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Q&A: Blimey! Games' Ian Bell On Racing Sim's  Halo

Q&A: Blimey! Games' Ian Bell On Racing Sim's Halo

December 6, 2006 | By Alistair Wallis

December 6, 2006 | By Alistair Wallis
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More: Console/PC

After officially forming in 2005, Blimey! Games have recently announced the establishment of a development studio in Central London, as well as their acquisition of the Ferrari license, to be used in a next-gen racing sim “focusing exclusively on Ferrari's finest automobiles throughout history”. The company began in 2001 as modding group SimBin and released PC title GTR in early 2005, before core staff left to form Blimey! later that year.

European company 10tacle Studios AG acquired a majority shareholding in Blimey! in February 2006 " a move that was welcomed by Blimey! CEO and former studio head of SimBin, Ian Bell. “We couldn't be happier. Our successful history and great relationship with 10tacle has made this alliance an obvious choice,” he commented at the time.

Gamasutra spoke to Bell about the company’s history, recent developments, and what the hardcore racing sim market has to offer.

How and was Blimey! established?

The core of the group which is now Blimey! began life as a racing simulation mod team called the SimBin Development Team, initially formed in 2001 by myself. This team produced a number of successful free add-ons for various racing games, culminating in the highly rated GTR2002 in 2002. The huge success of this mod formed the launch pad for the SimBin group to go commercial, to produce a full PC based racing sim of their own, called GTR, a fully licensed simulation of the FIA GT sports car championship.

Commercial life was not entirely rosy however, with the development staff struggling to come to terms with the marketing and financial direction of the new company. Eventually this came to a head in May 2005, with the vast majority of developers leaving SimBin to form Blimey! Games, in order to pursue our own goals, focusing on core game development, rather than the "do it all" approach favoured by SimBin.

The Blimey! team began life by finishing what we'd started with SimBin: developing the sequel to GTR " GTR2 - as well as completing the historic sports car racing game, GT Legends. Now as part of the 10tacle AG group, we're looking forward to an exciting multi-platform future on next generation hardware.

What previous games have members of the team worked on?

Everything from recent titles such as Black, Painkiller, Burnout Revenge, Battlefield 2, Driver 3, and TOCA 3 to older stuff including Wipeout XL, Extreme G III, F1 '99, and Ivan Stewart's Super Off Road, to name just a few.

What are the aims of the company?

Our goals are to make great, quality games with broad appeal, artistic merit, and lasting shelf life, the kind that you'll want to fire up 2 years after you've bought them, just because the gameplay itself is so satisfying, and to be profitable for our stakeholders and for ourselves so that we can continue to deliver these experiences.

Why do you feel your development ethos is unique?

Primarily our use of a development methodology for which I’ve coined the phrase “insourcing”, which involves leveraging the cost benefits of outsourcing in a unique new way. Although we have a significantly sized main development office in London, our company operates “virtually”, employing the talents of many developers and artists around the world who crucially, are fulltime and exclusive members of the Blimey! team.

This ensures that all our staff enjoy an important role in our projects, and avoids many of the problems of outsourcing, whereby artists for example might be working on a specific asset, but have no real connection with the game that asset will be used in. This system requires the rest of the office based team to plug into the virtual development systems, the ‘collective’, as opposed to the converse as is normally the case.

In many ways our other strengths as a company shouldn’t be unique; in an ideal world, everyone would be in game development because they really love playing games and want to create great experiences for others to enjoy. The reality, unfortunately, is that there is a lot of bureaucracy and “corporatisation”, resulting in games becoming simply a revenue generator, or a marketing tie-in, and almost an after-thought. To us, creating games isn't a means to an end, but provides meaning for us, our raison d'être.

Additionally, we have a strong singularity of vision for our projects. Due to our development methods, every single person on staff has a voice to express their thoughts on every facet of a project and therefore the ability to make the game what they want. In this way, everyone makes the project their own and is invested in the vision.

This voice is also what allows us to retain so many quality staff. Morale stays high if you feel you matter and can make a difference.

Why is attention to detail so important? Why do you feel that detail and “immersiveness” provide the most satisfying gameplay experience?

To answer this, first we need to define what detail is. When I say detail, I don't mean a higher resolution normal map, but rather all the little pieces that your subconscious picks up on that sell the game world to your conscious mind. Something that makes you think there's always another level of depth to what you're experiencing. This includes not only high resolution, smoothly modeled objects, but also things like small snippets of sound, correct physical behavior, well tuned force feedback, convincing AI, etc.

The more of these pieces you have in place, the easier it is for the player to suspend disbelief and become part of the game world. The more predictably something behaves in a game, the less a player needs to learn a new system and the more the player can simply play the game. And the most predictable behaviors are those found in reality, as we grow up learning the systems of the world. The ease of becoming part of the game, while offering depth that will take a long time to master, is what creates a satisfying game play experience for me.

Does this mean that a game can't be immersive if it doesn't exactly replicate Newtonian physics? No, of course not, but it gives us a solid foundation to start from and build upon and that grounding, regardless of how it’s manifested, must ring true.

