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
Ukko suggests an approach in which the player could tag a developer as a ‘favorite’ and follow him easily in the app store.
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.
Gamblit Gaming’s CMO David Chang spoke about how Gamblit connects gaming and gambling, as well as the trends in both the gaming and gambling industries that he’s witnessed over the last few years, with TechnologyAdvice host Clark Buckner. TechnologyAdvice.com provides coverage content on teaching and training games, strategic employee engagement software, and customer loyalty programs and much more. Also be sure to check out their gamification tech conference calendar.
You can listen to the full interview here:
Gamblit Gaming, a sponsor of Casual Connect USA 2014, is a technology provider for real-money mobile gaming. Gamblit’s platform takes care of regulated technology, licenses, and customer operations so that game developers, publishers, and casino operators can focus on creating exceptional gaming experiences.
David Chang has been involved in the gaming industry for a decade. He started at IGN, primarily dealing with console developers, so he’s seen how progressive the gaming industry is and always has been. Conversely, he said that the gambling industry may be taking an opposite path, noting that there isn’t much innovation currently occurring around traditional casino games.
Building the Bridge
Gamblit serves as a bridge between the gambling and gaming communities. They desire to harness the creativity of the gaming community and show developers a path where they can express themselves. Likewise, they want to express that creativity in the gambling world so both industries might benefit from new innovations.
Chang was an early adopter of the Free-to-Play (F2P) movement back in 2005. Back then, people thought he was crazy. Now, F2P has become a viable and even lucrative option for commercialization. Having been to a number of gaming tournaments, Chang sees similar opportunities in real-money casino gaming.
Today, integrating gaming and gambling is widely embraced by both communities; developers and companies are more open to understanding how to design real-money casino games.
See What’s There
Chang encourages casual game developers to take a look at what’s presently being offered in both gaming and gambling to see what interests them. Otherwise, if they don’t find it interesting themselves, it likely won’t be interesting to their users either.
On the other hand, Chang suggests that those in the casino industry should download games so they can see what the mass market consumes today. Chang revealed that people in the gambling industry rarely play games at all, and that most of the conversation centers on monetization methods, game engagement, and the like.
Ultimately, Gamblit Gaming desires to connect the casino and gaming communities. Gamblit knows that most of their work crosses the boundaries of gaming and gambling, and that each community can benefit from the others’ knowledge and experience. Gamblit can help expedite such crossover innovation.
For more information on Gamblit Gaming, visit www.gamblitgaming.com. If you have thoughts or ideas in line with Gamblit’s offerings, feel free to drop by at their events or send them an email.
DeltaDNA was an early adopter, so to speak, of the Casual Connect conference, knowing that it would become a great environment to build relationships, grow their network, and both give and receive value from the innumerable conversations that occur before, during, and after the conference. In 2014, they were a proud Gold Sponsor of Casual Connect USA 2014. While there, DeltaDNA CEO Mark Robinson spoke about the concept of Player Relationship Management, how the industry has evolved in the free-to-play (F2P) space, and techniques DeltaDNA uses to increase engagement and create better gaming experiences with Clark Buckner from TechnologyAdvice.com (they provide coverage content on enterprise employee engagement, customer loyalty and rewards, and gamification trends and much more).
Responsive Games in the Free-to-Play Market
Launched in 2010, DeltaDNA uses a Player Relationship Management platform to maximize player engagement in free-to-play games. Using this platform, developers can interact with players within the game, collect rich data based on player experience, and use that data to craft a version of the game that’s more responsive to the player.
Through his work, Robinson identified three areas in which the F2P gaming industry has trouble:
– A lack of rich data on player behavior: By balancing game dynamics to satisfy average players, developers end up satisfying no one.
– A lack of retention: Less than 40 percent of F2P gamers typically come back to a game after an initial session. – A lack of great, creative ideas: Game developers and publishers are always on the lookout for well-executed games.
