The rise and fall and rise again of Carmageddon studio Stainless Games
Accelerating into almost instant stardom in 1997 with its first game Carmageddon, UK studio Stainless Games seemed destined to have it all. The satirical and sadistic driving game and its sequel both topped the games charts, but when publisher SCI brought in a different studio for the poorly-received third game, both the series and Stainless fell on harder times. Stainless slowly built its way back up primarily via contract work, eventually finding significant commercial success with 2009 console/PC download title Magic The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers, which at the time became the fastest-selling XBLA game ever. Earlier this year, Stainless was able to buy back the rights to Carmageddon from new Eidos/SCI owner Square Enix, and is working on a new download title, Carmageddon: Reincarnation.
Here, GamesIndustry.biz chats to the still-independent, Isle of Wight-based developer's CEO Patrick Buckland about Stainless' long, hard journey, the inevitable publisher-developer IP tussles, the importance of getting demos right and why devs shouldn't sneer at licensed work.
Q: How does Stainless see itself as a studio these days? Indie, digital-specific, a big mainstream studio, what?
Patrick Buckland: That's an interesting question, because the answer to that's changing all the time. We've specialised in digital console specifically for about five, six years now. As an indie, it was very difficult to survive back then; that was a time, around about 2005, when about 50 per cent of indies in this country went bust. So as a smaller company we couldn't compete with the triple-As, if we wanted to get back into that market, which of course we used to be in with Carmageddon, we had to find ourselves a niche - we identified that console digital download was going to be the next big thing. This was before the Xbox (360) released and as it was it looks like we actually did back the right horse. We felt that was the way things were going to change - which is why I gave my original answer, that things are changing all the time, because what we do is mainstream now. In a very short while, by which I mean several years, you would think that download is going to be mainstream itself. If publishers don't move quickly they may well be left behind by the likes of indie developers who've hopefully actually lasted, like the likes of Mojang and Minecraft and of course Valve - what do you call Valve? Are they indie? I guess they are. But they're giant - they certainly have an indie feel and they're independent as such, even though they're really big. We see ourselves, hopefully, on the crest of the wave of that, a little bit.
Q: Did you ever consider being acquired by a publisher?
Patrick Buckland: Well, not really. We've been there before, sort of - we were acquired by VIS, who were a big developer, but that was a difficult time. So it's great to be independent, but it's a bit tough - extremely tough - so it's only been the last couple of years that we've been financially secure, because Duels of the Planeswalkers has done so well. And Wizards of the Coast has been such a good partner, and that's an example I think of where, rather than being acquired by a publisher, what you need to do to get yourself stable is either be... well, I want to say lucky, but that's not really right. A few studios out there, like Team 17 with Worms or Mojang with Minecraft or some of the others, again you could say Valve, have their own IP that is so strong that they're completely financially secure. If you don't have that, you need to have a very good partner - a partner that doesn't abuse you and screw you. Wizards of the Coast has been a fantastic partner to us with Duels of the Planeswalkers. They cut us a good deal with that, we get paid very well and we do share in the profits. I think that, as an indie, there are three holy grails.
A few studios have their own IP that is so strong that they're financially secure. If you don't have that, you need to have a partner that doesn't abuse you.
First one is repeat business. Getting repeat business is so important, so you're not forever trying to chase that next contract. Now, with the Duels of the Planeswalkers work, we've got repeat business.
Second holy grail is actually getting royalties, not just getting a contract that's got royalties in it, but really having money landing in the bank. Again, we're doing that.
The third holy grail is obviously owning your own IP. Which we've now got with Carmageddon. After a long time - I set the company up in '94 - we're finally ticking all three boxes [laughs]. We're getting there!
Q: Have you found it at all uncomfortable to be doing stuff that wasn't your own IP for the last several years, given you did originally make your name with your own property?
Patrick Buckland: Well, yeah. But that shift in thinking has been paying the mortgage, to be honest. I've lost my house over keeping Stainless going, my co-director's lost his house keeping Stainless going. That applies to most businessmen to be honest - no matter what you're doing, in our industry or others, if you want to keep an independent company going you've got to really go for it. So when it comes down to it, you do what work is out there and you try and do a good job. You can't be a primadonna about it and say 'no, I'm not going to work on that' - what's important is doing a really good quality job. Even if the budget's low.
