Mark Greenshields, CEO of DC Studios, leans back in his chair, framed by a cacophony of digital sound at San Francisco’s GDC 2005, and talks business. “There’s too much ego and bullshit in our industry. DC Studios deliver, we do what we say. If that suits you, come and talk to us and we’ll listen, but if it’s all hot air and fluff, go somewhere else.” A hard front? Perhaps, but it’s an ethos which has propelled DC from a small Glaswegian development studio in 1999 into an expanding and continuously profitable international in 2005. Fiercely independent and committed to his staff and work, Greenshields is the real deal. He talks the talk and what’s more he’s about to walk the walk in Ireland.
“Who the hell are DC,” some readers might ask. “Aren’t they comic book publishers?” A reasonable question. The company has flown beneath the radar since inception, eschewing hype in favour of getting the job done on time and within budget. The studio’s resume speaks for itself – over 40 titles as a third party developer for publishers as diverse as Konami, THQ, Ubisoft, Majesco, Disney, ABC and Mobilescope. Their development covers every current hardware platform – PC, PS2, GBA, Nintendo DS, Sony PSP – including mobile phone handsets. Titles include Bratz dancing games (Ubisoft), Tour de France Centenary Edition (Konami), Fear Factor: Unleashed (Arush Publishing) and the freshly launched Rayman DS. With offices in Montreal, Canada, and Glasgow and Bristol in the UK, DS Studios straddle
the Atlantic with John Wayne finesse.
DC Studios Dublin is set to open its doors in April 2005. Their proposed 50-person studio, probably in the vicinity of the Digital Hub (“we can’t be too far away from the Guinness factory!”), will use technology derived from Montreal but won’t act in support for any of the other studios. It will be DC’s leading European operation. What brought Greenshields to our fair isle? “In recent years, Montreal has ceased to be a low cost resource and it’s tough finding senior talented staff because Ubisoft are expanding rapidly there. Plus Canada is a high tax country. We were exploring avenues of expansion and I had heard about Ireland’s lower tax system from meetings with the IDA at ECTS. Secondly, we wanted more of a European presence. We have a studio in Glasgow which has been expanded but focuses on cellphone work. Also, there are no development studios of our ilk in Dublin so that’ll give us an element of distinction.”
To understand Mark Greenshields is to understand DC Studios: the man has been developing since he was a boy in Scotland. Aged 15 – the early years of home gaming – he was writing games in Basic like Bomber, packaging and selling them to local computer shops. His company Digicom consisted of a single employee: him. His office? A bedroom. A company called Interference Publications got wind of his skills, asked if he could write books, and two months later a manuscript on code and games for the Commodore 64 arrived on their desk. The book was published in 1981, followed by another the next year. Greenshields then became a freelance programmer, writing 35 games for the Commodore 64, IBM, BBC Micro and other platforms. “I’m probably best known for a shoot-em-up called Hades Nebula. One of my best reviewed titles was a puzzle game called Split Personality which I wrote in 1986.”
After a stint working for French based pay-TV producer Canal+, where he helped run the company’s multimedia division, Greenshields moved back to Glasgow in November 1999 to found DC Studios. Having “been through the mill a bit” his reputation was favourable – he was known as the guy who made things happen. DC’s initial auspices were GameBoy games but soon they landed a Nintendo 64 contract, initially sub-contracting work and building a 14-strong team within a few months. Greenshields continues: “We wanted to have a studio elsewhere, preferably on the other side of the Atlantic since all our clients were U.S. based. Plus, I’m not a lover of rain!” By September 2000 DC Studios had expanded to Montreal where Ubisoft, the other major developer in town, weren’t exactly the powerhouse they are today. Talent was reasonably easy to acquire, and the cost of salaries and premises were low. “Not any more,” he smiles.
In industry circles, DC has become known as a studio that develops plenty of titles for girls, probably due to 20% of their Montreal staff being female – an unusual trend in such a male-dominated industry – but their forte is far-reaching. Design-focused yet building their own technology, the company also creates hardware devices like the C64 D2TV, a console that features 30 of the Commodore 64’s better known titles. Today, DC Montreal consists of 60 staff. Although plans are afoot to increase their team to 75, the rest of the company’s expansion is set aside for Dublin. Will Ireland’s growing industry reputation, especially as a middleware country, play to their advantages? Greenshields isn’t so sure. “We just try to concentrate on our own strengths. Of course, Dublin has a reputation as a cool place to visit and we’ll use that to our advantage.”
When it comes to recruitment and the strength of Irish talent, Greenshields is under no illusions. “I know there’s a lot of talent, not just within Ireland but indigenous Irish in the UK and US who would love to come back if the jobs were there. There’s no point in having tax benefits if we can’t hire local talent and there are many Irish programmers in the UK who, given the right opportunity, would jump across the water. Initially, we’re recruiting experienced seniors but I believe in having strong alliances with local colleges in Ireland. At the end of the day our future employees are going to come from there. It’s cheaper for us because they haven’t got 20 years experience and it’s good for them because they are thrust into working environments straight away. The other benefit is that college R&D and research can be directly applied to commercial environments.
“While I also intend to work with graduates and undergraduates from Irish colleges on joint projects, it’s important to point out that our Dublin studios won’t be a factory. It doesn’t make commercial sense in either Dublin or the UK – where the costs, salaries and premises are high – to be a cheapskate. This will be high value stuff. Although we have yet to officially announce Dublin’s opening, a lot of Irish people are applying to us and we’ve already selected a number of senior Irish staff.” In total, 36 recruits are already lined up for the studio, as is a major project for the PS2, Xbox, PC and possibly Sony’s PSP. If anyone is interested, Greenshields is still seeking experienced console programmers and artists. Short-term sales and marketing will be conducted from Montreal but in a year’s time the company may need someone to handle business development. Ever-cautious, Mark says it’s wise to be “careful with those [marketing] guys because a lot of them talk it up but can’t deliver. We want good quality people who are willing to put their balls on the line.”
The final legalities are underway to launch DC Dublin and the prospects for our indigenous development industry are promising. DC Studios are one of the world’s few developers that are 100% independent, privately held, and profitable since the day they started. From all accounts, their staff are content, well paid and don’t work 80 hours a week. What’s more, their CEO, while warm-hearted and blessed with an infectious dry wit, does not suffer fools or time-wasters lightly and has refused to succumb to industry pitfalls of shoddy work or unprofessional standards. “I can’t wait to get started in Ireland,” he grins, before taking off for another round of GDC meetings. “Dublin isn’t a development hub… yet. Maybe we’ll be the ones to change that.”