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IndieStudio Spotlight

Studio Spotlight: Yellow Monkey Studios on breaking out of India, indie pr & marketing and conquering the world

November 26, 2012 — by Vlad Micu

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Launched recently sandwiched in dire competition between Marvel’s Avengers Initiative and famed indie developer Terry Cavanaugh’s Super Hexagon, Yellow Monkey Studios’ Huebrix has been fighting for the attention its developers believe the game truly deserves. We sat down with Yellow Monkey Studios’ founder and game designer Shailesh Prabhu to talk about the recent launch of their game, the struggle to break out of India to reach a global market and putting Indian indie game developers on the global map.

Made in Mumbai

If you get the game out there in front of people and they see a good solid game, they will take notice of you.

Huebrix’s success might also have a larger, unnoticed impact that many outside of India might be missing. It is giving many developers in India the hope they’ve always wanted: that it’s possible to reach a global audience outside of their own non-existing games market. ”We have now seen that if you get the game out there in front of people and they see a good solid game, they will take notice of you,” he argues. The game is being lauded by the local Indian game press as one of the few Indian games that reached out beyond its borders that the Indian game development community could be proud of. “The Indie Development scene in India is pretty nascent,” Prabhu says. “There are quite a few people who are interested and intrigued by the scene but not enough people actually doing proper work. We run a small Indie Game Development Facebook group here called LIGD; we have about 300 odd members, but maybe only 30 are active. Also, since the local market is virtually non-existent, most of the developers face the issue of actually reaching out and making their presence felt at the global level.”

Staying afloat

The obviously delighted Prabhu receiving the award for “Best Original Idea” for Yellow Monkey Studios’ game Just a Thought at the HoPlay 2011 video games festival in Bilbao, Spain.

Yellow Monkey Studios has been around for over five years. During this time, four members of its team managed to work on three games and release them. In 2007, the studio started off designing and pitching a Nintendo DS based point-and-click adventure called Mortley – A Stitch in Time to many publishers. Regardless of the good response, many seemed to be quite skeptical that an Indian indie studio could complete and polish a game for the DS. “Most publishers ended up telling us to complete the game and then they would see, but that meant a $100.000 US dollars risk for us, and we didn’t have that money,” he says. The launch of the Apple App Store around that time meant a new opportunity for the team and they quickly decided to move to developing games for iOS. The first project to come out of that endeavor was Finger Footie, a top view flick-based Soccer game. Like many other game developers, the team had to struggle to get the game some visibility. So for their second game, Shailesh and his team decided to do something that would definitely catch people’s attention.

The resulting game was It’s Just a Thought, which won them the “Best Original Idea” at the HoPlay 2011 video games festival in Bilbao, Spain. Yellow Monkey studios has been financed in the only possible way most aspiring game studios in Asia are able to: work for hire jobs. “We’ve had to go back to work for hire in between projects or sometimes even during them to pay the bills,” says Prabhu. “The award at HoPlay 2011 with It’s Just a Thought had a cash component to that which, along with the work-for-hire project we did, helped us stay afloat during the production of Huebrix.” Though sales for Huebrix are still growing, the game enjoyed a steady climb up both the iOS and Android charts and has pretty much covered its development costs. Shailesh and his team were recently able to attend their first ever game conference back in May this year, volunteering at the inaugural edition of Casual Connect Asia in Singapore. The event gave them their very first chance to show Huebrixto publishers and meet other international game developers. But after disappointing leads, they decided to release the game themselves after all.

Even in the age of the internet, I think people really do value you more if they know you and can put a face to an email ID.

“We don’t have any publishers who take games developed here to the global market and we don’t have any internationally-acclaimed game development awards or more than one conference here,” Prabhu tells. “Even in the age of the internet, I think people really do value you more if they know you and can put a face to an email ID. It’s financially not possible for us at this point to travel to all these conferences to be seen, but we are trying to do whatever we can.” And until now, that effort to establish direct and strong relationships with the international press has not been in vain.

‘Hindi’ PR at its best

Regardless of all trials and tribulations, Huebrix has become an important milestone for the Indian indie game development scene for reaching the global mobile market, setting higher standards for a game’s level of polish and achieve outstanding recognition by game media from all over the world. They also recently spoke about their journey developing and promoting Huebrixat India’s prime game conference, the Nasscom Game Developers Conference in Pune, India.

One of many art styles that were considered for Huebrix before the decision was made to go for the more slick & simplistic design the game has now.

Prabhu and his team simply did what any indie developer would, and should do. They involved a blogger in game development, and he made their work noticeable by actively posting about their development process. “I think staying active on these channels helped us get noticed by the right people at Apple and we have been able to get on the New and Noteworthy sections on launch day, and even get some promotional banners in some places,” Prabhu agrees. “That helped greatly with downloads. Besides that, we did press releases and had a proper media kit and promo codes ready for anyone who wanted to write a review. We sent those things out in advance specifying the release date and such. We didn’t really have any budgets for promotion.” But that didn’t stop them from being smart about PR & marketing. They were able to involve the well known and beloved indie-friendly PR expert Joseph Lieberman from VGSsmart glory, who assisted Yellow Monkey Studios in writing and spreading their press releases to the right media outlets. “He really loved the game and wanted to help us.” So far Yellow Monkey Studios’ efforts bore all the fruit they’ve hoped for. “We have risen to Rank 73 in iPhone games and Rank 28 in iPad Games on the iOS App Store, and we hope Huebrix will rise even more,” Shailesh says. “It is actually tough to launch on the same day as Avengers and Terry Cavanagh’s game Super Hexagon, but I hope we will still be seen by enough people.” Prabhu and his team also spread the word of the iOS and Android versions by getting a Flash version of Huebrix published on as many flash game portals as possible. Huebrix has been submitted to IGF China and the international IGF as well, and the game also became a finalist in the ‘Best International Game’ category for the Freeplay Awards 2012 held in Melbourne, Australia.

Huebrix’s statistics till this week have been around the following numbers Prabhu and his team were gracious enough to share with us:
iOS: 22k+ sales
iOS ratings: average of 4 out of 5 Stars
Android: over 600k Downloads confirmed by their Android-focused publisher.
Google Play ratings: 4.4 out of 5 Stars
Huebrix’s Flash version:
• 187k+ plays on Kongregate • 207k+ plays on Armor Games
• 38k+ plays on Newgrounds
Flash version ratings
• 3.7/5 (Kongregate) (9100 ratings)
• 4/5 (Newgrounds) (1500 ratings)
• 7.6/10 (Armor Games)

Following features on many popular mobile game websites such as PocketGamer.co.uk and being mentioned on TheGuardian.co.uk, reviews are also appearing on Appspy.com and TouchArcade.com. Huebrix even received a review on EDGE Magazine’s website (a 7/10), marking another giant step for the little Indian indie game studio. Though Huebrix’s Metacritic just went up to 76/100 (it was 74/100 a few weeks before), the young developers at Yellow Monkey are obviously overjoyed by the attention their game has been receiving.

