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Development

Uvula’s Keita Takahashi on looking beyond videogames, making sacrifices and convincing developers to look beyond platforms

December 3, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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Keita Takahashi
Keita Takahashi giving his keynote during the Game in the City conference in the Netherlands

Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi is working on more than games and loving it. Stirring up dust after leaving Namco Bandai last year, he and his wife Asuka Sakai are tending to their own company Uvula with a focus on music and games. We sat down with Takahashi to talk about his remaining interest for video games, making sacrifices for change and how developers should look beyond making games.

Having left Namco Bandai last year, Takahashi wanted to clarify that he has not completely given up on wanting to make video games. “I don’t feel that my ideas that have to do with video games have dried up or are limited in any way,” he says. “It’s just limited in the fact that I have more diverse interests now.” Before leaving Namco Bandai, Takahashi also considered his previous career move from sculptor to game designer not so much a change of direction, but a change of method. “For me personally, this is an increase in options.”

Breaking your model

As for his perspective on the current state of the game industry, Takahashi believes that game developers are limiting themselves because of the platform they are developing on and they have become too dependent on the technology they are working with. During his keynote at the Game in the City conference, Takahashi had already suggested that game developers go back to the basics. “Why are you making games in the first place?,” he says. “Go back and think about that question.”

”You need sacrifice to change.”

“I have no fear of making sacrifices,” Takahashi says. “Making things is all about how much you give up. For example, a game is team work. You have an image of your game that is perfect, but to realize it for one hundred percent is impossible. It’s all about which parts you give up. And it’s not so much that I’m used to sacrifice, but just that I believe it’s normal. You need sacrifice to change.”

Noby Noby Boy artwork
Takahashi wanted Noby Noby Boy "to reflect an ironic point of view about our consumption-based society".

As for leaving Namco Bandai last year, Takahashi was very surprised how it became such big news. As much as it was scary to quit his job there, Takahashi was also scared of staying. “As you stay longer in a company, you become management level,” he says. “And then it’s all about repetition, what you did before and what the company has done before. You see your creativity decrease and this was scary for me.”

While both staying and leaving Namco Bandai had its ups and downs, Takahashi chose the latter because it would offer him more options in his future. The longer he had stayed at Namco Bandai, the less he became involved with the direct development of games and was given a more managerial position instead. “In January, I had my first baby, so that was also quite scary,” he adds.

Outside the box

Takahashi trying out the student game Super Crate Box during the Game in the City conference

Through his numerous talks, Takahashi has tried to share his vision on being creative, not limiting yourself to a platform’s graphical capabilities and challenging his audience to try out new things. He very much enjoys speaking at conferences because of the warmth, interest and patience the audience gives him, but not without wanting to get his message through.

“This might make me sound cool, but I always challenge the norm.”

“This might make me sound cool, but I always challenge the norm,” Takahashi says. “I don’t have an innocent mind, when I hear something, I wonder how it can really be.”

Convincing other developers to think outside the box like that has been tough and quite the challenge. “It’s the most difficult part,” he admits. “I’ve always told stories about myself and how I became me, this is what I’ve become because of all these things.”

Keita Takahashi currently has plans to redesign a playground in Nottingham City’s Woodthorpe Grange Park. He also mentioned to have an interest in creating a first person shooter that does not revolve around violence.

Keita can be reached at keita.takahashi@gamesauce.org.

Press

Meet the press: Ukraine’s Alexander Ptitsa

November 15, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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Alexander PtitsaWorking at ITC publishing for 11 years, Alexander Ptitsa is not only a well-known journalist in Ukraine, but he also witnessed and covered the growth of the Ukranian game industry before it even existed. We sat down with him to talk about how he first got started as a new media and game journalist, his contribution to the Ukranian game industry and the state of the Ukranian game market.

Heritage

Alexander Ptitsa with Peter Molyneux
Alexander Ptitsa with Lionhead Studios' Peter Molyneux

Both of Ptitsa’s parents used to be well known journalists in their time. His father was the chief editor of a sports magazine and his mother was an editor at a magazine for Ukranian women. After graduating from Kiev State University with a Physics degree, Ptitsa used to teach information technologies at a pedagogical college and some other schools through-out the 80’s and early 90’s. While teaching young children about working with computers, Ptitsa paid a growing amount of attention to videogames. “I’m very curious about everything,” he says. “Since my childhood, I liked to acquire new information about everything in the world.” No wonder computer games quickly became one of his hobbies, besides of his passion of teaching. He started playing old adventures on the PC such as Leisure Suit Larry and Monkey Island.

“Since my childhood, I liked to acquire new information about everything in the world.”

