There are plenty of studios who operate in relative obscurity. Sometimes it's because they work on specialised components of a larger project, or because they can't get their name on a retail box due to publisher whim. For Dundee-based Denki
, however, the paradoxical reason is it's been too damn successful within its chosen field to bother making games for the sort of people who care about who made the game.
For Denki is the dominant player in the UK's interactive TV gaming market. According to managing director Colin Anderson [pictured], last year it supplied around three quarters of the games available on Gamestar, the games portal for Sky, the country's most popular subscription television service. Sky reckons Gamestar attracts almost 2 million users a month, who play via a mixture of free, pay-to-play, subscription options.
Of course, only a tiny proportion of such players are what would be labelled hardcore. As with most casual games, middle-aged housewives make up the bulk of the audience. Also, many of the titles are licence-based or remakes of classics - examples include Barbie, Tetris, Scooby-Doo
; more reasons for Denki's lack of profile.
But after six years of stealthy operation, it seems 2007 will mark the year where people will get to hear about Dundee's secret success story.
Not only has the company's design and audio consultancy work on successful Xbox 360 title Crackdown
been revealed, it's also looking to extend its expertise within the growing field of PC and console-based casual games, and has signed a deal with US company DirecTV
to provide interactive TV games for its just-launched Game Lounge service.
But before we get carried away, first a history lesson.
It started before GTA
One of the many surprising twists of the Denki story is the company's genesis in Dundee's most notorious studio, DMA Design. Anderson himself was the audio engineer on titles such as Grand Theft Auto 1
, while Denki's creative director, Gary Penn fulfilled a similar role as DMA Design's creative manager.
But, when the studio split, with one part becoming Edinburgh-based Rockstar North
and the other Crackdown
-developer Realtime Worlds
, Anderson and Penn decided to go their own way. Realtime World's founder Dave Jones was also involved in the startup and continues to be a non-executive director.
"Denki was set up because we wanted to get away from ever bigger projects, teams, budgets and timescales," Anderson says. "Gary Penn had been preaching his 'Lateral' development method for years at DMA, but it was apparent it would never be adopted as the teams were too entrenched in the way they worked. So we decided to do it the hard way."
One outward manifestation of that approach was Denki was set up not as a game developer, but as a ‘digital toy’ company. It's a label that has caused some confusion, but Anderson says the creation process it encompasses has proved hugely successful.
"Without going into too much detail, we believe in making the utmost use of placeholder assets and building the entire framework of a game first, so it's playable from start to finish right from the outset," he says. "If a game isn't fun when using abstract versions of all the assets [think coloured boxes for character sprites and simple sound effects] then you're kidding yourself if you think it's going to be fun just by making it more complicated and prettier."
In this way, Denki builds up its games, carrying out passes which layer on more detailed art and audio assets.
Anderson says one key advantage is that a game can be viewed as 'finished' from near the start of production so running out of time only affects the final quality of the presentation, not the underlying fun. "Occasionally we may end up with some of the effects being a little less spectacular than we'd originally planned, but at least the fun is preserved and the game can ship on time," he says.
Equally Anderson is keen to counter the challenge that such an approach is only manageable with interactive TV games. "People often tell us, 'That only works because you're working on such technically limited platforms', but we know that's a lot of crap," he argues. "Recently we produced an internal PC demo as a way of determining the potential scale of our future casual game titles, and the result was stunning in an unbelievably short amount of time. It seems like all our practice on short interactive television products has left us in good shape for tackling some of the larger formats again. I'm really looking forward to the challenge."
Small is beautiful
Yet Denki's move into interactive TV games was something of a lucky break. Originally it tried to target platforms such as mobile phones and GBA. Indeed two of its earliest titles were the unbelievably cute Go! Go! Beckham!
soccer game and the award-winning puzzler Denki Blocks!
, both for GBA. Problems at its then publisher and the nascent state of mobile game development at the time made the casual market a tough place to operate.
"Our publisher only approached Sky because one of its PR executives was very enthusiastic about the potential of interactive television gaming," Anderson recalls. "Sky liked the game [Denki Blocks!
] and offered to do a revenue share deal. It ended up doing over a million plays in its first six months on the service."
"Back then we genuinely believed Game Boy Advance was going to be a casual game platform instead of another dumping ground for the usual brands and sequels," he continues. "We also dipped our toes in the mobile phone market, developing one of the first ever games for Java-enabled handsets, but in 2001/2002 interactive TV was really the only place you could hope to build casual games and still stay in business, unless you were burning investment capital."
"Now however it's possible to build these types of games for PC and console without bankrupting the company I'd expect we'll be much more involved with it over the coming months."
Perhaps what's most impressive though is the studio, which in its short life has developed over 50 titles and grown from four to 16 staff, with further recruitment planned, continues to stress its friendly working conditions.
'We work hard, 7.5 hours a day, 5 days a week, and every 10 weeks we deliver another quality product. That's the secret of our success,' boasts the company website.
"The timescales, definitely the timescales," concurs Anderson, when asked what he most enjoys about Denki. "No matter what industry or company you work for, you end up working on a product you'd rather not be from time to time. When we were at DMA Design, that could mean four years of your life doing something you didn't believe in, whereas with Denki it's three or four months - tops - and you’re off on to something new. It's hard to overstate how different that makes development feel."
[Jon Jordan is a freelance games journalist and photographer, based in Manchester, UK. He's neither small, Scottish, or beautiful.]