Not the very first, but certainly not the last

Yellow Monkey Studios is currently planning their next title and have launched a major update for Huebrix today. They’re also adding a cool new update to Huebrix today that enables ‘Zen Mode’, a special mode for Color Blind people and the much delayed iPhone 5 graphics. Check out Huebrix for yourself here for iOS and here on Google Play.

Development

Nickelodeon’s Kevin Richardson on his career in animation, shifting to CD-ROMs, being outdoor, and producing with passion. (part 1)

February 21, 2011 — by Vlad Micu

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Kevin Richardson accepting the award he received by winning the Volkwagen Fun Theory contest with his Speed Camera Lottery idea
Kevin Richardson accepting the award he recently received after winning the Volkswagen Fun Theory contest with his Speed Camera Lottery idea.

“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.

Slo-mo Pinnochio

Richardson visiting artists at Wang Films in 1986 for Hanna Barbera for The Pound Puppies and Flintstone Kids
Richardson worked an entire year in Taipei with artists at Wang Films in 1986 for Hanna Barbera's The Pound Puppies and Flintstone Kids productions.

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.

The big title driving what you could do with content was The 7th Guest from Trilobyte studios.

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.”

CD-ROM Careershift

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Visiting multiple ghosttowns for his game was the perfect excuse for Richardson to head to the outdoors.

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.

I knew the shift to CD-ROM was a big opportunity because I knew no one knew how to do this.

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

One of Richardson’s many storyboards (there are tons) from an upcoming Ghost Town Mysteries game coming out at  the end of 2011 with him as one of the artists on the project.
One of Richardson’s many storyboards (there are tons) from an upcoming Ghost Town Mysteries game coming out at the end of 2011 with him as one of the artists on the project.

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.”

“A lot of entrepreneurs I know say it’s better to have no cash nor investors at all.”

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.”

Passionate Production

The end result of Richardson's visit to Bodie.
The end result of Richardson's visit to Bodie.

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.

“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.”

“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.

Studio Spotlight

Studio profile: Nikitova LCC in Kyiv

January 27, 2011 — by Vlad Micu

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Nikitova's Business Development Manager Natalia Makarova, VP of Strategy Maxim Zasov and CEO Olya Nikitova
Nikitova's Business Development Manager Natalia Makarova, VP of Strategy Maxim Zasov and CEO Olya Nikitova

Nikitova is not only one of the first art outsourcing studios in the Ukraine, but is now considered to be the largest game development services company in the Ukraine. They have built up quite the rep sheet with companies such as EA, Activision, Sony, Namco Networks, Oberon Media/Iplay, Trion Networks and Triumph Studios as their clients. Their main activities are not only art and engineering outsourcing for well-known titles, but also creating full games for PC and consoles. With the company prepping up to release a new line of casual downloadable titles themselves and a possible studio in China, we had the pleasure of paying their Kyiv studio a visit and find out how the company is dealing with moving from outsourcing to distributed development, what it’s like to have their own game development academy, befriending China and have a true 50/50 male/female ratio inside the office.

Distributed development > Outsourcing

Just when I visited the Nikitova offices, an entire new section was opened to accommodate a new division of programmers.
Just when I visited the Nikitova offices, an entire new section was opened to accommodate a new division of programmers.

Outsourcing has become quite the dirty word in Eastern European countries, even though it’s been one of the main livelihoods of most game studios based there. “Most of the studios here, they use outsourcing as help, to stay alive,” VP of Strategy Maxim Zasov says. At Nikitova’s offices, everyone has stopped talking about outsourcing and have started calling their work distributed development instead. “We feel that outsourcing is evolving into a more mature form of development service we see as distributed development,” President and CEO Olya Nikitova adds. “Clients started to realize that treating your development services partner as a part of their team will add a great value to the quality of the product . In certain ways, the team has to feel a sense of belonging.”

“They’ve finally started to realize that not treating us as a part of their team will influence the quality of the product as well. In certain ways, the team has to feel a sense of belonging.”

Vice president of production Michael Vatsovskiy has enjoyed the use of the word even more. His team has had a great boost in motivation seeing their names actually appear in the credits of some western games they’ve done distributed development on. “We are still something like 7 or 8 years behind software outsourcing,” he admits. “But with distributed development, in a production sense, we are partners now. It’s great for the team’s motivation.”

The Nikitova academy

 All the participants of the Nikitova academy receive a legitimate certificate once they graduate and the top candidates are offered to take up a position inside the company after graduation.
All the participants of the Nikitova academy receive a legitimate certificate once they graduate and the top candidates are offered to take up a position inside the company after graduation.

In 2006, Olya Nikitova decided to open a small game development academy to create more educational opportunities for young people in Ukraine that wanted to explore game development and become a part of an exciting industry. “Introducing something like an academy gives kids a chance to have a choice,” she explains. “If you compare it to the other job markets, game development itself is one of the highest paid industries here.” Nikitova’s academy is currently schooling 30 students at a time, testing people for their aptitude on both art and programming.

“We feel responsible for the lack of support for education on the government side.”

“We feel responsible for the lack of support for education in game development field on the government side,” she adds. “We aim to be a good example of a nice place to work, develop yourself and get excellent career growth opportunities.”

If you can’t beat em…

Senior staff inside the Nikitova offices can be easliy recognized by their abundance trophies and other spoils of battle.
Senior staff inside the Nikitova offices can be easliy recognized by their abundance of trophies and other spoils of battle.

With outsourcing to China becoming popular, even Nikitova is feeling pressure from the East. “They put a lot of money into education, and that counts as government-financed help,” President and CEO Olya Nikitova says. “So, that by itself requires us to be on our toes.” The challenge to keep costs down and retain a high-quality standard has become even bigger, especially since Ukrainian studios lack any kind of government support or quality education for game developers at all.

“You don’t compete with China, you just open up there.”

Aware of the quality of education and work in China, even an Ukrainian company like Nikitova is strongly considering to create a presence in China. The decision to open an office in China within the next six months is already on the table. “There are also advantages here [in the Ukraine] and the cultural connection is much closer to western clients,” Zasov adds. “You don’t compete with China, you just open up there.” The goal is to find a company that can complement their own skills and allow them to create a stronger international organization. “It’s a tendency for outsourcing companies to start and understand that we are stronger together than we are separately.”

Collaboration in Kyiv

Many starting game studios in Kyiv are founded by former employees who had their first taste of professional game development at Nikitova.
Many starting game studios in Kyiv are founded by former employees who had their first taste of professional game development at Nikitova.

