Secret Sauce head Russell Clarke on why Ideaworks thinks working on original IP is a risk worth taking
New venture hands studio creative freedom
A quick browse of the developer's work on Pocket Gamer is enough to suggest that the firm's reputation for producing quality isn't without merit.
Rather than continuing to solely create content for third parties, however, Ideaworks recently announced a new venture set to specifically focus specifically on new IP: Secret Sauce.
We caught up with Russell Clarke - who heads up the new team - for his take on what challenges the company expects to face as it begins work on its own fresh franchises, kicking off with iOS "experimental arcade genre-mashup" QuBIT.
PocketGamer: Why did Ideaworks feel the need to set up a specialised studio for original IP?
Russell Clarke: Secret Sauce is definitely still a part of Ideaworks Game Studio. Original IP creation is a different kind of activity from commissioned development, and needs to be managed in a different way, so we formed Secret Sauce as a distinct team, in the skunkworks mould, with its own targets and priorities.
Secret Sauce uses agile development, which is easier to dive fully into when you don't have a customer driving your milestone schedule. We iterate rapidly to allow our ideas to explore their way forward. We don't know exactly where they are going to end up.
We have faith in our own creativity and ability to discover the full potential of ideas. We prefer to trust in these qualities, than a detailed upfront design on paper, because we are focusing on casual but compelling experiences and prototype-led design.
We created a separate identity for original IP development, to help us change the way we think about our work - and because we wouldn't want Ideaworks Game Studio's existing customers to think we were taking this exploratory approach with their brands.
Is Secret Sauce comprised mainly of new talent, or have existing Ideaworks employees been taken over?
Secret Sauce was formed from the core talent pool of IGS.
It started as a regular project team, but then we decided to manage its activity in a different way, and to give it an independent identity.
The Secret Sauce developers use the same tools and techniques as the rest of IGS, and have the same skills and experience background. We spread knowledge across the business, so that each of our teams can learn from the experiences of others.
How did the idea for the studio's first title QuBIT come about?
It actually began life as a tech demo for a bike racing game called 'Ride', which has been used - through several incarnations - to demonstrate the unique capabilities of the Airplay tech platform, with the trademark execution quality of IGS.
We decided to take this in a different direction, to see if we could come up with something quite unusual - and we think we have.
When we have a little more breathing space, after release, we are planning to post a design retrospective on the Secret Sauce dev blog, to show some of the adventures we had along the way.
To cut a long story short, turning the player vehicle into a floating cube was one of the things we did to break away from the standard conventions of a racing game, and it was only fairly late in development that the cube grew a personality and became an excitable robot called QuBIT.
Is iOS the only platform you're planning to target?
QuBIT is definitely a multi-platform title, as all Secret Sauce productions will be. Cross-platform experiences have always been central for us - it's in our DNA.
We are leading with iOS, because it's a proven market where we have a lot of experience, but we don't see platform divides as a barrier, and we will definitely make full use of our advantages in this area.
I'm not in a position to give dates, but Android will be one of the next platforms we look at seriously.
Essentially, Airplay takes care of the porting for us, which means we can focus on market and eco-system differences, like what is the most appropriate revenue model, and which gamer services solution to use instead of Apple's Game Center.
How does developing original IP differ to working on big franchises for third parties?
When you are working with a world-famous brand, the most important thing is to be faithful to it.
Many external developers struggle with this, because you have to stop looking at the IP as a consumer, and get to know it through and through, almost the way a parent knows their own child. It takes time and commitment to prove you are worthy of this trust.
Creating your own IP, you are making something new. It's an iterative process, so the challenge is how to choose between the unlimited different directions you could take at every turn.
There is no one way to go about this. We are taking the sometimes chaotic approach of encouraging as many ideas as possible, shaking them around and seeing what sticks. We may not always do it this way, but right now it seems to be working.
Is Secret Sauce considered a risky venture within the firm?
Without risk there is no reward. Anything is a gamble if you're not getting paid up front - so yes there is risk, but it's managed risk and we're not betting the farm.
It doesn't take a massive investment to make a quality title for smartphone and tablet markets, and with Airplay we don't have porting costs as a barrier between sections of those markets - and indeed other markets. We are thinking of it as an exciting experiment, rather than a scary risk.
How does Secret Sauce plan to push its titles upon release?
We are not trying to build a publishing empire overnight. We have the advantage of operating in markets that are very accessible to developers who don't have big marketing budgets to spend.
This is partly through direct distribution channels, and partly thanks to an active and enthusiastic consumer community. Many of the big iOS success stories spread virally, aided by positive reviews and consumer feedback - rather than big ad campaigns.
We are producing quality products, and we hope our reputation buys us enough credit, to give our products a platform to speak for themselves.
Also we have direct relationships with platform owners and OEMs, thanks to our technology business, which we can leverage for mutual benefit, to get high-quality content in front of consumers.
How many titles are you looking to release annually?
This really depends on how much engagement we get with the early releases, and how fast that grows.
If things go well we could have several more releases this year. Also, we are making the commitment to sustain and extend our titles after release - they are not fire-and-forget projects - so you can expect to see high-value updates to QuBIT coming later in the year.
Thanks to Russell for his time.
You can check out Secret Sauce's website here.