The people who make Oxfordshire happen
“The market is bigger than Films, bigger even than Television… and it will go on growing.”
We start our new Oxfordshire Entrepreneurs series by talking to David Hawkins, who runs Exient, a computer software development firm based in Cambridge Terrace, OX1.
Have computer games been a lifelong passion?
My first experience of Video Games was in the late 70’s on a Binatone home console, it featured a few pong type games. Then when I a teenager I was bought a ZX Spectrum for Christmas and I learned to write programs and played games. I spent a lot of time in the Amusement Arcades in my home town of Blackpool and through the early 80’s in particular I played a lot of games. In my late teens I kind of got out of it and didn’t really get into console gaming until it became my career in ’93.
So, how did you come to set up Exient?
I was working in publishing video games for a French company called Infogrammes; you would know it today as Atari. My background was really in software development rather than publishing games and in 2000 I hit a crossroads in my career and I decided that I wanted to move back into development. It seemed to me that the best way to do this was to set up my own development studio, and so Exient was born.
Did you need any capital to set up your company? If so, was it start-up funds from the University, or Venture Capital or your own?
We are an entirely self funded start-up with Charlie (my business partner) and I contributing equally to establishing the company. We were able to do so as I took consultancy work during the early stages of the company and Charlie had established a company during his time at Oxford University and when we joined we had both pretty much established ourselves, albeit in a much smaller capacity to what Exient is now.
Was your first computer game the result of a commission, and if so, did you have to compete with other similar companies to win the business?
For Exient, its first commission was the result of a relationship that Charlie had already established in his former venture. So it was a commission, but to successfully land this contract we had to demonstrate that our football game engine (what became Steven Gerrard’s Total Soccer 2001) worked on the then new gaming platform Gameboy Advanced.
How many of your games have been commissioned? Do you come up with the game subjects or are you given a brief?
Exient is 10 years old in February of 2011 and in our nearly ten years of operation we have had commissioned over 60 titles. For most of them the brief is clear, i.e. a football game, or a golf game. Other times we have to design a game to a much looser brief. For example, Need for Speed is a racing game genre, though sometimes that may be more sports oriented as in the NFS Pro Street or NFS Shift products and other times it may feature illicit street racing, as in NFS Undercover or NFS Carbon. We have a rough idea of what our customer is looking for; we then create something that matches their expectations. Much of this is marketing led, where we look to address the desires and wishes of a particular consumer and the development of the brand.
How do you receive your remuneration? Is there a substantial fee for the created game with ongoing royalties or how does it work?
Video Games works very much like the book industry. An advance or guarantee is paid, usually broken down into milestones (paid for achieving specific results) and then this money is used to develop a product. The advances can be staggering amounts of money, anything from as little as £100,000 for an iPhone game to £10’s of millions for a big franchise on multiple platforms such as Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii. As the products are sold a royalty is paid to the developer, initially the royalties pay off the advance and then after the product has recouped, the royalties are paid to the developer, and if a project recoups this is when a developer makes significant profits. The royalty amount itself is usually a modest amount of the money paid at the till for a product, say 5%-20%, depending on the deal. So when you buy a game at retail only between 50p and £5 is paid to the makers of the game, the rest is marketing, distribution, manufacture, retail costs etc.
Does your location in Oxford give you an advantage in being close to pools of talent from the Universities and other associated organisations? Are you constantly taking on new staff?
Oxford is an excellent location for a video games developer. The quality of staff that can be attracted to Oxford is remarkable. The city itself has a young and vibrant community, supported in part by the student community and then of course the many tourists. For a video games developer we have everything that we need: a ready supply of talented individuals, a great place to live and work, a central location for easy access to airports, London and the rest of the country and Oxford is surrounded by many specialist video games supply companies. Everything from Animation, in the Oxford based Natural Motion and Osney Meads Audiomotion, to Banbury based High Score Productions supplying voice-over, sound effects and audio suppliers. When our customers and suppliers visit, we are spoilt for choice to entertain our guests, what with many restaurants, cafes, pubs, nightclubs and local tourist attractions and the ability to take them further afield should we need to.
Are all the games’ content created by your Oxford staff or do you sub-out some of the animation to cheaper workers around the world?
