Relentless software have been a Sony-exclusive developer for as long as most people have known them - seeing huge success with its in-house quiz game Buzz across several Sony platforms.
That exclusivity deal has now come to an end, amicably and from natural causes, so Relentless is taking a new tack with its refound independence by embracing the new digital distribution model which it pioneered with episodic murder mystery title Blue Toad Murder Files.
It's a bold step in today's harsh climate, but Relentless are confident that its the correct move to make. Here, co-founder and executive director Andrew Eades tells us the story behind the evolution, and where he hopes to see the company move in the future.
Q:The first thing we want to talk about is your move away from being a Sony exclusive publisher to a more independent stance - that's a very brave move, coming out from the umbrella of a successful IP and platform-holder exclusivity - what gave you the security and confidence to do that?
Andrew Eades:Well, our exclusivity was coming up to a decision point anyway, in 2010, so we took the view that the kind of game we wanted to make was not necessarily the kind of game that the PlayStation 3 core gamer audience would pick up in the sort of numbers that Buzz was picked up in on PlayStation 2.
So, we looked at where we wanted to go with the company. So yeah, you're right, it was a nice safety blanket, we've had a good strong relationship with Sony for a number of years - seven in fact - and we've just released Ultimate Music Quiz and there's another couple of things we're doing with Sony along the way, but we wanted to spread our wings a bit and do something new - try out digital.
Our real strategy going forward is to change the company from a disc-based, console games company only - which is what we were, we were only PlayStation 3, we were only console, we were only quiz, in fact. We wanted to change the company to have much more breadth and embrace the new digital platforms we saw coming in.
We'd already started that, in a way, with Blue Toad Murder Files which we released in the back end of 2009. That was more than an experiment - how do we become a self-publishing developer? We were still Sony exclusive when we did that, which is why it was exclusive to PlayStation.
We've just launched it on PC. We were really proud that we've come on to Steam and other digital distribution platforms - we think that the future is not a massively expensive console in your living room, necessarily. PlayStation 3 prices are going to come down, Xbox 360 prices are going to come down. Who knows what Nintendo are going to do with the Wii.
We also know that, come 2012, there are going to be other devices - maybe Apple TV, maybe Google TV, maybe even your Samsung connected TV will be able to play some decent connected games. Who knows?
It's very different from when we started in 2003, which was complete dominance by a low-price-point PS2, which suits our market. We're not a hardcore gamer company, we're social and casual family orientated games. We saw that in 2012, we don't think there will be a dominant PS3 or a dominant 360, it'll probably be pretty even between the two. There'll also be other devices which are lower price-point that we should be moving towards.
So it wasn't really a decision about the past and our relationship with Sony, it was where we want to be in the future. We decided that the future would be a lower price-point, digitally delivered, so that's where we wanted to move the company. Doesn't mean we've abandoned consoles and high-end products at all, we've just got a more balanced approach.
It's a big leap. Sometimes you have to take a risk.
Q:How did Sony did Sony feel about you not renewing that exclusivity? I remember watching an E3 presentation a few years back where Buzz was the only non-first-party game featured - you were obviously a very important asset to Sony.
Andrew Eades:Well it wasn't unilateral. I think we discussed it in February last year and we knew our contract specified a certain date that we had to make a decision by. Actually that date was the middle of 2010.
We had to start thinking about what we were going to start doing in the future because our exclusive arrangement ran out. So it was a mutual discussion and a mutual decision. I think we both felt it was the right thing to do.
Q:How important was the success of Blue Toad to that decision? If it had been a total dead end, would you still have made that move towards independence?
Andrew Eades:[laughs] What do politicians say? Never do hypotheticals? I'll have a go. I think Blue Toad has been really successful, we've sold over 85,000 copies on PSN and we're doing PS Home items.
So we're celebrating the first birthday of Blue Toad, which has been successful. If we hadn't had that would we have made the same decisions? I think it would have been a bit harder, because we wouldn't have had anything to fall back on. But the truth is, when we made the decision, we'd decided not to be exclusive to Sony, but that doesn't mean we've decided to never work together again.
Being exclusive or non-exclusive doesn't really change that status that much - it's whether you want to do stuff outside of the Sony empire, as it were. We decided that we did, and I think for an independent developer, that was the right decision to make.
