What impact can a business executive have on entertainment? If that executive is Michael Eisner, the answer is decades of industry domination and dozens of iconic pop culture properties. Gamesauce interviewed Michael, the founder of Tornante Company and the principal owner of Topps, prior to his keynote at Casual Connect on topics ranging from the importance of partnership to his strange strategy of extracting game-changing ideas with long, grueling meetings.
As a mobile game developer, you want to create the best game possible. You have most likely thought long and hard about gameplay and story — two of the most important aspects of a successful game. And the established story likely influenced the art style you chose to fit the world you are creating.
Often forgotten at the development stage, but equally important, is to consider the best way to generate revenue from your hard work. The mobile game market is crowded to say the least, and that’s why effective monetization is so essential for success. Games represent almost 22% of the total number of apps in the Apple Store — every month more than 12,000 new games are submitted. The mobile games revenue global market is also estimated to reach 30 billion USD this year, representing 30% of the total games market. Despite the competition, revenue generated from mobile games lead when looking at app revenue.
This is part two of a two-part interview with Gazillion Entertainment CEO David Brevik. You can find part one, which examines the Marvel Heroes 2015 annual rebranding strategy and community-building efforts, here.
In part two, we ask David what it’s like to work with some of the hottest and most complex intellectual property out there — and property that he’s personally been a fan of for most of his life.
This is part one of a two-part interview with David Brevik. David is CEO of Gazillion Entertainment, the company behind the massive online ARPG Marvel Heroes. If you’ve noticed a similarity between the gameplay in Marvel Heroes and Diablo, that’s because David co-founded Condor (later Blizzard North) and helped design Diablo and Diablo II.
Last year, Gazillion rebranded the game as Marvel Heroes 2015. Recently, we asked David about the strategy, about the company’s open approach to PR and about how the company continues to rapidly crank out new content for the game.
Developers of a game engine currently in beta say their product will allow people to make games without coding, but that it will still appeal to more knowledgeable developers who just want to speed things up. Glue Engine, headquartered in Bucharest, was founded with the goal to let users “create games very quick with no programming skills.” GameSauce interviewed Glue Engine CEO Catalin Biga and CTO Alexandru Matei to lock down a few more specifics regarding the product and the company’s vision for the future of development.
Tama Games’ recently released iOS game Escape from the Pyramid brings some of the world’s oldest designs to modern gameplay, challenging players to avoid the afterlife in an ancient tomb. Graphically, the game goes for a simplified, silhouette style that draws inspiration from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. The gameplay mashes up platformer and runner styles to lend a little excitement to a casual puzzle game. Breaking with the free-to-play trend, the studio decided to skip in-game purchases, offering the entire experience for $1.99 in the U.S. App Store. Read on for an interview with Tama Games Director Alan Crane on the game’s retro roots, its struggles as an indie title, and Tama’s solution to an argument as old as touchscreen games: If we have buttons, where should they go?
The explosion of indie gaming in the past decade has not only allowed for smaller companies to enter the gaming market, it has allowed for people from various background and unique games to have a place. One such person and game is Erin Robinson and her game, Gravity Ghost. To learn more about Gravity Ghost, Gamesauce has talked to Erin Robinson about her background and developing games.
From Researcher to Game Developer – Leaving the Academy for Games
Driven by a desire to create games that come alive and resonate with players, Vladimir Funtikov co-founded Tallinn-based Creative Mobile, and after only four years, it became one of the largest mobile gaming companies in Northern Europe. His passion for games began with his first PC, and almost immediately, he started creating games, beginning with basic Warcraft and SimCity scenarios, then moving to single-player levels for Duke Nukem 3D, and eventually making multi-player maps for Counter-Strike.
He is delighted when he hears of players enjoying his games: “On one of my Counter-Strike maps, I placed a catchy music loop near a camping spot. Later, I heard a player tell how he overheard another guy hum a song at an LAN party, recognized the music, and went to the spot and killed him. They both had a good laugh afterwards. Words can’t describe how I enjoyed hearing this story.”
For four years, Funtikov produced content and managed communities for Counter-Strike without realizing this could be a real career, so he decided instead to become a software developer. But the first company where he interviewed was doing post-production for games, and immediately he was developing games again.
