Joss Ellis Joins Nival Interactive, The Escapist Interview


Joss Ellis, an industry vetren who has worked with EA, Virgin Interactive and Argonaut, has moved to Moscow to head up the Nival Interactive studios. Speaking to the Ecapist from Moscow, Joss discusses Russian piracy, the direction of Nival, creating stable games and much more.

Fresh from his job as Chief Operating Officer and Development Director of Argonaut Games, Joss Ellis has found himself in Moscow, heading up Nival Interactive. With a new head office in LA helmed by CEO Kevin Bachus, and the successful release of Heroes of Might And Magic V, Nival is poised to enter the console market and take the next step toward becoming an industry heavy-hitter.

Escapist: How big is the Russian development group compared to the Western?

Joss Ellis: Way bigger. Because all the development, or almost all the development guys are over here. So we must have about … I’d say about 200 without having a list of all the folks in front of me.

What are your goals with the new company? I understand they’ve been pretty PC oriented for the last ten years or so.

Right. So they’ve been pretty successful there, they started out making games pretty much for the Russian and what they call the CIS market, which is the ex-soviet states, and doing some stuff in Europe and the States. Games like Blitzkreig, and doing games like Heroes of Might and Magic V with Ubisoft, which just came out. I think their challenge now is really making games with a very much more Western taste and transitioning themselves onto console development from PC development.

How has Heroes of Might and Magic V been selling?

Oh, it’s done really well. I know it’s been number one in Europe, definitely been top three in the U.S., don’t know where it is right now, been hanging out there a while, it’s been reviewed well, the reviews are pretty strong. It’s done well.

The game turned out really well.

And it’s a fun game. I played the first one, something like ten years ago. I grabbed a copy before I joined, and played it. It’s a lot of fun, it’s a clever game.

Did the quality of Nival’s games factor into your decision to work with the company?

Yeah, definitely. I grabbed about three of them, and they’re all strong. You know, I could spy areas where they could raise the bar higher still. The fact that you’ve got a studio that is producing good product and getting it out, that matters a lot. Because if it’s really cruddy, you’ve got a lot of work on your hands. (laughs) That’s not the case here, that’s totally not the case.

Yeah, I’m a huge fan of the Silent Storm series, actually.

Yeah, I thought that was really quite a neat idea.

The company has been very PC-centric. Are you looking at next-gen consoles, the mobile market?

Yeah, we are. Totally. All with the next-gen guys, and we’ve got guys in house solely to get up to speed and work on that stuff. We’ve got folks in the States and in Russia working on game design, on putting demos together and things like that. Because that is the next challenge. The technical guys love it, there’s nothing they would like more than to get their hands on a 360 or PS3 or Wii or whatever and kind of go mad with it. I think the biggest challenge is to get that kind of console design philosophy, which is quite different from the PC one, because you don’t have a keyboard or mouse.

So lots of the natural reactions on how to solve problems are very different on PC, because you have very high resolutions and people tend to have very busy huds and stuff. Plus the whole thing in console development is “dive in and play” whereas with the PC you have to sit down and read the manual before you can get cracking on it. With the console it’s like no one reads the manual, it’s like, plug it in, let’s go! So, those overall design considerations, I think I’ve a lot of experience in that and we got some really good guys in the US as well. And the guys in Moscow are keen for that too, they’re looking forward to doing that.

As far as PC vs console development goes, Heroes of Might and Magic V was quite stable. After seeing the beta, fans were saying they wanted to see it delayed rather than come out shaky. PC games, especially in Europe, tend to come out a bit buggy. Are you going to put some extra focus on that?

Yes, totally. I think there are two problems with that. When you are writing a PC game, you get such pressure from your publisher, “Oh, we really need it out for September,” or whatever the date is to make the financial quarter, and if it’s the PC, there’s always this, “Hey, well, we can always release a patch,” kind of mentality. I’ve seen an awful lot of PC games where it’s released and patch 1.1 is already out. On consoles you can’t do that, you just cannot do it. It’s planning, it’s making sure that you are very, very stable in Alpha. It’s almost redefining some of those markers, being a lot tougher about them you know it’s like EA, they would almost never announce anything until beta, because that’s when you know it’s solid.

Susan Lusty: And that’s also part of the reason that they have the L.A. headquarters and are using Western stability to make sure that those things don’t happen.

Joss Ellis: Yes.

Is play testing done for both markets, do you combine efforts with the two locations?

Yes. Actually you end up with three. We have testing out here, and also your publisher always has it, and also we’ll be doing in the States as well. It’s just a matter of nailing the details of how to project manage. It comes down to your project planning and feature freezing stuff early. If you want something to be stable down near the end, you have to freeze your feature much earlier. If you can resist the temptation of, “Oooh, we just had this cool idea, we can change this,” you just don’t do it. You can be hard, and say “that goes into the next version, I’m afraid.” That’s the root to stability. Otherwise, you can tweak and play with it forever. You basically have to be feature frozen by Alpha, and be nearly bug-free by Beta if you’re going to be really stable on console and keep your schedule and ship and stuff like that. It’s all about discipline and project management, actually.

