Like San Francisco, Brighton has a reputation as a party city. Nestled down on the English south coast, its proximity to London, and the consequential influx of media types, has seen it dubbed Soho By The Sea, after the London district known for its rich mixture of production companies, metrosexuality and old school vice.
Thankfully, only the former's on show when it comes to Brighton's growing status as the UK home of lifestyle gaming. The bohemian atmosphere isn't a coincidence however.
"I think the people who want to make these sort of games are the sort of people who don't obsessively define themselves as gamers. They see games as one of the things they like to do, usually in a social context, and spend as much time doing the things most people in Brighton do, whether live music, or other creative endeavors that appeal to people who are more broadminded about how they spend their free time," reckons Ed Daly, on the juxtaposition of place and genre.
Things were a bit different back in the early 2000s though, when Daly was one of the co-founders of Wide Games. Best known for Prisoner of War
, a game where you seemed to spend vast amounts of time making sure you were back in line for rollcall, the studio followed the then typical 'by gamers, for gamers' ethos. Authentic Prisoner of War
may have been. Demonstrative of wider cultural inclinations, it certainly wasn't.
"It required an enormous amount of patience to get into," admits Daly. "To a degree, the games we're making now are a reaction against making a game like Prisoner of War
. Those projects are inherently long and there's a lot of focus on historical detail. Making 20 mini-games based on pure, unpretentious fun provides gratification, both in terms of development and play."
Stand Out From The Crowd
The formal switch for Daly and the Wide staff occurred in 2004 when the studio was bought out by Kuju, one of the UK's larger independent developers. The Brighton location subsequently became home of Kuju's lifestyle games group.
"We had degrees of trepidation about the reaction of the Wide staff," say Daly, referring to the change in focus. "People in the industry tend to aspire to work on hardcore first person shooters, but our existing staff were very up for the freshness of the experience. When you're working in long established genres, you're constrained by the competition. There are a set of features that are compulsory, so you're looking for small ways to innovate. Trying to be five percent better technically than the competition can get tiresome pretty quickly."
But perhaps a bigger switch occurred earlier in 2007
when the prosaically named Kuju Brighton become Zoë Mode. Part of an ongoing rebranding exercise for all of Kuju's internal studios (London, Godalming, Sheffield and Brighton), its purpose was improve communication about the games the company was developing, as well as focusing on each studios' specialisations.
This change had to be more than just a new name though.
"It's easy to come up with a traditional name no one will notice," Daly says. "We thought if we don't do something provocative, there's a danger people won't register it and we will have also managed to decouple ourselves from the Kuju name, which has a lot of awareness."
In this way, the process developed into something more complex. "You can successfully change your name and logo but then you run out of things to talk about apart from the actual games themselves, which are opportunities limited to once or twice a year," Daly warns.
She's Got The Look
And so the ideas coalesced around the concept of a person whose personality would express what Kuju Brighton, and its games - key titles include Sony brands such as SingStar
- were all about. The company's website could even been written in first person as if it was a blog, some bright spark ventured.
"Even though we weren't expecting do it, the more we explored the idea, the more the questions answered themselves," Daly reveals. "It felt a risky and scary thing to do but in the end we decided, we're supposed to be a company making fun games. Let's not take this too seriously, and anyhow, developers are supposed to be creative. So far it's worked. We have that recognition."
Of course, maybe that's not so surprising seeing as the idea morphed into the shapely form of a blonde, teenage girl who sticks her tongue out at the world and goes by the ID Zoë Mode. Appropriately, the model who represents the personality lives in Brighton too.
"It's been quite funny. There have been these rumours that she's so-and-so out of Neighbours [an Australian soap opera popular in the UK], or was in this movie," Daly says. "It's all wrong, but if people are talking about it, it's effective from our point of view."
But, like Lara Croft before her, the plan will be not to let any single Zoë Mode girl gain too much attention. "Inevitably over time we'll change the face," Daly reveals. "Obviously it's not about a particular real person but about a concept and we haven't properly explained what that is yet." The second phase of that process will be rolled out on the company's website, as the virtual Zoë Mode is bought to life.
It’s Party Time
In the meantime, work is continuing apace on future SingStar
games. There's also an innovative PSP puzzle game
for Sega due this summer, and plenty of other behind the scenes activity.
"With games such as Guitar Hero
and Brain Training
, publishers and platform owners feel the need to balance their portfolios and have family titles, party titles, and music titles in the mix," Daly says. "These are opportunity to talk to people who already have ideas about what they want, as well as those with an open mind to new stuff. This market isn't just about clones. The push is to come up with the next big thing."
Another interesting area where Zoë Mode is expected to pay off is in the type of people who apply for jobs at the company. Because of the type of games it makes, Daly reckons the gender split is already around 15 percent female, and potential employees of both sexes commonly profess their interest in making lifestyle games, as opposed to more traditional fare, as being one of the reasons for their application. Zoë Mode will only further reinforce that message.
Yet despite the attention gained by the studio's new brand, Daly's honest enough to admit it's only part of the longterm picture. "Ultimately it doesn't matter how interesting or original the brand is if your games suck," he points out. "Even with the world's cheesiest name, if your games are masterpieces that's what creates the brand. So it's all still to play for in terms of how well it will work in the long run. But we're confident we can pull it off."
As for Zoë Mode herself, she just grins and flashes a wink. The girl just wants to have fun.
[Jon Jordan is a freelance games journalist and photographer, based in Manchester, UK. He's more mode 7 than Zoë Mode.]