Set up in 2003 and founded by Andrew Eades and David Amor, Relentless Software is best known for the Buzz! franchise, with over 50 SKUs put out to date. Today the studio has revealed its new project – Blue Toad Murder Files – a murder mystery title to be released exclusively over PlayStation Network, and marking the studio's first entry into self-publishing.
Here, in this exclusive interview with GamesIndustry.biz, Eades and Amor discuss the growing opportunities for independent game developers, how digital distribution can enable smaller projects to reach the right audience, and why self-publishing can still be a collaboration with bigger publishing and marketing partners.
Q: Can you begin by telling us a bit about your new game Blue Toad Murder Files?
David Amor: Blue Toad Murder Files is a murder mystery game along the lines of Agatha Christie and Midsomer Murders and 1001 other murder mystery TV dramas like Sherlock Holmes etc - that's the style of the game. I think it's been done a great deal in TV and books and movies, but it hasn't been covered that much in videogames and it's an area we wanted to tackle. It's an interesting genre to try and realise. It will come out towards the end of this year...are we saying a date..?
Andrew Eades: ...in December.
David Amor: No price point as yet. What I like about a murder mystery game is that when you stick someone in front of it, everyone knows how that game works because they've seen it a thousand times on the telly. People know all about alibis and motives and all this stuff. We don't have to explain it. And I think that's one of the things that made Buzz popular - it was based on the quiz show that people have seen on TV a thousand times too. I hope the same works for us in a murder mystery title.
Q: That's true - some people think a casual game has to be about making a game that only uses a couple of buttons. But it's about the concept too...
David Amor: That's exactly right. If you speak to a non-gamer, as I have done, and they ask what you're working on and you say 'it's a murder mystery game' then I've just summed it up in two words. It's like 'karaoke', or 'air guitar', or 'quiz game', or 'keep fit'. I think being able to sum it up as easily as that is a good indication as well.
Q: You're going to be self-publishing the game on PSN – what was the thinking behind that decision?
Andrew Eades: Well, we're very lucky with our relationship with Sony - we're an exclusive developer and also exclusive to PlayStation Network. When we were thinking about doing Blue Toad Murder Files - what we wanted to do and the size of the game we did - we were able to make a decision to use our own resources to do it, and we thought the time's right for us to spend some of the profits that we made over the last five years on delivering our own game. PSN allows us to do that and we thought the time was right now to have a go.
Q: How do you think self-publishing will benefit the company?
Andrew Eades: It's good because there's something new and interesting in one corner of the Relentless office that we're all excited about. We're been making Buzz games for a number of years now so it rejuvenates some of the creative energy doing something different for a bit. And it enables us to try out some stuff that we haven't been able to try out on Buzz. When we have our brainstorming days where everyone gets together and we think about the next kind of games we're going to make murder mystery games came out several times and we just really wanted to start it up. So we were able to do that late last year.
David Amor: I think digital distribution and self publishing is interesting. I like the fact you can be flexible about the price point and I see digital distribution as an area that's only going to get larger in the same way as sales of iTunes got larger over time, and as a developer I think it's important we have some experience and knowledge in that area. I think it'll be interesting to see how that develops so to be in it at a fairly early stage is important for Relentless.
Andrew Eades: David's right - we prototyped Blue Toad Murder Files a lot and we never felt it was going to be a massive Blu-ray filling game and it really felt that digital distribution would be the right mechanism for it. Once you've made that decision the next natural one is, who should we have fund it? And Sony are our main funders on Buzz obviously, but they allow us to do our own little things. We co-published Schools Quiz with them so we have some history even on the Buzz franchise of doing slightly different things every now and again.
Q: Are you going to be using Sony's Pub Fund for this game?
Andrew Eades: No, I don't think that exists in Europe. It's not something we've asked for and our relationship is with SCEE not SCEA who I think announced the Pub Fund earlier this year. We're doing it ourselves which I think has its risks but it also has its opportunities
Q: Buzz has been supported with DLC over PSN and the ability for users to create their own questions online – can we expect similar concepts for Blue Toad?
