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.
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 we’re at now. Although I can’t really discuss specific sales figures at the moment - we’re looking into whether we can do that in the future - what I will say is that it’s definitely created a situation where we’re 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, we’re not a massively capital-intensive operation, we’re 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 we’re not going to do that, we’re going to focus what we’ve got on doing another game.
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 we’re 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 we’re planning on doing is really doing as much as we can sensibly to keep the game interested in people, keep the community going. We’re actually already working on some new, free features in a path and we’re going to release some free versus stuff and other things we’ll 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 it’s not very dependent on a specific look or a specific graphics technology, or something that’s going to age really badly.
Frozen Synapse is a game that can probably keep on going for some time, because it’s not very dependent on a specific look or a specific graphics technology
We’re looking at that right now. It’s 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 I’m 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. That’s something that I’m working on right now, and there are other features that we’re thinking about. We tend to be a bit cagey pre-announcing stuff, because saying you’re 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 it’s going to work has gone down, I’m never going to say we’re definitely doing it. I just think that’s a bit irresponsible.
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?’ That’s one of the best things about Valve, they won’t say ‘you are doing this’ - which they could do very easily - they’ll say ‘this is the kind of thing we want to do, this is why, how do you want to go about it?’ It’s great, it lets you try stuff. We’re doing some stuff on Steam that people don’t normally do, like the free key for a friend thing, or offering the soundtrack as a separate thing you can upgrade to. They’re quite different, and Valve had to do some actual system-related stuff to allow us to do that. For an indie game that doesn’t have a lot of clout, they’re surprisingly flexible and that’s great.
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 you’re 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 they’re 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.
Exactly - people really use it as a mark of quality, I think. I think there’s a good reason for that, because not everything gets on there. I think Cliffski [Positech’s Cliff Harris] did a post about this, the saturation of games - it sort of doesn’t 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 there’s some mark of quality coming across I think they find that quite worrying, stepping outside the comfortable fold of games they know.