Going solo

Going solo

By Michael French and Rob Crossley

January 8th 2010 at 3:30PM

Dene Carter explains why he broke away from Lionhead

Last year, Lionhead's famed designer Dene Carter departed the Microsoft-owned developer to form his own micro-studio called Fluttermind. The studio is currently at work on an iPhone title, Flaboo.

Develop this week caught up with Carter to find out why he went solo, the benefits of being his own boss, what he misses about working with publishers - and what he doesn't.

Why move from the, presumably secure, life at such a huge high-profile developer?
For me, it was the ever-increasing sense of distance between my design work and actual craft that goes into making a game. The reason I got into this industry when I was 15, back in 1985 was because I felt that computers offered a genuinely new space to explore, define and interact with; an unparalleled ability to make things.

Over the years, as teams got bigger and everyone began to specialise, I slowly began to feel more and more remote from the actual work I loved. In modern teams, the time from idea to reality is frequently months or even years. My metabolism isn't geared toward patience.

For me, breaking away was a chance to relieve the building frustration and have complete creative control over every aspect of a project, from design to art to music. I'm an utter dilettante; hence my making Flaboo!

There is of course still a massive need for game studios, but with the design process allowing for greater individual freedom, do you expect more high-profile developers will break off and make their own work?
It all comes down to what the individual loves, the thing that makes them wake on the gloomiest of days, grin like a loon, and run to their office like a child on Christmas morning. Some thoroughly enjoy steering a large team, despite never writing a line of code or picking up a tablet themselves. I've done that, and enjoyed it at times, but management was never my primary passion.

For an exodus to occur, you'd have to find a lot of people who value self-expression far more than a regular salary. There's no judgement in that statement: this industry is getting older, a lot of people in it now have families. Most can't afford the luxury of that choice. At this point in my life, I needed something different to retain my sanity; so now I wake to the dilettante's cycle of incompetence - learning - improvement. It suits me.

How much of a gamble was it for you to do this?
From a career-building point of view, it obviously looks like a massive step backward. The traditional view would be that I now have an ever-increasing blot on my CV representing a period where my team's size is precisely one. My family's income has also, of course, halved.
 
But, when you become frustrated by something, some segment of the industry, you can either complain and remain sat where you are, or try and do something about it.

I believe there's a desperate need for good, modern design thought throughout the industry, from AAA titles, to the humbles free app. As a result, I choose to see this move as a step forward, a chance to change things where I can. So, for me - there is no real gamble.

Is it a question of confidence? You know how to make a hit game; was that kind of self-belief necessary to break off from Lionhead?
Confidence is certainly a large part of it. I know how to make good games. If I didn't... well, I'd probably have been fired from Lionhead some years ago. Making hit games is something else, and far less controllable in an environment like mobile entertainment. I love Flaboo! and have utter confidence that it has what it takes to be in the top 10 iPhone games for a long time, but there's a lot of work to go in spreading the word before it gets there.
And do you feel it's important to have ownership over your own projects?
Creatively? Yes, and if anything tangentially threatens to take that away, I'll view it as equally important. In traditional publisher relationships it's easy to lose that ownership - and with it, the cohesion of the game's vision. However, I've been blessed over the last decade. Microsoft were a joy to work with in that regard, as they understood what we were trying to do and were utterly supportive. They allowed us to create  a great, very British and very quirky franchise. Fable and Fable 2 are a testament to Microsoft's confidence and delicacy.
 
Now I'm indie, I have more time than ever for constructive criticism, but any new publisher would have a lot to measure up to. I really don't have time or patience for a publisher telling me my game's music should be a dance track rather than ambient weirdness, or that central character - a small, yellow, overweight chick should be swapped for a 'certain well known super hero'. We went through that when we were looking for publishers for Fable. We ignored them then, and the result was better for it.

What’s the best thing about being your own boss in games development?
Two things. Ignorance. Utter, complete ignorance. The vast gaps in my knowledge create an addictive, driving need to learn. I genuinely wake up each day and wonder what great new thing I'm going to explore. I wrote a sprite-packer while drinking red wine and listening to Fever Ray a couple of months ago. Now that is a good day's work.