According to many Ukranian developers, there appears to be a certain Ukrainian mentality still subconsciously active in the minds of some game studios that sharing information and being collaborative while exchanging ideas and visions is a bad thing. Five years ago, Olya Nikitova and some other developers took the initiative to start an IGDA chapter in Kyiv. “The idea of the IGDA chapter was to bring down those fences between studios and talk to each other to find the benefit,” she explains. “Anything that has a collective origin is always better than being individualistic. That has been my message for over 10 years.”

“The idea of the IGDA chapter was to bring down those fences between studios and talk to each other to find the benefit.”

For Olya Nikitova, it has become clear that in this day and age a collaborative attitude would allow her countrymen and women to achieve greater things than ever before. “You cannot stay by yourself, you need to look around,” she argues. “It’s all about being social. It’s a social environment, a social network: games for everyone.”

Girlpower

Nikitova's art department is dominated by female artists for a reason.
Nikitova's art department has recently provided art support for many big titles, inlcuding The Sims 3, Overlord I & II and Supreme Commander 2

Being at the head of her own company for almost 10 years, Olya Nikitova once took the plunge into the game industry after become tired or running a foreign exchange company. “I quickly realized it wasn’t my cup of tea,” she says. “I just like creativity and was looking for an industry that can get me inspired.” Applying her knowledge of how to start and run a business she aimed at game development industry with the goal of becoming a premium services provider and learn from the best game development companies creating best practices in the area game development outsourcing. The desire to learn has stayed with the company throughout its growth and has given Olya Nikitova the possibility to share attracts and fosters more female talent as well. The company possesses almost a 50/50 ratio of women in most of the teams in the company; a rather unseen feat for most western studios. “Being a female, and not being afraid to attract female talent, I have no reservation towards what females can do,” she says. ”The idea was to look at what women do best, because game development is such an abundant area where females can work.”

“Being a woman, and not being afraid to attract female talent, I have no reservation towards what women can do.”

Olya Nikitova especially noticed the value of a woman’s touch in the growth of her own art department. “Especially on the texture side, certain types of modeling work, certain assets, women flourish, they’re just so good at it,” She says. “They have better eyes and a better sense of color. Intuitively, they’re better on many levels. […] I really like the fact that women want to work in game development and aim to support it on every level.”

Nikitova recently celebrated it’s decade long existence. With one of Kyiv’s largest studios sharing her name, Olya Nikitova aims to move the company forward by letting her employees learn new things, make new new friends, explore opportunities and create their own story in the world of games.

Studio Spotlight

Studio Spotlight: Codeglue in Rotterdam

January 19, 2011 — by Vlad Micu

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Codeglue’s CEO Peter de Jong and CTO Maurice Sibrandi recently celebrated the very special occasion of running their studio for an entire decade. The two founders have been friends since highschool and went to higher technical college together to study computer science. Their close friendship led them to create their own game studio in the Netherlands, Codeglue, with a focus on mobile games and applications. We recently sat down to talk with both gentlemen about the celebratory occasion, developing CD-i games, early adopting XNA and balancing passion with need.

The Dutch pride of CD-i

De Jong: "Our collection of hand-held LCD games. Most of from our personal inventory. Yes, we are old-school."
De Jong: "Our collection of hand-held LCD games. Most of from our personal inventory. Yes, we are old-school."

Back when De Jong and Sibrandi were just starting with their technical engineering degrees, the Dutch company DIMA (‘Dutch Interactive Media Associates’, red.) paid a visit to our department and gave a presentation about internships to make games. “Maurice and I had similar interests, so we quickly decided to both do it,” De Jong recalls. “There was no Dutch game industry back then. There were some studios making CD-i games, that was it.” Already making games themselves on their Amigas, De Jong and Sibrandi didn’t have a breakthrough by themselves yet. In 1993 both decided to take on that internship and work on CD-i titles.

After graduating from university, the duo continued to work at DIMA. Back then the company became well-known for producing some of the more popular CD-i games. The studio’s main objective was to produce low-budget CD-i games in relatively short production times. While at DIMA, de Jong and Sibrandi worked on titles such as Family Games, Christmas Chrisis and Christmas Country. The studio would later go independent and rename itself to ‘Creative Media’ after Philips pulled the plug from it’s CD-i production.

Glued together

Codeglue's artist Tom Rutjens hard at work
Codeglue's artist Tom Rutjens hard at work

When CD-i became unpopular, De Jong and Sibrandi spent a couple of years working IT jobs. In 2000, the dynamic duo took the step to found their own company and started working in the evening hours. In 2002, they finally took the step to go full-time with the company and focus on mobile game development. A lot of games were developed in cooperation with Dutch developer Two Tribes, who gained international fame with their Toki Tori franchise.

“We were always lucky that we were allowed to concentrate on the main reference handsets, which were only between 6-12 different types,” De Jong recalls. “The publisher would then deal with the other 380 types.” The number of handsets would later end up reaching far beyond 12, which forced De Jong and Sibrandi to seriously reconsider the company’s direction.

“We spent more time porting and adapting games than working on the gameplay.”

“We spent more time porting and adapting games than working on the gameplay,” he added. Codeglue would also start focusing on mobile multiplayer games. “We tried it together with a publisher, but the market clearly wasn’t ready for it. The operators had a lot of problems between them, communication went wrong, problems. The attempt did show a lot of promise.”

In 2007, the Codeglue team started working on Rocket Riot, their award winning XBLA title. “We spent the first half year trying to make it a mobile title, but it didn’t really fit with the concept,” De Jong recalls. “So we decided to turn it into a Xbox Live Arcade title.”

The team continued to build a prototype, pitched it to several publishers and Microsoft. “After the third time we talked to Microsoft, we were green lighted and received a slot on Xbox Live arcade,” At that time, we could’ve just published the game ourselves, but we needed the money to develop the game in the first place. We talked to publishers such as Ubisoft, THQ and Konami. All three were interested in the game, but also because we scored a slot with Microsoft. THQ was the fastest and most concrete with their contract. Their conditions were ok, so we partnered up with THQ.”

The XNA early adopter

Codeglue
The original Rocket Riot team standing inside the Microsoft booth during a Dutch game event. Rocket Riot was playable on 8 displays. Gears of War 2 only had 2.

When Codeglue actually started working with XNA, the toolset was barely out of it’s beta stage. “It’s a very cool technology and we had no problems making the game, but we experienced some serious delays during development.” Riot eventually took two years to develop.

Due to the delay, the project also became a financial challenge for the studio. With a full focus on Rocket Riot, alternative revenue streams were also found in making iPhone games. “Apple changed the market in one blow,” De Jong argues. “Offering fast mobile Internet made it a common thing with a flat fee.” Tackling the upcoming market, Codeglue used it’s mobile game know-how to dive into iPhone development. “While the industry was in a heavy dip, developing for the iPhone helped us get through that gloomy period.”

