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.
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.”
Holly Liu is the chief of staff and culture at Kabam, overseeing HR and driving Kabam’s vision, mission, and values for its 800 employees around the globe. Previously, she was VP of people ops and user experience and led design for Kabam’s very successful game, Kingdoms of Camelot. Here she discusses her experiences with Kabam and her insights into the evolving game industry.
Entering the Game Industry
I entered the game industry because the free-to-play business model enabled me to connect directly with players. Before I started in the game industry, I had spent my time designing products that were based around the advertising business model. I had never been in the gaming industry before, so I’m not sure if I had any expectations. However, once I became involved in the industry, what I did learn was the fundamental difference between product design and game design. Product design can be thought of as blocks or “features” that can be stacked next to each other – not necessarily affecting one another; however, game design needs to be thought of as co-centric loops and a whole eco-system, where moving one piece will affect another, and expanding the game isn’t just “turning on features.”
The Creation of Kabam
Kabam was founded in 2006 initially as watercooler-inc, focused on things that people would talk about at work around the water cooler. We initially created the largest TV and sports fan communities on Facebook, which was so popular that when ABC wanted to distribute video, they called us rather than Facebook. That was the height of our fan communities. However, when the 2008 mortgage crisis hit, it adversely impacted us because our communities and business model were based on advertising revenue. We spent some time talking about what we should do given the climate for our particular business model. The first thing we decided was to stay in the game. We looked at three things: market opportunity, team capabilities, and passion points. First, we had a passion for games, especially our CEO, who loved PC-strategy-based games. Secondly, our team had over 60 years of cumulative experience creating and launching Facebook applications. And finally, we were realizing that Facebook games, coupled with the free-to-play business model, were growing during these trying times. That was what really our start into gaming.
Our CEO was frustrated with the lack of depth of the current Facebook games and wanted to bring a deeper game to the Facebook audience. So we started building the first strategy-based game for Facebook using the ever popular lore of Camelot. We used a lot of community building strategies we had learned from our fan communities to connect people within alliances. Today, our Kingdoms of Camelot franchise has grossed over $250 million dollars in revenue and was the top grossing application in 2012 in the iOS store. We have connected millions of players who have made lifelong friendships, connections, and marriages.
Lessons From Kingdoms of Camelot and Kabam
Through this experience, I learned that entrepreneurship is a full contact sport. Be ready to take everything you have learned – not only what you learned in books at school, but also on the playground and at family dinners, and bring it to the table. You are in the ring. The good thing is you don’t have to do it alone. Make sure you have the right team with whom you can do the best work of your life. With the right team, you can make sure you are getting the right product out the door, and you will be able to raise capital to make this happen. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
In the beginning, my role was to help design a game that was accessible for the Facebook audience. While we knew there were gamers on Facebook, we also knew that a lot of people with no gaming experience would be exposed to Kingdoms of Camelot. Therefore, I spent a lot of time on the first time experience, as well as encouraging the player to get help from and engage friends. I was really inspired by some of the Camelot lore we grew up with and by the idea of transporting the player back in time to the medieval age where there were kings, lords, ladies, princes, and princesses. The concept was influenced by many of the Asian PC-strategy based games as well as a little from Sid Meier’s Civ. The game certainly exceeded our expectations not only on monetizaton but also with the deep connections between players. Personally, what I most enjoy seeing are the connections and how this game has changed people’s lives. The interesting thing is we are changing the world one connection and one player at a time – and I’m not sure how you can change the world without changing people first.
Now as the chief of staff and culture, I am responsible for overseeing HR, internal communications, and knowledge sharing (as a subset of internal communications). Currently, my day will include various meetings on how we can increase knowledge sharing, syncing up with people, and check-ins with various employees. Larger scale projects involve defining the cultural vision, setting up the internal communications framework and executing upon it, and finally, knowledge-sharing projects and milestones. My day-to-day activities all support these larger initiatives.
The Evolving Game Industry
There have been three large shifts for the game industry in recent years. The first has been platform changes. With the astronomical growth of the smartphone, we have seen people shift some of their gaming time to the mobile phone. In the West in particular, we have seen this impact the portable gaming consoles. Also, with the accessibility of the mobile phone, the gaming audience has widened past traditional gamers who are well-versed with the controller, out of the living room and into people’s pockets. This means a whole list of issues on how to get distribution on this platform and whether there is a first mover advantage. Currently for iOS and Android, the platform is moving much closer to a retail store where shelf space is limited, given that there is only so much content that can be featured on a limited shelf space.
We have seen the model move from a consumer goods business model to a service-based micro-transaction model.
