On Thursday, Melbourne-based marketing shop Surprise Attack executed on its eponymous directive and announced that it had lauched Australia's first independent games publishing label, Surprise Attack Games. James Cullinane sat down Surprise Attack founder and managing director Chris Wright to learn about some of the opportunities and challenges that moving into the publishing space has created, and to examine how this new indie publishing endeavour intersects with Surprise Attack’s existing marketing business.
It’s been a transformative decade in the Australian gaming industry, and Chris Wright has been here for all of it.
He spent seven years working for THQ and Blue Tongue before it became one of the victim of international market forces and, no doubt, the global fiscal foibles of its owner, who has since followed it into the darkness.
But out of the collapse of Blue Tongue and many studios like it, a burgeoning independent development scene has emerged, and it’s populated by talented developers, who often regard the mainstream publishing industry with, at best, ambivalence.
Wright, meanwhile, founded the successful indie marketing shop Surprise Attack, whose clients include Turn Left Distribution, Paradox Interactive, and a number of smaller, flourishing independent teams.
But the goal has always been to create a publishing business, Wright tells MCV.
“At that stage, I was leaving a very big and troubled publisher, and a lot of developers were going indie, and I asked how come I can’t go indie myself? What are all the publishing staff that are leaving these companies doing?” begins Wright.
“I was thinking of all the music I grew up listening to in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was all from independent record labels, and they worked very differently to the big labels.”
“I was listening to a lot of bands like the The Breeders on 4AD, and labels like Chemikal Underground, which is a Scottish label The Delgados set up, and I really loved those bands, but they really needed a label that helped them with all the commercial stuff and pushing forwards,” says Wright. “So I thought, what would an indie record label look like if it was more of an indie games label? That’s really where the idea for Surprise Attack Games came from.”
Announced on Thursday, Wright’s new independent publishing label will be a different kind of business to the publishers that withdrew their business from Australian shores over the past ten years. Surprise Attack Games wants to lift up developers and help them to succeed, says Wright, rather than simply looking at developers as sources of content to put in the product pipeline.
“Where we hope to offer something different is much more of a partnership relationship with the developer,” continues Wright. “So really, we’re still doing a lot of those same tasks: the publishing, the distribution, the sales, the marketing, and so on, but we’re getting in earlier with our development partners. We’re trying to help them find funding and resources, we’re helping them strategically with the game, how to get it onto the desired platforms, how to shape the game to make it more successful earlier on.
“So we’re not waiting for a developer to bring us a game that’s two-thirds finished and say, ‘Hey do you want to release this on the market?’”
To achieve this expansion into independent publishing, Wright has grown Surprise Attack's headcount to ten, and assembled a considerable pool of talent. Wright’s partner Travis Plane was vice president of brand management, and vice president of marketing at THQ. Christina Chen was a senior producer at PopCap, and served as program manager at Mircosoft. Lex Suurland comes to Surprise Attack from Dutch publisher Iceberg Interactive, probably known best for PC title Endless Space. Jessica Paulin worked as a marketing manager at browser-based developer Bigpoint is one of the biggest browser-based games as service companies. In all, Surprise Attack has launched 11 games and worked with nearly 50 developers of the past two years.
“I always hesitate to say that we’re the experts and we know everything, because we don’t, there’s always a growth process. But I feel we can bring a lot of resources to the developers under our stable, which also allows them to focus on making the games.”
“That’s a big thing for these guys,” adds Wright. “People don’t get into indie game development to be doing marketing or finance reports, or accounting, or PR. They got into it to have creative freedom. If you’re spending half of your time running your marketing side of the business, that’s half of your time that could be spent on making your game better, or doing something you love. So for our guys that’s a big bonus in working with a partner like us. We can give them that time and freedom, bring them scale and resources, but we don’t get in the way of their creative autonomy.”
The indie publishing label will initially be financed by Surprise Attack’s marketing business. “We’ve got no intention of reducing the agency, and in fact we’re working on growing it,” says Wright. “The agency allows us, one, to keep the lights on and keep money coming in that can be invested in publishing, but more importantly it lets us work with all kinds of developers at all kinds of different levels.”
“At this stage we’re keeping both going, and the extent to which we extend the publishing will really depend on the level of investment that we’re able to put into that, and the amount of money that is essentially flowing in from the agency business. We’re also potentially looking at getting more investment down the track from external sources to see how far we grow that.”
For Wright and his partners, balancing the workload between both facets of the business will be critical. To keep it manageable, Surprise Attack Games has signed three projects, and has no intention of taking on more work in the near future until it can be sure it can commit the resources necessary.
Particulars, by Sydney based studio See Through Studios, is what Wright calls “a rumination on chaos theory.” Wolfdozer by Melbourne based Anomalous Interactive is strongly influenced by the top-down Grand Theft Auto games on the PlayStation One. The Big Bad Wolf has come to Pigsville to do as much damage as possible before the cops get him.
But the title Wright describes as Surprise Attack Games’ biggest bet is Burden by Melbourne based Pixel Pickle Games. “It’s a really ambitious take on tower defence. The quick, easy, dirty way to describe is if you imagine Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, but instead of attacking the Colossi, you’re actually on them, and you’re defending them using a tower defence mechanic.”
The kinds of titles Surprise Attack Games is interested in publishing appeal to what Wright describes as video game “connoisseurs”, an audience he says THQ Australia began to define and discuss before its closure.
“We use that to describe the kind of gamer who has played games quite a bit, and is more interested in new, or different experiences, than they are in a better production quality experience.”
“Aussie indie games and that audience have a very strong connection, so we’re really looking at games targeted at that kind of audience, as opposed to people who are more, ‘I love Call of Duty because it is the absolute best of the shooters, and the production values are off the charts!’”
“We’re looking for anything innovative, and I know that’s a word that gets bandied about a lot, but I mean genuinely innovative and different, because you have to be something that can stand out in this crowded market place. It’s as much about the team as it is about the games. The team needs to be quite serious and committed to what they’re doing and committed to their craft.”
Wright’s definition of success for Surprise Attack Games is unsurprisingly altruistic. “Our greatest success would be for one of our developers to go on and have a massive hit, and become a big developer that doesn’t need us anymore. Our primary goal is to build a publisher that lifts developers up, and makes them the stars, and helps them to achieve their potential.”
“That, to us, is success.”