“While the industry was in a heavy dip, developing for the iPhone helped us get through that gloomy period.”

Codeglue currently spends a hefty portion of their office hours working on Playstation Home assets. “This also was the result of the financial crisis at first,” De Jong explains. “It became more serious and we’ve developed more things in Playstation Home.” Codeglue recently also received their own store inside Sony’s online service to sell their assets. The plan is to continue with developing for PS Home while it is still generating a satisfying revenue rate.

One would think that there is no real market for micro transactions on Home, but Codeglue has proven otherwise. The service packs quite the crowd. “Very few numbers have been made public,” De Jong admits. “We can’t tell you anything about the ones we know, but you’d be amazed how many people use it.” For Codeglue as a small developer, the hundreds of thousands of monthly unique visitors is good enough to keep developing for Sony’s virtual world.

“We’ve always worked with the publisher/developer model.” De Jong says. “But small developers like us have to focus on reaching the consumer directly instead.We have to start making sense of marketing and other things to go from developer to developer/publisher.” The Playstation Home store one of the first baby steps that is bringing the company closer towards that goal.

Balancing passion with need

One of Codeglue's special Playstation Home items for Christmas was the popular 'Santa on a Reindeer' costume
One of Codeglue's special Playstation Home items for Christmas was the popular 'Santa on a Reindeer' costume

The work on Playstation Home has changed from a financial supplement into a creative output for Codeglue. “We’re in the phase of going back to devote ourselves to developing what we want,” De Jong confirms. “It’s been a tough period. We’ve talked to the entire team about the need to sometimes work on things that are less fun than developing your own game. Everyone knew about the situation and the financial crisis. I’m just happy we were able to keep everyone together and avoid any problems.”

De Jong sees Codeglue’s future in expanding the studio’s horizon to other platforms, creating separate units that focus on either PSN, XBLA, mobile and Facebook. “Our ambition is to develop a cross-platform game,” De Jong admits. “Not something stand-alone on the iPhone, but something that really connects.”

“Having one successful XBLA title in their pocket sadly isn’t enough to give any publisher enough confidence to work with you.”

Codeglue second step towards becoming directly connect with their consumers is their development of Ibb and Obb in cooperation with the small Dutch indie studio Sparpweed. “It’s our first project on PSN, so it will be quite the learning experience,” De Jong admits. “Having one successful XBLA title in their pocket sadly isn’t enough to give any publisher enough confidence to work with you.”

Going the digital way

Ibb and Obb are actually named after two characters in Jasper Fforde’s “The Well of Lost Plots”.
Ibb and Obb are actually named after two characters in Jasper Fforde’s novel 'The Well of Lost Plots'.

The adventure to build their first XBLA title with an unfinished XNA toolset brought about some wise lessons for Codeglue. “Next time we’re working on a project and a fancy new technology strolls by, we’ll make sure it’s proven before,” De Jong says. “We could’ve chosen to use the Unity engine to make a PSN title, but something like that hasn’t come out yet. I’d like to wait see one or two Unity based games come out first, so I know for sure that the worst wrinkles in the software are dealt with. Somebody else will have fixed it, saving you a lot of time and money in the process. My advice to other small devs is to wait and use technology that is already proven. If you’re the first and can experience the marketing push from Unity as well, it might result in something positive. Then again, that’s not a luxury we can all enjoy.”

“I’d like to wait see one or two Unity based games come out first, so I know for sure that the worst wrinkles in the software are dealt with.”

The Rocket Riot project ended up teaching their technical staff a lot as well. “It was very stimulating for our programmers,” De Jong admits. “They were able to work directly with the technical staff from Microsoft, you’re involved both technically and innovatively with the toolset. But if you have to run a company, it’s not the wisest of decisions.”

Over the hill

Co-founder and CTO Maurice Sibrandi enjoying some coffee from his 'limited edition' Rocket Riot mug.
Co-founder and CTO Maurice Sibrandi enjoying some coffee from his 'limited edition' Rocket Riot mug.

After ten years, it becomes clear the way De Jong and Sibrandi shaped Codeglue was strongly based on the ups and downs they’ve had in their personal working experience after they spent their initial entry in games within small multimedia studios with small creative teams. “We even ended up rolling into IT for three to four years,” De Jong recalls. “We had a company phone, car and laptop, the works. The environment simply didn’t fit us.”

With founding Codelgue, De Jong and Sibrandi strived to have a fun workplace where creative people would feel at home. The original Rocket Riot, published by THQ, sadly did not receive a very big push by the publisher itself. As a result, De Jong and his team decided to connect with the game press themselves. With success. Rocket Riot ended up attaining critical acclaim, a solid 8.0 on Metacritic and very positive reviews by media outlets such as IGN, Gamespot and Giant Bomb.

“We tried to connect with the game press ourselves, arranged a lot of reviews and competitions,” De Jong recalls. “We were lucky to also receive great reviews.”

The experience with THQ have given De Jong a solid idea of how he would do it himself. In this day and age, a direct connection with the consumer isn’t that hard to attain anymore, even for a relatively small studio as Codeglue. The consideration to self-publish has culminated into the development of Ibb and Obb. “We operate very openly and show our audience the first prototypes on Facebook, trying to get people to follow us,” De Jong says. “With Rocket Riot, we were relatively late with this and tried to still hype the game after launch.”

Self-publishing

De Jong and his colleagues recently moved to a cosy new office
De Jong and his colleagues recently moved to a cozy new office in the center of Rotterdam.

Pitching the original prototype for Rocket Riot and building up a relationship with Microsoft in the first place wasn’t a typical walk in the park for the studio. Luckily, the deal with THQ allowed Codeglue to keep the rights to the IP and resulted in Rocket Riot coming to Windows 7 Mobile and an upcoming version for the iPad.

“We walked around with the prototype for almost a year.”

“We walked around with the prototype for almost a year,” De Jong admits. It took us quite some time. Do visit the big international events like the GDC, E3 and Gamescom. Approach the publishers. That’s where you get the most business, especially if you want to work with a major publisher.”

De Jong simply reached out to different publishers by e-mail, with success. “It always works,” he says. “There’s always someone at an event looking for a new project. It’s never impossible to end up with the right person there.”

With the desire to take over publishing themselves, the need for Codeglue to find the necessary funds and internal structure to facilitate that is higher than ever. De Jong hopes that the sales on Playstation Home will fuel that desire significantly.

Codeglue is currently working on Ibb & Obb for PSN in collaboration with Sparpweed.

