The UK games industry may not be quite as vibrant as it was in its heyday, but it continues to thrive, with British developers of all sizes enjoying commercial success and critical acclaim, from tiny one-man operations crafting innovative indie games to large teams making globally popular blockbusters.
While the mobile gaming phenomenon has proven an attractive market for new start-ups, several studios are focusing their attentions on digital services, creating high quality downloadable titles for dedicated enthusiasts. Brighton's Futurlab has made its name on the PlayStation Network with games like Velocity and Surge, while London studio Roll7 moved from iOS development to earn rave reviews for skateboarding game OlliOlli. Cardiff-based Dakko Dakko, meanwhile, earned its stripes with two PlayStation minis before finding success on the Wii U eShop with inventive platform-shooter Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails.
We sat down with Futurlab's James Marsden, Roll7's John Ribbins and Dakko Dakko's Rhodri Broadbent to discuss their studios' beginnings, what they've learned about indie game development, and what advice they might offer new startups thinking of moving into the console space.
James Marsden, Futurlab: I was very keen to get off the project treadmill that plagues work-for-hire studios. You [can have] the best intentions to 'create your own thing' alongside client work, but it's incredibly difficult to do in reality. When I saw that Adult Swim were commissioning Flash games for their website, I figured that was our chance, and put together a cool pitch that was based around ideas I'd had at University - what subsequently became known as Alternate Reality Games. Adult Swim thought our game was cool, but thought all of the additional ARG aspects [were] 'a bit weird'. The deal they were offering was way better than anything we were being paid to create Flash applications, but I had a nagging feeling we could do better. When it came to decision time, I just thought 'why not pitch to PlayStation? [We've] got nothing to lose.'
Rhodri Broadbent, Dakko Dakko: I started making games at Lionhead Studios, programming quests for the [original] Fable. After that I moved to Japan to work at Q-Games, where I was very fortunate to work on StarFox Command for Nintendo DS. After StarFox, I joined the nascent 'PixelJunk' team within Q-Games, and led their move into the brave new world of self-publishing. After seeing the freedom and creativity afforded by self-publishing, I was eventually tempted to start my own studio in 2010.
John Ribbins, Roll7: We did a lot of gun-for-hire work initially, for other people. When Roll7 very first started [we were] working a lot of the time with underprivileged young people and teaching them how to make games. Our first thought as a studio was maybe we can do games that do some kind of social good, and there seemed to be funding out there that would let us do that. The plan was to do those games and save up enough cash in the war chest to eventually do our own thing, which is kind of what we did. As I think everyone does, we digressed into web games, [and] did a couple of Facebook games, as well as a couple of Flash games for other people. And in 2012 when we had enough cash together to have a run at it we did Gets to the Exit for iOS.
RB: The 2D Adventures of Rotating Octopus Character was in my mind before I started the company. I usually have about three games I want to make at any one time, but Rotating Octopus Character was very prominent among them. [Starting on PSP] was more to do with which platform felt right for the game, rather than any existing relationships - the contacts at SCE were entirely different. I suppose having a good idea of the requirements to publish a game on their systems helped smooth the process, though.
"Some developers find a natural affinity with certain hardware platform holders and their aims."
JM: [We chose Sony] partly because of identification with the brand and the types of games [it] published. I wanted to create slick looking sci-fi games with clever ideas. Also partly due to learning of Jenova Chen's three game deal straight out of University. Back then I couldn't see any evidence of Microsoft or Nintendo taking a risk like that. I believed that Sony would take a risk on us too. Our first game was supposed to be a small, interesting music game. The project was cancelled when the 'minis' initiative was announced, as suddenly the perception of what you get for a few pounds on PSN changed pretty much overnight. We had an engine built for PSP, but no source of funding, so we looked at our catalogue of Flash games and Coconut Dodge was the simplest game we could make in the shortest possible time. I'm not sure that it was a particularly good fit for PSN. I used everything I'd learned running FuturLab up until that point to give it the best launch possible with no budget.
JR: It was through a chance meeting at Develop in 2012 that we met Sony and moved over to console. We met James Marsden at Futurlab and showed him OlliOlli. I'd originally built it as an iOS game, an infinite runner skateboarding game where you basically tapped left to jump and right to land. I showed that to James at Develop and he said 'you have to show this to the guys at Sony' and put us in touch with Shahid [Ahmad] and we went for a coffee one morning and showed him iOS OlliOlli. Now that I look back at it, that man has some imagination, he saw some potential in there. We took a bit of a risk with that, because it's come a long way since then.
iOS versus console
RB: There were certainly voices telling me - and everyone - that the App Store was the way to go, but my game idea just didn't work with a touchscreen, and I really felt that the audience on dedicated hardware would better appreciate it. The game's feel would have been significantly compromised were it released on iOS.
