Tucked into the corner at the end of a hall, two sets of glass double doors and a mounted security feature, a fingerprint scanner, form the discreet entrance to a London-based, world-class, video game development studio. The modern, immaculate lobby is small with a salvaged wooden barn door hung on the wall. The large weather-worn door bears the stainless-steel logo of the company, which modestly discloses the space you have entered: unassuming, stylish, contemporary, and warm are your humble first impressions. It is only after leaving the small lobby and rounding the hall corner in search of the company’s president that one’s jaw drops. 30 000 square feet of converted warehouse space and over 180 bustling employees stretch out before you. Heavy-duty, bright blue cables snake across the space high above your head, suspended by metal cages. Several gargantuan, orange nylon flowers rise up amongst the endless rows of pristine, cream-coloured desks and cubicles, with petals perched on the various cubicle corners like giant prehistoric butterflies. The various colours in the open space- including those of action figures on desks and framed game posters- are vibrant, framed by clean white walls and a mix of contemporary grey carpets and glazed cement floors. Thick painted swaths of orange wrap around the room, discernible through the glass walls of the bright offices that are visible from where you are rooted to the ground in awe.
Ranked as “one of the world’s top development studios in the interactive entertainment industry,” Digital Extremes is responsible for the multi-player portion of Bioshock 2, the PC version of Homefront, and for the creation of the blockbuster, The Darkness II. Founded by the company’s current CEO, James Schmalz in 1993, the company has experienced significant success and growth since Schmalz’s Epic Pinball game in the early nineties. Digital Extremes is currently working on the development of Star Trek and Warframe, two of the year’s most anticipated games.
Making the move in October 2011, one cannot deny that Digital Extremes Ltd.’s relocation to this extreme space in downtown London was a practical one. According to the company’s president, Michael Schmalz, brother of James, an expired lease and insufficient space were the main reasons for the move. With the opportunity to move, the list of requirements for the new office grew: “We wanted to be on one floor, which is really hard to find [when] we also knew that we needed about thirty-thousand square feet of space,” Michael explains. “We have a lot of young people on staff, so we wanted to make sure that we were downtown. Parking was also important. After deciding on those needs, the list of available spaces that met those needs was pretty short. Then this place came up.” However, it wasn’t love at first sight for the company’s president; “At first, the space was just depressing. I took one look, and I was ready to move on and see the next place on the list. It took some imagination to reach the potential.”
Starting with “absolutely nothing- a sterile space-“ the design process and implementation took 6 months, and was undertaken by the company’s VP of Communications, Meridith Braun. The new Digital Extremes location went from sterile and empty, to stylish and functional. The entirely custom-designed space includes a built-in theatre often used for large meetings to discuss in-depth game features on a colossal screen with a sound system capable of reaching 10 000 watts. Michael jokes “it will make your ears bleed, but we wanted it.” There is also a full commercial kitchen with three full-time chefs, an employee lounge and a stocked bar complete with a ping pong table, a pool table and modern fireplace. Between the theatre and lounge space, there is a space for game analysts to test new games, a large corporate meeting room, and a sound room. It is in the sound room that Fanshawe educated sound engineers use swords and other props to record realistic sound effects for projects in-house. Glass-walled offices split the space in two halves for the separate teams that work on different projects simultaneously. The entire office is trimmed with antique wood reclaimed from a barn outside of London that is over a hundred years old. And what was it like to move 180 employees, including critical servers and technology? “It wasn’t as bad as you think,” Michael smiles. “A lot was left behind at the old place [for the next tenants]. It wasn’t like we packed everything up into eighteen moving trucks. Everyone took just took their chairs, computers, and personal affects. That was it. We moved into a space where everything was brand-new.”
From the wooden beams in the ceiling of the coffee nook and up-cycled cream and orange vinyl booths to the industrial light fixtures and velvet King Louis armchairs in front of the fireplace, it is safe to say that the Digital Extremes office space packs a punch. However, Michael Schmalz insists that they are not quite settled yet, “Everything is still too white for us. We have our original artwork we would like to hang and use to personalize the space.” Looking around, it is hard to believe that there is still more work and personalization to be done to such an extreme space that perfectly represents what the studio is celebrated for: creativity, innovation, and the pushing of industry standards. “For the most part, everything is working out well, and we are 98% there.”
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