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Serious Business

Red Redemption MD Klaude Thomas on making serious games, R&D relief and choosing the right investment

Oxfordshire developer Red Redemption's primary aim is to fuse serious and commercial games, initially making a name for itself with 2007's BBC Climate Challenge. Earlier this year, it released Fate of the World on PC - a larger title again focused on climate change issues, made with the help of a large advisory board of academics, environmentalists and political advisors.

Here, GamesIndustry.biz talks to the studio's CEO and MD Klaude Thomas, who formerly headed up Eidos Hungary (for Battlestations:Midway), following stints at SCi, Creative Assembly and EA. The New Zealand-born exec discusses the issues inherent in taking serious games to a mainstream audience, best practices for attracting investment in UK game businesses, the appeal of innovation and the current lie of the land for government assistance.

GamesIndustry.bizHow hard or easy has it been taking a serious game to a traditional gaming audience?
Klaude Thomas

It's been really hard! On all levels... from the outset, really. You can image the trouble trying to get publisher funding for something for which there's no real model and which is quite different from anything that they're usually doing, so we had to raise our own funding. So all the way through doing that, and then knowing how to design the game, and then bringing it to the audience. Who are the people who are most going to want to play this game, and how do we actually convey to them what the game is about and what it is? As a product proposition, it's a little unusual. So trying to position it correctly to your audience is quite tough.

Just to give you a quick illustration, we had thought that there might be a sort of green and environmentalist audience who are not currently gaming perhaps, not interested or just playing casual games or would be existing gamers. But what we've found is that most of our uptake is from existing strategy or whatever gamers who have got some interest in the subject, and very little uptake actually from the environmentalist audience. That was quite unexpected - not totally, but I was surprised that we didn't make more progress there yet.

We had one person saying that we should either be locked up or executed. And we've had some people quite against the whole idea, but that's really the minority.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat response have you seen from parties outside gaming - academics, politicians, climate change experts and the like? How much do they accept gaming as a suitable platform for discussing these issues?
Klaude Thomas

There's a lot of interest and some really good feedback from them, but I feel like they're still learning themselves how to use games and the context that interests them. That means there's a lot of "this is really fantastic, but I'm not quite sure what to do with it." [Laughs] So a good example is NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which is NASA's sister organisation in the States. A couple of their climate scientists played the game and they loved it. They gave us some feedback and they sort of disseminated it around their group, so that's really strong, positive feedback - but as yet I can't quite see how that translates into the bottom line for us, I guess. We've still so much to learn in that area and discover. There's enthusiasm, but a lot of fumbling around in the dark and trying to figure out what to do with these things.

GamesIndustry.bizBut you didn't encounter anyone complaining "no, games are completely inappropriate for these issues?"
Klaude Thomas

Oh yeah, absolutely. We had one person saying that we should either be locked up or executed. And we've had some people quite against the whole idea, but that's really the minority. I would say less than 5 per cent of respondents. Most people have been really positive about it.

GamesIndustry.bizSo what was the funding model in the end? VCs?
Klaude Thomas

We went to essentially business angels and experienced investors. So our investors are largely individual people, private investors, most of whom will have a portfolio of investments and for which this will probably fall into the 'risky' category. We have about 30 individual investors, and they all came in at different times and took equity in the company. That's been really hard work to put that together, yet it's been really heartening that individuals have liked the idea and been interested in that convergence of gaming and climate change.

The thing about equity investment for the UK industry is probably the EIS (enterprise investment scheme), the support and relief which the government gives on taxation. So if you invest in a company and you hold onto the shares for a couple of years you get tremendous relief on your tax against the investment itself and any losses or gains made on the investment. That has meant that in investing in a risky thing like we're doing has been more appealing for UK investors than it probably would be otherwise.

For these private investors, the triggers for them are does it look interesting, does it look like it could provide a really interesting return and also does it have something about it that just appeals to them on a personal level? I think a lot of what we were doing, that combination of a decent business level and doing something that interested on them was why we got the investment. One without the other probably would not work. No-one ever came by and put money in without looking at the business plan and what they might receive and return, but equally I don't think anyone came to us looking solely at making a straight game investment.

GamesIndustry.bizDid you get a sense that these investors were interested in games generally, or was the climate change element stronger for them?
Klaude Thomas

It's definitely because of the hook, because it was of interest to the wider society. It wouldn't even necessarily need to be climate change, but I bet you'd have a really hard time getting funding this way from a fantasy game or sci-fi game. Perhaps for a game about something people known about and are interested in, and that has some resonance for wider society. Maybe it wouldn't need to be serious, but it needs to be something that they can relate to. Climate change is obviously really topical and important, but I bet you could do the same model with other subjects.

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Alec Meer

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A 10-year veteran of scribbling about video games, Alec primarily writes for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, but given any opportunity he will escape his keyboard and mouse ghetto to write about any and all formats.

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