Taking a Risk
Funtikov grew up surrounded by the entrepreneurial spirit as he witnessed his parents start a small family business; as a result, he had always been interested in starting something of his own. Also influenced by Paul Graham’s essays describing life in a start-up from a perspective he could relate to, he knew that it was just a matter of time. In 2008, hit with a personal crisis when he lost his job, he recognized the right time came to take a huge risk. The result was the founding of Creative Mobile.
He had no illusions that his business would instantly change the world. Rather, he began with the hope of making life a little better for one person; then he would plan for the next five or ten people. Starting a free software company gave him that opportunity.
A Bumpy Road
Though he felt it was the right time, Creative Mobile initially had a difficult beginning. Funtikov admits, “Frankly, the games just weren’t good enough. We didn’t have any innovative vision, brilliant game ideas, great technology, or stunning artwork.” However, they did have enthusiasm and dedication, the qualities they used to figure out the business.
Another major difficulty they encountered resulted from the fact that Android was simply too small. At that time, it consisted of a promising OS with only a handful of devices on the market. In addition, monetizing the audience was almost impossible with no in-app purchases or reliable ad inventory.
When Creative Mobile did release its first breakthrough game, they faced new problems. Funtikov relates, “Our main strategy was to work really long shifts and pray nothing breaks while we sleep!” Growing the company proved to be a challenge, with skepticism from potential employees and local media not taking them seriously. He remembers, “One of the first articles to appear in the Estonian press poked fun at our small office and relaxed culture and dismissed our business model as irrelevant.”
But the employees who came on-board during this period were some of the most entrepreneurial and forward-thinking, helping to preserve the team’s values while it grew ten-fold over the next few years. Funtikov emphasizes how lucky he feels to have built the company with this group.
A Community Focus
Convinced from the beginning that game community is critical, the studio established forums and pages in social networks where players could talk to Creative Mobile and among themselves. The goal is to ensure that every complaint and feature request reaches the production team. Although challenging, it was also rewarding to create a system that could process hundreds of messages every day. Now the community guides them in determining the new features to create, and when something breaks, they often know within minutes.
Funtikov notes that to support a community, “It is absolutely essential to establish a ticket management system to avoid being swamped with messages and to make sure everything is tracked and responded to.” Creative Mobile also uses third-party software to manage such things as newsletters and polls, but they have discovered supporting the community is more about people than tools. He insists, “It is very important to have the right attitude in the team and respect the players no matter what their LTV is and what kind of language they use to communicate with us.”
Some Friendly Advice
For indie developers creating for the Android market, Funtikov offers this advice: “Play to the strengths of the platform by launching early and iterating a lot. Google Play offers great tools for beta-testing, processing user feedback, as well as for assessing the stability and robustness of an app almost in real time. There are powerful analytics integrated with Google Play and solutions for multi-player, cloud storage, and social features that are free to use and reduce time to market. Finally, there is no review process at submission stage. Although players always expect top quality, it doesn’t hurt to be in soft launch mode as long as you need to validate the concept and the business model to ensure you are working on the right thing.”
The biggest challenge he sees facing game developers today is working in the now mature games market, where customers want quality, games rarely succeed without marketing, and being featured has far less long-term impact. Responding to this condition requires making more focused games and aiming to understand and fully satisfy a specific audience to achieve a higher LTV.
At Creative Mobile, new tools such as all sorts of smartwatches, VR headsets, and microconsoles are spread over the office, but they rarely make new devices and platforms their top priority. First, they investigate whether there is sufficient demand from their players. If customers don’t want this game on their watches or on 3D, it is better to put the emphasis elsewhere. The greatest mobile games deliver on their promises through great game design, top-notch production, and well-designed UI. Funtikov insists, “New technology can make a good game better, but it can’t make a mediocre game great.”
He tells us the future of Creative Mobile will bring “better games and lots of annoying photos of our new, ultra-cool office.”
Mark Robinson likens the experience of data-mining to exploring a new city, noting “I have always liked being lost … and then uncovering something surprising and thought-provoking.”
Robinson has been tackling data analytics and helping bring companies closer to their customers for over 15 years. But one sector has been lagging in connecting with their user base. “The (gaming) industry lives with retention rates that are too low,” Robinson says. “And it’s our fault, not the players. By getting closer to the players, we can understand their frustrations and deliver fun more consistently.”
What’s in the Data
In order to help combat this problem, Robinson, along with co-founders Chris Wright and Tim Christian, founded deltaDNA in 2010. Robinson explains that the gaming industry is “incredibly lucky” because companies can actually collect detailed and vast data on player experiences which can be used to personalize games for different players — and it’s not something the industry is taking advantage of.
