Ready At Dawn Studios is an independent development studio based in Santa Ana, California, and composed of former Naughty Dog (Jak and Daxter
) and Blizzard developers.
Established in 2003, the 40-person company is most widely recognized for the critically acclaimed PSP title Daxter
, but recently revealed that it is working on its second PSP title, a side story to Sony's successful God of War
Gamasutra recently had the opportunity to interview Ready At Dawn's president Didier Malenfant about his studio's history, God Of War
PSP, the technical pluses and minuses of developing for Sony's handheld, and the company's engine licensing and original IP plans.
Keeping It In The Family
Malenfant, or simply 'Dids' as he said he's called by “the many people who can’t pronounce my first name,” began revealing the 'mystery' behind Ready At Dawn's name, explaining that he “...started the company over 3 and a half years ago with Andrea Pessino and Ru Weerasuriya, which is where the name comes from - our 3 initials.”
The company's current game, as it turns out, is for the PSP based upon Sony's popular God of War
property, though Malenfant made sure to point out that “it’s not a port.” The game is emblematic of Ready At Dawn's singular focus, as he explains: “We’re actually a one project company... we’re pretty obsessive about our games and so when we work on one, we tend to focus on just that one until we finally ship it.”
But why work on licensed IP? Even with the esteemed status of God Of War
, we asked Malenfant about the virtues of creating games based on original versus established IP. “The truth is,” he began, “we built Ready At Dawn Studios to create original IP, but we decided very early on to take things one step at a time and develop the team and the technology that will eventually allow us to take it to the next level.”
He added: “I don’t think anyone here regrets working on two of the world’s biggest franchises in the meantime - but even for these, we picked the games that we wanted to work on and not the other way around. It’s not like it’s part of a evil plan for world domination but we just wanted to build things over time rather than try to do our end-all-be-all-dream-project right out of the gates and risk failing miserably.”
Ready At Dawn On PSP
Was the company worried about being stereotyped as a handheld-only developer, though? Not really - Malenfant commented: “I hope that we get pigeonholed as a company which makes kickass games, whether on PSP or otherwise.”
But how about that Sony handheld? The Ready At Dawn co-founder explained that “...we fell in love with the PSP the minute it was announced in 2003.” However, he admitted that the platform is not without its flaws, commenting that “the biggest frustration right now, in a way, is the limitation on the clock speed. We’d love to run our games at 333Mhz (we do internally just for kicks) because it does make a big difference in how much stuff you can push on the platform.”
He continued: "Initially it was the same as any new platform, it’s all about finding ways to get the most out of it. All consoles are different but all have one thing in common: you can’t really get lazy with your programming. The PSP is no exception and we went through many iterations of our engine to get it right for Daxter
. In a way, it reminded me a lot of what developing on the PS2 was like, even if the bottlenecks were in different places. The single shared bus in the system, for example, is really interesting to deal with because it means everything, even graphics, can slow down the CPU. You just have to be careful and clever but that’s the fun of working on fixed platforms like this."
Of the PSP's many features, the Ready At Dawn exec surprised us with his pick for the handheld's most welcome attribute. “I think the greatest thing about the PSP is that ‘sleep’ mode which allows you to resume where you left off. Thanks to this, anything is bite-sized automatically, which is very cool,” he noted.
The Tools, The Company Structure...
Reflecting on the experience of developing Daxter
for the PSP, Malenfant commented that the studio “made the conscious decision not to push the hardware as far as we could...mainly because we wanted to ship the game in a timely manner, but also because we didn’t want it to turn into a science experiment type of project.”
He added: “One of the coolest things about the new game is that we were able to start with the engine that we had and improve further on it. We also always put a lot of work into our tool pipeline, which truly enables the artists to work with the engine rather than have it work against them. In that respect we’ve also made huge progress once again with the new game, pretty much everything is now data-driven and can be implemented without any programmers.”
The executive described his studio as something of a self contained entity, with about 40 people on staff that does “practically everything on our projects in-house.”
He explained that outsourcing wasn't really used much at Ready At Dawn: “We have pretty much all the different jobs of the video game industry represented here, from concept art to modeling, texturing, animation, design, level layout, camera, lighting, cinematics, post-production, engine, game and tools programming, as well as some support people for production, IS, finance, HR and business development. It’s great to have everyone under one roof because it allows us to be very productive and makes communications easy."
Asked about agile development
, Malenfant noted that “...the gameplay programmers did actually start using a form of agile development when we started our second project...it’s worked really well for them so far.”
However, he added that not not all areas of the company subscribe to this same school of thought. “The artists tend to work in a more organic way, and our internal producer has the interesting task of keeping all these pieces together and on track,” he explained. “From a global development point of view, we’re students of the Cerny method. We actually tweaked it over the years to suit our development style but the core values are alive and well here.”
An Engine For All Seasons
So what of the engine used to power Daxter
and now God Of War
? Malenfant noted that Ready At Dawn is an official middleware provider for the PSP, and has been offering its engine for licensing “...for a few months now.”
He further explained that the engine “...was never designed as a PSP engine (it actually also runs on Windows for development purposes) and there’s a lot of features that would absolutely shine on a next-gen platform.” Currently the company is “thinking about” its own next-gen development possibilities, and according to Malenfant, “...if the right project comes along, we’d be super excited to see what we could do.”
“We’re taking it one step at a time and we’re just looking for a few licensees for version 1.0 (the version that shipped Daxter
) and plan on growing from there,” he said. “Once the current game ships, we’ll be offering version 2.0 for licensing, because we don’t want our licensees to put up with ‘work in progress’ technology.”
Conclusion – Daxter to PS2?
We saved a special fanservice question for last - why not see Daxter
ported from the PSP to the PlayStation 2? Malenfant said that “the number one request” the company gets asked is to bring the game to the PS2.
He added: “I think everyone here would love to do it, and it actually wouldn’t be that hard because Daxter
was never designed as a handheld game, we could even add a few things for the PS2 version" - though obviously, that decision would be in the hands of publisher Sony.