In the Ukraine, the first console that were massively available were cheap clones of the 8 Bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Ptitsa bought it for his daughter, but ended up playing it together with her. The Sega Megadrive followed soon. In those times, the only games that were available in the Ukraine for both consoles and PC were all pirated. Step by step, legal versions started to appear in stores.

“When the Internet started to become available my country, I was hooked,” Ptitsa admits. “It was my dream to have access to all that information. In 1996, he got his first Internet connection.” In the spring of 1997, Ptitsa made his first website, which was called ‘webbird’. It also became his first online nickname, reflecting his own last name which means ‘bird’ in Russian. He used his website to review news and interesting topics from the Internet on a weekly basis and visitors kept coming back for more. “At that time in the Russian language segment of the Internet, there was a trend to post reviews of the web,” Ptitsa explains. “Some reviewers even created kind of trade union, called Ezhe.ru.”

Pioneering

Alexander Ptitsa with Sid Meier
Alexander Ptitsa with Firaxis' Sid Meier

Most of the websites that became popular alongside’s Ptitsa’s own were also run by hobbyists. In autumn of 1997, Ptitsa realized a lot of people were interested in videogames as well and started devoting himself completely to the topic. “There wasn’t enough reliable information about games, so I started a game site called Gammer,” Ptitsa explains. “It was one of the first Russian language game sites, along with quake.spb.ru and some others. I updated the site regularly and got in touch with some of the Russian and Ukranian developers.” Alexander’s writing did not go unnoticed at Ukraine’s biggest IT-magazine publisher ITC publishing.

ITC publishing already knew Ptitsa from his online activities and made him a good offer to join their editorial staff. He was invited write some game reviews for a magazine called ‘Computer Review’, where also he ended up working the pilot version of Domashny PK (PC for Home). Ptitsa has been working for the latter magazine ever since. ITC also started to send Ptitsa to various international events around the world, allowing him to expand his international network and getting some of the first interviews with key figures in the game industry that were published in Russian. Among them were BioWare’s Ray Muzyka, Quantic Dreams’ David Cage and others.

Seeing the industry grow

Alexander Ptitsa with Ray Muzyka
Alexander Ptitsa with BioWare's Ray Muzyka

In 1998, Ptitsa would also end up helping GSC Game World receive their first taste of international fame. The Kyiv based game studio would later become known for their Cossacks and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchises. “When the GSC Game World CEO Sergiy Grygorovych decided to visit Milia 1998, a big multimedia and game show in Cannes, he invited me as his interpreter and for PR,” Ptitsa recalls. “He didn’t know English and he wasn’t able to explain the features of the game to the people who were going to see the game at his small stand.”

Ptitsa gladly joined the young CEO to get the first version of Cossacks the attention it needed. One of the first things Ptitsa did, was bring the people from Gamespot to Sergey’s booth to see the game. Ptitsa was also able to have Microsoft’s Ed Fries, people from Infogrames and other publishers bring a visit to GSC Game World’s small stand. The rest is history.

The Ukranian games market

Alexander Ptitsa with Ubisoft's Antoine Henry
Alexander Ptitsa with Ubisoft's Antoine Henry

Though the game market in Ukraine has been plagued by piracy for over a decade, Ptitsa has seen an increase of interest in the purchase of legal copies. “Legal games give consumers more possibilities for DLC, online gaming and so on,” he explains. “In the console sector, the situation is rather strange,” he admits. Ptitsa would later show me some game shops, where both the legal and pirated versions are displayed side by side. The latter, of course, being rather cheaper. While there is no official market for the Xbox 360 and Wii in the Ukraine, both consoles can be bought with mod-chips already installed inside of them.

“ I think that traditionally our gamers like good graphics and some of them prefer good graphics over good gameplay.”

The Playstation 3, thanks to its disc-protection not having been cracked yet, is the only console of which only the original games are sold of. Interestingly enough, this has resulted prices being higher for Playstation 3 games than in the west. As far as Ptitsa has seen and heard himself, the majority of consumers still prefer pirated copies. “The PSP is more popular than the DS here,” Ptitsa adds. “ I think that traditionally our gamers like good graphics and some of them prefer good graphics over good gameplay. That’s why a lot of them don’t even know about the great games on the DS.” Because of the higher prices of original games and his dislike of pirated versions, Ptitsa himself prefers to buy his games during his visits abroad and from online stores.

Ptitsa’s magazine has quite the challenge ahead of them. Recently Ptitsa is no longer a regular member of the Domashny PK (PC For Home) staff, but has been assigned to a freelance position instead. ITC Publishing took that measure in order to become more profitable.