...and the worst?
Everything is your fault. You. Yes, you. There's nobody else here!

There's nobody else to blame when things go wrong. I'm currently getting crash reports from my beta testers on the next version of Flaboo and each time I receive one it's like being stabbed in the heart. I keep looking around for one of the excellent artists, designers and engineers I used to work with (the Simon Carters, Alex Dowdeswells and John McCormacks of the world) so I can yell 'Make all the bad things go away!' But they're not here. Damnit.
 
That said, the internet - once you get past the trolls and cat fetishists - is an amazing resource full of talented people who put an astonishing amount of effort into teaching other people what they've learned. It's almost as if that's why it was created.

Do you miss publishers? Will you still seek to work with them? Are they as necessary as they once were?
I miss various aspects of publishers' work, and individuals within publishing houses I've known over the years. Good publishers are partners in every sense of the word. But still, I took them for granted.
 
As an indie, you quickly realise quite how much they do. I used to have the usual developers' grudging regard for people in marketing and distribution. But now I realise that this was a whole world of legal, logistical and PR rubbish I rarely had to think about, apart from when I was whinging that some marketing campaign was sub-optimal, or that the original Fable font looked like a Norwegian black metal band's first album cover... drawn by a band-member's girlfriend.
 
I think it's healthier to like something than not to, so I find myself in the happy position of being more appreciative of marketing people, and in some disagreement with Bill Hicks on the subject.
Tells us about the first game you have on the way for iPhone.
Fluttermind's first game is a weird one, it must be said. In Flaboo! I wanted to do something that looked alarmingly, shockingly cute, and then undermine that subtly with all the other peripheral bits around it, like music and... um... subliminal messages.
 
At first Flaboo! looks fairly simple, in that you have an overweight chick you need to bounce into the air on fluffy clouds. It's actually a result of a series of conversations I had with people many years ago about how much fun and complexity you can get from a game with only one button... and an image of my brother Simon losing his temper during a particularly hectic senior management team meeting (he was 'hopping mad').

There were a couple of things that frustrated me when I looked around the casual game market that I wanted to address. Not enough  people seemed to know how to make something 'feel' right. As a result I put a huge amount of work into Flaboo!'s one-tap control system, and then used the iPhone's relatively unique hardware to add depth to that. I'm really delighted with the result. Players keep finding new nuances to it all the time, the same as you do when you play pinball or learn to juggle.
 
Secondly, I wanted to use some of the macro-design ideas that crept into projects over the years.
 
Take pacing, for example. Movies have long understood pacing, games have frequently ignored it. Casual games in particular tend to just scream at you for the whole experience, daring you to continue playing rather than enticing you to do so. Madness.

Flaboo! uses the concepts of stress and release to structure its generative levels. When you play, it constantly shifts you through a cycle of stress/challenge and relaxation, adding benefits when the player needs them, and adding tension when the player's relaxed into a rhythm. This sort of thing has been used in games like Left 4 Dead, but there's no reason why good thinking should be restricted to megabudget titles.
 
Why iPhone? We all know that the ease of development and distribution have driven its quick acceptance in games - which areas appealed to you?
The iPhone's hardware was fairly unique at the time. Its screen in particular was absolutely fantastic, and this was a major factor in the platform's appeal. Flaboo! wouldn't have looked anywhere near as polished on any other device at the time when I began development. Also, the accelerometer and touch-screen were begging to be used in novel ways. In Flaboo! I've done odd things like ask you to shake the device in order to remove slime off yourself, and tap the screen to pop bubbles that get in your way. It doesn't sound world-shattering, but consider for a moment that you can't do that kind of tactile thing on a console; even the Wii is too cumbersome to make the action natural.
 
Are you considering projects for any other platforms?
Now that the world has woken up to what Apple has achieved with the iPhone there are a few more options, like Android platforms, for one.
 
But honestly, the games come first, and their needs define what I'll work on. My next project, 'Clockworks' is all about creating a sense of scale and space, and is primarily meant to be an emotional experience rather than a tactile one, so it might end up back on a PC or console if I can't achieve the right feel with 320x480 pixels... That said, the challenge is part of the appeal...