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Develop 10: The Microstudios Panel

The Microstudios panel proved to be the most controversial and widely talked about at Develop 10, but the exchange of commentary followed by detente wasn't all that was worth taking away from the gathering, where Beatnik's Robin Lacey (Plain Sight), Positech's Cliff Harris (Kudos, Democracy, Gratuitous Space Battles), Introversion's Mark Morris (Darwinia, Defcon, Uplink) and Hello Games' Sean Murray (Joe “They'll all be in” Danger “if there's not a PC port”) talked about the state of the Microstudio. Starting with what a microstudio is anyway...

It was basically defined as any studio with less people in than you have fingers on your hands. Beatnik's 9 in an office, Introversion's current 3, after going from 4 to 10 to 4 and then onto the 3. Hello Games apparently literally work in a room about the size and shape of the long table they were all sitting at. And – biggest news, clearly - Cliffski is no longer a bedroom coder, having moved into an office. And well done he.

First issue was pricing, with the issue with the problem of how attached you get to a game leading to you to overpricing. That Introversion took forever to make Darwinia + made them launch it at a premium point, before dropping it to 10 dollars when it didn't quite work. That 10 dollars place is where you should be aiming at, Morris thinks. Of course, launching at fifteen dollars does give you room to manoeuvre by dropping it to 10. “You can always go down,” noted Mr Lover-Lover Morris. That said, as Murray noted, 15 dollars is really rare on PSN and it hasn't even been an issue in the reviews or for consumers. Which, I suspect, says a lot about the general quality of Joe Danger. If it looked like VVVVVV it'd have had a harder job at it.

Harris, working in a smaller niche, takes a different sort of route. He remembers going to see Slayer for six quid at a venue which was charging ten times as much for the chance to see Barry Manilow. Back then, he couldn't believe anyone would go and see Manilow for that money instead of Slayer, when Slayer are so cheap. The point being, that the price changes depending on what you're offering. “All that matters – really tediously – is the data,” he says. If you release the game for twenty-dollars, you make X. You release it for 10 and you make Y. If X > Y, 20 is the correct price-point. Harris thinks people confuse the Steam sales with general pricing issues – because a sale isn't actually just about the prices. It's about generating a huge amount of PR. He's ran experiments with changing his pricing without publicising it – as in, seeing if dropping to ten quid created any difference with the general buyer – and... well, the fact Positech's main games aren't ten quid shows what he found.

(Perhaps the other interesting thing mentioned is how the pricing twists due to taxes and similar. The flat-price-point for Joe Danger was important for Hello games, but it does mean they actually get less money per copy sold in the UK than elsewhere.

The other important fact which emerged was that Cliff has bought Jeans that cost 75 quid, much to the amazement and fury of the panel: “No indie buys jeans for 75 quid!”.

Second major topic was where and how to sell your game. Introversion's experience has lead them to a simple position – you have it on Steam and you have it on your website. The website means you manage to sell to your hardcore to maximise the money you earn from each of them. Conversely Steam gives enormous exposure, with Steam having generated 2.5 million dollars for Introversion over the years, which they proceeded to spend on staff and parties and probably expensive jeans.

How important Steam are for at least some games is made clear when Lacey admits that something like 0.17% of their income on Plain Sight has come via all the other download portals. The rest of the sales have come via Steam. That's a figure which scream's Steam's importance – though Harris notes that Positech gets a much higher percentage from the other retailers, especially Impulse (presumably due to some Galactic Civilizations 2 cross-over.) Hello games are in a very different experience. “If you're making a PS3 downloadable game, you're best to go PSN,” says Murray, “We've seen less than you [Lacey] from GamersGate”

The next major topic of debate was the simple idea of how to make it last, which seems like a set up for a “Doing It” The Bioware Way gag. But Murray's Hello Games story is the sort of thing which is going to be turning up for years in introductions to their next games' reviews. No publisher was interested, and seemed incapable of dealing with a team of four. They realised they had to shut down or go all in and do it themselves. They decided to quit.