David Amor: Yes and no. An important point to make about Blue Toad Murder Files is that we're releasing it episodically. I mentioned earlier that we were trying to recreate some of the things you would find in TV murder mystery dramas. One of them is the quite common construct of having one episode and then a cliff-hanger ending that follows onto the next one, so we'll be releasing episodes a bit like a DVD box set or something like that. We'll be staggering the release over some course of time.
Q: After having such a healthy relationship with Sony for the Buzz games, was part of the decision to self-publish the game to prove to yourself and others that you can be more independent without a publisher?
David Amor: Well, I don't want to give the impression that our intention is to move away from Sony. The majority of our studio is still working on Sony projects. But I do think that Relentless is an ambitious company and the self publishing side is very interesting. We've been making games and just worrying about what goes on the disc now for twenty years and it's interesting to try something new. How we're going to put this to market and so on are are issues we haven't come across before.
Andrew Eades: Obviously we consulted with Sony when we suggested doing this and we were really encouraged by their response - they were really behind us in allowing us to do our own thing. They've never really put any obstacles in our way with Murder Files. In fact I think - I hope - that they're as interested as we are to see how it turns out. I think it's been beneficial to our relationship because it helps with a number of projects we might want to do with Sony and demonstrates we can do some other games apart from Buzz. We have done one other game when we first started - DJ - but, you know, we've got a really good, strong relationship with Sony and this is just part of it. They're trusting us to deliver a great game for their platform and it is exclusive to their platform.
Q: How does self-publishing change the development process of the game?
David Amor: Not at all with the development itself. I think that whereas traditionally a producer might be exclusively concerned with what sits on the disc we're having to consider things about marketing and promotion that are things that - if it was a Sony-published product - it would be handled by Sony's marketing and sales teams. So the production itself no, but in terms of the things that go on in Relentless' office the process has widened a bit.
Andrew Eades: I think that we've used exactly the same development processes as we use for everything, but we are acting as the publisher so the milestone doesn't get delivered to Sony in Liverpool, it gets delivered to our office in Brighton. It's a shorter trip obviously. Both David and I have publisher backgrounds so we're able to put our publisher hats on and treat it as if we're publishing a product.
Q: So you're confident Relentless has got the resources to handle marketing and PR?
Andrew Eades: Yes, we recognised very early on that, being a developer, we didn't have any in-house experience of marketing, so since January we've had a weekly marketing meeting about marketing this product and what we're going to do and what we're going to put in place and who we're going to commission to do it and what the budget's going to end up being and all of that's actually been decided and is now being put into place. Starting with the announcement, and then there'll be activity for the rest of the year.
The whole thing about digital is that it gives us the opportunity to try this out. I like to think we are, but we're not big enough to do a whole big massive Blu-ray sized product and all the marketing behind that - that's definitely still the strengths of the Sonys and the EAs. We can't compete with that, but I think we have a fair crack in the digital market where we don't need the huge resources of traditional publishing.
David Amor: I'll be honest, I think we'll make some mistakes along the way but this is one of the reasons why we want to try being in this market early, so that by the time it really matures we'll have some experience in it and hopefully have made the mistakes earlier on.
Andrew Eades: Yes, we're not arrogant enough to think we know everything but I think we're self aware enough to know that there are things we're going to have to learn and we won't get everything right first time.
David Amor: I should add that we've contracted agencies to handle some of the aspects that we're less familiar with. We're not going to be doing it all ourselves.
Q: How important is it to get early users involved in the marketing plan for word of mouth support, and how do you intend to capture audience attention early on?
Andrew Eades: We think that's paramount really. The best tool we can use is word of mouth as broadly as possible so we'll be doing some stuff to create that. We can find out who's interested in our game for a start and then try to cultivate that interest into, hopefully, an end purchase. I mean, we do social games, Buzz obviously involves more than one person at a time, and we think that helps with the sell-through eventually because if you expose people to your game and they do tend to enjoy it then hopefully they'll want to buy it as well.
David Amor: One of the things I'm really looking forward to is the fact that we can speak directly to the people that have either bought our game or are thinking about buying our game. When we're working with a publisher - whoever the developer is, when you're working with a publisher then quite rightly the publisher wants to take care of that consumer relationship by and large and obviously with self publishing that's not the case. So what I hope we're able to do is speak to people directly and have what they say influence the game.