Image credits:  Else Kramer assigned by the Rotterdam Media Commission

Exclusive Interviews

Gazillion’s Stuart Moulder on being a product person, loving casual and what two decades of expertise can get you

January 5, 2011 — by Vlad Micu

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Stuart Moulder
After almost a decade of being in executive and managerial positions at companies like Microsoft, WildTangent, Screenlife and most recently Gazillion Entertainment, industry veteran Stuart Moulder is now traveling the world in search of a new challenge. “If I was a corporate, political kind of person, then that was right,” Moulder says about his previous positions. “But I’m a product person. I came into the industry because I liked games.” We sat down with Moulder during Casual Connect Kyiv to talk about his interest in casual games, how big franchises can wear you out and the value of Western game professionals in Eastern Europe.

Stuart <3 Casual

age-of-empires-2
Did you know? Korea once threatened to arrest the GM of Microsoft Korea. The reason being that the “history” used in Age of Empires for the Yamato (Japanese) campaign was derived from Japanese sources. It did not portray the historical events accurately, at least not from the Korean perspective.

In 2003, Moulder realized that he had very little opportunity at Microsoft  to have any real impact on the games he worked with, Moulder quickly considered finding a new challenge. After a year of ‘detoxing’ as a consultant, Moulder joined WildTangent full time. “They were a casual game company and that was pretty interesting to me.”

Probably because as I had gotten older and had a family, my own playstyle incorporated more casual game types. I think that hardcore gamers in their 30s and 40s are all pretty similar that, most of them want to be good parents and have a balanced lifestyle, and they don’t want to give up too much time for gaming.

Moulder believes casual games have been a great answer for gamers who’s lives have changed, but still have a passion for gaming. It later became one of the reasons Moulder got involved with Screenlife, who would later bring their Scene It? franchise to the Xbox 360 and several mobile phone platforms. Moulder moved over to Gazillion in 2009, but left the studio last summer because his job ended up being a lot like his previous position at Microsoft. “You have that amount of management responsibility, that the amount that you can affect game development is pretty modest,” he recalls. “The other thing that I was struggling with was that Gazillion was founded on the old online model of having a high concept or a great license and then building a rich Warcraft-like MMO.”

“Even when you do three-year games that are successful, it actually wears on you.”

Moulder soon found himself uncomfortable with that model and the estimated development times of two to three years per product. “But it’s usually four to five years or more,” Moulder says. “It didn’t feel like they were able to throw aside the work that they’ve done and shift gears to try and reinvent themselves.”

Now that the business aspect of monetizing online, social and casual games has become more developed, Moulder is on the hunt for potential partners. For a product-oriented person like himself, the idea of rapidly working out the core gameplay and marketing it quickly is golden.

Close Combat
Moulder: "When Microsoft decided to stop publishing the Close Combat series of games, we gave the rights to the series name to Atomic Games for free. Additional titles in the series were created and published subsequently without any obligation to Microsoft – an all too rare example of publisher magnanimity."

“You’re not stuck with the same for two, three or four years only to have it not be a success in the marketplace,” Stuart argues. Recounting his own motivation to orient himself to another direction, Moulder remembers recognizing the same kind of fatigue one can get from those kind of projects in the eyes of many developers he previously worked with at Microsoft.

“Even when you do three-year games that are successful, it actually wears on you,” Stuart says. “Part of why Bungie left Microsoft was that all Microsoft cared about was more Halo. The people who started on Halo in 1997 have been doing that same basic game for over ten years–in some cases, more than half of their lives. It’s hard to feel like you’re job is creative and innovative when you’re working on something for so long.”

XP points

Halo: Combat Evolved
Did you know? The hardware choices for the original Xbox to have a Nvidia GPU and Intel CPU were only finalized a week prior to the deadline that was set to reach the holiday period of 2001. The Intel choice was a last minute reversal of plans, which was imposed from above based on larger Microsoft/Intel relationship considerations.

Moulder’s search for the right partners has also led him to Eastern Europe on multiple occasions where many developers are very much interested in western developers for their expertise and experience. “Their games are a very solid top 10% kind of quality, but it’s definitely not that top 1%,” Moulder argues. “It’s like wine tasting, where there are people that taste wine and can really tell. […] I think the talent is there. What they need is people who can transfer that knowledge and can partner with them.”

According to Moulder, the expertise he and many other western industry professionals have acquired could play a key role for talented Eastern European developers to significantly improve their business. “It’s the polish, the tuning and the feel,” he says. “You can talk about it, but it does take a certain articulation beyond ‘it wasn’t fun’. That’s what twenty to thirty years of playing and developing games gets you.”

“Nintendo has done this in the past, where they’ve worked with a non-Japanese developer.”

Moulder admits to be surprised that Western publishers seem to rarely send experienced professionals and producers to provide assistance to their Eastern European partners. Having consulted several companies in the region himself, Moulder suggests more publishers should build on such a model. “Nintendo has done this in the past, where they’ve worked with a non-Japanese developer,” Moulder recalls. “The best-known one was Rare. They would bring them into Kyoto and Myamoto-san would have them in their shop as kind of apprentices if you will. They would take the game through its next stage of development in their environment. […] Rare could go back and could deliver that level of quality of their own.”

Carrying with him a wealth of experience in managing development teams behind big-budget titles, Stuart Moulder is but one of many industry veterans who have happily embraced the shift to more rapidly developed, iterative and smaller size projects in the casual and social game sphere. That shift has struck more and more developers all around the industry, who are now roaming the world in search of new projects to challenge them.

As for Moulder himself, he is currently doing full-time consulting at Gazillion’s Netdevil studio in Colorado, where he is working with the teams of both Lego Universe and Jumpgate Evolution.

BusinessExclusive Interviews

Easy Studios’ Ben Cousins on Avoiding Disasters, Building a Career in Games, the Sacrifices for Control and the Benefit of Being First (part 2)

December 31, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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Ben Cousins
Ben Cousins

In the first part of his interview, EA’s general manager Ben Cousins looked back at his career in digital, turning an experiment into a separate business unit, why he never ever wants to go back to retail and shared some very valuable wisdom from his time as a producer. In this second part, we continue to talk about his lessons learned as a producer, building a career in games, the sacrifices needed to gain more control and the opportunities of being first.

Avoiding disaster

A glimpse of the fancy glass decorations inside the Easy Studios offices
A glimpse of the marvelous view over the city of Stockholm from the Easy Studios office.

Cousins has had his share of both good and bad projects in his career, but found one returning element that marked all the bad ones. “The bad projects were ones where the leaders of the team were changing their minds,” he argues. “You need to pick the right goal, communicate that goal very clearly and stick to that communication all the way through the project.” According to Cousins, the trick is to stick to those initial decisions with a “real laser focus” and not let yourself, your team and even your boss be distracted by anything else. “You have a lot of responsibilities as a vision holder to maintain that focus,” he adds. “Make sure that the team implements and perform based on that end-goal rather than what they want to do or what the latest flavor of the month in the industry is.”

“You need to pick the right goal, communicate that goal very clearly and stick to that communication all the way through the project.”

