BenTrewhallaBen Trewhella, winner of two SPARKies 2014 awards, including the Individual Contribution to Technology award, is a very busy man.

The reason? He spends his time managing Bristol-based game development hotshop Opposable Games, which he co-founded in 2011 with games designer James Parker.

In their mere three-year existence, the prolific development team at Opposable Games have built mobile games based on TV shows like Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies, card battling games for YouTube celebrities, educational and science-based games, such as Mykrobe and Dinosoars, and even ventured into virtual reality, building games for the Oculus Rift.

“We’re very keen on using games technology in areas other than games”

 

You can see examples of their work in the video below:

“We’re very keen on using games technology in areas other than games,” says Ben. “We’re currently working with a company called Handaxe to build a trauma and a psychological therapy game, which consists of a 3D world which players or patients can explore with clinicians. Alongside that, there’s a mobile app to help them through exercises and through therapy. So we’re using games as a tool for health.”

On the flip side of that is the currently-under-development, tactical sci-fi action shooter Salvaged. It’s the latest game to use Opposable Games’ own second-screen technology, One Touch Connect, and it allows players to link iOS, Android, PC and Mac devices during play.

A tablet or smartphone is used to control a squad of soldiers, while their viewpoint is shown on a PC screen; an idea which has seen Salvaged win a number of competitions, including the Sony/IC Tomorrow Digital Innovation award for ‘second-screen use in a game‘.

Salvaged is going to be a complete step above the stuff that people have seen us create before,” Ben enthuses. “It’s going to be really impressive.” The title is tentatively marked for a Spring 2015 release.

The man behind the multitude

“I’ve been a programmer since about the age of seven or eight, maybe even earlier,” Ben tells us. “I began programming Spectrum – largely games – then grew into a games player before heading off to university to study computer science, as the proper sort of programmer geek.

“Post-uni I went to work in consultancy and do IT-type stuff, and began to lead an ever less interesting life, one which was moving me away from the things I enjoyed, which was computer games.”

Team_Mega_RenderOffice wear: Just a normal day at work for the Opposable Games team

After living in Australia for a short time, Ben came back to the UK and decided to set up his own business: “At the time, Apple and Google had just launched the iPhone and Android phones respectively, so I began building apps for them.

“No one else was, no one else knew how really. I got really excited about the potential there, so I built a few, some of  which were in the top 10. Okay, so this wasn’t particularly difficult as there were only twenty or so apps out at the time, but it got me back into game design.”

Ben soon found it more lucrative to build apps for other businesses than for consumers directly: “I got together with local serial entrepreneur Mark Mason (himself a winner of the Best Mentor SPARKies award this year) and we set up a company called Mubaloo which was very much focused on building apps as an agency, i.e. for other companies – banks, insurance companies, people at the Met office. We grew that company very, very quickly.”

These commercial opportunities aligned much more closely with his own interests than the IT consultancy: “I saw the majority of apps being downloaded were games, and the majority of money being made was in games. So I sold out of Mubaloo and set up a company called Opposable Games.

“We got together with other people and began to put together games jams and hack events, which helped me identify talent and bring them together”

 

“Bristol and the South West at that time were fairly void of games companies and games talent. There were a few but we got together with other people and began to put together games jams and hack events, which helped me identify talent and bring them together.”

Gamifying the South West

As part of this effort, Ben co-founded the Bristol Games Hub with Debbie and Tomas Rawlings of Auroch Digital: “It’s a not-for-profit shared space which has about 35 resident developers, and a community of three or four hundred others,” says Ben.

“They communicate through Facebook and newsletters and all that sort of stuff and it doesn’t make money particularly, but it has become an established point on the Bristol map.”

These days, Ben says the South West is much easier to scout for talent: “We’ve got two universities within Bristol, then two more within the region, and they all produce some very, very good students. One of the problems is that many of those students move away to London, enticed by the financial market; but for computer science or art or creativity-based things, we can source them from within the area. There are a lot of TV companies here and the area has a great mix of talent willing to try different things, which means that we want to be here as well.”

At the same time, surviving in the games industry remains a challenge: “What I’ve learned in the last three years is how to create value for our clients and for our company in a fairly hostile environment; the games business is, well, maybe hostile is not quite the right word. The games business is very competitive, and you have to produce the best out there to win, to succeed. You’ve got to have your team at the top of their game.”

“We see virtual reality as a huge growth area with a lot of potential — a bit like mobile phones, when iPhone and Android came out”

 

Part of Ben’s recipe for success comes down to approach: “Everyone talks about business as being about marketing but, while I think marketing is very important, actually analytics and understanding the data of what’s happening – both in the market as it stands and within your games and your projects – is really important. In the gaming space, 99% of the companies and games are failing because they do not understand their users; they do not understand what they’re doing; they don’t understand the data.”

Augmenting reality, one game at a time

So with the release of Salvaged on the horizon, what else does the future hold for Opposable Games? For Ben, the virtual world holds huge promise: “We see virtual reality as a huge growth area with a lot of potential — a bit like mobile phones, when iPhone and Android came out,” he says.

“We’ve spun up a brand within Opposable Games called SouthWest VR, and that brand has run a number of meet-ups, really successful ones; we’ve had eighty people attend it. We’ve had Oculus there, at the next one I think we have Facebook; we had lots of content producers and some of the top companies in virtual reality development come up and show their games there. We also had alternate headsets to the Oculus Rift.

“SouthWest VR will be having a conference in February where we’ll be showcasing the best in virtual reality content from the UK”

 

“SouthWest VR will be having a conference in February where we’ll be showcasing the best in virtual reality content from the UK and probably from a bit further afield. If professionals are interested in learning about how to create virtual reality or want to see what’s happening, they should come along. There’s also a much more player-orientated part of the event which will allow kids, and adults who are still kids, to come and play virtual reality. That’s definitely worth experiencing.”

Thanks to Ben for taking the time to chat with us. You can find him on Twitter @bentrewhella and keep up with the latest Opposable Games releases at opposablegames.com, on Facebook and on Twitter. Ben and Opposable Games also won two SPARKies awards this year: the Individual Contribution to Technology award, and the ‘Good’ award for best philanthropic use of tech.

Chris Jordan