JR: We were more a PC dev than an iOS dev - obviously Gets to the Exit was our foray into being an iOS developer. If I'm honest, we found iOS and mobile very difficult, it's hard to get the attention of the games press, and to get it out there and talk about it. We were a team of PC and console gamers trying to make a game for a platform we didn't really play many games on. The feedback we got was 'it's just too hard', which is really interesting, because if it was on PC, [people] wouldn't be saying the same thing. That's just the way they want to play.
RB: I don't think the difficulty [of Rotating Octopus Character] played into the choice of platform in my mind. Really, it mostly comes down to buttons. If you're the sort of gamer who thinks having only a touch screen (without even a stylus) is okay for your needs, you're most likely not thinking about the same sort of games as I am. I think it's more of an 'and' relationship than an 'or' one, between smartphones and dedicated platforms. It's not like there can't be awesome touchscreen games, but not all games can be awesome on a touchscreen.
JR: There wasn't a lot of back and forth on the decision to do OlliOlli on Vita instead of iOS. We left the meeting with Sony and they seemed really keen on it. So we said 'right, we're going to go out and buy a Vita then!'
JM: The revenue from Coconut Dodge wasn't enough to fund the studio. I continued doing contract Flash development work to pay the bills whilst we worked on Velocity. But the publishing experience learned from Coconut Dodge was invaluable. Better games were released at the same time, but received less attention. I learned from that experience that PR & Marketing is just as important, if not more so, than having a fun, clever, beautiful [or] innovative game.
RB: I think because I'd been through all three console platform holders' submission processes already, it was fairly straightforward. There are hurdles and pitfalls, definitely, but the more times you do it, the less likely you are to stumble. Also, it's worth noting that over the years these processes have become much friendlier, and quicker, and that's still improving today.
JM: Did you see the mystery puzzle posts we did [on the PlayStation blog]? We took a 'blueprint' image of [Velocity's] Quarp Jet and chopped it up into 16 pieces. A piece was sent to one of 16 games industry websites, the idea being that readers would instantly see that it was a jigsaw puzzle spread across 16 websites, and they could quickly visit each site to put the puzzle together. PS Blog in the US didn't want to do it as they thought it would create too much anticipation, and therefore be a letdown. But the EU guys let it pass. You can see some of the comments of people thinking it'll be a new WipEout game or Starhawk or something. So it was a risk, but f**k me if the little guys can't take a risk! But it was clear that you can make a great splash if you use whatever is at your disposal.
RB: I think Rotating Octopus gave me confidence that there was a market for our sorts of games, so with Floating Cloud God [Saves The Pilgrims] I was more confident about changing up the mechanics and experimenting with the original idea. In terms of production, PSP was much more of a known quantity to me at this point so I was able to get more from it and we got much more ambitious with the visual style, too.
"My advice... be ruthlessly focused. Ignore everyone and everything that contradicts the goal of your game."
JR: OlliOlli was the first title we'd ever done for a console, so we went through the Sony QA testing that they do a few times. At that stage, a lot of people working on OlliOlli didn't have anything to do because the problems were just code fixes. So we had a lot of time to sit there and play our own game, deconstruct it and [gauge] what was wrong with it and what we should have done differently. So by the time it came out we were pretty sure that the game was just s**t and everyone was going to hate it! When the reviews came out we were really surprised and happy. The worst thing was [during] all this time of trying to work out what we could have done better, no one at any point said 'we should have done friends leaderboards'. And then all the reviews came out, saying 'I can't believe they didn't do friends leaderboards'. Of course!
RB: I would try to find more money to spend on marketing. Getting noticed is tremendously difficult, even with good reviews. It's a common thing to hear but making the game is by no means all you need to do to succeed. There is a lot of promotion and marketing that is required to make the business sustainable.
Feedback and support
JR: A lot of the feedback we got on Gets to the Exit was that it was really hard. Even I do this with mobile games – if it's either asking me to pay some money or it's just too hard I'll just go and play something else. Whereas with something like Vita, people are more invested, they've spent a little more to get the game, [and they] feel like they want to put [more] time into it. I feel because Vita is a gaming device and not a phone, you're buying it because you want to spend a certain amount of your time playing games as opposed to 'I have a phone that I can also play games on'. I do feel like it's a different audience. People who got back to us on OlliOlli, who beat everything on Rad mode, it was like a badge of honour to [have] beaten this really hard game. Whereas the feedback on Gets to the Exit was more 'this is a really hard game, we don't want to play it'.
