In August, indie developer Spilt Milk announced that its ambitious SpatialOS-powered MMO Lazarus was being cancelled. Now, just five weeks later, the studio is revealing a new initiative for making games - Spilt Milk Shake. This is described as an internal 'label' for the studios via which it can publish and prototype games on the indie Itch.io platform.
The first of these is Peck N Run, which launched today. We caught up with studio co-founder Andrew Smith to find out more
What’s the thinking behind Spilt Milk Shake?
This is a way for us, a relatively established and well-known studio, to release less commercially-minded, more experimental prototype games. We want Spilt Milk Shake to help us draw a clear line drawn between the kinds of games we'd pitch to publishers or take to Early Access, and the myriad of fresh and quirky ideas we work on that never see the light of day. It's not about the core idea and its worth, nor our love for it, rather it's about the level of polish and scope of the package compared to something we'd slap a price on.
Is this a means for Spilt Milk to gauge interest in new projects at a very early stage?
That's a crucial part of it. For the longest time, we've been trying to figure out how to take a step beyond internal or informal playtesting and more widespread audience reaction to our games before we commit serious time and money to their development.
We can get as much expert and informal feedback on our prototypes as we like - not least because we are in the shared offices that Payload Studios run, called the Tentacle Zone, in Farringdon. There are five companies here, so we can get plenty of great feedback on the really early stuff. But then we don't necessarily know that there's an audience for a given game without going all the way to something like Early Access on Steam, which not only takes a large effort in terms of marketing and other activities, but costs real money and - thanks to the mysteries of their algorithms - doing so could potentially harm our income if something is scored unfairly.
What I'm basically saying is we don't trust the Steam audience (nor that of any commercial platform) to take the kinds of rough-shod and half-formed ideas we're experimenting with at face value, nor do we trust the algorithms that drive traffic, so we worry that the potential negative response there could colour our success on that platform.
Have you taken any lessons from other companies who have done similar things, like Bossa Studios?
We love Bossa very much and admire what they do with their prototyping efforts. We're not really formalising our prototyping process as much as they have with their famous monthly jams, but for sure I think the smart move is to question things, to challenge assumptions, and to really get over yourself as a developer. Sure, you've made a thing that is 'fun'. Sure, your peers like it and to your face everyone's positive and saying nice things. But even if all of the feedback is great and you're able to say with confidence that the game is 'objectively good' - impossible, but hey - that does not mean it tickles the fancy of your audience... or that there is even an audience for the kind of thing you've made. If there is, where is it? What do they like? What doesn't resonate? What's the thing that will make people click on the store page, and then play it? And will they play it for long? All of these questions need answering with facts, as hard and cold as you can get. You just can't do that internally at our scale, nor externally at, say the London Indie events. You need a bigger sample size, and ideally one made up of actual customers.
Why choose Itch.io as opposed to a larger platform like Epic or Steam?
Services like Itch.io, and even Kongregate, offer us an audience of savvy people who love playing games, and hopefully, we can harness them to make sensible decisions about where to spend our time and effort. As I mentioned earlier, a large part of the Spilt Milk Shake initiative is to separate these early rough ideas from our 'commercial releases', hence the move to a label, complete with its own 'unfinished' logo. By separating the platform we operate the games on as well, we feel we make the purpose and appeal of these games 100 per cent clear, underlined by the non-existent - pay what you want - pricepoint.
Even if we had a route to the Epic Store, the kinds of experiences we're talking about here are not ready for wider consumption. This step ideally will prove to us which games we should approach Steam, Humble and Epic with, without wasting anyone's time or effort.
Roughly how much work will these projects have seen before being released?
This varies from project to project, but with Peck N Run we spent a fortnight with the interns, and then a week wrapping everything up in a bow - boring things like settings menus, bug fixing and the like - and then... that was that. There's always a temptation to keep polishing but we're still learning where to draw that line.
We've got some other projects that we've spent more time on that might surface on the label - and some that had less - and in the future, I think we'll try to keep to a roughly two-to-three week commitment. It feels like the right amount of time.
Why go back to making what I assume are smaller titles following something huge and ambitious like Lazarus?
This wasn't a calculated reaction. Spending three years on something we deeply loved only to have to cancel it - of course, that kind of decision takes its toll and no doubt will have some impact on our thinking, but Lazarus and Peck N Run actually overlapped somewhat. Peck N Run as it stands was finished before we announced our plans to cancel Lazarus.
Honestly, this all came about because of a perfect storm. We had one intern, Connor Walls, an excellent 3D artist and animator from the USA come over for nine weeks, and we worked with him on Lazarus. Then we were also approached by ELAM and asked if we had room for any of their brilliant students. After telling them that Spilt Milk is essentially two white dudes, and we'd be particularly interested in any students who were not that, they brought us programmer Raiyanna Haque and 2D artist Ellie Vong and all of a sudden we had a little dev team because the fortnight with Ellie and Raiyana overlapped with Connor's nine weeks. Our shared office space meant we could react to this, and when combined with myself and Andrew Roper overseeing them, we suddenly had a little dev team!
We promised to all three of them that part of the experience would be to do work on a game that actually comes out. It's a promise we want to keep for every intern we place with us, and something that is hugely valuable to them this early in their careers - so we thought about how we could ensure that happening under our own steam as opposed to relying on the whims of a publisher or funding. That then combined with the hunger in our bones to launch something, plus for a while, we'd been trying to focus on finding an opportunity to develop something very small that we could potentially take to every platform and launch, again under our own steam.
What that all meant is we were incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to work with these kids, harness their talents, teach them a few things along the way, give them something truly valuable in return, and launch this label all at once. It's been a busy few weeks!
What’s the grand plan or ambition for Spilt Milk Shake?
We'd love for it to be an ongoing thing that we're able to use frequently, if not quite regularly. The release schedule will be very driven by opportunity. We've got some plans around perhaps formalising the prototyping process internally and if that bears fruit then you'll be able to enjoy it vis Spilt Milk Shake. More companies should do this - lord knows every dev I've spoken to wishes they were able to let all of their work out into the world, regardless of if it was cancelled or never got funding. In fact, if anyone out there wants to release a prototype this way, we'd encourage them to get in touch and talk. We'd love to build this into something big.
The sheer amount of love and joy that goes into every game from the very first line of code written and the very first vertex painted... the idea that we'd not let that take on a life beyond our slack channels and whatnot makes me sad, and runs contrary to what we want Spilt Milk Studios to be about.