Creating a virtual world

Artist Helen Simm works on a game at Climax Studios.  Picture: Steve Reid (120351-869)
Artist Helen Simm works on a game at Climax Studios. Picture: Steve Reid (120351-869)
Former Great British Bake Off contestant Enwezor Nzegwu takes part in a 24-hour treadmill relay at Portsmouth University Gym to raise money for cystic fibrosis. Fellow participant Dannii Hutchins gives support. 'Picture Ian Hargreaves  (180224-1)

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Outside the window is the familiar and comfortable sight of Portsmouth Harbour, where it’s business as usual with ferries gliding past and yachts bobbing near the shore.

But inside is an alien and disturbing world of snow-covered wastelands, battles and bloodshed. In these ancient forests and mountainous landscapes, a well-honed, well-armed warrior clashes with gargantuan enemies and takes guidance from a shape-shifting goddess.

Lead designer Matt Duff at work in  Climax Studios' offices at Gunwharf Quays.  Picture: Steve Reid (120351-895)

Lead designer Matt Duff at work in Climax Studios' offices at Gunwharf Quays. Picture: Steve Reid (120351-895)

This is the cold and cruel world of Bloodforge, a game inspired by Celtic mythology where oppressive, violent gods face the wrath of a vengeful anti-hero.

The game has been created by Portsmouth-based games developer Climax Studios for Xbox 360. And in the company offices overlooking the harbour at Gunwharf Quays a group of directors are briefly absorbed in this brutal world, gathered around a screen showing off the latest work from Climax’s designers, artists and programmers.

‘We wanted to avoid doing a game about knights in armour and dragons or something Lord of the Rings style with elves,’ says Rhys Cadle, Climax design director.

‘This is a gritty and harder take on the fantasy world. It’s gory and bloody but also based on Celtic mythology, which is actually pretty bloody, with sacrifices and things.’

But Climax also develops games with cute and cuddly creatures for the family market and outside in the main office, the creatives, artists and programmers are working on a variety of titles and tasks.

It might surprise some to know that Portsmouth is home to a hub of computer game creativity. Climax is a thriving studio with an 140-strong workforce of designers, artists, programmers, producers and support staff. The studio produces games for all platforms and big-name publishers like Microsoft, Sony and Disney.

And just across the Solent, Isle of Wight-based Stainless Games is producing titles for the likes of EA, Sega and Microsoft.

At the University of Portsmouth, the business and creative brains of the future are being instructed and inspired on courses like Computer Games Technology and Computer Games Enterprise.

These degree choices are becoming increasingly popular, with five or six applicants for every place, says principal lecturer and course leader Mark Eyles.

‘The success of our courses means there is a pool of talent for local businesses and there does seem to be a little bit of a hub here,’ says Mark.

‘Our technology course was one of the first in the country and the enterprise course is unusual. I don’t know of any others.’

Students have gone to local businesses but also moved all over the country and world. One group have formed their own games development business based in Portsmouth. Distinction Games has had the support of Portsmouth Centre for Enterprise which works with young entrepreneurs at the university.

But it’s a challenging industry which has taken a hit in recent years like many others, although Climax seems to be riding the storm. The team is working on several titles which can’t be revealed and Bloodforge, published by Microsoft, will be launched in the next few months.

The game has a stylish look – ‘It has a graphic novel feel to it,’ says art director Glenn Brace.

‘The aesthetic is for strong silhouettes. The composition needs to be visually striking and stand out.’

The player’s character is called Crom, based on a mythological figure. The game is extremely violent but the team point out that it’s for the 18-35 market.

‘It’s contextual violence, they’re not killing the innocent. To be honest you get much more violence in your average Hollywood action film,’ says Rhys Cadle.

At the other end of the scale, Climax has produced Eyepet and Friends for Sony, which involves looking after a character and receiving rewards. One of the studio’s biggest titles was Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, a psychological horror game which analyses the player’s character and makes changes to the game based on that. It was a groundbreaking title for Climax and they ploughed profits into the game to build a reputation.

It’s a fast-paced pressurised industry.

