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Interview:  Killing Floor 's Tripwire Interactive Finds Influence In Indies

Interview: Killing Floor's Tripwire Interactive Finds Influence In Indies

May 17, 2011 | By John Polson




[In this Gamasutra interview, Alan Wilson, VP of Killing Floor developer Tripwire Interactive, discusses the company's role in publishing indie titles such as The Ball, and Dwarfs!?, and explains how these games influenced the development of the studio's own projects.]

Tripwire Interactive entered the third-party publishing business in 2008 when it purchased the rights to the Unreal Tournament 2004 mod The Killing Floor, and hired the team behind the project. Since then, Tripwire's worked on ACE Team's Zeno Clash and Teotl Studios's The Ball.

In addition to working on its own original IP Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad, due out later this year, Tripwire is publishing its fourth title: Dwarfs!?, developed by Swedish studio Power of Two Games (PO2).

Dwarfs!? is an arcade strategy game that tasks players with managing a squad of subterranean creatures as they dig and fight their way through randomly generated environments. The game released for Windows PCs via Steam on May 4, 2011.

PO2's Robin Flodin is satisfied so far with Tripwire's publishing efforts. He stated that Tripwire provided a QA team that gave a lot of useful feedback. Coupled with all the developing, marketing, and distributing received, Robin feels strongly that two-man team PO2's next game will also use third-party publishing.

Flodin also commented on how differences were resolved with Tripwire: "Using sound arguments and making our case have gotten us pretty far. For example, Tripwire thought an average gamer should be able to survive for 15 minutes on Normal on one's first try. We argued that this was not the kind of game we were making, and that removing the challenge would also strip the game of its fun-factor and addictiveness. On this issue, we successfully defended our position.

"A more philosophical argument was DRM. We don't care that much for it, but Tripwire wanted it. Since this was closer to their turf as publisher, they had the final say. Turns out Steam pretty much auto-DRMs your game, so the result would've been the same regardless!"

In this interview, Tripwire's vice president Alan Wilson looks at decisions surrounding publishing indie titles, and the lessons learned about developing while helping other studios.

What were Tripwire's and Teotl's roles in getting The Ball from mod to complete game?

To be honest, Sjoerd and his team at Teotl had a pretty good handle on where they were going with the game. We jumped in and provided a bunch of feedback for them. But we didn't have to hand-hold them -- there is some strong professional experience in the team. Their role was to be the developer, to bring the game up to a full releasable standard. We helped them with the preparation of PR materials, packaging and handling all the distribution chains -- the digital channels and the physical distribution in the US and Europe. All of that gets pretty time-consuming.

Had you heard of The Ball before it won some top prizes in Epic's "Make Something Unreal" contest?

No, we hadn't. That is one of the joys of things like "Make Something Unreal" -- it brings the best out into the spotlight. It is really hard to look through hundreds of mods and find the gems in there, so the contest helps in that process, effectively "pre-selecting" those mods that are genuinely worth looking at and that are being done by teams that can actually complete work.

What kind of input did Valve provide with regards to The Ball?

Valve make the point that they aren't a publisher -- they provided odd tidbits of feedback, but they don't go into vast rampages, saying, "change this, do that, we don't like this." They mostly provided some useful feedback on the presentation of the game to the press and public.

What lessons from previous Steam-distributed Tripwire games were implemented with respect to The Ball's development, marketing, and publishing?

The key for us was to play to the Steam market -- make sure the game made best use of the Steamworks functionality, with achievements and so on.

What lessons did you learn from publishing The Ball?

With The Ball, we were reminded about the state of the retail market, for one. That is a hard market right now, with retailers looking for bigger margins as the volumes have dropped. It makes a $20 game a difficult prospect at retail in the U.S., while a $10 game becomes very marginal.

On the digital side, the point we keep making to people is: keep the game in the public eye. We got a good launch for The Ball last October, then did really well in the Steam Christmas sale, as well as a January sale on Direct2Drive -- and have just had a great time with the whole Portal 2/Potato Sack piece. It isn't enough to just drop the game out there and expect people to buy it. Well, not unless you have $100 million to spend on marketing. You have to work for your money.

Aside from Dwarfs!? earning Swedish awards, what made Tripwire pick up the game?

We'd met Robin Flodin at an event in Visby, played with an early version of the game, got to know the team -- all two of them -- and just liked it. It was just that really great combination of Lemmings and Dwarf Fortress, a game you can play casually for 15 minutes or on really hard levels for a serious challenge. The team was ready to listen to our ever-present opinions. But that is just because we are gamers; we love playing games, and want them to be the best they can be.

Add to that the reaction when we showed it at PAX last September -- people loved it. The trouble was, so many ideas came out of that -- it left Robin and Teddy with a pile of ideas to implement. So now the game has about four times as much content and really is one you can keep coming back to.

As a publisher, have you done anything different for PO2 Games compared to what you did for Teotl Studios?

We've probably worked a lot more with PO2 in terms of feedback on the game itself. With a team of just two people, it helped to get a bunch of different outside views on the game and the gameplay. The Ball already had that vindication and feedback from "Make Something Unreal." A lot of that feedback for Dwarfs!? was about making sure that casual players really can just pick the game up and mess about easily. We've thrown some artist time in for them as well.

What criteria should a studio meet before deciding to help or publish smaller studios' games?

Think carefully about just what they are getting into! Make sure the cash flow can cope with the extra upfront outlay. Make sure you know how you are going to do all the pieces that are needed -- ratings, advertising, media, PR, packaging and production -- the whole nine yards. And make sure you realize how long everything can take.

At what point in the development process should studios begin seeking publication or advice from publishers?

That is a tough one. On the boring side -- a long time before you run out of money. If you are talking to people when you are desperate for money, it is way too late. But you really do have to have something to show -- only a very established person has much chance of getting a deal by just waving a few PowerPoint slides around.

For us, at least, we need to be able to see enough to grasp the gameplay, as well as get an impression of the quality and professional standards of the game. But start working it as early as you can, showing people who will look and listen, get feedback, get them interested and involved; it's networking, basically. I'm not saying that is easy, of course.

What did you learn about developing and working in this new capacity as publishers or possibly "mentors" to new developers?

That it is a lot of work, but that it's worth it with the right partners. We could have tried to do a load more in the last year or so, but realized that we'd be over-stretching ourselves. We're probably getting little reminders about elements of development -- such as user interface and accessibility -- in doing this, which will get reflected in our own games. We're also reaching out to a much wider audience than before, and taking those lessons learned back to our own games. Dwarfs!? is a game with a potentially very wide appeal -- everyone from very casual gamers all the way through to the serious hardcore. We're reminded that we can't take for granted that people know about the intricacies of hardcore shooters!

The take-away from all this is that we will do more. However, it can eat up time, and we really can't double people up working on our own IP, on feedback for another title and PR work for a third. We'll look carefully at how we handle it in future, make sure that future third party titles get the full attention from us that they deserve, and need, in order to be successful.


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