20 years of a Video Game Developer’s Career – Part 4

I’d like to share with you my game development career experience as part of a series of posts, let’s rejoin the story at during the twilight days of PlayStation 2 when I started at Kuju in Sheffield. I’ve included a lot of photos in this post so you may even make an appearance!

Kuju Sheffield v1

I was fortunate to be have formed strong relationships with people across the industry and I was brought in as employee #2 for the newly formed Kuju studio in Sheffield where the next phase of my career began including many of the people I’d worked with in Leeds on the emerging platforms.

Kuju had recently been listed on the stock market and was expanding rapidly with studios in Guildford, London, Brighton and now Sheffield.

Starting out at Kuju Sheffield was an exciting time, there were essentially 4 of us in the 1st few weeks holed up inside a tiny office under one of the stands of the football stadium for Sheffield United. The room was long and thin with only a high tiny window at one end and it was very reminiscent of the early days of my career back at Alligata.

In this tiny space we not only crammed ourselves but an immense server rack that was built for the future, the server itself was incredibly noisy and it appeared to be made even more so by the small environment. The room soon became hot and noisy but we were enjoying ourselves.

Dave, Nick, Tony and myself beavered away making a few PS2/X360/PC ports for the main Kuju office while we found our feet and got our own projects, which didn’t take long and we were expanding quickly.

  • Date: 2003
  • Role: Anything going
  • Studio Size: 4
  • Projects: 1
  • Platforms: PlayStation 2, XBox, PC

Kuju Sheffield v1.1 Within a few weeks we expanded into a larger office on the same floor that took us up to about 15 people before we needed to move again. We were working on a football game for Codemasters at this point and we started to bring in some great staff who were unfortunate casualties of the demise of Warthog studios. It would turn out that we’d stay together for many years and we had a great time.

Working under a football stadium posed its own challenges with the most prominent one being that we weren’t allowed in the building during a period of 2hrs before to 2hrs after a match! This was particularly frustrating when we had deadlines to hit as we were simply evacuated from the building. As producer/project manager, I even went to the extent of planning the milestones to avoid home match days.

The servers furiously buzzed away in the corner and we delivered the game on time and this won us another contract.

I was named as Technical Director at this point but I was pretty much doing anything that needed to be done: building desks, installing cabling, running servers, finance, business development, training, project management, programming and a load of other stuff. All the stuff everyone does in a small business and it was fun.

We delivered the game on PS2 and XBox as a team and we were hungry for me but we really need to move out so we relocated across town into the posh Media Center.

  • Date: 2003
  • Role: Anything going
  • Studio Size: 10-15
  • **Projects:** 1
  • Platforms: PlayStation 2, XBox, PC

Kuju Sheffield v1.2 Our studio increased quickly over the next few years peaking at about 40 staff across 3 projects being made on PC, PSP, Xbox & PS2.

We had specialist staff now and we started to get some real traction.

We were making a Flight Simulator for PSP, Football Action game for console, Football Management game for PC, Social Quiz game for PS2, Fitness game connected to a cross-trainer, TV<>game cross-over pilot and lots of little trinkets on the side.

People came and went but we remained pretty stable and everyone appeared to be enjoying themselves.

My named role as Tech Director was now largely being done by one of our original lead programmers where I was pretty much acting as Dev Director, setting out production process, managing finance, working across sites and a myriad of other things.

I attended frequent meetings with the Execs at Kuju presenting projects, new business and finance reports all of which I’d prepared and ran. I had good relationships with our clients as I was their day-to-day contact.

I was also getting more involved in the people side of the business again, hiring, firing, reviewing and applying the regular attention that an active group of developers required.

Despite all of this, we were struggling to get in new work along with many other developers and the prospects didn’t look good.

  • Date: 2005
  • Role: Anything going
  • Studio Size: 15-35
  • **Projects:** 3
  • Platforms: PlayStation 2, XBox, PC

Kuju v2.0 - The King is Dead What happened next was a blur of rapid change.

Our incumbent Studio Manager retired and I was asked to take over as I’d been doing a large part of the work anyway. It didn’t feel like much of a change for these reasons and I relished the opportunity to take the studio forwards.

I made a promise to everyone: I would take us into a new era and get us a ‘next-gen’ project, we would do this by standing on the shoulders of Unreal 3. We would develop expertise in this area that would benefit us all.

Numerous people shifted around within the studio, backfilling all the positions and this gave everyone a new round of energy.