Another point of advice that Cousins stressed throughout his own career, is the need to make sure all the key players on your projects are very generously rewarded for helping the project and team stay focused enough to reach the project’ s goals successfully. “People need to understand that they get rewards for their work,” he argues. “That’s kind of the loop I like to see.”

Leveling up

No game studio can go without the all mighty power of the Post-It
No game studio can go without the all mighty power of the Post-It.

The early start of Cousins’ career might look  familiar to many producers in the industry. In 1999, Cousins started out as a QA tester on several N64 and Playstation titles at Acclaim Entertainment. He later ended up as an artist on Sabrina the Teenage Witch: A Twitch in Time by Asylum Entertainment, followed by his first job as a lead designer on a canceled prehistoric action-adventure game at Lionhead studios. “Between being a tester and then being at Sony in charge of a project, that felt like a really fast journey,” Cousins recalls. “Then it felt like it slowed down, but it probably hasn’t.”

One of the key moments in those early days came when he was unexpected laid off from his QA job after Acclaim Entertainment was closed down. “It’s generally when you move companies when you see those key moments,” Cousins recalls. Me might have ended up staying in QA much longer if he hadn’t been forced to look for a new job. “There wasn’t any QA work or any good QA teams around in London at that time, so I was forced to take on a junior production role instead,” he explains. This change was completely unexpected, but not unwelcome either. “I haven’t been on a career plan, it just happened,” Cousins says.  “When I entered the game industry, I just wanted to be a level designer. That was my end goal. I hadn’t been driven by anything other than helping out and filling the gaps where I saw them.”

“If you trust your judgement and you think you won’t be very good in the company you’re working at and you don’t think you’ll be able to change that, you should just leave.”

Nevertheless, Cousins embraced the change of direction. It happened again after the project at Lionhead studios that he was heading eventually got canceled. The following move to Sony gave his career another upwards swing. “One regret that I had was not leaving Lionhead earlier,” Cousins admits. “If I had left Lionhead after one year instead of two, I would’ve gone to Sony and I would’ve been involved with the EyeToy much earlier. That would’ve been a better learning experience for me.”

While addressing this, Cousins wanted to share a similar piece of advice with our readers on the matter of personal judgement and timing. “If you trust your judgement and you think you won’t be very good in the company you’re working at and you don’t think you’ll be able to change that, you should just leave,” he suggests. “There’s always a better opportunity somewhere else.” The promotion to a GM came as a pleasant surprise, but didn’t require Cousins to apply any pressure from his behalf. “The main thing I would say is that, I have never specifically asked for a promotion,” he admits. “I’ve never asked to change my job title or get more responsibilities. It’s always been offered to me. Either the person above me had too much work to do or they sucked and I think I can help out that person or in that situation, I’d just do the work. I don’t even ask permission, I just start doing the work.”

Cousins’ methods, modesty and openness to help his peers seem to have worked in his favor, making him quite popular within the EA ranks. “I don’t ask for a promotion when I take on more responsibility, I just take it on,” he says. “I’ve always said yes to people when they staid ‘Ben, can you deal with this’? That has hopefully given my bosses a fair amount of faith in me. That’s probably why I’ve been promoted several times.”

GMing is like playing the guitar

The Easy Studios recreational room.  Note the fancy carpet.
The Easy Studios recreational room. Note the fancy carpet.

Becoming the general manager of Easy studios wasn’t an easy task for Cousins and required quite the amount of learning new tricks and reinvention on his behalf. It demanded the greatest sacrifice of all: giving up the tight involvement he enjoyed as a producer. Cousins offers a simple analogy to explain his experience with this change. “I used to be a musician and play the drums. I gave it up, even though I loved playing the drums. Drummers never get their songs listened to by the band. If you’re a drummer and you come to the band with a song idea, they never listen to you. You’re just the drummer. So I gave up playing the drums and started playing guitar so I could have my ideas heard better and I could have more control.” This is what Cousins also did with his career.

Though game design was always a passion for him and he’d always wanted to be a game designer, he quickly I realized the position would not give him what he wanted. “I quickly learned that the game designer didn’t really make the decisions or had enough control in order to really follow through on a complete vision. In order to take up that responsibility which gives you complete control, you have to learn more about the business. You have to think from a total leadership, rather than just the design.” So once again Cousins gave up what he loved in order to be able to make a bigger impact on his projects and have the degree of control he’s always wanted. “The business knowledge is not naturally where I excel,” Cousins admits. “I have to make an effort in doing that.”

“I think that sometimes you need to walk away from what you love in order to grow.”

For Cousins, the recent years as a GM have forced him to learn that and many other new things. But as he says himself, “It’s the learning and growing that is most rewarding.” With his creative nature, Cousins does not have a hard time have fresh ideas come to him naturally. Even though he has things come to him naturally, the river of creative ideas had lost its shine over time. “What is rewarding is understanding metrics, a business plan or creating a change which increases your profitability, because that’s all new for me,” he says. “I think that sometimes you need to walk away from what you love in order to grow.”

The Next Challenge

The outside view of the Easy Studios office building located in Stockholm, Sweden
The outside view of the Easy Studios office building located in the center of Stockholm, Sweden.

During his last four years at EA, Cousins decided to leave packaged goods behind him and fully devoted himself to free-to-play and digitally distributed games. In that time, his team’s efforts behind Battlefield Heroes paid off, showed EA that the market for this type of games had grown tremendously got him a promotion in return. “We’re stepping out of the exploration stage now and moving into the growth stage,” Cousins says. “The next step in my career is going to be about exploiting this knowledge from the research and development stage I’ve gone through and really use that to grow and turn this into a really big business. I may not have changed job title, or the kind of work I do, but there’s going to be more games, bigger games and a more mature organization.”

”If you’re always the first, you’re the guy with the most knowledge and experience.”

The freedom Cousins and his fellow colleagues enjoyed while pioneering this new business model within EA was not a given, but an unexpected treasure of opportunity. According to Cousins, this was caused by two reasons.

“We were always the guys in the icebreaker,” he recalls. “We were first and had more knowledge than anybody from day one. The first time I sat down with Johny Mang, who was our business guru for our games, we knew more than anyone else in EA about the Western world’s free-to-play business. If you’re always the first, you’re the guy with the most knowledge and experience.” The second reason for the freedom Cousin’s team enjoyed was that EA didn’t have a structure ready to operate online games. “So we had to build our own structure,” Cousins says. “If you’re doing something typical, which is standardized, you’re within the confines of an existing organization in terms of publishing, legal, finance, marketing, etcera. But because EA couldn’t offer us any support. We were doing something so new that we were forced to create our own organization. And when you have your own organization, you have more freedom to design it as you see fit.”