So how does DeltaDNA address these challenges in the F2P space? First, they work to understand player behavior. Developers can interact with a specific player in their game sothey are able to customize game mechanics according to a player’s style or competence, using a platform such as DeltaDNA‘s. Then, they make games more responsive. Better gaming experiences stem from responsive, user-driven, tailor-made game situations. And lastly, they use analytics in an effective manner.When designers or publishers work closely with an analytics team, they’re able to obtain rich data, such as direct feedback on retention rates or why some players leave a game sooner than others. They can then devise solutions to increase retention levels as well as to create player segments for better engagement and possible monetization strategies.
By leveraging real-time data and understanding player behaviors, DeltaDNA can design and create games that are more customized and responsive, thereby establishing long-term value, increased engagement, and a better end-user experience. Robinson added that they work to ensure that players have a great experience regardless of their competency or playing style. They don’t want the free-to-play model to be seen as an inferior gaming experience simply because it’s free.
Robinson also noted the necessity for a messaging strategy. Developers and publishers need to be consistent and intelligent in terms of their messaging without inundating users with too many messages. This can be done by fully understanding the different player characteristics in one’s game, as well as by considering how to manage player experiences in a way that their players will want to respond to messaging.
The Future of the Casual Gaming Industry
According to Robinson, the most exciting and successful companies in the gaming industry are starting to adopt new skill sets in order to get closer to their respective playing communities. Developers and publishers now have multi-scaled teams with new skills and a reliance on analytics. Additionally, marketing is now a more important part of the process alongside development, design, and creative.
For Robinson and DeltaDNA, the next step in the industry is realizing that a game developer/customer relationship won’t be limited to a one-game environment. Rather, they see multi-game relationships forming between publishers and gamers, thus creating more engagement for a publisher and more value for consumers.
For more information on DeltaDNA’s features, solutions, and resources, visit www.deltadna.com. To listen to the full interview, click the play button below:
Millennial Media is an independent audience platform in the digital advertising space that connects brands and consumers by leveraging data through a mobile-first approach and cross-screen targeting solutions. Rothkopf oversees the company’s publisher and developer relationships. Consequently, he has a unique understanding of the opportunities and difficulties facing today’s gaming industry.
Better Games through Data-driven Decisions
Part of his panel discussion at Casual Connect concerned itself with one of the gaming industry’s major challenges: developers and marketers need to tap into ways of leveraging data so they can make smarter, more efficient, data-driven decisions in order to reach the right consumers in the right place at the right time on the right device with the right mindset and within the right context.
Additionally, Rothkopf pointed out three other critical areas that need to be addressed:
–Actionable Intelligence: Developers need to gather deeper and less obvious insights based upon in-app behaviors. Such insights are observed alongside third-party data based on offline behaviors so that developers can make faster, smarter decisions in regards to monetization and user acquisition. – Hyperlocal Targeting: Developers are tying everything back to local, both to monetize and acquire users. Such hyperlocal targeting that reaches consumers in the right place, mindset, and time can be a challenge. – Individual SKU-ing: Developers are realizing that creating hits is very much a numbers game. Consequently, they’re releasing a much greater volume of individual SKUs and iterating on them once they’ve taken a foothold instead of hoping to release one monolithic, tent-pole title. Many casual titles are also being released in the hopes that one or more of them will hit it big (see Flappy Bird).
Acquiring Users and Monetizing
Rothkopf found that the Casual Connect audience wanted to know more about data conversion in terms of giving developers an edge in user acquisition and monetization—two areas that Rothkopf and his team at Millennial Media understand. He cited two specific areas that Millennial Media currently focuses on in order to help devs acquire users and work toward monetization: location and cross-device and cross-screen.
When focusing on location, Millennial Media marries location and context. In partnership with Esri, they’re re-launching Point: Audience Location Advertising, where their clients can target traditional location dimensions (country, date, etc.), time dimensions, and hyperlocal dimensions like household income, environment, propensity for shopping, etc. To deal with cross-device and cross-screen, Millennial Media also offers PATH, a mobile-first, cross-screen advertising suite that helps advertisers reach consumers anonymously. PATH provides access to tens of millions of cross-screen profiles in a seamless manner.
