Oxfordshire indie developer Mode 7 Games first emerged with multiplayer sword-fighting title Determinance in 2006, but it was this year's tactical strategy game and Steam hit Frozen Synapse that put them on the map.
Here, GamesIndustry.biz chats to the studio's joint MD and co-founder Paul Taylor about indie developer networking, working with Valve, alternative funding models, why indie games can keep selling over time, and why everyone should include a free second copy of their game with every sale.
Q:How’s Frozen Synapse going? You’re a couple of months on from launch after a year or so long paid beta - is it meeting expectations?
Paul Taylor:So, we did the paid beta but it was more that it encouraged us to keep going rather than that did particularly well commercially. So we got through that stage and then we were really hoping that launch would give results equivalent to that beta. And it definitely surpassed our expectations. I mean, certainly at the point we’re at now. Although I can’t really discuss specific sales figures at the moment - we’re looking into whether we can do that in the future - what I will say is that it’s definitely created a situation where we’re secure as a company. We can do another game in exactly the way we want to do one, and perhaps even a little bit beyond that. There are only three of us, we’re not a massively capital-intensive operation, we’re not starting lots of sub-teams and expanding massively at this point. Although the thoughts do start coming when you have a success - you start looking around and going ‘well, we could do this ridiculous project…’ But we’re not going to do that, we’re going to focus what we’ve got on doing another game.
Q:Is that based on money that’s already in the bank, or a projection of how you think sales and additional content will go over time?
Paul Taylor:A bit of both, really. We definitely had a great result at launch, and we just had the Steam sale, which was a big deal for us. Being featured as one of the specific deals on there was really, really good for us. So, at the moment we do have enough money in the bank to do that, but also looking forwards there will be other sales, other things we’re doing that should keep interest going. Because I think one of the problems for indie games really is that you get a big spike of PR just before and just after launch, and then they kind of disappear. What we’re planning on doing is really doing as much as we can sensibly to keep the game interested in people, keep the community going. We’re actually already working on some new, free features in a path and we’re going to release some free versus stuff and other things we’ll charge a little bit for and see what works, what people want. Frozen Synapse is, I think, a game that can probably keep on going for some time, because it’s not very dependent on a specific look or a specific graphics technology, or something that’s going to age really badly.
Frozen Synapse is a game that can probably keep on going for some time, because it’s not very dependent on a specific look or a specific graphics technology
Q:Paid DLC, then?
Paul Taylor:We’re looking at that right now. It’s something we want to do because there are opportunities to do interesting work on the game that people want to pay for. People have been telling me that quite vocally. One of the things was the music, because the soundtrack has done quite well in its own right, so obviously I’m quite happy to have an excuse to write some new music. Having a game as a vector to sell music is pretty new to me, and pretty cool. That’s something that I’m working on right now, and there are other features that we’re thinking about. We tend to be a bit cagey pre-announcing stuff, because saying you’re going to have this big feature that everyone wants, and we really want to do them, but until that first bit of development where you know it’s going to work has gone down, I’m never going to say we’re definitely doing it. I just think that’s a bit irresponsible.
Q:With the Steam sales you mentioned earlier - do you get to be involved in the planning of that and even request it, or is it essentially just something Valve decides?
Paul Taylor:Yes, they decide what they want to do, but at that point they will just come to you and say ‘we have this idea, what do you want to do about it?’ That’s one of the best things about Valve, they won’t say ‘you are doing this’ - which they could do very easily - they’ll say ‘this is the kind of thing we want to do, this is why, how do you want to go about it?’ It’s great, it lets you try stuff. We’re doing some stuff on Steam that people don’t normally do, like the free key for a friend thing, or offering the soundtrack as a separate thing you can upgrade to. They’re quite different, and Valve had to do some actual system-related stuff to allow us to do that. For an indie game that doesn’t have a lot of clout, they’re surprisingly flexible and that’s great.
