Learning Curve: where next for the Human: Fall Flat publisher?
UK firm on turning developers into millionaires, the state of British publishing and Nintendo Switch
The topic of digital publishing came up while sitting in a cafe with a prominent indie game developer last month.
We've had many conversations like it, about how the idea of developers 'going it alone' seemed to be fading away. Whether it's PR, community, marketing, sales, store submission or funding, most small studios will be looking for help. It's why the digital publishing scene is flooded with companies offering some or all of those services.
But which are the good ones?
"To be honest, most of them are pretty decent," said our anonymous friend. "But the publishers that everyone wants to work with are those that have turned developers into millionaires."
Digital publishers that have managed to sell millions of copies of a single indie game are rare. Not least because selling millions of copies of any game is rare. GamesIndustry.biz may seem full of stories of carpenters or roofers or security guards who have made a hit game and are now eyeing up which island to buy. But these are the exceptions among tens of thousands who are lucky to break even.
Such stories are enticing nonetheless, like Devolver's success with Hotline Miami, or Team17 and The Escapists, or even 505 Games with Terraria. No publisher will predict they can deliver millions of sales of an indie game, but when it does happen it's a wonderful advert for their business (and indeed, the business overall).
Which is why, we suspect, Curve Digital was feeling so buoyant when GamesIndustry.biz visited its London office.
The company has had comfortably its most successful six months, beginning with the launch of Bomber Crew on PC in October, which became Curve's fastest-selling game and pulled in $1 million in nine days. A week or so later, Curve released one of its catalogue titles, Flame In The Flood, on Switch and scored a Top Five hit in the US and Europe.
"Yes we have built a foundation, but it is more competitive than ever so the last thing we are going to do is start thinking we've got some kind of magic formula."Stuart Dinsey, Curve
And then Human: Fall Flat happened. We've talked about this game before. It was a moderate hit for the first 15 months on sale, before online co-op was added late last year. When that happened, the game became a global streaming sensation on PC, it arrived on Switch and did well (including two months in the Top 5 in Japan), and total units are now over 2.5 million (we only reported its 2 million sales milestone three weeks ago). Online co-op for the console versions is due later this year, but sales of the existing version have also been revived on PlayStation and Xbox.
"We had been doing quite well through the year," says Curve chairman Stuart Dinsey. "Manuel Samuel, Dear Esther on console, Flame In The Flood, Human: Fall Flat and others were performing pretty well. Xbox Game Pass had been good for us too. But with Bomber Crew we had a Steam number one and a golden run started.
"It gives us confidence that we're on the right path. We can be a little bit more ambitious. But there has to be a fit between the developer and the publisher. It's about approach, it's about a shared culture. There are loads of great developers out there and plenty of superb digital publishers. Yes, we have built a foundation, but it is more competitive than ever so the last thing we are going to do is start thinking we've got some kind of magic formula."
Dominic Wheatley, CEO of The Catalis Group that owns Curve, adds: "The revenues that we now enjoy are significantly higher than before, which is not only attracting the attention of the platforms and other developers, but it is also giving us financial fire power to sign bigger games, and move us all up a division."
Ah yes, moving up a division. When I last spoke with Wheatley, back when Catalis acquired Curve in 2016, he talked optimistically about creating a new British publishing powerhouse. Two years later, he admits Curve "isn't there yet", but he is also more optimistic about the UK scene.
"After Eidos was bought by Square Enix, there was really no major British games publisher left," Wheatley observes. "But developers were getting ever better. It seemed to me that the business side of our industry was failing to step up and provide a British home for those devs.
"In the last couple of years we've started to see a change, with publishers like Curve and Team17 taking up that challenge. That's a really good thing and I hope we'll see a rapid expansion."
"It seemed to me that the business side of our industry was failing to step up and provide a British home for those devs"Dominic Wheatley, Curve
Part of this improvement is driven by the number of senior marketing, PR and sales executives who are now joining smaller, digital publishers. Curve, for example, recently hired former PlayStation UK trade marketing head Rosemary Buahin as marketing director.
"I felt like I was going back to my roots," she tells us. "I love indies. They are so creative. Some of the stuff they are coming out with is just phenomenal. But you can almost get lost when you work within a big publisher, in that you don't get to nurture talent. I actually prefer to be involved from an early stage. That was the key attraction for me to come here. And I think I have the skills to help.
"Also, with a smaller team, I am learning lots about production, QA and more. I'm no longer in a marketing ivory tower."
Buhain is expanding Curve's marketing team with the appointment of a community manager and an additional product manager; it is this team's challenge to maintain Curve's momentum.
Buhain walked GamesIndustry.biz through the firm's release slate for 2018, which includes updates and new formats for previous titles - like Human: Fall Flat and Bomber Crew. Plus some new signings, such as For The King - a Steam Early Access hit. Racing Apex, a retro racing game from a team that previously worked on Need for Speed, Midnight Club and Pure. And A Knight's Quest, which is a Zelda-style RPG that the company showed behind-closed-doors at Gamescom last year. There's also the intriguing Smoke and Sacrifice, which is a stylish, dark survival game by Solar Sail Games.
We were shown some unannounced things, too. Including details of a new licensing deal, and a further project that will be out within a few months. Most of these games will be coming on all consoles, including Nintendo Switch, which follows the firm's debut on the platform late last year.
"The Switch community is absolutely thriving," Buahin observes. "It is a fantastic platform for indie games." Dinsey adds: "There has been a rush of games coming out on Switch. It's very competitive, and we were worried we might be a bit late to it with Flame in the Flood and Human: Fall Flat last year, which is why we're so pleased with how they've done. Switch is great, but we are also really happy with PC, Xbox and PlayStation. All of them."
"The Switch community is absolutely thriving. It's a great platform for indies"Rose Buhain, Curve
A notable element about the games we were shown was the price. Curve's price points have historically ranged from between £9.99 to £14.99, but the majority of the 2018 slate has expected price points of around £20.
"Gamers are expecting more features from indie titles, like online co-op, 4K and DLC," Dinsey adds. "We are very comfortable with games at lower prices. Rogue Aces for Switch and PlayStation is coming at £9.99. But yes, we are gradually moving towards £20 and above more often than not. Because you have to make sure the quality, and the features, are all there."
Curve looks like a company on the rise, but this is an unpredictable business. What worked last year won't necessarily work the next. When Curve started digital publishing, it was largely porting hit PC games onto consoles. The demand for that began to fall, so Curve focused on sales and marketing, and now it is funding games itself. The bar keeps rising, so even with 2.5 million sales of Human: Fall Flat, the firm is certainly not relaxed about what comes next.
"There has to be an understanding of what the consumer wants," Dinsey concludes. "People aren't buying indie games just because they're indie games anymore. We feel that to stay competitive, we must invest in bigger titles and run with market trends. Human: Fall Flat was our first online co-op patch. Bomber Crew DLC was our first DLC. And streamers, of course, are key.
"You need so much to take even the best games to market successfully - brilliant producers who can help the developers, an energetic marketing team, good relations with the platform holders and digital stores, some financial muscle and some luck. It's relentless.
"We've had a good few months. But we can't rest easy."