The second shift has been around the business model, particularly in the West. We have seen the model move from a consumer goods business model to a service-based micro-transaction model. Or in the mobile phone context: paid apps vs. in-app purchases. In 2012, Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North was the #1 Top Grossing app across the iOS store, beating out Facebook, Pandora, Yelp, as well as any other paid app. This really ushered in a new viable business model, as it was one of the first times an in-app purchase app had beat out paid apps for the Top Grossing spot on the iOS store. The implications of this shift have radically transformed how we think about game making. Rather than thinking about a game like a movie, we need to think of a game as a TV show. In movies, as in traditional gaming, the first week is crucial to how well the movie will do. Doing well in the first weekend is the best indicator to how the movie will do over its lifetime. For a TV show, the pilot is the beta and a lot of tweaking can happen along the way. Also, the revenue curves are not determined by the first night the show is aired. Therefore, with free-to-play gaming, we think a lot about how the game is created in association with players. We value highly what players do, so we have spent quite some time looking into player behavior. There are now things that we can quantify and see, whereas before, there could have been more of a religious debate. For example, in a paid app world, there probably is a large discussion around something that is fun. For us, we can see the effects of fun with our retention rates. Additionally, the game does not stop when it is launched – in fact, that is only the beginning.
The Games-as-a-Service mindset and business model has been around for more than a decade in many Asian countries and is quite sophisticated in how they think of features and how they update the game.
The third shift is really due to the shift in the business model. It is more of a cultural and mindset shift to “games-as-a-service,” which is really a shift for the game industry in the West. This mindset and business model has been around for more than a decade in many Asian countries and is quite sophisticated in how they think of features and how they update the game. For some Asian games, there is a dedicated 24-hour hotline for VIP customers in their games. For free-to-play gamers, quality does not necessarily mean fidelity of art and graphics, it means consistent uptime, new content, and ultimately fun (or else they wouldn’t come back). Now with Games-as-a-service, when we design the game, we tend to think about how we will be able to extend the game. Much like when television writers write a story arc, they think of ways the story can be extended. We think of expansion packs and big feature releases similar to television seasons while tournaments, special items, smaller features, and events are similar to television episodes.
Challenges in the Changing Games Landscape
All game makers are facing two major challenges in this changing landscape. The first is distribution, particularly on the mobile device. On the web, folks just bought traffic or used SEO to drive traffic to their website, but now with the mobile phone (particularly for native mobile apps) it’s pretty difficult to repeat the same thing. The price of performance marketing has increased, driving many game developers either to partner or to focus on their business relationships with Apple or Google. The other challenge has been the ability to keep fidelity high while moving toward a Games-as-a-service model. Many game makers are coming from AAA console game development where a large amount of graphics and visual stunning art is what really helped increase revenue for the game. Console games were also built knowing that you had the players’ full attention – it was on the TV and there were controllers, so the games were more cinematic. But with the era of mobile, most players are not familiar with controllers. The game needs to be snack-able (i.e. you can be interrupted and it’s okay), easy to start and stop, and have a lesser amount of graphics that need to be downloaded.
Coming Innovations and How They Affect the Game Industry
I am pretty excited about wearable technology such as Google Glass and Oculus Rift, and the ushering of new gestures while maintaining an immersive experience. I’m hoping that the gestures will be more natural, which will do away with the alienation of the controller and widen the immersive experience of high-quality gaming. I’m also very excited about streaming and getting back into people’s living rooms. It is amazing that some people have canceled cable TV for streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix. And now with Google and AppleTV, you can fling a lot of content onto your TV with minimal effort, and latency fairly decently.
Coming Next From Kabam
Kabam is currently concentrating on making the next generation games. We have some pretty exciting games under development including some original IP as well as some Hollywood licensed IP, such as Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, and Mad Max. Kabam is also focused on building our platform by partnering with third party game developers not just to publish their games, but also to help localize and provide service operations to their games. And, this is all in addition to changing the world! 😉
Be sure to check out Holly Liu’s session on harnessing the power of passion in your work during Casual Connect USA!
As CCO of The Workshop, Laralyn McWilliams is an ardent believer in variety in games and taking risks in what is an all too often formulaic gaming industry. Even from a young age, she enjoyed gaming, but her road to The Workshop has had its share of twists and turns.
Taking a Leap
McWilliams grew up on Atari and arcade games, but it was text adventure games that first really showed her the inherent potential in gaming. “I wanted to experience and create immersive worlds,” she says. “As time passed, I was very influenced by others pursuing this same goal in games like The Colony, Quarterstaff (and many other Infocom games), Alternate Reality: The City, Shadowgate. Uninvited, and ultimately Myst,” she says.
It was in the 1980s that McWilliams realized she wanted to make games for a living — though at the time, she was unsure how to do that.
