Develop takes a look at Oxygen Interactive's new in-house development studio, and discovers that being publisher-owned doesn't necessarily mean publisher-dictated...

Oxygen Studios

When a publisher opens its own development studio, it’s usually nothing to write home about – the studio exists, in most cases, to be fully controlled by the publisher, a development arm that does what it’s told. But Oxygen Studios is a different entity altogether, established to make the most of a new method of project management.

“Oxygen Interactive, as a publisher, had developed an extremely unusual method of working with developers – what they call the ‘Key’ system,” explains Andy Squirrell, development director at Oxygen Studios.

“However, it had been giving them mixed results with teams either loving or loathing it, so Oxygen became convinced that setting up a studio would give them a way to maximise the potential of the process.”

Having previously had good experiences with the Key system, art director James Vale and technical director Harvey Gilpin joined Squirrell in setting up Oxygen Studios in Croydon – an ideal location close to London but also with a talent pool previously used by studios such as Probe, Acclaim, Crawfish and Coyote.

The Key system affords developers creative freedom within specifications set by their parent publisher Oxygen Interactive. “That doesn’t mean that we get to develop whatever we want and spend as long on it as we want,” explains Squirrell. “Oxygen Interactive are clear what they want, but we get a lot of latitude in how we deliver.

“We get a very clear brief, and we never hear ‘Oh, that isn’t what we were expecting’ or ‘Oh, we’ve changed our minds’ – our job is to find creative, effective ways to deliver on the brief, and we only get ‘interference’ from the publisher if we start to deviate from that.

This different relationship between developer and publisher gives the process a different feeling, explains Squirrell: “it feels much more like a partnership than the parent and child relationship that many in the industry will be all too familiar with.”

The studio, which is focused on making casual games for the DS and Wii, is currently in the process of finishing up three titles and about to start development of another Wii title.

It’s capable of producing such output thanks to outsourcing, keeping core teams small without compromising output volume.

“We work with a lot of contractors and external companies. For example, the PC version of King of Clubs was created by an external coding team, and that worked so well that we used the same team for the quiz games.

“All of the directors here have experience of outsourcing and co-development, so this posed few problems. In fact, it worked so well that the PC versions of all three games were ready ahead of the Wii format-holder approvals – even though they took the art and game logic from our Wii lead format.”

Speedy development is also helped by a robust toolchain and a cross-platform engine, currently working on Wii and DS with expansion to other platforms planned. To manage this, the studio has a technology team, with the knock-on benefit that game teams then require less technical staff – leading to more producers and artists on the team than would normally be expected.

Oxygen also plans to use its technology to help develop partnerships with other development houses, explains Squirrel: “By the end of the year the DS engine and tools should be available to external DS developers to co-develop with us, and technology will start moving beyond the Nintendo formats.”

Squirrell concedes that to handle these extra projects growth will be necessary, but is keen to point out that it’ll be done carefully. “It’s very much steady growth we’re looking for – we’re well aware of the pitfalls of sudden, extravagant expansion.”

It’s here that Oxygen Studios’ mission statement becomes clear: to produce casual-focused, with a significant amount of creative control, while crucially remaining small by partnering with other developers and asset providers. How many publisher-owned developers can boast such a brief?

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