Develop speaks to the indie outfit on collaborating with Microsoft without a penny to spend
Dlala is a studio with a remarkable story, despite barely four months in business.
Formed in June this year, and founded by two ex-Bossa staff, it’s a microstudio made up of a collective of friends, recent graduates and bandmates, and without a game to its name, it has charmed Microsoft, which is making the outfit a poster child of the new Windows 8 development scene.
It’s first title, physics puzzler Janksy, has been made on a zero budget. Dlala’s two directors – chief creative officer AJ Grand-Scrutton and chief technical officer Craig Thomas – don’t have a physical studio, haven’t paid for any tools, are surviving on personal savings, have no investors involved, and don’t presently pay the staff involved in the projects.
You read that right. Presently the team, including Grand-Strutton and Thomas, are working for free. They admit it’s far from ideal, but if all goes well, the current studio model may mean that when the first paypackets do come in they may be substantial.
A LUCKY START
“We’ve been very lucky with the people we’ve got together for this project, and we don’t want to come across as completely in support of working for free,” says Grand-Scrutton.
“But the problem is our starting point is really having no money.”
That doesn’t seem to have stopped Dlala’s rapid progress, though. Janksy will see release in October just weeks after its conception. Dlala’s rate of creativity is down to – along with a lot of hard work – being accepted by a Microsoft business development initiative.
A chance meeting with a Microsoft coder at the Develop in Brighton conference less than a month after the studio set up as a business ultimately led to the point where Dlala was accepted into the Microsoft BizSpark programme. This is a global project that helps software start-ups succeed by granting access to development tools and assisting with networking, securing investment and attaining marketing visibility.
“That gave us licences to high-end tools we needed at no expense, which was really cool,” explains Thomas. “That in turn gave us a chance not to have to rely on only free tools.”
It’s hardly surprising they charmed Microsoft. Like so many other developers, the pair of directors are friendly, enthusiastic and infectiously positive. And subsequently, Dlala has had a direct line to Microsoft. In fact, the pair have impressed the tech giant so much the tiny UK studio has been thrust into the limelight by its somewhat unlikely bedfellow.
ON THE MONEY
But what about that matter of unpaid staff? Aside from the Dlala directors, Janksy is the creation of a graduate programmer, two UI coders and three artists, all sourced through social media or from Grand-Scrutton’s other life as a musician, and all working from their own bases across the UK.
They all knew from day one that, until the project makes money, there would be no immediate cash in the endeavor. Most are in it for the experience and opportunity, and, say the directors, hugely dedicated, despite their present lack of financial reward.
“At the point we were looking for co-developers we couldn’t tell them who we were working with,” explains Grand-Scruttion.
“So we were attracting these people based purely on our enthusiasm. It was only after that point, when they’d agreed to our NDA, that we could reveal that we were working very closely with with Microsoft, who are providing us with all that support. And the guys we got as a result are amazing.
"To say that we got lucky is an understatement. We’ve got a programmer called Chris, and how he’s not got snapped up by a big company I do not know, but we’re so privileged to have people like him.”
As a result the team’s current life is far from one of luxury, and Grand-Scrutton jokes that presently treating his partner to a romantic night out involves a meal from the buffet of a cheap chain restaurant.
“But we don’t at all encourage any kind of slave labour mentality,” adds Grand-Scrutton.
“If you can afford to pay people who are talented, it shouldn’t matter whether they are graduates or have ten years experience. If people can do the job, they deserve to get paid, and if we had money coming in, or we get investment or if the game does really well, everyone on the project will get money. That’s hugely important to us.”
“Absolutely,” adds Thomas. “That’s the first thing the money’s going on. Nothing matters to us more. This is all nothing without the people who are working on this project, and we want to pay them.”
As mentioned above, when Grand-Scrutton’s not making games, he can be found on the road with the pop-punk band Who’s Driving? Bear’s Driving!, in which he is a guitarist. And, says the musician, there’s clear comparisons that can be drawn between the gigging musical outfit and the Dlala studio model.
Aspiring rock stars, after all, don’t expect to get paid from the moment they join a band. The tangible nature of taking to the stage is the obsession with music, the love of creativity and the thrill of live performance. Financial gain is a dream for many musicians; not an expectation from day one.
And so it is with Dlala, where the directors and their team make games unpaid for the love of the process, and only hope their effort will be rewarded in monetary form.
“It’s scary how close the two things are,” says Grand-Scrutton of the parallels shared by the music and games industries as he sees it.
“Being in a band and forming a studio like Dlala is pretty much the same thing. I’ve been doing bands for ten years, and there I’ve been intimidated by the people higher up at the big companies. And yet there’s a huge friendliness from the top directed at the guys down the bottom. It’s just like the game industry in my experience.”
And like a band, says Grand-Scrutton, Dlala is devoted to being creatively free, and only prepared to work with people its members like. The team spends a lot of time together, and, according to the guitarist, the personally claustrophobic world of a small team nearing launch throws up challenges not dissimilar to those faced by a band on tour.
“Being in a tour bus in a band for 20 days sharing all that time together? Developing a game can sometimes feel like that, although without the smell,” he says.
Thomas and Grand-Scrutton push the analogy further, and while they again make clear their meekness about their cashflow, they ponder the idea that being the games development equivalent of a penniless band can be a significant motivator.
“There’s an ‘us against the world’ thing we feel at times,” offers Thomas. “In that way we’re not afraid to try and compete alongside the biggest games companies in the world, and the fact that we’re trying that with no money feels pretty cool. It’s a motivator, and it bonds us together.”