Cousins and his team over at Easy Studios are still making good use of that freedom while hard at work with the closed beta of Battlefield Play4Free, the newest addition to EA’s Play4Free brand. Cousins will also be speaking at this year’s Casual Connect Europe about the topic of getting EA ready for free-to-play gaming.

Development

Redlynx’s Antti Ilvessuo on their Multi-platform Background, Tuning to Perfection, Staying Indie and the Future of Digital

December 29, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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The Trials HD team near launch with Ilvessuo standing second from the right
The Trials HD team near launch with Ilvessuo standing second from the right

Having just finished the Big Thrills downloadable content pack for Trials HD, RedLynx’s Creative Director, Antti Ilvessuo (2nd from the right), takes some time to talk with us about the multi-platform background of the company, keeping their financial and creative independence, managing growth and what lies after digital.

Exclusive InterviewsPR & Marketing

Gearbox’s Steve Gibson on the catharsis of Borderlands and promoting a legend

December 13, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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Having joined Gearbox two years ago, VP of Marketing Steve Gibson found himself in the middle of the studio’s structural change that allowed for daring and adventurous projects such as Borderlands and more recently the further development of Duke Nukem: Forever. We sat down with Gibson to talk about the upbeat atmosphere at the Gearbox headquarters, the catharsis of Borderlands and promoting Duke Nukem: Forever.

This life-size Claptrap replica lives in the Gearbox lobby where it provides companionship to both visitors and the office’s receptionist.

When Gibson entered the marketing team at Gearbox around the same time Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway was released, he found himself inside a studio that was going through structural changes. “I can’t speak for everybody at the studio, obviously,” Gibson admits. “But the impression I have is that for a lot of years Gearbox was working within the confines of the Half-Life universe. With the Brothers in Arms franchise, the confines were in making a new world plausible and authentic. So there was a lot of structure to the design, the characters and everything else.”

Witnessing the studio freeing itself from a strict structure demanded by the franchises they’d worked on, Gibson noticed that the Borderlands project proved to be more than just a creative change of pace. “Borderlands ended up acting as a catharsis,” Gibson argues. “I think a big part is the way Borderlands started and the way it ended. People were still rolling out of the strict structure of what they’d been doing for the past five-plus years.”

Having ‘the look’

Gibson and his marketing team in action with ‘Minister of Art’ Brian Cozzens (left)

Even though Borderlands started out with a strict mindset, Gibson noticed the development team gradually realized the potential of its new found freedom. “It got wilder and wilder,” Gibson recalls. “The art style bubbled up from this new freedom and everything started feeling like fun and games.”

”One of the hardest parts of the job when trying to get people to look at games is having something that is interesting to look at.”

Experiencing so many changes from a PR & marketing perspective might be hard to handle, but Gibson says otherwise. “It made my job a lot easier,” he admits, “It did!.” Everybody had to look. “One of the hardest parts of the job when trying to get people to look at games is having something that is interesting to look at. Just in the fact that we did a very dramatic change, which was perceived to be late in development, everybody was looking.” While the perception of rapid change got everyone looking at Borderlands, Gibson fully focused his efforts on showing the press and public the quality of the game.

It’s alive!

Pitchford and Gibson
Pitchford and Gibson charting the course ahead towards a Merry Christmas, followed by a bright and prosperous 2011.

During this interview, Gibson and Gearbox President Randy Pitchford were presenting Duke Nukem: Forever to the Dutch press during the Firstlook game event in Amsterdam, taking their first step of a long and tiresome press trip all around Europe. “I remember working on a website ten or twelve years ago and thinking that this game is going to come out one day soon,” Gibson recalls. “Ten years later, I’m still working at a website thinking this game is never coming out.”

Finding yourself managing the marketing of that same project a couple of years later was summed up by Gibson in one word: “Surreal”. “I think is a lot what we say,” Gibson admits. “In our department, we had a couple of guys work on the press release to announce it for the first time. Every few minutes we’d stop and be like ‘I can’t believe I’m working on this’. To be on that flipside, is just absolutely crazy. It’s hard to describe.”

“Everybody has a story of how they interacted with this game, sometime, somehow.”

Promoting Duke Nukem: Forever, Gibson found himself in the rare situation of promoting a legend that had already touched almost everyone he met. “Everybody had a story of how they interacted with this game, sometime, somehow,” Gibson says. “Different publishers, different developers, all kinds of people passed through it. It’s been really weird running into a guy that tells me ‘Hey, I worked on that concept seven years ago. It looks completely different, but I did want to do it in a stadium’.”

Duke Rising

A towering Duke banner with a tiny Steve Gibson below it

Gibson faced a big challenge keeping everything secret during this year’s PAX gaming expo. “We knew word was going to leak that it was coming,” Gibson recalls. “But we had this panel that was on Sunday, we had an investor call the day before. All those things would point that we would make an announcement.”

“There are some things that people talk a lot about, even if it was from a long time ago.”

The big secret would eventually be preserved until the final moment. Duke Nukem: Forever would be hands-on playable at PAX. The revelation of not only its existence, but the actual witness accounts of it being playable resulted in the game’s title topping all Twitter trends and catching the world’s attention in one big blow.

Legacy of Duke

Gibson suddenly points to a random gamer trying out the Duke Nukem: Forever demo next to us during our conversation. “This guy was 4 years old when Duke came out. He’s enjoying it, he stood in line to play it!” The legacy of Duke seems to have continued on. “Star Wars also lived on through parents down to their kids,” Gibson argues. “There are some things that people talk a lot about, even if it was from a long time ago.”

Calling the atmosphere at the Gearbox offices ‘giddy’ and admitting to having to force his own colleagues from the marketing department to go home late at night to catch some sleep, Gibson is currently enjoying a rare commodity for many PR & marketing folks out there: promoting a legend.

Business

Easy Studios’ Ben Cousins on pioneering free-to-play at EA, his career in digital and how to be the best producer you can possibly be (part 1)

December 9, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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Joining EA at the roaring times of the publisher’s early interest in free to play titles, Ben Cousins was able to quickly rise in rank and devise the publisher’s strategy towards the free to play market. Now that he’s a general manager of the new free to play business unit at Easy Studios in Stockholm, Cousins looks back with Gamesauce at his career in digital, turning an experiment into a separate business unit, how he never wants to back to retail and some very valuable wisdom from his time as a producer.

At the front of free-to-play

Battleforge
EA Phenomic's free-to-play RTS and card game Battleforge was one of the first titles under EA's new Play 4 Free brand.

“Franchises have their own financial goals, but they’re generally not as explicit as a business unit,” Cousins explains about his position as a GM. “Because I’m a separate business unit, I can look at all of the money coming in and out of the studio and I’m driven by profit levels on that. It’s much more like running a business.”

