Simon Bland in Games


Interview: Mad Fellows

Greenshoots is back for another round of funding and incubation, offering up to 10 indie game studios the chance to receive a £25,000 boost and some expert mentoring from none other than Microsoft.  Successful applicants will also get the chance to pitch to investors from the get-go, giving them the opportunity to secure extra investment during their time on the programme. If you're looking to kick start your game project, this really is an invaluable opportunity...

To celebrate Greenshoots return, we talked to Mad Fellows co-founder Paul Norris. Together with team partner Dan Horbury, Mad Fellows went through the first round of our programme and emerged on the other side with brand new game SineWave and buckets of industry insight. Here's what he had to say...

Hi Paul, so give us a quick history of Mad Fellows...

"Dan and I have worked together for years, first at Codemasters, we then joined FreeStyleGames when they were a new company. We decided to take the plunge and set up Mad Fellows in August 2013. We were so convinced that we could create a situation where we were happier, more productive and make great games, we had to bite the bullet and give it a try. The market for mobile and indie games became more and more viable as more gamers began to seek the unusual and innovative games that the big studios couldn’t take the risk to develop."

What prior preparation did you have in place before going solo?

"Other than a head full of idyllic and untested theories on how to run a games studio? Not a great deal. There’s actually very little you can do to ensure a safe landing when you jump from a big team. The most important things we put in place were fail-safe plans in case things went horribly wrong. With a family and a mortgage, this is essential. We periodically assess our progress to ensure that we have an alternative option or two. It’s tough to think about things like ‘what would happen if the game bombs?’ You can mitigate this sort of thing to a certain degree with research, case studies and focus testing, but it’s irresponsible to simply assume it’s all going to go to plan when it’s out in the big wide world. Some elements are out of your control."

How have you found working as two-man team?

"It’s a double edged sword. Getting in the right frame of mind to sit down, do some artwork and be creative is tricky when you’re also writing the schedule that says how little time there is to spare. On the other hand, we have full control over all aspects of the project with just two people. What would normally take a meeting, an explanatory document, possibly a prototype or video to support the concept, a pitch to management and a rescheduling of the team we can do by just looking up from our screens, talking excitedly and waving our hands about a bit until we both agree. In short, it’s very hard work but it’s worth it a million times over."

What’s more important when starting out: good ideas or a strong business mind?

"I think you really need both. Great ideas will usually come to nothing without a strong business mind but the strongest business mind will struggle to make a success of a terrible idea."

What advice do you have for all those looking to find funding for their projects?

"Each project is different and there are many different options for funding. Decide what is best for you and explore all the options. VCs often appear to be the answer to your dreams, the term ‘Angel Investor’ literally sounds like a fairy godmother that will wave a magic wand and solve all your money issues. In some cases, this is true, but only if your plans are perfectly aligned with theirs. You need to ask yourself what they bring to the table and weigh this up against what you’re giving away. Ask yourself what you’re risking and what they are willing to risk in return.

"The Greenshoots programme was a perfect option for us. We were determined to keep 100% of the company and the IP for our first release. If you give away a chunk of your company before it’s really worth anything, you could be selling yourself short in the long run."

What would you say to game developers about to pitch their game to investors?

"In order for your business to be viable for investment, you need to be able to deliver on your idea and demonstrate why it will be a success. You need to be honest about where your strengths and weaknesses lie and address your weaknesses as well as showcasing your strengths. If there’s an area of the project that you are unsure about, look into that first. If it turns out you can do it yourself after all, that’s great! If not, will you outsource it? Hire someone that can do it? Any investor worth their salt will want to know how you intend to deal with it. Knowing the intricate details will also make you more confident in your business.

"We took the approach that we needed to back up our experience in big studios with proof we could deliver on our own. We decided to build our prototype to include a small part of each facet of game design. We would demonstrate that we just needed to do more of the same to complete the game. With no track record, you need to remove as much doubt and risk as possible for your investors."

Music is a big part of SineWave, how did this project come together?

"Initially, I was going to produce all the music for SineWave myself. This was one of those times where I had to be honest with myself. Not only would it be a huge task to write and produce all the music in addition to the art and design but I’m also not the world’s best known dubstep artist, so my music wasn’t going to draw a lot of attention. I started using some of my favourite music in place of my own in the prototypes to test what would work well. It worked so well that I decided to reach out to Noisia and Zomboy’s management to see if they were interested. Fortunately, they were. One crash course in music licensing, many lengthy conversations with labels and publishers and the co-creation of a ground-breaking new style of agreement later and we have a great line up of music for the game."

How many redesigns did SineWave undergo before you reached your final version?

"Apart from bringing in licensed music very early on in the project, there’s been no real deviation from the original design. This is at the heart of our ethos at Mad Fellows. We believe the worth of a game designer should be judged on their ability to project and imagine the final experience accurately at concept stage."

What’s the most useful piece of advice you received from the Microsoft team?

"Microsoft have been amazing. Simon and Mike particularly have spent a lot of time helping us and we’re extremely grateful for that. There’s no one thing I can think of, they have been a constant source of support and information."

How important is networking when starting out?

"Networking is pivotal when starting out. Despite our long history in games, all of the contacts that had a large impact on our company have been made since we started Mad Fellows. Having your own contacts is infinitely better than accessing them through a VC or middleman. The right contacts are valuable and are gained by being a valuable contact yourself. This doesn’t mean you have to have a lot of power, money or influence. A good contact is someone that can offer advice, help out with problems, offer constructive criticism or simply someone that supports you when you’re in doubt."

To find out more about Greenshoots, head here.

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