Welcome to Britsoft Focus. This is a weekly series from Kotaku UK that focuses on the British development scene, from single-person projects to world-straddling studio blockbusters. You can find previous entries here.
Our BritSoft Focus series tends to look at UK developers, but every now and then we’ll also be shining the spotlight on UK publishers - particularly the unusual ones, as we did with PQube back in February. Channel 4 is one of these. Not because it’s a small outfit: Channel 4 is a giant public-service broadcasting company, mainly-funded by advertising but ultimately owned by the UK taxpayer. It’s because All 4 Games is a small part of this media giant, and that kind of security both lets it commission a different kind of game, and brings its own responsibilities.
Back in 2010 Channel 4 released a string of fascinating games, including The Curfew, Sweatshop, and Privates. These were produced by Channel 4’s Commissioning Editors for Education, Alice Taylor and Jo Twist, were released for free and had no commercial element. “They commissioned them under an education remit, because they took the view that games were the best way to get through to young people, they were targeting 14-18 year olds,” says Colin MacDonald, the current head of All 4 Games.
The games commissioned by Twist and Taylor were able to tap into government grants for their funding. MacDonald’s remit is different. He was hired as the network’s first Games Commissioner back in 2012 and his job is to make games that tied in and promoted Channel 4’s programmes - “to keep an existing audience watching a show watching it longer, so they’re more engaged.” The games had to make money too, because “everything we spend on commissioning has to come from advertising, in-app purchases, or something because we don’t get government money.”
MacDonald is no stranger to commercial reality: before Channel 4, he’d been working in the games industry for 20 years, with producer credits on GTA 1 and 2, before he helped found Realtime Worlds, the studio that made Crackdown and ultimately broke its own back with the innovative, but unsuccessful, All Points Bulletin.
For the first three years of his time at Channel 4 MacDonald was commissioning four or five games a year that were tied in to Channel 4’s programmes. “We did things like The Snowman, Made in Chelsea, Hollyoaks, Embarrassing Bodies, Gogglebox and a bunch of others.” They were all for mobile, because that’s what the majority of the TV audience had access to. To MacDonald’s eyes, everything was going swimmingly. “I basically had one game a year that was top of the charts and picking up awards and stuff like that which was pretty cool.”
Then, in 2015, Channel 4 decided to expand its game publishing and set up a whole new arm to the company. Rather than have one person commissioning tie-in games, it would have a small team focusing on that side of things while also seeking out games that have no connection to the television side of the business.
One of the first games MacDonald published under this remit was Super Arc Light, a stylish shmup on mobile from No Code Games, an outfit born out of Creative Assembly’s Alien Isolation team, and the developer of the ace Stories Untold.
MacDonald knew Jon McKellan, No Code’s founder, from back when they both worked at Realtime Worlds. Macdonald was giving a talk in a pub in Glasgow, explaining what All 4 Games was about, and Jon came along. “I think he just came along for a catch up and a beer almost, and we’re sitting chatting after the talk and he’s like ‘Yeah, we’ve got plans to do this great game and do this and that…’ ‘Alright, great. That’s not what we’re doing…’
“And he says ‘But we’ve knocked this other thing up, kind of in our spare time, and we’ll probably just bang it out and self publish it ourselves.’ And we sat there playing [Super Arc Light] going ‘This is awesome... do you want some help publishing it and marketing it?’. That was how it came about, they didn’t come along looking to pitch something, I don’t think, they just came along for a catch up and happened to have a cool game that I don’t think they realised there was a market for.”
From that chance beginning Super Arc Light went on to serious success. “We launched the game, it got Apple’s Editor’s Choice, it was Free App of the Week over the summer, and the New York Times started writing about it and it’s done a million and a half downloads now and, you know, for something that they almost showed us by accident that is awesome.”
The undercurrent to this story is that, across platforms but especially on mobile, the biggest challenge facing any developer of any game - but especially indies - is discoverability. This problem is why Channel 4 itself is an attractive solution for certain small games that might otherwise struggle to get noticed: it has access to an enormous audience.
"In my mind what All 4 Games is, is it’s an indie-friendly publishing option,” says MacDonald. “So we say to developers if you’ve got a great game that you’re making anyway, and would otherwise be self-publishing, come and speak to us because we can take it under our wing, we can get our producers to give you feedback on improving the quality, the marketing person to improve the marketability of the game... we can publish it, we can then give you a tonne of promotion for it because we’ve got six TV channels plus social media plus a bunch of other games. All this in return for doing a rev share – so that’s like 15%. It’s a no brainer for developers.”
Certain developers. All 4 Games exists somewhere between the bigger publishers and going it alone. MacDonald argues that alternatives like Devolver, Zynga, and Chillingo will give your game great reach but in return for a larger cut or even ownership of the IP. “We are just a middle ground, a third option. We don’t have the reach of Chillingo or Devolver, but our rev shares are much more palatable, and we’ve got a lot more reach than people self-publishing.”
Now that the operation has scaled up, MacDonald’s overseeing the release of sixteen games this year, up from four when he was working alone. And thanks to the All 4 app on PlayStation and Xbox, he’s looking at releasing console games, too, knowing that there is a Channel 4 audience on those machines.
A big part of MacDonald’s job remains creating games to hook in the audience of a given Channel 4 programme. Take, for instance, Eden. The show is about a bunch of people getting dumped on a remote Scottish island and being left to fend for themselves. They have to build shelter, find food, and work as a community, all while battling the elements. Channel 4 wanted MacDonald to commission a game that tapped into what the audience was watching. Oh, and he had four months.
