Interview by Simon Bland
To start, could you tell me a little about yourself, your career history and how Altered Gene came to be?
My name is Des Gayle, and I do far too many things! As well as running Altered Gene, I am the deputy chair of the BAFTA Games committee, a UKIE board member, a founding member of POC in Play, and I also head up production for an indie publishing label called Fellow Traveller.
I started my career in games development over twenty years ago, as a tester working for LEGO Media. From there, I worked on the launch of the original Xbox at Microsoft before heading off to EA for five years, supporting their development teams. I had a brief stint in Barcelona making some mobile games for Adidas and I managed the R&D team at Crytek’s Frankfurt offices. My breakthrough project was working on the original Life Is Strange series that won, amongst other awards, a BAFTA.
Born at the end of 2013, Altered Gene was originally a bucket to house my production consultancy. However, after a few years I realised how much I missed the creative process, and actually making games. After creating a mobile game that I won’t speak about (mainly because no one else did) I settled down and began building the storyverse we are kicking off now.
There are lots of games companies out there – but what makes Altered Gene different?
The easy answer is me. Even after all these years, having a black person on the leadership team (of one, in our case) is still a rarity.
Speaking more holistically, I have had the privilege of learning from some of the industries most successful companies, and working on class leading games. Some processes and environments were great, others not so much. The practices that made the greatest positive impact, or those that I took the most from, I have applied to my work. Those that were left wanting – I altered. Rather than abandon these approaches altogether, I have tried to learn from them, and use my experience to make them better. You’d have to ask my team if it’s a successful strategy, but I feel that it’s working.
In regards to our output, the mission at Altered Gene is to deliver multi-channel games and experiences using the pillars of story, quality and approachability. To do this we harness a brilliant global team, who provide a wealth of skills and experiences, alongside a passion for narrative games.
We have always been a remote studio – even before a global pandemic issued the mandate of working from home for almost everyone in our industry. Right from the start, I didn’t want financial limitations, caring responsibilities, or physical challenges to prevent me from working with talented people.
What are some of the company’s key successes so far?
Remarkably, we are 4-for-4 in funding applications over the past 18 months. This phenomenal success rate gives me some mild comfort that my ideas are not terrible.
Your site lists your passion for inclusivity and diversity – how is this ethos incorporated within Altered Gene?
I firmly believe that a company’s culture comes from the top, and I take the responsibility of leading by example seriously. I make sure it is clear to all team members what is expected of them, and just as importantly, what they can expect from me.
At the moment, there are five of us, spread out over four countries. We are all from different backgrounds, but what we all have in common is a love for telling stories. Being one of the Variants at Altered Gene isn’t about your age, gender, geographic location, or even your preferred movie genre (although, who doesn’t love a good Sci-Fi?!) but about a passion for delivering high quality, story-led games that really engage players.
You’re working on building an interconnected storyverse – could you tell us more about that?
Without giving too much away, the espionage-action story revolves around two soldiers that become close friends and go on a journey via an inevitable twist somewhere that spans five individual projects, one of which will extend beyond games into an animated feature.
Each project will be enjoyable in its own right, however, if a fan engages with the entire series their personal investment is repaid with the full impact of the story’s conclusion.
Why did you decide to apply to be part of the Creative Enterprise Evolve scheme – and why now?
I’ve been doing the groundwork for our storyverse for just over a year. I used that time to make sure I knew exactly what I wanted to build, and that I appreciated the realities of my vision. The harsh truth is, in order to build this series, it’s going to need significantly more money than the company has now, and a lot more than we could earn by doing work for hire. Plus, bootstrapping like that would take too long anyway.
It was time for me to look for alternative methods of financing and shift my mentality about investment from project-based to company-based.
One of the funding pots that I mentioned earlier was with the Creative Enterprise New Ideas Fund. Aside from the money, another reward for being successful is being signed up to their newsletter, which is where I first saw details of the Evolve program. Initially, I dismissed it, thinking it would be too generic about creative businesses and there wouldn’t be enough of an angle suitable, and applicable, to games businesses. Fortunately, one of the team members reached out to me, and encouraged me to apply. So here I am, talking to you.
What have you found the main difficulties are in your industry when it comes scaling and taking things to the next level?
From a company perspective, it’s education and guidance about possible equity investment terms and relationships. After that, I’d have to say a lack of access to sector appropriate investors.
How do you hope Evolve will assist you moving forward?
I hope that the contact with Evolve doesn’t end after the scheme, and that the lines of communication remain open. Facilitating contact with mentors with different skill sets, that we didn’t have time to meet with this time round, would also be a fantastic opportunity. In the future, I hope Evolve utilise us, and companies like ours, to help with future cohorts – graduating us into other programs they have.
What current trends have you seen ripple through the sector and how have they impacted you?
The realization that industry verticals (film, tv, games and their subsets etc) are not competing within themselves, but instead competing cross-vertical for people’s time. This is always on our minds when thinking about what people expect from their entertainment, and how to deliver our stories.
Who is your industry mentor and what is the most useful advice they have offered you during the process so far?
My mentor is Cecilia Thirlway and working with her has had an immense impact on my vision for Altered Gene. I can’t pick out just one piece of advice that has been the most useful as there has been so much. What I will say is, that through a combination of astute listening and challenging questions, Cecilia has coerced me out of my comfort zone and into a place of focus. I look at the difference between where I was at the start of the program and where I am today, and I will tell you that I would not have arrived here without her.
For a company like yourselves, how useful is it to have access to their expertise – is it hard to acquire without Creative Enterprise making an introduction?
Yes, finding experts outside of video games that are willing to offer guidance and mentorship is difficult. I didn’t even know the first place to look.
Ideally, where would you like to see Altered Gene in five years’ time?
By combining our passion for high quality narrative, with a talented and driven team, I’d love for Altered Gene to be on the way to becoming the number one, story led, independent studio in the UK.
In practical terms, I would like to see us employing around 20 full time staff members, with three out of the five titles in the storyverse released out into the wild. I would love for us to be sustainable (with at least three years worth of salaries in the bank) and if we’ve had a couple of award nominations by that point, that would be nice too.