The UK games industry is going through some rough changes, so it’s no wonder developers are taking radical action to avoid being left behind.
Relentless Software, the Brighton studio famous for the Buzz! series, is throwing its weight behind social games for digital platforms.
Having tested the digital waters with Blue Toad Murder Files, the studio unveiled its first iPhone game last month, but also made some redundancies as a result of its refocus.
We contacted executive director Andrew Eades to tell us more about what these changes mean for Relentless, what they’ve learnt from self-publishing, why multifunction devices are changing who plays and how they plan to get their games into the hands of non-gamers.
You recently let go of some staff. How did it feel to have to make that decision?
Letting go of staff is never a decision you take lightly but it’s not something you should shy away from either. We need a skill set that matches what we do and the games industry is going through enormous change right now. We announced that we were restructuring earlier in the year and that does mean some roles have gone.
You’ve had your first taste of episodic development with Blue Toad Murder Files. What have you learnt from it and what will you do differently next time?
We’ve learnt so much from it, I'd be able to do a whole series of lectures! Episodic works differently in games to TV, so you don’t tend to build an audience in the same way as a TV show does. We’d look at whether there was a free-to-play model that we could use. We really think Blue Toad is a great game and we’ve had the sales to prove it, but I wonder if we could get a bigger audience by making episodes free. ‘Episode Free’ was a big experiment and more people downloaded that than all the rest put together.
Has creating an episodic game meant any significant changes to your development practices?
I think we were able to streamline our processes and build six masters instead of one. We made tools for the artists and designers to use and directly change gameplay. But we had a pretty mature process in place. We’ve mastered dozens of Buzz! SKUs in our time if you think about all the different language versions.
Blue Toad has also been your first self-published game. What challenges did you face because of this?
We faced many challenges in learning how to become a self-publisher. Understanding marketing, PR and pricing has been a big learning curve, but I think we are better for it. Using an episodic game to do this learning was a stroke of genius as we gave ourselves so many different options to try that we are still learning over a year later. Being a self-publisher allows you a lot of control and flexibility but there is nobody else to blame when things don’t pan out as expected. That idiot in marketing turns out to be you sometimes.
Earlier this year, you ended your publishing agreement with Sony and have set your sights exclusively on downloadable platforms. What led to this decision?
First, let me set the record straight. We didn’t announce that we were going exclusively digital. The original interview got misinterpreted by some sites and on the internet there’s no going back. But we are accelerating our transition towards digital. I think we felt that there was a future beyond Sony and that our relationship had come to a natural conclusion. We make games for the mass market, for everybody. There are a lot of new platforms and the market is quite fragmented so we thought we can’t make the kind of games we want to make just for PlayStation anymore. The hardcore console is a massive barrier to entry for us. There’s a bigger audience for Relentless on devices that people already own. That’s an iPhone today, it might be a connected TV tomorrow.
In a few years time, the TV you own will be more powerful than a PlayStation 3, more connected than a PC and games will just be a channel you can switch to. Our games are designed for the mass market audience that doesn’t even know which way up to hold a Dual Shock controller. We said this in 2005 when we launched Buzz! with its own controller and it’s still true today. You’ve seen EyeToy and now Kinect looks very exciting.
My point is that consoles as a hardcore device are brilliant but we don’t make games for the hardcore. As soon as a non-gamer has a games-capable device, they start playing games on it (Nokia Snake, anybody?). But they would never call themselves a ‘gamer’ and they would never go into GAME to buy a games console. Our medium is more powerful than television but it will only become genuinely mass market when it is available to everybody and the games that will make it mass market are games like Buzz! and Blue Toad Murder Files. Not Mass Effect, as good as that game is. And I’m not saying people should stop making brilliant games like Mass Effect, but that the hardcore audience is not growing much.
Do you plan on producing other original IPs for download or following Telltale’s route by working on licensed properties?
We’re open to using licences. I understand Telltales’ business model and in fact they’ve been very friendly and given us advice on some things. For now, though, I feel there is more to do with Blue Toad and other ideas we have.
Can you tell us what you’re currently working on?
We have a couple of things that are super secret but I can tell you we are about to release our first iPhone game, Quiz Climber. It’s a fantastic and addictive game that we felt brought all our knowledge about making quiz games into a unique social quiz game. We’ve partnered with Chillingo, who I think are phenomenal on iPhone. The game is great and involves quizzing past your friends. It’s part of our digital strategy to go to the best platforms and distributors with top-notch games.
Buzz! was popular with lots of non-gamers, and Blue Toad seems to be targeted at the same demographic. However, this audience isn’t likely to use a downloadable portal, like Steam. How important is it that you target the right downloadable portals (ie WildTangent Games or Big Fish Games) for your family friendly titles?
We’re all about the non-gamer and you’re right that PSN and Steam are not the natural haunts of the non-gamer. But having said that, we overachieved on PSN and we’re still working out the recent PC release. We’re not tied to an exclusive PC distributor so we are planning agreements with anyone and everyone. The conversion to PC is another learning process. It actually went via Xbox so we now have a truly multi-platform codebase. Some might say we were brave to do a family game on PSN, but you have to try things out. Sometimes you can talk yourself out of doing something before you get started.
Are we likely to see more of your titles, like Blue Toad, come to mobile platforms, where there is great potential to reach new users?
I would say that we’re looking at all platforms for all our products and not just Blue Toad. I think there is a place for Blue Toad on iPhone, but we have to decide whether there is a better business model for Blue Toad on these devices. Blue Toad costs a lot to make so we have to be careful when we’re deciding if a platform is ready to support it. But we are definitely going to support both iOS and Android platforms going forward.
The downloadable market is becoming just as competitive as the traditional retail market. Why are you confident that Relentless will survive?
I’d say that digital is ultra-competitive, and I like to compete. We have the quality and the games that can entertain millions, so it’s about distribution and responding to a market. We are not trying to build up our own distribution network, but by partnering with the best we’ll expect to have a good crack. The traditional retail model doesn’t work that well anymore and our desire to build games that anybody can play means we have an exponentially increasing audience as more and more non-gamers own a device that they play games on.
We spotted the change in retail coming early on and put together a plan that meant we were not reliant on one client, one platform and one game. Although the games industry as a whole has had a pretty rocky period and we have not been immune, I think we are well-placed to move forward.