Edinburgh-based developer Outerlight caused quite a stir with their first title, The Ship, a game based around assassination and murder, set on an art deco steamer. Everyone from Penny Arcade and Gamespot through to Scotland's very own Consolevania picked up on the game's quirky approach to the run/shoot/repeat FPS standard.
Since then it's all be kinda quiet. We've been waiting for nearly a year, since the sequel to The Ship was announced to the world - via the CV fluff piece created for EIF 2007.
We visited Outerlight in their damn cool Leith offices and spoke to Operations Director Ailsa Bates and Managing Director Chris Peck about the sequel, their experience working with their first major publisher and what the future holds for the company...
SG: The last time we saw you - in the now infamous Fluff Piece - you told the world that Outerlight had just signed a new deal with a publisher for a sequel to The Ship. Can you tell us who the publisher is yet?
Ailsa: No, we can't! We're still not allowed to discuss our contract. I am hoping this will change soon.
SG: What's happening with the sequel, can you tell us anything about it - platform/s, setting, characters, release date?
Ailsa: Again, I'm very limited in what I can say about the new title. The hope is that the new game will be released before Christmas.
Chris: I can also say it's not a direct sequel to The Ship, although it retains a lot of the good gameplay elements from The Ship, and it is a lot of fun to play. It will be a PC & Xbox360 release. The settings are no longer only on Ships, which widens the scope of the gameplay, and the characters are all more contemporary than those on The Ship.
SG: This is your first title with a publisher. How does it compare to the independent approach you took with the first game?
Ailsa: It's very different working with a publisher on the development to working independently. We're used to making decisions ourselves on the basis of whether we like a feature or think it's fun whereas publishers have to take a much more structured and pre-planned approach to development. The relationship has not always been easy as there is a bit of a clash of corporate cultures but I would say that our publisher's knowledge and long history of game development has helped a lot in improving the game, making it more accessible and more marketable. In the end we have had to admit that they really do know what they're doing. Sobering but also encouraging in many ways.
Chris: At the end of the day, they are paying for development, so we have to listen to them!
SG: How is The Ship doing on Steam? It's still available, are people still buying/playing it?
Ailsa: The Ship is still selling on Steam, a good number of units per month and yes, people are still playing it! We've now sold over 100,000 units which for a budget game on the PC platform with zero marketing is really quite impressive! We've also been told by some of the biggest developers and publishers in the business that they play the game internally which is great news. We're planning a minor update in the next few months to reward these faithful players.
SG: The Ship got some great reviews and coverage from the games press, but seemed to slip entirely under the radar here in Scotland. Were you disappointed with the lack of support from your home territory?
Ailsa: Yes, we were. Even the review we did get from The Metro (a great paper, if I say so myself, and not just because they gave us 4 stars) didn't seem to realise we were a Scottish company and we didn't feature anywhere in the major Scottish papers. I know the press are a little "once bitten, twice shy" about the games industry but a review here and there would have been very encouraging.
SG: What can we expect from the sequel? Is it a straightforward follow-on to The Ship?
Ailsa: No, it's not. All I can really say is it's no longer called The Ship. So no more nautical puns in the Outerlight offices... Shame...
Chris: The game still contains the Hunter & Hunted kill loop, but also features improved security, simplified needs, greater accessibility, plus a host of new features that I can’t really tell you anything about. Oh, and its lots of fun to play…did I say that already?! J
SG: Dammit, I thought I had you there. If I keep asking, will you let ANYTHING slip? No?
So what else is Outerlight up to these days?
Ailsa: We're looking to sign another unique IP project once this game is finished which as I said should be towards the end of this year if all goes well. We have a great title in the pipeline which I'm sure will give everyone a good laugh but, obviously, I can't tell you a thing about it...
SG: How do you see the industry moving over the next year or two? Is Outerlight interested in any of the new areas like casual games, MMO's or new platforms such as mobile?