Q:Diversity is obviously a key part of your future then, but are you sticking to the family, group-orientated stuff that you know?
Andrew Eades:Yeah, what we've done is look at our core audience - the Buzz audience if you like, is a group of people. We designed the game for four people. It was sort of post-pub. We designed Blue Toad for four people as a co-operative murder mystery - so we're very interested in that kind of family or social group that's at home, playing our games. That's where our primary design ethos comes from.
When we move into different platforms that's not always the easiest thing to do. We're looking at what we can do on mobile platforms that we haven't really looked at before and you can't have the same sort of social experience with four people in a room, but you can certainly have a social experience, as many games have proven - especially if you integrate connectivity to Facebook in those games.
Our Buzz game was the first Facebook connected game in the world, so we know a bit about how that can work and we've got some good ideas on that. We've also worked, as you probably know, on the Eurogamer quiz - that's powered by some of the new technology we've developed in-house. That's on Facebook.
So we're looking at how we can get to as many people as possible, and they're not what we'd call core gamers. So Facebook has half a billion people on it. They're not all core gamers, some of them don't even play games at all. But a lot of them do play a kind of gaming experience. We're interested in those half a billion people and presenting games for what you might term a non-gamer.
So we're experimenting with digital, episodic - the interesting thing we've found out with Blue Toad is that, almost a year after its first launch we're still selling it in different ways. We've had a sixty per cent uplift in sales through the advent calendar theme bundle pack. You can't do this on disc.
You can't have a big first weekend for a family product, you have to have a longer view. The bricks and mortar retail method doesn't really work for the sort of games we want to make.
If I compare Call of Duty to a buzz game, the production values in Buzz are exemplary - they're superb and I'm very proud of that game - but we don't have the kind of multi-million marketing push and development budgets that Call of Duty clearly has.
The whole retail market is becoming very much about pillar titles for a hardcore audience - so we have to find a new way to get to our audience, and that is digital, episodic, various different platforms - including PlayStation, that remains our main platform.
But anyway, back to what we're doing. New IP - yes. We're pushing Blue Toad onto different platforms, we've got some new IPs, we've got some new service technologies powering our quiz games for Eurogamer - it's early days yet to see if that's something we can expand on.
We're looking a launching a new game next year, which is a brand new game and we're also in conversations about another game which won't launch next year but will be a brand new IP.
Q:I presume that, having been very successful developer for Sony you'll have been privy to information on PSP2. Michael Pachter has said that he feels PSP is dead now and that PSP2 will be dead on arrival because the handheld market is too dominated by Apple. Is there still room for a hardcore handheld in that market?
Andrew Eades:Well first of all I can't confirm or deny the existence of PSP2. Also I have to be careful because my status as a Sony exclusive developer can mean my words can get taken a bit too seriously - so I'm going to answer from a personal point of view.
My personal point of view is that yes, there clearly is room for a hardcore handheld gaming device. Do I think that that's the mass-market portable system? No I don't, I think that's an iPhone or an Android or an iPad, those are clearly aimed at a more mass-market audience. That doesn't mean that there's not a place for that. I don't know whether I agree with any analysts about it, it's up to Sony how they address the market they want to address.
Who knows what the specs of the next generation of handhelds will be. They'll be comparable in some ways and not in others. The inputs will be comparable in some ways and not in others. The important thing is where they're aimed. If something's aimed at the core gamer then the core gamer will love it, because it'll be an amazingly powerful games machine that they can carry around with them, if it's aimed at a mass market audience then it will need mass market features.
I think that's a harder win for Sony. Sony's excellent at making games machines and consumer electronics, but to beat Apple or Android right now, I think that's a hard thing to do. But you can't dominate a sector forever. There will come a time when even things like iPhones don't look so hot. I can't predict that. What I can do is make sure we focus on creating the best games we can for our audience on whatever platform they have.
So if we find that PSP2 has a really good family audience who enjoy social games like the ones that Relentless make, then we'll make games for it.
Q:You've talked about the idea of Facebook games already - do you see them as a branding exercise or a profit-making one?
Andrew Eades:It's both. There are definitely good examples, the Eurogamer Quiz, for example, where it's free to play and it's something we're doing in partnership with Eurogamer and it's not making a lot of money for anyone. What it does is drive brand awareness and lets people enjoy a game made by Relentless, which is more important than revenue at this point in time.
