Interview: Project Cars’ Ian Bell

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Ian Bell is the Founder and CEO of Slightly Mad Studios (SMS Group). Having spent two decades as an innovator in both game-production and game-funding, Ian is now actively invested in developing state-of-the-art technologies for high-tech industries, autonomous vehicle production and research, and simulation and VR-focused products.

With a staff of 150 highly-skilled specialists, Slightly Mad Studios has created chart-busting games such as EA’s Need for Speed: SHIFT, Red Bull Air Race, Test Drive and the multi-million selling Project CARS franchise that saw its second instalment released in September 2017.

Firstly, congratulations on a super-successful career to date Ian! What was the spark that inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
Thank you. I think the key factor was the unremitting constant affirmation I received from my mum which I recall from the point I could speak. She always told me I was capable of anything I chose to put my mind to. So much so that I was probably at risk of developing a ‘superman syndrome’. I was right even when I was wrong and was great at everything even when I wasn’t at times.

What kind of corporation is your business?
Slightly Mad Studios is a public limited company. We have many sub branches and we establish a new sub company for each project. The main holding is in Singapore with branches in London and Luxembourg. I own 70% of the company outright.

What does a day in the life of Ian Bell consist of?
Champagne cocktails for breakfast, boozy backroom meetings in luxury hotels for long, leisurely lunches, followed by tuxedo-only dinners at Raffles, then gambling in the casino until the wee hours with a bevy of beauties on my arm! Not really…

It’s waking up in the morning – at my age, that’s a job in itself – and doing what I’ve done for twenty years now. You know, nothing has changed that much for us as a company since we first started out almost two decades ago. We are a ‘telecommuting’ company, which means our staff work and live on four continents, and all their work is done remotely, tracked on a forum-based network. I can therefore see who is working on what, and my day typically begins by going through dozens and sometimes hundreds of threads on our corporate forums – keeping an eye on developments and getting involved in areas where decisions need to be taken, or a direction needs to be determined based around both budgets and experience.

If we’re in a key moment of game development, I will then sit down and assess the latest builds of the game. For Project CARS 2, I spent a lot of time using a gamepad to assess the weekly builds, as this was a priority I had set for the development team.

As CEO, I’m also actively looking into new ways of expanding the business. For example, leveraging our own in-house simulation engine: ‘The MADNESS Engine’ – to the automotive industry, or working on new ideas, and opening up new markets for our games, software, and so on. I will often have to meet with investors, and sit down with management to sort through key decisions. I’ve discovered through the years that sometimes making a small decision at a critical moment in the early development phase of a game can really come back to haunt you later on, so I am very hands on through the initial development.

What was your mission from the outset?
When I formed the original company I was in my last year of a PhD at Bournemouth University and found myself getting a bit bored. This happens to me a lot. I started two additional PhDs before that (one in Psychometrics at Queens and one in Neuroscience at The Royal London hospital). I’m quite restless intellectually and find I need constant input and variation or I grow stagnant.

Slightly Mad Studios, right from the outset, was just a group of passionate guys I put together who made mods for racing games. We wanted to make games based on what we wanted to play. So from day one, our mission has always been to bring our vision to reality. The fact that our vision has turned out to inspire so many people has been an incredible thing, we’ve been very blessed.

How many people do you employ?
We have 150 full-time staff now. More impressive than that, though, is that we have virtually zero staff turnover as a company. If I look at one of our first games – GTR2 – that we made a decade ago, I think over 85 percent of the team that worked on that game are still working with us today.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?
That’s a difficult question. Working in a creative field that sees your game bought by a few million people, that’s incredibly fulfilling. Knowing that you’re able to support 150 people and their families off the back of something as simple as making a game, it’s hard to beat that, you know? Entertaining people, giving them something that brings them pleasure, being able to make a living off that – and being able to employ so many talented people to fulfil their dreams of working in gaming, that’s very special. As we have next to no turnover in staff, we really are like a family. Turning up to work every day and seeing the same faces and names, albeit virtually most of the time, that’s incredibly rewarding.

“Knowing that you’re able to support 150 people and their families off the back of something as simple as making a game, it’s hard to beat that”

To what do you attribute your success?
Good looks, a sparkling personality, and the ability to engender fear… Other than that? I think ultimately my biggest strength is as a motivator and my loyalty to both the team and our vision – and the occasional genius idea!

The early days of forming and building the company meant 16 hour days 7 days per week. That went on for quite a few years and only recently is it starting to ease as I’ve brought on really good management to take aspects of my work on. I don’t recommend sitting and typing that long to anyone. At one point my friends and family thought I was mentally ill and had become a hermit, they were genuinely worried for me. But I was hatching the plan that became what we have now.

