Playing Dead

Playdead Studios' Dino Patti on life, Limbo and beyond

PlayDead's Limbo was one of the most memorable games of 2010, and one of XBLA's most successful. Now the game has been officially announced for PSN and PC, PlayDead CEO Dino Patti sat down with for a chat about the Nordic community, Playdead's position in it and what's next for the studio.

Q:So Limbo has now been officially announced for both PSN and PC, was there an exclusivity agreement in place with Microsoft or did the porting just take time?

Dino Patti:A bit of both. Making sure that everything is in good shape for a new platform takes time, and we have been focusing more on the new game.

Q:Did the PSN crisis affect the process at all?

Dino Patti:We only had few things we couldn't test for some days, nothing which actually shifted our launch schedule. I think the problem for small developers is that you have to choose to go with either Xbox or PSN - it's hard for a small developer to get on both because you don't have the leverage to do it.

It's something that might change in the future but I think today, with the way those guys operate, it's really important for them to differentiate their platforms. That means that they'll always try to do exclusive things when they can. If you're with a big publisher then you have more chance of doing something because you can say you have a million dollars in marketing budget. We started with $100,000 in PR and marketing - so it wasn't much compared to the big guys.

Q:And what's in the pipeline now?

Dino Patti:We have a new game in the works. We have a lot of things going on!

Q:Do you think that the ethos behind Limbo will be one you carry through to other projects?

Dino Patti:Definitely. It's definitely a mark of Arnt, who was the game director for the project - he was the one who put his heart and soul into it, the goal for the studio is to set new standards. We would never just follow gold rushes and just do whatever everyone else is doing. We're doing out own stuff, and trying to optimise stuff like distribution, obviously. But we'll never compromise the good idea being the driver of the company.

Q:You were lauded as one of the biggest wins of the Nordic Game funding program - how important was that to your success?

Dino Patti:To be honest, the money was really small. But, at that stage not much money was available so it was really good for us. When we got the first money we were just two people, me and Arnt. That meant we could run the business for two years - instead of that we started slowly hiring. So at the begining that money was immensely important for us.

We don't see our neighbours as competitors. We live in a house with a load of other developers!

Q:And that was a fairly long time before release?

Dino Patti:Yes, we got the first funding in 2006, so just around when Arnt and I met.

Q:Speaking to the organisers of Nordic Game in Malmo recently, they were very honest about the fact that the program is not looking in great shape at the moment for the future - funding is decreasing fast. Do you think that the placement of funding represents a sound investment for the Nordic governments?

Dino Patti:I don't know if you can talk about investments in that sense. It's more like support. It's not giving us investment, it's giving us support. I think the figures are okay. I think it's necessary for the games business in the Nordic region right now to have some sort of kickstarter. I'm not necesarilly that much into putting support into things which can't support themselves, but, especially in Denmark at the moment, the business is so low that it needs some kind of booster to get on the level of places like the UK.

It's justifiable as a cultural thing at least.

Q:So you'd see it as a cultural grant rather than business?

Dino Patti:Ideally it'd be best if it was seen as a bit of both.

Q:Do you think that the program as a whole can continue with the reduced funding? I think it is predicted to drop by 75 per cent by 2015...

Dino Patti:I think it'll have a hard time. The grants will be lower, the Nordic Game conference, one of the only conferences we have in the Nordic region, will be smaller. I think it's the wrong direction.

Q:It's a real shame, because it seems like a really important thing for the local industry. There seems to be quite a collaborative attitude between studios in the region - is that a fair assessment?

Dino Patti:Yeah, I think it is. We don't see our neighbours as competitors. We live in a house with a load of other developers! We compete on a global scale, and for our game at least, it's not like we have any tricks that other people would just copy if they found them out. We do our products, they do theirs. They don't really overlap - maybe if they came out the same day and had stolen everything from the game, that wouldn't be good, but there's not that kind of community at all, it's really respectful.

Q:Do you think that's because of the small size of the industry or is there just more of a community spirit in the area than elsewhere?

Dino Patti:I think it's more community. There was some money used to map the business by the Danish government - they found out that there were 500 professional game developers in the business in Denmark. So that's pretty small. I think it comes from that, you always know everyone else who's making games, and you always want them to succeed too.

In Denmark, and I think all over the Nordic region, we're behind in terms of infrastructure. If you go to the UK or Canada, you leave one job to go to another. You have the press, so many things related to games where you can get a job. In Denmark we don't really have that. There's no infrastructure support. When people get fired from one place, they go to banks, to database companies. Some come back to the games industry, but we lose more than we like.

Q:Were the program have to cease funding, would you ever consider investing in other projects outside of Playdead?

Dino Patti:I would love to help a developer which we thought had the talent. That would probably be sometime in the future, because right now we have a lot of internal things going on. We're aiming to be even more independent than we were before, and that's expensive.

What I'm hinting at, really, is that we're investor-backed. So in that sense we're trying to become more independent. In that sense, having control of our project - people who pay for the projects are the ones controlling it. We're really aiming to use our own money, we're our best investors. We're the ones who know what we want. We want to control micro-decisions. We'll probably want to sanity check them with people but we want to have control.

Q:So you're next project you want to be completely self-published and funded?

Dino Patti:Yes. For us, if we can somehow keep the creative control and the IP, then we'd probably collaborate with someone. But if they would take our freedom and creative control, we would never say yes to it. That's not where we come from.

Q:Do you still own the IP for Limbo?

We're really aiming to use our own money, we're our best investors. We're the ones who know what we want.

Dino Patti:Yeah, I see it more as a distribution deal. Which I'm really happy with. It's worked out really well. They were cool to work with - lots of suggestions, but no fights. Just working out the best solutions.

But again, we paid for our own project, so it's not like they could come and say, we have money in here or pay money to have the decision forced through. So there had to be a relationship there - a publisher at any time can say, we don't want to publish your work.

Q:Is now a better time to be an indie developer? Would you swap your position for one working for a big publisher?

Dino Patti:I guess in my position as a CEO of an awesome [laughs] I really love my work, I love to be there and I love what we've created. It's a fantastic work environment and we've got some fantastic people. I think I'm a bit damaged because when I was younger I would have loved to work with a big publisher or studio. Now I have no-one to complain about, because it's all me.

I can complain to Arnt and he can complain to me sometimes, we run the business together, but it's really an awesome thing to be a small studio. We would like to grow, to do other stuff, bigger stuff. We'd also like to be able to do simultaneous stuff. We've got 13 people now and it's really hard to do separate things. But I think the management gets really difficult when you're 1000, 500 or even 200 people. You don't have control over the micro-decisions.

You'll maybe end up with more administration and middle management than people actually doing stuff. For us, we aim to remain a controllable size.

Q:And if you were approached for acquisition?

Dino Patti:No. There's no reason to do it. We want to set new standards for games, we don't want to be a production house.

People would justify it with security, but development studios can be shut down really fast.

Q:We've certainly seen plenty of that - even big studios don't seem to have much of a safety net these days - make one game that doesn't sell and you're history. Are you in a position where you could survive your next game being a financial flop?

Dino Patti:No way, it has to be a success too. Not every project has to, but I know the next one must. I'll put it another way - we'd probably need some funding for the next project.

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