It was in the 1980s, after playing Adventure on her TI-99/4A and teaching herself to program an adventure game in BASIC, that McWilliams realized she wanted to make games for a living — though at the time, she was unsure how to do that. “I was never certain about a career beyond that, but studied things that were interesting to me,” she recalls. “In college, that was psychology and after college, it was law. For a time, I considered becoming an FBI profiler — hence psychology and law — but I couldn’t stop playing and trying to make my own games.”
Finally in the mid-1990s, she leaped head-first into the gaming industry with a demo that she sold to Microprose.
To a large degree, McWilliams believes that to break into the gaming industry and make it in the business, a person needs three things: talent, drive, and passion. A college education in a game- or tech-related field isn’t always necessary. “I’ve worked with a broad mix of people, some with no degrees and some with doctorates.”
However, she notes that a college education can come in handy for creating good learning habits and the exposure to new people and ideas it provides. “I think the habit of seeking out opportunities to learn is essential for game designers,” she says.
“I think the habit of seeking out opportunities to learn is essential for game designers.”
In the Business
During her time in the gaming industry, McWilliams has racked up some impressive accolades. She was the lead designer on Full Spectrum Warrior, the most nominated game of E3 in 2003. The same game won 1Up’s Player’s Choice for Best Simulation/Strategy in 2004, as well as being nominated for “Most Innovative Design” by IGN and “Most Innovative Game” by Gamespot.
In 2008, she was one of “The Gamasutra 20” highlighting women in games. She also shared the No. 1 spot on Massive Online Gaming’s list of the Twenty Most Influential People in MMOs in 2010.
The biggest achievement for McWilliams though is simply being where she in the gaming industry. “There aren’t very many women of my age or at my level of leadership in game design, and I consider that an achievement. I want to see more people of all types rising through the ranks of game design into leadership roles. Different voices make our games better and more interesting.”
Now at The Workshop, McWilliams spends half of her time on company-wide work like business development and game pitches, and the other half focused on a specific game — though that will likely change once the current game project wraps up. “Right now, we only have one game that needs my attention, and it’s a major, self-funded investment for us, so it deserves as much of my time and energy as it can get,” she says.
After that, she will have responsibilities over multiple games at once — an “interesting transition” for her after several years of roles where she only focused on one game at a time. “I have mixed feelings about it, honestly, because I enjoy making games. I always say, ‘I never want to be in a role where all I do is talk to other people about the games they’re making.’ On the other hand, I don’t want to be one of those people who tries to embed herself deeply on everything and becomes an irritating roadblock when the project needs to move forward and I’m out of the office or in meetings. It’s a delicate balance, for sure.”
McWilliams and The Workshop also share similar goals and philosophies, which makes working with them ideal. Along with keeping a balance between personal life and work, The Workshop has a commitment to building and supporting “great teams who make great games.” McWilliams also enjoys the way they encourage creativity and foster a sense of ownership in their employees.
For instance, she points out, The Workshop has no rules against side projects. “Since my current role is less hands-on than I’ve had in the past, a side project is a great way for me to continue to further my technical skills,” she says. “The funny thing is that both those things — a work/life balance and respect for individual IP ownership — are also taking risks for an independent company. Very few companies do those things, and more should.”
The Importance of Risks and Mistakes
One of the initial things that drew McWilliams to The Workshop was the fact they were willing to take risks. Along with its open and accommodating workplace policies, this also includes the game that is the focus of McWilliams’ attention at work. Although they are seeking funding for the game, they are committed to launching it themselves if they have to.
Along with risks come the occasional mistakes, missteps, and failures — which McWilliams believes are just as important in risk-taking as the successes.
Along with risks come the occasional mistakes, missteps, and failures — which McWilliams believes are just as important in risk-taking as the successes. “That’s the only way to learn, after all,” she says. “It’s why understanding your choices and expectations is so important — if what you’re doing fails and you didn’t have a clear expectation for what should have happened (and didn’t), it’s a lot harder to figure out the weaknesses and improve.”
Off the Clock
During her free time, McWilliams stays busy. She is active on a forum for head and neck cancer patients. “Most of the people on the forum are either going through treatment or have recurrences and it’s important that they hear from survivors,” she explains.
She also enjoys TV, books, traveling, and — of course — games; but the biggest thing that takes up her time when she’s not doing Workshop work is her side project. While she can’t say much about it currently, finishing it is something she looks forward to accomplishing. “It’s the first time I’ve ever worked on a game that felt so personal to me, and so much like something I needed to express. I haven’t worked on art in years, and art is a big part of the project. Finishing it is a huge goal for me.”
The Future of Gaming
McWilliams believes the future of gaming can be found in the indie scene, noting that indie games have enabled some great leaps forward. “I see that as where we’ll be moving forward most quickly and seeing more variety,” she says.
McWilliams believes the future of gaming can be found in the indie scene, noting that indie games have enabled some great leaps forward.
