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Studio Spotlight

Hinterland: Creating Games in the Wilderness

March 12, 2014 — by Clelia Rivera

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The untamed wilderness is the last place you would think to find a game development studio. Yet that is exactly where Another Castle’s Best Newcomer Studio, Developer, or Publisher of 2013 winner Hinterland can be found. Established in 2012 in Northern Vancouver Island, a team of seasoned veterans formed to create captivating games they could be proud of. With everyone having 10-15 years of experience in the AAA industry, they decided to break free and make something personal.

Beginning Anew

Raphael Van Lierop, Founder and Creative Director, worked in various positions during his 13 years in the industry, but he felt it was time to do something different. It wasn’t because he wanted to “be an indie,” but he did want to work in a studio with a foundation he could believe in. “I wanted to be able to work on something that felt more personal, more artistic, and more of an expression of individual thinking,” says Van Lierop. “That’s hard to do in the established industry where teams and budgets are so big – we all know those dynamics really work against creating original games that are trying to push against the mainstream.”

Raphael van Lierop, Founder & Creative Director, Hinterland
Raphael van Lierop, Founder & Creative Director

Other veterans felt the same way as Van Lierop and joined him on this new path. “We’d all pretty much hit that same point in our careers, where we still wanted to work on great games with great collaborators, but wanted to do it under our own terms,” says Van Lierop. “Hinterland is about being independent.”

Alan Lawrance, Technical Director
Alan Lawrance, Technical Director

Due to all the experience the team has, it took almost no time for them to get down to business. As with all studios starting out, they had their share of challenges, but they got through by evaluating the situation and making the best decision that could lead them forward. “This is one of the huge benefits of working with a small team – you can turn on a dime and you don’t have to lose time waiting for someone to give you the greenlight to make a major change or whatever,” says Van Lierop. “You just do it.”

Working Simply

David Chan, Audio Director
David Chan, Audio Director

Hinterland was established to enable the team to create games they wanted without having to sacrifice themselves to do it. “So really, I had to found Hinterland to make the kinds of games I wanted to make in a more ‘humane’ way, which didn’t require people to uproot their families and lives to be able to do good work,” says Van Lierop. To be able to do this, they incorporate many online tools to keep things running smoothly, such as Basecamp, Skype, and Dropbox.

The day starts off simply: discuss what needs to be done and then work to complete it. Van Lierop determines the project direction and works with the team to distribute it into different areas. As pros, they are good at working together. “We test theories, try to evaluate – honestly and objectively – the strength of the ideas or implementation and make the changes we need to improve things,” says Van Lierop. “We’re not overly precious about ideas, which isn’t to say we don’t have a vision, we’re just all experienced enough to know that ideas are meaningless without a strong execution behind them.”

Emily Claire Afan, Community & PR Manager
Emily Claire Afan, Community & PR Manager

When starting the studio, it wasn’t about going indie, and it isn’t like they are thinking of trying to incorporate AAA into indie development. It just happens. “You don’t stop to think about how you’re breathing, you just breathe,” says Van Lierop. “We just make games.” Rather than think of themselves as indie, Hinterland is independent, and Van Lierop believes there is a difference. “It’s not like, here’s my triple-A handbook, and here’s my ‘indie’ handbook, and I flip between depending on the game,” says Van Lierop. “I think there’s this popular notion that if you come from the triple-A space, you don’t know how to make an ‘indie’ game – like somehow your ability to think independently atrophies because you worked within an established studio.” Yet scope and agility are the only real differences between AAA and indie projects, he believes. Also, the lack of a publisher limits what they can do, but they still push forward with their mission of creating meaningful games.

Creating Thought-Provoking Games

Marianne Krawczyk, Writer
Marianne Krawczyk, Writer

The public often does not take games seriously. Van Lierop wants to change the view into games being “a mature medium for delivering a variety of meaningful experiences that touch people on multiple levels.” Years from now, he wants to feel proud of the work he’s done. “It’s not about making a ‘product’ or a ‘best-seller’ or any of that stuff,” says Van Lierop. “It’s about creating something and knowing that other people thought it was good enough they were willing to assign a value for it, both in terms of their time and money.”