Ailsa: We're interested in MMO's and casual games but mobile games aren't really our area of expertise so we won't be moving into that area. I think the casual games market is going to grow substantially so we are looking at that and we've always wanted to do an MMO, if we can find the funding plus we have a very original if rather ambitious idea that I hope we get to make one day.
Ailsa: Not really no. It astonishes me the bad press that games get
across the board in Britain and around the world. I think there is very
little understanding at the moment of what a game is, how diverse
products can be from Brain Training to GTA and the press at the moment
are perhaps a little technophobic and extremely game-phobic! I think
the industry makes an easy target and at the moment, although the
demographic expands each year as gamers get older, it's still a very
new industry. Maybe it's easier to write a sensationalist story about
how games cause all the evils in society than it is to actually look at
the facts of what underlies anti social behaviour. I'm sure that as
time progresses, games become more ubiquitous and journalists who
played games as children and continue to do so as adults are the norm
rather than the exception, then we'll actually start to get occasional
praise as well as vitriol. I hope so... It would seem a shame if the
Scottish or even the British game industry died when as a global
industry it's doing so well.
SG: So which issues do you think developers and games companies as a whole struggle with here in Scotland - and in the UK as a whole?
Ailsa: I think we struggle from a lack of support both from the media and from the government. Countries like Canada have a booming game industry because of government support. It's very hard for companies here to compete hence we have a dwindling number of struggling developers and no big publishers. Obviously there are a few exceptions to that rule but overall the industry needs some form of development funding support and I don't just mean R&D tax credits, helpful as they may be. Developers in particular are going to find it harder and harder to produce new and innovative games because it's becoming more and more expensive to produce even a basic prototype and publishers are very risk averse and reluctant to sign a new game without some kind of prototype they can look at. When it can take up to 6 months of work to sign a development contract and 6 months to make any kind of decent prototype, it's not surprising that developers struggle a bit and very few new ones start up unless they rolled out of the Dare to be Digital competition! This is a very difficult industry to be in, in the UK and despite massive global growth, no one in the UK seems to want it to succeed here. A strange situation given the support given to the film industry.
Chris: I think the inherent structure of the industry is taking it in a direction which is unsustainable. For a developer, there are two paths to success; taking on outsourcing work for big publishers, making a small profit on wages, but this takes years to accumulate enough money to try your own venture, and can never pay off big; the other method is pitching IP’s to publishers and signing innovative titles. Given that you need to fund it and pitch it as a developer, often now costing more than £300,000 to do so, with no guarantee of it being taken on, this is a lot of risk for a developer. Even if you do get signed, your royalty deal of roughly 20% for you and 80% for the publisher will mean that only a number one hit will result in you seeing any money back for your effort. Clearly, as a publisher, who is funding development, and therefore taking the financial risk, this makes sense. But for the developer, this means there are few avenues to making a profit and having some cash. Given increased game budgets (averaging £8m) then pre-production costs are only going to increase, which will make pitching ideas harder and harder. As Ailsa said, soon only Dare to be Digital and a few successful independent developers will be able to pitch new ideas. We are in danger of having a few big publishers, and no more innovation.
This situation is exacerbated by the differences between independent or small developers, who have a family feeling and work on a very creative basis, and large publishers, who have to adopt a more corporate strategy and work culture. As an entity, publishers are inherently risk aversive and not as creative as developers. One suggestion I have for moving things forward, is for the publishers to take some of their profits, and invest them in working on pre-production for new IP with developers, so that the ones with the money are taking the risks, instead of the developers. Otherwise we will end up with only sports games, movie tie-ins, and sequels.
Oh, and one final point, the actual act of making games, the creative process involved in the day to day workings of a game company, that is an amazing experience, and that is what drives most developers to keep going. It’s not the profits, it’s not working with publishers, it’s working with talented team-mates in a very creative industry, with an interesting mix of scientists and artists that keeps us going, despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges.
SG: Thank you both. Now, can you tell us anything about the sequel to your first game, The Ship?