Words and interview by Simon Bland.
Among the many changes ushered in by the pandemic was a near-universal shift to remote working. For some, it was a challenge but for others it was a crucial step that needed to be made in order to survive. While the idea of working from home may seem commonplace today, for some companies this island-like existence was already part-and-parcel of their daily routine – and with the new-normal in full swing, these teams not only managed to ride the chaotic wave of 2020 but are now primed and ready to capitalise on this newly normalised way of working.
One games studio that was remote working before it was cool is Altered Gene. Forged in 2013 by founder and Director Des Gayle, it’s a company that uses diversity and inclusivity as a driving force to create multi-channel games that prioritise engaging stories, accessibility and ensuring a rewarding user-experience. After releasing a mobile title, Gayle and his dispersed team of developers (or ‘Variants’, as he playfully calls them) are now busy creating an interconnected storyverse series, with Gayle joining this year’s Creative Enterprise Evolve cohort.
“I started my career in games development over 20 years ago, as a tester working for LEGO Media,” remembers Gayle, speaking part way through his time on Evolve. By offering companies access to industry mentors and seminars led by guest speakers, the programme aims to give start-ups everything they need to secure future investment and catalyse growth. “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 mobile games for Adidas,” he continues, detailing his lengthy career path. “My breakthrough project was working on the original Life is Strange series that won, amongst other awards, a BAFTA.”
After his time working with various big-name companies, Gayle was eventually motivated to start his own team – and from humble beginnings grew a successful studio. “Altered Gene was originally a bucket to house my production consultancy,” he reveals. “However after a few years, I realised how much I missed the creative process and actually making games.” As for what makes his studio stand out from a crowd of similarly IP-focused developers? “The easy answer is me,” Gayle admits candidly. “Even after all these years, having a Black person on the leadership team (of one, in our case) is still a rarity.”
However beyond this key element, Gayle’s years of training have helped to inform the company he has created. “I’ve had the privilege of learning from some of the industry’s 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,” he says. “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,” he chuckles, “but I feel that it’s working.”
Gayle has also used Altered Gene’s remote workforce to his advantage, letting it influence the tone of the company and how it works. “The mission at Altered Gene is to deliver multi-channel games and experiences using the pillars of story, quality and approachability,” he explains. “To do this, we harness a brilliant global team who provide a wealth of skills and experiences, alongside a passion for narrative games. We’ve always been a remote studio, even before the global pandemic issued the mandate of working from home for almost everyone in our industry,” adds Gayle. “Right from the start, I didn’t want financial limitations, caring responsibilities or physical challenges to prevent me from working with talented people.”
For Gayle, the Altered Gene-ethos is all about learning from examples, with the founder asserting that his “company’s culture comes from the top and [he] takes the responsibility of leading by example seriously.” As it stands, Altered Gene’s talented staff are based all over the globe yet they each share the same values of creativity and strong storytelling. “At the moment there are five of us spread out over four countries,” he explains. “Being one of the Variants at Altered Gene isn’t about your age, gender or geographic location – but about a passion for delivering high quality, story-led games that really engage players.”
They have big plans too – but when talk turns to their upcoming shared-universe, Gayle remains curiously tight-lipped. “Without giving too much away, this espionage-action story revolves around two soldiers that become close friends and go on a journey,” he teases, adding that the series “spans five individual projects, one of which will extend beyond games into an animated feature.” It’s this lofty goal that inspired Gayle to get involved with Evolve: “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,” he admits. “Plus, bootstrapping like that would take too long anyway.”
Joining Evolve, Gayle is now well on the way to making his multiverse a reality – but he very nearly wasn’t: “Aside from the money, another reward for being successful is being signed up to the Creative UK 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 that was suitable or applicable to games businesses,” he reveals. “Fortunately one of the team members reached out and encouraged me to apply.” With a guidance system in place, Gayle hasn’t looked back on this long-planned project: “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.”
Through Evolve, Altered Gene has benefitted from the advice of industry mentor Cecilia Thirlway who helped with perfecting a pitch-deck and offering insight to pin-down the company offering. “Working with Cecilia has had an immense impact on my vision for Altered Gene,” he smiles. “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 can tell you that I would not have arrived here without her.”
It’s a creative partnership that Gayle hopes continues long into the future – and one that he can someday repay to the next generation of creatives and games developers – no matter where in the world they may be: “I hope the contact with Evolve doesn’t end after the scheme and those lines of communication remain open,” he says. “In the future, I hope that Evolve utilise us and companies like ours to help with future cohorts, graduating us into other programs they have.”