Q:Not too much muscle-flexing, then, given some feel they essentially rule the PC download market?
Paul Taylor:I think they could do that a lot more than they do, and they do get criticism for things like that and doing things that give them a lead in the digital distribution market, but I think they just do what they have to do. And when you’re a company with that much power and that size, you have to strike a balance between doing things that benefit you and things that create a good eco-system for everyone. I think they’re pretty good at that, and they think very seriously about it. It is astonishing just how important they are in terms of the PC, especially as an indie game. You see a lot of GamesIndustry.biz interviews with people like Mark Morris who said something very similar, but Steam is really essential for indie games at the moment.
Q:A lot of PC gamers seem very unwilling to buy from anywhere else now, even.
Paul Taylor:Exactly - people really use it as a mark of quality, I think. I think there’s a good reason for that, because not everything gets on there. I think Cliffski [Positech’s Cliff Harris] did a post about this, the saturation of games - it sort of doesn’t matter what price your game is, they want something they know is good, is clearly broadcasting waves of goodness at them in a very obvious and simplistic manner, because of the amount of stuff that they have, especially with a lot of PC games being incredibly deep. So many of these people are having to leave games that they love in order to experiment with something else, and they feel a kind of strong trepidation about that. So unless there’s some mark of quality coming across I think they find that quite worrying, stepping outside the comfortable fold of games they know.
Q:How was the game’s development funded, given it took you several years?
Paul Taylor:We did something a little bit unusual - we released [Mode 7’s first game] Determinance in about 2007, and that was a commercial failure in terms of direct sales, but what it led to was quite a lot of contract work. We did some work for a company called Novint, who made a 3D joystick thing called The Falcon. It’s this fantastic controller that never really got the recognition it deserved, but it was pretty unusual. So we did some work for them, and that led to some other things, so we realised that we’d made a game that had some good qualities but was fairly divisive - either people really like it because it’s unique or they hate it because it’s weird. So what they want to do now is make a game that is good, that gets good review scores, that we’re happy with, that lets us do something we want to do. And it doesn’t matter how long it takes: we won’t pay ourselves anything, just enough to live on, we’ll keep working at it. And that’s not really an approach that most people take, but we were pretty young at that stage so we were able to do it.
I think a lot of indies now are finding what they think is a market opportunity and they’re cherry-picking. They’re sort of doing enough work to make a game. And that’s okay - that can work as business model, and it’s probably more sensible than what we did, because it’s quite risky to go ‘oh, we’ll just throw everything at it.’ But when you can do that cheaply, it just enables you to really transition. This game has been a huge change for us - we didn’t know if we could make a good game, and proving that to yourself is really important. So we decided to do that based on contract work initially, and then we put the beta on sale and it started to sell at a level where we could keep doing this and spend as long in beta as we wanted. So we spent a year on beta, mostly to get the singleplayer done.
I don't like the idea of being in an industry where I have to endlessly badmouth my competition. I find the big publisher smack talk really hilarious
In terms of other things about the payment model, I think the free key for a friend thing is really great and everyone should do it. We spent a long time thinking about whether we should do that, and I just realised that about 90 per cent of indie games don’t hit all of their possible audience because the problem is reach. Bigger companies are able to spend massive amounts and you’re just never going to be able to compete. But I think if you can sell 100,000 units you can definitely sell 200,000 units. So I was never concerned about cannibalising the possible userbase, I just thought it was a great way of spreading the game. It’s kind of our concession to free-to-play - I think anything you can do to boost awareness and boost community is a positive thing.
Q:There must have been a psychological bridge to cross - ‘what if I’m giving away 50 per cent of my sales for free…’
Paul Taylor:Yeah, but I asked myself was that fear rational or not. I really don’t think it is. The fact that indie games can go on selling and selling and selling at a low-level for years after their release just proves that again it’s all about awareness really, keeping people talking about the game, showing it to other people. And what better way of having the game spread than someone getting it unexpectedly? When you look at the tweets, and there’s people saying ‘oh I just got given a copy of this, you should check it out’ - that’s why we’re doing it.
