The Right to Remain Silent
Straandloooper blabs about developing niche games with Telltale
Northern Irish studio Straandlooper began life as an animation house, but branched out into software with the 30-episode-strong Lifeboat Luke series of children's apps for iOS, before finding much larger returns from profane iPhone adventure game Hector: Badge of Carnage. Following the game's success, Straandlooper signed a partnership agreement with US adventure game powerhouse Telltale, taking Hector to further platforms and episodes. A reworked version of the first game launched on Steam earlier in May, with an iPad version hot on its heels.
Here, GamesIndustry.biz talks to Straandlooper MD Richard Morss about the Telltale agreement, how industry success may now be about finding a niche and why just one medium isn't enough to make a brand truly successful.
Q: You've just released Hector: Badge of Carnage on PC - can you talk about how sales are going on that, via Steam, compared to the iPhone version?
Richard Morss: We haven't yet had any sales figures. Telltale are handling all that end of it, and they seem to be pleased with how it's going, but they haven't had their first batch of reports back yet so they don't know. And the iPad version is only just released - there were changes in the coding the day before it was meant to be released, so we had to take the whole thing back and then release it. So I don't know - the reviews have been reasonably good and the sales for the existing iPhone game seem to have risen since [the PC one] came out, so I think there's more of an appetite there as well.
Q: From a theoretical perspective, are you expecting phones, tablets or computers to be the main driver for you - or even consoles in future?
Richard Morss: I think you can't ignore any of them. Obviously the bigger platforms have more money, but then they've got more expensive gatekeepers so there's always a toss-up between the amount of money you get back when you're working with a major partner with your IP and the more direct money you get back from a slightly smaller pond if you self-publish.
Q: What's the nature of the Telltale partnership - purely a publishing arrangement?
We're unusual in that we've come to the gaming world via a slightly different route from most others. We have ambitions to make a Hector feature, for example, and we have co-producers lined up
Richard Morss: We've done all the creative side, and they've done the coding into their engine and production from that point of view, so it's a co-production essentially. But they are the senior partner in a sense - they license the IP for gaming. We are the creatives now.
Q: Is there much left for you, once they've taken a chunk then Apple or Steam have taken a chunk?
Richard Morss: Well, we still have our original Apple platform for Hector, and we obviously have a share for the others, which would be very wrong of me to divulge, but for us it's a bigger story than just the games as well. Hopefully the games take off, and hopefully we can build a nice franchise on the basis of the first three, but for us it's also using the awareness of the IP that that creates to leverage other stuff. Because we're not just a games company; we're sort of unusual in that we've come to the gaming world via a slightly different route from most others. We have ambitions to make a Hector feature, for example, and we have co-producers lined up. With everything, as you probably know, distribution is the key. A very significant rise in profile in the IP would hopefully swing in distribution and enable that to happen, so for us it's all about using all available platforms for every IP that we create to try and maximise the product that you can get on the market.
Q: How far do you hope to go with games, then - are they merely a stepping stone?
Richard Morss: The way I see it, there's a sort of centralised IP which is the idea, if you like, and if you're working in content generation today, I think that idea has to have the ability to output to a number of different platforms, because the way that the market has changed is that unless you're a pretty major supplier of stuff, or in bed with a pretty major supplier of stuff, no one platform is gonna necessarily pay back the costs of developing and producing the IP that you're doing. So you've got to have fingers in as many pies as possible; look at your properties really as vehicles for multiple iterations.
Q: You've done that with the Lifeboat Luke series - there's some animated content and then something like 30 different iPhone apps. Is that sort of quantity of content the general goal with your IPs?
Richard Morss: Yes, that's really about maximising the use of the assets. You have to create all these digital assets when you create a series and so really we were quids in in terms of creating apps. The difference with the Lifeboat Luke apps was we as yet haven't been able to find the right niche yet to promote it to in order to get a significant return on it. It's selling, but it's not selling huge by any means - because unlike Hector there wasn't an identifiable pool of review sites and things that you could go to when you knew people were looking for a particular kind of stuff. That to me is a huge lesson that we learned in the launch of Hector, in terms of that sort of targeting - although it was probably partly inadvertent in case of Hector, as we just liked the idea. The way it developed, it just sort of happened that there was a niche audience waiting for that sort of game to come out at that sort of time, and the iPhone platform worked well for it. So we had a success on our hands with that game, because we were able to promote it and raise awareness among the people who were looking for it. With a kids' IP like Luke there are so many other players in the pond with big, established names, probably giving away stuff for free, that it's much, much more difficult to make a noise about an individual kids' property that doesn't have a huge broadcast profile. So it's just part of the learning curve of the whole new market, how you have to think about stuff.
Q: You subscribe to the philosophy that you can't do anything without an established brand, then?
Richard Morss: Well, I think Hector actually proves that that's not true, because nobody had heard of Hector. But the wonderful thing that the iPhone market gave us was a platform you can access where you can relatively cheaply produce and publish something new. But because it was in a genre that people were looking for, that was the key thing - there was an identifiable market, and a strong niche. It seems to me that, if anything, this is the age of the niche, and if you can identify that and reach them, then you've got so many marketing tools that you can access quite cheaply, or for no cost at all, if you put in the elbow grease. I think it is possible, and to me Hector represents a truly independent production - the first episode anyway, obviously going forward you need to get more investment and bring partners in, but you know that is very encouraging to me, I find it very exciting.