“It’s not good enough for each player to get the same game,” Robinson says. “Novices should be nurtured; experts should be challenged. We have the ability to build really engaging experiences that are responsive to individual players.”
Robinson explains that most of the gaming industry is at Analytics 1.0 when they could be at Analytics 3.0. Analytics 1.0 is simply monitoring game performance, whereas Analytics 2.0 is actually understanding player behaviors enough to improve a game’s general design. Analytics 3.0, however, is when companies are able to use the insights on their players to adjust the gaming experience in realtime. “The real value in engagement and lifetime value is at 3.0, and that’s where we should strive,” he says. “deltaDNA enables Analytics 3.0 via rich functionality and high performance database power.”
Robinson does admit that the gaming industry is still learning how to make great F2P experiences with consistency, noting that it’s an interesting but nerve-racking time. With game player demographics continuing to grow, he says, “there is a wealth of opportunity” to tap into different markets.
Decoding the Data
For those looking to decode the data analytics provide, Robinson has some advice:
First, make sure the data is accurate and complete. “When you have a question, but not the data to answer it, it’s incredibly frustrating,” he says. Investing some extra time at the start so you make sure you get the data right pays back many times over.
Next, if a result still seems confusing, ask around. “When our clients create player segments in our platform, most of the segment types should be recognizable — e.g. Needy Socializers, Curious Experimenters, Cautious Novices — but the most interesting ones are surprising. By taking the views of different people in the business, you can figure out the implications of the findings.”
To help companies with such data mining queries even more, deltaDNA recently teamed up with Vertica so users can take advantage of “incredible database power.” Robinson notes that the extra power combined with Open Access means publishers and developers “have the best of all worlds. Rich analytics and realtime messaging functionality using deltaDNA, with high performance database power and Open Access so you can still use your favorite tools such as Tableau and R in one flexible and productive environment.”
All of this can come in handy for Robinson’s last piece of advice to those working with data: “Go and look deeper.”
Reko Ukko, co-founder and vice-president of game design at Seriously, admits that the company’s name is a great conversation starter. It denotes that they are serious about the work they do: games for mobile and for whatever will come next, such as wearables. They are also serious about free-to-play, a business model they are certain is here to stay.
Seriously is a company where they believe mobile entertainment is in the forefront of all the future brands. Back when movies were the most widespread and important form of media, developers rolled out games based on the movies. But now games capture a much larger audience than a movie premiere. So Seriously is focused on capturing those IPs and brands. The game is always foremost, but they make sure IP and brand development is an integral part of the process. So far, Ukko has found this helps the game development process and their experience so far has been a massive success.
Moving into Games
Ukko began his career in graphic design, building on his rich childhood involvement with visuals. He picked up 3D art as a hobby, but spent several years in IT and marketing before studying 3D and illustrations. Of all the class, he was the only one to move toward a career in games. In his first job with BugBear Entertainment, the way he visualized design was evident, and he was given the opportunity to become a designer.
He admits that he had no idea what this would entail with every game being so different. But he had made multiple RPG games when he was a child, and had formed definite opinions about such things as the issue of story-telling vs gameplay. He was also spurred onward by his interest in board games, which he had become heavily involved in five years before joining the games industry. He still considers that board games are enormously influential in this era of social gaming, emphasizing, “Board games are the true social game, and some of the learnings there apply to digital games as well.”
Between 2004 and 2007, Ukko worked on console games. At that time, as a result of his board game background, he realized players will play on any platform as long as the game is made for that platform. In 2007, when he joined Digital Chocolate, many people shunned the java games of the time, and there were many discussions about whether they were even games. But he believed if people find enjoyment in mobile gaming, what does it matter if you call it a game?
Time for a New Adventure
Ukko relates that co-founding Seriously was a golden opportunity in many ways. At the time, he had been working for NaturalMotion and living with his family in Oxford. His daughter was approaching the age of four, when she would be required to begin school in the UK, and the family would have to make a longer term commitment to living there. He found this an intimidating idea, since in Finland, children begin school at age seven.
He had also been in the games industry for long enough to see quite a lot and felt this was the time to do something adventurous. The opportunity to work with people such as Petri Järvilehto, founder of Remedy and creator of games such as Max Payne, and now creative director of Seriously, was something Ukko couldn’t pass up. With Järvilehto, he sensed an immediate rapport, and their approach seemed to gel. Other people joining the company were also on the same wavelength. Everyone in the company comes with a decade or more of experience in the games industry; they have seen the ups and downs, the pros and cons of just about everything. This gives them an extensive background they can draw on as they meet the challenges of setting up a new company.
