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The Right to Remain Silent

Straandloooper blabs about developing niche games with Telltale

Northern Irish studio Straandlooper began life as an animation house, but branched out into software with the 30-episode-strong Lifeboat Luke series of children's apps for iOS, before finding much larger returns from profane iPhone adventure game Hector: Badge of Carnage. Following the game's success, Straandlooper signed a partnership agreement with US adventure game powerhouse Telltale, taking Hector to further platforms and episodes. A reworked version of the first game launched on Steam earlier in May, with an iPad version hot on its heels.

Here, GamesIndustry.biz talks to Straandlooper MD Richard Morss about the Telltale agreement, how industry success may now be about finding a niche and why just one medium isn't enough to make a brand truly successful.

GamesIndustry.bizYou've just released Hector: Badge of Carnage on PC - can you talk about how sales are going on that, via Steam, compared to the iPhone version?
Richard Morss

We haven't yet had any sales figures. Telltale are handling all that end of it, and they seem to be pleased with how it's going, but they haven't had their first batch of reports back yet so they don't know. And the iPad version is only just released - there were changes in the coding the day before it was meant to be released, so we had to take the whole thing back and then release it. So I don't know - the reviews have been reasonably good and the sales for the existing iPhone game seem to have risen since [the PC one] came out, so I think there's more of an appetite there as well.

GamesIndustry.bizFrom a theoretical perspective, are you expecting phones, tablets or computers to be the main driver for you - or even consoles in future?
Richard Morss

I think you can't ignore any of them. Obviously the bigger platforms have more money, but then they've got more expensive gatekeepers so there's always a toss-up between the amount of money you get back when you're working with a major partner with your IP and the more direct money you get back from a slightly smaller pond if you self-publish.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat's the nature of the Telltale partnership - purely a publishing arrangement?

We're unusual in that we've come to the gaming world via a slightly different route from most others. We have ambitions to make a Hector feature, for example, and we have co-producers lined up

Richard Morss

We've done all the creative side, and they've done the coding into their engine and production from that point of view, so it's a co-production essentially. But they are the senior partner in a sense - they license the IP for gaming. We are the creatives now.

GamesIndustry.bizIs there much left for you, once they've taken a chunk then Apple or Steam have taken a chunk?
Richard Morss

Well, we still have our original Apple platform for Hector, and we obviously have a share for the others, which would be very wrong of me to divulge, but for us it's a bigger story than just the games as well. Hopefully the games take off, and hopefully we can build a nice franchise on the basis of the first three, but for us it's also using the awareness of the IP that that creates to leverage other stuff. Because we're not just a games company; we're sort of unusual in that we've come to the gaming world via a slightly different route from most others. We have ambitions to make a Hector feature, for example, and we have co-producers lined up. With everything, as you probably know, distribution is the key. A very significant rise in profile in the IP would hopefully swing in distribution and enable that to happen, so for us it's all about using all available platforms for every IP that we create to try and maximise the product that you can get on the market.

GamesIndustry.bizHow far do you hope to go with games, then - are they merely a stepping stone?
Richard Morss

The way I see it, there's a sort of centralised IP which is the idea, if you like, and if you're working in content generation today, I think that idea has to have the ability to output to a number of different platforms, because the way that the market has changed is that unless you're a pretty major supplier of stuff, or in bed with a pretty major supplier of stuff, no one platform is gonna necessarily pay back the costs of developing and producing the IP that you're doing. So you've got to have fingers in as many pies as possible; look at your properties really as vehicles for multiple iterations.

GamesIndustry.bizYou've done that with the Lifeboat Luke series - there's some animated content and then something like 30 different iPhone apps. Is that sort of quantity of content the general goal with your IPs?
Richard Morss

Yes, that's really about maximising the use of the assets. You have to create all these digital assets when you create a series and so really we were quids in in terms of creating apps. The difference with the Lifeboat Luke apps was we as yet haven't been able to find the right niche yet to promote it to in order to get a significant return on it. It's selling, but it's not selling huge by any means - because unlike Hector there wasn't an identifiable pool of review sites and things that you could go to when you knew people were looking for a particular kind of stuff. That to me is a huge lesson that we learned in the launch of Hector, in terms of that sort of targeting - although it was probably partly inadvertent in case of Hector, as we just liked the idea. The way it developed, it just sort of happened that there was a niche audience waiting for that sort of game to come out at that sort of time, and the iPhone platform worked well for it. So we had a success on our hands with that game, because we were able to promote it and raise awareness among the people who were looking for it. With a kids' IP like Luke there are so many other players in the pond with big, established names, probably giving away stuff for free, that it's much, much more difficult to make a noise about an individual kids' property that doesn't have a huge broadcast profile. So it's just part of the learning curve of the whole new market, how you have to think about stuff.

GamesIndustry.bizYou subscribe to the philosophy that you can't do anything without an established brand, then?
Richard Morss

Well, I think Hector actually proves that that's not true, because nobody had heard of Hector. But the wonderful thing that the iPhone market gave us was a platform you can access where you can relatively cheaply produce and publish something new. But because it was in a genre that people were looking for, that was the key thing - there was an identifiable market, and a strong niche. It seems to me that, if anything, this is the age of the niche, and if you can identify that and reach them, then you've got so many marketing tools that you can access quite cheaply, or for no cost at all, if you put in the elbow grease. I think it is possible, and to me Hector represents a truly independent production - the first episode anyway, obviously going forward you need to get more investment and bring partners in, but you know that is very encouraging to me, I find it very exciting.

The whole thing will atrophy if people are only latching onto [existing brands]. Where do brands start, for heaven's sakes?

GamesIndustry.bizGetting on the front of the App Store helps...
Richard Morss

Yes, absolutely, and if you get good reviews too. Watching the sales of the Hector game, if you get a good review that generally drives a spike in sales, but the pattern that we saw that was you get the review but then you get the retweets of the review, and then you'd notice a rise in the hits on the YouTube channel and then that would be reflected more or less in the number of sales that you finally got. So that was an interesting triangle, and the YouTube channel was quite an important part of that - having a visibility there where people could easily go - seemed to be a critical part in the process.

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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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