Studio Spotlight

Studio Spotlight: GSC Game World in Kyiv

November 12, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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GSC Game World’s PR director Oleg Yavorsky in front of the studio's prize cabinet
GSC Game World’s PR director Oleg Yavorsky in front of the studio's prize cabinet

It’s not easy to be the most popular developer in Ukraine. GSC Game World not only attained international recognition through their Cossacks and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchises, but the studio also quickly became notorious for having educated many young Ukranian game developers. GSC’s former employees can be found in many game companies across and outside the Ukraine. We sat down with GSC Game World’s PR director Oleg Yavorsky to talk about GSC’s past, present and future.

Walking through the main hallway of GSC Game World’s offices outside the city center of Kyiv, it was hard to ignore the sewing workshop where two ladies were vigorously working on some type of clothing. “That’s our new line of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. clothes,” Yavorsky tells me. A few minutes later, he’s trying on some of the ‘prototypes’ to show off GSC’s new line of fashion for fans and community of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise. CEO Sergiy Grygorovych went beyond the call of duty to show off the early clothing prototypes to the community, doing a damn fine job at it if you ask us!

Pissing off Blizzard

Yavorsky and Grygorovych promoting Cossacks during the Milia multimedia show in 2001
Yavorsky and Grygorovych showing Cossacks at their booth during the Milia multimedia show in 2001

Grygorovych started the company at the young age of 16 in 1997, with a small team of friends that were around the same age. Struggling with slow computers and little access to games, the team tried to find whatever they could get their hands on. “Back then, there was a big desire and ambition to create our own games,” Yavorsky says. “That was the ultimate goal.” Young Grygorovych and his team got their first jobs building multimedia encyclopedias, translating other games and making edutainment titles to create their first capital.

“We tried to approach Blizzard with this idea and offer them our service, but they didn’t treat us seriously and even got offended.”

“Our boss is a big fan of strategy games so that was our first big desire,” Yavorsky says. Following the releases of games such as Warcraft 1 & 2 and Age of Empires, Grygorovych’s ambition was to create a new kind of game engine that would become the equivalent of Warcraft 3. “We actually took the graphics from Warcraft 2 and put it into our own technology, which allowed us to have 8000 humans and orcs on the screen at the same time,” Yavorsky says. “In the first Age of Empires, you could have 50 units on a screen and the second allowed around 200, but our engine allowed 8000 units on the screen at the same time. We tried to approach Blizzard with this idea and offer them our service, but they didn’t treat us seriously and even got offended.”

The Cossacks dance

“He was only 16 years old and around him were all the big companies like Blizzard, Activision, Electronic Arts, Atari and so on.”

The idea of creating the next Warcraft was pushed aside. “We had an idea of creating a historical real-time strategy game based on that engine,” Yavorsky says. “We wanted to be proud of our country and it seemed a good opportunity to showcase the country internationally, because not many people knew what Ukraine was.” GSC Game World would go on to involve their national pride and Ukrainian heritage into what would later become Cossacks. In 1998, Sergiy Grygorovych rented a small booth at the Milia multimedia and game show in Cannes. Joined by well known Ukranian new media and game journalist Alex Ptitsa, Grygorovych showed the Cossacks demo on one small computer. The small demo only featured the three nations of Russia, Ukraine and Europe (as one nation). The technology was so good, that it attracted a lot of attention from publishers. “For Sergiy, as he recollects now, that was the best show,” Yavorsky admits. “He was only 16 years old and around him were all the big companies like Blizzard, Activision, Electronic Arts, Atari and so on. He was overwhelmed and impressed.”

However, nobody would make an offer to Grygorovych because his company was a start-up. “Many companies were kind of reluctant to make a serious deal,” Yavorsky recalls. “Ultimately, we ended up signing with a start-up publisher from Germany called CDV. We were about 25-30 people, and they were about the same size.” CDV would go on and suggest multiple improvements to Cossacks, including growing the number of nations to 16.

The GSC guys posing with John Romero during E3 2002
The GSC guys posing with John Romero during E3 2002

Cossacks was just on time and the right thing to offer to the market.” Yavorsky adds. The game would result in both CDV and GSC Game World becoming known around the world. The game was originally built by just 12 people at GSC headquarters. As a start-up, the company was also working on two other projects, a racing game called Hover Ace and a first person shooter named Venom: Codename: Outbreak. “We didn’t know which game would be our best hit,” Yavorsky admits. “At that time, we though it would be Hover Race, but Cossacks would eventually become number one.”

After Cossacks, GSC continued to work on the other two. After that, the company decided to stick with working on strategy games and first person shooters.
“We were lucky to have every second title we released be successful for us,” Yavorsky says. GSC would eventually end up only specializing in developing real-time strategy and first person shooters, resulting in sequels to Cossacks and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise.

