The explosion of Tinder with its social aspects has ushered in a wave of dating apps, each with their own unique twist. Jason Loia, COO of Unravel, gave a lecture entitled How Dating App Design Can Enhance Your Mobile Game at Casual Connect USA. This included analytical insights which Unravel, a mobile dating and social discovery app built by a team of seasoned gamers, has amassed over almost a year of in-market data. While designing a game, Jason advices, “Attack your biggest funnel leaks first”.
Even if you possess the most stunning design, genius developers, a super-engaging idea and a well-developed strategy, a game for a celebrity can still fall flat on its face. Find out Kuulu Interactive Entertainment AG’s secret with Jendrik Pösche at Casual Connect Europe 2015. In his presentation, he advised, “Treat the project as the soul of the company, meaning that everyone has to know what the game is about, has to play the game, has to like the game”. He offered many other key points in making any game, especially when working with celebrities.
Marco DeMiroz moderated a panel on mobile game market investments at Casual Connect Europe. “Really, for a game company starting — getting the funding, getting the user-acquisition model fine-tuned, and also, the main objective is to come up with an awesome game — it’s a huge challenge,” he said. For several perspectives on mobile game investments, see the video below.
In his Casual Connect Europe lecture, Dave Padilla shared some ways indie developers can cut down on stress. “Things are going to go wrong,” he says. “You can’t let it worry you. You can’t let it stop you.” For Dave’s advice, see the video below.
As the moderator of the panel entitled “Putting the Game in Gambling: Opportunities for Game Developers in the Real Money Gambling World” at Casual Connect Europe 2015, Jamison Selby led the way in exploring the potential business possibilities presented by the intersection of the two worlds of gamers and gambling.
Casual Connect Asia speaker Dmitry Shkolnikov gave game developers actionable advertising advice during the recent event in Singapore. “Game development is fun, but it’s also a business, and you need to obtain the revenue,” he says. See the video below for an introduction to large user acquisition campaigns.
The Social Casino industry changes rapidly, and developers need a strong understanding of the market to make an impact, Elad Kushnir explained in his Casual Connect Europe 2015 lecture. “In 2014, the (social casino) niche generated $2.84 billion of revenue,” he says. For more figures on social casino’s performance, see the video below.
Olga Khomenko gave tips on monetization with HTML5 to a Casual Connect Europe audience. “There are like 7 billion mobile subscriptions around the world,” she said — and HTML5 is a major way to get your games onto mobile browsers. For more reasons to consider HTML5, see the video below.
Katherine Bidwell described how she creates handmade art and models for State of Play Games during her Casual Connect Europe lecture. “Making things by hand helps break down the wall between intention and final artwork,” she says. “The work feels more human.” Watch her presentation below.
Aaron St. John described how HitPoint built limited-time events into a hidden-object game in his lecture titled “Raids for Old Ladies” at Casual Connect Europe. Aaron said some of the assumptions you might have about older female audiences. “They’re about as core as any gamer can get, and they tell us about it,” he says. For more of the lessons from HitPoint, see the video below.
Aaron St. John is the co-founder and CEO of HitPoint, developers and publishers of hidden object social and puzzle adventure games. He has been strategic, technical and creative lead for their internal products and those of key partners, including Microsoft, Disney, WB, EA and more. Prior to HitPoint, he was a game designer and engineer for Monolith and Wild Tangent. Recently Casual Connect discussed with him the elements behind his career in the games industry.
GameSauce: Tell us about the work you do at your company. How did you come to work at your current company?
Aaron St. John: I founded HitPoint six years ago with my business partner, Paul Hake. We had both independently been running game studios in Western Massachusetts. As our workload increased, we decided to merge our companies and form HitPoint.
GS: How have your past career experiences been helpful to you in your current position?
Aaron: I’ve been lucky enough to have only had a few positions outside the games industry. I worked at a coffee stand for a short time and at a restaurant as a server for a little while. I learned that I’m great with people and good at getting tips but overall a horrible employee.
I also did a year of teaching high school part-time when I was in college. I was supposed to teach AP Computer Science but we ended up making Quake mods. I learned a lot about the value of planning and scheduling and also detecting if anyone was goofing off with a glance.
GS: What do you do in your free time? What are your hobbies?
Aaron: Fitness stuff, mainly. Tuff Mudders, CrossFit, Triathalons, relays, rock climbing. All at sort of a “just get it done” level. I decided at some point that being fit will allow me to work more and ultimately create more games, so now I consider it part of my job.
Hobbywise, I tinker with various projects, sometimes game prototypes, sometimes various technologies that might be useful at some point. Currently I’m obsessed with emulators; I did a retro-pie project and I’ve moved on to building a MAME machine. My goal is to see if I can get some kind of multiplayer arcade machine working.
