Sidhe is best known recently for developing Shatter, a fast-paced brick-buster game that debuted on PlayStation Network in 2009. Praised for its crystalline presentation and entrancing soundtrack, Shatter updated the familiar mechanics of games like Arkanoid, and elevated the understated -- but certainly not small -- developer that's been at work in Wellington, New Zealand, since 1997.
As a self-published downloadable game, Shatter appears to be an anomaly when placed next to another of Sidhe's recent projects: Blood Drive, published by Activision in 2010. The automotive action game, which saw players running down zombies for sport (it's as good a reason as any), failed to find an appreciative audience, despite having a mixture of popular go-to game elements. But how do the makers of one of 2009's most praised puzzle games deliver a 41 on Metacritic just one year later?
Today, Sidhe is in the process of shaking off the remnants of that game, one of the many work for hire, licensed tasks it has undertaken for most of its life. Speed Racer, Jackass: The Game and Madagascar Kartz all came from the same workhorse. "What we are trying to do, given where retail in general is going, is continue to move towards being independent," said Mario Wynands, co-founder and managing director of Sidhe. "That is, run the studio on the basis of royalties and download revenue alone, as opposed to being somewhat reliant on third-party publishers. We are, I guess, reacting to the market, in line with the strategy we've had in place for a number of years now, which is ultimately weaning ourselves off work for hire."
As a result, Sidhe has ramped down and elected not to renew or transition contracts with vendors following the completion of Blood Drive for Activision. Wynands also confirmed to Joystiq that several full-time staff members have been let go since then -- "probably five or six people." (This is after the studio hired more in March 2010, bringing the staff count close to 120.)
The cuts don't represent an abandonment of retail, however, with a large portion of the studio still working on Rugby Challenge for multiple platforms. "We're still doing retail products, but trying to do retail products where we are being more selective about partners, more selective about what projects we take on, and continuing to transition the amount of resources that we have working on the work-for-hire side, increasingly to the download space."
For Sidhe and its PikPok-branded mobile team, the download space will encompass Android devices, iThings, tablets, as well as platforms like Steam, PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. Wynands stated that new project announcements would be made by Sidhe and some of its new partners within the next few months, and would make it clear as to how the studio is "approaching things in a smarter way than we have in the past."
Wynands was also deliberate in downplaying alarmist attitudes toward the company's shift and the implications of a departing, formerly contracted workforce. "I think there's a perception that any reduction of staff, or the natural ebb and flow of contractors, can be seen as a weakness or financial instability," he said. "I think the reality is that we are indeed trying to be very cautious. I think the last couple of years has been a very punishing time for the industry, has been very unforgiving of mistakes, and I think those companies that have been cautious, they've made smart decisions around resourcing and have been willing to adapt to new business models and new pricing models are those ones who have survived and who will be successful in whatever this industry turns into in the next couple of years."
When the global economy fell into turmoil in 2008, Sidhe received a "wake-up call", Wynands said, and was forced to reevaluate its reliance on the work for hire market. "We realized that we needed to make some changes to the way we did business, so we do ramp up and ramp down a lot more than we have in the past, for any given project." According to Wynands, that's happening alongside long-term preparation, with Sidhe still "actively hiring" to suit its new needs in publishing and outsourcing.
Alhough Sidhe isn't radically shunning its retail roots, it seems that 2011 may take it away from games like Blood Drive and closer to the self-owned ideal of Shatter -- hopefully, in terms of distribution and in terms of quality.