‘A lot of people think it’s just playing games,’ says CEO Simon Gardner.

‘In reality it’s hard work, what’s possible, what isn’t possible. And a lot of decisions are also driven by publishers.’

And he adds: ‘The most challenging thing is going out and getting the work, pitching our ideas and winning. It’s also a very dynamic world that’s in a state of change all the time, but especially at the moment with people using things like tablets and iPhones to play games on.’

There are people whose job it is to play games, but James points out that even that is a highly-skilled role.

‘We hire the quality assurance people as and when we need them. But it’s not just a matter of playing. They have to be highly-skilled, trying to break the game all the time. They’re looking for bugs, trying to make the game crash.’

He says in all roles it isn’t enough to be passionate about games. ‘That isn’t going to make you good at making them. You have to be highly creative or highly artistic or highly intelligent. It’s a competitive industry.’

A quick look at the studio confirms that it’s also male-dominated. Climax only has nine female employees, but Simon says that’s not through lack of encouragement.

‘Women just don’t seem as interested, maybe because less have grown up with it,’ he says.

‘But we are seeing a few more coming through.’

Meanwhile at Climax there is a relaxed and happy but professional atmosphere.

But inside the imaginations of the workers, who knows what colourful characters or mystical world are emerging.

Stainless Games

Isle of Wight-based Stainless Games is a studio of about 50 people creating games for platforms including Xbox, Playstation 3 and PC. The team is also working on iPad and iPhone titles.

The studio’s customers over the past few years have included EA, Sega and Microsoft.

Titles that have been developed by Stainless Games include Risk for EA, based on the board game, and violent driving game Carmageddon.

The game caused some controversy, but became extremely popular in the 1990s and made it to the top of the UK games chart.

Now Stainless Games has bought back the rights (or intellectual property) from the publisher with the intention of developing a new game based on that world.

The people behind the games

A finished game is the work of a variety of artists, designers and programmers.

These include the combat designer, who is responsible for designing and implementing the fighting gameplay and works closely with the animators, and the level designer who designs and creates the game world and the levels the player’s character will journey through.

There are several art roles, including environment artist and concept artist. Environment artists dress up the world of the game, building landscapes, skyscapes, vistas and anything that sets the scene.

Concept artists develop the visual concepts which are used to communicate the vision to the publishers.

On the programming side, the AI coder develops the systems required to simulate intelligence in enemies and opponents.

Matt Duff

When Matt Duff reveals what he does for a living, the reaction is usually the same.

‘The standard response in the pub is ‘brilliant, you get to play games all day,’ says Matt.

‘But that’s as far away from the truth as possible. There is pressure just like any other job.’

Matt, 28, is a lead designer at Climax Studios and, as difficult as it might be to believe, the job isn’t just about battling enemies and scoring points.

‘Well we do get some time to play other people’s games,‘ says Matt, smiling.

‘You have to have that time to look at what’s going on in the industry and find out what other people are doing.’

But Matt’s role is to create, not crush, enemies. His job is to design a game from the ground up, determining what the player does, what the driving force is, what’s their reason for playing.

Matt, who studied entertainment technology at Portsmouth University, has worked on games as diverse as the combative Bloodforge to nurturing family game Eyepet and Friends.

Designing is a team effort and no game is down to the work of one designer. And it can be hard work for everyone, especially towards deadline.

But he says: ‘I wouldn’t do anything else in the world.’

Helen Simm

She might be working in a world of fast-paced technology, but Helen Simm goes back to basics when she starts a project.

Like any good artist over the centuries, she gets out her sketchbook and pencil and draws.

Helen is a GUI (gameplay user interface) artist, which means she designs elements like games scores, menus, icons showing any powers the player may have activated and general graphical icons, such as health and energy.

The 32-year-old, who works at Climax Studios, says there’s no substitute for traditional artistic skills. And she may be designing the more functional elements of the game, but plenty of artistic flair and vision is called for.

‘You need to think about how these elements are going to be integrated into the game,’ says Helen. ‘They need to feel like part of that world rather than tearing you out of the experience. But it must be useful and functional too.’