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The Euro Vision: Outsourcing For MotorStorm, And Beyond

Think you know who developed PlayStation 3 launch hit MotorStorm? Euro Vision columnist Jon Jordan talks to Lol Scragg, CEO of Cohort Studios, which provided much of the game's outsourced content, about the trials and opportunities of being a small
What are the chances that if the studio you work for goes bust in February, by December you'll have set up a new company and provided significant components for a high profile next-gen launch title? Well, it's all been in a year's work for Lol Scragg, the erstwhile development director at Scottish ex-outfit Visual Science, and one of the three co-founders of startup Cohort Studios, which worked on Sony's Japanese launch PlayStation 3 off-road racer MotorStorm. "Dundee is pretty much the centre of games development in Scotland so quite a few people went off to work at local companies when Visual Science departed," Scragg says of the fallout when the veteran studio called in the administrators following Vivendi's cancellation of racing game Velocity in early 2006. "A core of us believed it would be a shame to split up the tremendous talent that had built up there however," he continues. "We also had an enormous amount of experience on a managerial level so when the opportunity arose, it made sense to start Cohort." Call From The Man As is the way in such rags-to-riches stories, that opportunity was a mixture of experience, confidence and sheer luck; Scragg got a phone call from someone at Sony, and was brave enough to say yes. "I spent my first five years in the industry at Psygnosis [which became Sony Europe in the late 1990s], so I knew a lot of the guys there," he explains. "Visual Science had also worked with Sony, so they knew the calibre of the staff, and when they had a requirement for a team to assist on one of their projects, they got in touch." And that was how Scragg and fellow directors Darran Thomas and Bruce McNeish found themselves going from being unemployed to directors of their own company. "Those three weeks were the most frantic of my life," Scragg recalls. "The logistics of finding premises, securing staff and offering them contracts, purchasing kit, and the general setting up of the company was just one big circular dependency." But, with the lure of MotorStorm ahead, and the muscle of Sony behind them, it wasn't long until the team of over 20 staff was hard at work. The company provided outsourcing help with both art and programming. "On the art side we did a lot of environment work including the valleys and rockfaces, lots of rocks, vehicles, and physics objects," Scragg says. This fit into prime developer Evolution Studios' workflow as the eight game levels were constructed fluidly with the track being laid out using subdivisional surfaces, which were signed off and locked down as polygons. These were then populated with bushes, rocks, obstacles and jumps by Evolution's world editors using object libraries and Maya's brush-based tools. Coding tasks undertaken by Cohort included work on animation systems, special effects, networking and backend tools. What's Next Boss? The company was off to a great start, but not even working on a PlayStation 3 launch title keeps food on the table forever. Hence since the MotorStorm success, Cohort has been spreading out its feelers in numerous directions. Unannounced contract work includes help on 'a major franchise for triple-A publisher' and for 'an iteration to an existing franchise' (go figure), while what Scragg refers to as "one small PC project that caters to a completely different market than we've historically targeted" is due to be released soon. A couple of games for Sony's E-Distribution Initiative are also on the cards. "The opportunities are definitely there for independents like Cohort to either develop or self publish," Scragg reckons. "Getting in at the beginning with eDI is a big plus as it will become more and more difficult to gain front page visibility as the platforms mature. However the whole concept of getting a title out on eDI or Xbox Live Arcade at a cost of under $500,000 is refreshing, especially as I expect some successful eDI titles to be taken to full price retail by publishers once they see there's a demand for a certain game, character or mechanic." More importantly though, the company is also putting together a demo for its own original family-friendly title. "We've outlined the concept to a few potential partners and have had some really positive feedback. Some even mentioned it's one of the most unique and interesting concepts they have been presented in some time, which boosts our confidence," Scragg says. This remains the company's medium term goal. "We're happy working on particular components and outsourcing elements, but we believe we can develop our internal IP with in-house resources," he says. "While there's an acceptance that larger next generation games cannot be completed without a team of over 100 people, we believe that to be complete nonsense and firmly think an core team of 30 people can easily deliver a triple-A quality next generation title by carefully picking their battles and creating a framework whereby outsourcing can easily fit into the development model." Smallish Is Beautiful As for the next 12 months, Scragg, who is Cohort's CEO, says he thinks managing the company's growth will provide his most tricky challenge. "Growth is the major obstacle for all businesses and when we find a partner for our own concept, we will have to grow to develop the project," he says. "We are currently at 31 people and we feel that 40 will be our requirement to fulfill development of that and our other projects. That means we may need to relocate and further develop our studio management team." A related issue is the so-called size sweet-spot. "Longer term, we've seen the problems larger developers have," Scragg ponders. "There appears to be a sweet spot for independent developers of around the 30-50 mark. Above 50 people, stability can be an issue until you reach over 100 people." Despite those future obstacles and over a decade in the industry though, in general he remains as enthusiastic as ever. "There's nothing better than standing in your local game store, and seeing a random stranger pick up your game from the rack and going to the till to purchase it. Creating entertainment is a great place to be when you see someone spend good money on the fruits of your labour." [Jon Jordan is a freelance games journalist and photographer, based in Manchester, UK. He once saw someone in a shop read an article he’d written and then carefully put the magazine back on the shelf.]

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