Bad Brain Game Studios Q&A
In late May, NetEase announced the foundation of a new game development called Bad Brain Game Studios. Headquartered in Canada, Bad Brain is led by former Ubisoft veteran Sean Crooks, who worked as a producer on games like Driver: San Francisco, The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot, Watch_Dogs 2, and Watch Dogs: Legion.
The studio aims to create triple-A games, starting with an open world action/adventure game with horror elements and a coming-of-age story inspired by movies from the 1980s.
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Sean Crooks about everything related to Bad Brain, from meeting with NetEase executives to building the studio's culture and establishing a work model to the overarching vision for the upcoming game, which will be built in Unreal Engine 5.
Did you immediately hit it off with NetEase, or did you seek other investors earlier? Can you talk about the process of setting up Bad Brain?
It's a great question. The biggest thing that made me hit it off with NetEase was they mentioned one great thing. Simon (Zhu, president of global investments and partnerships at NetEase) specifically mentioned the level of support they could give me to work on the games I wanted to build. He didn't list out trends or anything like that. He just said, 'What game do you guys want to build?' Everything else doesn't matter. Like, what would you like to do?
That was a refreshing question, especially in the AAA market driven by investors piggybacking on the latest trends. It's not how we started the conversation and that immediately struck me as different. We explored that further, and then I started to realise that not only is that a very great question to be asked, but also that the level of support they would provide if we worked with them setting up a studio is that... My heart is in building games.
I care about building studios, and I care about building cultures, but I never want to be too far away from making video games. It's something I've always loved and something I know I want to be doing for the rest of my life.
Knowing that the level of support that NetEase was willing to provide would allow me to build the culture and the studio the way I wanted to, but also not step away from the game and keep my heart around what I truly love, that was spectacular.
It can be quite common that you can work with investment and you have to step back from the studio and focus on running a business. What NetEase offered means I don't have to do that. I can stay connected with the game. I can work with the team building this new IP this new action-adventure experience while still being able to build a working environment and culture that I think will make this team and this game thrive. It was an opportunity I had to pick up.
Are you also looking to personally fill the role of game director or creative director on your first game?
No, we have a creative director (Guillaume) and a game director (Danny). My role is mainly in the executive production capacity as well as studio head of Bad Brain. But my background and the way my career has been built is that I tend to be multidisciplinary. I understand narrative video game design. I'm very technical. I understand how these things are constructed to a pretty technical low level, so I'm able to provide, let's say, a devil's advocate security blanket around the team.
I help shield them from any mines they may step on, shield them from any kind of other things that may get in the way, enable them to do and fulfill themselves with their best capacity and spot things that are coming up front and make sure they're well prepared, well positioned to take full mileage out of that, and just act as a sounding board for them.
The creative process is never a straight line. The team really likes bouncing ideas off each other as a group. We're very much team focused, not around one all-encompassing individual, but a core team that shelves their egos, works side by side, understands the limitations of each other, and has each other's back to make sure that we have that perfect synergy as a group. It is fairly common for investors to finance studios just based on one individual. But then, when they start ramping up, the synergies don't fit, whereas this team has been working together in its own capacity for many years. So it's a well-synergized, well-oiled creative machine. That is a huge plus for starting a studio from the ground up.
I understand that Bad Brain is just getting built. Is that correct? How many employees do you have right now? Do you have a target size in mind?
Right now, we're around 20 people. We do have ideas about where we want to go. We will be building open world AAA games. So you can imagine the team size needed for that.
The exact number of people always just depends on how the game design progresses. It's definitely going to be a triple-A studio, as that's our goal. You may have noticed from the public details that the team is split over two cities, Montreal and Toronto. The idea behind that is that actually, it's one team. We call them sister studios but it's kind of one studio. However, each local site allows them to have slightly different local cultures. The team understands the Quebec culture is not the same as the Ontario culture, so it allows local flexibility and local cultures to shine through without imposing any kind of top-down statement on how they should behave locally yet builds this bond that we're all one big team working together.
Obviously, looking at Montreal, it's probably one of if not the biggest development hubs in the world. Every major publisher and developer exists there, with thousands and thousands and thousands of developers. The talent market there is huge.
