The space 4X genre is definitely going through a revival. From Kickstarter, to niche publishers... more and more games are being developed for our beloved genre, and there’s an argument you can attribute a lot of that to Iceberg Interactive. A modestly sized company working out of the Netherlands, Iceberg have published more Space 4X games in the last few years than anyone else. Some have been amazing, others not so good, but regardless it’s given more choice out there, and inspired more gamers with thoughts of Galactic Domination. I talk to Iceberg’s CEO about their strategy for Space 4X games.
Strategy Informer: Why is it that you guys seem to be publishing a lot of space 4x games at the moment? Did you pick this specifically or did you just kind of fall in to it?
Erik Schreuder: We came up with a strategy - We’re a medium sized publisher, we can only do so much, we’re not going to make the next Call of Duty or anything. We decided we’d try and stay smaller, stay niche instead of being all “me too” in the more competitive genres. That’s a strategy that leads us to certain genres, like the strategy genre and especially the space 4x genre that’s still niche. But at the same time it’s still a market with a decent size.
There are bigger publishers out there who have killed licenses and franchises that sold 1 million copies, because it wasn’t enough. Obviously for a mid-range publisher that is a great number to achieve. And I think 4X CAN achieve numbers like that.
We like to play certain games here, and we like to publish games that we like to play. Our personal interests are very much on the plane of science fiction. Strategy etc... our first 4X that we did was with our previous company, Light house interactive, with Sword of the Stars.
After we got our first 4X with Iceberg – Armada 2526, then we did Star Ruler, and then we got Endless Space and Stardrive, which were two of the most hyped 4X games going into 2012. That really got us involved in 4X, and then people started to look at us as the ‘champion’ of the 4X genre, and since then we’ve also picked up Horizon and Star Lords. We’ve gotten more and more entangled with the 4X genre.
Strategy Informer: Do you see yourselves as the Champions of the genre? Do you want to lead it to a new and glorious golden age?
Erik Schreuder: Yeah I guess so. There are still some other really good 4X games not tied to Iceberg, like Sins of a Solar Empire and GalCiv, it’s not like we do ALL the 4X games. But I’d say about half of all the 4X games at the moment are coming from us. I don’t know if that makes us the ‘champions’, it’s not like we had a strategy where we wanted to become the champions of 4x, it just sort of happened to be a genre that worked for us, and it’s a genre we personally like.
Strategy Informer: What other games or genres would you say your company is known for?
Erik Schreuder: We’ve published about 70 games since starting five years ago, so obviously there are other genres we like to work in as well. For example back with Lighthouse we started with Ship Simulation, which was an unknown genre back then, and that was a great game for us and we continued with it at the start of Iceberg. We’ve also done some combat flight simulation games, and we’re coming up with a new one in Q2 2014.
Adventures games is something else we’ve become known for, especially with the suspense/horror adventures. We’ve got a couple of those on contract at the moment. We also do a lot of work acting as a distributor, where we’re not publishing a game per say but we help it go to retail. We did boxed copies for Killing Floor and Red Orchestra 2, for example. We really helped them hype the game more and bring it to a broader audience.
Strategy Informer: You’ve seen a fair few Space 4X games in the past few years then. What do you like to see in one of these games? If a new developer approached you with a project, what would they need to do?
Erik Schreuder: The audience for this is typically male, 25-40, a lot of them have been gaming for quite a while and what it always comes back to is “Is this better than Masters of Orion 2?”. According to the gamers (and the press), no one has managed to beat that game so far. I suppose that’s always going to be a thing – when will we have the MOO2 beater? So I guess we would be very interested in a game that has that.
We’ve done turn-based games, we’ve done one or two RTS style, games with turn-based combat, games with real-time combat. Endless Space did the more cinematic ‘rock,paper,scissors’ mechanic. It’s important for developers to bring something different to the table. Most 4X gamers I think are looking for the classic style, 8 races, and one planet start. But they’re also looking for a look of lore, story and background. Basically they want a living universe that would play out in the movies or something like that. They want a sandbox GTA style 4X game based on strategy. Not a space SIM, like X:Rebirth or our own Starpoint Gemini 2.
The problem for developers is that it’s an evolving galaxy. You’re mimicking the development of a universe over many eons. You can focus on combat; you can focus on graphics, the interface, race design, while others want a more slow-paced, mission-based experience. There’s something for everyone, but any new 4X has to look at what they can bring to the table that hasn’t been done before.
The art-style as well is something you can focus on. Endless Space as well, on some level, because it just looks so awesome. But a lot of people who were used to the old-style games didn’t like the RPS-style combat.
Strategy Informer: What do you guys think about DLC and Space 4X games? Do you think this is a genre that lends itself to DLC? Or more traditional ‘expansions’?
Erik Schreuder: Yeah definitely. If you go back to Armada, that had one expansion that we put on steam last year. Gemini Wars was more of a mission based game and they didn’t make any DLC. Star Ruler, these guys wanted to focus immediately on Star Ruler 2 which they’re working on. Endless Space obviously had five free add-ons and then a big expansion. The Star Drive guy is now going to make a different kind of StarDrive that’s going to be turn-based and built in the Unity Engine. Definitely DLC that is something we’re considering for that game, but I think that’s going to be included in the new/2.0 version. Horizon is currently in Early Access, but we’re definitely considering DLC and expansions for it after we’ve launched the game.
