Blitz 1UP

Giving indie developers a boost


Developer Stories: Remode

In The Beginning
The genesis of Remode can be traced back to when Andy Russell and Martin Darby were still studying at University of Plymouth on the Digital Art & Technology (DAT) BSc. The pair had developed a prototype VR game called ‘Rotoblast’ as part of their final year undergrad work. The game was featured at a number of national expos where it was well received by the public. This was unexpected considering that the DAT course was focused much more around traditional web & software development and games was just an optional final year module. They had really pushed themselves in every way to create Rotoblast in the time allowed. It wasn’t perfect by any means, and due to the hardware involved it certainly wasn’t a viable commercial proposition, but that wasn’t important. What was important was that it gave them the confidence and technical grounding needed to develop more games.

Off the back of the Rotoblast project Andy and Martin were awarded a small amount of money and some free office space from the University of Plymouth, making starting up an obvious next step. To bring in cash they undertook contract web development work as this was an area where they already had a track record and portfolio. It was tough and very competitive but everybody has to start somewhere. However, they didn’t lose sight of the fact that they had started the business to focus on games and graphics tech, which they saw as more lucrative, more creative and affording better prospects for growth.


A conclusion they came to early on was that they would not be able to move into game development without money. They needed investment. At this point, Martin and Andy decided to bring me on board as another director. I had also been on the DAT course, a year behind them, and had also developed a prototype game, so joined the team bringing additional skill as well as some share capital into the business. We then pitched for investment, which was a lengthy and complicated process but fundamentally our strategy was to diversify risk by developing our own technology, which we could then use to make own our products (games) as well as to undertake contract work (graphics tech for niche markets – simulations, serious games, etc). Around October 2008 we accepted an investment offer from a business angel who saw synergies between our skills and product lines in his own business. At the same time, we also successfully pitched for funding from a body whose purpose is to provide finance to businesses that have the potential to positively impact on the economy of Devon and Cornwall, where we are based.

With a revised management structure and financial support we were ready and eager to get started on making our first game; well, almost. First we hired some key staff, including an experienced programmer and a game artist, with whom we started to build our own tech. From there we moved onto our first product, Mole Control and a simulation for airfields, commissioned by our investor’s company.

Moley Moley
Our goal with Mole Control was to bring the classic logic based gameplay of Minesweeper into the 21st Century. With this in mind, we focused on creating a single-player puzzle adventure game. It targets mostly the casual demographic and aims to be bright, colourful, funny and charming.

Overall, development of Mole Control has been a success. The production was on budget and pretty much on time. Post-production took longer than anticipated, but because we were developing a simulation at the same time, we were able to cope with the financial implications of the delay.

During development we were constantly looking for that ‘sweet spot’ between a solid marketable concept and something that’s thematically a little different and underrepresented in the current marketplace. This is a difficult balance to strike, but we feel it is the right one. Too many other small independents either inadvertently make inferior clones of existing/AAA concepts (i.e. another zombie shooter or another hidden object game) or try to be ‘out there’ to such a degree that it is difficult to communicate what their game is about.

A really good example of a game that we feel hits this magical ‘sweet spot’ is LostWinds on WiiWare. It’s thematically different, the core concept is easy to communicate and it’s all wrapped up into a beautifully dinky little package that’s very presentable.

Even though we are a small team we feel that defined responsibilities are a crucial part of trying to hit this ‘sweet spot’. Art, programming, design, audio, production and QA are all separate disciplines, requiring differing skills, and while there is a natural overlap in some areas, we have to deliver in all of these areas if we are to create the kind of quality experience today’s players desire.

Lessons Learnt
The single biggest piece of advice we could give to any new company is to keep tight control of your cash flow! Your best chance of success is having more than one revenue stream; many game developers do contract work for publishers, but having no experience in that area this was not an option for us when we were starting out. We had to think long and hard about how we could implement a similar model for Remode (high risk on own products, lower risk on work for hire) using the skills and experience that we did have.

In terms of development itself, some key lessons we learnt were:

Time spent on pre-production will save time later.
Because we had such limited time and had not previously developed a full game, we didn’t make a complete design document. In hindsight, we realise how much easier development would have been if we had nailed everything down before we started.

Having experienced people on the team is hugely beneficial.
Our lead programmer has 15 years experience in the industry, and his knowledge was crucial during development, particularly when our time scale was very short!

Contractors vs. in-house staff.
Contractors are great for small studios, but you need to strike the right balance. On Mole Control we had a great team, full time staff and contractors all delivered high quality work on time.

