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Interview with Splash Damage’s Neil Alphonso on Dirty Bomb, Batman: Arkham Origins and More

Jun 2
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Neil Alphonso is a Game Director working at Splash Damage, a studio you might not have heard of, but you definitely know their games. Having worked on titles in franchises such as Wolfenstein, Gears of War, Quake, Batman, and Halo, the studio is experienced with making AAA games for a big audience.

Though that sadly didn’t help their own game, Dirty Bomb, which they had to cease development on late last year. The game was close to Neil’s heart, and that was clear when he spoke to me at Reboot Develop Blue 2019 in Dubrovnik, Croatia. We sat down for a chat in an airy, empty hall and he spoke about the value of hindsight, what Splash Damage might’ve done differently with games like Dirty Bomb and Brink, and how the studio has grown stronger by learning from their mistakes.

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Neil almost let slip some information about an unannounced project, but there aren’t any exclusive reveals here, only the guarantee that Splash Damage is still an active studio, one that hopes to have a new game in our hands as soon as they are ready. In fact, they currently have 21 open job positions for their studio based in Bromley, UK.

Read below for our full interview, and for everything tech, hardware, and gaming, keep reading Wccftech.

Splash Damage is a pretty reputable studio. You’ve made a lot of games, you’ve handled a lot of big franchises, what’s the pressure like making a game in an already established franchise?

Neil Alphonso: Well, massive, because of course, you’ve got the whole relationship with your partners. That’s a big thing, you want to impress, and you’re trying to keep building on your credibility, you want to be executing well with other people’s IPs. That’s the business strategy side of it. But the other side of it is your own personal fandom. It was a massive deal for me to work on the Arkham series. Because I  consider Batman: Arkham Asylum to be one of the best games ever. So that was massive for me. And that’s actually a tricky thing to keep in perspective. Because if you’re not careful, it can be kind of consuming. That weight of responsibility, and because there are always external factors, right, like those things that you can’t really control. But yeah, it’s a privilege most of the time, but you just gotta be careful, be balanced about it. Because ultimately, you know, it’s not something that you own. And you’ve got to respect that.

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I would love to know more about what happened with Dirty Bomb, can you tell me about that?

NA: I mean, a lot of lessons, but a lot of mistakes, honestly. But that was one of the points of doing it. We were doing something for us that was very different. Massively different, and we learned a lot from it. Yeah, there’s just like, there’s so much to go into, we’ve actually been talking about turning my talk into a video. We’ve had a lot of fans asking about it. I’m trying to think of how to narrow it down. I mean, the nutshell is we made this sort of Enemy Territory formula and evolved it in several different games. We wanted this to be another case of that. But you know, it was really the first big thing that we were making for ourselves, we did a couple of mobile titles. They were kind of experiments. And so we wanted to control it, not so much to do with the IP side of things, though, that was a factor. But mostly just because we can own and run the game ourselves. That’s something that we experienced previously with all our other games is that you ship the game, you maybe have some DLC, but then you basically have no contractual obligation to the game, basically, no revenue coming in. And one thing that happened to us with every game, is we ended up spending our own effort on it, just because we loved it. And because we want to support players, that’s the end goal. But then you’re basically burning money to do that, because you don’t get paid for it. So we had to solve that. I mean, it’s accepted now that the games are going to have like, microtransactions, or whatever, to help fund the game, and players accept it, which is awesome, but it wasn’t always the case. That was the idea of Dirty Bomb, that we can keep making it. Our players have always said they wanted, you know, an Enemy Territory style game, and it was a chance for us to give it to them. And really, the challenges with it were just immense. With the benefit of hindsight, just how we architected the game is a massive one. Splash Damage sort of worked on DB for more than seven years, not too long into that Unreal Engine 3 was very, very deprecated. And it wasn’t really easy for us to just port things to you UE4, it’s not that simple. So that became an increasing challenge.

And basically, that started a pattern of diminishing returns in terms of the effort that just started magnifying and magnifying. And that’s one of the main reasons, there are actually many reasons. But yeah, it’s a game we loved, and a lot of players loved. So, you know, we kept at it for a long time. But eventually, I think it comes to a point where you’re not even happy yourself with what you can deliver. And you just can’t justify it anymore, and you have to put an end to it. Yeah, trying to put that in a nutshell really. It was challenging trying to summarise it in a 40-minute talk. My talk is basically about the studio strategy, how Splash Damage balances our work for hire with other big publishers, and our internal stuff. Because at Splash Damage we do think it’s important to have somebody working on internal, just to learn new things, to be more expressive. Mostly, it’s about learning and things that we’re not getting from the other games.