RB: I think that some developers find a natural affinity with some hardware platform holders and their aims. That was certainly the case with our PSP and Vita titles and again with our Wii U game. Sometimes you'll hear that company A was really hard to contact or hard to form a relationship with, but that company A can be different for everyone, depending on priorities and the types of games, and the attitudes of the developers. I think the business of choosing a platform is a lot more about ideology and experience than is often mentioned. At Dakko Dakko I am very proud indeed to say that we've only ever had great responses from all the platform holders, and they've been tremendously supportive of our games.
JM: We've been self-publishing, and Sony [has] provided development support funding. I struggled for a long while trying to get the attention of people at Sony, and the press. But really, once you've made a game that people enjoy, the doors unlock and you can walk through smiling. The only thing to remember is that Sony - and the press - rarely tell you that the door is unlocked now. You have to keep pushing it open yourself. The result is that Velocity 2X has benefited from quite a bit of exposure. Sony showcased it at Gamescom, GDC, Rezzed and E3. They're treating it as if it were a first-party published title in terms of the channels they use for getting the word out. We'll be at EGX in September ourselves, and it may well also be on the Sony booth, and it'll probably be at Gamescom too. I guess the biggest help Sony has provided was in their absence of meddling!
JR: Working with Sony has been really good. We were obviously assigned our own producer on [OlliOlli] who every time we had questions - and we had lots of questions because it's an awful lot of stuff to get your head around - would point us in the right direction or hook us up with the right people at the vast entity that is Sony. Overall we've had a very positive experience of working with them. People like Shahid have become a bit of a beacon for indie games, because of [Sony's] forward-facing approach to indies. It's a really interesting phenomenon to have happened at any massive game corporation: to hit some guy up on Twitter, say 'hey I've got this thing I'd like to show you', and he'll get you in for a chat. That's kind of cool.
RB: Both Sony and Nintendo have featured our games on their E3 booths. Sony included our games in its Vita 'MegaPack' bundles which means the exposure is really ratcheted up - even being seen on TV adverts - and Nintendo put us in a Nintendo Direct broadcast as well as having us prominently featured on the eShop.
JM: There is timed exclusivity on [our next game] Velocity 2X, but other than that, we're free agents. We partnered with Curve to put Velocity Ultra on Steam last year, so we're quite happy to explore other opportunities. I do have serious man-love for Shahid Ahmad though, so if we can keep working with him, we will. He keeps his word. He really doesn't need to do anything more than that to be a legend.
Advice to other devs
JM: Building a tightly knit fanbase [is] mainly a result of being transparent about what we're doing, and what we're aiming for. If you stick your neck on the line and say, as we did, that we put every drop of effort into Velocity on minis so that Sony would notice and commission a Vita version, then some people are going to support that. Risking embarrassment is a very fast way to build trust.
JR: It's a much smaller audience [on Vita] than iOS. Not so small that you can't do well out of it, of course, but just because it's smaller doesn't mean it's actually any different in how you approach getting your game out there. There may be fewer people there that are more dedicated, but you still have to let them know about your [game]. It won't just magically happen. And it's not just about making a game, but how you're going to market it, your cashflow, post-release plans. You're signing up to a much more stringent process, which over the last year or so has made us really grow as a studio. We passed first time to get on the App Store for all of our games. There's a lot more attention paid to the games that come out on any Sony platform.
RB: Certainly don't underestimate the submissions step, and aim to finish your project within 75% of your available time. It's not that self-publishing is difficult but it really is self-publishing - you're doing all the icons, the text for the store, the localisation, the marketing - and that takes up a lot of resources. Of course, what you're getting for that work is direct access to a great, active and enthusiastic base of players, so I wouldn't go back to physical retail in a hurry!
JM: I've written reams of advice to the guys at Roll7. My emails probably go into their junk folder now. They seem to be doing it just right. I'd say that the market changes every year. Every year there is a different gold rush being broadcast at GDC. Nobody in the industry can change direction quickly enough to make the most of the next opportunity, so my advice would be to be ruthlessly focused. Ignore everyone and everything that contradicts the goal of your game.
JR: The other bit of advice I'd have for small studios is if you're a team of people banding together to make a game you really care about, if you have that mate from uni who did business management who's interested in being involved in a startup, then they might be someone to think about having on board. Someone who's got a head for that commercial and business side as well. I have a few friends who are running small studios, they all say [they're] doing three other jobs and [they] barely have enough time to make the game.