Variety is incredibly important to gaming, McWilliams says, because it pushes the entire industry forward. “Understanding what makes a 60-year-old grandma play a game is just as important as understanding what makes a 28-year-old guy play a game,” she explains. “We learn a lot more right now from the grandma because she’s new to us. Yet we keep focusing on the 28-year-old guy. I strongly feel that things we’d learn from understanding how to motivate Grandma will help us make better games for everyone, including the 28-year-old guy.”
McWilliams believes that the women and kids audiences will become more important as well, pointing out that both are big sources of revenue and huge consumers of mainstream entertainment — saying the current system seems broken. “You’ll find that the highest rated and most popular TV shows either have no equivalent in games or if they have an equivalent, it was developed on a short schedule with a tiny budget (compared to core games).”
In terms of technology and platforms, she thinks cross-platform gaming will rise as technology continues to advance. Already, she notes, more core gamers are taking up mobile gaming as the games get richer and more immersive. She believes gaming is coming to a “point of convergence” with two separate concepts: quality and location. Where a gamer used to have to choose between one or the other, they will eventually be able to have both at the same time.
As for the technology that excites her most right now? “I tried a Rift for the first time last E3 on ADR1FT, and it was great! I’m excited by it, as well as Steam’s hardware,” she says. “I’d love to get my personal project on both.”
McWilliams will be talking about how to make a game the Happiest Game in the World during Casual Connect USA 2014. Find out more about her session here.
As the Executive Director and Head of Publishing at 6waves, Stephen Lee spends his days speaking with developers from all over the world. And, while 6waves is one of the leading global publishers of independent social and mobile games, each developer may bring very different games, experiences, skills, resources, and needs to the publishing discussion. He says, “Having the flexibility to adjust to your partners, understand their situation, and come up with ideas that best address their needs, while still making business sense to all parties, is key.”
He maintains that flexibility is also the key to succeeding in all aspects of the games industry, since the industry changes more rapidly than most. Unless companies and individuals can adjust and pivot quickly, they won’t survive.
For the Love of Games
On a typical day at 6waves, Lee spends time with the team identifying high-potential games to approach for publishing, planning for the upcoming games in the pipeline, and exploring how to help the existing publishing portfolio. And they all spend time testing games that are being considered for publishing, although Lee has had to cut back on this lately.
“Having the flexibility to adjust to your partners, understand their situation, and come up with ideas that best address their needs, while still making business sense to all parties, is key.”
Gaming is not yet an established industry in Hong Kong, but it is growing steadily. Hong Kong is on an island, both literally and figuratively, so Lee is usually talking with people remotely using conference calls or Skype. As a result, he feels the best part of his job is traveling and participating in game shows, where he can meet others in the industry, catch up with peers in person, meet one-on-one with developers, and get a firsthand look at what is happening in the industry. He insists, “Any time I’ve had the pleasure of meeting developers that have worked on games I have enjoyed on a personal level is gravy on top!”
Lee has been a gamer as long as he can remember, but, with very strict parents, any time he was allowed to play was a special treat. And the love of games has stayed with him to this day. After working in Asia for 10 years, he knew he wanted to be a part of an industry he felt genuinely passionate about. The opportunity at 6waves came at just the right time, and he seized it.
Working in the Industry
At 6waves, he began on the business development team doing work similar to what he had done in his previous careers. Since then, he has had the opportunity to learn a great deal from colleagues and peers in the industry, especially about game development and product management. He emphasizes, “We’re very lucky to be working in a field with so many talented people. It’s non-stop learning and somewhat awe-inspiring. So I leverage my position to broaden my game knowledge as best I can.”
Now, Lee leads the 6waves publishing business for both social and mobile games, which includes the business development, product management, localization, customer service and community management teams.
Lee believes the greatest challenge facing the games industry today is discovery. Technology is evolving and game experiences continue to improve, but most games will not reach a meaningful number of players in a cost-effective manner. Although he sees no easy or simple fix to the problem, there are a number of factors that may help: improvements by platforms to more easily surface relevant and quality content to their customers, growth of cross-platform technologies to make games more readily available on as many consumer touch-points as possible, evolution of successful publishers to help with the scale and services developers need, and innovation by developers to bring more unique and interesting games and ideas to the market.
The Perks of a Publisher
A developer should always keep an open mind to consider publishing support in some fashion or another, Lee maintains. There are large developers in the industry with the resources to successfully launch a game worldwide, but no one company is best at every game genre or in every language and market. If the business terms make sense and both partners are committed to success, developers may achieve much more with a publishing partner that has specific areas of strength than they could realize on their own.
In today’s challenging climate for games, with the console market share shrinking and platforms becoming saturated, developers are left hoping for the next big hit or relying on work-for-hire projects. Not every game can be a hit, but publishers can help developers reduce risks by fronting marketing costs, providing advances to help developers recoup their investment or improve their cash flow, and, in some cases, funding projects altogether.
