“When I was a kid, my dad used to drop me off at the cinema,” Kevin Richardson, Senior Producer at Nickelodoen Kids and Family Games Group recalls. “The first movie I remember was Santa Clause conquers the Martians. Even as a kid I knew it was bad!” We sat down with Richardson to talk about his early passion and career in animation, his entry into games after seeing CD-ROMs in action, trying to combine work with his love for the outdoors and how producers can make sure they’re a valuable asset to their teams.
At a younger age Richardson received a Super 8 video camera from his dad, which he used to make his first animated cartoons and special effects. At that time, there was no Photoshop or video editing software to help him, making it a tedious endeavor. The film layers were literally stuck to each other in layers, prone to break at any time when run through the projector.
Young Richardson watched Disney’s Pinocchio 3 times in a row. “The animation and techniques are amazing.” With that passion for cinema and animation, Richardson would go on to study character animation and later computer video imaging at the California Institute of Arts in their motion picture school. Ironically, Pinocchio was the same movie he would later have to watch in slow motion at film school. “It took at least six or seven hours to watch Pinocchio at four or five frames a second,” Richardson says. “But when you love animation and special effects, each frame is amazing.” One of his early heroes was legendary special effects creator Ray Harryhausen whom he met at a San Francisco Bay area premiere of one of the Sinbad movies.
After attending CalArts for two years, Richardson left to work on special effects in the animated movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Willow at Industrial Light and Magic. Richardson was responsible for removing the wires and garbage from several blue screen shots with actor Bob Hoskins in them. “Which was one of the last non-digital optically combined movies,” he adds.
In his animation career Richardson would also end up working on various TV series, commercials and animated motion pictures until 1994. At that time, software companies were transitioning from floppy disks to CD-ROM, allowing for much higher speeds and storage. “The big title driving what you could do with content was The 7th Guest from Trilobyte studios,” Richardson recalls. Richardson had gone to the first conference on Digital Media, the MILIA, in Cannes. “This kind of just blew my mind,” he says. “Everything from the interactive version of The Hard Days Night to Playboy’s Strip Poker was there. It was really a digital content renaissance.”
The added benefit of interactivity and the potential of the CD-ROM was something Richardson would later discover when he joined The Learning Company which produced educational entertainment software. “They were looking for an executive producer to head up their next-generation titles as they moved from floppy disks to CD-ROMs.” Richardson was responsible for creating the right pipelines to achieve the company’s goal to make the animation as close to TV quality as possible. Richardson oversaw most of the titles and brands of the classic Reader Rabbit and Clue Finders edutainment titles.
Richardson had just become a father of two daughters before his move to The Learning Company. He found himself at the brink of a major technological change and took the leap to get involved. “The situation I stepped into was that software PC games were still a very small cottage industry,” Richardson says. “I knew the shift to CD-ROM was a big opportunity to shift careers because I knew no one who knew how to do this.”
The production know-how Richardson had accumulated on how to prepare hours of animation came in handy. He would later leave The Learning Company to finish his degree in computer video imaging and earn professional certificates in software engineering and project management, taking the lower position of associate producer at EA Pogo at that time. “I went from being an executive producer with a team of 75 people to associate producer, having a team of nobody,” he chuckles.
Publishing Your Own Game
In 2006, Richardson became a consultant and took the step to make his own game. “I’d been talking and thinking about this for years but never had the guts to do it,” he recalls. “So I went ahead and did it.”
Richardson then met his soon to be business partners from Hungama, an Indian media company that also runs a game portal, at the Casual Connect conference in Amsterdam. “They also wanted to break into the casual game space, but nobody was ready to enter into business with them just yet for the western market,” he says. A couple of days later, Richardson sat down and came up with the idea of the Ghost Town Mysteries franchise. His dad took him to the Bodie ghost town in the Sierra Nevada area as a kid. ”I never forgot it, and thought thirteen haunted houses in a game is better than one!” which led to the first title in the Ghost Town Mysteries franchise.
Richardson’s choice of those kinds of cities did have another motive. “I’m an outdoors guy, and that’s really hard,” he says. “I know a lot of people who make games that would rather be outside the office than staring at a computer monitor all day. So I thought, ‘What would get me out of the office traveling while still making games?’” Richardson would then travel to Bodie California and Bannack Montana with a photographer and ask the local folk and park rangers about ghost sightings. “We tried to base the game around an actual murder mystery from these ghost towns.”
Together with Hungama, also the largest online destination for Bollywood Music, Richardson produced and published the first Ghost Town Mysteries Bodie game. “Hungama has the equivalent of the iTunes store for Bollywood music,” Richardson adds. “They have a couple of game sites, are big on mobile gaming and wanted to make a step in the downloadable game area.” Richardson had timed his collaboration with Hungama well with having limited or no resources to start up the project. “A lot of entrepreneurs I know say it’s better to have no cash nor investors at all,” he says. “It forces you to think very smartly and precisely. I’ve invested pretty much all my time and money into making games and entertainment. I feel like I’m always in school because I’m always learning, and making mistakes, too.”
During his year of working on Ghost Town Mysteries, Richardson also started doing contract work for Nickelodeon to insure a stable income for his family. In the Kids and Family Games department, Richardson focuses specifically on browser-based flash games.
“I’m mostly in my element when I’m working with creatives and technicians,” he admits. “So I’m not embedded in the actual day-to-day team who’s creating a project.” However, Richardson’s involvement goes beyond the creation of a design document. He always makes sure to include storyboards, character and concept sketches. “Not to the point that I’ve taken anything away from the development team, but to the point that I’ve felt I made my creative mark on the project,” he explains. “The team also has more respect for what I’m doing because they know that I have a clear sense of direction for their project. Or maybe they just find it annoying!”
The real challenge Richardson constantly faces as a producer at Nickelodeon is to make the game design document extensively fleshed out so each project gets greenlighted internally. “But not so fleshed out that we take away the imaginations from the developers so they can improve it and add their own,” he adds.
For Richardson, every game has been a new challenge since he joined his team of producers in 2008. He is very much enjoying his work at Nickelodeon, his colleagues at Nick and the engagement he has with developers from all around the world.
The second part of Richardson’s interview will be published next week, including tales about his most valuable lessons from being a producer, winning Volkswagen’s Fun Theory contest, the difference between personal and professional passions and how to make sure you enjoy your industry job without being disappointed by it.