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Dissolved Indie Dev Outerlight on Ubisoft vs Risk: “Digital distribution remains the only sane choice for developers.”

By on October 14, 2010
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This is a guest post by freelance narrative designer, Tom Jubert. Check out his industry blog, Plot is Gameplay’s Bitch, at http://blog.tomjubert.com/

Outerlight – the innovative Scottish team behind The Ship and upcoming spiritual sequel Bloody Good Time – revealed recently that the team was no more in a frank interview with BigDownload.com. Studio co-founder Chris Peck speaks candidly about how the developer’s move from self-financed digital distribution to a traditional boxed copy publishing model with Ubisoft ultimately led to its destruction.

Nicholas talks (at length sometimes) about how publishing is moving into new tiers – the ultra AAA, the mass market / casual, and the hobbyist / indie. Outerlight is/was an independent developer in the most modern sense. The team started out in 2004 by developing their game concept as a mod for Half Life, and using its success as a basis for pursuing private funding. This lead to the critically acclaimed release of The Ship – a risky venture in online games which saw players tasked with assassinating their one target on the cruise ship without giving the game away, or being knocked off by their own would-be murderer. It was a game of performance, and fascinating for it. It cost under £700,000.

By the time their follow up, Bloody Good Time, was announced, the team had been dissolved. What went wrong?

Peck:

“Unfortunately, by that time we had spent two years and 600,000 pounds on pitch materials and demos chasing publishing deals (for a deal on distribution, not even finance!), so Ship sales weren’t enough to fund the next project. Had digital distribution existed when we started up I think we’d be in a different position now.”

He’s pretty damning of Ubisoft and traditional publishing models in general, and while what Peck calls greed Nicholas would call sound business sense, I think they’d probably see eye to eye on where developers like Outerlight should be focusing their attentions. And it isn’t Ubisoft.

Peck’s one compliment of his publisher:

“On a positive note, I can say they had an excellent QA team in Romania.”

He also raises the one obstacle standing in the way of Nicholas’ perceived indie tier:

“However, the independent route still has the key flaw of needing funding. Investors are justifiably skeptical about developers (after all, we usually go bust), and banks don’t lend, despite the public bail out, so where will the development capital come from? At the moment, the main option remains a publishing deal, and while it seems like a lifeline, it’s more like a shackle with a death sentence at the end.”

I’d argue, on that basis, that Outerlight’s real mistake was to confuse which tier they were in. The Ship was never a AAA. It was a fantastic, valuable and successful experiment. Outerlight’s decision to develop Bloody Good Time using a spanky 3D engine at a spanky price point rendered what might have been a £300,000 success a £1 million+ failure. The audience that buys Modern Warfare 2 won’t buy a 2D Agatha Christie simulator. But then they won’t buy Bloody Good Time either. The people that will would much rather it was half as expensive, and its developer stayed in business.

“The team and the office are gone, all that remains is myself working unpaid in the hope to recoup some royalties from the game. It’s been a pretty brutal period, losing the team being the hardest part, as they were the biggest asset for the company, and we shared a lot of good times together. At the moment, the life line for the company is ongoing Ship sales, which have meant we can keep trading until we hopefully see some BGT royalties.”

I’ve pre-ordered my copy. Read the full interview here.

About Tom Jubert

Tom Jubert is a freelance games writer / narrative designer, best known for his work on the Penumbra series, for which he was nominated for a Writers' Guild Award. His upcoming releases include Lost Horizon and Driver: San Francisco. He was previously the Managing Editor at GameShadow.com, and has also spent time in production.