Destructoid interview: Moonpod on life as a modern UK independent

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Nick Tipping of Moonpod, UK-based developers of recent Destructoid favourite, Mr. Robot. Being a two man independent studio developing and distributing all of their own projects, their experience of working in the industry is a very different one to that of the huge gaming empires who likely brought the majority of your collection into the world.

I spoke to Nick about walking away from mainstream development, the strains of competing with global mega-corporations, the payoffs of fighting to keep an independent spirit, and how the on-going global development of gaming looks to an small indie from South Yorkshire. 

Hit the jump for the full interview. It’s a lengthy talk, but a very interesting and insightful one, and a couple of Nick’s answers might surprise you. 

DESTRUCTOID: Can you start by giving us some history on how Moonpod came about? Mr. Robot is your second release under your own banner, but you’ve collectively been in the industry for quite some time. Could you give us an overview of your backgrounds, and the reasons that you started your own studio? Why did you decide to leave the established publishers and go it alone?

NICK: Moonpod is Mark Featherstone doing all the programming, and myself, Nick Tipping, doing all the art. We worked in the industry for 7 years (actually, Mark a bit longer!) before we started Moonpod. We both met at Gremlin, where we worked on a couple of PC and PS1 games like N2O and Judge Dredd – nothing spectacular. Before we started Moonpod we finished Gun Metal for Rage Games on the Xbox.

All this time, Mark has become frustrated with mainstream development. We were spending much of our time making very simple features be up to the current graphical standard. Mark really wanted to tackle bigger ideas without worrying about having the latest cutting edge graphics. Obviously, that’s nothing we’d be able to make at a big publishing house, so he started making something in his spare time – really just as a way to keep sane!

I got involved doing some graphics for a strategy/shootemup called Star Warrior, but at that time we still hadn’t considered making a career out of it. We quickly realised that this type of development was more satisfying though, and when Rage Games looked like it would go under, Mark suggested we start our own company. We took the prototype Star Warrior and maxed out a few credit cards to finance our first project. A year later we had finished Starscape – which massively improved on the original idea.

DESTRUCTOID: Back in the independent developer’s heyday of the ’80’s and ’90’s it was easy for any bedroom programmer with an idea to get a hit game out into the world, but in these days of massive budget “event” games, it’s common for development teams to comprise of a hundred staff or more. What’s the set-up at Moonpod? How does a smaller independent like yourselves operate logistically to balance more limited resources with the task of putting out a professional and polished product to compete in these technologically advanced times?

NICK: Yeah all the people who were selling shareware stuff back then keep telling us how great things were when it was a mail order business. You’d have thought it would be better now people can download games, play and then buy them all online, but now there’s so many games out there, and the big portals are shouting so hard that it’s easy to get lost in the crowd.

It’s also next to impossible to compete with the big studios graphically. When one person is your entire art team, you have to make clever decisions about your games design. Our philosophy has always been to create games which you can’t get anywhere else. If you can do something a bit different then there are always people out there who want a break from the usual genres.

I’m not saying we are cutting edge gameplay innovators trying to do something that’s never been done before. What we do is more subtle – borrowing elements from genres we love and blending them together into something that’s fresh yet also familiar. Starscape‘s unique blend of shooter with strategy elements and ship building or Mr. Robot‘s platform adventure RPG don’t exist anywhere else, and they seem to have found an audience with gamers who appreciate a diversion from the norm.

DESTRUCTOID: It’s clear that you appreciate the freedom that comes with independence and self sufficiency, but how hard is it to run a successful company in order to maintain that way of working in a gaming climate increasingly run by big publishers?

NICK: It’s a total nightmare! The one thing we really underestimated was how much effort is involved in just running your business and doing marketing.

I see a lot of new indie developers out there who really convince themselves (as we did) that you can just make a great game and that will be enough. Sadly, no matter how great your game is, if nobody has heard of it, then you aren’t going to sell any copies. My rough equation of income is sales = quality x marketing.