Successful Gaming Marketing
Finally, Rothkopf stressed that success comes from having a fair exchange of value, achieving relevant advertising, seeking the right targeting, and leveraging both first- and third-party data to make smarter decisions to drive monetization and deliver a better gaming experience.
To hear more from Lewis Rothkopf on big data, gaming, and his insights from Casual Connect USA 2014, listen to the podcast interview below. For more information on Millennial Media, visit www.millenialmedia.com, or if you’re a developer seeking to acquire users or working toward monetization, visit www.mmedia.com.
Geoffrey Greenblatt, the North American gaming director for Mindshare, became interested in gaming at a very early age. He was four years old when his father brought home a Texas Instruments computer, and he was instantly hooked. Handheld games, Sega, Gameboy, Genesis and Super Nintendo all followed. He doesn’t claim that first computer was the inspiration for his career, but he says it was definitely the jumping off point of his interest in games.
Games and Advertising
His moment of inspiration actually came when he moved from traditional media to digital media. On his first day in that space, he saw an ad in a game, learned that it was served dynamically and thought, “Wow! Games and advertising. Now that’s an area I want to explore.”
After that moment, Greenblatt decided to dive in and see what could be done in the space. He began by putting together integration-based programs and proposing additional opportunities to clients who were interested in the gaming space. His breakthrough came with developing the first content distribution program on Xbox LIVE for Sprint. They were short-listed at Cannes, and interest grew from there. He considers himself fortunate to have had such supportive clients, but the biggest hurdle in getting the project off the ground was explaining how it could drive success for the brand.
This is still the biggest hurdle to overcome. Greenblatt recognizes that brands are not interested in the tactical details of a program; they are interested in how a program can fill their needs objectively.
Working With the Unfamiliar
Greenblatt has now been with Mindshare for 8.5 years. He had spent three years with a different agency in traditional media and then moved to digital media there. He decided the best way to grow and learn would be in an unfamiliar environment. Mindshare had great accounts that he thought would be fun to work on, and, fortunately, they also had an opening for him.
His work day differs so much day-to-day that he claims there is no such thing as a normal day. He spends a lot of his time writing: presentations for client teams or conferences, POVs, booklet write-ups, such as one he just did for E3, and even informative emails, so he is often found in front of his computer, typing away in Word or Powerpoint. If he is not at the computer, he is meeting with vendors to learn about the space and following up with teams to provide them with any information they need to create a successful gaming space program for their clients. He emphasizes, “I love the variety that my position offers, and I very much enjoy working with all the people at Mindshare that I have gotten to know so well over the years.”
It’s All About Monetization
Greenblatt points out that the center of any industry has to be monetization, and it is no different for the games industry. From the console perspective, monetization growth appears to be centered on continuous expansion of the audience, especially beyond core gamers and early adopters. Growing the audience drives the purchase of more games, and in this way, increases the revenue. This is the key point for other platforms as well: growing the audience is the way to increase revenue. As the audience expands, developers can sell virtual goods, integrated programs, data collection, and advertising. All of this drives revenue.
He has seen huge shifts in advertising in recent years with mobile, social, and programmatic buying. Mobile and social are completely new spaces that grow and change very quickly. Programmatic buying seems to be the convergence of many different types of opportunities into a more linear opportunity. It can be difficult to keep up with the rate of change, but the changes can also be very exciting. In the gaming space, the combination of mobile, social and programmatic has created a variety of different options for brands: single or multi-platform options, easy-to-purchase or very robust program options, single title alignment or network-based options. There are now so many options for brands, and the gaming space has become more attractive for a greater variety of brands.