For instance, the Atari work we did, all the Classics that we did for XBLA, the budget for all that lot was not high at all. So we only had a tiny skeleton crew working on that, but we tried to make the quality high within the parameters. Of course, your end users don't necessarily know what the parameters were, but in terms of professional pride we're very, very pleased with what we did within those. So if you are weathering the storm, you've got to just have your quality standards as high as possible so you know you're doing a good job. Plenty of people out there don't get the luxury of working on their own IP... and that applies to film as well. How many big sequels have you seen that are rubbish, because of course the director and writer and everyone don't own the IP - studios do. Often these great films that come out, the second one is just terrible because the studio have put whoever they want on it. So, as an artist - I'm a programmer by trade, videogames programming is definitely an art - you can't always choose to work on what you want to, can you?
Q: And I guess you've seen the other side of the coin, when the third Carmageddon game got passed onto someone else who perhaps didn't do quite such a good job with it?
Patrick Buckland: Exactly, yeah. That was a hard lesson for me. The story behind that is that, after we finished Carmageddon 2, SCI said to us - literally the day after - 'right, off we go then, Carmageddon 3' and we went 'woah, hang on a minute, we've been doing nothing but Carma for three years, give us a break a minute and a chance to work on something else' so they went off and brought someone else in. They treated that as us turning down the option. Obviously if we'd known that they were going to get someone else, then we'd have done it, but the first thing we knew about Carmageddon: TDR 3000 was a press release on CTW. That was a nice morning [laughs].
Q: In terms of SCI having those IP rights, was that part of the original negotiation for a publishing deal?
Patrick Buckland: Yeah, and I've got no complaints about that to be honest, because that was just the way the industry works and it was their money. I can look at this both ways - from an artistic standpoint it's crap, and it's not how things work in for instance the book publishing market, but that's because a book's cheap to produce. It is how things work in the film industry, as I said, because films are not cheap, and even though Carmageddon back then in 1995 was only a matter of hundreds of thousands [of pounds], not millions, it was still hundreds of thousands of someone else's money and we at the time were an unknown startup. It's just the way things work. If you remember, the only reason that Valve own Half-Life is they held a gun to Sierra's head and said we won't do it unless you give us the rights back. That was a nice bit of brinksmanship!
The only reason that Valve own Half-Life is they held a gun to Sierra's head and said we won't do it unless you give us the rights back.
Q: Given what you've been through, would you recommend that a young developer looking for a publishing deal now should give over their IP rights in order to get one?
Patrick Buckland: Well, it should be avoided if you can, but good luck with trying to. There are people we're talking to at the moment, in terms of getting Carmageddon funded, who are saying 'no, no, we don't want to take your IP from you anymore' - actually getting that into reality is a different matter. You've got to look at it from their standpoint as well; with my businessman hat on I can see their viewpoint. They're putting a lot of money into this, they're going to market it - what they're doing is building up somebody else's brand. So I think the only way you can get a deal like that at the moment is by offering a lot of sequels and derivative rights and whatever, because otherwise why should they do it? That's why hopefully what will come into the market more, and it hasn't yet, is project finance. So you'll get a pure financial arrangement. There's lots of people trying to do this, and we're talking to most of 'em. So if you can get the money in from that direction, then the IP is a moot point. They don't want the IP. They want to make a higher percentage return than they will by sticking their money in the bank.
Q: So who's doing that? Angel investors and the like?
Patrick Buckland: Actual game funds. They don't really exist yet, not in a working form. Whenever it's a publisher, they'll want the brand themselves, whereas it's an investment fund they're not interested in that. I've been in the business for a long time now, and I've been hearing for decades about these sorts of funds getting set up, but at the moment they don't really exist. There are a few funds out there and we're talking to most of them, but it's tough, really tough, to actually get that money out of people. Whereas a publisher, it's worth their while investing that money if they're building something. Unless they're building something, rather than just getting those first returns, it's very difficult to justify investing in that game. Because say you've got two games on the table, from a publisher's perspective, and one of them you keep the IP and the other you don't, which are you going to go for? It's damned tough for someone coming in here.
We're in a fortunate position at the moment, because due to various circumstances, with Square buying Eidos which SCI reversed into, so the Carmageddon IP therefore being up for sale which itself is unusual, at just the time where we're earning good money from the magic thing, I think was a very fortunate set of circumstances. Although it was a lot of hard work, it enables us now to be in a position where we're an independent developer and we own a valuable brand.