Then you also have Toronto, the biggest city in Canada, with tons of tech industry and still some reasonably sized game developers here, such as Rockstar and Sledgehammer. It's also a great place to source talent.
I actually wanted to ask about that. As you said, Montreal especially and Toronto are very big for game development. Is that only a pro, or is there a downside in that lots of companies may also be interested in hiring people? Is there a thing as too many game studios in the same place, or are you not concerned about that?
I'm not concerned about it. That statement first came up when Montreal started becoming the powerhouse that it is today and it's still growing. It's never really caused a problem. It's always found space to add new studios in that area, and it has created a gravity well for talent. It is also well supported by the government and the local provincial government.
Also, in games development, there is a lot of fluctuation of talent because you arrive for a particular product, you ship that title and then you're like, 'OK, what do I feel like I want to do next?' We're starting to see a downturn and some consolidation in some of the small developers, so we're happy to provide a platform for people who may be looking for work to join us.
The press release also says you have a hybrid work environment at Bad Brain. What does that mean in practice? Do you allow remote work? How is it structured?
Great question. I don't think there's a right answer. It's a hard topic across many industries. One thing that happened to me personally is we shipped a big title during the first year of COVID entirely from home. We learned a lot the hard way, so we already understand how to ship an AAA game working from home. That's something we learned a lot about. But at the same time, we saw a lot of cultural changes where we started to see many more employees not feel like they belong to the company, like they were work-for-hire in a way, like hiring mercenaries, almost. Some of them had that approach and that's not the culture I wanted to build as a studio.
Personally, I miss people. I enjoy working with people. I enjoy learning, feeding off their energy, off who they are. They bring something different to a team and it just makes the product of work environment or a space where people build these games more pleasant, more invested when people commit more of themselves to the team.
I think going fully remote can harm that. I don't think there's been a perfectly solved solution to going fully remote where that reliably stays intact. For now, we want to try and have some kind of hybrid model where we do have a touch point where the team can connect. We haven't defined how frequently and how regularly, but we do want to have minimum collaborative space offices on both sites. Our goal is to support that before the end of the year so we can start having them build these relationships.
We also create events where we want the team to go together and have lunch on a frequent basis that we help finance and things like this. We do try and encourage employees as much as possible to have a face-to-face connection.
Obviously, when you switch to an entirely hybrid or remote model, you have to decide that the trade-offs are worth that investment. You may lose that personal touch, but you do have wider access to talent.
The policy for Bad Brain right now is, let's try and keep that culture, that emotional connection, and let's build a studio based on that. If we need to evaluate that one day based on the outcome, we'll do it then.
One of the biggest topics in most industries, gaming included, is generative AI. I don't know if you've seen the new NVIDIA tech demo presented at Computex. Also, Ubisoft recently announced a Ghostwriter AI tool they use internally to create backstories for NPCs.
What are your thoughts on this technology's potential to enhance game development? Are you going to use it for Bad Brain's debut project?
I think the one thing everyone needs to learn from the recent developments in AI is that it will arrive in ways you won't expect and it will start to fundamentally change how you work, how you produce games, every six months minimum. That's something you have to be prepared for.
These are the lessons that we're learning right now. Two ways to look at AI technology is, for example, using it as a way to create volume more easily. If you can do the same thing way faster, way cheaper, and deal with greater volume, you can see it as more of an efficiency tool.
The second way is how it can change the gameplay experience. Imagine you have a narrative AI. It could provide all this wealth of conversation, but does your game need them? Is it able to create 20 to 30 hours of emotionally connected storytelling as a whole? That's the question. One side of it could massively help you ramp up the volume of conversation in your game. On the other side, it may detract from the emotional connection you have with your characters.
We're more on the tentative side at Bad Brain. One of the earliest steps we will look at quite heavily is, our video game is heavily narrative driven. We want to focus on emotion and connection with the characters. We want you to be attached to them throughout your entire experience, and that's hard to do over large titles, especially when early in production you can't quite do all of your acting, your script isn't finished yet, so you still don't know how it's gonna feel.