Lee points out that, although developers can raise funds from more sources than ever before, experienced publishers have established networks and a wealth of experience with optimizing games. So publishers can help developers market their games more efficiently, as well as target and retain users with better LTV.
He also realizes that most developers want to focus their time and energy on making great games. With their existing infrastructure and experience, publishers can help look after all the other things developers may not have budget, bandwidth or desire to handle, such as Live Ops, QA, Customer Service, Community Management, Localization, Hosting and others.
When building a relationship with partners, Lee listens carefully while reminding himself that developers put their all into making great games: time, energy, blood, sweat and tears. He says, “If developers put their trust into 6waves as their publishing partner, we owe them the same level of trust and commitment, and that means delivering the best quality service and giving their games the best opportunities to succeed.”
Lee believes the future of the games industry will see the growth of cross-platform games continuing, and most high quality games launching with a multi-platform, multi-device strategy. Already, some console titles are on mobile, and as this trend continues, gamers will be able to continue playing their favorite game wherever they are.
He has noticed considerable hype around the increased penetration of smart phones and wearable tech, but insists, “What’s largely missing in this discussion is that software will be just as important to success as hardware or the form factor. There will be a lot of people throwing their hats into the space, but after some shaking out, the cream will rise to the top. Hopefully, this will lead to more platforms for games to take off on.”
He also sees social elements continuing to be important factors in the most successful games, although, ironically, this usually leads to players being less social in the real world.
Looking at Asia
For developers to get the most mileage from their games, they need to carefully consider Asia, according to Lee. 6waves has an office with a large number of different nationalities, and a strong and diverse mix of cultural influences. This has served them well in building their global audience and helping developers to bridge the gap between East and West. People tend to think of Asia as a single region, but there are important cultural sensitivities between each Asian country and language.
People tend to think of Asia as a single region, but there are important cultural sensitivities between each Asian country and language.
Lee points to China as an example of how complex this situation is. For a developer to localize a game properly for the Chinese audience, they would first have to localize the language to Simplified Chinese for players in Mainland China. They also need to localize into Traditional Chinese for players in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but the spoken language of the characters is completely different in these two regions, Cantonese in Hong Kong and Mandarin in Taiwan. And each market has unique cultural references and slang. Most likely, the graphics would have to be changed to make the characters more appealing and features added to cater the gameplay to local audiences. It’s more than localization; it’s culturalization.
Asia is huge from a revenue perspective, but it is fragmented. Lee insists, “To really get the most from their games, developers should have a publisher willing to drill down to this detailed level, not only with localization, but also with online and offline marketing; this operates differently from other parts of the world.”
This is the area 6waves is focusing on, believing it is how they can help developers the most. They have local teams in the largest Asian mobile markets, strong relationships with local platforms, and an established publishing track record. Lee believes 6waves is in a great position to become the go-to partner for local publishing in Asia.
Stephen Lee will be discussing what developers should keep in mind when getting ready to launch and grow their games globally during Casual Connect Asia 2014. Find out more about his session on the conference website.
Matthew Hall, Founder and Developer of KlickTock, describes his career as the childhood hobby that never went away. He decided on his career direction at a very early age. He was five years old when he watched a news piece on Atari with some footage of the factory floor. He turned to his parents and said, “When I grow up, I want to be an electronic engineer.”
By eight years old, he was making his own games. Recently, he took out a 30-year-old cassette of these games and was impressed to discover that almost all of them were complete. “These days,” he admits, “I have a lot more half-finished games lying around.” Hall began working as a professional game developer in 2001 and now he can’t imagine doing anything else.
A Hard Choice
Starting out as an independent developer is not an easy choice to make. When Hall decided to start KlickTock, he tells us, “My wife and child moved back to the family farm while I toiled away there on the original Little Things. When the original launch of that title didn’t go as well as I had hoped, it was a pretty dark time.” The problem was not that he had made a bad game, it was that he had made it for the wrong audience. When it was eventually released on tablet, it was very successful. Fortunately, he was able to move on quickly and found a niche for his unconventional products on the App Store.
Video games have always been a source of inspiration for Hall. Zelda: Link’s Awakening was the first Nintendo game he purchased. “I was completely captivated,” he says. Luxor by Mumbo Jumbo inspired him to leave his day job and start KlickTock. Recently, he has been playing Forget-Me-Not by Brandon Williamson and Nuclear Throne by Vlambeer. He claims, “They are the two most inspirational games I’ve played and remind me just how much I have to learn about writing games.”
