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"We don't call ourselves a publisher. We're looking for friends"

Grip Digital on why there's still a role for people making connections

Czech developer and publisher Grip Digital specialises in making connections - putting six years of conversations with platform holders to good use by making introductions between developers and the consoles they want to be played on. That might sound like a publisher, but co-founders Jakub Mikyska and Jan Cabuk see it differently, they're not looking for business partners, they tell me at GDC, but long term friends.

Their catalogue might not be extensive, but the company's most recent title, The Solus Project, marks a step up in quality and ambition, and stemmed from a successful previous relationship with developer Teotl Games. sat down with Mikyska and Cabuk to find out more about their plans for the future.

Do you have a particular brand or identity in terms of the games you go for? You've got quite a broad slate.

Jakub Mikyska: We started the company almost six years ago. Me and Jan, we are the two co-founders. We started the company as a traditional game developer. We started making games for PlayStation minis, if there's still someone who remembers that, and ever since then we've started building better and better experiences. But from the very beginning we always focused on the gaming consoles. Over time we've added Microsoft as a partner. Consoles were our focus and everyone was like, 'Let's go to mobile, that's where the money is'. We were focused on that, because we believe it's a market where we can become successful - there's no gold rush, there's just an opportunity if we are good enough to actually take it.

"Consoles were our focus and everyone was like, 'Let's go to mobile, that's where the money is'"

We like to work on games we would love to make ourselves. It can be all over the place. We enjoy shooters, platformers, survival experiences, anything that's fun. I don't think most gamers just play one type of game. Maybe they have a preference but they normally try something different, like, every time, and we were the same. We see an interesting game, we really like it, it's a great experience, we say, 'Okay, let's go for it. I mean, this is a game that we enjoy and we believe a lot of other people will enjoy, so let's do it regardless of whether it's something that's super hardcore or something aimed at kids, perhaps.'

Jan Cabuk: It's also highly connected with our team, because we have a unique structure: they can almost choose the project they will work on. For example, we have one engineer, he doesn't like blood, so he will never work on a project with lots of gore. So that's also a part of the idea. But the basic idea is that we like games, so we pick the cherries for us.

Jakub Mikyska: There's just so many incredible creative talented people all over the world who make fantastic products, who have fantastic ideas, but very often these ideas end because they don't execute it properly, because they make a fatal mistake or because they have no one to help them. So over the time we've started helping other studios who have interesting ideas but simply no idea. We typically took their games, ported them over to consoles. We all made money, we were all happy, that kind of business. And it worked for everyone. I would say over time we were starting to realise that that's actually where we fit in the market. We have a skill that I would say is quite rare in the indie space, being able to do these things, being able to talk to Sony and Microsoft and Nintendo and Valve, knowing that they require marketing materials to be done this way, etc. So we have this skill that a lot of these younger studios don't have. More and more we started focusing on these co-operations rather than working on our own games.

Mikyska (left) and Cabuk.

There was a feeling not so long ago that, certainly for indies, the days of publishers were over. I presume that you disagree?

Jan Cabuk: Sometimes the sad's more a funny thing. It's that those creative teams, when we ask them, 'Do you have, kind of, a relationship with Microsoft, Sony? Do you have any plans for consoles?' 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, we have our dev kits. We have a good relationship with Sony and Microsoft.' It means just that they have dev kits, and that's the good relationship. But that's the starting point, and Microsoft, Sony, they throw the dev kits around. We are helping them to understand the point that there is hard work, not technical, that you are an engineer who can make a game in Unity and Unreal, but there is another part that you have to focus on. Some teams, they will lose a connection with a game when they start focusing on the marketing, or they will be always focused on the game but they don't care about the marketing.

Jakub Mikyska: Yeah, I know for someone who's only been making games for Steam or mobile, or hasn't really released a professional game yet - going to consoles, many don't realise just how painful it can be at times. It's not a straightforward process. And we've talked to people and companies, and they're like, 'We've got the dev kits. We're covered, guys.' Then half a year later they came knocking on the door and said, 'maybe you were right. Maybe we just don't want this kind of pain.' Now we understand the value in what we do. We take the burden off you so that you can focus on making the game great. We actually love it. We're good at it. We have fun doing that.

"For every single one of the developers we work with, it's something different. We don't say, 'This is the thing we do. This is what we take', we say, 'What do you need?'"