A warm nest

The GSC Game World team

The international and national recognition GSC has received in the years since Cossacks was released did not only bring in a lot of money, but also new people. As the Netherlands once had their Guerrilla studios, Germany had Crytek and the Ukraine had GSC Game World. Once the word was out that GSC had plans to grow, young Ukranian game makers flocked to the company trying to get a job working on the Cossacks of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise.

“By now, if you take basically any game development studio here in Kyiv they will have some of the people that at some point used to work for us.”

“By now, if you take basically any game development studio here in Kyiv they will have some of the people that at some point used to work for us,” Yavorsky argues. Throughout the 7-year development of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, over 100 people were involved in the production of the game. “Very few people ended up staying throughout those years of trial and error.”

Alright stop, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. time!

The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. dev team visiting Chernobyl for research
The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. dev team visiting Chernobyl for research

The development of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl was plagued by hardships, delays and other struggles. “The last couple of years were very hard,” Yavorsky admits. “People were obviously tired of the very long work on the same project.”

When S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was first announced, the game instantly received a lot of attention by the international game press. “We became instantly famous, expected and awaited because it was revolutionary in many respects,” Yavorsky recounts. “Internally, it was prestigious to work on S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. We had two big teams at that time, one strategy team and one action team that worked on S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. I think, internally, the strategy team was a little bit envious of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. team, because they were working on such a top level project.”

It was kind of a miracle to have the forces left internally to finish the game completely and get it out.

According to Yavorsky the sense of prestige also had its downturns. The heightened ambition and the desire to put everything in one game resulted in the game becoming bloated. “Because of our lack of experience to release such a big project, a lot of errors and mistakes were made,” Yavorsky admits. By the fifth year of development, after postponing the title several times, Yavorsky’s job as PR director wasn’t getting any easier. The community who once supported and loved GSC Game World, started to turn against the company. “We saw them already hating us, for not releasing the game for so many years and constantly promising to release it,” Yavorsky says. ”There was a lot of pressure both internally, from the outside and the publisher who wanted to get the game out. At some point, we were even on the verge of breakdown and closing the project. It was kind of a miracle to have the forces left internally to finish the game completely and get it out.

Fact: Tchernobyl has enjoyed a substantial increase in attention from tourists since S.T.A.L.K.E.R. came out
Fact: Tchernobyl has enjoyed a substantial increase in attention from tourists since S.T.A.L.K.E.R. came out

The delay caused GSC to perform some serious cuts to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. In the last year of its development, THQ sent a producer to help. “His basic role was to get the project finished,” Yavorsky says. The possibility to drive vehicles, certain monsters and even entire levels were consequently cut from the game, only to later be uncovered inside the game’s code by fanatic modders. “We eventually managed to release a unique atmosphere which still made S.T.A.L.K.E.R. stand out from other games,” Yavorksy adds. With such a hardship behind them, the core team that remained continued onward to create the latest two S.T.A.L.K.E.R. titles, Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat. “With the later S.T.A.L.K.E.R. releases it was a lot easier for us because the team was already well prepared for such a game,” Yavorsky says. “They knew it well and the engine was stable, which made us much stronger.”

“We don’t have any universities that teach you game design.”

As with many other game studios in the Ukraine, GSC had the daunting task during S.T.A.L.K.E.R. of educating their own developers. “We don’t have any universities that teach you game design,” Yavorsky says.”The industry here is at least 10 years younger than other parts of the world. Ultimately, we had to learn by ourselves. Our personal approach is something that we developed through our own designs and experiments.”

National pride

In 2009, GSC Game World organised an event and live concert for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fans on the Independence Square in Kyiv
In 2009, GSC Game World organized an event and live concert for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fans on the Independence Square in Kyiv

Both the Cossacks and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchises show off GSC’s focus on their own home turf and heritage. According to Yavorsky, it was always obvious to base the themes of their games on their own culture and country. “We grew up here, we know how things work here and we know what the world looks like here,” Yavorsky argues. “We don’t know much about LA or London or other parts of the world.”

The dark and gloomy style of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. took many people by surprise and sparked a lot of curiosity. GSC took a lot of effort in the game to offer people a look at the areas surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, reconstructing some of the areas into the smallest detail.

”So Ubisoft had to bring in their own artist who used to correct the gamma on screen and make the picture look nicer and brighter, more appealing to western players.”

