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.”
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 a composer, it’s no surprise Jesper Kyd loves music. Even from a young age, when Kyd started playing classic guitar and piano, his passion for melodies and harmonies was evident.
As he grew, so did his musical expertise. He started messing with music in an electronic medium when he got his first computer, a Commodore 64, at age 13. At 15, he got his first keyboard, a Roland D-20, and began composing music with that as well. “I’ve always loved experimenting with electronics and creating unique sounds,” he says.
Once More, With Feeling
Some of Kyd’s favorite bands and influences include The Knife and Royksopp, as well as classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Ottorino Respighi. For him, music is all about the feeling. “Music can take you far away and make you feel something different,” he notes. “I’m drawn to the emotion of music.”
This fundamental trait of music is what makes it so enjoyable to work with and is a component of the music-making process for Kyd — allowing him to find inspiration in whatever the focus of his latest project is. “There is always a lot of inspiration when working on games, film, and TV as your music needs to fit into a certain world so that world should always be able to inspire ideas.”
“Music is there to set the mood and deepen the experience, to add atmosphere and immerse you in the world.”
Regardless of the platform or genre, music has the same purpose in a game. “Music is there to set the mood and deepen the experience, to add atmosphere and immerse you in the world,” Kyd says. “Music can also make you play a game longer. For example, if some music comes on that you feel like listening to, then you might stay in the game world longer and that might be all it took for you to find something new and now you end up playing the game for another hour or more.”
The process is also the same no matter the game. Kyd will generally work alongside the creative director, audio director, or game director, discussing what the music needs to do along with the wider game story and its characters. At times, he will be directly involved with how the music is applied in the game, and other times everything has already been sorted before he’s even brought in. He loves being involved as much as possible in the process though. A score can take anywhere from three to nine months to put together, depending on how early he is brought in to the process and how much music is required — and it’s not unusual for him to write around three hours of music on a single project.
Reflections and Pushing Forward
“I’m always trying to push my music forward so there is not really a project where I can say ‘that’s the one.’ I think there is always room to improve and that is something I feel when listening to my music.”
There’s no such thing as a crowning accomplishment for Kyd and each project brings more knowledge and new ways of thinking to the table. “I’m always trying to push my music forward so there is not really a project where I can say ‘that’s the one.’ I think there is always room to improve and that is something I feel when listening to my music. I develop my music all the time and so when I go back to listen to a score after I have grown in other areas of music making, I feel I can go back to that style and add something new.”
Even though he won’t call it a crowning achievement, his scores on the first four Assassin’s Creed games were certainly a milestone, and it makes him happy to know the Assassin’s Creed community still enjoys the “Ezio’s Family” theme and connects to it, noting it was intended to go beyond gameplay. He is also proud to have established the sound of Assassin’s Creed, saying “It seems there now are very high expectations from the music in the Assassin’s Creed series, and I feel good about having planted that seed.”
In keeping with his theme of pushing forward, Kyd has recently made the jump to social games. He was approached by Plarium, who were looking to create interesting and unique music for their games. “Plarium gave me full creative reign and that’s (one thing) I look for when working on a project. I liked their ideas and they were very open to mine, so we connected on a creative level and started working together.”
Whatever projects may come in the future, for Kyd, “It’s always about working in a fun environment with creative people who share the same kind of enthusiasm and passion.”
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.
Sonal Patel, the business development director of Twitter Exchange, JAPAC, says her favorite part of the industry is the complexity. She started out training to become a lawyer but ended up in advertising, realizing her passion was in technology. She grew up working in the family grocery store and noticed some products sold more than others; this began her interest in advertising.
Working in a New Market
Her first role was in the oil and gas industry at a time when gas was being marketed to UK homes from other providers that were not government run. The market was new, the product was the same, and the only differentiator was the marketing, so her role was a tough one. She was very hands-on in creating new ways to go to market, to understand the wholesale gas prices, work through B2B markets, and do financial modeling to create compelling propositions. The main difficulties were comprehending the needs of the various stakeholders and finding balance. Although she admits overcoming these difficulties, understanding the overall business gave her perspective.
Patel accepted her current role with Twitter Exchange because she recognized the passion and drive of social media and the real depth of social data, real-time bidding and relevancy. She was a Twitter user who loved the product and understood the potential of Mopub. She was sure the technology platform was going to be a game-changer.
