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Why a team of ex-Sony developers left PlayStation to go indie

"We were all motivated to take accountability for our own destiny."

A studio made up of five ex-Sony developers has explained why it left the comfort of PlayStation development to go indie.

Hutch Games includes technical director Sean Turner, managing director Sean Rutland and art director Will Whitaker, all of which worked at Sony's London studio on a raft of projects, including the cancelled Eight Days, The Getaway and EyeToy.

But in June 2011 they joined forces to strike out on their own, opened a small office in Old Street, London, and started work on what would eventually become a new iOS game.

"It was a bunch of factors coming into place at the same time," Whitaker, who worked at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe as art director for over five years, replies after we ask him why.

"We had had a project cancellation as well at the same time at Sony. It was an inciting incident. It was just very exciting for us to realise we could do something on [game engine] Unity. The App Store allowing you to self-publish is a very democratizing situation. We were all motivated to take accountability for our own destiny. It was a very exciting thing to try out."

In the case of Hutch Games, there was no drama, no dramatic falling out with Sony, no acrimonious exit. Indeed Turner, who was a lead programmer at SCEE and Burnout and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit developer Criterion, insists Sony was, as far as big game companies go, a very creative place to be.

"Sony was a really creative place," he says. "Some big studios are quite repetitive with their ideas and they can be a bit stale. Sony wasn't like that. There were some really great creative ideas coming up in there."

So what was the problem?

"Possibly it didn't happen at a fast enough pace for us," Turner says. "We would get behind an idea and you didn't have the control to continue or thrust ideas forwards as much as we'd like. So possibly that lack of control was the impeding thing, not lack of creativity."

"Console games, which cost upwards of 10 million bucks to make, these companies, like Sony and Microsoft, they can't take quite so many risks with them because there's so much money involved," Whitaker explains. "One of the things that attracted me was, let's just do something that's innovative and quick to make and we can just get on and do it and there's a lot less bureaucracy and money men behind it. It's liberating."

Rutland adds: "There's no negative experience from being at Sony, or there was no big huffy fight we went through and we decided to leave. It was just so many factors came into place. Unity, all of us being in the same headspace at the same time, ideas we had all came together at the same time."

"I've wanted to go indie for 15 years," Whitaker says with a chuckle. "It's not a rushed thing at all. It's about the planets coming into alignment. Having the project cancelled was the instigating incident. We felt we were in a position to support ourselves for enough time. We knew we were a bunch of people who worked well together. A democratic situation of being able to self-publish and tools which allow you to do it, it seemed like an excellent opportunity."

Hutch Games' first title is the Unity engine-powered iOS arcade racer Smash Cops, which launched last month.

The team settled on the idea of creating a cops and robbers arcade racer after a number of brainstorming sessions - and a burning desire to improve touch controls on mobile devices. Smash Cops' "push controls" let you use a single finger to control and steer your car. Hutch reckons this control scheme will set a new standard for all third-person games on touch devices - well, at least its press release does.

With Smash Cops out the door (more updates are promised), the team is well aware of the difference between triple-A console and iOS development.

"There's a very visceral interaction with your customers in a way none of us have experienced before," Whitaker says of launching a mobile game.

"Normally, when you work for a big publisher or a big developer, you sit away in a cave for years on end and then your game is taken away from you. You're like a surrogate mother.

"With this we developed it and then it goes out and straight away you're fielding interactions with punters. It's really visceral and it's exciting and frightening and a very energetic experience none of us have had before."

"It's very personal," Rutland says. "We get messages from customers and you really feel for them. This is another massive difference. The launch weekend, Sean went and saw his son who I don't think he had seen for weeks. I was at home. Will had to go on a family errand. On launch weekend next time we'll all be manning the computer and making sure we can respond to our players.

"On console it's different. You just don't have immediacy. It goes up at 12 o'clock at night and suddenly you've got thousands of people contacting you from Australasia, and then you've got all these Europeans saying, I can't wait till it comes out in 12 hours. That's amazing to watch."

For Turner, the surprise came from the dramatic increase in his workload. "The project I was working on when I left Sony, I was managing ten programmers," he says. "Then, suddenly, I've got to do the job all those ten people would normally do, myself. I knew what they were doing and I knew how to make games, but to actually have to do it all myself and be responsible for every line of code and actually write every line of code… it was a lot more work basically. It was quite insane, actually."

Despite the stark differences, Turner, Rutland and Whitaker all agree: their experience making console games helped when it came to the creation of Smash Cops.

"We're in a crappy office in Old Street by ourselves, using all those experiences we learnt at Sony, all the console development, all the brainstorming techniques, we used our own management techniques we used at Sony," Rutland says. "Everything came into play and it was just as hard as working in triple-A."

"We've been round the block a few times, most of us," Whitaker adds. "We've worked on Dreamcast, PlayStation 2 and older platforms, for 15 years. You see the gamut of powered machines. It does inform you how to change tack and go and work on a different platform. That was helpful.

"And how do you get the most out of low-powered devices? We looked at iOS and iPhone 4 and one of the first questions we asked was, is this like a Dreamcast? Is it more powerful? Where's our yard stick for this?"

With Smash Cops enjoying enough success to allow Hutch to continue making games as an independent developer, thoughts turn to the future, and what comes next.

While Hutch remains tight-lipped on its next game, it insists it won't ditch its triple-A roots. In fact, the team believes it will be possible to make the kind of games it used to at Sony on mobile platforms sooner rather than later, as the power of the likes of iPad and iPhone improves.

"We all love making the best quality stuff," Whitaker says. "Working on PS3 or Xbox 360 or whatever the next consoles are, we want to make triple-A whatever it is. It's not about making light experiences. It's about whatever platform allows us to do that. Hopefully the mobile platforms will increase in power. We're not going to close ourselves off from any angle because we've been there doing the most high-end stuff before. We think we're in the top end. The sands shift all the time."

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