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Watt Studio: The Life & Workflow of an Indie Studio

Marina Simkina told us about the Watt Studio's birth and development, team dynamics, and discussed the company's usage of Unreal Engine.

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Introduction

Hi, my name is Marina, I’m a Creative Producer at Watt Studio. I have been working here almost since the beginning and saw the way from the small team in a room without windows to the studio that cut a window to the game industry.

We have a wonderful team with founder Egor Tomskiy at the head. He has 16 years of experience in the animation and film industry. But the most important is that he is the mastermind of the studio and visionary of all projects. He believes that young people have the best potential so he has his own educational program at the HSE and helps creative youth to find their path in the industry.

I met Egor while working in a VFX studio and I witnessed his revolutionary approach to producing computer graphics. While I produced CG with classic software, he led the project using Unreal Engine for production before the rest of us could see its advantages. He also was one of the first who started shooting motion capture in Russia and became a huge professional in it. He had shoots not only with stunts but with horses, dogs, and even an elephant! So when I had an opportunity to work with him as a partner I had no doubt.

Watt Studio

We temporarily teamed up in 2018 as a tiny team of 5 artists to make previsualization for the movie Invasion. We collaborated with Fedor Bondarchuk and Vodorod Production and it was a huge challenge for us. The director trusted us with many creative decisions and we had an opportunity to develop complex shots with tricky choreography and fantastic visual language. 

It turned out we had great potential, so after Invasion, we decided to continue as a permanent studio. We produced proof of concept for a couple of projects, made previses for several Russian movies and ads. And even though we specialized in storytelling, we wanted to master as many features of UE4.

At the beginning of 2020, we were eager to start producing our own project. While the future was shaky and unclear because of the pandemic, we tried to find a way to show our potential and took a risk, and started to develop our first game prototype. 

Team Dynamics

Our team consists of around 30 employees. Most of us are yesterday’s students who completed an internship in the studio and stayed. Before they finished education in HSE they already had considerable experience on real projects with clients and relevant problems. So, by graduation, they are already problem solvers and successful candidates.

One of the main ideas in our work is to give as much freedom as possible to create a team with a high level of responsibility and creativity. And it shows – each member feels their own input, can share the most bizarre ideas and has fast skill’s improving. The main hero Hannah was created by the collective intelligence of our artists with the delicate guides from Egor.

It helps us make the work in our studio satisfying for all participants. We also are looking for ready solutions like Agile and Scrum and trying to shift them to our needs.

For example, we split employees into small crews which consist of all competencies and skills needed to produce a workpiece from concepts to the final result. So they can assign tasks and divide responsibility without supervision and management. We discuss deadlines and milestones to create a final project and crews can find the most effective way to reach the goal. It did work for the alpha version of the build. Together we discussed tasks we have to finish and then crews divided all the amount of work between them on their own. They found the best suitable person for each task that helped us complete the work in time.

As you can see we don’t have a complex hierarchy and everybody can affect the final product.

The Team's First Project

We showed the first prototype of Monument on DevGamm in May 2021. It was one level that showed the protagonist Ayka in a post-apocalyptic world and she has to solve puzzles to get home. We got positive feedback about visuals in general but it became clear we had to redesign the whole concept to create something more unique. After a couple of weeks, there was a story about one day of a girl's life who was confronted with some obstacles and problems but in the end, she finds her way to fix her situation.

It gave us one of the pillars of our studio. The first mission is to create bright games. No matter what the story is about, we want to give players hope and joy. 

It’s hard to point one thing that inspired us. There were different references for gameplay, visuals, and story. The main reference for visual was Suprematism. The picture is light, with bright color elements, making it easy for the player to focus. Suprematism is a style often found in modern design and architecture.

Ranging from paintings and graphics to architecture and interiors, Bauhaus art dominated many outlets of experimental European art throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Today, its influence can be found in art and design all over the world, whether within the walls of a museum or on a suburban street.

Reference for gameplay was mainly Gris. We wanted to create lay-back gameplay that won’t distract the player from the story and meditative experience. Of course, it was directed not a law, so when we accidentally got a bug with Hannah skateboarding on the ceiling we thought it can diversify gameplay for good and save a lay-back vibe.

Working with Unreal Engine

Egor Tomskiy was one of the first devotees of Unreal Engine for film production in Russia. When he finally founded this studio it was an obvious choice to work with. It gives the opportunity to create beautiful visuals fast and with ready solutions. 

We also try to find the best task tracker for our creative team. We go the unconventional way of division by departments when most of the team members are generalists and we go from visuals in development, not from mechanics. For tracking all the content we produce, we are using Shotgun because it’s important to see the whole picture of changes for each item which is a remarkable amount. But for core development and bug tracking the best way is to use the kanban system. I can’t say it’s the best way to keep your results in the system but we understand that it’s better to take time to search and try to implement tools for our needs than to get ready solutions that can destroy a unique way of working.

Challenges

In the beginning, we had an optimistic view on some development phases but if we weren’t so naive we probably wouldn't have started this journey at all. We've learned a lot this year. Sometimes we had to remake the whole level from scratch because of the new knowledge and experience we got but it’s important to find limits in such decisions. Will it help to make a player's experience better? Will it help to tell the story? Will it increase the sales? For example, we had to rethink the first and second levels that were made for a vertical slice and gave us the opportunity to get three awards on the Disgusting Men contest because after we produced all levels in white boxes it didn’t fit anymore. 

Also, our team didn’t consist of any professionals with remarkable skills at the start. We had a bunch of enthusiasts who believed in their ability to create something special. And after we got an award for the most original gameplay on the Dev contest, it seems like our team does consist of professionals with remarkable skills. Maybe it’s true that all you need is a love for games and a desire to work hard.

Afterword

There are no answers on how to launch a studio or a game. It’s a wild cocktail of decisions, chance, hard work, and the most importantly – a core team.

But you should be ready to work and trust a lot. Responsibility for other people is huge sometimes and not everyone can bear it. Sometimes the hardest thing is to believe someone and in someone. For example, we invite these two students to an internship for one day a week only and now we have two new programmers who are eager to impact and help to achieve the main goal.

Be ready to hear that you do everything wrong like there are some strict rules you break, some mistakes you already have made and of course everybody knows better what you should do and not. You just need to feel when you are going your way, right or wrong it doesn’t matter, but there should be your beliefs you stick to. 

Marina Simkina, Creative Producer at Watt Studio

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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