Another part of this answer is from the quality versus quantity equation. We feel it's better to produce a more focused, highly detailed quality product that you will want to come back to time and time again than to produce multiple small games or longer experiences that lack depth.

Some investors might like to see products with a fast burn that are disposable to keep revenues up, but we prefer to create products that have tremendous depth and a slow burn that will become more popular over time through word of mouth. The biggest advantage to having a high quality slow burn product is the ability to convert it into a franchise. A smaller, yet still significant advantage is the positive brand development created from releasing consistently high quality products, which in turn makes it easier to find funding for future projects.

Do you feel the team's background in the modding scene has influenced the way you work?

There is no question that this is true. We developed communication methods, project management and review practices early on that are still in use today. It taught us that we could successfully operate as a very lean unit, maximizing resources, and to look for solutions that are not immediately obvious.

As a mod team, one advantage you enjoy over any commercial development is time. We knew we could surpass the quality of the existing commercial products of the day because we didn't have to make a launch window, so we concentrated our efforts on the details to really allow our projects to stand out and make an impact. That is another lesson we're still capitalizing on today. Although we do have tighter schedules now, they're not constricted by marketing needs or arbitrary launch windows, but rather our release dates are informed by what we, the developers, say will be an adequate amount of time needed to produce the quality that we are compelled to deliver.

Having said all that, while we were “modders” in our free time, we were also professionals in our daily lives. One of the leading members of our mod team was the chief software architect for a multinational company for example. Since the formation of Blimey we have added significantly to our skills base by recruiting extensively from within the games industry. The result is what we consider to be a fine blend of games industry veterans and quality personnel from many other corners of the software development community.

What kind of market is out there for hardcore racing sims, and do you feel there is room for Blimey! in this market? What avenues for growth exist in this market?

The biggest opportunity in racing sims is in educating the consumer. The market for racing games in general is massive. It's one of the largest genres in video games. But the vast majority of racing games sold are "arcade" style games, not sims. Why is that? Let me ask you this, when was the last time you saw a major TV campaign for a "hardcore" racing sim? Ever? The first publisher that capitalizes on the opportunity to really educate the consumer, to show them how cool race sims are, how much fun you can have, and to put the product in consumer's faces will be laughing all the way to the bank.

The question isn't if Blimey! Games can survive on a slice of the small existing hardcore market, but rather how much of the non-hardcore market can we convert? Do this, and you'll have a “race sim Halo”.

Racing sims have been hamstrung for years by a lack of accessibility and poor production values. What we are striving to do is to change that. We are working to make our next games blow away AAA arcade racers in visual quality and exciting gameplay, while providing a low skill barrier to entry, and working to convert casual players to more serious players by rewarding their efforts to increase their skills.

We also need to continue evangelizing the fact that a hardcore sim doesn't need to be impossible to play. In the past some racing games were made artificially difficult to play, and this is still haunting the genre now. In fact, the more realistic a driving game is, the easier it is to drive at low speeds, only really getting difficult when you start pushing the limits of what a car can do.

It's not a matter of there being room for us in the market, the market needs us!

Who do you feel your competitors in this market are, and what do you think Blimey! can offer that they don't?

In the same way the market needs us, the market also needs like-minded companies to help evangelize the genre. However, our competitors aren't just the race sims like iRacing and near-sims like Forza and Gran Turismo, but really, we see our competition as anyone that's making a racing game, so that will also include arcade racers like Need for Speed and Ridge Racer and games like Burnout.

The way we are approaching our future projects is consciously blurring the line between arcade and sim, utilizing the best of both worlds to create a game which is the most immersive, but more importantly the most exciting and the most fun, because in the end, it's all about how fun and rewarding the game is.

Again, though, the racing genre is big enough that I don't think it's a question of 'will the consumer buy the new Blimey! product or the new game from publisher X', but rather a real fan of racing games will buy both in the same way that a real shooter fan will play Halo 3, Gears of War, Half-Life 2, and Resistance: Fall of Man.

Are you using any third-party middleware for your upcoming projects?

In a few specific areas yes; our focus though is to develop our own technology for the areas that really matter. We have the strongest coding team in the UK right now, creating a multi-platform engine from scratch. We decided the best way to achieve the combination of physics detail and visual quality we need was to build an engine ourselves, and it's shaping up very well.

How did you acquire the Ferrari license, and what plans do you have for it? Do you think there is a certain level of responsibility that comes with the license?

There absolutely is a great deal of responsibility that comes with the Ferrari license. Ferrari are understandably careful with their incredibly valued and respected brand, and we are doing our utmost to create a product that complements the heritage and upholds the values that Ferrari has come to embody. This project will be the most authentic and complete Ferrari video game created thus far.

Where do you see the company going in the future?

We have almost finished the current team ramp (bolstered by recent senior programmers from EA Warrington) to take on a second multi-platform project. There are a number of offers on the table and we'll be making a decision on which project to accept early next year. It seems that we're in the right place, with the right team, at the right time, judging by the offers we're receiving. We will keep growing in a controlled way, but we'll keep doing what we do best and if we do things right, we'll be on the front pages with our next title.

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