Q: And do you think that could be part of the reason a game could be more successful and profitable if it is self-published?
Andrew Eades: Well, I don't know - it depends how you count success. I mean Buzz has been very successful and very profitable and we're not attempting to eclipse that by any means. We looking for a modest success. I think in the longer term, we're looking at a future where digital distribution is just normal - that's just the way games are going to be delivered. It's not really 'is it more successful?' it's just, that is the future of distribution so we might as well just get on board now.
Q: So you see digital distribution as the future. Does that mean that for independent publishers such as yourselves you see a real change happening at present?
David Amor: I don't think it will replace normal sales, certainly not overnight. I'm a big believer that people still like wrapping things up for Christmas and I don't think that doing that is going to end immediately, certainly. But I do just think it'll become a larger market over the next five years and I do think we're not the only developer to try this out. Frontier have LostWinds and Team 17 are self publishing games. So it's something I think a lot of developers are thinking about.
Q: Are we still going to see traditional boxed games from Relentless, or is this the beginning of a new focus purely on digital releases from the studio?
Andrew Eades: It's a very exciting time to be working directly with one of the biggest platform holders ever. PlayStation is a massive brand and they're still innovating on it. There are new controllers coming out... That is a good place for any developer to be - to be working directly with such a strong gaming brand.
David Amor: I'd say there are some shades of grey because although we release our Buzz games as Blu-ray titles there's content you can buy post-release that you can add onto the game so there's some of that going on already.
Andrew Eades: I think that in the next few years, when you concept a product one of the things digital distribution enables you to do is that - as we said - if it's not a big Blu-ray sized game we can still make it now. We can make it digital and we can even go to Sony and say 'we think your marketing will be better than our own marketing on this, can we do this together?' The options are so good now - there are so many that you can take. It's not really an us versus them situation. What's the best way to deliver a product, is it digital or on Blu-ray and who should do the marketing? You know, how can we get this to a bigger audience? All of those questions can be answered in very different ways.
Q: You're obviously continuing a strong relationship with Sony, but are you interested in any other digital formats in the future?
David Amor: No immediate plans. We're really happy with our relationship with Sony. We started the company with a contract from Sony and we've had a really good relationship all that time so when starting this self publishing project we wanted to see their blessing on it and we're glad they've been supportive. I wouldn't want to do something that jeopardises a good thing.
Andrew Eades: Also, we've got 80 PlayStation developers - we haven't got 80 not-PlayStation developers, so it's kind of an easy route to make something on PlayStation.
David Amor: But I certainly think that the iPhone for instance is a very interesting platform, both in terms of the platform itself and the way in which they're selling games. So it's something we look on at with interest. I'm sure everybody is right now.
Q: Yes, the iPhone does seem to have the attention of that casual audience that you guys captured so well with Buzz...
Andrew Eades: Definitely - the iPhone is everyone's favourite gadget right now - it's amazing and has a huge catalogue of apps and a lot of those apps are games. I'm sure someone at Sony is watching how it's working out as well. One of the disadvantages of the App Store is that the catalogue is so big and it's quite confusing and you may build the best ever app for five quid but there'll be a dozen similar, maybe not as good apps, but they'll be free or selling at a lesser price point and it's very hard to differentiate your product. Over at the PlayStation Store we can be prominent on that much more easily than we could ever be in an iTunes Store.
David Amor: Yes, there's something of a velvet rope around PlayStation Network that I think keeps the quality level high.
Q: The PSP Go is another platform you must be considering as it will utilise digital distribution?
David Amor: I would think that once you put out a digital route to market that, of course Sony have had to do with PSP Go - that's the thrust behind it - then all sorts of options are available. They have the capacity to sell 10p apps or a thousand pound apps. I think Sony give themselves those options.
Andrew Eades: Yes, the PSP Go is a very interesting device because it has got that capability.
David Amor is creative director and Andrew Eades is development director at Relentless. Interview by Kath Brice.