Mortals go global

Mortals go global

The day shift works in Newcastle, the night shift in New Zealand. A crazy way to run a company? Not at all, Mere Mortals MD Steve Walmsley tells Brian Nicholls.

Above a preserved forge that once fired Maling pottery, a modern chrome and stripped timber suite of offices and studios is today a womb of media products with global appeal.

The creativity in the refurbished building illustrates perfectly technology’s march of time in the region.

For, 45 years after the last Maling workshift ended, software is now shaped, refined and distributed to eager buyers here, just as crockery and decorative goods once were.

On the ground floor of the old riverside workshops at Ouseburn in Newcastle, the preserved forge now serves as a showcase displaying the commercial aesthetics of centuries gone by.

Upstairs in the Hoults Estate buildings (of which the old Maling factory forms part), the nine-year-old and already market-leading Mere Mortals is a frenzy of creativity, a crossover of diverse skills, from the games industry, to television advertising, merchandise and diverse digital content.

Its best games success to date - the top seller in the Christmas pre-order tables last year – is PDC Championship Darts.

This features all seven major tournaments from the professional darts championship calendar, with virtual players drawn from 16 of the world’s top professionals, plus the commentary of the great Geordie enthusiast Sid Waddell.

Hollywood credibility, meanwhile, comes with Mere Mortals’ film graphics for director Danny Boyle’s adventures in sci-fi and horror, 28 Days Later and Sunshine.

TV viewers will have also seen Mere Mortals animation on Channel 4’s 100 Greatest series, BBC’s Grumpy Old Men and Jools Holland’s Piano.

It was recently named Moving Image Company of the Year by the Royal Television Society.

That’s the glam.

But the firm produces not only games, special effects and motion graphics, but also content management, e-commerce and online promotion.

The web arm benefits businesses such as the newly merged Mincoffs Jacksons law firm, the Bowes Museum, and a niche firm specialising in clothes and furnishings for the clergy.

A major asset is Smoke - £80,000 worth of apparatus Steve Walmsley describes as ‘a nippy video finishing tool to bring together seamlessly graphic design and photography’.

It is the only example in the North, the company believes, boosting internal workflow and generating revenue from other agencies and production companies.

The offices and studios at Mere Mortals ring with laughter – sign of a happy and productive office – and everyone, though beavering away, seems laid back, in the manner of Walmsley, the managing director, who is 53 going on 29.

It takes maybe nine or 12 months to turn out a new game, three years in some cases.

Some might long to be paid for playing computer games all day, but as Walmsley points out, playing the same game over and over in search of flaws or improvements can pall.

It may be common in multinational businesses, but is probably less so in £2 million turnover companies like Mere Mortals to have your day shifters working in Britain and a ‘night shift’ on the other side of the world.

“A management that likes one place for everything and everything in its one place might question the wisdom of splitting the workload between Newcastle and Auckland, New Zealand, but it works for us,” says Walmsley who, in an earlier career, helped shape the sounds of bands like Genesis, Dr Hook and various punk outfits.

The twin-team route was taken after one of the two original business partners, David Jeffries, decided to move to New Zealand.

“We were considering a second operation on the Pacific Rim and thought about China.

But we foresaw a culture barrier, and while labour costs might be lower there, the management costs could be greater,” Walmsley explains.

“New Zealand excels in creativity and cost-effectiveness.

Costs are about 30 per cent lower than here.

Now Dave can call me at six in the morning to give a rundown on developments there, and I give him an account at six in the evening of progress here.

A 12-hour difference works ideally.” Staff appreciate the regular visits between the two far-flung centres.

And the separation by 12,000 or so miles might also minimise the chances of the company’s directors getting in each other’s hair.

The first time I called on Mere Mortals, shortly after its 1999 launch by David and Graeme Love - now technical director – the firm occupied a tiny incubator unit in Newcastle’s Pink Lane and comprised just a handful of talented individuals.

Today, the talent has exploded.

The firm employs 46 people (average age 30-ish) with seven more working Down Under, and is currently recruiting in New Zealand.

Mere Mortals has just won a £1.2 million deal with an international publisher to develop a title for early 2009.

Another top global games publisher is considering a game that young developer Richard Edwards designed in a recent in-house competition.

These competitions are held to sharpen the cutting edge.

Staff - editors, graphic and special effects designers, sound engineers – table their ideas.

Their input is evaluated, short listed and conceptualised, the best being worked up to show prospective publishers.

“It’s not as complex as it sounds,” says Walmsley.

“Games publishers work like book publishers.

So, in a way, you submit your game as an author would submit a book.

We visit three international trade fairs a year, in Leipzig, Lyon and San Francisco, for this purpose.” Convergence is now a goal for the business, crossing over all their creative concepts in games, television, advertising, merchandising and digital content.

Flexibility in this way can maximise the impact of a brand or product, delivering more for a client’s spend.

And that works well for this business at least - on both sides of the world.