Marketing is frankly a pain, and talking to marketing people is my personal seventh level of Hell, but it’s a necessary evil if you want to keep making games and doing something you love. 

DESTRUCTOID: What length of development cycle does a game like Mr. Robot require?

NICK: In total Mr. Robot took two and a half years, but we are still working on it even now 4 months after release! The editor ships with the game, so we have been working on a complete system for uploading user adventures to our website, and then automatically downloading them through the game.

You can already download several user adventures by just clicking a button in game. We’ve also been updating the editor documentation and improving its robustness, and I’ve just finished an extra adventure for the game that you can also download for free. 

DESTRUCTOID: As the games industry has developed, there’s been a big shift in emphasis towards large, technically impressive tent-pole titles with development cycles of several years. Do you feel that gaming on the whole is creatively better or worse off as a result?

NICK: I think it was a huge problem about 5 years ago, but people who decry the end of innovation must have been living in a monastery. Lately there’s been a lot of cool, innovative games popping up like Katamari Damacy and LocoRoco. The huge costs involved in next gen titles does mean that publishers have to concentrate on crowd pleasers to get a decent return.

I think what’s happened is that quirkier titles have moved to new platforms like handhelds. I’ve had more use out of my GBA in the past year than my 360! I’m hoping the console download services will also try to nurture more esoteric titles too, but I haven’t seen a lot of evidence of that yet.

DESTRUCTOID: It may sound a strange comment to make, but to a long-time UK gamer, Mr. Robot has a feel of the British quirkiness that hasn’t been felt in modern games since Rare went off the radar. What are your views on national identity in game design, and do you feel homogenisation by international publishers is causing us to lose something?

NICK: Sometimes that can be a bad thing – remember the scousers in Citizen Kabuto

To be honest, with this generation, UK studios have become even more reliant on international publishing, and they don’t have a huge amount of say in the titles that they are making. You could have a point there in that the UK industry is losing its creative voice. Perhaps UK indies might be the only people left that still retain that national identity.

It would be nice to see BAFTA games recognising indies, and government tax breaks like they’ve done for the UK independent film industry. As far as we are concerned though, our games are really a reflection of our personalities and what we like.

A few people mentioned it was funny that one robot tells another to ‘piss off’ in Mr. Robot, but it wasn’t something we even thought about during production. 

DESTRUCTOID: Playing through Mr. Robot, it’s obvious how much affection has gone into it. It seems to have roots in a number of classic games and genres of the ’80’s and ’90’s, but updates them and puts a fresh spin on the mechanics. What are your backgrounds as gamers, and which games did you take as inspiration?

NICK: Mark and I are both children of the 8-bit era, and we have fond memories of many games we played as children. Classics from the Spectrum/C64 era, and then later on the Amiga have always provided a pool of inspiration for us.

It’s easy to have rose tinted memories though. The initial inspirations for Mr. Robot were the Filmation engine classics by Ultimate such as Knight Lore and Alien8. I was in awe of Knight Lore when it came out, with it’s stunning ‘3D’ graphics, but when you revisit it now you notice the lack of basic features you expect these days for a smooth gaming experience: saves, automatic mapping etc..

However, buried under punishing difficulty and the lack of saves, Knight Lore is still an amazing experience. If you find a map on the internet and print it out, then run the game under emulation so you can get saves, there’s a lovely bit of fun to be had. The other obvious classic isometric game is Head Over Heels, and was a big inspiration. As for the RPG elements of the game, the presentation is classic Japanese battle-RPG, but the mechanics behind it are actually based more on non-computer RPG mechanics, as both Mark and myself are fans of D&D, Warhammer etc.

DESTRUCTOID: Larger publishers (especially those of PC games) constantly decry the rise of piracy as the death toll of game development. What sort of impact has piracy (specifically its rise since the advent of widespread broadband) had on Moonpod, and will it eventually kill PC gaming?

NICK: I don’t think it will kill PC gaming, but I think it already has started to change the PC gaming scene on some level.

