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Zombie Cow's Dan Marshall

On C4 funding, indie business and balancing creativity with commercialism

Zombie Cow was founded by London indie developer Dan Marshall in 2008, and within two years had experimented with both digital distribution (for highly-acclaimed 2009 adventure game Time Gentlemen, Please!) and alternative investment, in the form of last year's Channel 4-funded sex-ed shooter Privates.

Marshall now finds himself at something of a crossroads, having recently announced the cancellation of a planned Time Gentleman, Please! sequel on creative grounds. Free DLC for Privates is forthcoming, and then it's back to self-funded projects. GamesIndustry.biz sat down with Marshall to talk about the future, the financial realities of independent development, and the "tightrope" between remaining true to creative vision and bringing in a commercial audience.

GamesIndustry.biz Indie gaming as a career – is it working for you fine still, or is there any lure to move to traditional employment?
Dan Marshall

No, I genuinely love it. I went out for some drinks with some other indies just before Christmas; I'd always assumed that I'd hit it lucky in that I work from home. As anyone who's ever trudged into work on a dull grey day on a train full of people will tell you, it's absolutely soul destroying. I've always wanted to work from home, that was the dream, but I talked to these other indies who were like "God, that would drive me mad." It suddenly occurred to me that not everyone feels this way, not everyone wants to live like I do. For some people it is about going into the office every day to make games. Whereas I love what I do. I get up every day, my girlfriend goes to work, I make a cup of coffee and from the kitchen window I can see people trudging through an office building over the road, with sunken heads, moping about the next eight hours. I genuinely feel like I'm living the dream – I work for myself, I chose my own hours, if I want to stop and play Assassin's Creed in the middle of the day that's not a problem. It's really exciting. The idea of going off and suddenly designing games for some big company doesn't appeal that much.

GamesIndustry.biz The pull of money, of potential advancement through the ranks and eventually onto a board, doesn't appeal?
Dan Marshall

No. It'd be lovely to have some money, not only for the sake of making more and bigger and better games but also because it would be nice to have lots of money to spend on stuff, but the way I see that happening these days... Five years ago, that was basically your option – to become CEO of some big games company, on a big salary. But look at Minecraft and it's just sold one million copies, he's made $13 million pre-tax, right? And that's just PC development, with no marketing, nothing. As far as I'm concerned I'd much rather make my millions making next year's Limbo, next year's Super Meat Boy. That's more interesting to me than shooting off and getting a proper job.[Laughs] Everyone calls it a proper job – no-one seems to believe that what I do is real.

Even my girlfriend, she's a teacher, so when she gets back late in the evening then we eat and then she has to start marking. So I feel bad because I'm sat around the flat all day, even though I'm working. So there's always this constant draw to suddenly go 'right, it's 5.30, I'd better give the kitchen a wipe down or something.' You spray some Pledge around, they think you've tidied...

GamesIndustry.biz Going back to the Minecraft thing – it comes up in so many interviews now. Are people genuinely believing that sort of success is anyone's for the taking?
Dan Marshall

It's not even that. What's scary about Minecraft is you can be making something amazing – let's say for example Super Meat Boy. Then Minecraft comes out. If I was making Super Meat Boy, looking at it, then looking at Minecraft and thinking "oh." The success of Minecraft is that it's user-generated, it's this whole sort of world. And if you're making Super Meat Boy or Braid or Limbo or any of the other big hitters, it suddenly feels very insular compared to this survival build 'em up, for lack of a better phrase. Anything you're making feels sort of linear and narrow in comparison. I guess it's like making a first-person shooter and then Half-Life 2 comes out, and you're still working on something that's pretty much Doom.

GamesIndustry.biz Are you expecting the general indie community to react to that, that we'll see an awful lot of Minecraft-type projects in the not-too-distant?
Dan Marshall

I don't know. I think, from what I know of what people are working on in London, I don't think there's a move to Minecraft sort of things. I think you're going to see more polished, finely-honed sort of games rather than big expansive ones. I think people are buckling down a bit and making things that are a bit more...

GamesIndustry.biz Braid-y?
Dan Marshall

I didn't want to say that, but yes. Braid-y. Limbo-y. It's weird, because the London indie scene is kind of amazing. You've got everyone in it. There are people like me in the middle, you've got Hello Games who are this darling, but look at what they've made – Joe Danger is this big behemoth. You've got people like Johnny Two Shoes or whatever making nice, polished sexy iPhone games, you've got people making Flash freeware, Unity, anything. Every once in a while, various different factions and people converge on one pub, and it's kind of mental. There's no rhyme or reason to any of it. You say 'what are you doing?' and someone replies 'I'm making this insane Minecraft meets Asteroids thing' and then the next person is doing something completely different, like whatever it is Hello Games is working on now. I guess it's money – they've got the luxury of thinking about what they're working on next, which is very different to what I can do.

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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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