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Laser Squad Nemesis Interview by cyke Written on 14th October 2002

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Carnage and death. Business as usual.
With Laser Squad Nemesis, CoDo games seem to have instinctively filled a gaming void that most people didn’t know existed. With a small focused team lead by the Gollop brothers, the freedom of not having to run design and marketing decisions past guys in suits has led to a silent revolution taking place. Pretty much everything with LSN screams originality, from its method of distribution, continuing development, an extremely vocal loyal fanbase and its refreshing approach to game making. Rather than do a standard “how the game plays” interview, this article will assume some knowledge on the part of the reader and the best place to play catch-up is of course at

» Cyke: Your website says it best – “In the past they (CoDo) had been disenchanted with the way in which publishers had treated them, often watering down concepts and making unreasonable and short-sighted demands.” Were the team at the stage where they just wouldn’t play ball with established companies any more, tired of having their ball abused and never getting it back?
» CoDo: Yes, precisely. We were persuaded, under duress, to sell the X-Com license to MicroProse, and then had to watch as the loyal X-Com fans were subjected to sequels that were not even in the same genre as the original X-Com. We thought that this was a waste of all the hard work we had done, even though we didn’t receive a penny from subsequent X-Com games. We also thought that too many publishers were playing too safe by jumping on the never-ending RTS bandwagon, and we were getting tired of this. In order to do something different we had to be free of publishers.

» Cyke: I’m sure I’m not the only person reading this who feels the Gollops could have put a plain box on gaming store shelves with the title “The Gollop Bros Turn Based Game” and sold a million. So, why go with this email based gaming approach?
» CoDo: I don’t think it would have sold quite so much, and it would still need a publisher to get behind it and pay to put it on shelves. We wanted to do something different and Laser Squad Nemesis is not only a new turn based system, it is also a new business model. Our aim was to provide a gaming service rather than a static product. LSN has evolved quite rapidly, especially with the help of our customers. The feedback is great, and many players make their own contributions to the game by organizing tournaments, designing maps, helping new players, and much more besides.

» Cyke: I could buy a DVD for $15 and get 2-3 hours of enjoyment. With a game, I might pay $30-$50 and get anywhere from 15-70 hours. You guys are charging a measly fifteen bucks for 6 months of as much gaming as I can handle. So whats the deal, are you purposely trying to make the entertainment industry look bad
» CoDo: Without distribution costs we can provide the game more cheaply direct via the internet. Also, the development costs are relatively low, especially since we didn’t waste money on lengthy FMV sequences with cheesy voice acting. The price will be going up a bit as we add more features, but LSN will always be good value for money.

» Cyke: Would you even entertain the idea of putting LSN on the gaming store shelves somewhere down the line? Or would the economics of distribution dictate that financially it’s not worth your while?
» CoDo: Yes we will, as long as we can find the right distribution deal. We are working on a retail version, and it will retain compatibility with the online version. It will be just another aspect of the same game.

» Cyke: I’ve only relatively recently got into the LSN cult, and I have to ask, where did the move to simultaneous real-time turns come from? What was the thinking and indeed the benefits behind that decision in your minds?
» CoDo: Many years ago I used to play a board game by SPI called ‘Sniper’. It was a world war II individual tactical war game in which both players plotted instructions for each soldier on a piece of paper. The orders were resolved simultaneously. It was a great game, but quite fiddly to play. With X-Com Apocalypse we allowed the player the option of a real time game that could be paused at any time, allowing the player to plan orders for units. LSN is perhaps getting back to the idea in Sniper, with the game broken into regular time segments. One reason we did this is because it works very well for an email based game. In effect we have ended up with a system that has the benefits of both real time and turn based games.