To do this requires making good choices about content, tone, and mechanics, according to Van Lierop, and investing yourself into creating a new kind of experience. They hope to accomplish this with their first title, The Long Dark. Coming from a concept Van Lierop had considered for years and enhanced by the team, they wanted players to have a fascinating experience. Without a combat mechanic, they hoped to immerse players through tone and content. Van Lierop says, “In terms of tone and content, a lot of this comes down to things like world design, art direction, narrative, etc., and for that, I think our approach is pretty simple – respect our craft, respect our audience, and try to do something that would be worthy of any medium, so that people don’t just say ‘Wow, that was a pretty meaningful experience *for a  game*,’ they say, ‘that was a meaningful experience for *any medium*.’”

To realize the game, they decided to crowd-fund using Kickstarter, and believed it was a great experience. “We’ve never really been in a position to talk about a game so early in development, so it was simultaneously energizing and scary as hell,” says Van Lierop. The game was successfully funded on October 16, 2013, raising more than $50,000 past their initial goal. But for the team, it wasn’t just about the funds. “For us, the Kickstarter was almost more about announcing the game and studio, staking a claim on the concept, starting the process of building the all-important community, and basically saying ‘We’re here. Watch this space.’”

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“We’re here. Watch this space.”

The team is excited to produce their first title, and are overcoming many challenges to make it a tribute to their mission, but Van Lierop thinks meeting both the team’s and players’ expectations is the most challenging. “What we want players to experience is really simple: something that impacts them, makes them think long after they’ve finished playing, and is unlike anything they’ve played before.”

Hinterland hopes to provide years of thought-provoking entertainment with the help of a dedicated, supportive community. But for now, the team is concentrating on The Long Dark, hoping to release it October 2014. Fundraising for stretch goals are continuing on the game’s website. Stay updated by following the team on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Europe 2014Video Coverage

Casual Connect Europe 2014: A Sweet Homecoming

March 10, 2014 — by Clelia Rivera

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This year was a sweet homecoming for Casual Connect Europe as it returned to the city where it all started: Amsterdam. It may have started with only a few hundred attendees back in 2006, but this time, about 2000 game industry professionals gathered in the beautiful Beurs van Berlage for three days to create new connections and learn more about the industry’s current trends. Over 120 lectures were presented by international speakers from companies such as Wooga, Youtube, Facebook, Google, and GamePoint. Lectures included information useful for the current game market, such as Godus creator Peter Molyneux‘s session on design re-invention, new technology, and mobile development.

Casual Connect isn’t just about the handy lectures, but also the professional relationships that are built through meeting and sharing with close to 1000 other companies in attendance. Whether during the day at the show or the sponsored parties at night, there is always the opportunity to reach out and help foster the growth of the game industry community. This was true not only for the seasoned veterans, but new developers as well. Over 100 indie developers displayed their work at the Indie Prize Showcase held at Casual Connect Europe. In addition, 13 teams won various awards, from Most Innovative Game to Best in Show. The winners can be viewed on the Indie Prize website.

Indie Prize Winners
The Winners of Casual Connect Europe 2014’s Indie Prize Showcase

Looking forward to returning to Amsterdam next year, Casual Connect is currently focusing on the preparations for Casual Connect Asia, held in Singapore May 20 – 22, 2014. Check out the conference website if you are interested in more information: http://asia.casualconnect.org/

If you were not able to make it to Casual Connect Europe (or if you want to relive fond memories), videos of the presentation are available for free on Gamesauce and the conference website.

Casual Connect Europe Videos on Gamesauce:
Erik Goossens: Indie Developers and Advertising
Vicenç Marti: Community First
Inna Zaichenko: A Passion for Games
Scott Foe’s Evil Hilarity
Sebastien Borget on Educational Social Gaming
Yaniv Nizan: Don’t be Afraid to Win
Chris Natsuume: Making a Difference
Robert Winkler: Standing out with Substance
Cristi Badea: Opportunity for All, Even Underdogs
Teut Weidemann: Understanding Why Equals Win

More video articles can be found here.

