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Studio Profile: Nitrome

Studio Profile: Nitrome

Situated in the heart of London's Silicon Roundabout, Nitrome's studio is not entirely what you would expect.

While the capital's high-tech business hub conjures images of Google Glass-wearing hipster poncery, the Nitrome office is rather plain and unassuming.

Indeed, aside from a wall of A4 sheets detailing level designs for its recent App Store hit Icebreaker: A Viking Voyage, there are very few signs as to what the studio actually does.

Don't be fooled though. Despite its lack of showmanship, Nitrome is one of the UK's most prolific indies, responsible for over 130 staggeringly high quality titles. Yet it hasn't always had it easy.

The studio's history encompasses missed opportunities, missteps and European Commission interventions; its fortunes fluctuating along with the volatile Flash game market. During one difficult spell co-founder Mat Annal even had to make his own brother redundant.

Indeed, not so long ago Nitrome came worryingly close to not existing at all, saved ultimately by the power of mobile, the clout of Rovio and the studio's most polished release to date.

What better time then to give this battle worn, yet massively exciting developer the PocketGamer.biz Studio Profile treatment.

BBC Jam

A graphic designer from Middlesborough, Mat Annal is rather humble and incredibly affable, speaking with refreshing honesty about both his and the company's shortcomings, as well as its triumphs.

Nitrome's story begins with a BBC commission that never saw the light of day, a project undertaken alongside co-founder and programmer Heather Sancliffe.

Up until that point, Annal had worked creating websites for a number of companies, gradually shifting from straight-up web design to more interactive projects, before eventually settling on Flash games.

The BBC Jam project, part of the corporation's digital education push, would have been Nitrome's first title. Indeed the game was completed, submitted and paid for.

But thanks to a series of anti-competition complaints submitted to the European Commission, BBC Jam's £150 million funding was cancelled and the service was ditched. As a result, Annal was forced to make some rather difficult decisions.

"At one point during the BBC project we had so much work on that I thought, 'Okay, let's get an office and I'll take my brother John on'. He's an artist.

"So I did that and then about four months later, when the BBC work dried up, I had to sack my own brother." He smiles, sheepishly. "So that was quite awkward."

Mat Annal

Equally awkward, Annal was left searching for new clients to keep the fledgling company afloat.

Chick Flick

"I found out that I'm not the best sales person in the world," says Annal of this early, difficult spell in Nitrome's life.

"I'm good when people just happen to come to me, people that I've worked with before. But when it comes to actually going out and finding work, that's not me at all."

Rather than search for new clients, Nitrome returned to work on a project it had begun before the BBC contract came along, a mobile title created in J2ME called Chick Flick.

Yet in the time between the conception of the game and Nitrome's return to it, the market had changed.

"Because we'd taken so long to do it, we had the likes of Gameloft that were really aggressive in that space, as well as all the Ubisoft ports to compete against.

"We thought, 'You know what? Nobody's even going to see our game.' So we reluctantly gave up on that idea and said, 'Okay, well we know Flash...'"

With a couple of misfires already under its belt, pressure was mounting to ensure Nitrome's next project was a success. Thankfully, it was exactly that.

Nitrome.com

He may not believe he's the best at business development, but Mat Annal is uncommonly good at games design.

Following the aborted BBC project and the abandoned mobile title, Annal focused on creating the Flash games which would eventually form the basis of Nitrome's own website.

Over the next six years the studio released games at a dizzying rate of up to two a month, each title displaying invention, charm and polish that belied their short development cycles.

With a focus on arcade immediacy, titles like Steamlands, Nitrome Must Die, Canary, Icebreaker and its sequels helped build an impressive portfolio and a huge community.

Nitrome Must Die

During that time, co-founder Heather Sancliffe amicably left the studio, Annal's brother Jon re-joined as a director and Nitrome enjoyed a long spell of productivity and prosperity.

And in the nearest the self-deprecating Annal comes to self-aggrandisement, he tells me, "I find it a little uncomfortable to say that I come up with most of the ideas... but I do come up with most of the ideas."

It's a remarkable achievement.

Knock offs

Having such a large collection of games readily available for free on your own website does present problems, however - an issue Dutch developer Vlambeer has been discussing on these very pages.

While the studio's output became popular enough to sustain a staff of around 15, it also provided easy pickings for cloners and copycats attempting to bringing Nitrome's ideas to mobile.

Steamlands

Many of these center around the original Flash version of Icebreaker, released in 2008.

Just like the eventual iOS title, Icebreaker is a puzzler in which a Viking on a boat must rescue his friends from slabs of ice while, also slicing through physics-based ropes.

