being at Foundation 9 is that you're at the biggest independent developer in the West, and maybe in the world. We are a federation of studios, many of whom are developing similar technology and are in a position to leverage sharing like crazy.

You see that reflected in a big company-wide initiative that's taken hold over the past couple years toward sharing more technology and leveraging the network of engineers that we've got across multiple different studios. We've harvested a lot of different technology from other studios, and we've exported a lot of tech to the other studios.

The initiative is taking hold because they're really launching it in the way that something like this really should be launched, which is to bring people together, get the communication started, and have them organically figure out what they can do to help each other out. Rather than mandating something, I think the management of Foundation 9 just made it easy for people to get together and communicate.A lot of sharing just happened organically.

The other benefit of that is that people created more systems with more sharing in mind. So the quality of the code and architecture just increased organically because they stopped thinking that their audience was just their local game team. They thought that ultimately, this would be a technology that would go on to be used elsewhere.

That's really important when developing tools, especially when you've got a studio organization like that. But it does have to be made a priority.

PG: Right. When I was at Electronic Arts, there was a huge emphasis on sharing. I saw both sides of it. I saw the mandates get issued, but I also saw the teams bootstrapping themselves into a situation where there was more communication and more organic sharing.

So much great sharing happened below the feature level. Someone might have a great math library or they might have a great pathfinding routine or a great animation subsystem. They've got really killer technology that might be exportable but is not packaged into feature-level sharing, which is normally what would be visible at a higher level in an organization.

When people are talking, the quality of the sharing goes way up, because you find that you can share a lot more than just high-level features.


When you moved from a large organization like EA, which is a publisher-based one, to Foundation 9, what differences struck you as important or relevant?

PG: I think that we have to put a lot more emphasis on the relationship between us and the publisher, because we're not embedded with a marketing team or a publishing team. We have clients, and we're managing relationships and making sure the communication is really effective. It's a huge aspect of the way we do business.

On the other hand, I also find that the vision is allowed to germinate and take root in a much stronger way on the game team here at the studio level, because people know the creativity, the passion, and the drive they have for their game is the whole business.

There's a more entrepreneurial scrappiness that I'm encountering here that's energizing and exciting.

I've heard it's kind of tough to sign games because of the economic situation right now. Have you found that to be a problem?

PG: 2009 was a really challenging year. I think if you look around the industry, there's a lot of people focused on keeping their powder dry and getting through the recession and targeting key innovations in the future.

We've been lucky. We've got a really strong and supportive parent company, and we've got great publishing partners and we have a couple of awesome games that we've been working on.

We certainly haven't been hit in the same way as a lot of people, but I also believe there's some consolidation in the industry, and the focus is on fewer games executed to a higher level of quality. I also think that the industry overall is changing.

You've got the advent of social networking applications as a platform. You've got the iPod and the iPad and handheld and mobile taking off. There's lots of competition for peoples' leisure time now, and that's changed the industry as well, but not contracted it, so much.


G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

I think there's starting to become a sense from analysts that the bankable audience is the Xbox 360 audience, and that that's the one to go for. It's capable of generating a lot of revenue, but there's a certain narrowness to it. It seems to be Double Helix's audience, with your competency of doing current-gen games, right?

PG: Yeah. We love the Xbox 360, and we love the PS3. We'd love to develop for the PC as well. For us, it's about where you can get the big-screen, cinematic experience. I've been looking at trends in the industry, and I haven't seen many people writing about this, but there has been an absolute explosion in cinematic quality in games released through last year and this year.

The level of cinematic execution, the level of storytelling, the level of experience... it's not just the core mechanics of the game, it's the core mechanics of the game woven into a setting that is rich and emotional and has a very, very high set of stakes. If you look at how close the teams are here to understanding film-level IP and large-scale, story-driven entertainment, they're tapped in to that, and they have a good understanding of that stuff. That is a direction that I think you're going to see PS3 and Xbox 360 games continue to go.

As a developer, I can remember a time not too long ago -- five years ago -- when people were quick to dismiss storytelling or character development. Like, "Get on with the game. If I'm not interacting..." It was a badge of honor to say that you skipped through all of the cinematics.

I don't think the culture has that attitude anymore. I think we've gotten a lot better at telling story, and people are as entertained by the story and the setting and the richness of a game as they are by the mechanics themselves. Look at Uncharted, or Assassin's Creed, or any of the games that have come out this year, and I think you'll see ample proof of that.

