External development studio Red Kite Games has worked on smaller mobile games like GameDigits’ Dream Machine as well as Activision’s Call of Duty: Strike Team and Santa Monica Studio’s God of War. And all the while, the team has largely avoided any crunch time.
Many of Red Kite’s developers come from Rockstar Games. Founder and managing director Simon Iwaniszak joined Rockstar Leeds right after college, and he worked on several Grand Theft Autos, Red Dead Redemption, and L.A. Noire. The studio’s technical director Andy Greensmith and creative director David Roberts are also Rockstar alumni.
“I cut my teeth in terms of how to make high quality games [at Rockstar] and just never compromise on quality when it comes to product,” said Iwaniszak in a phone call with GamesBeat. “But the entrepreneur in me always had the bug to set up my own studio and give it a go.”
Developers like Rockstar and Activision bring Red Kite on as a co-development partner, one that specializes in technical feats. Even though it has teamed up with large companies, Iwaniszak says that he makes sure to protect his team contractually from too much overtime work. In the agreement, he stipulates what hours Red Kite will be available. Though he and his team are willing to help partners that are undergoing crunch, he won’t sacrifice his own developers’ work-life balance to do so.
“You need to commit to it from day one and then back it up with great work with your partners. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Red Kite has never had to do an amount of overtime on any single project, because I wouldn’t be telling the truth,” said Iwaniszak. “But we minimize it so much. What I’m proud of today is I’ve never had to turn around to a single employee and say, you can’t go home. I would never say that to them. I think as well, what helps with some of this is having a culture and an ethos at the studio where people have an intrinsic understanding of the work they’re doing. If there is any amount of them having to put in extra time, extra effort, go the extra mile, they just understand completely through transparency why that’s happening.”
Part of what’s helped is Red Kite’s internal pipelines. Iwaniszak says that he and his team have learned from their time at Rockstar and implemented similar architecture. This also makes it easier to partner with large developers, who may worry about security.
“We have processes in place, pipelines, IT infrastructure, security, all these things to work with these big partners that we do—they require these and expect them,” said Iwaniszak. “From a very early stage, we adopted all those things so we could slot in and be a really efficient co-development partner for them.”
Iwaniszak says that indie developers who are just starting out should consider the option of setting up an external development studio, as opposed to placing all bets on their debut title being a hit. Though it might not be as romantic as going all-in on a dream game, it can be vastly more sustainable. Of course, the Red Kite team has an advantage since they come from Rockstar. But he recommends the idea generally as “a business strategy.”
“I’m not naïve to think this is the only way to do it. Plenty of studios have gone on to be massively successful that have done the complete opposite,” said Iwaniszak. “But I would recommend it as a business strategy. We all love making games and that’s what we want to do and that’s never going to change, but remember that games are a business like any other. Don’t take your eye off that side of it. If you’re successful on that side, what you do is — you almost earn the right to go out there and have a bit of fun with it and invest the money back in to doing some of your own games. But the difference is, you’re also building a business, a legitimate development studio. It’s going to be there in five, 10, 15, 20 years. People, based on that, they can buy cars and buy houses and have families and all these things. I would definitely recommend it.”
Red Kite started over six years ago and employs almost 30 people. And it’s developing its own original game, Hollowpoint. It has worked on it on and off, but it’s started ramping up its efforts and it will launch on PC at a to-be-determined date. It purchased the Hollowpoint IP from Paradox Interactive, and it’s never been released before. It’s a co-op shooter with both solo and multiplayer modes, and it stars 23rd-century mercenaries who are on the ground in a war between mega-corporations.
Iwaniszak says that in addition to the excitement of developing an original game, Hollowpoint also provided a nice portfolio piece for Red Kite. It enabled them to connect with partners, publishers, and press.
“I’d love to be able to quantify, even to this date now, how much positivity and even monetary value that having took Hollowpoint on has brought to the company, because I would be very surprised if it wasn’t close to parity with the development costs we’ve put into it already, having not even released the game,” said Iwaniszak. “Because it’s nice, when we’re talking to partners — they’re always interested to see what you’re developing as well. When you put something like that in front of them that’s very high quality, they can 100 percent trust that that’s what you’ve done. You’ve done that game. It’s not you telling them about a part that you helped with on another project.”
And just as Iwaniszak approached setting up the studio, he and the team were careful to pick a game that they thought they could execute well — mitigating the risk of developing the game every step of the way.