To say that Curve Digital has changed in the past few years would be quite an understatement. The London-based digital publisher has now joined the big boys’ club and the reason for this success has a name: Human Fall Flat.
Having launched on PC in July 2016, Human Fall Flat then came to consoles in May 2017, before landing on Switch at the end of last year. But it was the launch of PC online multiplayer in October that changed everything. The rest of the story is best told by those who experienced it.
“You know I wish we could pretend it was deliberate and maybe when they make the film of Curve that will be how it comes across,” Curve’s publishing director (and MCV’s Industry Hero for 2018) Simon Byron laughs. “We worked very closely with Valve making sure that it was getting the treatment that we feel it should deserve, then it took a little spark and everyone went…” Byron mimics the noise of an explosion – and that’s really what it was for Curve: an unexpected, massive and well-deserved explosion of success.
“It went crazy,” he continues. “I was on paternity leave over Christmas and I could see the emails and people being like ‘Have you seen what’s going on with Human Fall Flat?’. It was unbelievable. From July 2016 to October 2017, we’d sold about 300,000 copies on Steam and then over Christmas last year, in single days we were doing over 100,000 a day. It got absolutely crazy and it’s been transformative and it’s meant that we needed to really up our game in terms of making sure that we’re supporting it.”
Human Fall Flat had sold over 3m copies at the time of the interview and is now already at 4m units sold, a feat Curve had never achieved before. The publisher now wants to make sure it supports the title properly, as it effectively ended up with two versions of the title, with the console versions “lagging,” Byron says. The publisher will launch the online multiplayer on consoles “over the coming months” and will then “build up a live team, who’s going to regularly produce additional content.”
And to do all that, Curve has found a great partner.
“We’re working with Sumo Digital, who will initially be bringing the online multiplayer to consoles,” Byron reveals. “We’re really excited about using that opportunity to re-launch it on console and then they’re going to be creating a live team, who not only will work alongside Tomas [Sakalauskas, Human Fall Flat’s creator], but also make sure that we’re able to maintain feature parity across all formats where we can and generate loads more additional content. We wanted an excuse to work with Sumo for a long time so it’s brilliant to finally be doing something with them.”
There is definitely a before and after Human Fall Flat for Curve, with Byron saying: “It’s true to say that Human Fall Flat has put us on the global map. We’re talking to companies now, where we were struggling to get a foot through the door before, but because of its success in Asia, it’s really opened some doors for us. We worked so hard to launch that game and keep the momentum going.”
And Curve has certainly managed to keep that momentum going, with a myriad of projects on the horizon. The launch of Bomber Crew on consoles this July is one of them and Curve has another exciting partnership for that, with the title launching date-and-date on Xbox Game Pass.
“It’s really interesting these days how games have moved from being essentially a premium launch and then you forget about it, to actually loads more,” Byron says. “We’re really excited about working with Microsoft on Game Pass, we’ve been fans of that particular service since it launched. I know there’s a lot conversation between publishers about whether it’s the right thing to do but we’ve been really pleased with the results. We put seven games in at launch and we’ve not seen any impact on core digital sales. In fact from the stats that we see, players are more engaged with our titles. We’ve seen a slight increase in those buying the titles to own. So when it comes to the next stage of Game Pass we’ll be working with Microsoft to do a Bomber Crew day-and-date release on Game Pass and it’s fair to say that there will be more titles along those lines throughout the year.”
Bomber Crew was meant to release at retail as well, courtesy of Sold Out, though when we mention this deal, Curve’s chairman Stuart Dinsey explains this will not be the case anymore.
“Ultimately we’re a digital company,” Dinsey says. “We were very excited about doing something with Sold Out, we really admire what they’ve done and we’re very close to them. But actually retail can find things like Game Pass and day-and-date quite difficult. And so we’ve mutually agreed that that’s probably a reason not to do a Sold Out boxed launch.”
However, that doesn’t mean nothing will come out of this partnership, he adds: “Our intention is absolutely to do something with Sold Out when the circumstances are correct. There are future titles. I think to some extent retail needs to get used to the idea of day-and-date Game Pass. It’s not going to go away and possibly they may find out that some of the things they are worrying about aren’t quite as drastic as they’ve considered.”
Byron is keen to highlight that it’s “not really a case of ‘Game Pass instead of retail’.” He explains: “It’s because retailers are unlikely to want to put in the same level of orders for a title that’s going up day-and-date as one that isn’t. That’s a broad point, it’s not just a Bomber Crew point, and rather than have to take on that challenge, we would rather focus on our core business which is digital.”
Game Pass is also a case of allowing Curve to increase its visibility and to overcome the discoverability challenge that many developers and publishers are experiencing.
“Sea of Thieves was the first game to go day-and-date on Game Pass and that still went to No.1 and I think all of the activity around it just combines to make it a much more high profile launch,” Byron says. “There are so many games coming out across all platforms at the moment that actually getting some guaranteed discoverability, some featuring [is key].
“We’re out on two other formats at the same time – so it’s PS4, Xbox One and Switch. Each store has its challenges. I think discoverability is the key challenge for anybody, making sure that people are aware of your game. There are so many games sucking up money and notably time that actually competing for either of those becomes difficult. So was it essential? I wouldn’t say that it was. But will it help? Certainly.”
Marketing director Rosemary Buahin adds: “It’s more for amplified presence. I think we’re getting quite good at conceiving really strong campaigns and this will actually take it to another level for us.”
