An interview with Onteca

Wednesday, November 4, 2009
By Phil Carlisle

This week we have an interview with Jon Wetherall, head honcho of Onteca who are based in Liverpool and are due to release their game “Monsteca Corral” on Wiiware pretty soon.

Phil:

Hi Jon, could you give us some background about Onteca for those who don’t know you guys?

Jon:

We are a Brit Indie in all ways both by size, less than 20 people, and attitude.  We are defiantly independent and want to make our own games with as little external interference as possible.  We are grown to this size through doing a variety of different projects but our core passion is the production of Computer games.  Our business model is similar to that of Aardman Animations who would do a variety of advert and commercial work but then reinvest any profits into their own creative projects.

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Stumpe's? or Stumpys!

Phil:

I saw recently that you had released some information about Monsteca, the Wii game you guys are working on. It feels like the Wii has been perhaps the poor relation in terms of indies getting on the platform. Do you think releasing a title for the Wii will be any different to releasing on XBLA or steam or any other platform?

Jon:

Wiiware the download platform for Wii is probably the most indie friendly console platform going.  The Wii is quite easy to program, Nintendo are very supportive and due to the memory limits on game install (16 Mb or 40Mb) big publishers can’t just flood it with failed disc product.  The Nintendo Devkits come with all the compiler tools and some nice middleware so you don’t have any hidden costs.

Sales on the platform are OK are will hopefully get better as Nintendo push it harder.

Phil:

From your site, its pretty obvious you tend to be platform agnostic. It also seems like you do quite a wide variety of games for lots of different clients. Is this intentional? How do you balance working on a game for a client versus working on your own games?

Jon:

Client work nearly always has deadlines and mostly these get prioritised above our own work.  With Monsteca Corral we have been lucky enough to have support from the Regional Attraction Fund which is administered by North West Vision the regional film agency.  This has meant we are able to treat Corral as a proper project and it doesn’t get bounced when commercial work comes in.

We have a very clear strategy for the company and will turn down commercial work if it doesn’t fit into our plans.

Phil:

What do you think of the new platforms available? The iPhone has gotten a lot of attention for the “hit” titles. But its incredibly rare to get a hit. Have you got any particular views on what is the best platform for an indie developer?

Jon:

Um, that is an interesting question.  I really like iPhone as it has such a rich API and interesting interface but on the other hand it doesn’t work well for many types of game.  As an ex-Sony employee I am bred to believe that consoles offer the best sales but on the other hand they are much more complicated to make games for.

So what would I recommend probably Facebook Apps based on Flash are the best platform if you want to get rich (check out the O’Reilly book Facebook Cookbook for more info) but it you want to make great 3d games get a Sony devkit and push out PS3 for download.

For us we are interested in controllers so really Wii is the only way to go until Natal or the Sony Motion Controller come along.

I am disappointed that it is impossible for Indies to get Xbox Live Arcade developer status for anything other than C#.  To make the games we make we would need proper devkits but to my knowledge they only give them to publishers.

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Monsteca Corral screenshot

Phil:

You used to work for Sony right? What made you transition from the traditional industry to running your own company? Do you think it was a wise move?

Jon:

Yes, sometimes I feel like all games companies are based on Logan’s Run, you have hit 40 and they really don’t want to keep employing you, you cost more and are more arsey.  I see many of the people who I used to work with getting made redundant and feel that my destiny is very much more in my own hands.

Otherwise you have to remember that actually you probably won’t get to carry on being creative if you run your own company you will need to employ creative people and your life will become about finding funding and shaking hands.  I still manage a bit of programming but try and keep off the critical path of delivery as I am not as quick as the guys who do nothing but programming.  I don’t mind this as I think I am probably better at running a business than being a programmer but you should be probably be aware that it is very different skill set.

Phil:

You seem to have a pretty good balance of artists to programmers. How have you staffed up the company to achieve that balance? Do you think there is an ideal size?

Jon:

I continually worry about being too big.  If we grow to more than 20 I won’t know everyone but then it is frustrating.  We could probably do with a couple more programmers maybe a ratio of two programmers to one artist with a couple of other support staff is the ideal.

We have grown organically and unscientifically on the whole, most of our team have come via paid work experience placements.

Phil:

Monsteca is a very strange game, it feels pretty AI driven. Its a strategy game too. Are those sort of AI/strategy type games the kind of games you like to work on?

Jon:

Yes they are mostly the sort of games we play.  We are also very interested in emergent behaviour and game design.  That is you design a set of creatures with specific attributes and almost let them produce the game experience and then tune the game AI around what they do.

Phil:

You’re really pretty good at getting money from the government. It’s a skill that most indies seem to be pretty bad at. Is there a secret to that? Is there any advice you can give to other indies?

Jon:

We are not the only guys to get money from the government I know Introversion, Emote, Blitz and Monumental have as well.

You have to understand that the UK Government is very keen to support our sector but is only able to give money to companies rather than individuals and really want you to have a track record.  I understand that this is Catch 22 in that how do you get a track record without funding but that is the way of the world.  It is important to remember that Hewlett Packard started off designing bowling alleys, we started by doing Web Sites and Flash Games.  At least with the iPhone or Facebook it is possible to make something on your own and then release it, it may not sell well but you are then starting to get a track record.  I advise any UK Developers who are passionate about starting their own business to talk to Business Link the government’s business support agency, and to maybe think about using the Enterprise Finance Guarantee Scheme as a way of raising Debt Finance.  Don’t forget about entering competitions, Google have one for their app store with cash prizes, Adobe have one for Flash Lite (Open Innovation Fund), the Ordinance Survey have one at the moment for Map Apps, Intel have one for Physics Apps and Facebook have an Innovation Fund for Facebook Apps.  In Architecture all new Indies get their first break through a competition maybe our industry might go the same way.

Phil:

Is there anything you want to tell other British indies?

Jon:

Only occasionally do windows of opportunity open in any industry, early 70s for microprocessors, 80s for microcomputers, 90s for dot com.  We are just entering probably for first big one for games in the last 10 years.  Download games are cheap to make have potential world wide audiences.

Thanks to  Jon for sharing his insights and we wish Onteca luck for the release of the game! Be sure to visit Jon and the guys (and girl!!) at http://www.onteca.com/

Phil.

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