Objectives Over Tactics
In the games market, the biggest advertising mistake Greenblatt sees is thinking tactics first. An advertising campaign must, first and foremost, be about the brand’s objectives. An opportunity, no matter how exciting it may seem, may not be the right fit for a brand. He has seen this mistake on both the brand and the developer sides. But developing a program in the gaming space is not about creating a cool experience in the game; it is about fulfilling a brand objective.
He insists, “This problem arises from a lack of understanding about what is really important for the brand and thinking about the game first; this is especially important for game lovers. They tend to look at opportunities from the perspective of a player rather than the perspective of a brand or advertiser. Both brand teams and game developers need to look at opportunities through the lens of the brand: what the brand is trying to achieve and how will the results be measured.
Greenblatt is very interested to see how mobile gaming will continue to evolve. The platform’s accessibility has allowed game lovers and potential designers to create for the first time. With first time developers having the opportunity to bring their ideas to fruition, new kinds of games will continue to be created. Add new types of social mechanics and innovative developments such as virtual reality, and the level of creativity in the gaming space is reaching heights never previously imagined. This long-lasting trend of creative pioneering is something he believes will only continue to grow.
When Greenblatt is not at work, he likes to keep busy with a variety of activities. He has side projects he is working on with friends and he also has a job with ESPN on ABC production, something he has been doing for 10 years now. If not occupied with these, he spends his time watching TV and movies, going to the gym, watching sports, and catching up on sleep.
Kelly Richard Fennig is a technical producer who’s worked at Slant Six Games, was the project director for Circa 1948 at the National Film Board of Canada, and is a founding member of Ton Up Interactive. An actor, hardware & software engineer, UX designer, project manager, and musician, his various industries gives him a unique perspective and well-rounded appreciation of what it takes to make games.We were recently able to talk to Fennig about the creation of Circa 1948, difficulties encountered during its production, and long-term goals for this project.
GS: What was the inspiration for this project? Specifically, what is so special about 1948?
Kelly Richard Fennig: The world-renowned visual artist, Stan Douglas, was the key inspiration for the project. (He proposed the project several years ago.) For those unfamiliar with his work, he’s primarily a visual storyteller and photographer, and is known for creating photograph composites that capture a moment in time.
One Stan Douglas photo can be composed of over 100 or more separate elements – each being specifically chosen and placed, then seamlessly assembled together to make a “perfect” photograph. But the true art comes from the curiosity of the audience themselves, from what subtle and nuanced details they discover in his work and, usually depending on the order in which they discover them, people will ask themselves about the significance of these details. Eventually, viewers create their own narrative to explain what happened leading up to the moment, so the audience experience is an integral part of the art, and every experience is unique to each individual.
Douglas has a fascination with history and his style is what I personally call a “dirty reality,” since many of the works I’ve seen of his look very “lived-in,” almost to the point of being run down. This makes sense to me as a storyteller: the more worn out something is, the more it has experienced to get to that state, and the more potential for stories it has to tell. As mentioned before, the devil is indeed in the details, so Douglas makes it a point to be as historically accurate and photorealistic as possible.
Being born and raised in Vancouver, he loves this city and its history, and 1948 was a time when the city was on the cusp of change. For most, there was a deep postwar depression and jobs and money were hard to come by. Soldiers back from the war were without jobs or, for some, even homes. The city was beginning its “urban renewal” and claiming its casualties. The technological innovations of the latter half of the 20th century, marking our modern age, were just around the corner. Looking back, the themes in the story Stan Douglas tells in Circa 1948 would be echoed in any city in North America at that time, and have numerous parallels with the present.
GS: On this note, why did you select the two locations?
Fennig: There are the simple answers – money, budget, and technical limitations. For an ambitious iOS app to have the visual fidelity to honor the works of Douglas, we would need to limit how much content the app could have so it could reliably run at an acceptable frame rate and not be multiple gigabytes in size.
However, there is also an artistic rationale for this decision – the duality of having two locations sets up a ‘compare and contrast’ dynamic with the themes of the story. Geographically, the city of Vancouver is divided along Main Street.
