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Stainless Steel

The rise and fall and rise again of Carmageddon studio Stainless Games

Accelerating into almost instant stardom in 1997 with its first game Carmageddon, UK studio Stainless Games seemed destined to have it all. The satirical and sadistic driving game and its sequel both topped the games charts, but when publisher SCI brought in a different studio for the poorly-received third game, both the series and Stainless fell on harder times. Stainless slowly built its way back up primarily via contract work, eventually finding significant commercial success with 2009 console/PC download title Magic The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers, which at the time became the fastest-selling XBLA game ever. Earlier this year, Stainless was able to buy back the rights to Carmageddon from new Eidos/SCI owner Square Enix, and is working on a new download title, Carmageddon: Reincarnation.

Here, chats to the still-independent, Isle of Wight-based developer's CEO Patrick Buckland about Stainless' long, hard journey, the inevitable publisher-developer IP tussles, the importance of getting demos right and why devs shouldn't sneer at licensed work.

GamesIndustry.bizHow does Stainless see itself as a studio these days? Indie, digital-specific, a big mainstream studio, what?
Patrick Buckland

That's an interesting question, because the answer to that's changing all the time. We've specialised in digital console specifically for about five, six years now. As an indie, it was very difficult to survive back then; that was a time, around about 2005, when about 50 per cent of indies in this country went bust. So as a smaller company we couldn't compete with the triple-As, if we wanted to get back into that market, which of course we used to be in with Carmageddon, we had to find ourselves a niche - we identified that console digital download was going to be the next big thing. This was before the Xbox (360) released and as it was it looks like we actually did back the right horse. We felt that was the way things were going to change - which is why I gave my original answer, that things are changing all the time, because what we do is mainstream now. In a very short while, by which I mean several years, you would think that download is going to be mainstream itself. If publishers don't move quickly they may well be left behind by the likes of indie developers who've hopefully actually lasted, like the likes of Mojang and Minecraft and of course Valve - what do you call Valve? Are they indie? I guess they are. But they're giant - they certainly have an indie feel and they're independent as such, even though they're really big. We see ourselves, hopefully, on the crest of the wave of that, a little bit.

GamesIndustry.bizDid you ever consider being acquired by a publisher?
Patrick Buckland

Well, not really. We've been there before, sort of - we were acquired by VIS, who were a big developer, but that was a difficult time. So it's great to be independent, but it's a bit tough - extremely tough - so it's only been the last couple of years that we've been financially secure, because Duels of the Planeswalkers has done so well. And Wizards of the Coast has been such a good partner, and that's an example I think of where, rather than being acquired by a publisher, what you need to do to get yourself stable is either be... well, I want to say lucky, but that's not really right. A few studios out there, like Team 17 with Worms or Mojang with Minecraft or some of the others, again you could say Valve, have their own IP that is so strong that they're completely financially secure. If you don't have that, you need to have a very good partner - a partner that doesn't abuse you and screw you. Wizards of the Coast has been a fantastic partner to us with Duels of the Planeswalkers. They cut us a good deal with that, we get paid very well and we do share in the profits. I think that, as an indie, there are three holy grails.

A few studios have their own IP that is so strong that they're financially secure. If you don't have that, you need to have a partner that doesn't abuse you.

First one is repeat business. Getting repeat business is so important, so you're not forever trying to chase that next contract. Now, with the Duels of the Planeswalkers work, we've got repeat business.

Second holy grail is actually getting royalties, not just getting a contract that's got royalties in it, but really having money landing in the bank. Again, we're doing that.

The third holy grail is obviously owning your own IP. Which we've now got with Carmageddon. After a long time - I set the company up in '94 - we're finally ticking all three boxes [laughs]. We're getting there!

GamesIndustry.bizHave you found it at all uncomfortable to be doing stuff that wasn't your own IP for the last several years, given you did originally make your name with your own property?
Patrick Buckland

Well, yeah. But that shift in thinking has been paying the mortgage, to be honest. I've lost my house over keeping Stainless going, my co-director's lost his house keeping Stainless going. That applies to most businessmen to be honest - no matter what you're doing, in our industry or others, if you want to keep an independent company going you've got to really go for it. So when it comes down to it, you do what work is out there and you try and do a good job. You can't be a primadonna about it and say 'no, I'm not going to work on that' - what's important is doing a really good quality job. Even if the budget's low.

For instance, the Atari work we did, all the Classics that we did for XBLA, the budget for all that lot was not high at all. So we only had a tiny skeleton crew working on that, but we tried to make the quality high within the parameters. Of course, your end users don't necessarily know what the parameters were, but in terms of professional pride we're very, very pleased with what we did within those. So if you are weathering the storm, you've got to just have your quality standards as high as possible so you know you're doing a good job. Plenty of people out there don't get the luxury of working on their own IP... and that applies to film as well. How many big sequels have you seen that are rubbish, because of course the director and writer and everyone don't own the IP - studios do. Often these great films that come out, the second one is just terrible because the studio have put whoever they want on it. So, as an artist - I'm a programmer by trade, videogames programming is definitely an art - you can't always choose to work on what you want to, can you?

Alec Meer avatar
Alec Meer: 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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