Texas developer TimeGate Studios made its name with the critically-acclaimed Kohan real-time strategy series in 2001, but in recent years has diversified into first-person shooters - including two expansions for Monolith's F.E.A.R. and its own Section 8. The latter's PS3 version was download only, following a breach of contract case against controversial publisher Southpeak.
Next up is Section 8: Prejudice, and the revelation that the studio is to fully embrace self-publishing. Following this news, GamesIndustry.biz chatted to CEO and president Adel Chaveleh about what this meant for TimeGate, the changing shape of the games industry and the pros and cons of working with publishers.
Q: You're moving into self-publishing - what's the plan there?
Adel Chaveleh: First and foremost, our business is still development - that's how we see ourselves. So the move to enable self-publishing capability that we now have is really more about further enabling our development initiative. Working with the platform providers, a lot is dependent on having things set up with them in terms of getting products approved, and even being able to take the products to market at the end of the day. What we wanted to do was enable ourselves to not have any hurdles in terms of development or taking the project to market. And what that does, by building the entire channel out from concept through being able to take it to retail ourselves, it gives us basically the ultimate in flexibility in terms of what kind of deal we want. And if there's no deal, then we take it ourselves. That's the beauty of the scenario for us.
So we began the initiative about a year ago - as one might imagine, the process of becoming a true publisher, not only in terms of building your own internal infrastructure and that kind of stuff, but getting the approval necessary from the platform guys, it's a fair bit of work. This is our thirteenth year in business, but we've got a solid track record, a solid foundation - we're in a very strong position in that we can take our own products to market.
Q: So there wasn't a specific "oh, we can't do this anymore" moment that inspired the change?
Adel Chaveleh: Certainly, there were contributing incidents over the years, where we would finish a product, kill ourselves on the development, then get to finish line and then we're hands-off at the point. Because as a developer you're not empowered to do the marketing, or handle the sales stuff - anything - you're basically just doing exclusively development. That's just a part of the window, as anyone in the industry would agree. There's development, but then you need really strong sales and marketing, distribution... we saw that as a big part of the equation. Especially on our own IP - nobody cares about it more than we need to. So we need to be very hands-on in that aspect, or at least have the flexibility of taking bits and pieces on if a partner comes to us to work with, and they have strings - let's say they're only one territory or one platform. Just because they're the only people at the table doesn't mean we have to give them everything. A lot of independent developers find themselves in that scenario, where a deal is being offered - but is it the best deal? Is it playing to the partner's strength, or are you just taking it because it's the only way to get your product to market, it's the only choice we've got and times runnin' out?
So this enables us to basically be very strategic about how we take our games to market, but the nice thing from the development team's perspective is that, when we start a project, they know with 100 per cent certainty that that project is going to be released. We've got a 100 per cent track for that .Whenever we greenlight a project and we've started pre-production, 100 per cent of those products have made it to market in two years or less. This is just now more of a guarantee than ever. So by default we are publishing it, but if a great partner wants to come along and blow it up, and do incredible things, and it makes good business sense - then yeah, we'll open it up. We're just not sitting around waiting on it.
Q: It must be pretty scary though, knowing that if the next Section 8 or suchlike doesn't work out, you can only blame yourselves?
Adel Chaveleh: You know what, I would rather that. I look forward to that. Because we're going to do our best. Looking back to Kohan, our first product out the gate back in 2001, it was serendipitous, but the way this project is playing out is very similar to how that one played out. We started the company, we had some seed capital and we had our great ideas for the game, we funded the game entirely, we did every aspect of it from A to Z and we just got to the end and thought 'hey, we don't have a way to get this into stores', so we ended up signing what ended up being more or less a distribution deal with Strategy First. Even in that deal, we had approval of everything - every single marketing aspect, every press release. We were very engaged. That was one of the most successful stories we've had from our own IP perspective over the years. Now we're kind of back to where we started, and we didn't realise how strong a position that actually is. Obviously the consoles introduce a different hurdle - anybody can theoretically burn CDs and sell them in stores for PC, but you can't do that on consoles. That added one extra necessary step to be able to do this.