Though the palet and art style sparked interest for some games and definitely set them apart from their Western counterparts, it wasn’t always so well received. GSC was contracted by Ubisoft to work on a tie-in game for the Alexander movie starring Colin Farrell, but Ubisoft wasn’t satisfied with GSC’s choice of palet. “Ubisoft believed the picture on screen looked very gray and gloomy, which is, by the way, a very common tendency for local games,” Yavorsky says. “They look very dark. It’s probably some kind of national thing, how our artists see color. Maybe because our lives used to be so gray and gloomy we like darker kinds of things. So Ubisoft had to bring in their own artist who used to correct the gamma on screen and make the picture look nicer and brighter, more appealing to Western players.”

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.S. vs. pirates

The GSC team eat pirates for breakfast!
The GSC team back in 1998

Catering so much to their own country and Eastern Europe, GSC has also had its share of problems because of piracy. The company’s games are released much earlier in Eastern Europe than in the West for that specific reason. “We actually get all our pirated games from the west,” Yavorsky says. “Because they get delivered to the western stores by the publishers like two weeks earlier to end up on the shelves at retail stores.” The early availability of games at retail causes the game to be cracked before it would even be released in the west. “Then by the time it’s released in the west, we would already have it here on the market sold, pirated and translated into Russian,” he adds.

“We would be presenting their pirated games and very often they would be holding a game that isn’t out on their own market yet and our players can already buy and play.”

When receiving western publishers at their offices, Yavorksy and his team would regularly make fun of them with their own titles. “We would be presenting their pirated games and very often they would be holding a game that isn’t out on their own market yet and our players can already buy and play.”

The earlier release of GSC’s games in Eastern Europe also only features the Russian language, limiting any use of the game for any westerners that would consider downloading the game. Catering to a very fanatic community of Stalker fans called ‘Ya Stalker’, (http://yastalker.com/home.php) Yavorsky also noticed a growing amount of support from the local fans. “We saw a lot of people on forums blaming other people for not buying a legal copy to support the local developer,” he says. “There was some kind of local pride.”

Fighting piracy is never an easy thing in the Ukraine, but even GSC has been directly involved in the crackdown of pirates. “Sometimes we succeed, actually doing some successful raids with police to seize a batch of pirated discs,” Yavorsky says. “For the police to do that, they need a lawsuit case. They need the right-holder to actually claim his rights were being violated. So we need to be involved directly to get this help.”

Yavorsky giving me a tour of the GSC's facilities
Yavorsky giving me a tour of GSC Game World's office facilities

The bigger problem GSC and other developers are facing is that people frequently can not distinguish the legal copy from the elaborately designed illegal one. Sometimes copies are even completely mimicked up to the exact cardboard box casing, validation stickers, booklets and extra’s. “The local pirate industry has been very mature, it’s not a problem for them,” Yavorksy argues. “They will just fake it being a licensed copy.” As a result, players have repeatedly contacted GSC with complaints about the lack of a legitimate key in their game to access the online capabilities, only to be pointed to the illegal nature of their copy.

Beyond S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

“I personally don’t want GSC being associated only with S.T.A.L.K.E.R., because we have so many other ideas and projects and titles.”

Even for GSC, the need to put their own country and fellow game developers on the global map has become very important. As one of the bigger studios in the Ukraine that grew out of an ambition and desire to learn, new talent is constantly needed to fill the ranks.

“You have to train a new person to fit in the team, to get to know the technology, understand the engine, work with our own technology, instruments and tools,” Yavorsky says. “And you have to find people willing to learn and master it. So of course we have to sometimes baby-sit our new personnel, but that’s the way it happens.” Even today, many new game studios are still founded by people leaving bigger companies like GSC to find their own fortune and fame. It’s the circle of life for game developers in many Eastern European countries that lack the necessary government support and education. “We want the Ukraine to become a center for the production of games, special effects for the movie industry needs,” Yavorsky says. ”Because the talent is definitely here and we have the experience.”

GSC’s CEO Sergiy Grygorovych launching his secret career as a clothing model.
GSC’s CEO Sergiy Grygorovych launching his secret career as a fashion model.

In the meanwhile, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise is now reaching a peak of attention around the world. GSC Game World is making good use of it by promoting S.T.A.L.K.E.R. novels, a TV series pilot and even a clothing line. With a brand new engine specially intended for their S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 project currently in development, some developers at GSC are also looking forward to new ideas and projects to challenge themselves creatively once more, including Yavorsky himself. “I personally don’t want GSC being associated only with S.T.A.L.K.E.R., because we have so many other ideas and projects and titles,” Yavorsky argues. “Personally, I’d love to see Cossacks back in development.”

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 is currently in development by GSC Game World and has been scheduled for release in 2012.

