Binu Philip, President, Edge of Reality
of Reality, based in Austin, Texas, is an independent console game
developer with 76 employees and two teams, and is probably best known
for a string of relatively high-profile ports and licensed games,
including Nintendo 64 ports of Spider-Man and multiple games in the Tony Hawk series, as well as developed-from-scratch titles like Pitfall: The Last Expedition and Shark Tale. The studio has been in business for eight years, and will be shipping their ninth title, Over the Hedge, also published by Activision, in May.
on this solid background in licensed titles, Edge Of Reality has
decided to step into new territory and is developing its own IP for the
first time, a yet-unnamed strictly “hush, hush” next-gen project that
the company has been working on for over a year - an audacious step for
a company used to producing for-hire titles for major publishers.
recently sat down with Binu Philip, president of the company, who spoke
last month at SXSW ScreenBurn on “The Future of Independent Video Game
Studios”, and he illuminated Edge Of Reality's history, future, and how
independent console game developers can thrive in a difficult market of
GS: Start off by telling us a little about how the company has evolved.
We started off in 1998. The two original founders of the company were
Rob Cohen and Mike Panoff. And the first few projects really reflected
the type of people we had at the company at the time (which were
worked on some N64 port projects (from the Playstation to the N64).
Those projects were ideal because of the relatively short turnaround
times, nine months or so. It allowed the company to get capitalized
without going outside for funding. It allowed us to take on small
challenges, and grow bit by bit.
the first company started, it was really with the intent of eventually
getting into full-blown development, and eventually getting into a
position where we could create intellectual property that Edge of
Reality owned. And in order to do that, we did a number of
work-for-hire projects. Starting off with the ports, and then into
developing games based on licenses and franchises that other people
owned, including movies and game franchises that existed on other
platforms, taking them into the consoles.
I guess, for us the key was to build the business step-by-step over the
long haul, maintain our independence, maintain ownership of our
technology. Look to long-term success, and be careful about growing too
GS: Should developers strive for independence?
I think, at the root of it all, developers are creative people. And
creative people need to be in control of their work, to own their work,
and be in a position to profit from their work. When you create a game
that resonates with the audience, and sells lots of copies, you should
be in a position to benefit from that.
GS: Doesn't all that require a lot of patience?
Anything truly worthwhile generally requires a lot of patience. It
seems to me that most developers don't possess enough forethought -
it's not programmed into their DNA to think very long-term. They're
either thinking from project to project, or just very short term.
Instead of doing what it takes to build real value over the long haul,
I tend to notice that many developers think in terms of maximizing
short-term money by selling their studio.
made it a goal to save money and build our technology, and our company
in order to one day create intellectual property that we own, and can
benefit from, in perpetuity. Most developers, in my opinion, need to be
more patient, and believe in themselves. As opposed to taking a short
cut, and looking to sell a company after one or two games.
Anyone can go and do work-for-hire, but that can be brutal. How do you
do it and keep employees motivated and the company healthy?
You have to work on games that you enjoy working on. We have many
people here that enjoyed working on DreamWorks games because it is
something they can play with their children. We also have Sims fans and Tony Hawk fans, so those titles were natural for us.
key to doing successful work-for-hire is finding projects that have the
right amount of resources behind them - the right amount of time to
work on them, the right amount of money for the amount of people that
it's going to take. Once you have the right resources to deal with,
it's a question of delivering the kind of game that the owners of the
license or franchise want.
takes communication, delivering a prototype that shows off some of the
gameplay experiences that they're looking for. And then, being
disciplined about hitting the eventual ship date. So the key there is
making sure you deliver what your publisher wants. And making sure that
you're not in some multi-year R&D phase which is out of scope for
Edge of Reality will be shipping their ninth game in May.
GS: In the end, doesn't it come down to how many copies your work-for-hire sells?
That absolutely has a lot to do with it. You want to make sure that
you're doing commercial work that generates royalties. So you have to
be careful about the projects you pick out, as well.
Back when we had a chance to do Tony Hawk 1 for the N64, just before that we were offered a deal from Infogrames to do a Driver port. At the time, Driver was a massive success. But we ended up going with Activision and Tony Hawk because we liked Activision as a company more, and we believed in the future of Activision.
the time, Infogrames was in questionable circumstances, and things have
continued to deteriorate for Infogrames as a company. Although Driver was a larger franchise than Tony Hawk at the time, we decided to go with Tony Hawk, and in the long run, it really paid off. The deals that you don't do are almost as important as the deals you do.