"You know, we made Icebreaker a long time before Cut the Rope," chuckles Annal. "But y'know, it was sufficiently different, we've got ripped off a lot more than that."

He reels off the examples. Viking Slice lifted the game's features pretty much wholesale; Diamond Breaker saw players rescuing diamonds embedded in crystal; Oh My Fish saw players taking the role of a polar bear on a boat who had to rescue frozen penguins.

The list goes on and its not just limited to Icebreaker. The question is then, why didn't Nitrome get into mobile earlier?

Super Feed Me

The answer is the firm almost did, announcing Super Feed Me for iOS in 2010 to a rapturous reception. But it has yet to see a release.

Featuring a Venus Fly Trap that can swing around levels, the accompanying trailer for Super Feed Me racked up around 1 million views upon release, catching the attention of Apple.

"They said, 'We've seen Super Feed Me. It looks really interesting. Is it possible that we could give it a try and we might consider it for coverage, if it plays as good as it looks," explains Annal.

"At the time we were like, ah crap, we don't really have [anything]. Like, we put together just enough of the bits of levels to actually make the trailer. So you could swing twice and be out of the level, do you know what I mean?

"Also in terms of gameplay, some bits were great and others needed a lot of work. So there was no way we were going to let anyone try it and there was no way that we could comfortably sit down and make it into something they could try within a short space of time."

There were other issues too. The more Nitrome worked on Super Feed Me, the more the Flash game side of the business, which at that point was booming, suffered.

"It was a very uncomfortable time, because I tried to get a programmer to work on it a bit longer and he had kinda fallen out with it. It just got to the point where that probably wasn't a good idea in retrospect."

Eventually, Nitrome shelved the project. Years later, when the studio submitted Icebreaker: A Viking Voyage for iOS, Apple responded, "The game's great, but we're still holding out for Super Feed Me."

Annal isn't discounting a return to the project.

Fading Flash

The Flash boom years didn't last. Indeed, when the market tailed off it threatened the existence of the company.

"After two, two and a half years we hit our peak in terms of audience," explains Annal. "All of a sudden it leveled out then started to decline and I thought 'Okay, maybe we're just not making as good games'."

That wasn't the problem. As Facebook games and mobile continued to rise, both Flash game audiences and the advertising revenue continued to fall.

"The knock-on effect of less traffic and less revenue per person meant that we were probably making less than half what we used to," says Annal. "But our costs were the same."

He adds, "We could have lasted another year, maybe."

It was around this time that Nitrome decided to go full tilt at turning Icebreaker into a full mobile title, learning from the mistakes it had made in the past.

Annal doesn't frame it in this manner, but you get the feeling that this was a last ditch attempt by the studio to achieve the level of success it arguably deserves.

Breaking through

You can read about the creation of Icebreaker: A Viking Voyage and Nitrome's partnership with the Rovio Stars label in our 'making of' piece, but there's an important aspect of the game's development Annal hasn't previously discussed.

"The whole process of making Icebreaker: A Viking Voyage, the last few years, have been a very depressing time," he says, "to the point that I almost decided to sell the company and pack it all in."

"It's the best job in the world when it's going well and its the most difficult thing to do when you haven't got all your energy, when you try and remain enthusiastic about making exciting games, but you're worried about finances.

"It just saps everything away, it takes all of the joy out of it, it makes you hate the thing you love."

To the future

Nitrome has been through a lot. While Annal and the studio's ability to create engaging games enjoyed by millions of people is undoubted, its experiences in business are less sure.

Yet with its debut mobile release finally hitting the App Store in June and subsequently selling hundreds of thousands of copies, Nitrome suddenly has a new lease of life.

The studio may not yet be free of financial worries, but the possibilities are a lot more promising than they were just two years ago.

With a couple of updates to Icebreaker: A Viking Voyage in the works, alongside two further mobile projects, a Steam Greenlight game and, of course, further Flash titles, the future looks bright.

And who knows, if Nitrome continues to succeed maybe it'll even splash out on brightening up its office a little.

Contributing Writer

A freelancer for just about anyone that will have him, Lee was raised in gloomy arcades up and down the country. Thanks to this he's rather good at Gauntlet, OutRun and fashioning fake pound coins from pennies and chewing gum. These skills have proved to be utterly useless in later life.

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Jimbo Polo
yow
Martin Ebermann
I Love this website and their games.
I first discovered them when i was in slovenia and a friend of mine was playing zero ninja and i was blown away from the cool stealth and swinging gameplay.
before that i always went to websites like maxgames, but it fascinatet me, that nitrome wasnt a ton of better and worse games on one site, the fascinating thing was that their games could always keep a high level of quality and so i even played games of genres i normally dont like and enjoyed them.
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