As an independent developer, Hall especially values being in charge of his own destiny. He believes the best thing about his work is never having to convince anyone that his idea is a great one. But the most difficult thing is convincing himself of its value. He has discovered, “Without perspective that you can rely on, the only way to properly judge your own game is to take a few months off, come back later, and play it again. This obviously makes development quite slow!”
A Change in Indie Development
Hall points out that independent developers have been around since the birth of computers, but recently game development has changed in ways that benefit them. Unity and UDK have given independent developers the opportunity to compete with the big studios. Previously, they had to write their own 3D engine to release a 3D game. Now, any major problems can be quickly solved with a search, especially with Unity, since it has such a large development community.
The rise of portals such as Steam and the App store has also benefited independent developers, allowing them to make money, sometimes in significant amounts, from their hobby. Unusual games that were once played only by hobbyists can now find an audience.
The biggest challenge developers are facing, both in the indie space and in the mobile space, according to Hall, is getting noticed. Building a great product doesn’t guarantee success. He states, “For the indies, a cult of personality has emerged. Not only does your game have to be remarkable, but your personality also is a factor.”
In the mobile space, he has seen that the issues of a crowded marketplace have existed since the early days of the App Store. He emphasizes, “It’s important not only to build an amazing product, you also have to be ready to pick yourself up and try again if things don’t go well the first time. Building a profile as a reliable and interesting developer takes time.”
He gives this advice to independents starting out: “Build titles! Take a small idea, prototype it to prove it’s worthy of completion, then complete it.” He has noticed that developers are often overly invested in their ideas; playing them can shatter preconceptions of the game in a good way.
Preparing for the Future
Hall sees huge changes coming to the electronic entertainment industry with the advent of virtual reality via Oculus Rift. The original Oculus Rift dev kit has a profound effect on anyone who has tried it. Hall believes, “With the new technology, new genres and new opportunities will emerge. I’m very excited about making VR games, even if it isn’t the wisest business move at the moment.”
And the future of KlickTock should be just as exciting. Hall has a wall covered in game ideas ranging from the esoteric to potential top grossing titles. For several months, he has been working on a new title called Age of Solitare, which he expects to release very soon. He also tells us he is currently in ‘development hell’ working on a collectable card game called Deck War and hopes to release it later this year.
Simon Mack, CTO of NaturalMotion, knew at an early age that he wanted a career in software development but, although he grew up playing games, he never considered the possibility of working in the games industry. While he was studying at his university, a friend introduced him to a company called MathEngine and the physics simulation middleware they were making. He says, “I was blown away—this was unlike anything I had seen before and more advanced than I had thought possible. I got an internship there and was hooked.”
Inspired by Technology
During Mack’s work on physics engines, he met Torsten Reil, CEO of NaturalMotion, and was inspired by the breakthrough technology his team was creating. He has now worked for the company for almost 11 years.
Today, NaturalMotion focuses on advancing its middleware technology with state-of-the-art character animation that scales across consoles and PC, as well as for their own mobile games. They also focus on growing and sustaining their mobile games such as Clumsy Ninja and their CSR franchise, while developing new breakthrough mobile games in new content categories. Emphasizing product value and customer experience is what allows NaturalMotion to build experiences thought to be impossible on mobile. And, they are always interested in hiring the best people to help take the company to the next level.
No two days at NaturalMotion are the same; Mack claims it’s hard to imagine a “normal” day. Because they use agile, collaborative processes across all projects, usually they begin the day with scrums with various teams. The rest of the day includes such things as product reviews, tech planning, and helping teams resolve technical issues efficiently. Mack especially enjoys the sprint reviews where he sees the progress on each project. He points out, “With so many teams working across technology and games sections, there’s always something we’re working on together to raise the bar for incredible consumer experiences.”
When not hard at work, Mack does manage to fit in a bit of mobile gaming. These days, Mack’s mobile gaming includes Threes! and Boom Beach. He also admits to playing a lot of Zynga’s recent launch, Farmville 2 Country Escape; he enjoys the game’s visually rich design and depth of gameplay.
Succeeding on Your Own Merits
In the games industry, Mack finds “a fantastic blend of genuinely cutting edge technology and artistic creativity, something that is found in very few places.” He enjoys the constant change and the inspiring talent the industry attracts, as well as the fact that it generally allows people to succeed on their own merits.
Mack has had considerable involvement with recruiting talent and offers this advice to people starting out in the games industry: “Build a portfolio that showcases your art or what kind of code you can write. I always enjoy interviews where the candidate shows off a personal project.”
Great Growth and Consumer Experience Opportunities
During the time Mack has been in the games industry, he has seen amazing technical progress in the console space as well as a change in the scale of games, development teams and budget growth. The results have been richer visuals and deeper AAA games with great content, causing a great deal of consolidation in the industry.