Yeah, it's scary and exciting at the same time. It's a strategic move for us; we think of ourselves as a very conservative company. It's funny that we started out in strategy games, but we think of running TimeGate every single day as playing a strategy game. There's a new frontier out there - do you send out a little team to set-up a settlement, but they might get eaten by the wolves? Or do you just turtle and build... We've been building up our base and building up our base, and occasionally we throw out a settlement team and make a new IP to start to nurture - and that's what Section 8 is now. So we're now we're starting to build up the walls around that IP, and it's becoming self-sustaining, and that sort of thing.
Q: You really have thought through that metaphor, eh?
Adel Chaveleh: Oh yeah. Seriously, you can tell that we're all gamers here.
Q: How different has been working with your own IP again compared to when you were contracted to do the FEAR expansion? What kind of say in that project's development did you have?
Adel Chaveleh: Again, I'm not saying that we're moving away from work for hire projects, but specifically we have more or less one foot in either camp - work for hire and new IP, and I think that's been one of our strengths over the years. Most independent developers - at least that I see - are either focused on one or the other. If they're exclusively in the new IP camp, that's a tough business. You've gotta be able to carry it across the finish line yourself - waiting for someone to come along and fund your project and being able to keep ownership of it is a tough proposition. And then the other side is equally risky - waiting for someone to come and give you a project. It's somebody else's baby, but it's possibly a very big franchise, working with a big publisher, and there's definite gains out of that. So you can see over our history that we've done basically that, one or the other. There's value from our studio's perspective in both sides. We wanted to do new IP because we're innovative people, that's what drives us, that's what motivates us, and obviously that's where those big wins are going to come from. On the work for hire side, FEAR and Axis and Allies, these were great projects that came along and played well to our decision to go into different genres. Doing all that helped us, as a studio we grew our experience and variety.
Q: Does it feel like it's been a bit harder to truly excel on a work for hire project, when there's day and date demands and fixed budgetary restrictions?
Adel Chaveleh: Well, I would say it has a different set of challenges, not that it's limited or in any way handicapped. Obviously when you're in full control you feel more empowered, but when it's work for hire, generally speaking there's a lot of people and a lot of eyes and a lot of resources behind that project, so you tend to get more things like focus testing and a thousand things of that category that add to the quality of the experience, which you just wouldn't get when you've got a fixed amount of capital and you're trying to get the game out the door. So there are definite pros and cons, and every single project is different too. Generally speaking we won't take on a project unless we think that we can add value to it, and we think that we can gain something from it. We don't take things on just to keep the lights on. So maybe we lend out a team to go build somebody's base up, and then we'll have a good friend in the industry.
Q: What are the costs involved in the physical side of self-publishing, given you're not sticking to online only?
Adel Chaveleh: The physical side is formulaic to a degree. It's clearly a new frontier and there are packs of wolves roaming around there -you've got to be careful, but looking at a lot of the partners we've worked with in the past, most of them really only brought to the table... I'll give you another analogy. Think of it as a general contractor on a house. He's not necessarily the best carpenter himself, or the best plumber, but he knows how to put the pieces together and make it all happen and deliver a great house. We look at ourselves in that same vein, where we know what our strengths are business-wise, and those are making things happen on time, on budget and that are high quality. We may not be the best plumber or the best electrician, but we know who those are. So we'll partner up with people where appropriate.
Q: Online must surely be even more appealing though - you don't know those external guys at all?
Adel Chaveleh: Oh yeah, the barrier to entry in the online world... Well, there's still some. The online arena is coming, it's just a case of when will that critical mass hit. Retail is still very important, but online is coming and it's going to be interesting to see how it all plays out.
Q: So in terms of publishers, what happens when that critical mass hits?