On the traditionally more affluent west-side is the site of the Hotel Vancouver. In 1948, it was weeks away from being torn down and relocated, soldiers from the war who had yet received promised support from the government have taken over the building and are squatting in this “tarnished dilapidated gem” of the city.
On the working class east-side is Hogan’s Alley. This area was a culturally diverse home to immigrant and migrant workers who turn into backyard entrepreneurs using whatever skills they have to find a buck, with some of their enterprises being less legal than others. In the middle are those who like to straddle and profit from both sides. So the divide of race, income, and “urban renewal” gets blurred at this moment in time.
And to this day, this divide still holds true.
GS: While recreating the two locations, what archives did you use? Were you able to interview anyone was alive in 1948?
Fennig: Currently, neither site exists anymore. The old Hotel Vancouver at the intersection of Georgia & Granville Street was torn down, and Hogan’s Alley was razed in 1968 to build the Georgia Viaduct. As a result of these changes, we had to rely entirely on archival documentation. Our artists combed the City of Vancouver Archives, and those of the Province and Vancouver Sun newspaper archives. Our producers also got access to the CBC radio archives to gather some radio interviews to add audio colour to the world. We even discovered some magazine articles published at the time showcasing the architecture of the city.
We were about 95 percent confirmed accurate with the geography, but where we weren’t certain, we made our best assumption of what would have been there based on our findings. In many cases, where there were gaps in accuracy, some miracle photograph would show up in the strangest of places and times. For example, two months before completion, a photo would show up and we would find a building that was completely wrong, so we went back and rebuilt it. It was uncanny – in January 2014, Canada Post celebrated Black History Month by releasing a stamp recognizing Hogan’s Alley. On it, we discovered yet another building. Our art lead Jonny Ostrem, who worked closely with Douglas for the duration of the project, would insist we respect the historic authenticity Douglas revered.
As for the characters in the app, nearly all of them are fictitious. That being said, we were able to interview many people who were alive in these communities, and they shared stories about some of the more “colorful and notable” people and events of the time. From these stories, Douglas worked with screen-writer Chris Haddock and playwright Kevin Kerr to create some original characters and situations that were amalgams of these stories.
GS: During the making of this interactive experience, what were some difficulties encountered?
Fennig: LOL! Where to begin? This project was well underway by the time I came on board – two-four years depending on who you talk to. By the time I came on:
– The app was originally planned around the time of the iPad 2, but Douglas’ vision was too technically ambitious for even the iPad Air (four years later).
– The project was created by a series of contractors and students, who rolled on and off at various times based on monies and availabilities. The only constants were the producers at the National Film Board of Canada’s Digital Studio (the NFB), known and celebrated for their development of HTML5 and Flash experiences. This app would be their first real-time experience.
– The Kraken engine we used was open-source and in-development throughout production, right up to shipping
– Douglas wanted people to not see this as a game, but as art. He wanted every asset, prop and texture to be unique. So every asset had been individually modeled/textured without reuse or instantiation. This created extra strain and challenge on the engine, memory, and computing resources.
– The project never went through much of a pre-production stage; they just started producing assets.
– Many of these assets were created by art students whose only experience had been school projects for animation, film & TV visual-FX, and demo reels. They had minimal to no knowledge about techniques for optimizing assets for real-time engines or mobile platforms. Many of the lead artists, and the art lead himself, were learning as they went. In the art world, this in itself is part of the “artistic experience”- to learn and grow while creating the “art”, and this “ground up” approach is integral to Douglas’ artistic methodology/”process”. I have a great deal of respect for them because their lessons from the school of “hard knocks” will stick with them forever.
– As new evidence and archival photos arose, assets needed to be rebuilt in order to continue to be “historically accurate.”
– It was decided that the app wouldn’t use real-time lighting – all lighting and shadows were rendered in Maya onto light and specular maps. Having numerous maps in memory instead of relying on the GPU and rendering pipeline, memory, and asset streaming would be the critical path for performance.