Money (time) vs. Quality.
It will always be a trade off between the two. In our experience you need someone who is in a position to make the tough calls during development. Finding middle ground that satisfies both creative desire and budgetary constraint is not an easy thing.

Project management tools and processes.
During development we created some basic tools for managing the tasks for each team member. These worked well as far as it went, but having been through the process once, we realised that we would definitely benefit from better tools and a more defined processes. Since finishing production, we’ve started to design our own project management system. This is not a decision we took lightly, while there are many third party options available, we wanted something that was tailored exactly to the way we work and that can grow as the company does.

In-house game tester.
We took on a placement student half way through development of Mole Control, but until he started testing the game, we didn’t realise how important it was going to be! Without having someone focused on that area we would have struggled to thoroughly test the game. It also made us realise just how much skill is involved in testing a game. We definitely believe that you need to take on someone who has those skills.

Bug tracking.
We had some basic tools for doing this, but realised quite quickly how much easier it would be if we had more! If we had been developing anything bigger than Mole Control we believe we would have struggled without more tracking in this area.

We created a few tools to use during development. The best of these was our level editor and UI scripting system. However, more investment in more tools would have saved us time in the long run. Taking unnecessary editing work away from programmers is a good thing; they can be left to focus on tech while the artists/designers can use the tools to do their jobs.

Underestimated post-production.
We underestimated how difficult this area would be, and how long it would take. Once we started dealing with third parties such as localisation companies, distributors, portals, press etc, we found that everything took twice as long as we expected.

We started trying to approach PC portals in July 2009 and soon realised that just getting them to reply was extremely difficult. Luckily for us, Blitz 1UP launched their programme, we had a meeting with them, and we realised that what they offered would be ideal for us. We still retained control of the game, and they would help with the areas we were finding difficult. They also ended up helping with some great design advice, PR, and compatibility testing, which worked really well for us. We also found that just having someone on the end of the phone that we could ask for advice on pretty much anything was really helpful.

This is very time consuming and you really have to be quite persistent, but as I was not involved directly in development, we were able to allocate time to this.

Getting the game translated can be quite costly. Dealing with all the different alphabets (even just for European languages) is something that needed quite a lot of testing. We were extremely pleased with the company we used, but we didn’t realise how much additional testing would be required.

Raising investment.
Getting outside investment worked really well for us; however, it does create its own challenges! We had to do a lot of work to properly structure the company and develop extensive business plans and financial projections very early on. Some key areas that we had to focus on, that we probably wouldn’t have if we weren’t raising investment were:

Structuring a management team.
Having someone on the team who was outward looking rather than being focused on development was crucial to the business. A great piece of advice we were given early on was that the Managing Director should be focused on three things only: Money, Culture (how the company acts internally) and Vision (how the company is perceived and what it does). From our experience, the reality within a small team is that the MD does end up getting involved in other areas, but overall this advice has really helped us.

Writing business plans and financial projections.
This is an entire field in itself, so is really well outside the scope of this article, but the key things we learned are that if you don’t have a background in business, as we didn’t, you will need external assistance. Ensure that you consider things like whether you are a lifestyle or a growth business, what your exit strategies are, any event horizons and your marketing plan.

Having been through the process of taking a game to market, we realise that the first time is always going to be a bit painful, and we are really proud that we managed to deliver what we set out to, and really appreciate all the hard work the team put in. Everyone went above and beyond what we could expect of them, and it demonstrated how the single most important aspect of any development process is the people you have on board. Within a small team particularly, you need people with the right skills, but you also need to create an environment where everyone feels valued. We also realised how important having advice and help from outside the company is, Blitz have been a huge help, but we also met a lot of other people and businesses in the industry who have been invaluable to us.

So what’s next for Remode? We are still working on the simulation product, and we are already in discussions about other contract work. We are going to continue pushing Mole Control as much as possible, there always seems to be something extra that can be done! Martin has come up with a new game concept, which we are all pretty keen on, but it is in the very early stages so we can’t really talk about it! We can say though that our starting point for this game was slightly different from the last. With Mole Control, we wanted to take an old game mechanic and bring it up to date. With our next product, we want to apply the same production values and keep a lot of the style of Mole Control, but we want to develop our own game mechanics as well.

We already know that we can make our production process much smoother, and will be able to anticipate challenges more easily, and we definitely want to spend more time prototyping and planning, rather than just launching into production!

Back to News

Latest Comments

  • Be the first to comment on this story.