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Interview: Renown Entertainment Founders Go From Megapublisher To Startup

Former Need for Speed art director James Lau tells Gamasutra about his new Vancouver-based studio, Renown Entertainment, and making the move from big publisher to startup.
James Lau's advice for starting a new independent studio? "Just do it. You just have to start it and you just have to finish it." Lau, a former Need for Speed art director at Vancouver-based EA Black Box, revealed this week that he and former EA Sports software engineer Bill Li had formed Renown Entertainment, a small Vancouver studio with eight full-time workers that Lau said aims to put a more distinct, human touch back into video games. "To me, games feel very mass-produced these days," he told Gamasutra. "Even the big-budget games, they're really good, but they lack that soul, that feeling you get when you play Mega Man or Mario. There's this inherent charm that isn't there anymore, and I feel like it's more like a product that you cycle through, like a magazine, and then you're done and onto the next one." Currently, Renown is at work on three different projects: two iOS games -- Waves: Survivor, due this month, and D, due this winter -- and a "big budget" next-generation PC and console game that the studio has been developing since its quiet founding in 2009. In addition to eight full-time staff, Lau said Renown also currently has four additional part-time employees. While the studio's employees have experience in the game industry, Lau said that the main challenge in starting a new independent studio is that its members haven't conducted all of the facets of developing a game and bringing it to market by themselves before. But Lau, president and creative director of the new studio, said that surrounding yourself with the right people can make up for lack of experience. "You have to be around people that want to do the same thing," he said. "...Our team is very multi-disciplined. Everyone helps everyone out and everyone is aligned to the overall vision. [New studios] should try to find people with no egos, that are focused on making great games, that are willing to help out no matter what. ... At our studio, everyone does everything." "I think it's funny, because a lot of artists secretly want to be engineers, and a lot of engineers secretly want to be artists," he continued. "So we try to embrace that creativity and let everyone have that input, and have ownership of the whole experience." Lau describes the studio's in-development console game as "Resident Evil 5 meets Uncharted 2 with a contemporary science-fiction theme." He said that "ideally" the studio would like to release the game independently on a digital platform like Xbox Live or PlayStation Network, but he said that finding a publisher is still an option. "It really depends on where it goes as we shop it around to publishers, as well as how gamers respond to it." While he described the studio's planned console game as the team's "big passion," opportunities in the mobile market, Lau hopes, will sustain the studio financially in the meantime. "We don't have any VCs or angel investors. We're just doing this because we love to make games, so we're going to take a crack at doing it this way," he explained. "We felt that iOS, Android and handheld is a really good way to get money to sustain ourselves in between shopping for publishers or looking for avenues for our big next-gen title." He added, "In the last couple of weeks, Epic released [Unreal Engine 3 for iOS], Apple has Game Center, they're starting to advertise Street Fighter IV and other hardcore games. I think [core gamers] are going to start to take that a lot more seriously. ... I think that market will just keep growing." Going from a major publisher to a self-funded startup studio is a challenging endeavor, Lau admits, but the advantages of being independent are great. "You just have to have a really strong vision, you have to stick to your gut and kind of embrace the fact that you're independent, you don't have a bunch of red tape and you can really just utilize your advantages as a young, agile group."

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