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A bad day for the Marines
» Cyke: Another aspect which quite shocked me was the short brutal combat most games deviate naturally to. With LSNs compact gaming area and large troop numbers, you really feel there is a bloody conflict going on. Was there a deliberate intention to make each of these games feel epic?
» CoDo: One of the big problems with many turn based games is that the initial phase of movement and map exploration can be very boring. Jagged Alliance solved this by using real-time movement up to the point of engagement with the enemy. LSN solves this by making sure the deployment areas are close and the risk of early engagement is quite high. I also wanted to avoid the game getting stuck in defensive positions, and to make sure that the game is fluid and exciting. We aimed to make the average game last between 10-15 turns, and we have mostly achieved this. I think the current average is 16 turns. Above all, we wanted to get away from the idea that turn based games have to be boring, long and graphically unexciting.

» Cyke: An innovative feature is the “test orders” button. With this you can see a projection of your orders over the next game period. How did this come about as a concept, and how hard was it to implement?
» CoDo: It was certainly very hard to implement, but I saw it as an essential aid for playing the game. It allows players to coordinate their units much more effectively, which enhances the tactical nature of the game. It is also good fun to explore some speculative orders with this function, and it certainly helps with grenades.

» Cyke: How do the team themselves hold up to challenges at the game? Any tactical gems you’d like to share with the more struggling players, like myself?
» CoDo: I am not the best player in the league by a long way, and I think overall if Codo formed an LSN clan we would be near the bottom. There are some common mistakes that new players tend to make, the worst of which is making highly predictable moves. If your opponent can anticipate your orders, then you are immediately at a disadvantage. Some patience is called for, so don’t always rush your troops towards spotted enemy units.

» Cyke: Continuous refinement and improvement seem to be the motto at CoDo. I can appreciate you are all focused on the upcoming Spawn race being released soon, but what other aspects of the title are you also working on currently?
» CoDo: We have been working on designs for a massively multiplayer version of the game, a tournament system that allows players to organize their own competitions, and a single player game with computer controlled opponents. The massively multiplayer game is effectively a strategic meta-game in which the control of territories and resources on planets is determined by the outcome of individual battles fought in the normal way. We will also be improving the email games management system so that the LSN software will directly send and receive turns without having to use outlook or another mail client.

» Cyke: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a company so dedicated to its fans. In an age where other companies often fail to even patch their releases adequately, you seem to be re-writing the book on creating a happy game based community. You guys really put a lot of faith in the players, letting them help with betas and changing game balances subtly over time. Was that planned from the get-go, and are you happy with how it’s working out?
» CoDo: Yes this was planned from the beginning, but largely through necessity. We had very few resources; so we planned to release the game as soon as we had something worthwhile, and then concentrate on improving it with the help of our customers. We set ourselves strict limits - a development period of one year and a budget of £60k. It wasn’t comfortable, but it has certainly been the most fun project I have ever worked on.

» Cyke: It is truly a measure of LSNs success that current players are your loudest advocates. As a newbie I found a core of helpful eager veterans throwing games at me as freely as their advice (And most of them seem to be online constantly, no matter what hour I respond at I always seem to get a quick counter turn). How closely in general do CoDo monitor the forums and the general opinions of fans?
» CoDo: We do monitor the forums very closely, and Brad, our sales & marketing director, likes to keep discussions nice and lively. He is introducing our new Bounty Hunter scheme which is designed to give non-subscribers a few free games with volunteer ‘field instructors’. This should help encourage new players to learn the game and subscribe once they get hooked.

» Cyke: Do you feel there could come a point where it becomes dangerous to listen too closely to the fans? Where the vocal opinions may start to infringe on the “vision” of the designers?
» CoDo: Yes, I am all too well aware of this problem, and sometimes a vocal minority will be at odds with the silent majority. Fortunately LSN players are generally a very sensible bunch, and we have seen some great ideas emerging. Also, we have to balance our attention between matters that are important to new players, and those that are important for experienced players. With any online multiplayer game this is a difficult juggling act, and I have to make sure that we stay focused on our core objectives to create a game that is fun, easy to play, skilful and fair.

» Cyke: Will LSN ever be finished or is it more open ended? Do you have a clearly defined point of completion, or would you just go on making things bigger and better, adding races and features?