On a practical side of things, I think my core strength is an ability to read between the lines. As I noted earlier, we are a company that works remotely, which means practically all communication is done in text. Being able to read behind the text to get a sense of what someone is actually saying, that’s crucial, and I have a bit of an intuitive ability to see behind the words. I think my Psychology study helps a lot here.

What do you look for in an employee?
Again, this goes back to the way we are set up as a company. Because we don’t have a central office per se (the office in Central London and the smaller one in Luxembourg are for our admin staff mostly) means we can go out and recruit the best people. We can compete with other, far larger studios in terms of benefits and perks, because our actual running costs are lower – but this also has consequences for the type of personality we look for in an employee. The absolute first thing we assess is a person’s ability to self-start: we don’t have a punch-card, and no-one is sitting there waiting to see if you turn up at your home office at 9am. That means we want people who do the job because they love it, because it’s their passion, and because they’re team players. Talent is not enough, you really have to be inspired to motivate yourself to do the work because there are times, especially at the crunch-end of development, when you’ll be working a lot of hours to get the job done. Only you will know whether you’re burning the midnight oil. It takes a particular personality to do this. It takes dedication, loyalty and passion. Those are the things we look for in any new employee.

You’re based in Singapore at the moment, what made you choose this location as your base and who do you share your home with?
I share my home with my lovely wife and two kids, aged seven and eight – and a dog that doubles as a teddy bear! I’m almost 50 now, so having the young ones about, it’s like a distance runner getting a second wind, you know? I’m very blessed. I’m in Singapore because as a business, Slightly Mad Studios does more than games. We have leveraged our leading software into new vistas, and have a couple of subsidiaries based in Luxembourg and here, in Singapore. We are expanding into Asia, which for our company is very much unchartered territory, but also one that holds so much potential. It makes sense for me to be here at this time. My wife and kids love it here, as do I – with the single exception of the weather. It’s 32 degrees every day and constantly very humid. It’s fine for Laura and the girls as they are slim and fit where I’m, let’s say, less so.

Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Belfast. 7th Street on the Shankill Road where all the silliness kicked off just as I was born in 1969. I then moved to Glencairn Estate where I stayed until I was in my 20s. I then left for London.

Can you remember your first entrepreneurial experience as a kid?
When I was 15 I wrote my first computer game, it was called ‘Mods vs Rockers’. I sold it to an outfit called Ocean for five grand or something. My mum, she came to me and said, “Ian, I’m so proud of you, but I really hope making games isn’t what you’ve decided to do with the rest of your life. They’ll be like frisbees and skateboards, they won’t last long”. I think this is one of the only times Mum got something wrong!

What was it like growing up in Belfast during the troubles?
I was born in 1969 when the bombs started going off. It took four days for my mother to get me home because they were shooting each other down my street. All these idiots who’d been mates the week before, now they were killing each other. My dad had a nightclub on the main road (it got burned down by protestant paramilitary as he refused to pay ‘protection money’) and he’d have the punters hand over their guns when they came in for a drink, it was like the Wild West. I grew up in a council estate with a single mother (Mum and Dad later split) in what at some times, looking back, resembled a war zone but you don’t really fathom it being ‘special or different’ when you’re a kid. It becomes your norm. Mum and Dad had some catholic friends so we were forever going through the checkpoints at the peace barriers where you’d get searched up and down with hands and a metal detector. It sounds very dramatic, but only looking back on it now. It was, actually, a strangely normal childhood given the context. The first time it struck me as not being normal was when we went on a trip to London (I think I was 4) and I held my hands out to be searched when entering a record shop in Oxford Street. My mum explained that “they don’t do that here son” and I recall a very odd sense of freedom by comparison. You also never forget the horrible sound of the bombs going off. That dull thump you can feel in your chest as the windows of the house vibrate… I’ll be happy to never hear that sound again.

Did your experience of the troubles impact your drive or motivation much?
That’s an interesting question, I don’t think I’ve ever given that much thought. I suppose yes, but more than my motivation, I think it taught me a lesson about politics, and the futility of all that violence and death. I’ve never judged a person based on their colour, beliefs or religion as I saw what that sort of thinking can create. My wife is a Catholic by birth but to be fair, we’re probably atheists by definition.

“I’ve never judged a person based on their colour, beliefs or religion as I saw what that sort of thinking can create”

Did you go to university?
I went to Queens University where I got a 1st in Psychology (BSc), then a Masters in Psychology. I then went to London for my PhD, but didn’t last long because I was newly divorced then and I was homesick and missed my kids. So I gave up on that and went back home to start a small computer hardware store which then went bust, so I went back to England, to Bournemouth, to take on yet another PhD, this time in Human Computer Interaction. That’s when I began modding games which quickly turned into a deal for our first game. I ended that PhD about 3 months from completing it.