I think DLC has become more of a thing since the rise of Steam, you know? I definitely think it’s something... Steam really likes it if DLC is planned from the beginning and then appears not too long after launch. It’s definitely something to take into account.
At the same time gamers want the game to be as complete as possible when it launches, so long as we’re in Early Access, we’re not going to hold out any features just to release them two months later as DLC.
Iceberg is a publisher – we don’t make any games. We like to play these games, we like to be involved, but the IP is owned by the developer and will remain the property of the dev. We’re not trying to take that from them like some bigger publishers. We really feel like this is there baby, this is there thing. We’re just renting it from them for a bit, to help them market it. Some people on the forums get confused and think that Iceberg is responsible for creating the game etc… but that’s the developer. We’re responsible to some degree but at the end of the day we’re separate companies.
Strategy Informer: The Endless Space guys are doing really well for themselves, they’re almost like your poster boy for Space 4X at the moment. So you worry they’ll outgrow you? That they’ll turn around and say “Thanks Iceberg, but we don’t need you anymore”?
Erik Schreuder: *laughs* While actually we’re great friends with them. They’re based in Paris, we’re in Holland close to an airport, so we do tend to go there whenever we can. But yeah they’ve always been very independent, and they’ve already had their game accepted on Steam. Every publishing deal we make is very different. Sometimes we sign deals where we get full world-wide rights to the game, and we help fund development, other times the developer may have enough money but they just need our help reaching retail, or PR and Marketing. It depends often on the size and the development budget of the developer. What they want, and want they want us to contribute versus what we want to contribute. That’s always a negotiation and a process.
In the case of Endless Space, they placed the game on Steam themselves. Stardrive is another game that’s done well for us. We used to put games on steam only after they came out in retail. That’s different to when you LAUNCH on steam. For the last two years though we tried to follow a policy where we launch games on steam exclusively, and whenever possible get involved in early access, especially for 4X games. You get a lot feedback from people who improve your game.
Strategy Informer: What kind of support do you give your teams? Do you give technical advice? Would you want to help some of the smaller projects really beef up their engine so it can compete with some of the leading space 4X games?
Erik Schreuder: We tend to pick up a lot of games that are in an alpha state, where we can recognise the quality, we can estimate where it’s going, especially if we get involved and raise the level of where it’ll end up. The game is 50-70% done by that point though, so turn everything around... it’d basically be starting over. Not going to happen.
“Hey, I’ve got an idea for a game, here’s my design document. I can start tomorrow if you pay for my team.” We don’t do that, we’re not a bank. And even so we’d say to them that we want to become a shareholder, if we were going to do this. It’d have to be bloody good.
We’d rather put our money into PR, Marketing, getting boxed copies and shipping them to distributors who ship them to retail.
We have no technical capabilities, we’re all sales PR, marketing... that’s where it ends. We’re gamers, but we’re not developers. I couldn’t program a single thread, and neither could any of my employees. We’re here to market and sell the games. We have a graphical department but they are focused on printed materials, box products, advertisements etc...
Having an engine, developing an engine, even just trying to help our developers with their development... it’s just not going to happen.
Development time always gets extended too. I’ve never known a single one that has been on time. They say to me “We think we’ll be finished in 6 months” and I think “hmmm, probably 3 months longer”. They’re always optimistic, and the planning never works out.
Strategy Informer: What will you do if you manage to publish a Masters of Orion beater? Throw a party?
Erik Schreuder: Probably yeah. I mean, it's niche, but for a mid-sized company, getting half a million – a million sales is great. I remember from the past that SOSE, before Rebellion came out, had sold 750k copies or something? I definitely think the market is there. You can sell a million units. For EA that’s small-ball, but you can do the math. These games cost $30 on Steam, 1 million x 30 million. Steam take their cut... that’s still a big success for a mid-sized publisher.
Money is not the only reason. I like science-fiction, I like strategy games... We don’t release any games that we personally would never have played. But if they tanked, we’d have to stop in case we went out of business.
They’re all independent companies and they can do whatever they want. Hopefully that’s to the benefit of both parties and to the game, but it’s not like we really control that. Or whether or not they make a sequel. It’s important to realise they remain in control of that in the future. And you’re right, they could go to another publisher, or they could go solo. But we hope they recognise what we’ve brought to the table and that they like to work with us and usually that does result in renewed cooperation. I can’t really remember when someone said we’re going solo, sod off. It hasn’t happened.
In the last two years, out of all the genres we focus on, this has been the most important for us. I can see why people would say we’ve played a role in being the advocates of 4X. We want to be in the mix, we don’t want to be all powerful.
And on that humble note, we shall bid farewell to Erik, and thank him for taking the time to talk to us. It’s an exciting time to be a fan of Space 4X games, and while Iceberg may not be representing the GalCivs of the SpaceSwarms of the world, they’re doing their part in trying to give us the games we want.
In the Shadow of Orion
20 January 2014 | By Joe Robinson