One of the recent impressive developments is just how AI-generated text-to-speech can create emotional deliveries on lines so you can start to say, Hey, do I feel like I'm connecting to these characters even before you start to look at bringing in actors and who you want to play this particular character and look at their delivery.
Before you get there, you can do test runs. In the past, we worked with Robovoice and it was always really tough to understand emotional delivery. Now we're seeing AI that can produce genuine emotions on script lines so that we can start to say, 'Hey, I can connect with this. This sounds quite emotionally attaching'. Or 'It doesn't, let's try a different line'. That will massively improve feeling out whether we're connecting with our characters or with our narrative early versus how we've done things in the past. That's more of a baby step rather than committing to fully conversational AI like NVIDIA demonstrated. However, it still gives you an example of other ways you can use AI in combination with your traditional ways of developing games to deliver more securely deliver your gaming experiences.
The press release also mentions that you will be using Unreal Engine 5 at Bad Brain. What are you most excited about in Epic's technology to make games?
The thing that always frustrates game developers and the thing that Unreal Engine 5 provides is that you can spend less time wondering whether it will work. It's sometimes faster to just do it in the engine and see whether it is to get your paper designed fully right and gamble or whether that thing will work or not.
Prototyping, getting things up and running is lightning fast in that engine, so we don't have to wonder anymore. We can just see it for ourselves and test it out. You'll see a shift from a lot of design and theory work to actually getting lots and lots of little mini prototypes in place quite rapidly and finding the fun fast and failing quickly. Unreal Engine 5 allows us to do that process far faster and then at scale. Also, because it's more efficient generally in producing games, it means we can produce large scale games with more efficient workforces, which helps lower communication problems, and helps you turn effectively when you need to. All of this benefits on keeping a team of a reasonable size. These are the parts that we're really excited about. The beauty of Unreal Engine 5 is that you focus more on the game because all of a sudden there's many other companies that have access to the same tools as you. Graphics, the quality of the rendering, all of that isn't necessarily your edge factor anymore. Your edge factor is your heart and soul and your design and the creative part that you put into this game.
I guess it doesn't hurt that Unreal Engine 5 enables great visuals pretty much by default.
Exactly. It allows me to emphasize the creative skills of our team at Bad Brain. They're not getting distracted by trying to make certain things work that is going to make them meet the competitors. They're going to get that to a degree. Now they can focus that time instead and spend it on making this game better than the competitors, more involving for the players, telling better narratives, and delivering more innovative gameplay. That's where the time is spent; for me, that is most important when making a video game.
Speaking a bit about the first game you're making at Bad Brain, you've said that it's going to be inspired by cult movies from the 1980s. Do you have any specific one that you can mention?
Basically, we're building a paranormal action adventure '80s-inspired paranormal horror, right? Think about it more as Steven Spielberg meets Stephen King in an open world with a coming-of-age story. That's as much as I can give you in detail right now.
Obviously, it's early days in our production. We're still ironing out the core mechanics and details like that. But that's what inspired us, the overarching feel and vision we have for the game.
You've also mentioned the coming-of-age story. Is it fair to assume that Stranger of Things, itself set in the 80s, may also be an inspiration?
Yeah, sure. It would be silly to ignore that, but there's also other inspirations. All of Spielberg's older movies, E.T. even. We're borrowing from a lot of that era.
One of the reasons we chose the coming-of-age story in that setting is that recently the thing that's excited us most about the progression of open world games is how certain titles have pushed more toward allowing the player's exploration to drive the story.
Elden Ring has done that well recently. Zelda has done it fantastically. You find your story in the world by exploring. If you look at any of Stephen King's stories or Spielberg's movies, it's about people venturing into the unknown and exploring and uncovering and finding out and then reaching the pinnacle of the narrative.
Venturing out into this world of the unknown, finding what's going on in this world, and then dealing with it as a coming-of-age story is intriguing to us, and I think it fits well with the type of open world we wanted to build for a while.
Recently, FFXVI producer Naoki Yoshida said that people hate empty open worlds. Is that something you're wary of?
There was a period of time when the size of the open world was almost the same arms race as the quality of the graphics in your game. That went on for many years, as the next worlds were bigger and better and bigger and better. But it became harder to fill them with intriguing content.