Do you think that's being driven by the talent or the audience?

PG: Interesting. I think it's both. I think a lot of it is being driven by development of tools. Our pipelines for shooting and jumping were developed far in advance of our pipelines for cinematics, editing, voice acting, facial performance, and camera movement. Those tools are now catching up to the basic game mechanic tools that we had before.

I think that when you get a lot of developers that are incredibly creative, and they understand cinematography, and you get a set of tools in their hands, then there's no longer anything stopping them from fully describing a character or creating a great, cinematic moment that is seamlessly woven with gameplay. That's going to continue to develop.


Something that is a perpetual discussion is how far this generation can go. I think about that because you talk about how games released in 2009 and onward have this higher level of cinematic polish. I agree, and I think that there's still a lot of untapped potential in this generation. At the same time, technology is still very complex in this generation. Do you have any insight as a third-party developer into how long this generation is going to last?

PG: I think there's so much life in these platforms still. I don't have any real data on this, but my gut tells me that we're going to be in this hardware generation for at least another couple of years -- probably another three years -- and I think you're going to see innovation in development. I think you're going to see new disciplines emerge as really important as the tools become more refined.

Look at Avatar and that caliber of motion capture and performance that's exhibited in that film. I think that very quickly, you're going to see game developers setting the same standards for themselves. Look at the caliber of dialog in some games -- the colloquialism, the voice performance, the way the writing is being handled.

The difference between weak writing and great writing is becoming more and more evident to developers and to audiences. I think you're going to see dedicated writers emerging on teams with much fuller force.

A lot of the innovation, I think, is going to come from non-obvious places, to people who are used to seeing advanced shading materials and new rendering techniques being the hallmark of advancement.

You're going to see it come in the form of much better use of tools, and better use of character development and richness, coupled with the kind of creativity and innovation that's being spawned in the casual game market and the iPhone market, where people have a chance to fully explore new mechanics in a more forgiving environment.

When you talk about that exploration, do you mean that developers working in the spaces like you are are going to be inspired by what they see coming out of the indie market, or are you talking about you guys experimenting, yourselves?

PG: I think both. I think you're going to see developers who are very inspired by what people are able to achieve with, in some cases, very simple mechanics, or a very simple approach to interactivity in gaming. They're going to take those mechanics and leverage them on the somewhat bigger canvas of an Xbox 360 game that has a more cinematic feel.

You're right. It almost feels like there's a cinematic moment going with interactive storytelling. Obviously, two big RPG games for the generation -- Mass Effect 2 and Final Fantasy XIII -- are coming out in rapid succession, and we've got Heavy Rain as well. So this is like the moment, in a weird way, of storytelling, maybe just by happenstance.

PG: Yeah. I think the thing always to remember -- and Mass Effect certainly proves this -- is that it's not just about the ability to tell the story. It's having the skill to tell a really good story.


Front Mission Evolved

You're based in Irvine, California. Speaking to the LA area development scene, there have been a lot of layoffs out of EA. What do you think of the region, as a center of development? There are a lot of companies there, and there are a lot of startups becoming more and more relevant.

PG: There are a lot of incredible developers in Southern California, and there's definitely a huge talent base. We inherit talent from the film industry and the animation industry. There's a big commercial and advertising industry, so there's a phenomenal amount of talent here that, whether you've been in the games industry your entire career or not, you certainly can't help but being in the stream of all that.

One huge focus for us is to continue to leverage the highest-caliber talent here in California, but build partnerships with people who are in lower-cost markets, so we can continue to provide really aggressive economic opportunities to our partners. I don't think development here is going to go away. I think different types of disciplines are going to emerge to take advantage of other markets.

Do you think the refiguring of the landscape is going to push a changing of the way business is done?

PG: I do. It's hard for me to predict, but I would say that as the biggest companies like Activision Blizzard or Electronic Arts focus on a smaller number of major releases, they're really creating opportunities for other publishers to get involved and address a different part of the market that Activision or EA are no longer able to focus on.

I know that from having worked at EA, for a great big publisher like that, there's often a very high bar that is not nearly as high for a small publisher to greenlight a project or say "yes" to an investment.

Right. Because it has to go through so many channels.

PG: Well, not only that, but simply put, EA and Activision are enormous companies, and there's a lot of infrastructure there to support that maybe a smaller publisher doesn't necessarily have.

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