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Why Activision closed Bizarre

In ex-staffer Gareth Wilson's own words.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

One of the former senior staff members at now closed Blur and Project Gotham Racing developer Bizarre has broken the silence surrounding its demise.

Speaking exclusively to Eurogamer, ex-Bizarre design manager Gareth Wilson offered his opinion on why Activision shuttered one of the UK's most-loved development houses.

"It was a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances," he said. "The landscape of the industry has changed massively even in the time from when Bizarre was acquired. In particular getting a new IP noticed at this stage of the console cycle combined with the global economic situation meaning gamers are less willing to 'take a risk' is really difficult.

"It's not just Blur that didn't sell in 2010, great new IPs like Enslaved, Alan Wake and Vanquish have struggled to make to make an impact while Halo and Call of Duty have broken sales records."

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

Many staff at Bizarre used that time to search for new jobs. Wilson found one at Sheffield based Outrun Online Arcade developer Sumo Digital – he is now its new chief games designer.

"When it was announced that Activision was looking to sell or close the studio the majority of people started looking around, obviously still hoping that a buyer could be found," Wilson said. "This wasn't clandestine at all,  while the situation with the studio was unclear Activision allowed us time off to go for interviews and training."

Some have pointed to disappointing sales of eye-catching 8/10 racer Blur as evidence that Activision's decision to shut Bizarre down made business sense. The game launched during the same crowded window as Black Rock racer Split/Second, which also struggled to sell, and Red Dead Redemption, which most certainly did not.

"The release date probably didn't help," Wilson admitted, "but nowadays that 'middle ground' of two to three million sales is getting harder to find.  Games either 'break out' and sell four million plus, or really struggle to break even. Also the quality bar has risen enormously. Did you know there were more 80 per cent plus rated games in 2010 than any other year?"

Many gamers have expressed anger towards Activision over Bizarre's closure, but for Wilson, the drawn out nature of the saga has allowed him to come to terms with the demise of the studio he held so dear.

"Now I can feel more philosophical about it, it was upsetting when it was announced back in November. As there was a three month consultation where a buyer was sought it's been more of a slow realisation over the weeks that followed that the studio was likely to close."

Last Friday, on the day it closed, Bizarre said goodbye with a touching video showcasing its superb portfolio of games.

Eurogamer's report on the video sparked over a hundred comments – an outpouring of support staff at Bizarre couldn't help but notice.

"Yes, the comments that people left made us all feel extremely proud of what we've achieved," Wilson said.  "In particular the number of people saying Blur was their favourite racing game of 2010 or they enjoyed the beta was nice to see considering the disappointing sales figures."

Now, Wilson looks to the future. At Sumo he wants to "make 85 per cent plus rated games that reach a wide audience." It's a developer he describes as "very similar to how Bizarre was when I joined" in terms of culture and size.

"As you'd expect I can't confirm or deny anything about the projects on the go at Sumo right now, but what I can say is the games Sumo are working on are some of the most exciting projects in the industry and a big reason why I joined Sumo over other studios."

All that's left, then, it to ask Wilson the inevitable question: what's your favourite Bizarre game ever?

"As a fan, the Killing Game Show way back in the day was a fantastic game that ate up most of my summer holidays!  As a project it was PGR3 without question.  We really felt we were pushing new boundaries all over the place with that game, whether it was the platform features like 360 Achievements or Trueskill matchmaking that we helped develop or game features like Gotham TV.

"Plus I'll never forget the faces of you journos when we showed you the in car view for the first time on that massive HD screen!"

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