PR & Marketing

Nevosoft’s Julia Lebedeva on creative PR, reviewing games and developers from Mars

November 10, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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Nevosoft's Julia Lebedeva“I never imagined that I would work at an IT company,” Nevosoft’s PR manager Julia Lebedeva admits. Before joining Nevosoft and making her first plunge into the games biz, Lebedeva was a radio talkshow host at the Europe Pulse radio station in Tomsk, Siberia. “But now I’m here, I feel like it was my fate. I loved radio, for sure, but games are another field of entertainment. Like with listening to radio, people who play our games feel better, feel happier.” We sat down with the lively miss Lebedeva to talk about her creative PR work, reviewing games and making games for women.

Express yourself

Julia Lebedeva and her colleagues posing with the 2010 'best TYYCON/Sim Game of the year' Great Games Award  for Nevosoft's 'My Kingdom for the Princess'
Julia Lebedeva and her colleagues posing with the 2010 'best TYYCON/Sim Game of the year' Great Games Award for Nevosoft's My Kingdom for the Princess

When Lebedeva joined Russian casual game developer Nevosoft as a public relations manager, she was fresh out of her job at the radio station and looking for a new challenge.

”I have experience in another entertainment sphere and it let me bring ideas from another angle, a completely new perspective than what they were used to.”

”I didn’t have much experience in this sphere, but they hired me because they wanted a creative person,” she recalls. ”A person with ideas. That’s the great thing about Nevosoft. I have experience in another entertainment sphere and my job let me bring ideas from another angle, a completely new perspective than what they were used to.”

Catering to a very broad demographic due to Nevosoft’s casual titles, Lebedeva made sure she took every opportunity to come up new ideas that appealed to the developer’s loyal customers.

The game reviewer

Julia Lebedeva in the office's studio she set up to record her game reviews in
Julia Lebedeva in the office's studio she set up to record her game reviews in.

“The greatest thing about working at Nevosoft is that the guys, the bosses, the directors, they are really open to all ideas,” Lebedeva admits. Most recently, Lebedeva started making reviews of the games that are launched on Nevosoft’s own game portal, partially returning to the ambience of her old radio studio. “It was just an idea, I offered to do it and they said, ‘Ok, do it’. It has been pretty successful.” Lebedeva’s reviews not only turned her into a popular figure within Nevosoft.ru’s own community of approximately 600,000 Russian speaking registered users, but has rewarded her with hundreds of comments about her work by the community and thousands of views on her reviews on YouTube.

“People appreciate this honesty.”

Aside from purchasing professional gear and building a small studio in the Nevosoft office, Lebedeva takes her reviewing work very seriously. The reviews consist of a weekly top three of the four games Nevosoft releases each week, which she plays extensively to write up the biggest pros and cons of each project. “I try to show it from different angles,” she says. “People appreciate this honesty.”

Social engagement

Supercow, one of Nevosoft's mascots, doing the voice work for his own game.
Supercow, one of Nevosoft's mascots, doing the voice work for her own game.

The Nevosoft.ru website Lebedeva publishes her reviews on has turned into a full-fledged social network of players in the past couple of years. ”They write really great reviews of games,” she adds. Her reviews have proven to not only maintain that level of engagement, but spark a lot more in the process when Lebedeva sometimes quotes users on their reviews. “They’re happy that they are appreciated, valued and it even makes them want to write better and better,” she admits. Users can blog, play and do other activities that other users can give points for, resulting in a constructive community that Lebedeva has to deal with. “I think it’s important that they have this opportunity to give each other plusses or minuses on their activities.”

“I’m trying to make people know us and love us.”

Like any creative person, Lebedeva is not a fan of routine work. Talking to press and writing press releases are an acceptable part of the job, but hasn’t stopped her from looking for something that makes her proud of her work. Since her first game review video in June, the effort required to make her reviews hasn’t lost it’s flair. According to Lebedeva, one of the reasons it hasn’t become boring is the positive responses she’s received from the Nevosoft.ru community, closely reminding her of her own days at the radio station. The number of comments Lebedeva receives on her reviews and the Nevosoft development blog are easily comparable to any popular international game website. “I’m trying to make people know us and love us,” she admits.

No routine

Julia Lebedeva invited the winner of a competition (lady with the mushroom hat) on the Nevosoft.ru portal to receive her prize - a digital camera.

Most PR people would be surprised by the directions Lebedeva has taken in her job as a PR manager. But after seeing the results of her work, the success of her engaging and personal approach to PR is undeniable. “There’s always something new,” Lebedeva argues. But that’s not all. Lebedeva combines her PR work with being the partner relations manager at Nevosoft. “I’m looking for non-Russian developers who want to explore the Russian speaking market,” she says.

”Russian users really hate badly translated games.”