A Satisfying Position
There have been many satisfying moments in Patel’s career, she tells us, but the time that keeps her grounded was helping to build an ad network that started out as a sole trader in advertising and grew to a team of more than two hundred around the world. She says, “This experience was humbling, as this particular ad network founder showed me where he had created the vision of his business and how he conceived his idea in his small retail store, and has now become a massive million dollar business.”
She emphasizes, “I love the gaming industry because it resonates so well with me as I help young entrepreneurs who have a passion to enjoy games, build amazing games, and overcome the many challenges they have to become successful. Helping those smaller companies or individuals think about engagement and adoption builds their confidence to create great products.”
When Patel describes her work, she claims there is no ‘normal’ day, and she loves working in such a dynamic and differing landscape. She states, “The vibrancy of Asia from the cultures, customs, languages, and advertising maturity keeps me intrigued, busy, and learning every day.” She believes the main qualities necessary to thrive in this environment are listening, patience, humility, and respect for others. Her skill in advertising comes from recognizing opportunity; she notes that sometimes it is harder to walk away from a deal than to sign it. JAPAC is a market with wide economic disparity. Mobile phones and tablets are the first way for many people to get to the internet; this has created a surge of information-hungry users who want to experience everything from games to video to knowledge.
A Disruption in the Industry
Patel is seeing a huge change in the industry coming from the disruption of the media buying landscape and the utopia of relevant audience. Small gaming companies have limitations on their advertising budgets, so they use as much data as possible or a platform that allows them to find a relevant audience to download their games, and then spend money where the ROI is going to be positive. The thirst for user acquisition pushes technology players to layer on as much data as possible that will be insightful to help an advertiser find the right inventory to click or convert a user.
“Relevancy is at its most potent in real time; when it collides with opportunity and engagement to result in a purchase.”
In Patel’s career, she has seen a tremendous evolution in understanding the relevancy of advertising. She insists, “Relevancy is at its most potent in real time; when it collides with opportunity and engagement to result in a purchase.” But it has been difficult to move advertisers from the guaranteed premium mindset to thinking about real-time bidding and ad exchanges. When working with clients in mature markets like the US and UK, she saw a lot of apprehension on such a sophisticated technology play in advertising. But it started the tech revolution in advertising we are seeing today. The days of buying impressions because of the belief of a publisher’s user base are gone; the return on investment has become paramount.
Patel emphasizes that the disruption in the advertising world over the last five years has turned the industry on its head. Today, content is channeled across many media, which include opportunities for consumers to communicate directly back to the advertiser. So advertisers must have the resourcefulness, creativity, and drive to think on their feet while keeping the conversation and engagement with the consumer going, and they must do it in real time. She advises, “Keep relevant and keep responding to new advertising trends to realize your market potential.”
The biggest trend she sees coming in the digital industry will result from the emergence of cloud computing, giving big data the ability to grow and become reality. Big data, the connectivity of the web to our lives, gaming, and the possibilities of biotechnology will drive the adoption of the Internet of Things. During the next three to five years, she expects to see the consolidation of the digital landscape, the effect of disruption between e-commerce, 3D printing, video gaming and mobile. Programmatic Real Time Bidding will become a mainstay way to buy media.
Sergio Salvador, the head of games partnerships at Google, developed an interest in video games at an early age. He was 12 years old when he received his first computer, a Sinclair Spectrum 48k (a popular choice in Europe at the time). He was expected to learn to code on it, but quickly discovered he enjoyed the end product much more. So he spent many hours playing games like Elite, Manic Miner, Skool Daze, Gauntlet, Way of the Exploding First, Fury of the Furries, and Atic Atac.
Salvador’s career has also focused on the end product, as he has served as business development, product marketing, product management, and general management. Most of his career has been spent with Electronic Arts spanning several countries, including Spain, UK, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
A Life of Games
While studying for his PhD, he made his first entry into the serious side of games with an online games magazine he founded with a friend. The magazine had reviews and editorial content and was a great success, becoming the most popular games magazine in Spanish in the world.