Two years before his promotion, Cousins found himself working at EA during pretty interesting times. The big publisher had just gotten interested in the [free-to-play] business models in their dealings with a Korean company called Neowiz. EA ended up buying a portion of the company in early 2007. Starting working in 2006 with Neowiz on a version of Fifa Online for Korea.

“EA was probably one of the major publishers who had the most mature relationship with Korean companies,” Cousins recalls. “EA being very aggressive about growth always and Activision in particular had managed to buy themselves quite a bit of insight into the free to play market in South Korea. Then this quickly transformed into an experimental phase within the company, where they started to think ‘maybe we could do free to play versions of our games in the Western worlds’ , which was at that time completely unheard of and completely exotic idea.”

“That was an interesting transformation to go from being kind of a skunk works style research and development organization to being something that was completely a key way of EA to learn how to operate in this digital age that we’re in.”

As a result, several products were started up to test the waters. The earliest two being Battleforge and Battlefield Heroes. “But then very quickly, as the virtual goods business started to kick off in the Western world around 2009, we went from being an experimental group of people kind of messing around with a business model, to being something quite important to the company,” Cousins says. “That was an interesting transformation to go from being kind of a skunk works style research and development organization to being something that was completely a key way of EA to learn how to operate in this digital age that we’re in.”

Nice timing, Ben

Battlefield Heroes
According to EA, Battlefield Heroes ended up having 3 million registered users six months after it's initial release.

Finding a place within DICE as a senior producer for Battlefield Heroes, Cousins had already had his taste of working on digital products. “I had come to EA from Sony and the last project I’d worked on at Sony was Playstation Home, which is obviously a free virtual world monetized by both advertisers and a micro transaction element,” Cousins explains. “When I moved to EA, there was an opportunity to work with Neowiz on [Battlefield Heroes]. So I kind of chose to continue that path in digital distribution rather than packaged goods. Maybe I was in the right place in the right time, but I also made a conscious decision that I didn’t want to work in packaged goods and I got no interest in entering that space again.”

”I think long term about my career and there isn’t going to be very many interesting jobs in packaged goods in a five to ten year timeline.”

The choice to remain on digital was quickly made after the huge success of Battlefield Heroes. When Cousins saw the opportunity to remain at the vanguard of EA’s move in the digital space, he was quick to take it. “I think long term about my career and there isn’t going to be very many interesting jobs in packaged goods in a five to ten year timeline,” he argues. “I think that people who have experience in digital distribution early are going to be the guys best prepared for future. I would characterize it like this. In 1998, who would you rather have been working for, iTunes or Warner Brothers Music? One of those is growing very quickly and the other is declining. We’re in that similar reflection point in the game industry now. Do you want go digital or do you want to be part of the old guard?”

Close customers

Easy Studios team
The Easy Studios development team knows how to take group pictures. We also salute the man who made the effort to bring his shotgun to the office for this picture.

One of the most rewarding aspect for Cousins has been the direct connection with the customer. Working on the Battlefield franchise, blessed with a very active and enthusiastic community of players, a digital title such as Battlefield Heroes only brought him closer to his customers. “People talk about this a lot, but it’s a generational leap from what we have with packaged goods,” he argues. “You never really meet the customer, you don’t know anything about them. The only time you really learn anything about them is when you do very specific market research.”

“Don’t be scared of the competition. Don’t be intimidated by the competition. Just work towards your goals and don’t get rattled by happenings in your market.”

With those vibrant communities in all of the games, Cousins found a great source of what players say and are thinking. “My e-mail address is also public to all the users of our games and they can contact me directly,” he adds. “I have several key members of the community that I talk to on a regular basis.” When Cousins and his team decided to change the prices behind the microtransaction payment model of Battlefield Heroes in late 2009, many players were outraged. Cousins ended up receiving up to 200-300 e-mails in the course of a week. Though the game’s community was in uproar for quite some time about this, the changes eventually worked in favor of the game and resulted in a substantial growth in revenue.

Part of making sure these changes were effective was the result of the very quality focused culture of DICE. “It’s actually a culture where everyone in the company wants to produce the right quality,” Cousins explains. “There’s a sense of innovation and risk taking, which I haven’t seen in others companies. They’re willing to take their chances and really think big.”
Cousins also has some pretty good advise from his time at DICE. “Don’t be scared of the competition. Don’t be intimidated by the competition. Just work towards your goals and don’t get rattled by happenings in your market.”

Producers as leaders

Battlefield Play 4 Free
Easy Studios has currently started the closed beta with Battlefield Play 4 Free after starting work on the project in early 2010. Go check it out. It's free!

With a career spanning from QA jobs to becoming executive producer on DICE’s Battlefield franchise, Cousins has traveled an all to familiar path for many game professionals these days. Looking back at his time as a producer, he recounts some of the most valuable lessons he learned in the trenches himself.

“The first thing you have to do is you need to be honest of what your capabilities are and where the edges of your capabilities are.”

“The first thing you have to do is you need to be honest of what your capabilities are and where the edges of your capabilities are,” Cousins argues. “As a producer, I was terrible at planning and really bad at task tracking, dates and organizing the team. I always delegated that to a good project manager. The way EA is structured is that development directors do the organizing of the team, the tools and the technology. Producers work in much more of a leadership role. That worked very well for me. So I was able to hand off large portions of responsibility to various members of the team.”

The structure Cousins encountered at EA made it a perfect fit for him. Equipped will all this self-knowledge, it enabled him to focus on the stuff that he believed he was best at.

“What I try to focus on as a producer is first of all, hitting the right strategy,” he adds. ”Making sure that you, from the get go, create the right game and that you take into account all of relevant information to make that decision correct. So, consumer data, knowledge of the market place, knowledge what the company is good and bad at. You need to get all the right information and then make some seriously well informed decisions of what you’re doing and what’s important about it.”

X marks the spot

Lord of Ultima
Lord of Ultima is launching a huge update this week, which will include the game's dramatic endgame.

In his first months moving over from Great Britain to Sweden, Cousins started out as a creative director at DICE working on several new concepts for the studio.

”If you waiver from those initial decisions and statement intent, then disaster ensues.”

In the years that followed, Cousins was also able to devise a formula with his team that kept them focused on achieving a high grade of quality by concentrating on only the most important elements of their projects. “So you start out having an ‘X’,” he explains. “The ‘X’ is a one phrase description of what you’re doing, which everyone can rally around. Then you pick key areas of focus, which are the things that really matter in your game. Once you pick those, you have to stick to them.You have to just trust that you made the right decisions early on. If you waiver from those initial decisions and statement intent, then disaster ensues.”

The second part of Cousins’ interview will be published next week, including tales about preventing projects from going wrong, him looking back at his early beginnings in the game industry, picking the time to move companies and moving from development to business.

In the meanwhile, everyone is invited to check out some brand new updates and holiday specials in Battlefield Heroes and Lord of Ultima.

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