Nightwatch was based on the movie license and Heroes of Might and Magic V was a continuation of someone else’s franchise. Are you looking forward to new franchises of your own? Or as far as breaking into the console market, is it a better to approach it with an established license?

I’ll be honest, I think you can do both. One of the nice things that all the new consoles have is the internet connections in there, and you can experiment with electronic downloads and stuff, which is smaller games. I think you can be pretty experimental in that area. So you don’t have to spent millions and millions of dollars making humongous games so I think a lot of publishers are more willing to risk a new IP on areas like that and if your smaller game does well, then you can make a full game on it. I think because it can be a mixture of both, I mean all developers want to do their own IP but it’s just the responsibility of it, once you get into it. It’s the same problems, you have to work out the design, and the fun, and the moments of madness and excitement are … that kind of stuff.

Are you targeting any particular console or are you keeping it open at this point?

We’re keeping it open. I’ve actually always been platform-agnostic. There are many engines you can use, or you can write your own, which are pretty much cross-platform. Each console of course has its unique idiosyncrasies, but those are relatively minor, a slight difference in control and stuff. I think for a developer to go, hey, we’re only PS3, I mean, sure, Sony could go, hey we’ll sign you off to be exclusive for five years and pay you a rude amount of money. But I think as a developer you just want to make products so I think you need to be flexible so you can approach any of them. And some game ideas really suit one platform depending on the way that it can be marketed, especially the Nintendo platform has got a very different vibe to it than the others do. But we’re not looking to say we’re all Xbox or PS3 or whatever.

It’s an interesting situation, because ten, twelve years ago, moving to Russia to run a development house would have been unheard of. These days it’s a much more worldwide market. How have things changed now compared to back in the day when games like Populous were coming out?

There’s two huge differences. One is that places like Russia, well they were communist back then, but even straight afterwards there was really no games in Russia sold, it was all pirated. Mainly because of all the trade restrictions. The biggest markets were the U.S., mainland Europe, countries like the U.K., Germany, France, to a lesser extent Spain. Italy used to be a terrible nightmare in terms of piracy. China was all piracy. I think what’s happened is that the market’s matured. People got rich. I’m looking out at Moscow and I’m not kidding, there is so much construction of hyper-modern buildings going on, hundreds of them. You can see the money, feel the wealth.

So you get more real games and people are buying them. EA is heading up direct distribution here, which is a sign that the market is maturing. That feeds demand and makes it easier to do business with those guys and to actually use local talent. You know, I actually used some Russian guys back for one of the Populous games. Then, it was that those guys were really cheap and they could do some art for us, whereas now with a real market, they’re not so cheap, but you know, you’re getting good guys. You read the bios of everybody in the studio, I’ve never seen so many guys with PHD’s. They’re a very, very well educated bunch of guys and girls. The difference is, they’re catching up really, really fast, they want the same stuff we have. They’re buying consoles and they’re buying the games and getting interested in getting into industries like games, T.V., marketing and that section of work as well.

So the Russian market is become much more viable, less inclined to piracy?

Yes. I’m not saying there’s no piracy, there’s still a ton of it, but it’s a totally different place than it was ten years ago, from twenty years ago it’s probably unrecognizable. People driving around in Mercedes, BMWs, feels like lots of parts of America, to be honest. It has changed hugely.

It must have been hard as a PC developer in Russia to walk into stores and see pirated copies of your work being sold.

Yeah, exactly. I mean, I grew up in the Far East, in Singapore. There, you’d go to the shop and every single thing was pirated. Now they’ve clamped down, and China as part of the WTO talks has started to defend copyright. Plus what’s happening is they’ve got local people who have a livelihood that depends on it, so there becomes more pressure to sort this stuff out rather that just ripping off “those Westerners.” From what I understand China is very similar (to Russia) as well, they’re slowly becoming much more liberal and opening up the market. Folks want to be courageous. This is a very courageous environment. They’ve got all the raw pieces, the culture here as well.

Are there any upcoming games you can tell us about that have been announced, or can you give us a sense of the genre the company is looking at?

We haven’t made any announcements yet, and I don’t want to tread on anyone’s toes, but I’m sure they’ll happen pretty quickly. There are some very cool ideas in the works. We’ve got some really neat ideas that have come from the companies over the U.S. that the guys here really like, so well be working on those in the next couple of months. We’ll see where we go with those.

It’s been wonderful talking to you, hopefully when you guys have some new games announced we check in and see how things are going.

Definitely, thank you.

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