GS: What is your favorite thing about your job?
Aaron: Variety and being empowered to make meaningful change for my customers and team. Each day I have to decide where I can have the most impact, and that frequently leads me into doing jobs and solving problems I’ve never had to deal with before.
GS: What inspired you to pursue this career?
Aaron: Other than typical kid stuff like playing a lot of video games and board games, my brother Alex was a huge inspiration. He’s about 12 years older than I am, and when I was about 16, he was leading the charge at Microsoft to create their gaming strategy, Direct X, which ultimately led to the Xbox. For me, it meant that I got to tag along to conferences and these massive promotional events for Direct X that he’d throw and to meet some of the luminaries of the industry like Carmack, Garriot and Newel. I was also privy to some of the thinking and strategies that go into running a business based on games. The whole experience allowed me to paint a pretty strong vision of what it meant to be in the gaming industry versus just making games.
Also, through Alex, I had the opportunity to form a relationship with the founders of Monolith when I was a kid, which led to an internship with them when I was still pretty young, around 19. Jason Hall and his partners provided a place where I had the opportunity to learn and participate in all aspects of both running a game business and making games. I got to lead production on an original title of my design, Sanity: Aiken’s Artifact, which ultimately got acquired by Fox Interactive and launched. It was a phenomenal crash course for me.
GS: Do you have any advice for someone interested in pursuing the same career?
Aaron: It’s kind of a Swiss-Army-knife role to be a CEO, in my experience. All of the tools I’ve gotten through life experiences, formal education, hobbies, relationships, travel, books, basically everything I can think of have come into play one way or another. To that end, I would recommend being expansive, do things that are out of your comfort zone. Doing this habitually is multipurpose, it makes you a versatile person and is a remedy for the biggest enemy of creativity: fear. Also, learn to be the kind of person that finishes things. Having ideas and dreaming big is very easy; being persistent and diligent enough to see those ideas through will make your ideas and dreams the ones people will care about.
GS: What was your dream job as a child?
Aaron: Before I fell into game development, I wanted to be an architect. I liked the idea of creating something big and physical in the world that took up a lot of space and people shaped their lives around. I also like the idea of building something bigger than what can be accomplished with an individual effort, successfully coordinating and directing groups of people to create something great always felt like the pinnacle of human achievements.
GS: In your early years was there anything that hinted at your future career path in gaming? Did you expect to end up where you are today?
Aaron: I’m not sure exactly. I don’t think I was ever a kid that was good at doing what was expected of me or ever saw the world the way most people saw it. Those things never figured as assets for me until later in life.
Probably not exactly where I am today, but running a game company has been a vision for me since I was in my teens. So far, I love where that vision is leading me.
GS: When and how did you first become interested in art, design and coding?
Aaron: I’ve always done art since I was a kid. My parents didn’t really tolerate the concept of being bored, so drawing pictures was my fallback.
I picked up coding as a means to an end. I was never the best coder but I would say I’m a persistent learner; the same has been true for me for many topics relevant for creating and running a business.
As far as design goes, I’ve always admired and been somewhat of a storyteller, joker and teller of tall tales, which I think are the core skills for a game designer. You’re leading people down a path with a design, and it’s about making the journey surprising, thought-provoking and entertaining. There’s a lot of similarity, at least for me, in terms of what it takes to be a good leader as well.
GS: What is your creative process like? Where do you begin?
Aaron: I like mashing up ideas and distilling ideas. I see something that will work or is fun in one context and immediately start thinking if it will work in another context, or try to boil it down to its naked core and see what else it might be applied to. I guess it’s a little bit like Legos for me. I try to extract the individual bricks that I like and then try to build something new with them.
I also like talking to people. When I have an idea, I keep telling it to people, waving my hands, drawing pictures, etc., and a richer story emerges in each telling. It’s helpful to see the things other people get excited about or get confused by and to get feedback and ideas from them in real time.
GS: Where do you find the most inspiration for your designs? What was the most interesting thing you found inspiration from?
Aaron: I try to see trends and get ahead of them as much as possible. I’ve had too many ideas that are in line with the market, meaning within a few months of having some brilliant idea, I see someone else launch a product or announce something similar. The challenge for me is trying to see holes in the market and avoiding the more obvious chains of logic that anyone else paying attention will see. That kind of insight comes from a lot of research, exploring innovations in other markets and talking to colleagues to hear alternate perspectives.
GS: If you had unlimited resources and time, what kind of game would you create?
Aaron: Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books from childhood. There’s a video game in there that adapts itself to put the players in situations that challenge them on an emotional and psychological level. The ultimate goal is to make the player face their fears and become a stronger, better person. That’s the kind of game I want to build, one that changes who you are for the better.
GS: What is the most challenging part of game development for you? What is the most rewarding part?
