Charting the rise of London developer Curve from work-forhire outfit to indies’ best friend
The Curve story is one of persistence, daring, opportunism, and a dash of good fortune, but like any good indie studio, its successes are built upon a foundation of friendship, team spirit and no little intelligence. Though it has had to change its approach to adapt to unpredictable market conditions, its versatility and resourcefulness have seen it thrive where others have fallen.
It helps that the company has an experienced backbone. MD Jason Perkins has some 32 years of industry experience, with the likes of Sony and GT Interactive on his CV. So when the time came to form his own studio, his extensive connections allowed him to assemble his dream team: the seven people that Curve started with were handpicked from those Perkins had worked with and whose reputations preceded them.
Design director Jonathan Biddle was one of the first on board, as was technical director
Richie Turner, each director adopting a clearly defined role. “Jase is the business guy, Rich is the tech guy and I’m the creative guy,” Biddle tells us. “And we trust each other to do those jobs. No one else wants to be the creative guy, and I certainly don’t want to be the business guy.”
From the beginning, the studio was keen to work on its own IP, but it needed to be in a comfortable position to be able to fund it. That meant work-for-hire jobs. “Our big break came when we did the Buzz games for PSP,” Turner says. “Andrew Eades, who runs Relentless, was a friend of mine. I was talking to him about Buzz, and at the time they were looking at [bringing it to] PSP, and wondering if anyone could do it.” Turner volunteered Curve for the job, a deal was struck, and the studio went on to develop five editions of the game for the Sony portable.
With the money Curve needed starting to roll in, Biddle began developing an idea that he’d conceived in Game Maker in his spare time. Explodemon was a 2D platformer inspired by the likes of Bangai-O and Super Metroid, and the studio collectively decided this was to be its first venture into self-publishing. “It was just taking off at that time,” says Turner. “Hello Games was just about to release Joe Danger, and all our chums were [saying], ‘We’re going to go it alone.’ I don’t think, with retrospect, it was a great decision. Explodemon wasn’t the success we had hoped it would be.”
Still, Curve refused to be downhearted. The game’s failure impressed upon the team the importance of careful budgeting as well as the need to form and nourish relationships with platform holders. “You’ve got to get out there and press the flesh,” Turner adds. “It’s about your aftersales, your lifetime management. All valuable lessons, but we learned [them] the hard way.”
In the meantime, Curve had been pitching ideas to Nintendo. In fact, it had been doing so, with little success, since it was founded, but the Game Developers Conference in 2008 proved a pivotal moment for the studio. “We had this idea scratch. Which isn’t to say development of what eventually became Hydroventure (or Fluidity in the US) was easy. Games in 2D with a traditional avatar were one thing; working out how to control a force of nature was something else entirely. Herding a pool of 200 water particles meant building a game where the player could potentially be in 200 places at once.
Working with Nintendo wasn’t just exciting, but also an invaluable learning experience, particularly from a design standpoint. The studio sent over regular builds, and when assessments returned, they were extensive and meticulous. Biddle would send 3,000-word emails and get
“IWATA COULDN’T WATCH THE WIIWARE DEMO BECAUSE IT MADE HIM ILL. HE SUFFERED FROM SIMULATION SICKNESS”
for a game about water,” Biddle says. “We sat down with [Nintendo] and pitched a few things, and we didn’t think they’d liked any of them; they were quite po-faced about it, probably because they’d been sat in a room for a week listening to pitch after pitch.” Several weeks later, the phone call came out of the blue: Nintendo was keen on the idea, and wanted to pay Curve to develop a prototype, or ‘experiment’ as the company called it.
Years later, Biddle would discover this was a rarity for the publisher. “I asked our producer how many things they’d picked up from these pitching sessions,” Biddle says. The response? One. “Not very many things get through that wringer,” he adds. “So we were amazed to get that, and we spent six months looking at the tech and the water physics to see if Wii could run it, if the motion-control system could work, and whether the idea actually had any legs.”
The next half-year was particularly enjoyable for Curve, because for once there were no rules: the studio could design the whole project from similarly lengthy replies. “The criticisms they give you on the whole process are like gold dust,” says Turner. “When they say less of this or more of this, you pay attention. All the platform holders have got their game evangelists and design guys who give very valid feedback, but when you’re talking to Nintendo, you’re only a couple of steps removed from the likes of Miyamoto.”
Indeed, one piece of feedback came right from the top. “Iwata couldn’t stand to watch the Wii-Ware demo because it made him really ill,” says Biddle. “He suffered from simulation sickness, so he literally couldn’t watch the game that he was signing off on.” Curve tried a number of solutions to the issue, the final game’s camera brackets a direct result of Iwata’s queasiness.
