It was back in April that The Euro Vision caught up Ed Daly, studio head of Kuju Brighton, which, to highlight its focus on lifestyle games, had just been rebranded in the provocative form of its potential audience, one Zoe Mode. (She can currently be seen - Nintendogs DS in hand - wiling away her time on the beach.)
Yet with four studio locations, Kuju's plan was always to roll out separate marketing messages across all; the point being to highlight the type of specialism carried out at each. Which brings us onto the erstwhile Kuju Sheffield, now known as Chemistry.
"Chemistry is a game development studio building on the foundations of decades of experience and now making amazing products on the next-gen toolset, Unreal Engine 3. Our skills make us the ideal studio to partner with to bring new products to a global market, adding that extra feature or plain old helping out when times are tough," so reads the blurb on the studio's revitalised website.
But before we delve down into the thinking behind basing your entire production process on a piece of third party middleware, let's get down to the main point. Surely the name should really be Kemistry or even Khemistry (KKhemistry?).
"No, that would be terrible," laughs Simeon Pashley (above). "I've spent my career working for game companies beginning with 'K'; I was technical director at Krisalis, and then Kuju. Kemistry would be one 'K' too much."
So Chemistry - chosen for its meaning of combining known elements to cause a reaction and make something that didn't exist before - it is.
Remembrance Of Things Past
The crunch point for Kuju Sheffield came around a year ago. Set up in late 2001 as Kuju was looking to expand its headcount after floating on the UK's AIM stock exchange, the studio had up to that point made the majority of its living carrying out work-for-hire.
And mighty busy it had been. Hooking up with local publisher Codemasters, it had worked on several soccer games - Club Football 2005, England International Football and LMA Manager (variously on PS2, Xbox and PC) - as well as converting Kuju's Lotus Challenge from Xbox to PC. It branched out with a couple of cheap-and-cheerful budget games - Pilot Down, and Conspiracy: Weapons of Mass Destruction - before returning to soccer, again with Codemasters, on Sensible Soccer 2006.
"This conversion work was bread and butter stuff to get us going; a means to an end if you want," Pashley explains.
The end point of the process became apparent with the company's first original title, early PSP flight sim, Pilot Academy, for Japanese publisher Marvelous. "It really allowed us to get our teeth into something," Pashley says. "The PSP was just coming out, so we were developing a new platform, with all the usual fun of early hardware and software. We bounced around on the multiplayer networking kind of things. It was really exciting."
Around the same time, the studio was also working closely with Sony Europe on its popular Buzz! quiz series, creating Buzz! The Sports Quiz.
"We were involved with Sony, way before the first Buzz! title ever came out," Pashley says. "They were looking to target developers who had a thirst and a hunger for doing some of this work, so we pitched in lots of ideas, five or six original ideas. The one they most liked was a sport-themed game. It was more mass market, and more commercially viable that some of our other off-the-wall concepts."
But then the work started to dry up. "We restructured our working environment, and I took over the reins as studio head after my co-founder Tony [Kavanagh] moved on to do his own thing," Pashley recalls. The wider industry switch to next-gen platforms, as well as Kuju's wider concern to see its studios becoming specialists also fed into this process.
"We were looking to do a new title last year and it was such a big leap from where we were with our technology to next-gen that we decided to go with Unreal Engine 3," he explains. "One reason for the decision is how it helps with production risk. We can approach publishers and they understand UE3, whereas they don't know anything about Kuju's internal technology"
More Than An Engine Shop
There's much more to specialising in Unreal Engine 3 than making an out-of-the-box first person shooter, Pashley argues. "With Unreal 3, we've changed the way we do business," he says. "The studio is more mature now because we're outsourcing most of our artwork."
With a fixed headcount of around 30, Chemistry uses half a dozen different outsourcing companies to provide the bulk of its non-coding assets, raising its effective headcount to around 55.
"Above a certain level of working scale, it becomes massively more efficient to outsource," Pashley says. "We have a specific outsource art manager as well as people who review all the incoming work. Our internal artists mainly focus on preparing the right reference material. Effectively they are producing 3D blueprints which are sent off to the outsourcers. It's completely different to how we did things before."
Of course, basing your art pipeline around Unreal Engine 3 and its various tools and editors also helps, as there are plenty of outsourcers already familiar with the process. Epic itself uses a similar model with its own Chinese outsourcing studio as well as commercial partners such as Dutch studio Streamline. And, in turn, should the need arise, Chemistry can work as an external codeshop for other Unreal developers.,
"There are clear opportunities for people who work on Unreal 3. One is there are a lot of developers out there who are working with the technology but the difference is we are specialising in it," Pashley says, pointing out that Chemistry is already working on its own tools, as well as integrating with some of the existing middleware from Epic's Unreal Engine 3 Integrated Partner Program.
"Let's imagine, developer X needs so help with a project. We can help them out, or do some consulting for them," he continues. "And in terms of our recruiting and training, it works in those terms too, because we are looking to get UE3 expertise into the studio."
But for the time being, Chemistry has its hands full with two original UE3-based projects of its own. The first, due sometime in 2008 and to be published by ambitious new UK-based publisher Ghostlight, is To End All Wars.
"It is a first person shooter, but our other project [as yet unannounced] isn't," Pashley says. "I can't say much beyond that, but it's not what you would typically expect of an Unreal game. It's not a slight twist, it's a very big twist. Look forward two years, and you should be able to see from the games we've produced that we're specialists in UE3, not another studio churning out first person shooters."
[Jon Jordan is a freelance games journalist and photographer, based in Manchester, UK. He thinks Kuju Godalming should be renamed Glassghost or Simis.]