Thomas and Grand-Scrutton also suggest that a lack of money can also mean that by necessity an in-development game must be stripped back to it’s affordably creatable essential elements, making for a potentially better final product.
In the same way that technical shortcomings can often stoke the fires of a developer’s creativity, it may just be that tightened purse strings can do the same.
All that is very rock ‘n’ roll and romantic, but there’s the small matter of teaming up with Microsoft. Bill Gates' business is often painted as some kind of malevolent tech empire, and in years gone by has struggled to establish a reputation as a bastion of indie gaming, despite efforts with the likes of XNA. Rightly or wrongly, some remain suspicious of Microsoft.
Can alignment with such a company really let a grass-roots indie stake a claim to true independence? Moreover, can Dlala really do as they wish without getting a sternly worded call from Microsoft?
“I think there is a misconception about Microsoft,” states Grand-Scrutton, who is clearly not a media trained servant of Gates' kingdom.
“Maybe its something I even had. But when I got talking to them at Develop in Brighton, and mentioned Windows 8, we could tell from the off they were really interested in us.
“And it wasn’t that faux interest we’ve all seen around the game industry, where people nod at you and smile regardless of what they think. That was strange, but it was amazing to talk with a company like Microsoft in that way.”
That same day of first contact, Grand-Scrutton made the relatively short journey home to Essex after the conference, and by the time he’d reached his destination, an email was waiting for him from Microsoft.
Within a week the youthful developer was in Microsoft’s Reading office in the UK, and since then Dlala has enjoyed nearly daily contact and support.
“I’ve worked on Windows platforms before, be it on the phones or Xbox, and always for personal ‘messing around’ projects,” adds Thomas.
“From that, I never really saw Microsoft as an especially involved company. But with this Dlala experience, they’ve really blown any preconceptions I had about them out of the water. We’re really very appreciative and genuinely impressed.”
As with their manner when discussing money, there’s a meekness to the Dlala directors’ praise for Microsoft.
They seem a little surprised themselves that the giant has been so good to them, but they are clearly delighted. And, it seems, the team is left to its own devices where ideas are concerned.
“I know we keep banging on about how great Microsoft have been, but we do feel totally independent,” suggests Thomas.
“It never feels like I work for Microsoft or anything like that. They are there to help us, but we’re making the game and it’s our game, nobody else’s.”
Grand-Scrutton adds: “Being honest, it does feel odd feeling this way about Microsoft, but they’re great, and there’s no publishing deal signed.
“They don’t set us milestones and there’s no demands. It was enough for them that they liked us, liked our game idea, and then when I sent them some artwork, they loved that too. This will sound daft, but they’ve kind of been like a lovely, encouraging older brother. It’s just a brother who happens to know all the right people.”
It’s rare to hear Microsoft described in such terms, but it seems, based on Dlala’s experience at least, the company has a grounded understanding of how to support and work with indies. That, of course, serves not only to help small teams, but gives Microsoft great games for their platform.
Grand-Scrutton and Thomas don’t shy away from being open about their struggles with Windows 8 either. They’re clearly smitten by the platform, but their first days tinkering with Windows 8 development were trying.
“Early on it was tough,” admits Grand-Scrutton. ”In the pre-release version of Windows 8 there were a lot of stability issues, and that was tough. But it’s now on a far more stable version, so that’s no longer a problem. Now I’m running Windows 8 as my main OS and everything’s fine.
“Before that I wasn’t, because I wasn’t quite confident and had a virtual machine running it, and it was a scary process. Things would crash and wipe. But they released a new version in mid-August, and everything’s improved an enormous amount. It’s a brilliantly stable platform.”
A TESTING TIME
All the help from Microsoft, though, doesn’t mean Dlala has grown arrogant. Quite the opposite is true, and they’re refreshingly frank about how intimidating the experience is.
Despite both working at Jagex and later on Bossa’s BAFTA-winning Monstermind, suddenly being charged with managing and directing a project has been a testing process.
“It is scary sometimes,” reveals Grand-Scrutton. “We’re not sitting coding anymore. We’ve taken a step back, and we’re having to put a lot of faith in these guys working across the internet.”
Physical meetings do take place, though, albeit in the CCO’s parent’s garage.
“It’s a step up,” quips Grand-Scrutton. “I used to make games in my parent’s living room. We’re really going places.”
Now Dlala is starting to look at working with investors. To date the directors have never taken out any loans, as they agreed they didn’t want to start out by owing money. If Dlala does go the investor route, they insist it has to be somebody who loves what we’re doing as much as they do.
“Everyone has to be part of the team or not at all. It’s the same for everybody, and we’re all equal. We really see the freelancers we’re using as very much part of the team,” says Grand-Scrutton, moving on to company culture.
“They can contribute ideas the same as we can as the founders. We’re both big on creativity, but there’s only two of us. And we’ve worked together for years; you can get a little lost in that, so it’s good to have outside input. We’re very open to that.”
And the pair insist they owe much of their sense of what is important to a studio’s internal culture to their tie at Bossa.
“In a business like the game industry, you have to encourage freethinking and listen to people’s ideas,” states Thomas.
“Trying to stifle individual’s coming up with ideas, and trying to restrict freethinking would be a bad idea. That’s something we’ve learned from where we’ve been before; it’s a way of thinking we’ve inherited, and we’re lucky to have done so.”
Grand-Scrutton concludes: “We don’t know that we’re going to be the next big thing. All we know is we have no money and a game idea we love. Now it’s time to find out if this is all going to work out.”