We sub-contract out a significant portion of what we do. All technology and game production is done internally but we sub-contract out much of the audio and visual production that is in the periphery of the game experience, i.e. objects on a race circuit, such as buildings and signposts would be contracted out, whereas the road would be done internally as this has a gameplay component to it and the objects only need to look good. Motion captured animation is also outsourced as this requires expensive and specialised equipment. Fortunately our supplier, Audio Motion, is based in Osney Mead, so nice and local. When looking for outsourcing partners we look to find quality first and then cost second; this invariably means abroad as the labour costs are so much lower. So we have car audio produced in Australia, car models produced in Vietnam, world objects produced in China and Hungary and in the past we have outsourced to India, Malaysia, Canada and Mexico amongst others.
Do you need to travel to all these countries?
I don’t personally travel to these countries but we do send people out to see them when it is necessary, which honestly in this day and age is not that often. With the internet it is possible to work internationally without ever seeing the people you work with. Email, instant messaging, meeting point, voice and video conferencing, are amazing technologies that allow us all to work with the most talented (note not necessarily the cheapest) people in the world. Today in business the world is a tiny place and importantly a place we have to take care of, so I’m happy that we keep our air travel under control and work in smart and new ways.
How much competition is there in the computer sports games market?
Generally in videogames there is a lot of competition. However, in the field that we work in, i.e. sports games on handheld, throughout the GameBoy Advanced and Nintendo DuelScreen (NDS) era, Exient was pretty much the dominant company, securing greater than 90% of all sports games sales on those platforms. Having said that, the video games world is an ever changing operating environment. New companies come and go regularly and new platforms/devices emerge all the time. Most recently there has been iPhone and 3DS and new console from Nintendo is due out very soon. This is both very exciting and also changes the business environment. Once where you are dominant you can be playing catch-up to other organisations that got there sooner or impressed early on a new platform. Video Games is highly competitive and all the better for it.
How long does it take from concept to production of a computer game?
That depends on the device and nature of the product that you are making. Sports games on all platforms tend to be released annually and therefore the development needs to be planned for on 12 month cycles and are more evolutionary in their development, that is to say that small incremental improvements are made annually. An NDS sports title will take between 6 to 12 months to realise. Some titles, such as the Sims will take much longer to produce; the PC product takes roughly 3 years and our NDS title 18 months. These are very different being rather more revolutionary in nature as many of the systems, technologies and assets (graphics and audio) are reworked from version to version (rather than evolved).
How long, on average, will a particular game remain in production?
Again it depends on the shelf life of the product. Nintendo games made for their own platforms often last the life of the platform and sell multiple millions of units. Sports games tend to operate on 12 month cycles.
What are the secrets of your success?
- I am one of the luckiest people I know, I have never done a days work in my life. Well perhaps that is slightly rosy-coloured spectacles because making games is hard work, but as my Gran would say, “if you do something that you love you’ll never do a days work in your life”. So my first secret, whatever you do, do it for the love of it, though of course this is an idealistic mantra but we can all aim to do this to some degree or other.
- Always employ people that are better than you at whatever you want them to do and then for God’s sake let them do it.
- The best managers put themselves out of a job. That is fine because there is always more work to do on the company.
- Never recruit core talent to complete a project. Make sure the talent is in place first, it is fine to recruit the muscle to get the job finished but talent is hard to find and invariably you will fail to find it when you need it.
- Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses. Anyone who buys into your company, your customers etc., will likely know your weaknesses and accept them. Your strengths are what differentiate you: know them, work on them and build them. Obviously, do not get hung up on your weaknesses and do what you can to amend, improve, manage and adjust but every organisation has weaknesses
- Of course, it goes without saying that you must build up a reputation for reliability and quality – and we have.
In a few words, how do you see the future of the market?
3D without glasses are a huge step forward. 3DS has 2 screens overlaid; one for each eye and it is incredibly realistic.
Real immersion in control, as a result of a camera which records all your movements and enables characters in your game to react to your every gesture. Social gaming is pretty much here and now and is very much the future, technologies such as Facebook have enabled likeminded people to enjoy games in a social environment and I think we will see much more of this.