We don't call ourselves a publisher, we are looking for friends. We are looking for developers who need something we can provide, someone is looking just for a way to get to a platform, getting to Steam without the uncertainty of going through Greenlight or help with the technical side, going through the certification on consoles, or helping with QA or localisation. Someone needs funding? Yeah, we can provide that. If you need some funds to finish the game, let's absolutely talk about it. For every single one of the developers we work with, it's something different. We don't say, 'This is the thing we do. This is what we take', we say, 'What do you need?' In most cases we are able to provide exactly that and the pieces just fit together perfectly.

You mentioned working quite closely with Microsoft, and with ID@Xbox for The Solus Project. Their recent moves toward encouraging cross-platform play have been really interesting, and I presume as a developer with good relations with Sony as well you're looking to try and get games on both platforms. Is that something that you're gonna be considering, something you're gonna be recommending to people? Do you think there's gonna be any resistance?

Jan Cabuk: We like such things, because we have good experience from the past. When we started to work on Vita projects, Grip was almost the first-, we were among the first developers.

Jakub Mikyska: Yeah, when Vita was out, it had a crossplay feature with PlayStation 3. You could play on Vita against someone on PS3, for example, and we were- with a game called Foosball 2012 - we were among the first developers to actually really have a functioning multiplayer between these two platforms. We showed it at E3 and a lot of people who wanted to do the same thing just, like, came to us and said, 'How do you do it?' We had people from Konami, who were working on that portable Metal Gear Solid at that time, they came, 'How did you do that? They have this huge team working on it and they still haven't figured it out.' So, we love the interconnectivity between platforms. We believe that it's a future to connect players, to connect platforms, rather than separate them.

The Solus Project is survival with a twist, it's the environment which will kill you, rather than anything else.

I know there's been a lot of talk about this recently: releasing games on Xbox One and Windows 10 for example, and of the interconnectivity between PS4 and Xbox One. I think it's the way of the future. I think that's where the market is going. And each of the platforms is always going to have something very special and it always speaks to a certain segment. I think that's correct, but in our point of view the more people can enjoy games together, the better. So definitely for the games we're working on right now, when thinking about, for example, connectivity between Xbox One and Windows 10, yeah, we're absolutely down for that. The multiplayer we will have in our future games, we will certainly aim to have this connectivity between platforms, stuff like being able to buy the game once and buy it for Xbox One and Windows 10, that's a fantastic proposition.

Won't that potentially harm sales?

"We are just super happy with Microsoft, having this mindset: 'Let's connect people. Let's not make it about just raking in money. Let's actually give to the market'"

Jakub Mikyska: I actually think it could help the sales, because it's value. 'Okay, I know I can buy this game and I can play it on my Xbox One and then maybe I will go travelling so I will pick up my tablet or laptop and I can play it anywhere,' so that's a value. People really responded well to that. They say, 'Okay, this is cool. Okay, now I can play this game on my favourite system exactly when I want to play it.' Honestly I don't think that that many people would buy the game for Xbox One and Windows 10 separately, unless they were super fans, but we're talking just about a small margin of these people. We are just super happy with Microsoft, having this mindset, 'Let's connect people. Let's not make it about just raking in money. Let's actually give to the market,' and they believe the market will give back, and we are absolutely behind that.

There have been four or five new storefronts and distribution services that have surfaced this week, some of which are very much focused on trying to conquer the grey market. It seems to be that companies of your size, and certainly small developers, are the ones that are hit hardest by that, operating with smaller margins, where it's difficult to have a global or international business anyway. Do you find that it affects your business much? Are there issues with other storefronts?

Jan Cabuk: My experience is that most of the developers, the indie young developers, they see all these opportunities like, 'Yeah, there is a lot of stores, a lot of platforms. Let's go. It's cheap.' But they don't realise that it's a business, again. You have to negotiate and choose carefully, because the platform holder needs something, and that's you, the developer, and if the platform holder gets you, you might lose out. There is no win win.

Jakub Mikyska: Yeah. I mean, it's always about a close cooperation with the platform holder. For example, for The Solus Project I would say the defining moment was when we actually announced the game at the Microsoft press event, or when Microsoft showed a clip of the gameplay and we were on the showfloor. These kinds of co-operations, they help in an incredible way. Solus is exclusive to Xbox One and Microsoft helped us in a great way to do that. There was actually no funding involved in that decision for us to go exclusively to Microsoft. It was simply about them liking the game and helping the game to be popular and to get it in front of eyes of players and press and everyone interested. For us, that's the thing we do: talk to the platform holders, the key thing for success. Same on PlayStation 4. Same when you talk to Valve. If you want to get to sales and that nice featured banner on the Steam client. All of that is a talk that you have to have and it's all about the personal relations. That's the stuff we've been building for the past five, six years, and this year for the first time you actually see the fruits of that, and it's a huge relief.

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