'Self-publishing is critical to survival': Why n-Space teamed up with Digital Extremes - MCV

'Self-publishing is critical to survival': Why n-Space teamed up with Digital Extremes

CEO Dan O'Leary talks us through the studio's partnership with the Warframe dev for new RPG Sword Coast Legends
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Earlier this month, n-Space revealed a new partnership with Digital Extremes, the developer behind Warframe.

While the mysterious RPG project the duo were working on intrigued many – a title that has been announced today as Sword Coast Legends, a new game set in the Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms series – of more interest was the nature of the partnership between the two studios.

Developers working together is becoming increasingly common, but it was Digital Extremes' experience of self-publishing with Warframe that holds the key to its collaboration with n-Space.

We caught up with Dan O'Leary (pictured), CEO of n-Space, to find out more about the partnership, why self-publishing is essential to a mid-sized studio's survival and why former BioWare talent was keen to work on Sword Coast Legnds. 

How did the partnership between n-Space and Digital Extremes first come about? Who approached whom?

Both n-Space and Digital Extremes were represented by the same agency for many years, and have had a friendly relationship all along. A few years back they took a big chance self-publishing Warframe and the result has been transformative for the company. I watched that happen, cheering them on, knowing it was the right path for n-Space as well.

We were busy developing Sword Coast Legends at the time, keeping all our options open for publishing and distribution. When it became painfully obvious that a traditional developer/publisher relationship could not meet our expectations, I called Digital Extremes. 

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Why is this partnership significant? How does it differ from other collaborations?

There is a lot of lip service given to partnership in this industry, often without actions to back it up. Our relationship with DE is a true partnership, with shared goals, risk, expectations and reward. They have offered support beyond what is required, without hesitation or concern for anything but the quality of the end product. We share that developer mindset and it makes this relationship special.

What does each studio bring to the table? What contributions will each team be making to the new RPG?

n-Space is developing the game, concept to completion. We also bring to the table a strong partnership with Wizards of the Coast and the Dungeons & Dragons team. Digital Extremes is providing a portion of the funding, along with the skills and experience they have garnered publishing and supporting Warframe, which boasts over 14 million players worldwide.

Self-publishing is critical to survival and essential to prosperity. There just aren’t enough work for hire development opportunities available these days to keep a mid-sized studio busy.

How will Digital Extremes self-publishing experience help n-Space, not only on this game but going forward?

DE has a wealth of experience and considerable resources to bring to bear in the areas of PR, Marketing, QA, community management, customer support, advertising, global digital distribution, and so on. They also have a valuable network of friends and partners to assist in many of the same areas and more.

How important is self-publishing becoming to medium-sized studios such as n-Space?

I would say it is critical to survival and essential to prosperity. There just aren’t enough work-for-hire development opportunities available these days to keep a mid-sized studio busy.

Twenty years ago, we’d do six pitch meetings or less to get a solid lead on a project. Two or three months later we’d be under contract, with the signing payment in the bank. Now it takes 20+ meetings and more than six to nine months of bidding and contract negotiations. During that time the studio is expected to keep the team intact, create extensive pitch documentation and invest in compelling demos (all without compensation) if it hopes to land the project. It has become a 'bet the farm' prospect every time, and a major contributor to worldwide studio closures over the last few years.

Meanwhile, the industry has evolved in other, more positive ways. We now have access to tools and platforms that provide us with alternatives to 'Big Publisher' distribution, marketing, fulfillment, PR and even financing. By investing the same time and money that would have gone into bidding for a work-for-hire contract, studios like n-Space can go a long way towards building a future for themselves that is truly independent. Neither guarantee success, but the economics of self-publishing are far, far more likely to lead to a profitable and sustainable business model.

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How has the games industry changed to necessitate such a partnership between your two studios? What opportunities does this create?

The rise to prominence of direct digital distribution is the key change that created this opportunity and our relationship with Digital Extremes is allowing us to make the best of it. As a result, both companies are positioned to succeed in a way not possible in a traditional arrangement where it is common for publishers to recoup five to ten times the development budget before the developer sees a penny of royalties.

How does this partnership influence the future of n-Space?

