Ahead of the Curve

Ahead of the Curve
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

May 5th 2011 at 8:00AM

London studio Curve talks self-publishing and the indie question

The global game development community’s anxiety in recent months is well known. The closing gap between budgets and sales totals has made many nervous, and studio closure stories have fuelled the doomsayers’ appetite for negativity.

And then there’s London’s Curve Studio; an independent that has met with success by moving from work for hire to a focus on original IP and digital self-publishing.

Curve is proving that ‘real’ game development is still a viable business model, and offers good reason to be optimistic about the future. Develop caught up with some of Curve’s 32-strong team to find out how they do it, and what they have planned for the future.

Curve’s recent focus on original IP and self-publishing is a bold move. What motivated you to head in this direction?

Jason Perkins, managing director: The typical answer, or perhaps the one you’d expect, is that we’re creative people and sometimes we want to work on things that publishers might not feel are worth publishing.

That’s Explodemon!, in a nutshell: a lot of publishers really liked it, and it got close to being signed a few times, but at that time there was uncertainty about publishers funding digital-download titles, so it fell through. But by this point the whole game was prototyped, and we’d seen people play it and really enjoy it - really get what we were going after - so we decided to just go ahead and do it ourselves.

Curve will always work with publishers, because despite the shit that gets said about them, they do have great input and can really help you shape the experience in the right direction – when you’ve got a good one, anyway. They give you the opportunity to go outside your comfort zone and – again, perhaps only in good relationships – their money helps you do amazing things.

But at the same time, we decided that it’s really important that our company’s existence isn’t entirely based on the whims of these external entities.

Publishing has definitely taken a downturn since the recession, decisions take much longer to get made, and opportunities to do ‘mid-tier’ games are dying out - either it’s a 4 million sale-plus hit, or it’s bust. So it’s really important to us that we have some control over our destiny; a revenue stream outside of milestone payments. Too many brilliant independent developers have died because of outside agents.

With regards to original IP specifically, Curve have always been interested in developing its own IP from the very beginning - this isn’t really a new thing for us.

Previously we have applied original concepts and gameplay ideas to license products for Disney, Marvel and Nickelodeon. The difficulty as a fledgling developer is to gain confidence from a publisher that you can indeed create original IP, and typically that means you first have to prove yourself on conversions and work-for-hire projects. Luckily we’ve now managed to prove ourselves, so it’s a little bit easier to make that pitch.

What other challenges have defined Curve’s experience of developing and publishing own IP titles?

Ed Fear, PR manager: On the publishing side of things, the main lesson was that it’s much easier said than done. Everyone says ‘self-publishing is hard’ and you nod and say ‘uh-huh,’ and then you do it, and you think: ‘Why was this much harder than I was anticipating?’

Getting through submission as a developer is hard enough, but when you’re simultaneously trying to work out all of the administrative things involved in actually getting a game onto a digital storefront and putting it through four different age ratings boards, it’s a whole new level of hurt. The first time is always the most painful, though, and it’s a great learning curve, so we’re glad to have gone through it.

There’s a huge amount of stuff you have to figure out, and sometimes it’s really not easy just to get your head around something. We’ve been helping out and advising other London indie devs who are working on PSN titles, because there’s a lot of mistakes we made and lessons we learned and it seems stupid for other people to have to struggle through those as well.

We got advice from the likes of Doublesix and Hello Games that really helped us in making this journey, and it’s really important that we pass it forward and share the knowledge. So if any PSN developers are reading this, get in touch.

What has Explodemon! taught you as a studio? How can you use the experience to better the process of developing future games?

Fear: I think we’ve learnt a huge amount over these last 18 months. If you ever want to appreciate what a publisher does, develop and market a title with your own money, and the list of things you miss will start to grow rapidly.

Perkins: One of the most interesting things we discovered was how hard it is to discipline yourselves when you’ve not got somebody standing over to make sure things get done on time. Perhaps our biggest mistake with Explodemon!, if we had to pick one, was in overreaching – we tried to do too much and ended up not having the time to polish some things as much as we’d like to have. We’re still really proud of what we achieved, though.

When we sit down to plan out our next project, I think it’s fair to say that we’ll be much, much more mindful of scope and its effect on dev costs than we did before.

With a publisher, you can present them with a wild idea and, if they’re behind it enough, they’ll give you the money to make it. Now we have to do a sanity test to see if we can actually produce it on a small budget. Once it goes over a certain scale/cost, it has to go on the ‘pitch to publishers’ pile.

Your other recent game, Fluidity, has some impressive physics. Can you detail Curve’s technology methodology and general approach to tech?

Richie Turner, Technical director: Our approach is to not reinvent the wheel, so we’re very open to middleware. All of our games use Scaleform for the UI, and we used fmod for the sound engine on Explodemon too. For physics we tend to use open-source engines.