One particularly rewarding experience in his career was the international launch of Battlefield 2 while he was based in London. He decided to do something rare for EA at the time: launch a special edition of the game with a great box and memorabilia inside. It became incredibly popular, and the game did well overall. He still owns one of these special editions in an unopened box.
The games industry when he started out was quite different from today. One of his first roles with EA was in the online division in Europe, working on the launch of the online games services, known as EA.com at the time, a very early predecessor to the Origin service. The launch of the service was difficult at the beginning; it came just after the dot.com bubble burst. He emphasizes that it was hard going at first, with uncertainty and diminishing support both internally and externally, but eventually, as the online industry overall began to recover, the service started getting off the ground.
Focus on the People
Salvador’s career has always focused on the business side of the games industry, and he finds the skills necessary for success are interchangeable with those needed in other industries. One of the skills he feels is critical to develop is a laser focus on the user, whether external, or, less commonly, internal. He insists, “Identifying a problem or need a user has, and doing everything in your power to find a solution for it, almost always results in a positive outcome.”
Unfortunately, Salvador has noticed it is common under certain company and industry conditions to feel pressure to focus on driving revenue. He asserts, “This is anathema to a great partnership. Focusing on the partners’ needs and working to help them find a solution is the right premise to any partnerships-focused work. Solving the problem a partner has will routinely end up being beneficial to both partners, with revenue being a common desirable side effect.”
Leave Room For Fun
These days, he is spending quite a lot of his time in China and Japan meeting partners and presenting at conferences. Working globally requires flexibility and long days; early morning is a good time to connect with the team in North America, work with Europe starts at about 3:00 PM, Singapore time, and in between, he is involved with the Asia-focused work, reviewing the status of different discussions or working on overall strategy for different partners.
Salvador believes it is essential to take time away from work; he normally does this on weekends. Usually he devotes this time to his family, but when he is not with them, he is training for marathons, playing tennis, attending yoga classes or learning to play the electric guitar. He also lectures on digital marketing one evening a week at a local polytechnic, claiming this change of pace feels like free time, and is on the boards of a local NGO and a global games conference.
Tips for the Next Gen
To people starting out in the games industry, Salvador recommends focusing on the future with mobile, mobile, mobile! He recognizes that the online games industry is large in Asia and consoles are a big part of the industry in Western countries. But he insists, “The future is in mobile, and that doesn’t mean only smartphones.” He recommends, “Settle on an idea you are passionate about and start experimenting with it on phones, tablets, wearables, and virtual reality platforms.”
Passion is the attribute he feels is most important for the next generation of games professionals. “Games are a form of art, possibly the most interactive and entertaining form of art,” he insists, “Players are almost always passionate about games they play and games they love if they can feel the passion that went into making them, whether they are hardcore or casual gamers.” So professionals should be passionate about the work they are doing, whether that work is directly designing and creating the games or is the business side of the games industry. It all contributes to great gaming experiences.
Defining the Market
Saturation and business models are always important concerns when he is working with partners. To some extent, he says this is an Asia-focused view of the world, particularly China, where games markets are reaching the point that makes long-term business unsustainable for small companies. Business models are now gravitating to micro-transactions and in-app purchases, models which are essentially the same for different platforms. Today, with the number of games available in online and mobile, only the top developers are making any real money, while the majority of companies only generate enough revenue to continue plodding along, but are limited in how much they can innovate. Salvador recognizes that this will be damaging to the industry long term until a painful market correction happens.
He believes that mobile platforms will continue to define the market in the foreseeable future, with new platforms bringing both challenges and opportunities. This evolution of the games industry will allow games to be more portable, possibly more customizable, and will make them significantly more mass market. He points out that there are great experiments going on now, such as Google’s augmented reality game, Ingress. Salvador says, “The team will be working this year with a select group of developers to build games using geographic data from the game, with a full API expected to release to the public in 2015.”
As a gamer, Salvador is excited about virtual reality technologies, claiming we now have the right talent and the right computing power in small formats. He believes, “Both Morpheus and Oculus seem to be inspiring developers, and whether they deliver what they promise or not, inspiration always leads to creativity and new ideas being generated. That can only be good.”
Sergio Salvador will explore solutions for the challenges facing developers who can’t live on in-app purchases alone during Casual Connect Asia 2014. More on his session can be found on the conference website.
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.