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Interview: We chat with Outerlight's co-founder about Bloody Good Time and more

Earlier this summer Ubisoft officially announced plans to release Bloody Good Time, a first person action game where B-movie characters try to kill each other off on movie sets. The game was developed by UK-based Outerlight who gained fame as the makers of The Ship, an unusual mix of first person action, people sim and murder mystery that first started as a Half-Life mod. Both The Ship and Bloody Good Time use the Source Engine from Valve.

What is not generally known is that Outerlight as a development team has been shut down since finishing Bloody Good Time for Ubisoft some time ago. Both the company's official web site and the web site for The Ship are no longer online. Before Bloody Good Time was officially announced Big Download reached out to Outerlight team members for comment about the team's future. The company's co-founder Chris Peck finally agreed to answer our questions about the game and Outerlight in general.

Big Download sent Ubisoft our interview with Peck before posting it today and asked for their side of the development of Bloody Good Time and their reaction to Outerlight's current shut down. So far we have yet to receive an official comment from the publisher on the interview's content.
First, Outerlight released The Ship via Steam back in 2006. In fact the game was one of the first original games to be released via Steam. How did it feel to have the game released via this relatively new service at the time?

It felt fantastic! After spending a costly and soul destroying two years chasing publishing deals and failing, we were almost at a dead end. Valve offered us a chance to use their engine and the chance to distribute the game for a greater share in our sales. This saved us around £100k in engine costs, and gave us a route to market, which despite a reduced share in royalties was still greater than any traditional publishing deal would offer.

With hindsight it gave us more than that. It gave us creative freedom, which allowed us to create such an original game, and is a rare thing in games development. This freedom also gave the team a lot of satisfaction, as we were free to develop iteratively and use fast prototyping, so we had fun playing the game every week, as it remained a playable game from the first days of development to the end. This also allowed us to be very efficient, as well as stick to a core vision of what the game was going to be (even if the team were a little confused by it at times!!), something that is very much needed when delivering an innovative game on a budget of less than 700,000 pounds

On the official Outerlight web site it was said that The Ship 2 was in development with a major publisher. Was The Ship 2 the game that is now known as Bloody Good Time and was Ubisoft the publisher?

Ubisoft were keen to distance themselves from The Ship, so officially it's not the sequel to The Ship, but it is the game we were working on, and Ubisoft is that publisher. Also, fans of The Ship will recognize the kill loop immediately, so it's hard to pretend it has nothing to do with The Ship! That said, a lot has changed, the characters, style and setting, and the gameplay has been greatly refined, especially in the nature of the game rounds, which I think has really made the game come together. And, despite the difficulties of working with a publisher, we still managed to innovate and keep the game fun. I think it's perhaps fair to say it's better in every way to The Ship, art, audio, gameplay, code, and polish. Despite everything, we had a lot of fun times making it, and playing it, and it said a lot that the team and QA enjoyed it till the end of development, when they really should have been bored of it by then!

Why did the team decide to work with a publisher for this game rather than self-publish the game via Steam as you did before?

While Steam distribution/digital distribution remains the only sane choice for developers, the flaw with it as a business model is that you need funding to develop with. We were "lucky" in that for The Ship we raised finance for the company, which we then used to fund the game when Valve & Steam gave us an alternative route to market. 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. Despite breaking even on the project itself, we had made a loss overall, so we didn't have a great story for investors. Had digital distribution existed when we started up I think we'd be in a different position now.

What was it like working with Ubisoft on the game?

Contractually, no comment.

In general, having worked in the industry for over 12 years, I can say that the creative freedom and the efficiency of independent development is somewhat inevitably lost, and that the milestone driven nature of working with a publisher is both open to abuse by publishers due to it's basis on subjective results (try to define "good" & "fun" in a contract!), and inefficient due to the slow turnaround of feedback and the distance of the working relationship.

While I have never met a developer who has a good thing to say about a publisher, I was still hoping that it would be a lot more of a co-operative venture, taking the best of Outerlight, and the best of Ubisoft, and combining them. On a positive note, I can say they had an excellent QA team in Romania.

While people often compare the games industry to the film industry, I'd rather compare a games team with a band, trying to come up with a new hit album, the publisher being the guy that sits in the corner and suggests you try a major rather than minor key for the chorus, and maybe change the lyrics to mention lady Diana...oh, and have you thought about hot backing singers, and maybe wearing monkey suits, marketing says they are both big right now. Not ideal.

For some time the official Outerlight web site as well as the official site for The Ship have been down. Has Outerlight been dissolved?

Outerlight has all but been dissolved. 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.

With Bloody Good Time now officially announced, what is the current status and fate of Outerlight? Will the company be revived after the game is released?

The status of Outerlight is "critically endangered". Personally, I really hope the company will be revived. I know we made some mistakes, but I also know we got a lot right, we had a very happy, and very productive team, and we produced some innovative ideas, and I know I had a lot more good ideas, which I hope will see the light of day. I'd also say that while games development is challenging, it's also very rewarding. So, if there are any savvy investors out there, please get in touch!
In retrospect do you believe that Outerlight should have self-published the game?

I guess this is the right time to talk about the two business models, publisher and independent.

The traditional publishing model is awful for developers, it's their gilded cage. It requires costly pitching, to emissaries of publishers, who return to corporate rooms & badly pitch the idea to large groups who need consensus to act, and typically take 6 months to close any deal they offer. Publishers are motivated by greed, but restrained by fear of risk, and thus seek sure deals, licenses and sequels, which makes pitching innovation almost pointless. Should you get a deal, the usual is 20 percent royalties, but after the retailer takes their share of 50 percent, you are getting 20 percent of the 50 percent left (so 10 percent of retail price). That doesn't sound too bad, until you realise that the developer is the one that actually pays for the development, the publisher has just advanced the developer their share of the royalties to pay for making the game.

So...the developer takes 10 percent of retail, after ALL costs have been repaid from that 10 percent. Assuming the game cost £2m to make, and sold for 20 pounds, the developer gets 2 pounds for every unit, once the 2 million punds is repaid, so that's 1 million copies before the developer sees their first 2 pounds, meanwhile the publisher has recouped their 2 million pound and is sitting on an extra 6 million pounds. What happens next? History shows us the developer goes bust, or gets acquired by a publisher, and the publisher maybe buys another publisher for kicks.

The self-funded, digitally distributed model should be the future, it brings 70 percent of the retail price back to the developer, which means 14 pounds for every unit sold. Assuming the game cost 2 million pounds to make (although it wouldn't, being independently developed it would be half the price, being twice as efficient!), that's a break even for the developer at 142,000 units, instead of at 1 million units. If they did get very lucky and sell 1 million units they'd make a profit of 12 million pounds, instead of 0. For an efficient team like ours, we made the game for 700,000 pounds, so our break even would be at 50,000 copies. Instead of games development being seen as a hit or miss industry, it should be seen as a break even or profit industry, there is no miss, only the chance to do better next time.

All money aside, innovation is hard. Coming up with the next big idea is hard, and it's even harder to make it into a reality. Creating a good team, keeping them happy, and keeping the project on track is hard. Developers don't need a monkey on their backs making it harder.

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.

Finally is there anything else you wish to say about Outerlight's current and future status?

When all is said and done, I'm just happy it's being released. However, as Outerlight's raison d'être was to make good games, now is the most nervous time for me, waiting to see what the press and gamers think of it!

Thanks to everyone, the fans, the team, the investors, Valve, and the tax man for being patient...the cheque is in the post...soon...I hope. And, I hope you enjoy the game.

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