Q&A with Dominic Wheatley – the man behind Tomb Raider
We sat down with Dominic Wheatley, CEO of the Catalis Group for an informal chat about his time in the gaming industry. Catalis currently cover every aspect of game testing, development and publishing through their three companies; Testronic, Kuju and Curve Digital. Dominic started out his career as co-founder of the game software company Domark who were eventually acquired by Eidos, going on to launch the world famous Tomb Raider series at E3 in 1996.
Had you always envisioned yourself in the video games industry?
Not really, no. I was actually in advertising after the Army and I came across a home computer which my brother bought in 1984, and I played a video game on it which was an adventure game and I thought, gosh this could be really big business. So, I left the advertising agency I was at and I started my first video games company above a shop in Fulham.
Was there a moment early on where you thought ‘I could really make a name for myself here’?
You see, the industry was very small back in 1985. So it wasn’t like you were going to go into the pop business and if you were good you’d end up on Top of the Pops – it was very much a cottage industry. Games back then were delivered on cassette tapes and you put it into the system and maybe it loaded and maybe it didn’t, so at the time, it was quite nerdy and quite geeky and only one child in the playground would have had a home computer. So it wasn’t a big business but of course today – it’s bigger than music and TV put together so I didn’t necessarily think I’d be making a name for myself at any point I just thought it was a great opportunity.
You released the world famous Tomb Raider at the E3 conference in 1996.
How did that feel? Must’ve been a big moment for you.
Well, as we had floated our company (Eidos Interactive) the year before, we had a bit of money so we bought a game publisher called U.S Gold and along with it came a studio named Core Design, based in Sheffield. They had made some good games in their time and I was at E3 in Los Angeles preparing materials for our show as we had lots of games on our stand. We had a big room off of the main floor where we would do sales presentations to sales reps from companies like Walmart and Toys ‘R’ Us. I had been sent a video of Tomb Raider from England before the show and I pressed play in front of these reps and Lara immediately sprang into view and with her iconic ponytail, turned around and dived into an underground pool. Visually, it just looked fantastic and these sales reps from New York who had seen it all and done it all, burst into a round of applause which almost never happened. A warm glow came across my chest and I thought to myself “we’ve got something here”. I ran out to the show floor and told the stand team to redecorate the entire stand to play the Tomb Raider clip on loop. That evening we had a party at a nightclub in LA and people were coming up to me all night saying “Tomb Raider, going to be huge here!” and soon enough word had gotten around everywhere and I knew then we were on to something very big and it turned out to be a multi-billion dollar seller.
You’ve been in the industry for a long time now.
What’s the biggest difference between producing video games in the 80’s and now?
Thank you for reminding me! There’s two major differences I think. One is that there are an awful lot of very competent designers, artists and programmers now that you can choose from. You didn’t have this back in the 80’s, it was very hard and almost all of the teams you’d put together for the development of these games were people straight out of college and they had very little experience so the quality of the games were fairly poor. It’s taken a while for those skills to become widespread. The second point is that every game needed an engine written to be able to drive the game. Today we have middleware like Unreal Engine and many others that essentially cut down the work and the boring bit of making the game run. It’s all about the art direction, design and music today which makes life a lot easier for the development teams.
Should we be expecting any big changes in the industry?
Is there anything you’re looking forward to?
Streaming technology where games are delivered to your Smart TV in the same way as Netflix or Amazon Prime. Now that is absolutely the revolutionary change that we’ll be seeing within the next 5 years. Stadia which is Google’s offering, Microsoft are also coming out with their streaming platform. You won’t even need to have machinery of any sort, you’ll just need an app on your Smart TV and a controller, playing in real time making it cheaper, easier and better for consumers.
We’ve partnered with Catalis to create a recruitment film for one of your companies, Testronic.
Could you tell us who Testronic are and what they do?
Testronic are a QA (quality assurance) company essentially, testing games to make sure they don’t have any bugs or flaws in them before they go out to the market. We have around 120 clients who hand over their games to us when publishers think they are done. Teams of people essentially play the game from start to finish finding any bugs writing reports on where they are. Every day reports are made and updates to the specified game are made and are sent back to us until the game is faultless and the publisher is happy to release it. Consumers rightly get angry if their game has bugs so we’re an important part of the post-production process within the industry. We also translate into many different languages and test those translations with native speakers so they are perfect from a Frenchman’s point of view for example. We have this saying that a Frenchman would rather play a game in English than in bad French so we always strive to make them perfect.
Why would someone want to join Testronic?
Well, I think there’s lots of reasons. Perhaps they want to go into the games industry, it’s a fantastic way in. Lots of opportunities. Equally, it’s a fun and done workplace – very satisfying industry and occupation with opportunities to move up the ladder management wise and end up running teams of testers, sales and marketing and other areas that people work with us in so we’re definitely a company that’s growing and it’s exciting to be a part of it.
What advice would you give to someone wanting a career within the gaming industry?
Join Testronic! Or, indeed join a QA company in general because that way you’ll discover the various different aspects of the industry and you’ll feel a part of something straight away. If you do join a company like Testronic and you work hard and gain some first-hand experience, you’ll be able to put that on your CV and throw applications to the big players such as Activision, Ubisoft and EA. Even moving into Sales and Marketing, you’d still have had your first steps in the industry and just knowing how it works will put you in front of many other candidates. It’s a very, very good idea to start at that level if you want to get into the industry and you’re not already a technical person who has programming skills for example. You’d have the industry know how to apply yourself to different routes be it marketing or the development side. Universities now are offering courses for that and there’s also some very good magazines carrying jobs ads so you can also try to go directly.
Finally, and we simply have to ask this question… what is your favourite video game ever?
Well, like someone who makes chocolate they don’t tend to eat much of it. I don’t play games all of the time, I do of course look at games but they tend to be shown to me as demos which is part of the commissioning of them. That being said, I suppose I have to give Lara the honour because I owe her a lot and I do think that it was a very ground-breaking game at the time. So Tomb Raider for me!
This exclusive Q&A is part of a mini-series documenting the making of the Testronic recruitment film so be sure to keep your eyes peeled for our featured article on the film – coming soon.