Anyone would think, for developers that started out on PC, an offer to port your latest project to consoles would be a no brainer. Theoretically, you could double or even triple your consumer base, bringing in the big bucks. Yet, for small development groups like Big Robot, taking the leap to multiplatform outlets can be more hassle than it’s worth and life as a dev may well turn out better off without it.
This curious line of questioning arose not twenty minutes into my time at this year’s EGX Rezzed in London. One of the first games I encountered, sadly not available on PS4 as I would soon discover, was Signal From Tolva. An open world, first person shooter cum explore ‘em up. It looked like a crossed between Borderlands and Dishonored, artistically. Weapon and movement handling seemed more reminiscent of Unreal Tournament. But why am I talking about a PC exclusive, here on All Things Playstation?
A Casual Chat About The Game Turned Into An Interview On A Decision Small Developers Must Face
Retro art style, spliced with modern gameplay is sure to hypnotise me. As I later discovered with Snake Pass. Noticing just how entranced I was, Lead Programmer Tom Betts approached me and we started chatting about Signal From Tolva. First speaking a little about the game, we veered off onto the tangent that would inspire this article – a reason for not moving to consoles.
Acknowledging that Big Robot is only comprised of around four to five staff, Betts agrees that for now, Big Robots is an indie developer. Of course, this suits it’s staff down to the ground. Without a large publisher setting guidelines and creative limits, Big Robot is free to create and design as they please. A perfect catch twenty two – this makes it hard to branch out into the console industry.
“We thought about this a lot when we started off. We’ve even had people offer us publishing deals. But we were looking really, to be able to self fund. I think if you can do that, it’s really worth thinking about. It just means that you don’t have deal with whatever restrictions might be placed on you by publishers. I know a lot of people can’t be self funded so at that point, publishers are a viable option. Yet, getting involved with a publisher means devs have to be careful. Some publishers have much stricter ideas about what your game needs to be. Some of them are a lot more flexible”
At this point in time, Horizon: Zero Dawn sprung to mind which is of course, published by Sony. Its developers Guerrilla Studios have had to make a game designed with parameters set in place by Sony. Sure, in the end a very successful product was released. With Sony’s backing the Guerrilla team was able to craft something truly wonderful.
It is for that reason alone that I’m sure a majority of them would have liked to release the game on other platforms. There’s no doubt whatsoever that it would have been a success regardless of its platform. There’s no reason for Horizon to be console exclusive, other than for it to be a console seller. If I ever meet a staff member from Guerrilla, I’ll be sure to ask how they feel about it.
Publishers’ Wants And Needs Don’t Always Mesh With Creative Visions Of Developers
The bigger publishers like to stick to what’s reliable, don’t they? The sequels, the action titles that are sure to make a profit!
“Yeah that’s true. But there are a lot of smaller independent publishers coming out now. I think for smaller teams, they understand a bit more about how they want to work. That smaller scale that they operate at. That might be better suited for the smaller teams”
“There was a weird thing recently whereby if you were funded by one of the European publishers you had to put overly British things in your games. Like red telephone boxes or the Union Jack. Yet here we are making games about alien planets and we can’t really put British-ness on that. One advantage that smaller teams like ourselves do have is that they don’t need as much money. So a lot of studios have to go to the big publishers because they’re dealing with really big overheads. Getting the money for those projects is a far more daunting task for them. Not like we are – a team of around five people”
A Small Group Of Developers Mean A Less Is More Ethos Must Be Employed To Reach Success
With so few staff working to create what looks like a great game, I had to wonder what kind of skill sets were at play here. Is Big Robot comprised of a staff with high reaching abilities? Or is it more a case of banding together and having a wider cross section of skills to create the final product? I wanted to know if having so few people working on the game ever left the team yearning for some outside help.
Are potential expenses ever offset by having people on the team who have maybe a lot of prior experience in game design? So maybe you wouldn’t have to spend a lot to achieve certain things due to their expertise?
“To a degree. I would imagine that could be the case sometimes. But for us, none of us had really made games before. Sometimes, if you come from a big studio scene, there’s an assumption that you need a staff that’s really big. People have said to me they’d love to make a game but they’d need an entire A.I programming team. I’m there saying – if you think like that then you’re not going to make an independant studio. You don’t really need all that to generate a marketable game. A lot of this independent studio work is about being flexible. I’m the main programmer but I also do a bit of art and sound design”
A Jack of all trades?
“Yeah, you kinda have to be. When you have a small team like, you can achieve a lot more. You’d be surprised what kind of talents people have got without even knowing it!”
Coming To Consoles Is A Lot Of Extra Work For Small Developers Like Big Robot
You mentioned Microsoft and Sony approaching you before (prior to the start of this interview) but you didn’t take the plunge in the end?
“No. I mean we had the money from our previous game to be self funded. So we didn’t need the cash to finish the game. We did think about going with a publisher for the sake of things like future returns. And the kind of publicity you get from a publisher. Of without that, you can hire your own PR or do it yourself. But then that’s extra workload to worry about. In the end it’s a case of looking at other publishers and seeing if what they offer is worth it for you.”
When making a big game for a publisher that expects big returns, the large office spaces and studios we often see in the news become a prerequisite. Larger teams are needed and more money is spent on development in the pursuit of a much bigger return. Tom Betts and his colleagues would likely be uprooted and relocated somewhere the publisher would define. For anyone living a family life, this is undoubtedly a far trickier decision to make.
With No Singular Studio To Work From, Teamwork Is Essential In Finishing A Game Without A Big Publisher
The entire team of Big Robots live in different areas of the U.K, communicating over long distances to achieve the finished result of their game. With this business of uprooting and relocating, it’s now a little easier to see why some developers would choose to be self funded. For people like Tom Betts, life is ultimately easier without signing up to the obligations required by the big publishing scene. If you own a PC, Signal From Tolva is available on Steam now!