The whole thing will atrophy if people are only latching onto [existing brands]. Where do brands start, for heaven's sakes?
Q: Getting on the front of the App Store helps...
Richard Morss: Yes, absolutely, and if you get good reviews too. Watching the sales of the Hector game, if you get a good review that generally drives a spike in sales, but the pattern that we saw that was you get the review but then you get the retweets of the review, and then you'd notice a rise in the hits on the YouTube channel and then that would be reflected more or less in the number of sales that you finally got. So that was an interesting triangle, and the YouTube channel was quite an important part of that - having a visibility there where people could easily go - seemed to be a critical part in the process.
Q: Does that snowball effect outdo anything marketing could achieve?
Richard Morss: Yes, and you can't really predict it - you can't make that happen, I don't think. All you can do is put stuff out to places where the people who are doing that social media stuff are going to look at it and hope for the best.
Q: Hector's a bit of a lewd game - how did you get that past Apple, let alone into their favour?
Richard Morss: Yeah, we were very careful. It is lewd, rude and politically incorrect, but we were very careful to tread a line where we didn't actually use any real swear words. We have things like 'ball bags', but there's no actual oathing in there - we don't f**k and we don't swear or use blasphemy. So there's a lot of rudeness and scatological humour, but I suppose that's Northern Ireland for you [laughs]. But we were quite self-censoring in that we tried not to make it gratuitous or puerile, we tried to make it witty in the way that we used that stuff. That was the intent anyway, and hopefully it was funny, not just kind of gross... So no, we didn't have any of those issues.
It is lewd, rude and politically incorrect, but we were very careful to tread a line where we didn't actually use any real swear words
The only ones we did have was making sure that everything was technically compliant, really. Likewise, in the trailer for the original game, someone gets his head blown off and we were expecting to have a question mark about that, but everything just sailed through. And I have to say that working with Telltale has been an absolute delight on episodes two and three, because we haven't had any sort of heavy-handed editorial stuff at all from them. It's all been great support and sharing of their experience.
Q: Why do you think Telltale have been able to keep making apparently successful adventure games when the industry at large has either messed it up or given it up?
Richard Morss: Wow, that's a big question. Well, my memory goes back to the LucasArts games, because my kids were playing those - Full Throttle, Sam and Max, Monkey Island and all those games. What struck me about those is, compared to early games like Streets of Rage and Sonic the Hedgehog, which my kids started off on, those LucasArts games struck me as having wit and storytelling, and started a whole genre of others doing the same sort of thing. I think it was that sort of combination of humour and irreverence that was compelling about and which people were nostalgic for, and Hector was really looking back at those games, almost as a sort of tribute. So I think Telltale's success has really been built on reissuing a lot of those classic games on different platforms and they're now looking to move into new games in that genre. It'll be interesting to see what happens next. That's all I can say, that there's a generation of people who grew up with those games and from that there's a great nostalgia for what they delivered. I think those qualities are delivered in other forms of games as well, I don't think it's a tradition that died out - it got transmogrified into some of the RPG games and total immersion games. There's a huge amount of wit and daft characters and things, it just evidences itself in different ways, but I think Telltale are demonstrating there's a place for what they do. People like it.
Q: They've also been able to make the episodic business model work where others like Hothead or even Valve have struggled. What's the key there?
Richard Morss: Yes. I haven't got a clue [laughs]. I hope that I've found out in a positive way on episode two and three of Hector... I think careful puzzle construction is one of the things that Telltale were certainly helpful with. That seems to be the key to their whole success, really - that emphasis on the internal logic and structure, and drilling down into that rather than kidding themselves that something is working when it's not. It comes down to this in any form of content - following the logic of something, not getting carried away beyond that. I guess they just have so much experience of doing stuff, because a lot of their staff were at LucasArts years ago. There's a whole tradition there.
Q: They changed their business model a few years back so you couldn't really buy individual episodes, but instead had to get boxed sets at full price - effectively leaving the episodic business model behind even if the release schedule remained. Have they talked you into that with Hector?
Richard Morss: Well, it's different for different platforms, I think. We're releasing two and three as separate episodes, maybe because episode one was already out, and then the box set will hopefully leverage it onto yet more platforms. I think that's the thinking.
Q: If you don't do the boxed set model, is there a fear that returns episode on episode would diminish?
Richard Morss: Yes, I think it's been seen in other markets that it's the long tail of property - getting as much out of it as you can by packaging it and repackaging it, because the up-front costs of producing any form of IP these days are such that you need to get as many sales as you can to actually keep going, afford the next one or even break even in some cases.
Q: The boxed set structure must make deadlines that much stricter too.
Richard Morss: Yes, we're working to deadlines but they're deadlines that we've agreed between us. They're pretty tight, but they're doable. There's definitely a constraint on the production because there's a constraint on the money. We haven't got huge budgets to play with, because potentially the uptake may not be huge. I think Telltale are taking a risk by investing in something that was an iPhone property and did okay there, but who's to say what will happen next? Maybe that niche of people was that niche of people. We don't know yet, so they're taking a risk by producing the next two, but we'll see what happens. It's very heartening that they can embrace a small independent from the middle of nowhere with no background in producing games, frankly. That's a tribute to them, really.