MacDonald talked me through his process: the first step is working out who the audience is. “We’ll kind of look at something like Eden or Gogglebox or whatever and go like ‘Alright, this is the audience, this is the sort of game that that audience will play’. So when I’m looking at Hollyoaks, I’ll go ‘Right that’s a young female audience – they’re not going to want a first person shooter, they’re not going to want a racing game…’ They might want a hidden object game, they might want a Sims game, they might want a puzzler - so for Made in Chelsea we made a Sims-like game, for Hollyoaks we made a match-3.”
When MacDonald’s decided on the “viable genres for that audience” off he goes to “a spreadsheet with every developer we’ve ever spoken to in the UK, and I’ll spend hours running down, every time I commission a new game, I will run down that sheet and go ‘Who do I think would be well suited to make this game?’ thinking about what genres they’ve done, what audience they’ve catered for, what kind of tech they’ve got and what their passions are.”
MacDonald thins it down to a shortlist of four or five developers and reaches out to them asking for a pitch. “[This lets them know] they’re in with a decent chance of winning the business; I don’t like putting it out to fifty people because then 49 people have put effort into pitching something that they’re never going to win.
“[I] give them a framework and say ‘Here’s the genres we think will work, here’s the essence of the show, here’s who the audience is – you tell me, within this framework what you think will work.’”
In Eden’s case MacDonald went with Strawdog Studios, a small team based out in Derby. MacDonald had seen a game of theirs called Pocket Festivals, a mobile game where you build a festival, laying out stages and vendors. A resource management, city builder-like game. MacDonald explains that, because he has so little time to turn around a game, he goes with developers who already have everything they need to make the game they’ve pitched. “Why would I pay someone to re-invent the wheel and learn how to make a resource management game when someone like Strawdog has some of the basic tech and they know how it all works?”
What Straw Dog made doesn’t share an aesthetic with Pocket Festivals but you can instantly see a familiar structure underneath. The key thing is that, within four months, it was able to build a whole game to tie-in with Eden when it started broadcasting. And here’s the key thing: the game was polished and well-made enough to be downloaded 2.5 million times and win TIGA’s award for Best Game on the Amazon App Store 2016.
“You can make a game overnight, chances are it’ll be shit,” says MacDonald. “But I need great games, and people that watch TV have really high expectations of production values and levels of polish, and that takes time you know? And it takes experience, so this to me is a perfect example of... this is nothing like the Pocket Festivals game, but yet had they not done that game this would not have been possible.”
That process might seem a little clinical from the outside - it’s not quite the indie myth. But you see many developers creating like this in the modern industry, big and small. For instance Niantic, the developers of Pokémon GO. Their previous game, Ingress, was an augmented reality game that plopped virtual objects into the real world using Google’s Maps technology. Pokémon GO isn’t a reskin of Ingress, but its mapping data and DNA definitely runs through last year’s megahit. Similarly Adam Saltsman, the creator of Canabalt, was commissioned to make an endless runner tie-in for the Hunger Games films.
MacDonald has no illusions about All 4 Games’ output. “I was involved in the first couple of Grand Theft Autos, I was involved in Crackdown – and you go, 'You know what? We have moved the industry along' you know? Eden game; I’m certainly proud of it, but I couldn’t say it’s moved the industry along, you know? It’s served its purpose and it’s done a brilliant job.” But what he has made at All 4 Games helps insulate studios from the risks of constantly trying to reinvent the wheel.
MacDonald’s seen first-hand the damage of trying to always move the industry along: After seven years of development, APB’s release in 2010 was swiftly followed by the closure of Realtime Worlds. All 4 Games is the opposite of this scale. I ask MacDonald to compare what he’s doing now with that history. “The games we’re doing at Channel 4, I’m certainly proud of them, but – our budget is a fraction of those games, our teams are much smaller [...] I look at my Channel 4 budgets going ‘Yeah – the budget for the APB character customisation is probably my entire budget for all my Channel 4 games for a year’”
To be fair to APB, the character customisation element really was exceptional. But that was a game that ultimately tried to do too much, and brought down a studio. It’s an experience you can hear in MacDonald’s words.
“We want to make amazing things in this industry, but we want to stay in business,” says MacDonald. “Game developers are sometimes their own worst enemy because they want to keep reinventing wheels. It’s not interesting for them to make use of existing assets, they want to go ‘let’s try and make a new driving game’, ‘let’s try and make a football game’, and you’re creating years of work for yourself! If developers are more willing to make better use of what they’ve got, it would make them more commercially successful which would let them bank money to give them freedom to do whatever the hell they want. I like to think I’m hopefully helping them on this way going ‘Yeah, you know what – let’s not reinvent the wheel – let’s build standing on the shoulders of giants’.”
Besides, variety is the spice of life. “I’ve seen mornings where I’ll be on calls like ‘Here’s an hour about The Snowman’ and you’re thinking gentle, beautiful festive thoughts and what a 3 year-old’s going to think playing it, then you’re thinking about Made in Chelsea and the audience is sort of 20-something female and the show’s about people sleeping with each other and alcohol and holidays, and then you jump straight into a call about Embarrassing Bodies and it’s all ‘Can we have people belching their way across the screen and treating horrific illnesses and stuff?’
“And you just end up going out for lunch going ‘Right, hang on – have we got the belching in the Snowman game?’” MacDonald laughs. “‘Who’s sleeping with each other?’”
This interview was conducted at the Fun & Serious Games Festival, flights and accommodation were provided by the organisers.