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Q&A: Kuju America's Kavanagh Talks Launch, Wii Debut

UK-based Kuju Entertainment (Battalion Wars) recently opened a new San Francisco studio - Gamasutra talks to studio head John Kavanagh about the expansion, his biz history, and Kuju America's first title, a mysterious Wii conversion of an arcade ti
UK-based Kuju Entertainment (Battalion Wars) recently opened a new San Francisco studio, the latest in a number of studios the company has created in recent months: a list including Sheffield-based Chemistry (focused on Unreal Engine-developed titles) and a new Guildford studio, Doublesix, staffed primarily by the teams behind Geometry Wars: Galaxies and PlayStation Network release Nucleus. Gamasutra talks to studio head John Kavanagh about the launch of the developer's first American presence, the Wii casual market and his own return to the industry: Kavanagh began his career as a programmer at Atari, and later worked with Eidos as publisher, working with brands including Deus Ex, Hitman and Thief, and ran their US studio, Crystal Dynamics. Why begin a North American studio for Kuju? John Kavanagh: There are several reasons for Kuju America. One is to have the studio itself, and one is to represent Kuju. It's not just there to get work for Kuju America, but to represent Kuju as a whole in an easier way to North American publishers -- as it's just easier to deal with the west coast from within the US than from the UK. We're also looking for further opportunities for acquisition or partnership with US-based developers, extending the Kuju model -- independent developers housed under a corporate umbrella. So the concept is for Kuju America to a core studio in the US similar to how it works in the UK? JK: Yes, to replicate that structure here. How have things been going since launch? JK: Good! We're working on our first title with a publisher, which we can't really announce anything about other than it's a casual title for Wii -- when I say casual I always think it sounds like Scrabble or something like that but I mean casual like Wii Sports -- and that's going great and we've been looking at a couple of studios for acquisition, which I can't really say anything about either! But if they make financial sense we'll go for them. Is it an original IP? JK: Sort of! It's an adaptation of a coin-op… That's not even out itself. How big is Kuju America now? JK: We'll be about 20 in a few months. Our model is to have the core guys in house and to work with an outsourcing group to fill in the rest of the blanks. The project currently has 35 people on it. So your first title is a casual title for Wii. Initially that was seen as a really great market, but as time has progressed people are kind of arguing that as large as it is, it's all sown up by Nintendo. How can you compete? JK: I think some publishers are closing down on working on one title to compete and really trying to "go for it" on that one title, while some others are choosing to specifically not compete with Nintendo, dropping their prices to the "stocking stuffer" level. Both of those strategies really could work. I mean, Nintendo might account for the majority of the sales on the system, but they don't actually release a huge number of games each year. So there is room in the market for more titles, even just if you think of people going into stores to buy 'this' but walking out with a copy of 'that' as well. At Kuju, we're strategy agnostic, though. We do whatever the publisher tells us to do. I mean, we're Nintendo developers as well, with Battalion Wars -- and that's first party stuff. I guess Kuju America is working very closely with Kuju in the UK on the Wii development as a result? JK: Yeah. Are you working towards online multiplayer? Casual titles don't seem to, generally, be including it, and online penetration is pretty low for the Wii despite the number of installed units. JK: The thing about the Wii is that it's really geared towards multiplayer in the living room, and it is interesting to think about the potential for online multiplayer on the system. I play the Wii with my wife and my six year old son, and the online penetration is probably low because I can think of my wife asking me "why are you connecting the Wii to the internet? Some predator is going to get a hold of our six year old"! Nintendo really need to promote its walled garden approach more, and really point out that it's okay to connect your Wii to the internet. I mean, Battalion Wars 2 is an online game, because it's a "hardcore" title and they all know how to get online, but at some point in the future there has to be something like "Nintendo Family Party" to convince families to get online and play against each other, or something – a driving force that lets people know it's okay to get online. It's hard to imagine how they could make it any more secure online. It's incredibly hard to just arrange games between friends! JK: Yeah, it's not subtle at all, but Xbox Live really works for that. PSN works too, but it's probably too subtle. Right now, Xbox Live is really the most evolved. You left the industry for a period of several years before returning with Kuju America. Why did you leave? JK: Well, at the time, I was working for Eidos. We'd had this really strong growth period and suddenly there was this moment of realization that some of the company was going astray, so we had this weeding process that I was in charge of for a few years. I moved from London to Dallas to clean up Ion Storm, for example. Which worked… In the end. It was worth it for Deus Ex. So you were actively one of the people who turned up at Ion Storm to fix it? JK: I was the only person! Once we shut down Dallas I left and went from there to Crystal Dynamics, which was great -- such a fantastic studio. Maybe not all of their products are amazing but they're a machine. They get the product done and out the door. I can't help but ask… What was it like when you turned up at Ion Storm? JK: Oh god, there have been books written about it! It was absolute chaos. The first six months of work there wasn't even vaguely about making games. It was entirely about corporate restructuring. I mean, although Daikatana was all round considered a disappointment, the guys who stayed on the team and finished it pulled off a miracle. They basically tore down that whole game and made a new one in a matter of months. It was almost a total rewrite. It was a pretty stressful period! After that I was pretty tired and needed a holiday. What did you do during your 'holiday'? JK: In my time off I made an educational toy called Bubble, which was Toy of the Year 2005 in the UK – a sort of DVD games console for children. Unfortunately, that sector got pretty crowded within the space of the year after that and we got squeezed out of the market. After that I got a call from the Kuju guys, and now here I am!

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