Aaron: I think the process of cutting stuff can be both the most challenging and the most rewarding. It inevitably happens on every project, time runs out and you have to “kill a baby,” meaning, get rid of a favorite feature. In almost all of the cases I’ve run into, the team has made adjustments to the design that actually sharpen it and make it, overall, better without the “baby.”
GS: What methods do you use to handle creative blocks? Do creative blocks occur frequently?
Aaron: Persistence is my best friend here. When I run into something that blocks progress, I just attack it from all angles. Talk to people, draw on a whiteboard, stand on my head, whatever it takes. In a lot of cases blurting out really dumb ideas and stuff I know I don’t want helps with the shape of a solution.
Recently I’ve been in love with a technique called story mapping, which I’ve found to be invaluable for fleshing out a vague idea and drilling in on hard-to-reach places in a design.
GS: What was a painful experience you have found a way out of? How did you do it?
Aaron: Whoa, these questions are for real! We’ve been running HitPoint for about six years now and there are a lot of painful experiences I could recount, ranging from disappointing launches and crippling blunders to project cancellations. I think having those experiences in our past and understanding the dynamics of how they happened is the best way to get out of them in the future. The biggest trick is surviving your mistakes so they serve to make you better, not to destroy you. We’ve managed to be good at that. The trick there has been good diversification in the projects we’ve pursued as a business, and a team that’s versatile and good at making diving catches.
GS: What has been your proudest moment in your career so far? What led to this moment happening?
Aaron: We worked with Microsoft to build a series of games for the launch of Windows 8. We built Adera, which was a five-episode Puzzle Adventure game, similar to Myst, but more epic, with full rendered cinematics, localized in 27 languages with new episode releases every month after launch. It was a really hard project! We built a custom engine for unannounced devices, backed with an in-development OS, with the strategic future of one of the most important companies in the world in the balance. We were one of only two companies developing first party titles for Microsoft (the other guys were making Minesweeper and Solitaire, that’s how hardcore it was to Microsoft’s strategy). Ultimately my team pulled it off; the games were top-ranked and top-selling in the store; anecdotally I heard we outsold Halo in the Windows store at some point. Admittedly the entire ecosystem had its problems, but the things we had control over and the things that we touched, we nailed. It was proof to me that our team could do anything we set our minds to and were capable of operating at the highest levels of game production most teams could imagine.
GS: What do you think will be the next big trend in the industry in the next three to five years? How are you incorporating this trend into your future plans?
Aaron: I miss playing games with other people. By that I mean shoulder-to-shoulder style games or face-to-face style games. I think other people do, too. I can’t think of a lot of mass market games since the arcade days or Guitar Hero and DDR that were social in that way. All of these new devices encourage autonomy and independence with their individual screens versus a shared view; my feeling is that people are becoming more and more distant from each other and in need of more “tribe” experiences. I think a re-invention of “living room” gaming is coming, with TVs that have app stores and feature interactive content, followed by AR headsets that are cost effective enough that you can buy them for the family and include some really satisfying haptic input that can be shared with a group.
We’re planning for that with our new product, InFiction. My favorite way to play adventure games is sharing a screen with my wife and trading off who plays and who watches. I’d like to see InFiction as a channel similar to NetFlix on set-top boxes that you play in your living room with your family and friends with everyone chipping in to solve problems and helping to make the story unfold.
GS: What do you think your staff most commonly says about you? What do your employees think about you?
Aaron: I’m pretty sure I have a reputation for a “slightly blue” sense of humor. I try to be as collaborative as possible in a creative environment. I would guess folks think I give my creative feedback with brutal candor, which is what I would expect from everyone on my team in return. I don’t know, it’s weird to think about what other people think of you; they haven’t strung me up yet, so that’s good, right?
GS: What attributes do you look for in a member of your team?
Aaron: I like to see that they’ve actually done their own projects. Outside of a work environment, on their own, with their buddies. I want to see that they’ve pursued something they are passionate about and have gone through the tribulation of seeing their vision in reality or, even better, the pain of “it’s not quite working out the way I thought it would.” Those are the kinds of people that I think would know in any creative effort it’s never about just doing a job; it’s about making trade-offs, stepping in when there’s a need to fill, and getting something out the door. I also like people that surprise me in some way…that’s just fun for me.
GS: What inspired you to start your indie projects?
Aaron: Our latest title, InFiction, is a publishing platform for puzzle adventure games. I saw the need for more content for an older female audience. I thought the best way to deliver that would be to find a way to bring the excellent puzzle adventure content available in the download marketplace to tablets and mobile devices. So far we’ve signed two developers with a total of 20 titles to be delivered within InFiction, and I look forward to meeting and signing up even more developers to create a channel where people can find all this great content in one place.