Staff claim publisher probably always planned to close studio since last year's layoffs

Black Rock insiders: Disney ‘treated us badly’

Disney today confirmed that it was closing its UK studio after its latest game idea failed the greenlight process.

But two soon-to-be-unemployed staff at the studio have candidly told Develop that they believe the publisher had made the decision to close the outfit at the start of the year.

Together they say "this is a painted as a family friendly company, but has treated us very badly" and that despite "working hard to satisfy" a new social games strategy "once [Disney] made their mind up last year to change direction we never stood a chance".

In fact, it is claimed that the pitch which failed to pass muster was just ‘lip-service’ so the publisher could effectively wind down the business with as little fuss, employment red-tape and cost as possible.

If true, it’s a disappointing end for a team that was acquired with much hype and produced two excellent console games.

Disney bought Black Rock (nee Climax Racing) in late 2006 as part of a credibility grab in games.

It wanted to release racing games that proved its chops as a firm that produced ‘real’ games not just kids’ licensed and family titles. Racing games are popular across demographics and both core and casual audiences, but also fit with Disney’s family friendly image.

In the following five years, Black Rock was rebranded, given plenty of financial support, and released two big-budget racers. The first was 2008’s Pure, an off-road ATV game for 360 and PS3. The second was 2010’s Split/Second, a muscle car action game for the same formats.

However despite good reviews, commercial rewards for the two console games game were slow to come.

By the time Christmas 2010 came around, Disney had pushed online and social gaming to the top of the agenda – the US HQ bought Facebook game firm Playdom and bumped its CEO John Pleasants up to Disney Interactive boss, pushing out former head Graham Hopper.

Then Disney went about trimming its console business. At first, the studio was actually safe from a round of lay-offs that hit US studio Junction Point and saw Vancouver-based Propaganda closed.

It did however cancel sequels to Split/Second and Pure at Christmas, and told the team to think more about the new digital market and making its racing games for that.

But the axe man came calling eventually. Disney first halved the studio headcount two months ago, with a clutch of staff taking voluntary redundancy packages. After that first wave of Black Rock layoffs in May, a number of small teams have sprung up independently.

Since then back at the studio, Disney execs had invited the remaining 40-strong team to pitch a new idea that fit the company’s recent social games strategy, which the studio had been working on for the last few months.

Black Rock was even advertising for Unity-proficient staff
to help accelerate its plan for a new free-to-play social network game.

The game was recently demoed to Disney execs, with the hope that a full commission would offer the studio some stability.

Yesterday, execs visited the studio to tell them that the game wasn’t getting the greenlight – and no project to develop meant no reason to keep the studio open.

Staff are now crying foul and say this pitch was likely just a formality in a carefully planned shut-down for the studio.

"They rolled up a while back and made it clear that we had to change with the rest of the business, and we’d worked hard on an idea to satisfy that. We’d even run our regular mini-game creative day exercises to devise new concepts. We put a lot into this. This isn’t how we expected to be treated," said one anonymous Black Rock developer in a letter sent to Develop’s editor today.

Another staff member goes further, saying that Disney has just been manoeuvring to avoid having to let the entire studio go at once, and that the pitch was never going to be accepted by the US product team.

"Really, they were just paying lip-service to us with this talk of the pitch. Anything we suggested wasn’t going to be accepted," one source close to the studio said.

They added: "And what’s worse is that this entire Disney games division is making a loss, not just our studio. But we’re given the run around. And they’re still spending a lot on building and hiring their new exec team back in the US."

This isn’t foul play – Disney will have adhered to the laws around dismissal and redundancy. But by halving the studio on voluntary redundancy and then putting the remainder on consultancy just two months later it has played the game well, with what our sources say is an "orchestrated wind-down" by a large company with its eye on the bottom line.

The result has soured the company’s reputation in the eyes of both staff facing the chop and those that have already left.

"What’s really galling is that this is a painted as a family friendly company, but has treated us very badly," said our source.

The claim is quite a contrast to the public but committed consultancy period Activision went through when it closed Bizarre Creations after poor sales of its racing game Blur which, it just so happens, was the big rival to Black Rock’s Split/Second. The games launched at virtually the same time. It’s likely neither hit their sales projections.

"At least Activision did it properly – and everyone treats them like a villain. [Bizarre] got real support and feedback. We haven’t – we’re getting shafted.

"And they can’t get away with treating people this way, people need to know how they’ve played this. They’ve handled it very badly.

"Really, once they had made their mind up last year to change direction we never stood a chance."

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