From the Sea of Thieves to Dune’s Arrakis – Warp Digital’s journey to AAA co-development

Warp Digital has a longer history in the industry than you might think. While the studio was founded five years ago, its core team have been together for 15 years now, after splitting off from Curve Digital.

From that experience, the London-based studio has a background porting indie titles. Warp has been involved with some of the most beloved indie games on the market – having worked on games such as Return of the Obra Dinn, Close to the Sun and For the King – and has partnerships with the likes of Adult Swim, Team17 and Rare.

Things are changing over at Warp, though. The studio has been transitioning into triple-A co-development – quite the step up from porting existing indie titles. Warp has already worked with NaturalMotion and Rare – and has its fingerprints on the enormously popular Sea of Thieves. 

More recently it partnered with Funcom, working together on an enormous IP, one with a decades-long history. The pair are working together to bring the world of Frank Herbert’s Dune to video games, and is currently expanding its team to bring the expansive sci-fi universe to next generation consoles.

The two have a pre-existing relationship as they head into this ambitious new project, having worked together on the online survival title Conan Exiles.

To find out more about that – plus its other upcoming titles, and how the studio is continuing to combat crunch under its new direction – we chat to senior producer Piers Duplock and Richie Turner, managing director.

Piers Duplock, Warp Digital

There aren’t many console/PC developers in London, what are the ups and downs?
DUPLOCK: Well, the obvious advantage of being in London is it’s a fantastic capital city! You’re never short of something to do in your spare time, and there’s a great games development community. Of course, the disadvantage is that it is a capital city and it can be expensive to live here, but we feel the positives of being in a vibrant and creative atmosphere outweigh any negatives.

Tell us a little about your history as a indie porting studio
TURNER: The core team has been together 15 years or so, having worked together at Curve Studios. We split away from Curve after the transition to publishing and subsequent sale, as at heart, we’re developers first; we wanted the opportunity to choose our own projects and maybe try out some new ideas. However, we’d been porting games for the publisher, and we’d got pretty good at it! It was great for a start-up to have a ready revenue stream, so it made perfect sense, at least initially, to carry on once we were fully independent. By the time we hit our second year, we’d expanded our client roster to Adult Swim, Team17, Wired Productions, Devolver Digital and more.

Richie Turner, Warp Digital

What prompted the move into triple-A co-development?
TURNER: We’ve been fortunate to port some great titles, Human Fall Flat, For the King, Grip, Blasphemous to name a few, and we got to the point where we could cherry pick the titles we worked on, the jewel in the crown being The Return of the Obra Dinn for Lucas Pope! 

However, we found that no matter how rewarding we found this, it wasn’t scratching our creative itch, as we always had a goal of returning to original development.  We’d had a great experience working with both Rare and NaturalMotion on co-dev projects, and we enjoyed the creative input they afforded us, so taking on more co-dev was a great step in that direction. We’re not leaving porting totally behind though, we’re still picking select titles to bring to console.

How challenging have you found that transition?
TURNER: With porting, teams are small and self-contained, usually with only weekly catch ups with the clients. The work is also very structured, lending itself to a more waterfall style of management. However, working on triple-A co-dev we find ourselves integrating with large triple-A teams there is obviously a lot more communication involved, daily stand-ups and meetings etc. It’s a lot more creative and agile in comparison to porting, but it’s not been as massive a jump, as our senior team could draw on previous experiences, as we’ve all done triple-A before, that said the current projects are definitely some of the largest ones we’ve worked on! [Sea of Thieves, Conan, Dune]

Warp Digital helped to create Sea of Thieves

How did the partnership with Funcom come about?
DUPLOCK: We’d previously worked with Rare on Sea of Thieves, and I think that got Funcom’s attention. We met them at GDC and at the initial meeting we learned what they were looking for in a co-development studio, and we found it meshed perfectly how we chose to work with our partners as well. From there things progressed very quickly and since then we’ve worked on a number of projects together and the relationship has gone from strength to strength.

You’re currently working with Funcom on the Dune IP – What can you tell us about that?
DUPLOCK: It’s a fantastic project, it’s triple-A in scale and scope, something larger than we’ve ever been involved with before and we are relishing the experience. We get a lot of creative freedom, while getting to work with some of the most talented developers across the globe at Funcom’s studios. We’ve been lucky enough to be on the project from the start, so we’ve had plenty of input as time has gone on.

Is it intimidating, moving from porting indie titles to working on such a large IP, especially one with such devoted fans and a rich lore?
TURNER: Back in our Curve Studio days, we worked with Nintendo on Hydroventure and we also developed all the PSP Buzz! games for Relentless/Sony, and as Warp we worked with Rare on Sea of Thieves. So we’ve had a taste of working with big publishers and IP, however games are getting bigger and bigger and it’s hard not to be wowed by the level of coordination it takes to develop cutting edge IP such as Dune, and from what I’ve seen it’s definitely been crafted by fans of the source material, so hopefully won’t disappoint.

Any other projects you can share with us?
DUPLOCK: We have a few irons in the fire right now which we can’t talk about just yet, but we do have one other co-development project that has been announced. We are working with The Outsiders on a title called Metal:Hellsinger, a rhythm action FPS, and we’re thrilled to be involved with that game. As soon as we heard their initial pitch for the game we really sat up and took notice, and it was instantly something we wanted to be involved with.

Metal:Hellsinger being developed with The Outsiders

It seems that you’re currently on a big hiring spree – How large is the company now, and how has that grown from the company’s founding?
TURNER: We started out five years ago with six of us working full-time. Four and a bit years later and we’ve just passed twenty folk!  Of course with our current co-dev commitments, we’re still looking for talented individuals to join the team!

You promise fair working hours and a “crunch-free” environment to prospective employees – Why do you feel this is so important to Warp, and how do you ensure your work remains free of crunch?
DUPLOCK: We feel this is an issue important to the whole industry, and while we might not be able to change that, we can make our company a safe place that avoids crunch as best we can. Our management team have all worked at companies with enforced crunch, so we all know what it’s like and how bad it can be. We simply don’t want to expose our staff to that same environment. To ensure that remains the case, we have an inclusive planning process that gives everyone a chance to have their say and to get help if necessary.

About Chris Wallace

Chris is a freelancer writer and was MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer from November 2019 until May 2022. He joined the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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