I think a lot of open world fatigue set in partially because of that. It's a great statement that he made. From our perspective, the world doesn't need to be that big; it has to serve what it is you're creating in it. It's not about creating the space and filling it. It's about creating a story, a narrative of characters, an event, a progression of the story, of the world that dictates this space needs to exist to tell that story, to create those feelings for the player.
If you approach it from that angle rather than 'I have a box, I need to fill it', you're going to have a way more compelling experience. Honestly, I think it was a lesson Nintendo definitely picked up from Breath of the Wild to Tears of the Kingdom to the second, how everything you bump into is new and different. There's a lot less empty pockets of space,
This is what drives us at Bad Brain. This is why it's a narrative first game, because there needs to be a why to every single square kilometre of that world exists. One of the things you see in '80s movies is that the kids would always find things happening in these isolated pockets, never around the adults. The adults would always believe this stuff didn't exist, and the kids would always find it in these isolated areas. The sewer well, this area of the forest, the scrapyard, or the shed that no one goes to.
One of our first inspirations for the game is to use the world to create these isolated pockets that allow this paranormal thing to exist out of sight of the rest of the town, the village, the world, or whatever.
Are you interested in adding online multiplayer elements to the game you're making at Bad Brain, or will it be a purely single player experience?
Like I said, it's a narrative first action adventure game and that's driving all the decisions that we make. I can't talk about it too much right now because I honestly don't know exactly which way we'll go yet. There's some elements of the design that lean nicely towards some online and others that conflict with it. As we drill out the details and talk more about the game in the future, we'll be able to elaborate a lot more on that after we double down on the areas we believe are the most important.
Since you're just starting out at Bad Brain, is it safe to assume it may be a while before we learn more about the game, like a couple of years?
Maybe, but at the same time, we're investigating at a studio culture level how we can involve players buying more into that experience. We've talked about a ton of crazy ideas that might encourage us to talk a little bit more about what we're doing. I don't want to reveal any of that yet.
We're still churning out the details, but we'd like to try a more open development if possible rather than locking it behind closed doors and then dropping it at the last minute. What that means, which ideas we have that we'll execute on, I don't want to go into yet, but I would like to think we can do something a little bit more transparent than the traditional. We'll see.
Fair enough. Thank you for your time.Related Story Did you immediately hit it off with NetEase, or did you seek other investors earlier? Can you talk about the process of setting up Bad Brain? Are you also looking to personally fill the role of game director or creative director on your first game? I understand that Bad Brain is just getting built. Is that correct? How many employees do you have right now? Do you have a target size in mind? I actually wanted to ask about that. As you said, Montreal especially and Toronto are very big for game development. Is that only a pro, or is there a downside in that lots of companies may also be interested in hiring people? Is there a thing as too many game studios in the same place, or are you not concerned about that? The press release also says you have a hybrid work environment at Bad Brain. What does that mean in practice? Do you allow remote work? How is it structured? One of the biggest topics in most industries, gaming included, is generative AI. I don't know if you've seen the new NVIDIA tech demo presented at Computex. Also, Ubisoft recently announced a Ghostwriter AI tool they use internally to create backstories for NPCs. What are your thoughts on this technology's potential to enhance game development? Are you going to use it for Bad Brain's debut project? The press release also mentions that you will be using Unreal Engine 5 at Bad Brain. What are you most excited about in Epic's technology to make games? I guess it doesn't hurt that Unreal Engine 5 enables great visuals pretty much by default. Speaking a bit about the first game you're making at Bad Brain, you've said that it's going to be inspired by cult movies from the 1980s. Do you have any specific one that you can mention? You've also mentioned the coming-of-age story. Is it fair to assume that Stranger of Things, itself set in the 80s, may also be an inspiration? Recently, FFXVI producer Naoki Yoshida said that people hate empty open worlds. Is that something you're wary of? Are you interested in adding online multiplayer elements to the game you're making at Bad Brain, or will it be a purely single player experience? Since you're just starting out at Bad Brain, is it safe to assume it may be a while before we learn more about the game, like a couple of years? Fair enough. Thank you for your time.