The other one, player expectations, is a massive one. Obviously, I’m a writer by trade. So that’s what it’s about for us. The other is how Splash Damage evolved from being a studio that made boxed products to running games as a service, which is a massive transition. I didn’t focus on the marketing and analytics, but that’s part of games as a service, like Live Ops, all these things that we had to learn. Which was a good part of it, honestly. I talked about how we partnered with Nexon to learn a lot of those things. And then got the game back from them when we felt like we’d learned a lot and staffed more of the right people. Yeah, I personally love running a game as a service. Every other game that I’ve done in my career has been, you know, not quite fire and forget. But it’s about putting a product out there that people will buy, and there might be some DLC. But that’s pretty much the end of it. The ability to react to players, if you’re doing sequels, you’re reacting to players on like, a two-year cycle,  you ship the game, you see what they say, you decide what you’re going to do next. This was day to day and week to week on Dirty Bomb, you would make a change. And you can see very quickly what happens, and you could react to it really quickly. And it was really exciting. And the players are a massive part. I mean, basically, I considered it a triangle with players, data, and then what our long term vision for the game is. I do think you have to have some idea of where you’re going. Because all the players don’t think the same way. And they shouldn’t, they shouldn’t have to. And so there has to be some sort of guiding rudder, just sort of keeping generally going in one direction. Lots of different personalities will ask for different things. And that’s one of the big lessons as well, how to how to pull player feedback, how to know when it’s a vocal minority. That’s probably one of the trickiest ones. Because the vocal minorities get really vocal. And that’s part of where analytics come in as well. What is the data telling you? Are there certain people who are really happy with things and they’re not saying anything because they’re too busy playing? Too busy having fun? Yeah, it’s been so much. I was thinking it could be like a 20 part miniseries.

I can imagine. Do you think the challenges of marketing are different in live service games? With AAA boxed releases, marketing can easily fall around the game’s release window. Whereas with early access, and live service games it seems that by the time it comes to a full release or a bigger expansion of the game, some of the hype has died off. Do you feel like that’s a problem with live service games? 

NA: I think it’s a challenge. Ultimately, it’s your first impression, you get one, and a live service game is not really about first impressions. You’ve got to make a strong first impression so that people stick with you, then you’re going to have much more, and a lot of it is about plurality because they tend to be multiplayer games. Off the top of my head, I’m not sure I can think of a single player service game. But I don’t think anyone has really cracked it, to be honest. I think one of the biggest eye-openers recently was Apex Legends and how that launched. Stealth launch, incredible that they managed to keep it a secret as they did. And there are not posters on buses and TV adverts, they paid some streamers to play it. The streamers say they’re paid to play, nothing wrong with that, and everyone jumps in. And that’s also the benefit of free to play as well, though. It’s not just a game as a service, it’s the revenue model. Because if it’s free to play, and there’s no friction, people can just jump in whenever you have to approach marketing differently if people are having to put down cash just to get into the experience, it’s fundamentally different. I actually think that’s more of a factor, the price point is more of a factor than the service model. The service model definitely does play into it. Because I think the challenge here is that when a game as a service and goes on for years and years and years, like Warframe, and how they fundamentally change it every couple of years or even every year. That’s one of the ways to stay relevant for so long. The first impression for a service game might be completely different a few years later, they can evolve a lot. So I think that’s the tricky part of marketing as well because the vision evolves. So frankly, maybe the marketing vision should evolve. But, you know, I’m honestly not sure, because it’s still quite fresh.

Do you think that some of the live service games that we’re seeing in the news a lot lately, such as Anthem and Fallout 76, would be better off as free to play games?

NA: It is a tricky one because they have such high levels of fidelity. I mean, we’re talking business here. I don’t realistically think you can take, what, six, seven years for both those games to come out, with massive teams, and make it free? Right, the risk of that is just… I think that’s just a massive risk. I mean, I think the way to do it really is actually similar to World of Warcraft where they just had a subscription for so long and then started making bits of it free, like your first 20 levels, or whatever. And then, you know, you give people a chance to try it, get into the game. I think that would be a good model for them eventually, and I’m sure they would want to go that way. Part of the issue with that is evolutions of platforms. It’s not that easy, that’s why you haven’t seen many free to play games on consoles, until recently because they’ve had to embrace it more, just the sort of way the platforms work. The way the online services work hasn’t really lent itself to it as easily, which is why PC – it’s I think it’s honestly part of why PC has had such a resurgence. You know, they said PC gaming was dead. I don’t even remember how long ago that was now. But of course, it’s really come back. Valve had a lot to do with that. But that’s the nature of it, because Steam is a platform and it leveraged what you can do with PC.