And, he notes that the past few years have seen amazing growth in mobile gaming. “Mobile games have enabled smaller teams to create high quality games more quickly, revitalizing the industry with massive opportunities for growth,” Mack says. “Millions of people who have never played traditional video games now play social games on mobile devices every day. Casual consumers benefit from far greater accessibility, social experiences, and lower costs, whilst hardcore consumers have better console-quality experiences than ever before and an increasing number of category options on mobile.”
But Mack sees possible mis-steps made by developers new to the industry, including determining the right level of innovation in technology. Some resist using middleware, preferring to develop their own solutions. So, as they re-invent the wheel, they have less efficient development time and miss the opportunity to use best-in-class technology.
He also sees the opposite scenario: it is becoming more common for development teams to pick an off-the-shelf engine solution and simply add content. He believes this lack of technical innovation can lead to games that lack the ‘wow’ factor they need to stand out. At NaturalMotion, they emphasize constant innovation in technology while remaining as efficient as possible by using best practices and reusing existing systems when it makes sense.
Mack is excited to see how mobile technology will evolve over the next few years. He says, “We’re nearing the possibility of real console-quality on mobile devices, and it will be interesting to see how that is best leveraged in making games that appeal to both the mainstream market and the more hardcore player.”
Simon Mack will be talking about Clumsy Ninja and the character animation system used to create their game during Casual Connect Asia 2014. Find out more about his session here.
Jakob Lykkegaard, Co-Founder of Pocket PlayLab, remembers his teacher telling him that entrepreneur or CEO was not a valid dream job. Fortunately for mobile gamers, he was not convinced. When he started looking for opportunities, he quickly became enthralled with the internet. A few years ago, he and Co-Founder Thomas Andreasen had the opportunity to take over an entire gaming team of 13 people. Pocket PlayLab was the result. He says, “I think I got into gaming because I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of taking over a great team that had become available in a booming industry.”
The first challenge to the new company became clear immediately: not a single member of the team had ever built a server or mobile game platform to the size and scale they were aiming for. They overcame the challenges through trial and error, and in the process learned so much that they are now among the best in the field. So much so that they attract professionals who have worked on a large scale with the big games.
After a little over a year, with the team of 20 being paid out of Lykkegaard’s and Andreasen’s pockets, the company reached a crisis point. The end of Pocket PlayLab was in sight, unless they could raise money from outside the company or unless their next title was a hit. Lykkegaard met with investor after investor, but admits, “Every one of them rejected us at our first meeting for being unrealistic. They didn’t believe in our team or in mobile gaming.”
So the most exciting, proudest moment of his career came when he realized they had a major hit and no longer needed to raise money to keep the business going. He loved the feeling of proving all those investors wrong. But he points out, “They were right about our sales projections and valuation being unrealistic. We reached our 2016 projections shortly after launch in 2013.”
A Refined Plan
A lot has changed since Lykkegaard and Andreasen founded Pocket PlayLab. Their reason for starting the company was to figure out how to make a successful business out of making games, and they believed they would find a way by trying out a lot of directions. Today, they have a much more refined plan for their internal platform to produce more successful games with higher quality and at greater speed. They are still constantly testing new content and styles, but they know which direction they are going.
The team at Pocket PlayLab gets inspiration for their games through constantly playing and testing successful games to analyze why they like them and breakdown what it is that makes them successful. Lykkegaard emphasizes, “When you have done this many times, you start to have a clear idea of what would be awesome to make; then you do a prototype. If that prototype was not as fun as you expected, you start over. If it feels like a hit, you go into production.” This is the same way he learned about investing and founding a startup. He figured out who had already accomplished what he wanted to do, then he studied as much as he could about how they did it.
Looking at the Industry
Lykkegaard feels there is no other industry with as much opportunity to build a successful business as you will find in the mobile game space, with users willing to pay and distribution reaching billions. The biggest issue he sees in the industry is building something that users will love and use as part of their daily habits.
He recognizes that many developers see exposure as a great challenge with thousands of apps and games coming out every day. However, this is only an issue if a studio has become used to having things go viral in the early days or building games without a marketing team. Then they are dependent on having a big publisher pick them up. In every other industry, it takes a lot of money and PR to reach users. Lykkegaard asks, “Has the games industry just become lazy with their marketing?”
Choosing to work with a publisher or not is another decision developers have to face. After working both with and without a publisher, Lykkegaard has his own guidelines about when a publisher will be an advantage. He says, “If you have a freemium that makes over $2 + LTV, you are able to buy those users from advertising networks and make a higher profit without a publisher. If you have a freemium game that makes less than that or a premium, then go find a publisher. It takes only a few hundred dollars to find this out on a test market with ads, but many fail to do it.”
For now though, the future for Pocket PlayLab involves staying in the Cube universe for some time, but also include diversifying to reach other kinds of users; the games to do this are already in production. Lykkegaard is excited to see what they will come up with, since they are currently expanding to new markets and people. He says, “All I know for sure is that everything we have done so far has been a big step forward.”
