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Hogrocket's Ben Ward on Bizarre closure

"Business is business."

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Image credit: Eurogamer

US publishing giant Activision angered many gamers when it closed one of the UK's most respected developers: Bizarre Creations.

But for one former Bizarre staff member, it was just "business".

Hogrocket, the newly formed micro-studio founded by Peter Collier (senior level designer on Blood Stone/The Club), Stephen Cakebread (creator of Geometry Wars) and Ben Ward (Bizarre community manager), has spoken for the first time on Activision's closure of the Project Gotham Racing maker.

Activision shuttered Bizarre following poor sales of eye-catching racing game Blur and James Bond action game Blood Stone.

Speaking to Eurogamer, Ward admitted he, and others at the now closed developer, struggled to work under the ownership of publishing behemoth Activision.

"It's not enough to point the finger at one little factor and say, 'that's it" he said, pondering an explanation for Bizarre's closure.

"Creatively you could say that the studio was too ambitious, with one team tackling multi-platform development for the first time as well as building a brand new racing IP, and the other team creating an action/adventure game for one of the most iconic characters in history. However, both games were generally rated well critically so I don't think that argument holds too much water.

"Some of us (myself included) found it difficult working under a huge publisher; moving from proudly independent to an internal team took a lot of getting used to. We lost that ability to say what we want, do what we want, and (most importantly) make what we want.

"I don't blame Activision for that - it's just the way things work when you become internalised. It certainly affected the atmosphere at the studio; for better or worse Bizarre became more 'corporate'."

Activision's January 2011 announcement that it intended to terminate Bizarre came after a failed three-month search for a buyer.

Many staff at Bizarre used that time to search for new jobs. Ex-Bizarre design manager Gareth Wilson found one at Sheffield-based Sumo Digital. Others formed Lucid Games.

Hogrocket was "something that we've been talking about for a little while now, but it was only with the eventual closure of Bizarre Creations that the three of us were able to actually get the ball rolling".

"The games industry changed a hell of a lot in those years as well," Ward recounted. "When we started work on Blur there was demonstrable demand for a new racing game IP, but when it hit the shelves not too many people bought it.

"Was this marketing, distribution, the attitude of gamers, or just the game not being good enough to compete? I don't know - I don't have access to the stats that decide it. I guess Activision do, and that's how they made their conclusions and took the decision to close the studio."

While many gamers were angered by Activision's decision to shut Bizarre down, Ward is philosophical about the episode.

"Business is business," he said. "Those guys wouldn't be top of their game if they didn't make difficult decisions. Everybody at Activision has been supportive - they've operated recruitment drives and tried to redistribute Bizarre peeps to other Activision studios throughout the world. The situation sucks ass, but they've been good in how they've treated us."

Now, though, thoughts turn to the future and Hogrocket, which is targeting iOS and the PC and Mac platforms.

"These platforms are popular, and less expensive to develop for than their console counterparts," Ward explained. "Being cheaper allows us to take more risks in our game design, and ultimately will result in better games."

But what of Hogrocket's debut game?

Founder Cakebread's status as creator of superb downloadable retro arcade game Geometry Wars caused some to wonder whether the micro-studio is working on a follow-up.

Not so.

"It's not Geometry Wars," Ward confirmed. "Not only do we not own the IP to that game, but I don't think it suits the platform particularly well. What Hogrocket is working on now is a completely new IP.

"As I said, we're really keen to communicate with our community a great deal. We're DYING to tell everybody about our new game, but it's just a prototype at the minute and it's basically wireframe graphics. I don't think it would do the game any good to show it just yet - the gameplay is nailed but it doesn't look the business yet.

"So now what we're doing is sorting an art style. We're certainly not going to remain silent for much longer, but we want something visually impressive to show before we bang our drums too much about it."

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