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Spawn move in on Machina forces
» CoDo: It is truly open ended – we will keep improving it as long as people want to play it. We want to add new ways to play it, and new platforms. It will be on PDAs and consoles.

» Cyke: What of future projects. Are you even toying with anything to follow LSN?
» CoDo: Yes, we would like to use the same system for other games. We are contemplating a new version of the original Chaos game, featuring wizards, spells and creatures of all kinds.

» Cyke: While blazing its trail, CoDo has had a bump or two along the way. Stuff ‘normal’ companies wouldn’t normally have to deal with, such as a popular anti-virus program unjustly accusing the game of Trojan tendencies. Have there been any other unexpected moments, other bumps in the road?
» CoDo: The worse problem we had was a power cut which destroyed the disk drives on the game server machines. This happened shortly before the commercial launch of the game and delayed it for about 4 days. Fortunately our infrastructure is a lot more solid and reliable now.

» Cyke: Of course, any company has to pay the bills. Whilst I have no idea of the running costs of something like this, is LSN proceeding to plan? Is break-even close, passed or on target?
» CoDo:We are certainly making an operating profit, and well on our way to recovering our initial investment. The main cost is the human labour, although we aren’t paying ourselves much at the moment.

» Cyke: Could you give us some estimate of the comparison of income to yourselves between this method of distribution and the “traditional” approach?
» CoDo: Traditionally we might get about £2-3 royalty for a game selling at £30. With LSN we get the bulk of the subscription income, and the running costs are low. However, big publishers have much bigger distribution. People still prefer to walk into a shop and walk out with a box.

» Cyke: The rumour is that you guys have “day jobs” currently while this takes off. Is that accurate?
» CoDo: No, LSN is a full time occupation. The amount of work required for the project means that it has to be full time.

» Cyke: I’ve yet to hear anyone voice any complaint whatsoever about the pricing. Has it led to a good intake of subscribed players, much like I’m sure you hoped? And with those who have fully paid up, are you seeing the game being more popular in any areas?
» CoDo: We probably priced it a bit too low, and we have recently increased the price to $25. The current intake of subscribers has been slow but steady, but that will change when LSN gets much more widespread coverage under our bounty scheme. We are offering £5 for each subscriber referred to us from a games website or ISP. This should make a big difference.

» Cyke: I’d imagine with your years of experience in the industry you’d have a lot of friends also in the gaming business. What sort of feedback do you get from them on what you’re trying to do? Is it a case of “their balls are bigger than their common sense” or “go for it, shake things up”? And what of the companies themselves, any signs of resentment for the amount of layers you’re cutting out in your distribution model?
» CoDo: The feedback I have been getting is enthusiastic and supportive. It is a relative luxury to work on a completely original game, especially for many games designers. There are no signs of resentment from publishers: we are pretty small fry at the moment and they have other things to worry about. However, all the big console manufacturers have plans for distributing content via there new broadband services, so I expect there will be quite a few changes to distribution models in the years ahead.

» Cyke: CoDo clearly has the prominent position in the industry for email gaming. Have any other companies approached you to seek advice on this field, or have any development teams asked about distributing their products via CoDo channels?
» CoDo: We have had a few enquiries, yes. We will soon be in a position to distribute other email games using the Codo technology, and in principle we would like to support games by other developers.

» Cyke: Where does CoDo technologies hope to be, say 5 years from now?
» CoDo: We would like to be the leading publisher for email based games, and strategy games in general.

» Cyke: As an ex X-Com fan site webmaster, I’d be seriously remiss if I didn’t get one X-Com question in here! So this is it – Is it true that for a brief period during the making of the original X-Com there was potentially going to be an arcade sequence when shooting down alien craft, in the style of “Afterburner”?
» CoDo: Yes, sort of. It wasn’t really an arcade sequence, but it had a real-time aspect. As your craft approached the UFO you could choose to fire the weapons, close range or break off. There was a simple first-person perspective from the interceptors cockpit. We junked it because it looked like it was trying to be a flight sim but failing.

Thanks to all at CoDo for the great interview!


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