Strike Gamelabs founders Ella Romanos and Martin Darby on why they're leaving work-for-hire behind

‘This is the best time for small UK studios to focus on their own games’

Having closed Remode in March earlier this year, former staff Ella Romanos, Martin Darby and Gareth Lewis have opened a new studio in Cornwall, Strike Gamelabs. And this time they are determined to focus on creating their own, original IP.

The team of three, with the help of just a few contractors, are now at work on their first game for release in 2015.

Speaking with Develop, Romanos and Darby explained why the time came to close Remode, their ambitions for their new studio and why it’s the perfect time for UK developers to start developing original IP.

Why did you decide to close Remode and start anew?
: When we started Remode, our aim was eventually to be able to develop our own games. But we started out doing work-for-hire intentionally, ready to build the business. And also, as graduates, we wanted to build our skills, experience, and build a team.

In Remode we were starting to transition to own IP, but we really had quite a lot of challenges doing both. Eventually Martin and I decided that if we were going to focus on our own IP, really the only feasible way to do it was to close Remode and start a new studio where we just make our own games.

In my opinion, there hasn’t been a better time to focus on our own games in recent years. Mainly because there’s a lot of funding available on a smaller scale. So public funding, project finance, SEIS and things like that. And that, along with the tax relief, we believe that in the last seven years that we’ve been in the industry, this is the best time for small studios and start-ups to focus on their own games.

You said there were challenges doing both work-for-hire and your own IP, how so?
: The simple way to put it is focus. Not just to the team, although that was a challenge, but particularly for Martin and I, and I think in particular for Martin. Because having to split your time between designing your own IP and designing and overseeing the production of quite a lot of client projects, client projects always had to come first. As it should because it paid the bills. And that really created a scenario where the own IP project always got put on the back-burner.

And we also had a couple contracts cancelled which just then made it even harder to put resource on our own IP. We basically realised that if we were to keep Remode going we’d have to move back to pure work-for-hire, and frankly that wasn’t what we wanted to do.

What does that mean for some of the old projects you were working on that haven’t been released?
: We completed all of those, the work-for-hire ones. We were very grateful to have the opportunity to work on them. Some of the other concepts we were working on independently won’t be continued because they fitted Remode’s strategy specifically, but we can’t talk in too much specifics about what ones.

What were some of the lessons you learnt from Remode?
: Where to start, everything. It was a huge learning experience. I learnt pretty much everything I know by doing it. Assessing the market, sales, handling profits and losses, structuring a team and moving from a concept phase to delivered product. I could go on and on.

But I think the main thing we learned that we can take forward is the idea of process. The idea that we’re not just randomly settling on a game that we like and we’re randomly making it. We fitted it into the context of knowing how the high concept might work with the market, and then we can do scoping and prototyping up-front like we used to do on our work-for-hire stuff in order to follow through the development cycle.

Romanos: It’s ironic that we’d really refined our processes at Remode and we got very good at that, and I would say we only got good at that in the last year or so. But on the other hand, obviously it means we’ve gone through that process. And frankly when we started we were still students. We didn’t know how to make commercial games and we didn’t know how to run a business. And we did that through Remode. We made mistakes, we learnt from them, and it was really hard to do. We’re very proud we got as far as we did.

There’s the networks we’ve built, the skills, the experience, and now I feel like that’s put us in a really good position to do what we’re doing now.

Darby: The one thing I will say is that obviously, closing the studio and making this decision was kind of heartbreaking in a way. But if you want to ask me the one thing I’ve learnt, it would be that leadership isn’t about choosing the ideal option and just leaving ones you don’t like, you always have to choose between two difficult choices. And this was no different.

So you’ve got a new studio now. What’s it called and what kind of projects are you working on?
: It’s called Strike Gamelabs and we’re working on just one original title that we’ll be ready to announce later in the year and we’re aiming to launch the game next year.

I think like what Ella touched on earlier, in the industry right now we are in quite a sort of rock and roll kind of time for independent development where small teams can get together with the right game and release it globally and create a big hit.

When we got into the industry it wasn’t really like that at all, or it was much, much smaller. I think from my point of view as a designer, that is incredibly exciting. I look at it and think, why wouldn’t you want to be a part of something like that?

I think in terms of the team involved in what we’re doing now, some people say there should be no such thing as paying your dues in the industry, but I don’t think I agree with that. But what I do think what we all feel is we’ve all been involved in enough development to have a really good feel of what things work in a game, what might work and what definitely won’t work. So there’s always more for us to learn, but I think not being too naïve is half the battle of being indie. So luck is part of success, but you have to maximise the probability for luck and I think we’re all at the point where we feel we can give that a good shot.

It kind of took us time through Remode to build up our skills, connections and our reputation, and as that’s happened we’ve watched the indie scene grow and watched technology change, and it just really feels like now is the time to take the next step forward.

Romanos: In terms of the team, it’s myself and Martin, and our other business partner Gareth Lewis, who was our tech director at Remode. So it’s the three of us working on this and some contractors to bulk out the team, but there will only be five or six people on the project.

Are you going to be self-publishing this game?
: That’s still to be decided. We’re definitely going to be talking to some publishers and then deciding what the best reach is for the game.

Do you have any platforms in mind and can you provide any details on the title?
Darby: I think the game is reasonably rare in that it could work on a range of devices but what we’re currently thinking is that it’ll be PC or console. It will have a single-player focus.

You’ve mentioned a lot about financing, so how are you funding this game?
Romanos: We’ve raised equity investment. We’ve got an office here in Cornwall. The contractors we’re using are based around the UK and US. And we’re also going to be getting games tax relief on it as well which is obviously a pretty significant help.

Are you looking to keep the core team as the three of you?
: I think the important point here from my point of view is, I very much see this as a kind of punk-rock effort. When you get together the right group of characters in a small team making a game, you’ve got a very immediate sense of camaraderie, direction and communication. And so I’m very cautious to lose that at this point. If you look at teams like Hello Games, you can clearly see that.

I think that we’re very much aspiring for that model at the moment. So at the moment, like Ella said, we just want to keep it really tight until we know what we do and it feels like that right time.

Romanos: For the purposes of the game we’re developing at the moment we will definitely be keeping it just to us and contractors. What we do after that is still really to be decided and that depends how we get on. The main difference for us compared to Remode is the focus is on keeping the team as simple as possible to keep the creative direction. Also, all of the contractors, bar maybe one, are all people we’ve worked with before. So we’re pulling in the people we feel are right for the project.

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