Her work with foreign developers doesn’t stop there, since Lebedeva also does the localization for projects that need to be translated into Russian. Her love for languages and a job as a translator during her last year of college took care of that for her. “Some people just translate the words, but the context is the most important thing,” argues Lebedeva. “To localize a game, you have to play it and like it. For me, it’ a matter of honor. Russian users really hate badly translated games.” Because of the expense of professionally localizing voice-over tracks for casual games, Lebedeva is currently also considering taking on this task. “I have my own microphone, I can do it,” she says. “It wouldn’t be for the money, I just like it.” Lebedeva can’t be happier about her job, which she feels was made for her.

Developers from Mars

“How do you guys, who do not understand our logic, thoughts and needs, make games for us to enjoy?”

When Lebedeva sat down to talk with us about her work at Nevosoft, she had just given a talk at Casual Connect Kyiv appropriately titled ‘What Martians Don’t Know? Mistakes Made by Alien Invaders.’ Her talk was the result of asking herself who actually made the games she was reviewing for the Nevosoft community. As an experiment, Lebedeva counted the game credits from 50 games. She found that 95% of the developers working on the casual games for the Nevosoft.ru portal are male, while more than 83% of Nevosoft.ru’s users are female.

Based on John Grey’s famous book, Lebedeva concluded that she was dealing with developers that truly came from Mars, while all the players come from Venus. So she asked herself “How do you guys, who do not understand our logic, thoughts and needs, make games for us to enjoy?” With a strong sense that this has lead to mistakes in some games, Lebedeva decided to prove her thesis by interviewing a large group of female Nevosoft.ru community members. “I took a camera and went to the streets to interview girls,” she recounts. “Then I invited some users from our portal to our offices.” She ended up spending three full weeks conducting interviews and making videos at the office, teaching herself how to operate a camera and edit videos.

Lebedeva presented her findings during her Casual Connect Kyiv presentation a couple of weeks ago. Most of the games directed at girls that Lebedeva looked at ended up being largely based on female stereotypes and had some design mistakes. In real life blonde girls turned out not to love pink, male characters could look more cute and hidden object games could use objects which are more familiar to women instead of wrenches or other power tools. Lebedeva also stole the show at Casual Connect when she turned the tables on all the male developers by showing a video where she asked the same female community members what the game developers looked like.

All the results of Lebedeva’s inquiries are available on the Nevosoft YouTube channel.

Development

Playfish’s Jeferson Valadares on teams as business units, social game evolution and managing the company’s culture

November 9, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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Playfish London’s studio director Jeferson Valadares and his team have a big task ahead of them. Their mission: figure out what’s next for social games. For Valadares, that means bringing out more social emotions and narrative in games. “The first generation was about competition and leaderboards, but the second generation is more about self-expression,” says Valadares. “We’re still waiting to see what is going to be next and how to make use of the changing user experience on Facebook.” We sat down with him to talk about teams as business units, the next step in social game evolution and managing a company’s culture worldwide.

Little big teams

“Instead of doing something with ten people you are just colleagues with, why don’t you do something with three people you’re friends with.”

“We spend a lot of time experimenting on our live games,” says Valadares. “Every week, there’s always something new in a game. The benefit of having a lot of games and big audience is that you can try these things out in different games and see what works.” With each team at Playfish managing their game as a small business unit, this process allows them to easily find out which new features work well. The individual teams then take the successful features and appropriate them into their own game.

Fifa Superstars

“There are teams that are starting new games now, and these are the teams that are trying different types of game concepts,” says Valadares. One of those new teams at Valadares’ studio has started to take a more collaborative approach to playing social games. According to Valadares, the goal was to figure out how this could minimize the amount of friends playing a social game, but increase the social relationship between them. “Instead of doing something with ten people you are just colleagues with, why don’t you do something with three people you’re friends with,” explains Valadares.

Quality > quantity

“When the space gets this big, there is space for people to do some unique things which might not be for everyone.”

With an increasing amount of game companies focusing on social games, the social game space has experienced exponential growth in the past couple of years.
Valadares sees the positive side of this growth, not only encouraging his own colleagues to experiment more, but also hoping to see more of that around him.
“When the space gets this big, there is space for people to do some unique things which might not be for everyone,” he argues. “But there are enough people who are interested in that to be successful.”

Aside from experimentation, Valadares is also noticing a rise in projects that involve cooperative game modes. Whether or not that could translate into social games is still not clear. “It could be,” says Valadares. “I’m not sure whether that’s going to happen in the short-term though, just because the more high-end you get, the more computing you need. Unless we move to things like OnLive, where you don’t need a strong computer when those things take off, then we’ll see social high-end as well.”