Q: And presumably there's no way you'd ever sell it again...
Patrick Buckland: Absolutely not... although, you should never say never. If someone came up and offered us half a billion...[laughs] So no, not unless it was silly money. It's great having that brand again, it's come back home. Since setting the website up and the Facebook page and everything, people are loving the fact it's come back to us. We've had emails, on average probably once a week since forever, asking when's the next Carmageddon coming out.
Q: Did you ever expect to own it again? Has it been a long-term plan?
Patrick Buckland: Very long term, yeah. We didn't expect to own it at first, but we did hope to work on it again. We were actually working a little bit with SCI - they commissioned us a few years ago, before they bought Eidos, to start looking into Carmageddon and the value of Carmageddon. They realised that Carmageddon was us - without Stainless it's nothing. So they did actually pay us to start boiling down what the brand was, so we were expecting to work on it again. Then they bought Eidos, and they had bigger fish to fry when that happened, because of course they were just crazily busy suddenly inheriting all these brands. So then nothing was really happening with it, because they weren't going to sell it, but also they weren't going to work on it when they didn't have the bandwidth because they suddenly had Hitman, Tomb Raider, Championship Manager... So it was suddenly dead. We had been trying to do this for six or seven years now; only when Square bought then, and then of course we immediately contacted them to see if they were interested in selling it, and we were very surprised when they came back and said 'yes.' Very surprised, actually. Even then, it's taken a couple of years - since Square first bought them.
Q: So it's been a constant stream of communication, not just a quickly signed contract?
Patrick Buckland: Yeah, it's taken a long time, lot of lawyers involved. We weren't the only ones bidding either - there were two other bidders.
Q: Do you know who they were?
Patrick Buckland: I do. I can't say, but they were trying for it. It was a genuine sale.
Q: It would have felt awful if someone else had snagged it at that stage - so close to getting it back.
Patrick Buckland: I know, yeah. [Laughs]. Too right. It would have been even worse. Fortunately, it happened at a time where we did have cash in the bank.
Q: Interesting that Square wanted to offload IP at that stage, given they just bought the True Crime rights from Activision. Maybe it's all one long term plan about shaping their portfolio towards primarily action games.
Patrick Buckland: Probably, yeah. I have no idea what the inner workings of Square were about it. It did surprise us, just as a general principle - let's face it, Square aren't short of cash, so why sell IP? Because as soon as you sell it, not only have you not got it anymore, but somebody else has got it and therefore there's more out there on the market that is competing with your own products. I'm not complaining, though. I've no idea if they sold anything else, but I guess it all helps cashflow - sell a few things like that, it gets an entire office full of people paid for a while.
Q: The big publishers seem a little more risk averse too, less willing to invest in something that they're not convinced will sell very well.
Our conversion rate on Magic is incredible. It's tenfold of what some people quote.
Patrick Buckland: That's right. I don't think Square would ever have done anything with Carmageddon but that doesn't mean to say that therefore they would sell it. That's pure conjecture; we certainly never asked them if they were going to do something because we didn't want to rock the boat. We didn't want them going 'actually, hang on a minute - why are we selling this?' So we just said 'yeah, yeah, fine, OK!'
Q: How important do you think brand recognition's going to be for the new game? Is it Carmageddon coming back, or is it a new game about running people over in crazy cars for a newer generation?
Patrick Buckland: It's a very good question. Much of it is Carmageddon coming back, but we're not going to rely on that. It has to appeal also to a completely fresh audience, in the same way as it did before. We appeared from nowhere when it came out in '97 - we were unknown, SCI were really unknown, so it had to stand up on its own two feet. Obviously the violence and the press and everything gave it publicity, but that's not why it sold. The initial demo quite famously crashed the internet in the UK. It came out and we took the internet down. This was in 1997, which means the internet was probably one small building somewhere in Swindon... The demo then had loads of people playing it, and because it was fun. It really had to stand up.
So what we're trying to do now is the same thing. We can't just sit back and go 'oh, people will buy it because it's Carmageddon.' It has been a dormant brand for a long time. And we're very much now in a culture of try before you buy, which obviously had a little bit back then with the covermounts, but not quite so much. Now because you can download demos, the game has to be good. So yes, we are appealing to previous customers with brand recognition, but at the same time we're certainly not relying on that. It has to be good enough to be attractive to brand new people.