We’ve developed an in-house cross-platform engine that powers all of our games, but we’re definitely not averse to using external engines where it makes sense - we do have a small team using Unity, which has quite a few fans within the office.

Obviously, with the generally smaller scope – and consequently smaller budgets – of our games, we don’t use things where we don’t really need to, but in situations where it fits we’re not hesitant to leverage other solutions.

Previously Curve has managed to form relationships with some very high profile development partners. How have you done that, and will it continue to be part of your studio roadmap?

Perkins: Absolutely. We’re massively proud to have worked with the people we have, and we definitely want to carry that on.

The hard work to form these relationships started many years ago by arranging regular meetings with people we wanted to work with at all of the trade shows – GDC, E3, etcetera. During these meetings we would update publishers on our recent developments and pitch new ideas which we thought would fit into their portfolios.

I think we had been meeting with Nintendo for eight years before they showed any interest in one of our concepts which, eventually, became the critical-smash Fluidity.

Obviously, we have only been able to maintain these relationships and continue to work with our partners on new projects by ensuring that we deliver quality projects.

Jonathan Biddle, Design Director:
When you work with a good partner, you definitely feel that the product you end up with wouldn’t have been as good as if you’d done it on your own or with someone else.

With Fluidity, for example, we were really able to draw on the experience that Nintendo has in making games that appeal to a wide range of people, and that was invaluable in making it as good as it was. According to Metacritic, it was Nintendo’s highest-rated original game of the 2010, which is something we’re massively proud of.

Curve is a proponent of a fair work-life balance, and purports never to do crunch. How do you make this a reality with the pressure of meeting deadlines and reaching quality benchmarks?

Biddle: Well, taking crunch to mean ‘pre-scheduled stints of considerable overtime’, yes, we never crunch. We do occasionally work outside our usual 10am-6:30pm hours, but it’s always compensated.

And it’s compensated transparently – none of this ‘it’ll be worth it’ or ‘you’ll get a bonus’ that many studios do. To put things into perspective, on Explodemon I think the most anyone did was an extra three days over the course of the whole project.

It’s definitely fair to say that it does put extra pressure on meeting deadlines, but we know upfront that we have a fixed number of working hours, so we just try our best to schedule realistically. In terms of reaching quality benchmarks, though, I think it positively affects that – our staff aren’t worn out, they get to spend a normal amount of time with their families, and they don’t feel like they’re being exploited.

We really believe – and so do many cleverer ‘sciency’ people – that these factors will mean our staff are happier, and that means they’ll do better work. So I think it’s because of our working policies that we manage to hit those benchmarks. 

Staying on staffing issues for a moment, how do you manage to recruit the right talent in the competitive recruiting space that is your London home?

Perkins: One of the advantages we have is a very agile workforce. In addition to an elite force of core, full-time staff, we also have an excellent roster of freelance people and trusted outsourcers that we can call upon as the workload demands.

Biddle: As for what draws people to Curve, the quality of life is a really big part of that. A lot of the people here are veterans from big studios all over the world, and they come here because although we’re not working on a huge triple-A behemoth that’ll be plastered all over bus stops, they can work on something innovative and gameplay-focused while living a normal life. What would be the point of living in London if you never got to experience it because you were always working?

Similarly, working here is the antithesis of the ‘cog-in-the-machine’ syndrome – we’re very flat hierarchically speaking, and everybody gets input into the final product. Our teams rarely get to more than 20 people, so nobody gets lost and ends up modelling rocks for three years.

Oh, and we work directly above a pub, and we have discount cards. Need we say more?

Can you tell us anything about your future projects, such as War Heads and Thick as Thieves?

Perkins: We’re currently working on three publisher-funded projects of varying sizes, about which sadly we can’t say anything. We’re also continuing to support Explodemon – we have plans for DLC, a patch for the PS3 version, and ports to other platforms. Aside from that, we’re also out there pitching some original IP, and we’re continuing to cultivate a portfolio of designs for self-publishing.

Thick as Thieves in particular has seen significant interest from two publishers, so watch this space.

There’s been a lot of focus recently on how difficult the development sector is today. As a successful indie that appears to be thriving, how do you feel about the state of the industry?

Perkins: I think there’s a lot of scaremongering going on at the moment. A lot of influential people are saying that the home console market is dying, and that the new wave of handhelds won’t be able to compete with the pricing of iOS and other smartphone games, but when you see who’s saying those soundbites there’s always an element of self-interest involved.

There’s definitely a transition going on, but I don’t think the console market is going to die anytime soon, and there’s a growing space for indies on those platforms – it’s not just triple-A at all.

It’s becoming a cliché, but I do really think it’s a great time to be a developer. As long as you spread your development bets and balance self-funded projects against incoming revenues, there’s plenty of life in this business yet.

www.curve-studios.com