I’m still in touch with many people from our mainstream development days, and what companies are saying behind closed doors is that the only PC development they want to do is either a side effect of XBox 360 development, or an MMO project.

MMOs and consoles games are largely immune to piracy (at least compared to the PC). PC gaming pioneer companies like Id and Epic even said publicly that their focus had shifted to consoles as a result of piracy at the last GDC and many publishers are talking about service based gaming.

This is all well and good, but what happens when you want to sit down and play a good old fashioned single player game on your PC? It would be sad if we are forced to go this way; you immediately have to discount many ideas once you are designing for the service based industry. 

DESTRUCTOID: In the past, you guys have done work on Xbox and Playstation games, which obviously have a different set of development requirements when compared to independent PC titles. Is there a preference for one platform over the other, and why?

NICK: Purely for programming, consoles are great because you don’t have to worry about someone not being able to play your game because they have an obscure piece of hardware. However, they aren’t open platforms like the PC so you can’t just make a game and sell it yourself. For that reason I have to love the PC as we wouldn’t even have a business without it.

Speaking purely as a gamer though – I don’t really care about platforms, I just care about games. I game a lot on my PC because I use it heavily for work, but there’s also many types of games out there that only exist on consoles. If there’s a game I’m excited about then I’ll play it on a console if that’s where I have to go for it.

DESTRUCTOID: XBLA has become the premiere venue for smaller, indie titles very recently. Do you guys have any plans (or desires, for that matter) to do any work on XBLA titles?

NICK: We’ve thought about it a lot as both our games have a lot of console mentality to them. The DirectX rendering engine would mean the easiest place to find a home for Mr. Robot would be the Xbox360, but it’s not just a case of getting it up and running and dropping it on Live Arcade. There’s a lot of work needed to make use of the Arcade features (I’d love to have a pad driven editor and sharing of user adventures via Live Arcade) and make sure the front end is up to scratch. It just makes more sense to spend the time developing another title for PC. Who knows, if we manage to take on some staff in the future, perhaps we’ll have the flexibility to release on other platforms. 

DESTRUCTOID: Do you see digital distribution networks such as XBLA as the future for indie development?

NICK: It seems inevitable that these networks will take over, but I don’t see that as a good thing. To us they are just another portal, and in some respects worse as they are a lot of programming work to support properly. The future of indie development would be better placed in the hands of an open platform like the internet.

Indie titles don’t show up in shops often because the shops take too big a cut for anyone to take a risk pushing something so quirky. A lot of people are trying to take the same tactic with both the internet and with download services – whoever controls the ‘shop front’ can dictate their terms. Currently, this is the console manufacturers, and all the portals on the internet.

Luckily though, the internet is open, so you can set up shop yourself, albeit with a much smaller influx of players finding your games. With features like Live Arcade potentially built into Vista in the future though, I sometimes worry whether people will still bother to find other games themselves.

DESTRUCTOID: Mr. Robot seems like it would translate extremely easily to any gamepad-ready platform, such as a console or handheld. Have you given any thought to the viability of a console release?

NICK: Handhelds are something else we’d love to pursue (we already have Nintendo DS developer certification) although again there’s the problem that you are pretty much starting from scratch and you are best off making sure you have a publisher ready. We just don’t have time to chase down publishing deals and if we concentrate on our own PC sales then we also don’t have to rely on other people.

Hopefully at some point we’ll have more people and some of them can take on projects like this, but until then I think we’ll stick to what we know works.

DESTRUCTOID: What’s next for Moonpod?

NICK: It’s all up in the air at the moment. We have a few design prototypes in the works, of which a space exploration game with colorful, more simplified artwork is our current favourite, but we haven’t made a decision yet. Meanwhile, we’ve been talking to a publisher about a much bigger project. We should know in a couple of months for certain. I can’t wait to get on with a new game.


*For more information on Moonpod and their games, visit their web site

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David Houghton
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