I worked hard over a few months and I got us another contract - this time it was significant as it was on ‘next-gen’ consoles and represented a massive improvement in our prospects. We all relished the opportunity.

We began work on our game, really pushing ourselves and learning new platforms and new ways of working.

We rapidly ran out of space and we outgrew our offices where the main problem was that our expansion had caused us to take on additional, separate, offices in the same building. This was workable previously as we’d been split across 3 games in 3 offices so it kinda worked but it failed when all of us were on 1 project.

In hindsight, this is a great way to scale up. Take on multiple small projects then combine your team to make a larger team for a single project.

So, I hunted around for a new home for our studio and I found one just around the corner.

  • Date: 2005
  • Role: Anything going
  • Studio Size: 30-35
  • **Projects:** 1
  • Platforms: PlayStation 2, XBox, PC

Kuju v2.1 - Custom Fit Office Our new offices was brilliant. I managed to find us a large open-plan space and I planned the floor space incorporating meeting rooms, a small office (for me), storage space, kitchen and other bits and bobs. We got to choose the colour scheme, flooring and everything! Of course I can’t claim sole ownership of all of this.

Our Art Director, Nick, and Tech Director, Dino, and many other people played a key role in making this a success.

It took a few weeks to come together and we were so excited to be moving, even it if was just around the corner.

I think it’s safe to say that we enjoyed our new space.

We had exciting times too, we had people trapped in a lift and had to call out the fire brigade that amused everyone except those trapped and we there was also a MASSIVE fire opposite our building and we just watched from our windows.

During all of this we were still working on our game and all of our other commitments but it all seemed to gel.

I structured the studio to be as agile as possible and we started to invade the new territory of Outsourcing the artwork that very few people were doing at the time. It just made complete sense.

Meeting the Stars Our football game was a dream come true for a handful of us as we went to Barcelona and Milan to go behind the scenes of the largest clubs at Barcelona, Inter Milan and AC Milan to capture reference of the stars. From all 3 teams we got to meet all the stars, agents and managers, take detailed reference photos of everyone from many angles. We even went out for dinner with Lionel Messi!

Kuju v3.0 - becoming Chemistry

The higher-level business was going through a transition. The many Kuju studios in London, 2 in Guildford, Sheffield and Brighton all had their own niche and identity and it was becoming increasingly confusing for us internally and it also must have been very strange for our prospective clients. We would attend meetings and say “Hi, we’re from Kuju and…” …. “Didn’t we just see you guys?” … “No, that must have been one of our other studios…we specialise in X and would like to show you Y”. etc.

Re-branding was the order of the day, Brighton went first and became Zoe Mode and we followed on quickly afterwards changing our name to Chemistry.

The name Chemistry worked for us, it represented us bringing together different elements of a game and making something new and never experienced before. It solidified our messaging and provided a great identity for us as a studio to get behind. We had banners, marketing, press, t-shirts and a whole range of other things branded up. Our offices were white, clean, sterile with a few hints of colour.

Back on the floor, I’d also been pushing new contracts and we were now working on 3 separate PS3 and X360 games. We had an FPS, a Football game and we were also helping Midway out on one of their projects.

As a studio, we were immensely busy and the amount of personal work was stacking up plus I was aiming to keep everything on an even keel.

Due to the nature of working as a remote office, as well as running 3 next-gen projects and running a studio I was left also doing Office management, HR, finance, answering the phones, ordering toilet rolls, managing servers, doing the post, fixing desktop systems, building furniture among other things.

As management, there was myself and 1 other Project Manager doing all of this together. You can imagine what this did to me as a result.

  • Date: 2007
  • Role: Anything going
  • Studio Size: 35-40
  • **Projects:** 3
  • Platforms: PlayStation 3, XBox 360, PC

Enough is enough

Despite great prospects and a wonderful team, I’d had enough and I worked with the Execs to bring in Mike as a replacement Studio Head and I sadly quickly left the business with nowhere else to go. These were tough times and sometimes people just won’t listen to repeated cries for support and see the issues that are staring them right in the face. It sometimes takes a drastic measure to make people realise what’s going off.

So, I left Kuju and a great team. My time at Kuju was the happiest and most complete I’d ever felt and it felt like I’d let a lot of people down but I had to move on.

What next? Across to the dark side

The next phase of my career was completely unknown and it took me a few months to find a role that suited me. I was fortunate to have 2 great offers: 1 from Codemasters, 1 from Sony. Which one did I take?

This is where we’ll join the story next time…

A few memories

Further Reading

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