Q: You remain confident in demos as a promotional tool? A lot of the industry seems to have backed away from them, apparently for fear of giving away too much content and because trailers can make much bigger promises to customers.
Patrick Buckland: Well, we've had bad experiences with demos. Novadrome on XBLA, that was a big lesson. Novadrome was a game that we co-published with Disney - it was our IP and we still own that IP - that had the hell tested out of it, by us internally, by Microsoft and by Disney. Everyone loved it, and it went out there and didn't sell at all. It sold really badly. We did a full post-mortem on it with Disney, and it was the demo. We'd played it too much, ourselves and Microsoft and Disney, and we didn't realise how steep the learning curve was. So the demo went out there - and if you don't capture people in the first 10, 20 seconds you've lost them. It's really, really fast. You have to capture people quickly, Novadrome taught us that in a big way.
Which is why on Duels of the Planeswalkers we then passed that lesson onto Wizards and between us put a phenomenal amount of effort into demos. What Wizards actually did on that was contracted a company to effectively get people in from the streets, real Xbox players, who they asked 'have you ever played a trading card game before?' If they said yes they weren't allowed. They were then take to Wizards and asked again 'have you ever played a trading card game?' because some of them have lied just to get into Wizards, and if they said 'I have actually, I play Magic every day' they were booted out.
So it was people who'd never touched Magic before, and our lead programmer went out there and stayed for a month in Seattle. They cliniced the game, they videoed it and they then sent back what happened on the demo, they made changes, they did it again and again. That amount of effort in, a month of iteration like that, just on the demo - because Magic: The Gathering's a very complex game anyway - and our conversion rate on Magic is incredible. It's tenfold of what some people quote. I'd say roughly that as many people do convert and buy the full game as don't, put it that way.
Q: It seems very rare for demos to be tailored content, as opposed to just a tutorial and some of the first level.
Patrick Buckland: That's absolutely right. We have obviously had a lot of experiences of the download stuff so we've obviously also had a lot of experiences of mistakes. The problem that we had originally with [the demo of] Crystal Quest on XBLA was that it was the first levels. Crystal Quest starts out very, very simply, so what you weren't shown from the demo is what the game becomes. When Hollywood puts out the trailer for a film, they don't show you the first 30 seconds of the film - they show you all the exciting bits, bang bang bang, from all the way through, so we need to think about that in terms of demos. So what you were saying about people turning off demos and going for trailers, I can really see where they're coming from because we've been burned badly. However, we've also been successful for demos. I think if you've got the confidence in the game and the game is good enough, and you really carefully design the demo, as you say, like a separate product almost, the demo should work well for you.
Q: So you'll do that with Carmageddon, even though you may not have the resources you do when you work with someone like Wizards?
Patrick Buckland: Oh, yes. It'll definitely be bespoke, and it will be a demo not a trailer, definitely. We did the same thing originally back in '97 - the demo of Carma was one level that was a city level, and was carefully constructed to be a demo, to give you a really good cross-section of the game. And it did really well for us. Unless a demo hooks you quickly, it can be an anti-demo if you're not careful. There are games out there, I'm sure, that a demo could never work - maybe a complicated RTS or something - and I think maybe for them a video is better, because you're never going to get people to invest enough time to understand the game, and they're going to go 'ah, this looks a bit crap'. However, for Carmageddon it's got to be fun right from the word go - that's the whole point of it. You've got to burst out laughing, and you can get that right away from word go.
Q: If you get to run someone over within the first five seconds, job done.
Patrick Buckland: Yeah! Or running them over in a particular way. Actually, I'm sure you know, the key thing with Carmageddon is it's not the violence, it's the humour. There are so few games out there that have come out since, really really few, that are genuinely funny. That's what we're really trying to do, and that's what was lost when other people worked on Carmageddon. They didn't understand that the essence of it was that me and my business partner Neil Barnden, who did the art side, we've both got crazy senses of humour and we're well known for being stupid. That essence got put into the game - it's an idiotic game, we're really proud of that and we're going to make the new one as idiotic as possible.
Q: That's two things for the gravestone, then - you broke the internet and you were as idiotic as possible.
Patrick Buckland: I'll be quite happy with that!
Patrick Buckland is CEO of Stainless Games. Interview by Alec Meer.