Thirteen years of hard work, ambitious goals and pioneering games comes to a close

Obituary: Black Rock Studio

Disney-owned UK studio Black Rock, developer of acclaimed racing games such as Split/Second and Pure, closed its doors today for the final time.

England’s cultural heritage in quality racing games has studios spread across the country. It has Codemasters and Evolution in the midlands and North West, Criterion in Guildford and Eutechnyx North East. Sumo Digital stands way up north and Stainless Games sits deep down south.

But even with such deep reserves of talent, Britain’s loss of Black Rock will be impossible to ignore.

It’s unfortunate that Disney’s acquisition was Black Rock’s undoing. The buyout, completed in 2007, came with a strong strategy to advance the studio further.

Originally founded in 1998 as Pixel Planet, the group quickly became a racing games pioneer under the command of founder Tony Beckwith. When Pixel Planet joined Climax, only a year later, it again innovated with online racing; its MotoGP game for THQ being the killer app for Xbox Live in its first year.

The craft Black Rock demonstrated with ATV Quad Power Racing 2 – a multiplatform game – resulted in Sony signing an exclusivity deal for several sequels.

Disney was hoping this kind of magic, cultivated by an independent, would rub off on its games division.

By 2010 Black Rock, the biggest triple-A studio in Brighton, had become a frontrunner for the genre; a shining example of the UK’s historical expertise in the craft.

But its owner Disney Interactive was left with reasons to disagree. Black Rock’s final game, Split/Second, failed to make an impact on the market and, it is suspected, didn’t make a return on investments.

The race for commercial success was always going to be an uphill struggle. Disney decided to release Split/Second on the very same day as Rockstar’s mega-seller Red Dead Redemption, perhaps with an unfortunate confidence that few people in Europe would be interested in cowboy games. Red Dead sold out and Split/Second caved in.

But that’s not the full picture. The racing games market itself, much like triple-A development, is squeezed within ever-narrowing profit margins. Split/Second cost Disney tens of millions to make and – either because of executive bravado or perhaps naiveté that the racing market was somehow booming – the game was released just one week before Activision’s rival racer Blur.

Both titles would ultimately be the death of their talented creators. Blur, made by Bizarre Creations, was effectively stranded from any chance of success when Activision’s marketing department extensively cut advertising funds for the game. It was internally deemed a letdown before it even hit the store shelves. Bizarre Creations closed a year later.

There’s little fun to be had in the irony of two rival publishers at war and ultimately cancelling each other out, but Disney and Activision’s galactic failures would be best explained via a satirical business TV show. Let’s call it ‘Marketers on Speed’.

Past mistakes, and their ramifications, will of course leave a stinging feeling for the incredibly hard-working talent at both studios. But there should be no shame. Blur and Split/Second both accomplished the only real objective that matters to a triple-A studio; build something beautiful.

The race is over, and Black Rock just edged it. Blur’s metascore is 81, Split/Second’s is 84. The Brighton boys outraced the Project Gotham team. Split/Second may be Black Rock’s final curtain, but for those who slaved over the project, it was their finest hour.

Black Rock, 1998-2011

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