Sword Coast Legends is the culmination of about three years of work to pivot n-Space away from work-for-hire development as our core business model, and toward owned titles and self-publishing. The future of n-Space will be dictated in large part by our efforts with Digital Extremes to successfully bring it to market. 

We're positioned to succeed in a way not possible in a traditional arrangement where it is common for publishers to recoup five to ten times the development budget before the developer sees a penny of royalties.

Do you expect other studios to form similar partnerships?

The landscape for mid-sized independent development studios like n-Space is in a state of flux and I expect you will see a number of interesting partnerships and strategies continue to emerge from it. Self-publishing, digital distribution, alternative monetisation methods, niche products and new financing methods will be common to many of those. It is an adapt or die situation.

Tell us more about the talent you have brought on board for this new RPG project. Who have you hired and why?

I first brought on Dan Tudge as president over two years ago. Dan was the director of Dragon Age: Origins, but our paths had first crossed prior to that when he was running his own development studio and we were both working for Nintendo. I hired Dan to fill shoes left empty in 2008 and to help pivot the company. Even then we were talking about this project, which was a great fit for his experience and passion.

In turn, Dan brought in Ross Gardner and Jay Turner, both BioWare vets and prior members of the DA:O team. Ross came on as the project’s technical director, leveraging over 13 years of experience at BioWare on Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, Neverwinter Nights and The Old Republic, among others.

Jay is the narrative director for Sword Coast Legends. While at BioWare, he wrote for several titles including Dragon Age: Origins, Jade Empire and the Mass Effect series, before moving to EA where he wrote for Dead Space 3 among others. Together with n-Space’s proven team of veteran developers, it is a formidable combination.

A lot of independent developers are starting to embrace the term 'triple-A quality'. Why is this?

I think largely to set consumer expectations of scope and quality. It is an imprecise term, but I think it adequately communicates to players that it falls between $100m+ Big Publisher releases – which I have come to call “quadruple-A” – and indie releases at the opposite end of the spectrum. Between those lies a tremendously underserved market for high quality, high value products, especially for genres that have been left behind by Big Publishers and beyond the reach of Indie studios.

Is there a level of expectation created by any project billing itself as 'triple-A quality', and how do you ensure you meet that?

Absolutely. After years of misuse many players have become skeptical of the label, and with good reason. We are building for quality by managing scope and resources, finishing key systems and content very early on and iterating rapidly and often. We have also built lots of time into the schedule post Alpha for final polish. These are common sense methods but are often set aside in order to accommodate changes outside the developer’s control. By funding all of the core development internally, n-Space was able to insulate the team from that kind of disruption, and our relationship with Digital Extremes allows us to continue with the same kind of focus.

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With the new talent adding their RPG experience, how will this team help attract fans of previous Forgotten Realms games?

When I tell you that Jon Irenicus from Baldur’s Gate II was based on the D&D character campaigned by the Sword Coast Legends’ technical director… or that the director of Dragon Age: Origins is heading up the team… These things lend a certain degree of instant credibility to the team and our game.

But that sort of thing is only enough to get your attention. What really matters is what the fans see when they look at what we’re doing, or hear about it from their friends. The care taken in bringing the spirit of Dungeons & Dragons and old-school RPG sensibilities to their PC in a way that lets them play with their friends, and create a story with their DM… that will attract the fans.

How else will you ensure Sword Coast Legends stands toe-to-toe with other games set in the Forgotten Realms universe?

At n-Space, we are all passionate fans when it comes to D&D and the Forgotten Realms, and that passion drives a deep understanding of the brand. The team is committed to authentically recreating the Forgotten Realms setting, its characters and stories, myths and legends to deliver a game that stands tall in a long line of classic D&D titles.

Like many on the team, Sword Coast Legends is a game that I have dreamed of since I was first introduced to D&D. I still vividly remember the moment I learned that skeletons take more damage from blunt weapons than edged. That experience in sixth grade framed my entire understanding of games as rule systems and kickstarted a lifetime of playing and making them. This project brings me full-circle, nearly 30 years later. I speak for the entire team here at n-Space when I say that our goal for Sword Coast Legends is to provide its players with life-long memories of fun-filled experiences.

Find out more about the game at www.swordcoast.com

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