What was your first extravagant purchase when you received your first big pay cheque?
Buying an exotic car: a Ferrari. I’ve owned seven of those over the years, and a few Porsches! I remember my hands shaking on the wheel as I drove it out of the showroom. It wasn’t the easiest car to tame and at 200 grand, it was the most expensive thing I’d ever bought. So driving it through central London to get it home that first day was nerve racking!

Do people treat you differently because of your success and wealth?
Those are two separate things, the success and the wealth. Getting treated differently because you’re wealthy is inevitable because you end up living a different life. When you go to an airport as a kid from a council estate in Belfast on a cheap flight, and then as a CEO jumping onto a private jet, you get treated differently, of course you do. But at the same time, I don’t think I’ve ever really believed all the crap that comes with wealth. I spent too many years with nothing, you know? Success, though, that’s a different thing altogether, because that gives you somewhere to hang your hat. It gives you confidence, and it gives others confidence as well. Success breeds success – that’s a truism that actually does affect your life in so many ways. You learn to trust yourself, to trust your instincts, and it also helps you bring people along to your way of thinking, to trust your judgement. Of the two, I value success a lot more than wealth.

How do you like to unwind?
With my kids and my family. It’s a second go around, and I’m old enough to count my blessings now. At home, or travelling, seeing new things, meeting new people. I insist we go on at least seven good holiday destinations per year. Even if only for a week. So we’ll take every day of the kids’ time off school and plot as many trips as we can.

Less healthily I’m a wine-lover. I open a bottle most nights. Normally a very good quality Chateau Neuf du Pape or a good Chardonnay, like a Meursault or Puligny Montrachet. I’m having a mixed relationship with wine lately though, as I blame it for making me chubby.

Who or what inspires you?
I’m inspired by people who rise up against circumstance and achieve their goals. Conor McGregor inspires me, even though he’s overdoing it now with the wealth thing and showing off – up until beating Eddie Alvarez he was an inspiration. I was ringside at that fight in New York with my two big sons from my first marriage (my big daughter was pregnant and couldn’t make it). It was a fantastic experience.

What’s the funniest thing that has happened to you recently?
I won’t name names, but a few months ago I was in a hotel bar and sitting next to me was an ex-Formula 1 driver, really famous, won a lot of races and so on. Being a bit of shrinking violet – as anyone who knows me will attest to – I started up a chat with him about this and that. A few minutes later, a chap walked up behind us and shyly asked, “Can I have your autograph please?”. The driver looked up and nodded politely, holding out his hand for the pen. That’s when the chap said, “Ian Bell, I love Project CARS, you guys are awesome” and handed me the pen for my autograph and then handed the famous Formula 1 driver his phone and asked him to take a picture of us!

What’s your favourite book?
Perfume by Patrick Suskind is up there. The language is just so rounded and rich. I read two or three books a week, it’s really ever-changing. I like to alternate something serious or educational like a biography, with some absolute escapist fiction such as Sci Fi or Fantasy.

Pet hate?
Excuses for failure. Failure is not a bad thing, finding excuses for failing is. Every failure is a series of events and bad decisions taken all the way down the line. You look at a failed project honestly, and you’ll see where you went wrong, where you made a wrong decision, and you own it. The only thing you can’t change is luck, and that has its part to play, for sure, but it’s not the overriding factor that determines success or failure – but if you’re using for an excuse something that was in your power to get right, then you’re just setting yourself up for more failure.

“Failure is not a bad thing, finding excuses for failing is”

If you were granted three wishes, what would they be?
OK this is going to be a cringey cliche, but genuinely, for people to get on regardless of differences. It would be a very dull world if we were all the same. Next, good health and finally – whatever the prettiest girl in the beauty pageant wants for the world.

What’s your favourite food?
If I was forced to choose, my desert island dish it would be Roast Peking Duck with wraps, cucumber, spring onions and hoisin/plum sauce. I’m spoiled here in Singapore as it’s such a melting pot of different cuisines from all over the world. It’s very easy to get chubby here!

Biggest misconception about you?
You know, I apparently have a reputation as a bit of a maverick, a bit ‘out there’! I suppose a seven-hour interview with an Australian blogger live on his show (while drinking a bottle of wine, suffering from insane jet lag) wasn’t the sanest thing I ever did but honestly, I’m usually as calm as a clam.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Eat a bit less, those fat cells will always be there! Believe in your future. It’s all going to turn out okay, just be prepared to roll with the punches…

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