Hydroventure was a critical success, but though the review scores were high, sales figures were not. Microsoft and Sony might have had their digital strategies in place, but Wii-Ware games were left comparatively high and dry. Even so, Nintendo was pleased with the game – enough to request that Curve look into a 3DS
sequel. The first pitch was rejected, since motion controls and glasses-free 3D were considered incompatible. But once Nintendo realised that stereoscopy wasn’t quite as big a selling point as expected, the publisher suggested that a 2D version with gyro controls would be fine. “It did well for us,” says Turner, though Biddle suggests it didn’t sell well enough for Nintendo, which owns the IP, to consider a follow-up. “We’d love to go back, but the budget would be significantly more for Wii U. We’ve had discussions, but the last pitch was a while ago now.”
Still, Nintendo’s influence can be felt in the studio’s subsequent output. Biddle happily describes its impact on Stealth Bastard. “One of the things we learned from [ Hydroventure] was how to make compelling levels, how to make puzzles. It was almost nothing but puzzles, so we had to make them so good that they could support the entire game. We learned how to lead the player, how to give them enough info, but in a way that’s entertaining. Stealth Bastard became what it was because of the work we’d done with Nintendo on Hydroventure.”
Taking design cues from Metal Gear Solid and Super Meat Boy, this abrasive platformer had much more than an eye-catching name: challenging and well designed, its free PC launch was so warmly received that the studio decided to release an expanded version, Stealth Bastard
Deluxe. The response took Biddle by surprise: what had begun as an experiment in design had become an unlikely hit. “I just wanted to make something little, put it out for free and move on… Then everyone liked it and spoilt everything! So we put it out on Steam, then Humble Bundle wanted Mac and Linux versions. After that, we did an Android version and then an iOS one.”
By that time, working on such a wide variety of formats was no novelty. Opportunities for a company of its size were dwindling. But the studio sensed an opportunity when Sony began to offer strategic funding to smaller developers, primarily to bring indie games to Vita. Perkins, with his Sony connections, was well placed to capitalise. “I’d love to say we had a big strategy meeting,” he says, “but the truth is that we were gently nudged in that direction by the lack of funding available in the space we used to be in.”
Having established that there was potential in signing up PC games for console ports, Perkins began to approach developers. The stars aligned when he tuned into radio show One Life Left and heard Mike Bithell talking about Thomas Was
Alone. “When we first approached him, Thomas hadn’t done the huge numbers that it must have done now, but it sounded interesting and Mike seemed like a really interesting person. I downloaded it the next day, and then we made an approach. Simultaneously, Sony had made an approach to Mike as well, so very quickly we managed to do a deal that suited everyone.” Conversations with Terry Cavanagh to bring
Super Hexagon to consoles sadly never came to fruition, though Cavanagh did recommend Curve to Jasper Byrne, creator of Lone Survivor, and the studio brought it to PS3 and Vita, and later PS4 and Wii U. Despite releasing just after Grand
Theft Auto V (“we’ve now learned that is a really bad time to launch,” Perkins says), it has been one of the company’s biggest hits to date.
The studio has also learned persistence pays off. Curve only signed up Facepalm Games’ The
Swapper after Perkins had emailed Olli Harjola – one half of the two-man team – 25 times. Harjola has since put Curve in touch with other Finnish devs. “Hopefully, he was happy with the service we provided,” says Perkins modestly.
In its previous financial year, Curve launched 37 individual titles. This year, it’s up to 56 – more than one console submission every week. While networking has been important in securing work, the studio would be nowhere without an efficient tech team. Today, Curve has streamlined the porting process, which removes a good deal of old-fashioned legwork. “We’ve written engines in the past, but this one, Nucleus, is literally OpenGL standardised across every platform,” Perkins
“STEALTH BASTARD BECAME WHAT IT WAS BECAUSE OF THE WORK WE’D DONE WITH NINTENDO ON HYDROVENTURE”
explains. “If you’ve written your game in that, it’ll automatically work on our platform.” Once a game is ported across, it’s usually running within weeks, after which comes optimisation.
Today, Curve is branching out in every sense. It has recently begun to loan employees out to other studios, and already has six games signed up for release in 2015. Biddle, meanwhile, is working on White Space, a procedurally generated firstperson adventure inspired by Tau
Ceti and Spelunky. “It’s about problem solving,” he says. “Sometimes the problems are those you’ve made yourself, but either way, you need to be good at very quickly finding solutions.” He’s talking about game design, but that could easily be Curve’s motto. The studio’s willingness to reinvent itself is the reason why it is now, as it hoped to be, in control of its destiny.
For MD Perkins, the capacity to loan out artists and coders makes Curve stand out. “For an indie dev deciding which publisher to go with, that’s an extra benefit we can offer”
Employees 30 Key staff Jason Perkins (founder, managing director), Richie Turner (technical director), Jonathan Biddle (design director)
URL curve-studios.com Selected softography Explodemon, Hydroventure, Stealth Bastard, Hydroventure: Spin Cycle, Stealth Inc 2: A Game Of Clones
Current projects White Space, several
Curve has a small core of staff, which is regularly swelled by the huge roster of freelancers. To the left is evidence of the work that went into bringing StealthInc2:AGameOfClones to Wii U, a rare timed exclusive for Nintendo’s machine, and a sign of Curve’s heritage