One of the curiousities of the pre-recession games industry in the UK was the large number of small – really small – developers busying themselves with outsource work in the Midlands.
While much talk was on sending assets and code to India and China, many of these little studios were quietly, invisibly, taking care of a large amount of work that wanted to be kept inside these Isles.
Strawdog was one of them. It was formed in May 2004, with staff members coming from studios such as Free Radical, Blitz, Eurocom and even from outside the industry.
But prior to the official founding, many of the team had been working together in their spare time on a concept called Bugs of War. It was the excitement around this project, a third-person action game for the PlayStation 2, that inspired the team to leave secure jobs and start anew.
“I think the industry was in a certain place back then – I think we all shared a common frustration, certainly my colleagues anyway, which was that we wanted to make new fresh games,” says technical director Simon Morris.
“At the time there was a lot of very ‘cloned’ games out there – it was the time of the Vietnam war sim – and they were all sort of brown and grey shooters. Actually, I guess we’ve not really come that far, but it was a real leap of faith to do this. I was in-between jobs, but these guys… they had a good idea, we felt we had all the bases covered, and so we thought: ‘Let’s do something with this; let’s make this work.’”
But unlike most startups, Strawdog had no deal signed, no funding beyond personal savings and a loan, and no contacts.
In order to keep the creditors at bay while it shopped Bugs of War around, the group – still just three people at this point – turned to outsourcing.
“We’ve kept quiet for the past few years as we focused on outsource work and building our core team,” says managing director Paul Smith. “The bad thing about that is that you’re usually under NDA. We were unsung heroes for a long time, but there was a rich seam of work there, and it helped us move around different developers and talk to them. In the background we were always developing our own product.”
Together with funding from East Midlands screen media agency EM Media, the team worked on a prototype for Bugs of War, which enabled them to shop it around all of the new publishers they were coming into contact with.
While the demo is impressive (Develop is treated to a viewing), the timing – at the beginning of the console transition period – wasn’t particularly right.
“Unfortunately we were pitching an original game on PS2 right at the time that PS2 was going down and PS3 and Xbox Live Arcade were coming up,” says Dan Marchant, business development director for the studio. “It really wasn’t a brilliant time to be pitching new IP. But it helped us build lots of contacts with publishers, and we quickly identified that the game wasn’t going to fly in that form on that platform at that time.”
And so they set their sights a little smaller, but still within the Sony camp: on the PSP, which was gathering a lot of buzz at the time. The game would become Xbox Live Arcade title Geon – but not until it had become a number of different things. At its core a multiplayer spin on Pac-Man, the visual presentation changed numerous times during its development before settling on an abstract style. Eidos signed the game, but soon asked the team to make the title for the then fledgling Xbox Live Arcade.
“I think we’ve learnt that agile development has little to do with writing code – it’s understanding what publishers want,” says Marchant. “You can’t go in and say ‘it has to be this platform’ because publishers will say ‘that’s not what I want’. You have to be willing to move to what your customer wants, which in this case was Live Arcade.”
The rapid change of plans demonstrated the need to flexibility in relationships, as well as in planning business decisions.
“Publishers make those decisions for business reasons – if they don’t think they can sell it then they won’t spend the money on it. But of course, that has an impact on your business – suddenly there’s a hole in your cashflow. So it’s important that you maintain a good relationship so you can smooth those things over – we dropped the PSP version, but signed the PSN version at the same time.”
Favourable reaction to Geon’s focus on gameplay meant that soon more ports of the game were in demand – it’s just launched on PSN, with PC and retail Wii and DS versions set for release soon. The staggered porting schedule has helped the team develop a robust technology suite that encompasses next-gen and handheld platforms, something that such a small group would never have been able to do simultaneously. It’s also helped them refine the gameplay over time, based on feedback from critics and users. “It’s funny how we’ve managed to do the whole cross-platform thing,” laughs Smith.
“But over the two years we’ve iterated the game. We’ve changed it quite considerably for the PSN version based on feedback on the XBLA version. We didn’t really want to learn on a live platform like that, but we’ve taken on criticism and integrated it into the newer versions.”
Although the visual style struck a chord for Eidos, it’s clear that the studio has learnt that the abstract aesthetic, name and gameplay mechanics made it a harder sell to customers. Similarly, digital distribution’s uncertainty in terms of marketing and visibility has also proven challenging. So, for its next game Space Ark – which they say is targeting “every platform” – the sell is being made somewhat easier by harnessing the universal appeal of cute animals.
It’s clear that the company has come around to the concept of having to sell its games not only to publishers, but to people too. But perhaps the biggest step is that Space Ark is their first publisher-less game – they’ve sourced the funding themselves, once again retaining the IP.“It’s perfect for us,” Marchant says.
“We were careful to build up a relationship with Microsoft while we were doing Geon, which really helped. That was the easy bit – the hard part was financing it, getting investors in place, negotiating contracts –that’s really extended the time from getting the approved slot on Live Arcade to actually starting production.”
“It’s quite a good time to be a small developer, because of the Xbox Live Arcade, PSN, WiiWare – the scale is much smaller, and as a small developer that’s a project you can do yourself, and publishers know you can do it. And that’s key; when you’re pitching, if the publisher doesn’t think you’ve got the ability to deliver the game they won’t sign it, no matter how good the design is. Publishers are actively looking to PSN and XBLA not to make money, but also test new IP at a smaller budget. We’re perfectly placed to do that.”