From Holiday Inn Warwick, to Minecraft Dungeons via Gang Beasts
with Radical Forge CEO, Bruce Slater
If you asked someone to imagine a games development studio, there’s a very high chance that they’d imagine Radical Forge: a creative hive of activity; a hardworking yet playful mentality; an edge that you don’t find in most other industries; and strange things dotted around the office that have even stranger stories to tell if they could.
But there’s one thing that most people won’t imagine, and that’s CEO Bruce Slater, whose vision for what Radical Forge could be (and importantly, should be) has driven the studio from even before it was a reality. He’s passionate about games of course, but he’s also committed to creating a healthy, rewarding, fair and (dare we say it), family-like working environment.
Bruce started Radical Forge in 2017 in Middlesbrough, UK. The studio is now firmly established with over 30 people in the team, it develops its own IP and works as a co-developer studio with others on games across all platforms, providing prototyping, ports, level design, VFX, environmental and technical art, design scripting, shaders, UI implementation and optimisation. To create all of this, the studio uses Autodesk 3ds Max and Maya, amongst other industry products.
Unreal Tournament 3 tutorials to meeting Autodesk 3ds Max 2022
Like many others in the industry, Bruce first began creating his own games and modding in his early teens, testing the waters with things like Unreal Tournament’s UT editor. But it wasn’t until Unreal Tournament 3’s Special Edition that Bruce could finally create the things he saw in his head.
“It launched with a DVD, with tutorials that showed you how to use the game engine properly. And to give you an idea of how old that was, they were all in 4:3! But it meant that you didn’t have to just arbitrarily click the buttons and pray that you knew what they did. There was no more trial and error, I could actually learn how to do it. I think there were eight hours of tutorials and I’ve got them embedded in my brain for eternity.”
For Bruce, this was the watershed moment when he realised that making games was something he could do as a profession, not just in his spare time.
The first step was to organise a month-long internship at Jester Interactive, which is where he first got his hands on Autodesk 3ds Max. At 15 years old, Bruce was taking the basic principles UT3 had shown him, and building them out visually using 3ds Max 7. In his short time at Jester, Bruce worked on TT Superbikes, whilst also teaching himself what Max could do, exploring and experimenting as much as he could.
University passions and decisions
Then surprisingly, Bruce and Max’s relationship went cold as Bruce went back to modding and creating games with the personal tools he had available at home. It wasn’t until he went to study Game Art at Teesside University that the two connected once more, with Max being at the very heart of the course.
“I went to university naively thinking that people who went to university to learn how to make video games actually cared about making video games… but I was mistaken,” Bruce laughs.
Bruce is a passionate and driven individual. His passions run much deeper than just video games too, including kayaking and skateboarding, and as we’ll see later, for sharing experiences, getting people involved and generally doing the right thing by people. All of that combined to create a unique vision of what being a games development studio should be. But not without a few false starts.
The birth of Radical Forge
In between leaving university and starting Radical Forge officially in 2017, Bruce started several companies and released ‘Audital’, a self-created game that was featured by Apple in 2015. He also began work on a little title you may have heard of, Gang Beasts.
However, at this time, the North East of England wasn’t the digital hotspot it is now, and opportunities and any kind of funding was extremely hard to come by. In an attempt to tackle that, Bruce and Olly Bennett set up Game Bridge, a networking event for game developers across the North East. It’s still a going concern today, and was in fact the first place Gang Beasts was seen anywhere outside of Bruce’s bedroom.
Even with Game Bridge helping him forge a network of contacts, Bruce was on the verge of giving up his goal of running a games studio and getting ready to find himself a job. Luckily for the games industry, a crisis meeting with two industry friends changed all that.
“We call it The Warwick Incident because we met up in the Holiday Inn in Warwick. I sat down with them and we spent three hours talking about where I should go, or what I could do. Basically, at the end, they had convinced me to start my own studio and go for it again. And that was the catalyst that started Radical Forge.”
With renewed focus, Bruce took the money left over from Gang Beasts and used it to bootstrap Radical Forge. Bruce and his team have now worked on huge titles like Minecraft Dungeons, Sea of Thieves, Zombie Army 4 and Rust.
A unique ethos
In just four years, Bruce has established a studio that feels as strongly about the way it works as it does the things it works on. Whenever he gives talks to student game developers, Bruce likes to focus on the things he’s learned. It’s telling that these points aren’t focused on tech or processes, but things like ‘Look after people who work for you’, ‘Be a fun person to be around’, ‘Don’t stifle creativity’ and ‘Don’t be afraid to tell people how you feel about anything’.
This final point ensures that Radical Forge is a very transparent studio, for its own staff and for the publishers and other games developers it works with. If Radical Forge sees an issue, it addresses it head on, and immediately rather than let it grow. Internally that means people can be very open with each other, safe in the knowledge that what’s being said is for the project’s sake, not personal. Not every studio could survive this kind of openness, but Radical Forge’s team is more than a group of colleagues. They’re friends who frequently spend time together away from the office – by choice. Skating, visits to the beach, cinema trips and just traveling together are all the norm, not the exceptions.
