Interview: Ambient Studios Part 2

In Part 2 of our Ambient Studios interview, we quiz Creative Director Daniel Leaver and Design Lead Mike Green on the current state of independent development, the non-financial benefits of Kickstarter and why game development is more expensive than you think.

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There’s been a surge of AAA developers breaking off and creating independent start-ups. What’s your opinion of the current state of independent development?

Mike Green: I think it’s an amazing time at the moment. There are so many cool games coming out and they’re all kind of doing things differently, which is awesome. I loved FTL. I’m hopelessly addicted to it to the point where I’m having dreams about it. And that kind of came out of nowhere. I didn’t even realised that had been Kickstarted. There are loads of little games like that coming out at the moment.

Daniel Leaver: Yeah, I really like the indie scene at the moment. I know that two people made a game recently called Space Pirates and Zombies and it does not feel like a two-man team game, but that game couldn’t have existed before we had things like Steam and digital distribution. A publisher would have come along – and probably liked it – and it would have had another twenty people put on it. Then it might have lost whatever soul it had that made it special.

Crowd-funding has obviously had a huge impact, but there’s also things like Unity, Steam Greenlight, the ubiquity digital distribution.

Daniel Leaver: I feel really positive about indie at the moment and I feel a bit sad for consoles because some of my favourite games are console games like Dead Space. They’re really cool but you’re able to be so much more agile as an indie studio. You might have given us an idea today, and we could have it implemented by this afternoon. You just don’t see that in big console development.

Mike Green: Things like the humble bundles that are coming out help and it’s great that it’s all newsworthy now, whereas before you had to find some website that no-one’s ever heard of to find out about these games. Now it’s mainstream.

Do you think we’ll see a shift in attitude from Microsoft and Sony to be more supportive of independent developers next generation? 

Mike Green: Yeah, I think they will. There are so many developers creating cool stuff. You’ve already seen Microsoft get Minecraft on the Xbox. I think that’s just a first step to greater things.

Daniel Leaver: I  think they definitely have to. Sony have adopted a business model with PlayStation Plus that’s going to work so well for small developers because you know if you can get your game as part of PlayStation Plus you’ll receive proceeds from that.

How has the experience been working without a publisher?

Daniel Leaver: It’s been both exciting and scary because what publishers give you is an incredibly supportive safety net. They look after you and they’ll give you both feedback on your ideas, which is good, and they’ll give you support financially. So the scary part is being without that but the really good part is we can speak directly to our players. Whereas if this had been through a publisher they’d have wanted to keep all this information ready for a press day or something.

Mike Green: It’s been very nice coming up with this concept, having that freedom to go ‘hey, let’s put this in and let’s do this’.

So the Kickstarter begins Monday 4th. What does Kickstarter allow you to that you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise?

Daniel Leaver: The most important one, which is the biggest thing for me, is we’re able to talk to players about a game that’s been alive for just short of two months. To just be able to get people involved and hear gamer feedback within days of coming up with a concept and asking, ‘what do you feel about this unit?’ ‘is this the kind of game you want to play?’ ‘do you like this idea for a control scheme?’

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So you’ll definitely be taking people’s feedback on board? That’s not always the case.

Daniel Leaver: Absolutely.

Mike Green: Yeah, absolutely.

Daniel Leaver: We certainly want to get an alpha out as soon as possible after the Kickstarter’s out.

Mike Green: RTS and god-games they are quite niche and I think that type of game is absolutely perfect for Kickstarter. Hopefully lots of people will agree with that.

Daniel Leaver: I think Kickstarter is the perfect website for people who, I like to call it the vocal minority but they’re actually a huge number of people who really miss certain types of game like point and click adventure games and RTS’ and god games, which for some reason publishers have just shied away from. I don’t know why that is, because clearly there’s a large market for them. GODUS was funded. Project Eternity was funded.

The Kickstarter goal is £300,000. There’s a perception that a sum like £300,000 is a lot of money when it comes to game development, but when you’re funding a team of eleven that’s not that much, is it?

Daniel Leaver: No it’s not and I’m really pleased you brought that up because I think it’s about time that we had more of an open discussion on how much it costs to make. To a man in the streets, £300,000 is a lot of money. If I had £300,00 I’d be over the moon but to run a studio of eleven people with facilities and paying taxes properly and rent…

Mike Green: It’s not actually £300,000, either. Kickstarter take their cut and then there’s the credit cards and any rewards, we’ve got to make that stuff happen. So actually it will end up being a much smaller amount of money. It’s still a lot of money, but not the full £300,000.

Daniel Leaver: It is an expensive thing, game development. I wasn’t privy to exactly how much LittleBigPlanet cost, for instance, but I know it was several millions. I was never shown any numbers but that just shows how much it really does cost. And that was quite a small team by industry standards – probably a maximum of 30 people made that game. It’s an expensive process but Kickstarter allows people to see that.

Is that perception frustrating?

Mike Green: It’s fair for people to criticise and they probably should. It’s good that we can talk to people, we need to be open with them because we’re asking people for their money, so it’s expected that they’re going to ask questions. I would.

Daniel Leaver: What would be a lot scarier for me, as a pledger, would be to know that someone was asking for less money than they needed. I’d rather know the total upfront rather than they ask for less and hope for more.

How much work goes into the Kickstarter? I mean, I’ve never really thought about just how much works happens behind the scenes before and during, and even after?

Daniel Leaver: We’re under no illusions. Next month we will probably have very little time for development because these guys aren’t just fans anymore they’re investors and if I was doing a pitch for a publisher or another investor I’d put all my effort into it. So we have to put our effort into every single person.

Mike Green: We’ve been trying to build this up for the past couple of weeks. It’s taken up quite a lot of my time and we haven’t even started yet. We’ve spoken to a few of the other guys who have done Kickstarters and the biggest comment from them is, ‘you have no idea what you’re about to get yourself into.’ I like to embrace challenge and I’m really looking forward to talking to people and hearing people’s opinions and replying to them and hopefully we’ll get some of their ideas into the game as well. That’ll be incredible.

Daniel Leaver: It’s massive, getting feedback from other people. I think if you design a game in isolation you’re just delaying the inevitable feedback.

Mike Green: Whenever I finished a game like Fable, you’re waiting for the reviews or any previews that come up. I don’t even really read the preview, it’s straight to the comments section because I want to know what the public think. 

Daniel Leaver: We’ve got a plan for the next four weeks so we know what we’re going to be making, and showing people, drip-feeding them cool new things, so hopefully that plan will keep us awake when it’s half four in the morning and we’re replying to the American backers.

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There’s been some criticism of stretch goals lately, how are you tackling those?

Daniel Leaver: We want to ensure that our stretch goals aren’t integral features of the game that are missing, we want to put more effort into polishing this area or expanding this area but we’re quite worried about overpromising.

Videogames made $83 million through Kickstarter last year, do you think that’s a bubble waiting to burst or a mushrooming trend that’s going to continue?

Daniel Leaver: I think Kickstarter is brilliant. A lot of publishers view Kickstarter not as a threat because they don’t deal with the same kind of money – Microsoft would never see Kickstarter as a scary threat to them and nor should they – they see it as an accompanying thing, for picking up the projects that they can’t see in their multi-billion pound budgets for the year. I really hope it doesn’t burst because it’s the future as far as I’m concerned. We can talk to our fans directly and that’s really exciting.

Mike Green: I hope Kickstarter continues, just for the games like FTL and War for the Overworld. It’s great, we’re getting more awesome games.

This interview was originally published on Strategy Informer.

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