Q:As an indie, presumably you’re more invested in continuing to push it over time and stay excited, as opposed to a publisher who’s immediately looking at the next release on the schedule or the DLC and moves on?
Paul Taylor:Yeah, we’re very keen on not dumping things. One thing that we said is that we’ll always keep servers running, as long as we’re in business, and if we go out of business we’ll open-source the server so someone else can run it. We’re doing this because we want to make games, not because we want to make piles and piles of money - although we do want to be commercially successful. There’s definitely a tension between those two things in the indie games scene in general, but it’s so important for us that our games persist, and we’ll take any steps we can to make sure that happens.
Q:Would you pick the same funding model again if you started today, given the push towards free-to-play?
Paul Taylor:We talked about all kinds of business models, like can we do it as a free game but… well, I’ve been vocally anti-free-to-play at times, and that probably misrepresents me slightly. I was probably just being angry about free-to-play at those times! But free just isn’t right for the game - you should pick a business model that suits the game primarily, and don’t try to shoehorn things into the trendy business model at the time. So no, I don’t think I’d do anything differently… We also got some funding support from an organisation called ScreenWM, who were doing some games funding at the time, but that was just a really small amount to work on some of the art stuff and also some advertising stuff. So I think it’s good for indies to look around - less so now, unfortunately, because there have been lots of art funding cuts and things - but there are things out there that you can do. Just being plugged into local things… BusinessLink, actually, were really good for us - talking to people like that, even if you think business things aren’t relevant to you because you’re just in your bedroom making indie games, is worth doing.
If anything, maybe looking into more sources of funding like that is something we could have done, but I think we learned a lot doing the contract work that we did, but it’s also good to have other ways to make money, because games are so fickle and changeable, you never know what’s going to happen.
Q:Did you look into R&D tax breaks?
Paul Taylor:We were a bit slow on that one. It’s something we’re actually looking into right now, because there’s some stuff you can do retroactively which some people don’t realise - so yeah, talk to your account about R&D tax credits. It’s a bit complicated, but finding a good accountant, something you can communicate with on stuff like that, is really vital. Especially as indie games companies aren’t going to have high-power CFOs, and you’re lucky if you even known people in that world, so it’s about trying to get advice that makes sense. Good people should be able to help you - some accountants can tend to obfuscate stuff for their own nefarious ends, so try and avoid that…
Q:How important is networking, sharing knowledge and even skills with people in a similar boat?
Paul Taylor:Yeah, the indie networking scene is huge and it’s massively supportive actually, because everyone understands the idea of mutual benefit. A lot of indies talk to each other and compare notes on everything from business to tax stuff to development. I think a lot of people don’t realise that actually - we get asked a lot whether we have a rival with x company or x game. Fray has been the most recent one, where people have gone ‘ooh, they’re making a game that’s a bit like your game, you must hate them…’ and that’s just ridiculous. Everyone talks to each other. I really like meeting other indies, especially other indies with whom we’re supposed to have massive beef, because that’s just a good situation to have a laugh with someone. Really I don’t think competition is a real problem, unless you’re making a massively derivative game - certainly with us and Fray they’re two very different approaches to a similar idea, and that’s just really healthy because they can look at our game and say ‘that worked or that really didn’t work’, and we can do that with their game when it comes out. And also I’m mentioning them in an interview, they’ll mention us in an interview - there’s a lot of mutual benefit to be had. I don’t like the idea of being in an industry where I have to endlessly badmouth my competition. I find the big publisher smack talk really hilarious - you can see the interview question coming in, and then the spokesman revving up the insult machine, like ‘what can I say about their controller that makes them seem bad?’ We don’t have to do that, so that’s really liberating. I can just say nice things.
Paul Taylor is joint managing director at Mode 7 Games. Interview by Alec Meer.