There are other games which we've got in the works which have a variety of more obvious monetisation strategies and I think what we're deciding to do is to look at each product and service and work out the best use of it. So it might only be free to play and be a really good advert for Relentless and what we do, it might have more comprehensive virtual transaction pieces in there.
We're going to make it cut-to-fit, really. You can't just charge people for anything - it has to be of some value to them. It has to enhance their gaming experience in a fair way. Or you can put in ad-supported features and stuff like that, but there's still lots of questions about the potential of ad revenue in some of what we're doing. We're just looking at every possible business model we can.
For something like Blue Toad, it's a pretty straightforward proposition - you buy an episode, you play an episode and that's it. That's very far away from the sort of freemium model that some games on Facebook use. So we're looking at whether we can use those methods to sell Blue Toad or whether we need to reinvent the way we sell Blue Toad.
It's quite interesting to me that the bulk of our sales have always included Episode 1. People like to try games, they like to sample games, they like to buy complete sets so certainly our best revenue comes from the bundle packs of the episodes. We're finding out on an almost weekly basis what our customers want to pay for.
The best thing about being self-publishing and being able to distribute digitally is having access to to all that information so you can try a price change, say - here's a price change, what if we add an advent calendar to the bundle, does that make it more appealing - turns out that it does.
Q:And is that staggered approach to feature inclusion a learning process in terms of finding out what works and including that from the off in your next product, or is it about profit maximisation through drip-feeding?
Andrew Eades:I think what we're learning, both from our own activities and from observing other people, is that actually incremental improvement of what you're giving the consumer improves the sales. It sounds a little bit mercenary, but it's the opposite of what we used to do on a disc-based game. On a disc-based game you think up all the features a year in advance and then you ship them on a disc.
Now what we can do is think up some of the features, implement enough of them and ship, then continue working on that. It's a different business model, a different development model than before. Of course, you can have a list of 20 things which you're going to do in every ship, but some you will do, some you won't and you'll think of more you want to do after you ship. You try and keep a balance.
You have to make sure that first launch product is good and complete and works, obviously - but when you start improving the product you can pretty much give that away for free if you want. That benefits who bought in early and encourages people to see more value in what you're doing. Every single person who buys your game has a different reason. You just have to try and appeal to as many people as you can.
Q:Speaking personally, how do you feel about the prospect of another studio taking on the mantle of the Buzz IP?
Andrew Eades:It did happen once before - the sports quiz wasn't developed by us. Although we worked with Curve on the initial release of Master Quiz on PSP, since then PSP versions have only been done by Curve, so it's not like it would be a unique and new thing to do.
At some point you have to see that this thing you've grown and developed, and cherished - built your company around - is not yours in the end. We've done well out of Buzz, it is a great game and I maintain that we're the best people in the world to make it. It consistently delivered high review scores for a casual social game. I think you'd be hard pushed, as a developer, to out develop us on a quiz game. Especially a Buzz game.
Q:We're making a lot progress towards the social acceptance of gaming - do you ever think that you'll compete for people's time on a level with television and film?
Andrew Eades:That's our ambition, that's what Relentless is all about. We're competing with things like the X-Factor for that audience. We believe that our games will be an equal competitor - and are.
We're also competing with board games. Buzz was very much built with board games in mind - as an alternative to a stuffy game of Trivial Pursuit. They're very similar games - you answer questions. That's not to disparage Trivial Pursuit, because it was very influential in the development of Buzz - but they're very different experiences based on the same core concept.
I would argue that already there are conversations in people's living rooms over whether to play Heavy Rain or watch the latest episode of Lost - and I use that as an example of a conversation that's happened in my house. I was absolutely amazed to hear from my wife that she preferred Heavy Rain to Lost. To me, that's a supreme success of how videogames can cross divide and actually be the preferred choice over TV. That's what we're trying to do, and I think we can do it.
It's not just about the main consoles anymore. Look at what people have plugged in to their tellies these days. PlayStations and Xboxes have a place under many people's TVs, but there's also satellite boxes, Apple TVs, Google TVs, internet connected TVs. They all have more and more computational power, and that's all we need. That processor power to deliver our games and the internet connection to distribute them and we're in the living room just as any broadcast TV is. That's my aim, to make games for anyone who has a TV. That's what we're pushing towards at Relentless.