What do you think about the Epic Game Store and Steam, the competition that’s happening right now? There’s a lot of controversy about gamers not being happy with games being released on the Epic Game Store, do you have any opinions on that one?

NA: You see this in all marketplaces. We just saw Disney announce their Netflix thing. I certainly appreciate that it’s not an ideal moment for gamers. But, you know, frankly, it was that when Steam came around and Steam had some growing pains. And people kind of forget that, right? But, I think in general, more competition is a good thing. More possibilities for developers are a good thing. And as an industry, we make mistakes. But you know, that’s like one of my things from DB, right? You make mistakes, it’s what you do after, right? What you take from those lessons. I do think it’ll get better because nobody’s out there to tank everything. Right? People have good intentions.

Do you have any particular favorite games or projects that you’ve worked on at Splash Damage?

NA: Wow, of course, I’m attached to Dirty Bomb. I mean, I spent more than five years on that project, which is just crazy to think about. I mean, I’m massively, massively proud of Arkham Origins, actually. I think it’s unfortunate that a lot more people didn’t get to get to try it. But you know, an asymmetrical, stealth action shooter thing, with Batman. I think it was an incredible challenge. And I’m still amazed we pulled it off, to be honest. If I’m going to look like end to end, that experience. And it could have been improved. Don’t get me wrong. There’s any number of ways to make it better.

Especially as time goes on, it’s so much easier to see what you should have done differently.

NA: Yeah, with the benefit of hindsight. Like, there’s so much that could be done. But I’m massively proud of that. And I think we did some really good things with Brink, as well. You know, that’s one where hindsight is even more specific. A, it’s been longer. B, we’ve seen so many elements from that game appear in other games. And, a lot of them, honestly, far more successfully, more refined. And it’s interesting, my mindset on Brink is that there’s a lot I would remove from it, and sort of expand it where it was best, sort of chop some things and then go bake more into this. Again, that is the benefit of hindsight. But in pretty much all our stuff I definitely have some degree of pride, and even some of the stuff we haven’t shipped, honestly, we’ve had some really cool things that either didn’t get signed, or you know, didn’t see the light of day. I mean, I do consider Brink, Quake Wars, Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and Dirty Bomb, all very similar games, because they’re the sort of Enemy Territory formula, with different executions. I think those always, always be a massive amount of fun. I do think there’s something unique about team play that has such reliance on other people. And that’s one of the things about that sort of formula for Splash Damage, it’s maybe not for everyone, but you’ve never really been able to be a very much of a lone wolf in our games, Arkham Origins being the exception by definition, you’re Batman. You are the lone wolf. But, that’s not for everyone. But I think for the people who do like that, that’s why we’ve had fans who have been with us since Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, and still play our games.

So what’s next for Splash Damage? Are you going to be helping out other publishers with their franchises, or are you going to make your own IP again? A live service game?

NA: There’s only so much I can say about what we’re doing next. And far as internal stuff that I’m very focused on, we’ve announced that we’re working with 343 Industries for Master Chief Collection on PC. So that’s why we still work with The Coalition on our Gears of War stuff. So that’s a big part of the studio. But yeah, I don’t think it’ll be long before we say something – I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that. But as you kind of hinted at, I do think we make multiplayer games, and therefore, a multiplayer game is a game as a service. So you know, it needs to have some way to support itself. I think that’s such an important part of creating multiplayer games, being able to respond to players, and running it for them, and making it better, and being responsive. I mean, it’s funny, because I see that has a negative connotation in some places, you know, the game as a service thing. It’s like, really? I think how it has been implemented, in some cases, leaves a lot to be desired. But ultimately, you’re just making the game for your players and being able to continue doing that.

Is there anything we should know about Splash Damage and the future?

NA: I suppose if I were more of a marketing guy, I’d be like, bam… I suppose from the studio perspective, we’re still growing. Our approaches can be different for our internal stuff. But it’s still very important to us. Again, because that’s where we get to experiment more. And we try to move people around the business as they would like, so they want to work on Halo, they want to work on Gears. And so it’s all about finding the right partners. That’s always been a thing for us, who can we learn from? Right? And that’s why we worked with Wargaming, that’s why we worked with- I was about to say something I shouldn’t have.

So close! So close!

NA: That one was never announced. But yeah, Warframe, and of course, we were sort of a sister studio to them. So we talk to them a lot as well, including at places like this. So it’s an interesting time for the industry, the end of a console cycle always is. But we’re onwards and upwards. And again, it’s with our spine and all our work we do with other massive IPs, and then what we can do with our own to learn and grow. And you never know, maybe find like a real gem there as well.

I hope to hear more about the upcoming Splash Damage project soon, and thanks so much for talking to me. I really appreciate it.

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