Jakob Lykkegaard will be discussing more about how Pocket PlayLab was able make a comeback from nearly closing at Casual Connect Asia next month. To find out more, visit the conference website.
Yat Siu, Co-Founder of Animoca, as well as Founder and CEO of its parent company Outblaze, has always been attracted to technology, although his educational background is in music. His interest in gaming began as a child playing on his Commodore 64, but he never expected to work primarily with games, simply because it was such a fledgling industry at the time. But as he followed his interests, his career included various technology areas, such as lifestyle, Internet, Web, social media, and games.
When Siu co-founded Animoca, he recognized the high investment necessary in publishing and marketing a hit game as a formidable problem. The games industry is a crowded and competitive market, and with so many people focused on creating the next big hit, the chances of succeeding are limited. So Siu went a different direction, with what he calls a “supermarket approach.” Animoca offered a broad selection of titles that would appeal to a wide range of the global market, including the underserved female audience.
This plan, particularly catering to girl gaming and the “cute” niche, allowed them to become profitable in their first year. The strategy also allows them to distribute apps very effectively because their games are played by a broad range of people over the globe, with 220 million downloads by early 2014. For the future of Animoca, Siu expects to continue growing the business, but equally important, he wants them to continue having fun, learning, unlearning, and learning even more.
To navigate the inevitable crises in this business, Siu uses negotiation skills and a logical, information-based decision-making process. And he insists, “Develop the ability to avoid panic!”
Keys to Success
Siu emphasizes that the most challenging aspect of working in the games industry is its ever-changing nature. To be successful, you must identify trends early, before they become established. It is essential to be constantly learning and observing, while discarding outdated information and modes of thinking. He says, “Running tech companies is a mountain of hard work, and often your efforts don’t succeed at first, but the key is to adapt, persevere, and follow your vision.”
For a game’s success, Siu feels the most important factor is player engagement. He insists, “Whether it is the story, the art, the difficulty, the game play, or the social features, what you want is for your game to engage players.”
“Whether it is the story, the art, the difficulty, the game play, or the social features, what you want is for your game to engage players.”
Siu emphasizes that the Asian market is far from being a single market. In fact, it is a multi-market with dramatic cultural and language differences between countries, and a game can succeed in one country while failing miserably in another. There are dramatic cultural and language differences between countries, even such geographically close ones as China and Japan. An example of these differences is the strong trend toward portrait-based, one-handed game play in Japan, something which is not evident anywhere else.
Asia, he tells us, is fragmented with many markets at different stages of development, affluence, and hardware penetration. For instance, China is a fast-growing smartphone market; Korea is a mature one. And in South Korea, China, and Japan, ecosystems are emerging and interacting with hardware companies and telecoms to provide new methods of distribution.
In Asia, the vast population is localized into single markets; being successful in one market is not considered a problem.
In contrast, in the West, the USA is a single enormous market and no European market is even close to its size. App developers focus on what will be popular in the US. In Asia, the vast population is localized into single markets; being successful in one market is not considered a problem. The West concentrates on a global market while developers in Asia localize for a single market. Asia is moving toward localized, culturally relevant content rather than emphasizing products which will be easily transferable to other markets and cultures.
Asia’s Influence on the Industry
Over the years, Siu has seen the games industry become more mainstream and accessible to everyone; focused on delivering a personal experience. In the past, games were experienced on a special shared device, a console, or gaming computer. Now games are played primarily on the device you use to communicate, to manage your contacts, and to connect to the internet, your social circle, and your social networks. Gaming is now moving toward the personal and the personalized with Siri-like services in games and more portable or wearable computing devices.
Siu has noted that the games industry thrives on borrowing and adapting, and the influence of Asian models and innovations continues to increase. For example, free-to-play came out of South Korea, and Asian game titans are now starting to dominate. He expects to see continued cultural exchange and assimilation of games, and at Animoca, the emphasis is on finding the appropriate market or niche for a title. Another trend in the Asian market is the focus on producing hardcore games that require significant investment in player time and effort, a trend which is now spreading to the US.
Breaking into the Asian Market
As developers attempt to break into the Asian market, the most frequent mistakes he sees come from allowing personal bias and experience to get in the way when making decisions. He points out that you can’t take your intuition and habits for granted in a new market. It is critical to study the environment, the opportunities, and the obstacles and use them to make sensible, data-driven decisions.
The most important advice he gives for making a game stand out in the Asian market? “Move to Asia!” Or at least work with good local partners.
Yat Siu will be speaking about what it takes for Asian mobile game developers to break into the US market at Casual Connect Asia 2014 in Singapore next month. Find out more about his session on the conference website.