– Whenever an asset had an error (texture, model or otherwise), quite often it required re-rendering the lightmap. Over the course of the project, many, many, MANY of the assets would have to be redone.
– At the time, the engine didn’t have much of an asset import tool chain: all assets would be created in Maya and Photoshop then converted and imported into the engine manually. Any spelling mistake with any of the assets would cause errors.
– The user experience and interface went through many iterations and was still too complex to users who were not gamers.
-There were all these assets, but not a cohesive end-to-end experience for the user.
When I came on board they were “a couple weeks away from shipping,” but only because they had virtually used nearly the entire budget. They realized that, although this wasn’t a “game”, experience from the games industry would be able to provide the perspective they needed to complete and ship the app. This is where I came in.
So for the next six months, we had to simplify the design and create a cohesive experience for an audience who is not accustomed to any form of first-person, real-time digital experience, with an extremely limited budget. (I am eternally thankful that Loc Dao and Janine Steele at the NFB were able to procure more monies required for completion.) Even though most of the production wasn’t efficient by conventions already proven and known by the video games industry, the ship had set sail – my job was to steer it safely into port by any means necessary.
The first step was to actually take a step back and create a design document. From there, we used lean-style design iterations to quickly test out new concepts and simplify the experience for users who are not traditional gamers. Some gaming conventions were brought in, mainly to bring in a simple cause-effect teaching loop. As well, we had to develop a way to optimize the engine and assets but still maintain a high level of fidelity.
It was an exciting six months to say the least. We were committed to a release at the TriBeCa film festival, so with all the changes required, we had an asset lock within days of submitting to Apple. This left next to no time to optimize performance and came in far too hot for my comfort. Needless to say, I expected the first couple of weeks after release would be crashy, and we would need to get user experience feedback in the real-world to address stability.
GS: How do you see this as an “Augmented Reality” experience?
Fennig: It goes beyond the obvious. Being based off of actual historic locations and being historically and geographically accurate and incredibly detailed, it goes beyond the standard fare expected from a “game.” These places actually existed and were respected and reproduced in such a way that allows the user to see how life actually was, warts and all.
In the initial release, we have an alternative input scheme we call “viewport” mode: it takes the gyroscopic positioning data from the iOS devices and uses it to control the “in-game” camera of the user. Your phone/tablet becomes a “window to the past”: point the device up, and you look up; turn around, and so does the in-world camera.
This isn’t the standard or ideal mode because, as Jesse Schell pointed out last year at Casual Connect 2013, users’ arms will eventually get tired. However, it does allow for a very natural way to look at how the world once was. The Kraken engine supports Head Rotational Transform Function (HRTF) sound so with a set of headphones, the user is fully immersed into the environment.
In future releases, there are plans to incorporate GPS and compass data so for those who are in Vancouver and at these historic locations can actually hold up their devices and see what the world was once like where they stood. See the modern world through their eyes, and the historic world through the app. i.e. ‘Where what is now a Starbucks once stood a speakeasy’. It’s a gimmick, but it does allow the user a more immersive experience into the world.
At the TriBeCa film festival in New York, we collaborated with R&D Arts and Memo Aiken’s team at Marshmallow Laser Feast to go one step further – we took the app, as seen from one frame of view, and projection-mapped the environment onto four walls, almost like a first generation of the Holodeck from Star Trek. This produced a 360º view of the world – where the app allowed the user to explore a Stan Douglas photograph, the TriBeCa interactive experience actually and literally placed the user into a Stan Douglas photograph. Using multiple Xbox Kinects and the very latest Mac Pro, we would track the movement of the user and render this “reality”. Off-axis positioning would allow the user to look up, under, and around objects, and we would use their body itself as a virtual joystick to move through this world we created in the app.
Both experiences – viewport and the interactive experience – are pretty trippy and very, very cool. Honestly, I really wish people more people could experience the installation, but it does cost a bit to transport and set up.
GS: Several of the conversations are influenced by noir films. Which noir films did you and your team turn to? How do you feel this adds to the historical authenticity?