Company culture is extremely important at Seriously, particularly because they have been involved with companies that have a poor culture, and the game is the only thing that matters. Such companies grind through dozens of employees as their game is being developed, and once the game is shipped, they lose even more. In contrast, Seriously believes trust and responsibility are key to maintaining a good company culture, allowing everyone to learn quickly. He says, “If there is a stumble, there is massive motivation to mend it.”
Finding the Breakthroughs
The most enjoyable aspect of game development, particularly for new designers, according to Ukko, is coming up with ideas. But he warns, “Everyone has ideas; it’s the execution that matters. You must always remember it is a marathon, not a sprint.” He recognizes there are many dead ends in the design process, but if you are agile, and the team is fully involved, playing the game and offering suggestions, there will be constant breakthroughs. Seeing the game evolve and build itself is incredibly motivating.
The major difficulty in this process arises from the necessity to work against a schedule. However, sticking to a schedule is essential, and in his experience, brings out the best in everyone. One of the major problems most of the team at Seriously has dealt with before is the never-ending project, where quality is the only consideration, and schedule and financial aspects of developing the game are neglected. So they are tremendously motivated to push for top quality without taking forever to ship the game. Ukko insists, “Shipping is good!”
He also believes it is vital to think about the platform itself. “Console and PC games are directly about immersion, board games are about social interaction, and mobile games are about snack-sized entertainment to fill your daily rituals.” Each is a different type of entertainment for a different situation. Ukko likes to make an analogy comparing games with wine. Some wines are perfect accompaniments to specific foods, others are suited to sipping while you chat with friends. Similarly, different games suit different people and situations. The massive variety of board games, for example, means that if he has friends visiting, there is always a game appropriate to those friends, the particular moment in time, and their schedule.
Looking at the Mobile Games Market
There are several issues he sees in the current mobile games market. Foremost is how well the developer communicates with his fan base – not just the avid players, but all of the customers. It is possible to do this with such things as forums and Facebook pages, but Ukko suggests an approach in which the player could tag a developer as a ‘favorite’ and follow him easily in the app store.
The second issue is the free-to-play model which works well in some genres and not in others. This results not only from the nature of free-to-play, but also from the places and moments where we play mobile games. He feels it might make sense to develop a new genre in the free-to-play space. This problem is difficult because it involves both your business model and the fickle nature of where people play mobile games.
Most important for Seriously is making the fun of games come first. They recently announced their first title, Best Fiends, a game where the fantasy of the familiar is present, but is mixed with a richer background and pool of characters. These are integrated with progression, story and humor to make something that has soul. The challenge of this process has been exhilarating for the company, and they are excited for their October launch date. They are now set to tackle expanding into meaningful and strong IPs.
Dealing with Harrassment
Ukko has found one of today’s problems in the games industry especially strange and unnerving: the harassment of game developers. In his home of Finland, game development has traditionally been open, hospitable, and generous, so he finds it difficult to understand where the harassment is coming from and why anyone would want to do that. During his 30 years of playing games, he has seen the industry go from victory to victory. We live in a wonderfully creative and playful time. So he suggests, “If you are a gamer and feel the need to harass the developers, maybe it’s a sign you need to go do something else for a couple of years and gain some perspective.”
He urges, “Get involved if you see any of the harassment happening. Don’t go along with the ‘I personally think it is wrong, but . . .’ argument; there is not a single redeeming point in that discussion.”
Advice to Game Studio Entrepreneurs
For those considering starting their own game studios, Ukko offers this advice:
– Get a really good and experienced group of people; this is essentially what people looking to provide funds for your enterprise have to go on.
– Determine your focus and make sure everyone is aligned with it. You can’t do everything, so make what you do the best. Typically, it is better to ship something quickly as the team gels together, rather than spending years on your first project.
– There has never been a better time to go for it. The game engines are out there and they are cheap. There is nothing to prevent you from executing your idea: all you need is like-minded individuals. At this point, the cost is probably as low as it will ever be.
Ukko will also be offering tips to understanding the mobile game audience during his presentation at Casual Connect Eastern Europe in Serbia. More information on his session can be found on the conference website.