Adel Chaveleh: Just like any other industry, when there's a new, disruptive industry that comes about, people have to adapt. You just have to. It's like Blockbuster and Netflix. Blockbuster was an 800lb gorilla - it owned the market. But it woke up one day and here's this little company called Netflix doing streaming videos and mail rentals, and it just flipped it on its head. Companies that are 100 per cent focused on retail right now are in for a rude awakening in the near future.
Q: Do you see, in your travels around the industry, that most people are prepared for that, or is there still a lot of entrenchment?
Adel Chaveleh: I think a lot of people are... It's on everybody's radar. But it probably was in the music industry too. So I can't say for sure what their internal strategies are, I can only see from a consumer's perspective where their focuses are, and it's clearly still at retail. I think there's going to be some opportunity for exclusively online stuff, or a combination of online and retail, it's just a matter of time. I think anybody would bet money on that. The momentum of online is only going to pick up, there's so many reasons for it to go that way. Eventually.
Q: How do you feel about the industry in general at the moment, in terms of the doom and gloom stories we seem to hear everywhere?
Adel Chaveleh: If you're looking at the retail data, like NPD stuff, and that's your exclusive meter of the health of the industry, then yeah. But I think somebody would be a fool to just look exclusively at that data to see how the interactive industry is doing. With social and mobile and everything else that's blowing up now, you can't look at just that sliver.
To your point about the doom and gloom and companies shutting down - in the last thirteen years we've seen it all over the places. It's just constant. It's a very quick-moving industry, very cut-throat - that's another reason to be in full control of your own product and destiny and much as possible. There's been several waves over the last thirteen years - it's a cyclical thing, where the big publishers say 'oh we're going to do nothing but internal development' and there's a big new IP push. Then a couple of big flops happen there, so they say they're getting out of internal development, shutting down studios, and then that yields the next round of startup companies, because there are all these people who got laid off. Then they're making new IPs, there's a couple of big hits so everyone's into that again.
Honestly, it feels like the Wild West to a degree, where the next direction or the next big swing could go any way. That's an environment that we love being in, to be honest, because if it's going in just a single direction it's very predictable, and at the end of the day the people with the most money are going to get there, and own that. People will buy their way into that. But when you don't know where things are going and you've got the cajones to make a stand and go for it - that's the kind of environment that we love playing in, and we think that's where we are right now.
Q: How much pressure do you feel to react to a big change? Do you look at social games and think 'Oh boy, we'd better do something there...'?
Adel Chaveleh: That's a very good question - again, we're a very entrepreneurial group, so we're taking very strong note of these new arenas, but we're not chasers. I'll give you an example - when the Wii was released, remember how everybody and their mother was doing Wii games, and DS games? And now it's just saturated. I knew a lot of developers that were doing Wii games and DS games, and they were doing it because they thought that was what people wanted, as opposed to that was what they wanted to go do. The nice thing about our strategy, why I believe it is good, is we always are working on things and are going down directions that excite us, that we want to be doing. For example, Kohan - the IP and the concept for the game that was there before TimeGate was even there. We knew the game that we were building before we even had a company that could do it. And when you have that direction, you have to say 'what's the RTS space like? OK, it's saturated, but there's a lot of consumers there, and they want something new. That was the validation we needed to run with our idea.
Same for Section 8 for that matter - the FPS arena is crowded, but it's become stale, somewhat predictable. Yeah, there are going to be the big budget games coming out, but they're very predictable in that sense. So it's the perfect arena for somebody to come in and do something different and really make a mark. So we work best in that kind of environment - before long the social and mobile and that sort of thing is going to be that sort of arena. We're clearly evaluating and looking at the longevity of those.
Q: Certainly, Kohan seems as though it could fit something like Facebook perfectly.
Adel Chaveleh: Totally, we've had a lot of discussions about that sort of stuff. We're not walking away from Kohan by any means. It'll see daylight again. But we're not going to go chase and make a Facebook Kohan game just to say we did it - it's gotta make sense, and it's gotta be something new and unique. That's what keeps us up at night.
Adel Chaveleh is CEO and president of TimeGate Studios. Interview by Alec Meer.