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4J Studios has been making games for other companies since 2005. But more and more, we’ll see it stepping out on its own with original intellectual properties, according to Chris van der Kuyl, cofounder of the game developer and publisher.
Van der Kuyl walked me through the company’s 18-year history. 4J Studios has had 16 titles published over the years. It made 17 mash-up games, seven mini games, 30 skin packs and 11 texture packs. It won 11 international awards and its games have been played by 150 million players.
And last month, the Dundee, Scotland-based 4J published Manic Mechanics, a couch co-op game for the Nintendo Switch. The title is the company’s first self-published game, and it’s a typical game for 4J with a focus on enabling everyone to play. In the comedic game, you have to prove that you can keep up with your friends and show off your skills as a mechanic faced with one task after another. It’s a lot like Overcooked or Diner Dash in that respect. 4J has even created its own game engine for the game.
This decision on doing games on your own or making games for others is getting to be an important decision for game companies. During the economic downturn, some companies like Warner Bros Games and Take-Two Interactive have said they’ll focus on well-known franchises rather than original IPs. They are being very careful about taking risks. So it’s interesting to see 4J go in the opposite direction, investing in new IPs as well as its own engine. It turns out that, the more experienced they get, developers would rather work on their own ideas for games, free of encumbrances on creativity.
It’s been a long road to get to this point. Van der Kuyl said that the company has been fortunate along the way, and his team has collected tons of experience. He has been making games with his cofounder Paddy Burns for a long time, and they’ve been best friends since they were 11 years old.
Van der Kuyl and Peter Baillie started VIS Entertainment in Dundee back in 1996 and worked on H.E.D.Z. as one of Hasbro’s first games. They adapted Earthworm Jim to the Nintendo 64. They saw enough success with work-for-hire to make their own title for Rockstar Games called State of Emergency.
But the studio had to hold back the launch of that game due to controversy, as it was about riot control in a chaotic city. After 9/11, it wasn’t seen as a tasteful game. When it did launch in 2002/2003 across multiple platforms, it was a hit.
“It was a bit controversial as a riot simulator,” he said. “It was an amazing journey. The game went to No. 1. We sold it to a small publisher called Bam! Entertainment.”
VIS Entertainment struggled during the post 9/11 and post-dotcom bubble era, and it was acquired by Bam! Entertainment in late 2004. In 2005, it was shut down altogether in a broader cost-cutting move. The State of Emergency rights ultimately wound up with DC Studios.
After that, van der Kuyl, Paddy Burns and Frank Arnot started 4J Studios in 2005. This new venture turned out to have real longevity in a game industry that sees many studios die. The studio alternated between original games like Star Trek: Conquest to ports like The Elder Scrolls IV for the PS3. Then they started making ports of Minecraft and it had made seven such titles before the work was done.
4J made a big name for itself developing Minecraft for Sony, Nintendo and Xbox consoles after Microsoft acquired the property from Mojang. The porting work was tough and highly technical, and it enabled the company to learn all of the platforms and stay platform agnostic. And 4J shared in some of the financial success of Minecraft, which helped hone its focus of “games for everyone.”
“We stayed involved in the franchise from early on until now,” van der Kuyl said.
That success gave the company the freedom to choose the games it worked on and choose the partners it wanted to work with. It didn’t have to raise a big bucket of money from venture capitalists. And the company has now grown to 50 people, with a core expertise in design, technology and game programming.
“The strategy culminated in the amazing team that we have now,” van der Kuyl said.
Van der Kuyl thinks of Manic Mechanics as an example of the company’s focus on innovation, creativity and technical excellence. It’s a high-octane party game, where players are tasked with repairing a multitude of vehicles against the relentless ticking clock. With each mechanic managing different car parts, players must skillfully utilize equipment, prioritize tasks, and navigate hilarious mishaps to ensure the assembly line stays accident-free.
All of this isn’t a bad metaphor for juggling tasks in game development, and keeping your developers busy as jobs come in and get completed. 4J has managed to do that, and it has also started funding the third-party games that it publishes.
In 2021, they started Chroma Ventures, an investment arm of 4J Studios, to invest in companies such as Blippar, Ant Workshop and ADV Holdings. Van der Kuyl is also a non-executive director of the Ballie Gifford US Growth Trust.
Alongside his commercial roles, van der Kuyl was the founding chairman of Entrepreneurial Scotland and is currently a member of multiple advisory and local charity boards. Elected as one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2013, Chris was also formally recognized for his contribution to technology in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2020, becoming a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE). Van der Kuyl believes Scotland is as strong as ever in gaming.
Dundee itself has a lot of talent in studios like Rockstar Games, and Scotland itself has more than 175 game development classes being taught across 16 universities. Because of that, 4J has found much of its talent in the Dundee area.
“We love making games, and that’s our real passion,” van der Kuyl said. “For the past few years, we started to build some new IP and we worked with people outside who also had similar ideas to us. We started publishing some of those games from smaller external developers.”
The company looked at games like Overcooked, which appealed to just about everyone. then they came up with a game based on a business like Jiffy Lube, always busy making repairs. It was an idea that didn’t need a triple-A budget.
“We choose to make games with a more efficient team,” van der Kuyl said.
That’s how Manic Mechanics came to be.
“We really wanted to get the gameplay tuned to a place where it’s accessible for people who don’t play games often,” he said. “The phenomenal gamers can find the extra easter eggs on a difficult level. But everybody can enjoy being together. Manic Mechanic did that for us.”
Given the choice between making a volume work-for-hire business or original IP, van der Kuyl said, “We’d rather make original games with the amazing team that we have.”
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