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:Hows Frozen Synapse going? Youre 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 were at now. Although I cant really discuss specific sales figures at the moment - were looking into whether we can do that in the future - what I will say is that its definitely created a situation where were 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, were not a massively capital-intensive operation, were 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 were not going to do that, were going to focus what weve got on doing another game.
Q:Is that based on money thats 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 were 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 were planning on doing is really doing as much as we can sensibly to keep the game interested in people, keep the community going. Were actually already working on some new, free features in a path and were going to release some free versus stuff and other things well 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 its not very dependent on a specific look or a specific graphics technology, or something thats going to age really badly.
Frozen Synapse is a game that can probably keep on going for some time, because its not very dependent on a specific look or a specific graphics technology
Q:Paid DLC, then?
Paul Taylor:Were looking at that right now. Its 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 Im 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. Thats something that Im working on right now, and there are other features that were thinking about. We tend to be a bit cagey pre-announcing stuff, because saying youre 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 its going to work has gone down, Im never going to say were definitely doing it. I just think thats 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? Thats one of the best things about Valve, they wont say you are doing this - which they could do very easily - theyll say this is the kind of thing we want to do, this is why, how do you want to go about it? Its great, it lets you try stuff. Were doing some stuff on Steam that people dont normally do, like the free key for a friend thing, or offering the soundtrack as a separate thing you can upgrade to. Theyre quite different, and Valve had to do some actual system-related stuff to allow us to do that. For an indie game that doesnt have a lot of clout, theyre surprisingly flexible and thats 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 youre 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 theyre 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 theres a good reason for that, because not everything gets on there. I think Cliffski [Positechs Cliff Harris] did a post about this, the saturation of games - it sort of doesnt 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 theres 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 games development funded, given it took you several years?
Paul Taylor:We did something a little bit unusual - we released [Mode 7s 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. Its 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 wed made a game that had some good qualities but was fairly divisive - either people really like it because its unique or they hate it because its weird. So what they want to do now is make a game that is good, that gets good review scores, that were happy with, that lets us do something we want to do. And it doesnt matter how long it takes: we wont pay ourselves anything, just enough to live on, well keep working at it. And thats 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 theyre cherry-picking. Theyre sort of doing enough work to make a game. And thats okay - that can work as business model, and its probably more sensible than what we did, because its quite risky to go oh, well 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 didnt 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 dont hit all of their possible audience because the problem is reach. Bigger companies are able to spend massive amounts and youre 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. Its 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 Im 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 dont 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 its 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 theres people saying oh I just got given a copy of this, you should check it out - thats why were doing it.
Q:As an indie, presumably youre more invested in continuing to push it over time and stay excited, as opposed to a publisher whos immediately looking at the next release on the schedule or the DLC and moves on?
Paul Taylor:Yeah, were very keen on not dumping things. One thing that we said is that well always keep servers running, as long as were in business, and if we go out of business well open-source the server so someone else can run it. Were 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. Theres definitely a tension between those two things in the indie games scene in general, but its so important for us that our games persist, and well 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, Ive 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 isnt right for the game - you should pick a business model that suits the game primarily, and dont try to shoehorn things into the trendy business model at the time. So no, I dont think Id 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 its 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 arent relevant to you because youre 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 its also good to have other ways to make money, because games are so fickle and changeable, you never know whats going to happen.
Q:Did you look into R&D tax breaks?
Paul Taylor:We were a bit slow on that one. Its something were actually looking into right now, because theres some stuff you can do retroactively which some people dont realise - so yeah, talk to your account about R&D tax credits. Its 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 arent going to have high-power CFOs, and youre lucky if you even known people in that world, so its 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 its 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 dont 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, theyre making a game thats a bit like your game, you must hate them and thats just ridiculous. Everyone talks to each other. I really like meeting other indies, especially other indies with whom were supposed to have massive beef, because thats just a good situation to have a laugh with someone. Really I dont think competition is a real problem, unless youre making a massively derivative game - certainly with us and Fray theyre two very different approaches to a similar idea, and thats just really healthy because they can look at our game and say that worked or that really didnt work, and we can do that with their game when it comes out. And also Im mentioning them in an interview, theyll mention us in an interview - theres a lot of mutual benefit to be had. I dont 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 dont have to do that, so thats really liberating. I can just say nice things.
Paul Taylor is joint managing director at Mode 7 Games. Interview by Alec Meer.