GS: How does the aspiring independent developer choose a publisher?
First of all, you have to make yourself known to the publishing world.
Develop contacts at all the major publishers. Explain what your
strengths are, and what you can do for them. You have to allow yourself
time to land your first contract. You're hopefully going to be in a
position where you have several offers to choose from. You might be in
a position where you have to pick from a deal that's less than ideal.
which case, you have to do your best to get through that, and use it as
a learning experience to, hopefully, get your second deal. Not everyone
is in a position where they're going to have their pick from five or
ten contracts. You have to do the best you can, with whatever time
frame you're given. That experience will be a building block. Start
building out your studio resume. And hopefully go on to bigger and
GS: Should an independent developer take all the contracts they can get?
I'm certainly not going to pretend I know all the answers. But I think
it's a mistake to sign a deal for every game you have an opportunity
for. Focus on building your studio, and developing your practices the
right way, and thinking long term. You're better off executing one game
the right way, than doing two or three games simultaneously, at a high
degree of risk.
GS: Is there any way to make sure you're not treading water, that you really are building with each title?
You have to go for the projects that are going to earn you royalties.
Once you're earning royalties, money is really what amounts to freedom
in this business. Once you start earning royalties, you can bonus your
people well. You retain enough in savings: that buys you independence.
It buys you the time to cherry-pick projects. It buys you the time to
create an original property. And take your business to the next level –
from a work-for-hire studio, or a port studio – to create original work
that you own.
GS: How does your technology evolve, when you're an independent developer?
In our case, we started off doing N64 ports, we did a quick N64 engine.
When it was designed we had no idea that it was going to be used over
and over again on multiple projects. Thankfully for us, Mike and Rob
created an N64 engine that was very competitive and was definitely good
enough for us to do five projects on.
we evolved from N64 ports, into full-blown development, we had the
renderer, and we did a very quick pass at our game tools. We weren't
thinking too much in the long term, we were thinking more in terms of, ‘Okay, let's ship this game on time.'
As a result, the components of our game-code were not very
compartmentalized, it was very much hard-coded, and not stuff that you
can easily take from game to game.
large part of the games that we did during the earlier PS2 days were
games that, aside from the renderer, had to be built from scratch, over
and over again. What's different now is that – with the experience
we've got going through the N64 cycle and the PS2 cycle –we can think
long-term. We've spent the last couple of years designing our next
toolset, which involves a lot of compartmentalized code.
can take the AI code from one game, improve upon it, and continue to
tweak it for the next game. We're continuing to iterate from solid
quality, from day one with each of these game components.
GS: What about partnerships?
Make sure you have partners that compliment your skills and your
personality. They have to be somewhat business savvy in order to really
be an equity partner in a studio. If they're going to play a back seat
to everything, then that's bad, because you want their opinions on the
way things are going to be run. Our partnership structure works really,
really well. The three partners at our studio complement each other
very, very nicely.
rare that we'll ultimately have a disagreement on something. When there
is a disagreement, we'll try to talk about it from all sides and try to
be as objective as possible. And, at the end of the day, once we've
talked everything through, we'll make a decision together. It's worked
for several years without any major disasters.
GS: What does the independent developer have to careful about?
Be wise with how you spend your money. It's all too easy to bonus
yourselves too much, when you're in a position of earning royalties. In
our case, as owners, we've taken modest bonuses. We're letting the bet
ride. We're investing in ourselves, to take our business to the next
level, where we can take a bet on an original IP. And if the bet fails,
we still have money in the bank to continue as a company. That wouldn't
be the case if, as owners, we'd taken out all the money that we'd
gotten in royalties. We bonus our people well, and we're very
conservative with our capital.
GS: Is this a good time to be an independent developer?
It's definitely a lot of fun. I remember reading that managing a game
studio is a game in itself. And that's very, very true.
is actually a really good time for us, because we're seeing the decline
of some major licenses. Every major publisher is interested in original
IP now. We've been working, for the last eight years on licenses and
franchises. And now, as we're taking this large bet on our original
game, it just so happens, the market is wide open, timing wise, for
publishers to want that sort of a thing.
GS: And in conclusion?
Declare your independence! You have to pay your dues. You have to think
long term. You have to be conservative with your capital. You have to
take care of your people. You have to continue to refine your
practices, and your experience. And you really have to think long-term.