Swedish games studio Sharkmob is forming a new team in London that the company says will offer AAA developers in the UK an opportunity unlike any other project out there.
The new studio will be led by managing director James Dobrowski, formerly vice president of product development at EVE Online developer CCP. At first, the UK team will assist the Malmö studio with its current projects, but eventually the London branch will lead development on a third Sharkmob title.
Sharkmob is the Swedish studio formed by five former Hitman and The Division developers back in 2016. Since then it has grown to around 180 people, and will grow even further with the establishment of the London team.
The Malmö studio is currently working on two AAA online multiplayer titles — one based on an established IP, the other an original property — and Dobrowski says the London team will be working on something that will appeal to developers seeking a top tier challenge.
“We’re looking to create a studio that can create AAA projects for PC and console at the highest end of the industry when it comes to production values,” he tells GamesIndustry.biz. “We’re deeply interested in innovating or interesting things in the online space, and we are looking to build new IP from the ground up.
“We can’t share too much about the project, but I think it’s likely to be very interesting to people in the UK games scene, particularly in the AAA space. It’s the kind of project that a lot of people in the UK would love to work on, but there hasn’t been a great deal of opportunity.”
Dobrowski is currently searching for premises in and around Central London — ideally near one of the major train stations in order to tap into the talent pools in nearby UK hubs like Guildford and Leamington Spa.
So far, Sharkmob London has recruited design director Martin Connor, live games director Sam Barton and art director Benjamin Penrose. Between Dobrowski and his three colleagues, the team already boasts experience from studios such as Rockstar North, Playground Games, Wargaming and Mediatonic.
“It was key for us to maintain a high level of creative independence and ownership of our projects, which Tencent has been very accommodating with”
Martin Hultberg, Sharkmob
Like the original Sharkmob team, the four London developers have all previously worked together, and Dobrowski is confident the variety of projects they have developed together puts them in good stead to create something unique.
Connor, for example, brings AAA experience to the table having worked on Grand Theft Auto and Killzone, as does Dobrowski with his contributions to Forza Horizon. But the studio boss says it’s the experience he and Barton gained on EVE Online, as well as the latter’s time on Mediatonic’s Star Trek Fleet Commander, that will shake things up.
“Historically, you’ve seen a bit of siloing between the way the AAA space runs and the way that the games-as-a-service and mobile industries have operated, and they’re slowly coming together,” Dobrowski explains.
“One thing I was really keen to do with the startup group was start off from day one with all of these diverse thinkers in one room, because I strongly believe that if you are going to do something really meaningful, impactful and innovative in the online space, it requires thinking from kind of both those ends of the spectrum. So I hope we’re going to do something relatively new and exciting in the AAA space.”
It’s a story echoing that of the original Sharkmob founding team. The five of them were also ex-AAA — yet unlike other developers from that space escaping the pressure of high-budget production in favour of something with a smaller scope, the team still aimed big. The difference, co-founder Martin Hultberg tells us, is how Sharkmob is structured.
“It’s the kind of AAA project a lot of people in the UK would love to work on, but there hasn’t been a great deal of opportunity”
James Dobrowski, Sharkmob
“We had ideas of how you could do [AAA] in a way that allowed you to create efficient development and good quality,” he says. “Our focus was not to set up a small operation necessarily — that’s where you start usually, and then you see how the project dictates your needs.
“We’ve managed to sustain a type of culture and ‘small team feeling’ through different processes and ways of working, so we have lots of distributed ownership. We work in small task forces or groups that resolve different features, so we’re a group of small teams that work together.”
Sharkmob’s life as an independent AAA developer was surprisingly short-lived; within less than a year of the studio’s announcement last year, it was acquired by Chinese giant Tencent Holdings. Hultberg says the team was “shopping for some type of strong partnership” and was courted by several major companies.
“We ended up with Tencent because there was a strong alignment on where we saw the future of gaming going on,” he says. “Also, it was key for us to maintain a high level of creative independence and ownership of our projects, which they have been very, very accommodating with… What they wanted to acquire was the team primarily, and then they saw what we were working on, which was also of interest to them. And what we wanted was the secure funding part, and not having to worry about ‘do we have jobs two months from now’ just based on cash flow.
“[After the acquisition], we’ve been able to raise the level of ambition, to grow fast, and we’ve secured permanent funding, which is a major thing when you’re trying to recruit people. Trying to recruit as an indie compared to trying to recruit when you have solid backing, there’s a big difference because now people know there’s money there. That helps a lot in finding and attracting the right people — it’s less of a risk for them to join.”
It’s unusual for a new studio to be acquired before their first game is even announced, let alone released, with first details not expected until early next year at best. But the value Tencent sees in Sharkmob is going to aid efforts to recruit for the new London studio; joining a devleoper owned by the biggest games company in the world must be a reassuringly stable prospect. And Dobrowski assures the UK arm of Sharkmob will still enjoy the same level of autonomy.
“What’s really kind of been a breath of fresh air for myself is we have the ownership,” he says. “The level of creative freedom Sharkmob enjoys is probably unparalleled within the industry — especially within the AAA space. And so that was something that was hugely appealing to myself and the other group starting the studio in London. That amount of freedom to go out and create something that we truly care about and we truly believe in, and that is 100% owned within the Sharkmob family.”