At next month's Montreal International Gaming Summit, KO_OP co-founder and studio director Saleem Dabbous will speak about the rise of indie- and micro-publishers and what small developers should know before striking a deal with one of them. But speaking with GamesIndustry.biz recently, Dabbous' cautionary words for developers were not what we expected.
"These sorts of relationships are not well understood and assumed to be business-focused relationships," Dabbous said. "Obviously it is a business relationship, but there's another element of it of small companies banding together in a familial sort of way to help each other raise their profile together. One thing people don't understand is the two-way side of that relationship. They think the publisher's just there to help you, but they don't understand what you're doing to help that publisher. At the scale we're operating at, there's a lot more give and take than there might be if you're working with a larger outfit."
Perhaps we should have expected Dabbous' message to advocate coziness more than caution. After all, the developer horror story about dealing with publishers is a common refrain for the industry, but KO_OP and its work are anything but common. Just check out the trailer for the studio's first commercial game, GNOG, set for release on the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR early next year.
The studio was founded in 2012 by Dabbous and programmer Bronson Zgeb, with the intention of making "visually arresting avant-garde games." They had minimal experience in games, but Dabbous specifically points to their outsider background as a help to the studio more than a hindrance.
"We've made a lot of mistakes that would have killed other people, but we've somehow managed to survive, and our games are richer for it," Dabbous said. "We make weirder, more experimental stuff because of that background, and that's something I'm really proud of."
As rank amateurs, Dabbous said they quickly ran into many of the more common mistakes that trip up young teams, like dooming projects by over-scoping them right off the bat. Before GNOG got going, they created 10-15 prototype games and had two projects enter full production that wound up cancelled.
"We went through those games, mistakes, and canceled productions, but we've managed to take those failures and use them to our advantage to actually grow and find other opportunities."
"We went through those games, mistakes, and canceled productions, but we've managed to take those failures and use them to our advantage to actually grow and find other opportunities," Dabbous said. "Because I think those initial games we started on were--I don't want to say brave because that sounds really full of it--I think they were really unique and people paid attention to them even though in the end we never released them. And I think that led us to a lot of the relationships we have today."
KO_OP was created with the co-founders' savings and money borrowed from friends and family, and Dabbous acknowledges the company wouldn't have made it this far without a bit of work-for-hire. But having to pay the bills didn't mean having to do grunt work on the latest AAA shooter du jour.
"The thing about our work-for-hire is we've been able to bring a unique spin to it, either through our art style or design," Dabbous said. "We take our work-for-hire very seriously and do a really good job with it, and also try to put our mark on it as much as possible, which isn't always the case with a lot of work-for-hire contracts. You don't always have that opportunity. But I think we've been selective about choosing those that would allow us to push what we're good at, and that keeps that income stream going."
That means the company has turned down contracts that would be financially lucrative because they'd also involve compromising on aspects like art direction or design.
"If they have a very clear intention of what they want, and that intention is not what we necessarily are good at, or who we are, we'll generally pass on stuff like that," Dabbous said.
KO_OP's partners have included the Film Board of Canada, Cartoon Network (the RigBMX series), and Rocketcat Games (Dad by the Sword), all probably a bit more open to KO_OP's brand of creativity than most companies offering work-for-hire.
"I think we've just been lucky with the fact that we've worked with really good partners," Dabbous acknowledged. "And that was partly by luck, partly by the kinds of games we made that they saw and [prompted them to] reach out to us."
One thing KO_OP has done exceptionally well is find kindred spirits to work with. While one might look at a project like GNOG and imagine a developer struggling to come up with an elevator pitch for the game much less landing a publisher, Dabbous said things came together fairly quickly. They showed the game to a number of people, Dabbous said, and all of them were interested. In the end, they joined Sony's Pub Fund initiative and signed a publishing deal with Double Fine Productions on its Double Fine Presents label.
"We don't have too many plans so that the game can organically reveal itself to us through the creation process."
In fact, Dabbous said there was never an elevator pitch for the game, something he attributes to the studio's development process. The company doesn't do game design documents in the traditional sense, he said. Instead, the studio puts together concept documents that broadly lay out design and aesthetic goals for the game, and let things evolve from there.
"We don't have too many plans so that the game can organically reveal itself to us through the creation process," Dabbous said.
So rather than hone an elevator pitch, they work on a concept pitch for the game to be delivered with the prototype.
"Better than any [pitch] was having the opportunity to sit down together and have a prototype build running on a laptop," Dabbous said. "When we met with Sony and when we met with Double Fine, in both cases the conversation got serious when we were able to do that."
So now KO_OP is on the verge of releasing its debut commercial game, some five years after taking its first steps into the games industry. As Dabbous said, there have been plenty of potentially fatal missteps along the way, but they've made it through thanks to a bit of privilege, some luck, and no small amount of perseverance.
"Honestly, we started the company with a really strong vision of what we wanted to be. And while that has grown and changed organically with experience, I think we've never lost sight of what kind of studio we wanted to be and why we were starting our own studio instead of going to work for someone else," Dabbous said.
The goal for KO_OP isn't to become the next indie game success story; it's to make the games they want to make and to be a sustainable business while they're doing it. Beyond that, the particulars are pretty open.
"Our identity isn't tied with being experimental and that's it, and anything that's not experimental that comes out from us we'll disown, or whatever," Dabbous said. "We're just really interested in developing and pushing our own boundaries of aesthetics, of audio, of design all coming together. Sometimes that manifests itself in a commercial project, and sometimes that manifests itself in an exhibition project. It's an opportunity for us as a team and individuals to explore what we want to do with games in any given moment, and that changes month to month and year to year."
Full disclosure: MIGS has a media partnership with GamesIndustry.biz, and is paying for our accommodation during the event.