Fennig: The primary point of visual inspiration from Douglas to the art team was the film Hammett. It’s Francis Ford Coppola, so it gets a bye for legitimacy, as he is a stickler for authenticity. Essentially, this movie is an homage to “film noir” – heightened shadows, a femme fatale, corrupt police, etc. Other films were considered, but with respect to mood and detail, why deviate from a master?
The app was originally designed to be set during midday. It wasn’t until extremely late in the project (re: two months prior to release) that we should switch to an evening setting. This worked on many levels, as the story itself inherently has a “film noir” undertone, so why not make the setting “noir”…verging on the edge of twilight/early evening, moody, with heightened shadows, etc. There is this magic that happens at twilight. Since the light levels are low, fog starts to roll in, and details are obscured.
With the technical limitations of mobile platform, we could have our cake and eat it too: it allowed us a logical and natural way to obscure the details for some of the unessential environments, but still support the photorealism Douglas was known for. Having film noir inspirations, it was a natural choice, and it was surprising we didn’t think of this sooner. This choice did mean a lot of late nights and hiring additional artists to re-render nearly almost all the light maps, but it was definitely worth it. This change was chalked up to the “artistic experience” for the artists: we had to get as far as we did to realize that a time-of-day change would most honor the project.
GS: How did you convince the Canadian government to fund this project?
Fennig: The origins of the project came from a screenplay called Helen Lawrence, a collaboration between artist Stan Douglas and the acclaimed screenwriter Chris Haddock. They originally approached the National Film Board of Canada to make the screenplay into a film, but the NFB was known for producing short animations and documentary films, not fictionalized feature films.
However, the NFB Digital Studio in Vancouver still wanted the opportunity to collaborate with Douglas, so they proposed to develop an app inspired by some of the characters and plot elements from the screenplay, but present them in a way that focuses on one of Douglas’s artistic staples – non-linear (or recombinant) storytelling. Part of the NFB’s mandate is to push the technological boundaries and innovate new ways to tell character-rich, Canadian stories, and this had potential to really try something radically new in the world of art, what the NFB calls the Circa 1948 Storyworld.
In addition to the app, they wanted to create a multi-contextual experience around it, so the Circa 1948 Storyworld is not just the app, but also a historically informative webpage, a Stan Douglas photo series, the immersive projection-map installation (as featured at TriBeCa and touring major cities), and the stage play of Helen Lawrence itself. (Although not a film as originally intended, Helen Lawrence became a ground-breaking play where stage actors were filmed against blue screen and composited and shown to the audience in real-time into the digital environments we developed for the app).
There’s so much more to say about the Storyworld project as a whole that could be said that couldn’t fit into an interview. I highly recommend people read the official press synopsis.
GS: Are there any plans to incorporate architecture that currently exist into this virtual experience?
Fennig: Since these locations don’t exist anymore, there are plans to incorporate GPS telemetry and compass information into the app. So when a person is at the physical location where a structure once stood, they can bring up the app and the tablet truly becomes a “window to the past.” The user could walk down what was once Hogan’s Alley, hold up their phone or tablet, and see what used to stand there.
As for incorporating currently existing architecture, I can’t speak of plans just yet. Some proposals are being discussed, potentially for separate but related projects, but it is too soon to disclose it.
GS: How has this technology been received by educators?
Fennig: It hasn’t really been used by educators… yet. However, historians have been comparing the app content to known historical evidence and records and applauded the sense of accuracy, detail, authenticity, and respect to the locations and the era.
Again, there are a couple of potential projects in the future that I’m not open to talk about just yet, but with “urban renewal” being a constant force for change in our city, the project has archival potential that could be quite cool, so we don’t forget the rich history from bygone generations.
GS: Overall, what are some long-term goals for this project? Is an Android version going to be created?