LICENSED TO KILL
Another big project on the horizon for Curve is publishing Narcos, in partnership with film company Gaumont. The adaptation of the successful Netflix series has been handed to Curve’s sister studio Kuju Entertainment. And there are many advantages to working on licensed content, Byron tells us.
“It’s part of the challenge that modern publishers face – every time you launch a game you’re effectively starting from ground zero, introducing a new concept across crowded digital stores. Dominic [Wheatley], our CEO, was very successful back in the day with licenses, it’s a type of game he understands, and it was a concept that he was very keen to bring to Curve. When we started talking to potential partners about it, it became very clear that, while at heart we still want to continue doing high-profile, original, indie digital games, we could actually complement our endeavours there by bringing licensed titles into the family.”
With the amount of films, series and books available to iterate on, Byron adds that it “became quite a challenge narrowing them down.” However, Narcos stood out for everyone in the team as “the subject matter is perfect for a video game,” he says.
“If you look at the way [digital] stores are evolving and the types of entertainment they’re packaging, the ability to work with TV, alongside games, becomes really appealing.
“We talked about boxed earlier and Bomber Crew is a game that’s done incredibly well for us but stick that on shelves in Sainsbury’s and the majority of the people walking past it aren’t going to necessarily understand. But if you’ve got that with Narcos, or any other property, it really does give you a head start.”
Dinsey adds that it’s also the right time to do it.
“We’re talking about licensed games coming now, in 2019, 2020 and beyond, when install bases across the platforms have all got much bigger,” he explains. “That tends to be, in the progress of a format, when slightly more casual non-core gamers come in and that’s where licenses can make a real difference in terms of attention from the consumer. I think there’s a bit of a movement in the industry at the moment to look at licenses.”
Dinsey continues, saying he wants Curve to pick up “at least one significant license a year,” before adding: “We’re trying to move in line with the market progression. So if a license is available and we have a world-class studio that we can use ourselves, it’s expanding what Curve does while absolutely staying true to our roots of bringing indie games to the market. We want to become a bigger player, so we’re going to do bigger things.”
The team’s ambition and passion is tangible, with Byron joking about Curve Digital becoming a proper grown-up publisher.
“What Stu and Dominic have been really keen for us to do is to grow up. We sort of talk about it from a joking point of view but, you know, to stop being the company where just four people do everything, to one which is operating within the digital space and everything which that entails.”
He continues: “Our intention is to grow in terms of size in what we do. We will always look to do eight or nine games a year but we want them to be higher profile games, much bigger budgets, moving away from the games that Curve made its name on, the sort of ten dollar titles. This year, we’ll see our first $20 to $25 games and we see that as a natural progression – and that’s not us being greedy. Bomber Crew is our first title with any significant DLC and it certainly won’t be our last. We’re building up live teams around other titles in our portfolio to make sure that people still play your game weeks, months, years down the line. It’s so crucial these days, so we’re willing to invest more in that and I think the results are evidence. I think the games that we’re working on now are very different to our first wave of games. It’s not that we’ve lost our roots or anything like that, but we’re moving where the market is.”
Curve has had a massive recruitment push since the beginning of the year to go alongside its transformation, with Byron joking about the fact they’ve got departments now. One of these key appointments was Rosemary Buahin, who joined as marketing director at the end of January, having worked at Warner Bros and Sony.
“It can be tempting to think of us as a UK company and therefore put all of our focus on the UK but being able to operate globally is absolutely key,” Byron says. “Bringing some of the principles from a proper grown-up publisher into Curve has been absolutely eye opening. We made a lot of assumptions about how we worked and Rose has come in and taken a top down look and it’s changed how that department looks.”
Buahin has been instrumental in harmonising the company, as well as aiming to unify its community. That’s why she hired former Call of Duty social manager Jack Gosling to manage Curve’s social channels.
“I think it came to the point when I came in, due to the success of Human Fall Flat and others, that we actually built a community but we didn’t have the time to engage with it as much as we could and I just found that a lot of the information that helped us construct our marketing plan laid in the community, so it was just about a matter of having that constant engagement,” Buahin explains. “As Simon said we are getting to be a proper company. It’s just a matter of installing some key processes, just to align things that we’re already doing but doing them a little bit better.”
Curve has started its second wave of games by announcing Slow Bros’ Harold Halibut (you can read more about it here). The handcrafted stop motion narrative exploration title will release next year, with Byron saying he “loved it from the moment [he] saw it.”
During our chat, we discuss the definition of what ‘a Curve game’ is at length. ‘Something that captures the imagination’ came up a lot, and that’s something Harold Halibut does perfectly through its wonderful art direction. But in the end, more than a type of game, it’s a relationship that defines what a Curve game is.
“Simon looks for a bond with him personally, and the company, with the developer,” Dinsey explains. “And that is probably the closest you’re going to get to a definition of a Curve game: a bond between the people who have got to bring it to market and the people who are making it. As opposed to ‘just another game down the pipe’.”
On top of all the projects we discuss, Curve is working on a couple of unannounced titles and is bringing Manual Samuel and Velocity 2X to Switch in August.
Curve is nominated for Publishing Hero once again at the Develop Awards this year, having won the prize in 2017. And for Dinsey, that was a defining moment for the company.
“I’ve got to admit the Develop Awards was genuinely an emotional one for me. Seeing the level of fraternalism there is in that room... To actually go up there and collect an award for this little company called Curve was such a surprise. It was really emotional for all of us. That felt like we were on the right road. It was the first signal that we were starting to do things right. It’s the old: ‘It takes years to be an overnight success’. That was the moment and things have gone very well for us since. Now we have to work harder than we’ve ever worked to maintain it.”