Fresh inspiration

Pet Society
“Sometimes we look at board games,” admits Valadares. “The value of having good writing, a good story. It’s something that is really compelling to people in general.” There are lots of things Valadares would like to see in the social space. “A really great story-based game, because a story is something that is very strong for humans, always has been, and I suspect always will be. So how can we weave that in with the social experience more strongly? There have been a few shallow attempts.”

Playfish culture

“We’re still trying to grow while maintaining the creative spirit that we had in the beginning.”

Undergoing substantial growth, Valadares’ studio in London is very much struggling to keep their corporate culture in place. “We’ve been growing a lot, there are maybe three people who have left in the last year or so,” says Valadares. “I think that’s pretty good. We’re still hiring a lot. I think the company is four times bigger then when I joined, which was a little over a year ago.”

Because of that growth, Valadares has been constantly asking himself “how we can celebrate success and not forget the reason we do things.” With new offices starting in different areas of the world, a lot of Playfish people are moving around trying to maintain that same culture everywhere. “In London, everybody kind of sees what’s happening, but it’s harder to keep the other studios connected,” admits Valadares. “We’re still trying to grow while maintaining the creative spirit that we had in the beginning.”

But baring in mind the particular cultures of the regions each Playfish office is located in, some of those cultural variations should also be encouraged. “In China, the guys in the office like their particular games,” explains Valadares. “In the past, we tried to make them do Western games, but what we actually realized is that they’re better doing what they understand. That’s exactly why we have an office in the US, Europe and Asia.”

While it’s clear a lot is cooking at their various international offices, Playfish hasn’t made any new announcements about it’s future projects yet that we can mention down here. Here’s hoping it’s going to be as fun as their previous projects!

Studio Spotlight

Studio Spotlight: Vogster Entertainment in Kyiv

November 5, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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Maxim Novikov“We started from a small apartment just to show our investors from the US that we were able to assemble a team and start a studio,” Vogster Entertainment’s head of development Maxim Novikov tells me while he gives me a tour of their Kyiv studio. “Our first big idea was to create a GTA MMO.” The studio’s new two story office has CrimeCraft posters everywhere, housing 86 people while 15 others are located in the New Jersey office on the other side of the world. Looking down on the Kyiv skyline, we sat down and talked about the lessons learned from making CrimeCraft, housing US developers in Kyiv and why the Ukraine needs its next blockbuster since S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl.

Development

THQ Digital UK’s Don Whiteford on big studios going from retail to digital, borrowing brands, and making publishers see money in digital downloadable.

November 2, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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“We looked at Idle Minds, the makers of Pain,” THQ Digital UK’s creative director Don Whiteford tells me when I asked him where he looked for examples of developers that understand digital downloadable games. “They’re listening to the customers, they’re learning and they’re feeding it back to make it an enjoyable experience and keep that thing going.” Currently heading the Red Faction: Battlegrounds project, Whiteford hopes to show THQ the greater value of developing digital games in smaller teams with more rapid development cycles. He sat down with Gamesauce to talk about his findings, the challenges of adapting a game studio to developing digital downloadable games and how a publisher like THQ has a growing interest in it too.

Studio Spotlight

Studio Spotlight: Frogwares in Kyiv

November 1, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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Frogwares's Pascal Ensenat, Anna Poperko, Olga Ryzhko and Volodymyr Gorodnychyi
Frogwares's Pascal Ensenat, Anna Poperko, Olga Ryzhko and Volodymyr Gorodnychyi

Celebrating a full decade of development this year, Frogwares has become one of the largest independent game development studios in the Ukraine. Though they’re known for their multi-platform adventure titles starring Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, their new ventures into casual games and even an MMORTS are just getting the momentum they deserve. We paid Frogwares’s studio in Kyiv a visit and found out how the company is dealing with all these new projects, while still sticking to their adventure game roots.

PR & Marketing

Bethesda’s Pete Hines on his PR philosophies, finding the right people and how sincerity sells.

October 19, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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Celebrating 11 years of hard work at one of the fastest growing publishers in the game industry this month, Pete Hines, Bethesda’s vice president and head of PR and marketing, has grown his solo operation into a globally operating department. Right before diving into the recent launch of Fallout: New Vegas, Hines took the time to share his stories on building his team, his own philosophies on PR and how a genuine approach can sell more copies.

Development

Animation Arts’ Marco Zeugner on making adventure games, the smartness of small and conquering the German adventure market

October 14, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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Marco Zeugner (middle)Two weeks ago, the German based adventure game studio Animation Arts released Lost Horizon, their newest adventure title. Animation Arts’ managing director, Marco Zeugner, (middle) talked with us about how the company was founded, the challenges of conquering the German adventure market and why it’s smart to remain small.

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