Fennig: Long term, there are many plans for what was accomplished. Not speaking on behalf of the NFB, I do know that the following may (or may not) happen:
– An Android version is tentatively in the plans, but it will require rewriting much of the Objective-C used in the front end to work in OpenGL-ES and Kraken and port the Kraken engine to work for Android. This work will benefit the iOS version as well since iOS Viewports are costly when implementing UI.
– The NFB would like to take the immersive installation on the road. It had an amazing response at TriBeCa. The challenge is finding sponsors to allow for the transport and setup of installation.
– As mentioned earlier, the kinesthetic mode linking real-world geo-location telemetry to the app, is planned for “on-location” presentations and exploration.
– The NFB is investigating opportunities to use the Kraken engine, the workflow improvements, and the lessons learned, to tell similar stories set in different historic locations. Since the project was developed using public tax-funding, there is great potential to open this platform up to the public for them to use and innovate (again, I’m only speculating, as the Canadian Government owns some of the technology).
Part of the NFB’s mandate is to push the technological boundaries and innovate new ways to tell character-rich Canadian stories. Based on the initial feedback the NFB feels they have accomplished this and are proud to join the small but growing movement of “interactive storytelling” – using gaming techniques and technologies to tell stories. Personally, it feels pretty cool to have Apple feature and endorse an app I’ve worked on and open the “gaming” world I love to an audience that normally wouldn’t have normally discovered it. It shrinks the gap between the “Game” and “Art” debate.
Caroline Ingeborn wants to help the world. In her own words, she says she’s passionate about making a change and meeting people, organizations, and companies across the world who share her vision of doing great things. At Toca Boca, she’s getting that opportunity.
Ingeborn has been close to Toca Boca from the start. She worked next to co-founders Björn Jeffery and Emil Ovemar at the Bonnier Office in Sweden when they founded Toca Boca — becoming very familiar with their mission and vision. During a trip to see Jeffery in San Francisco, he asked her to join the company. “I did and have never looked back since,” she says.
Pivoting Into New Industries
As the COO of Toca Boca, Ingeborn has a wide range of responsibilities. She oversees production, marketing, finance, and operations across Toca Boca’s offices in San Francisco and Stockholm, noting that “no day is like another.”
Although she had to do some catching up since she was coming from a field outside of the gaming/children’s markets, Ingeborn is used to change. She notes that every position in her career has required her to learn new things and pivot to meet new demands. But she says Toca Boca is unique in terms of what she does day-to-day. “Working with a team of such passionate people, that all strive to do really great stuff, is a fantastic experience,” she explains.
Exploration and Imagination
For Ingeborn and Toca Boca, it’s all about helping children expand their minds. While they keep track of innovations in the gaming market, they’re more interested in finding new areas around play in general and building a “positive children’s culture.”
Technologically, they are focused on the touchscreen experience. When considering technology, the first questions they ask are “Is this something that will enhance the play experience? And if that’s the case, how can we incorporate that?”
Ingeborn notes that while Toca Boca’s digital toys aren’t curriculum based, they encourage free exploration while sparking kids’ imagination and sense of curiosity. She notes however that, in regards to technology in the classroom, “If technology can enhance or make the classroom experience better, then absolutely, it belongs there.”
Ingeborn herself is very passionate about helping educate the next generation of children. In Sweden, she has been involved with helping older kids in low-income areas develop their skills both personally and professionally.
Gender Issues and Building the Future
Another thing both Ingeborn and Toca Boca are passionate about is gender neutrality in their products. She says, it is a “big focus” for them and she is proud of the digital toys they’ve produced. “We believe in making and marketing toys for kids — not those for just girls or just boys. This is certainly an issue right now in the toy industry, and more companies — from the designers to the marketing experts to the retailers — need to be aware of it and make a change.”
With Toca Boca’s mission to expand children’s minds and their commitment to gender neutrality, among other things, Ingeborn considers it the highlight of her career so far, and one she is excited to continue building. “It’s been a great journey. We’ve built a team and company that believes in the power of pure play and the value in seeing the world from a kid’s perspective.”