Four Door Lemon: From Hired Gun to Full Indie
How do you transition a studio from the comfort of work-for-hire to the unforgiving world of self-publishing?
Well known within the UK development scene, Four Door Lemon is a studio that since 2005 has kept its head down, working on multiple work-for-hire projects. The initial plan always involved creating its own IP but with the comfort of the paid gig the studio has instead quietly built a reputable business, a reliable reputation and solid foundations.
That changes significantly now. With financial investment in a new game, Four Door Lemon is going as fully independent as possible. It's a risk, but according to co-founder Simon Barratt, it's time to seize the opportunity create games for a hardcore audience significantly underfed in the current gaming market.
Q: One of the interesting things about Four Door Lemon is you've built the company slowly over the long-term rather than with a view to getting a few hit games and selling up. Looking back, was that the right thing to do?
Simon Barratt: We were always a bit too heads-down working. With the work-for-hire cycle you can get stuck into it a little bit too much. It wasn't until 2008/09 that we started to lift our heads up and talk to other developers about platforms and projects. We stayed in the work-for-hire loop and enjoyed the money while it was going well. There were lots of publishers and projects but it doesn't always get you where you want to go unless you've got a high-level strategic plan.
"Publishers are coming to realise there is still this core gamer audience. There's lots of money to be made and the funding we've found has recognised that"
Q: You can't come out the gate saying 'where going to do this, we're going to do that' without having something to back you up.
Simon Barratt: Part of it was to build a team and part of it was to build up projects that we wanted to do. Looking back we maybe stuck at it for longer than we should have done.
Q: But now you're focusing on new IP, you don't want to do as much work-for-hire...
Simon Barratt: With the work for hire stuff we've managed to build up a reputation and over the past couple of years we've been out looking for either the big publishing project where we keep the IP or funding to do our own thing. It's a chance for us to make a mark and say 'this is a Four Door Lemon game' entirely. We're going for it, with the team, with the reputation, with the tech we've built up.
Q: Is this the big publishing project you always wanted to get off the ground?
Simon Barratt: When we originally came up with the idea we hoped we could get private funding so we could keep the IP We believe it's really strong. We did show it to publishers but we always said we want to own this. People have different views and that it's one way or the other: you keep ownership or you don't. we've had a lot of success with other people's IP. But it's more about getting a Four Door Lemon project out and having something substantial. We've done projects for other people where we've not always had the control we wanted and we've tried to do a project in the timeframes and budgets as best we could. But now it's our thing to push with the funding we've got. There are risks. We're turning from business-to-business, to business-to-players. We've seen a lot of indies do this and there's learning lessons from them. This year we'll be continuing that learning process while we're announcing the game and building up a community for the game to get some momentum behind it.
Q: Is this a move that's representative of the business for smaller studios? There's less risk in big publishing, but there's still a hunger for new products. Is this where the smaller teams can step up and grab fans and financial success?
Simon Barratt: When we started in 2005 we didn't feel that we could go out there and do it with two guys starting up. If we were a two-man team now without the pressures of having an office and a full team we'd have a different approach entirely. We could look at developers like that and seem quite jealous of them because they're able to do it without many risks and all that baggage. It's the freedom to just go for it.
"There's a big exodus of developers from the core gaming markets and it's great for companies like us because that's where we want to be"
Unity gets mentioned a lot because it's cheaper so you don't need to build your own tech. The growth of digital distribution is a big part of it, you can just put it up on Greenlight or go direct to Valve. And with Apple or Android you might struggle with visibility but you can just launch onto those platforms and have a hit if you make a good enough game. Those routes to the customer were there in 2005 but it tended to be the one-man indies who could put a game on their website and find that audience, be it a niche one. If you got 10,000 sales in a year for a game that cost £12 that was a very good salary.
The way we've done it is to grow the team so there's ongoing costs and we may have been a bit more risk-averse than we should have done. But that's because we've got more responsibility and we wanted to be a stable, respected company. It's been a balancing act of what we wanted to be and what we were. It's only recently with this funding that's allowed us to pivot - to use an awful phrase.
Q: Can you talk a bit about where the funding has come from?
Simon Barratt: Basically, it's project funding so we've been able to do it without giving up equity in the company. It's focused on the project and we've all got the same intentions behind it. There are some benefits as opposed to a publishing deal and we'll obviously have to think about marketing and how that will work out. We need to work out our approach and how we'll change Four Door and the game to fit into the market.