And then they went to the pub, got drunk, and decided to push on. Murray ended up selling his house to finance the rest of development. “If we jumped, we'll be fucked. If we stay on, we'll be fucked,” he says, describing the dilemma. “We'll stay on. MORE COAL!”

Cliff did the sneaksie ninja approach, after initially stumbling as an indie developer, he went to work at Elixir and Lionhead and got a fat bank roll in his pocket. Making his games on the side, he watched his income, and when it was significant, made the switch back. We lead towards the simple issue of motivation as a one man studio. Is it hard to be motivated? “It's fucking easy,” Cliff says, “If you don't go and make a game that sells, you can't buy food!”

Mark's noticed that reticence amongst certain industry peers. As in, people say they're going to go indie... but they never do. They've had friends from university days who say they want to do it, but want to take another year to get more experience or more savings. But it's always “one more year” - and they're still saying that now. The key thing is, as a student, you have nothing to lose. The more you get the comforts of life, the less likely you are to make big risks. If Sean had stayed a few more years in mainstream games and had a nicer house, maybe he wouldn't have been so quick to sell it. “It was a shit house to be fair,” Murray says.

And industry experience is over-rated. Lacey has no experience whatsoever, saying that if you do it for a year, you'll learn everything you need to know. Sean who's had all the experience in the world actually agrees. “All industry experience gives you is experience in those jobs,” says Murray, “We were really at square one. We didn't have any contacts. I was working at EA, and was pretty senior... but you're really shielded from whatever.”

Then we start talking about the use and abuse of your direct community. It's important to think why you're having the community anyway. “What's the point?” notes Mark, “As in, if you can't convert it into a sale, why bother?”. Murray and Lacey – perhaps unwisely – admit that they're scared of a lot of people who've filled up their forum – and they're the same ones across all of them. As in, catering for the habitual net-dweller isn't necessarily the best use of your time.

And now we head towards the Cliffski/Epic's Mark Rein situation. While the actual existent descriptions of the debate get the character, it's actually worth noting the exact moment where Mark Rein decided to share his two cents.

Harris is describing how he used to get told off by the Marketing folk for replying to questions on the Lionhead forum. If they asked if a feature was in the game or not, and he knew, he'd told them. His way of thinking was that you'd turned one person and that's useful.

Mark Rein argues that this turning one person is at the expense of not reaching 10,000. Therefore, a waste of effort.

Thing is, they were talking at cross-purposes. Cliff was saying that basic human interaction can change people and is useful. However, Rein was picking up Cliff talking about his experience at Lionhead – not an indie, but a major developer. If the friendly coder on the forum just given away a feature that hasn't been confirmed by replying to a question on a forum, that's the possibility of some coverage blown.

(What wasn't expressed by either is the gray area – that Marketing crack down on staff talking to the gamers. If it's a feature that's been announced, it's no harm. The problem being, they don't trust programmers to be entirely up to date with all the information that's been released. So rather than risk a fuck-up, they'll just try and remove all this kind of interaction.)

Weirdly, despite being the most controversial, I don't think this area was the most interesting of the session – that they're talking about two such different areas of the industry made what was saying pretty beside the point.

It was Miles Jacobson of Sports Interactive – who, like Rein, thinks that they were a Microstudio back in the day (“...but we sold our soul to a Hedgehog”), but stressed the importance of demos – which caused more arguments about whether they were worthwhile or a waste of time. The difficulty of making a multiplayer demo (due to opening the doors to piracy) was a key point – though the free weekend seemed to be a useful alternative model for that. The difference between Defcon (a demo) and Plain Sight (not) was simply that Introversion had planned to have a centeralised server model and Beatnik hadn't.

So, a useful gathering together of the state of the art. One thing bothered me about it. The name. “Microstudios”. I hadn't heard the terminology before, and it rubbed me up the wrong way. There's a dismissal inherent in it. As in, they're not real developers, but some bonsai-plant version. It just screams patronisation, and implies that larger developers – by implication “real” developers – are the true one path. It restates the industry Status Quo, and is the sort of idealogical buttressing the Reinian future – that we're living through a temporary window on indie development that will close when larger marketing teams steps in – would like to impose upon us.

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