When it comes to relationships with co-devs, the transparency is the same: if something’s not working how it should, Radical Forge flags it up. “It’s actually all about context and phrasing,” Bruce clarifies. “Realistically, it takes three or four phone calls to work it out and get to the bottom of the issue on both sides, before you can come to a compromise that makes both sides feel like they win, but it’s critical to the health of your team and the team you’re working with.”
Autodesk 3ds Max: the right tool for the job
The team at Radical Forge includes seven Technical Artists who use Autodesk 3ds Max primarily, but who also use Autodesk Maya and Houdini. Although Bruce is a Max man through and through, anybody at the studio can use exactly what they want to get the job done. It’s just that 3ds Max seems to get the job done better than anything else.
“I’ve always used Max. I’m using 2022 at the moment and even if I’m not using the new things they’ve added, it just feels like home,” explains Bruce. “We use it for everything here. We write scripted tools for it and set up pipeline development tools such as exporters and importers. For example at the moment we’re working on a game that has a specific need to have vertex colours applied to objects. So I wrote a Max script that will batch export and do all the vertex colours for me.”
“3ds Max might be the programme I’ve spent the most time in, in my whole life. I love the modifier stack and the fact it isn’t self destructive. I can have 30 things in the stack, and then go in and edit the one at the bottom and know that everything will be fine – it won’t break.” He pauses…“apart from skins. You can’t do that with a skin. But there are workarounds.”
“I’m a big fan of the UV unwrapping tools they brought in, probably in 2012, and they’ve got even better over time, with peel, and pin and peel, and the relax tools. I just like creating stuff with it. Quadify mesh, that’s another one. That saves my ass regularly because it turns a triangulated mesh into quads, and I can then use that to optimise down.”
“But at heart, I’m an old-school modeller,” he continues. “I start modelling with a box. I’m a weird box-model man! Before I went to university, I didn’t even know 3D art was a job, or how it worked. I just kind of did it. And by the time I found out it was a job, I’d also learned how to use a game engine. So I just had an intrinsic understanding of how those two things fitted together.”
“Oh, and I love FFD (Free-form Deformation),” he adds, getting on a roll. “So I can manipulate my box however I want to create a 3D model. Which is incredibly useful.”
Bruce brings in Aaron Gash, 3D Artist at Radical Forge and 3ds Max user since 2014. “I love how customisable it is,” begins Aaron, “I’ve got that option to add the buttons I want. And I’ve been using it so long, it just seems intuitive and simple. I know where everything is, whereas other options seem overly complicated. I know if I just press ‘m’ in Max, it will open up the materials and I can just get on with putting things together.”
Aaron’s most recent project was Zombie Army 4, which Radical Forge worked on with Rebellion. Aaron describes this as “a fun project with lots of weird craziness. I was responsible mostly for the asset creation, so having the capability to quickly iterate on the things I’d been working on was fantastic. And essential.”
Although both Bruce and Aaron have a strong attachment to Max, they also have an appetite to explore Autodesk Bifrost and what its node-based framework can bring to the Maya table. “We make things procedurally as fast as possible in the studio, so we can dedicate as much time as possible to quality art,” Bruce says. “So if Bifrost can help with the procedural aspect and give the artist more time to actually make art, it’s cool.”
Growth and support
Bruce explains that when Radical Forge first started, it was very much focused on the creative side of the business, with no real systems in place to help manage things. As it began to expand, they realised they needed someone to help them keep their PC specs up to date, handle all of their licences and dedicate time and effort to solving problems whenever they needed it. Of course that’s what Escape Technology could offer, and still provides to this day.
Bruce did have an existing relationship with Escape but as Radical Forge has grown, he’s been impressed by the fact that everyone at Escape is ready to step in, no matter the scope of the problem. As he puts it, “Escape took us under their wing.”
As the studio grows and it looks to implement a hybrid model where it builds some of its own PCs to test particular configurations, and Escape handles the rest, Bruce can see this relationship only becoming stronger. “During the pandemic I had a call that included nearly all the Escape staff to talk about the studio as a whole. It was awesome. You just don’t get that level of commitment from other places. Escape does everything that I need, even if I need it for tomorrow! And I know that is all just a phone call away.”
A bright future for Radical Forge
With Radical Forge looking to grow significantly over the next few years, spearheaded by its own IP (including Bright Paws Definitive Edition and others yet to be announced) and more work on other leading IP for other studios, Bruce is characteristically buoyant: “It’s all well and good celebrating achievement, but for me it’s all about what’s next. So it’s about the next project, how to make it interesting, and how to make Rad Forge a better place to work.”
Reflecting on the strangeness of the last few years, Bruce finishes: “I think the pandemic helped us. It’s a sad truth, but I think that any digital business was able to scale up faster during it, and cope better with it. Because we were small when it started, we built our infrastructure completely around being able to work from home, and that will be a huge benefit going forward. We live in a decentralised world now – it’s time to accept that and just get on with it.”
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