Q: You've worked with publishers and now you've got private project funding. What's that environment like currently, what are investors looking to back with their cash?
Simon Barratt: The big VCs want to be investing in the latest business models and platforms, it's easy to tick those boxes with them. But certain smaller publishers are coming to realise there is still this core gamer audience there. There's a market there where people will happily pay £9.99 for a solid gaming experience be it on console of PC. There's lots of money to be made there and the funding we've found has recognised that. If it's a quality game, you get it to market right and have the players behind you it can be massive. If you look at something like Fez, World of Goo or Euphoria they've had great support initially but by then putting a magnifying glass over the market you can see more avenues, with ports and other routes to market - and they've made a lot money to continue to do that kind of thing. We'd like to at least partially emulate that.
Q: Those developers have been confident enough to not give everything away at the very beginning. They haven't chased the next big thing and thrown everything at it. They've patiently built a game, a fan base and then reaped the rewards of that.
Simon Barratt: People are still happy to buy a nine hour game and sit down and play it without worrying about how they will be asked to pay for the game after an hour or so. You don't really get those experiences on iOS platforms. A lot of industry people feel that getting funding for games like that has been hard to get recently. Being indie is about creating a solid gaming experience, not worrying about the business model. The business plan is 'make a good game'. We've seen good games rise through the whole discovery process. Ridiculous Fishing, Hotline Miami have done different marketing things but they stand out because of the quality of the game.
Q: These developers are games players first and foremost, they're not marketeers talking the talk.
Simon Barratt: The whole 'make a game that you want to play' philosophy can be looked down on, but the reality is that there is incredible amounts of passion behind that idea. Publisher's don't like it because it's not addressing a target audience but if you recognise yourself as a target audience and assuming you're comfortable with the costs you can break even and do quite well, enabling you to do the next game and the next game. You'll eventually get that breakaway hit. Minecraft is another example. It's a game that Notch wanted to play. He made it and he found an audience.
The free to play proponents will tell you the subscription model is dead but if Mojang are about to do that [with new game 0x10c] I'm sure it will be a massive success for them. I think there's a big audience for children of gaming parents who grew up playing games who won't mind paying £9.99 a month for their 10 year-old.
Q: You've secured funding and you must be working with formats in mind. But when you look at the market how do you make that decision? Current gen consoles are winding down, Android is confusing, the Wii U and Vita are dead in the water, iOS is crowded, new generation consoles aren't established yet - how do you make that call?
"We don't really care where we're watching or playing or what platform it is. It's all about the actual content"
Simon Barratt: Look at the audience. People said Xbox Live Arcade was beginning to slow down then Trials, Minecraft and Spelunky did massive numbers. Gamers will go where the content is. It's the same with TV channels. We've stopped following broadcast schedules and we'll go to the iPlayer or streaming TV apps. We don't really care where we're watching or playing or what platform it is. It's all about the actual content. That makes it harder for games developers because we have to create content for every single platform. If the content is right and the price is right players will go where they need to go. And there's still an audience for both the tail end and the early adopters. PC is strong, Steam is strong, Microsoft has a good presence in the PC space so we'll see how that goes with Windows 8. We need to look where the games players are and try and get in that space.
If developers are scared of making that decision or stuck on following trends then that's more space for us to expand into. Telltale have said a similar thing. There's a big exodus of developers from the core gaming markets and it's great for companies like us because that's where we want to be.
Q: The whole video game hobby has been supported by a core gamer since day one, hasn't it? From the Atari 2600. Consoles have hit mainstream success and become fads but there's always been this backbone of core gamers that step up to early adopt, buy more games and stick around after the party.
Simon Barratt: The free-to-play and iOS markets are massive but they are extra markets on top of what we have. Maybe the core gamer has looked at other experiences and they spend their money elsewhere, maybe it's cannibalised the markets a little, but if the content is there they will come. If we were working with a publisher we'd be more scared of saying that but because we feel we've got more freedom we can be confident saying that and hopefully deliver on it.
Q: Do you feel more independent now with this investment and the new project compared to when you had the support of work-for-hire?
Simon Barratt: We don't want to give that up entirely because it always gives us an interesting view on the industry. We're aiming ideally for a 70/30 split between our own projects and work with smaller indies, or working with publishers on bigger projects and supporting them. But with us turning it around from one to the other we feel a lot more independent now. It's a big risk if we aren't successful with our current title but the amount of freedom we feel we have and the sort of drive we've got will help us make a mark of our own.