For many, the name 11 bit Studios will naturally evoke another: This War of Mine. Released in 2014, the Polish developer's sixth release raised its profile to an entirely new level. This War of Mine was still a game, yes, but it was a game that approached familiar subject matter with uncommon seriousness of intent. Despite the six releases that preceded it, in the eyes of the public 11 bit Studios now occupied a spot at the forefront of a wave of politically, socially and emotionally resonant games. The question, internally, was whether that's where 11 bit wanted to stay.
This discussion around identity also affected its plans to work with third-parties, which it first announced several months before the launch of This War of Mine. 11 bit Launchpad was due to be the company's publishing label, but, following that breakout success, the parameters changed.
"Over the last 18 months we were trying to find our identity... We evaluated, I think, over 100 games during that time"
"Over the last 18 months we were trying to find our identity," says Paweł Feldman, publishing director at 11 bit Studios, when we meet at the BIG Business Forum. "We evaluated, I think, over 100 games during that time. There are two approaches that you can see with publishers: one is taking as many games as you can, signing them and seeing if maybe this one works and maybe this one doesn't; the other, which we prefer, is choosing the games that only we understand and, most importantly, that we know how to talk about, and make sure they get full attention - the same attention we gave to This War of Mine."
This is a crucial detail in understanding the way that 11 bit's thinking has changed since the announcement of Launchpad. Prior to its release, This War of Mine would almost certainly have been regarded as a commercial risk. According to Feldman, 11 bit had faith that a high standard of execution and effective communication would allow any idea, no matter how unusual, to find an audience. "It was a combination of the great communications strategy that we came up with - we didn't know what we were doing, but we believed that it would work - and the fact that it's a very good game to play," he says. "Those two combined made it happen."
11 bit Studios also discussed the knowledge it acquired in marketing This War of Mine at this year's Digital Dragons conference, and it's clear that Feldman now regards the company as an expert within a nascent field. This is the identity that 11 bit spent those 18 months trying to find, and it will be at the heart of what the company tries to achieve as a publisher.
"I would like 11 bit to be the first choice for people that are developing games talking about tough, difficult subjects"
"As a company, we want to work on meaningful games. Like This War of Mine, like Papers Please, like Life Is Strange, that kind of game," he says. "The medium has matured, the players have matured, and there are a lot of players who want those experiences. I would like 11 bit to be the first choice for people that are developing games talking about tough, difficult subjects.
"We know how to talk about these games. All we need are talented developers."
Talented developers aren't in short supply, Feldman admits, but the kind of games that 11 bit Studios is most interested in working with are not so abundant. "There are a lot of games that follow trends, and are not trying to find an identity," he says, and for that reason 11 bit won't "close the door" to good games that stand out in other ways. Beat Cop is a prime example of this; made by the Polish studio Pixel Crow, it has a unique style and distinctive tone, even if it doesn't deal with the kind of politically and socially conscious subject matter found in a game like This War of Mine. However, Beat Cop is only one of three games that 11 bit is now working with as a publisher. At least one of the unannounced projects, Feldman says, will more clearly display that emerging house style.
"There are a lot of indie publishers right now, and there are a lot more appearing, so at some point it's going to consolidate," Feldman continued. "There's only going to be a few left, and these will be the ones with their own identities... Well established publishers get all of the pitches. They get to pick. Our portfolio is still to come. We have to build it."
And it isn't just companies like Devolver and Tinybuild to which Feldman is referring. The launch of No Man's Sky, while divisive, has proved that indie games are now big business, steadily closing the gap on the AAA market. In addition, EA recently announced Originals, its own indie publishing initiative. "They're gonna take a lot of good stuff from the market," Feldman admits. "You can't win against that."
"There are a lot of indie publishers right now, and there are a lot more appearing, so at some point it's going to consolidate"
What you can do, though, is specialise, and that's where 11 bit's desire to push the medium forward crosses over with sound business strategy. EA might sign up a lot of good content, but Feldman seems confident that they wouldn't necessarily work with a game like Papers Please. "It's really hard to talk about these games," he says. "You have to be tasteful, you have to think three times about every aspect. It's like walking through a minefield. A mistake could cost them a lot."
That applies to mobile, too. This War of Mine has found success in every store through which it is sold, including mobile storefronts with notoriously vague standards around subject matter. Liyla & the Shadows of War, which was developed in Palestine, is just the latest example of a game that stumbled over Apple's content guidelines, but Feldman isn't concerned about encountering similar problems. In that respect, he says, 11 bit Studios' reputation could motivate change within the App Store itself.
"We have a very good relationship with Apple," Feldman says. "Every tough subject can be addressed in a way that gets over those policies. We're very much aware of them and we've worked with those platforms for years. I know that they're not going to ban us. Even if it's something bad they're going to suggest how we can address it, because we've proven that our content is good quality, that it means something, and that it's very popular.
"We want to use that opinion of us with the games that we're going to publish. If something has the 11-bit seal on it, all of those same qualities have to be there."
GamesIndustry.biz is a media partner for the BIG Business Forum. Our travel and accommodation costs were provided by the organiser.