Other Coverage of Casual Connect Europe:
 7 upcoming indie treats from Casual Connect 2014 in Amsterdam – Pocketgamer.co.uk
Video: Evil Game Design Challenge winner pitches F2P Evil Minecraft – Gamasutra
5 things we learned at Casual Connect Europe 2014 – Pocketgamer.biz
The DeanBeat: Developers need platforms that aren’t always in flux – Gamesbeat
14. Februar: Casual Games Association zeichnet Indie Games aus; Microsoft muss Schlüsselpositionen neu besetzen – Making Games
What Games Are: Going Small – TechCrunch
Spil Games will trigger ads at ‘cliffhanger moments’ in games by indie developers – Gamesbeat
Casual Connect Europe mit neuem Besucherrekord – Gamesindustry.biz
Mobile game Shapist was inspired by ancient Asian block games – Gamesbeat
GameDuell: “Spielerbindung deutlich gesteigert” – Gamesindustry.biz
If you want to score a good publisher, you need to think like a publisher – Pocketgamer.biz
Nextpeer makes it easy to challenge your friends in mobile multiplayer matches – Gamesbeat
Molyneux: “Geld zu verlangen ist kein Recht. Man muss es rechtfertigen.” – Gamesindustry.biz
Casual Connect feiert in Amsterdam erfolgreichen Neuanfang – Gamesmarkt
Is Christmas losing its sparkle? Flurry points to drop off in yuletide download growth – Pocketgamer.biz
The Dutch want gaming startups to sprout like tulips (interview) – Gamesbeat
Casual Connect 2014 • Drie Nederlandse winnaars bij Indie Prize award show – Control
Portrait of a Pretentious Game – Rappler
Casual Connect 2014 • De succesfactoren van Reus, de godgame met een indieprijskaartje – Control
Grand Cru: Console devs are ‘utterly failing’ at in-app purchases – Pocketgamer.biz
Game makers beware: Virtual goods purchases are about to be regulated – Gamesbeat
Casual Connect 2014 • Een bedrijf opstarten doet niemand voor je, vergeet niet te relaxen en wees een ster – Control
Asian companies account for nine of the top 10 game mergers and acquisitions – Gamesbeat
The Godus amongst us: Molyneux talks free-to-play farces, winning without chasing whales and his top score on Flappy Bird – Pocketgamer.biz
Peter Molyneux believes ripping people off with free-to-play games won’t last (interview) – Gamesbeat
Size matters: How to scale your game for overnight success – Pocketgamer.biz
FlowPlay helps developers like Joju Games differentiate their social-casino titles – Gamesbeat
Molyneux: Free-to-play is like ‘smashing consumers over the head with a sledgehammer’ – Pocketgamer.biz
Dandelions benoemd tot beste indiegame Casual Connect – Gamer.nl
Share and share like: Why developers need to care about their sharers – Pocketgamer.biz
Mimimi gewinnt Indie Prize – GamesMarkt
Flappy Bird was the perfect accidental guerilla marketing campaign, says Creative Mobile – Pocketgamer.biz
Casual Connect Amsterdam – Freegame.cz
Mech Mocha Founder Arpita Kapoor Wins Most Prominent Female Indie Award at Casual Connect Europe – Animation Xpress
Casual Connect Europe 2014 – Амстердам – ITC.ua

 

Studio Spotlight

5th Planet Games: Building with Passion

November 27, 2013 — by Clelia Rivera

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When a person has a passion for gaming and the motivation to do something with that passion, great things happen. Such is the case with 5th Planet Games. The “studio” was, at first, not even a studio. It was just four guys who played games together. Slowly, they warmed to the idea of making their own games – games they would enjoy playing themselves. This idea drives them forward each day. In the beginning, 5PG took a chance by launching a hardcore game on Facebook at a time when it was believed these games would not “work” there. In May 2010, they proved everyone wrong when their first title, Dawn of the Dragons, became a Facebook hit. 5PG believes they create social games that are fun and engaging for all kinds of gamers, from hardcore or casual.

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They proved everyone wrong with their first title, Dawn of the Dragons.

Life at 5PG

Since Dawn of Dragons, the company grew from 4 to 55 people, but they still all share a passion for games. In fact, it is such an important trait that they look for it in all new hires. “Does somebody really love gaming and really love their work?” asks Robert Winkler, co-founder and CEO. “Do they believe in what we’re trying to do and are they willing to go the extra mile to get the job done? These are intangible traits, but very important to the kind of culture we are trying to build.” He jokes that having “insane skills in whatever role you’re applying for” is helpful, too.

Shared passion makes it easy for the team to work collaboratively. All ideas are considered and encouraged, regardless of who it came from. Even when there are disagreements, they are quickly taken care of. “Everything we do always comes back to the premise of ‘Is this the right thing to do for our player base and community?'” says Winkler. “It’s usually pretty cut and dry when you look at things that way, so that helps resolve most disagreements or difficult decisions.”

Creating Outside the Norm

At the time of Dawn of Dragons, hardcore games were not successful on Facebook, so why did 5PG take the risk? Simple – these were the games they wanted to play. 5PG games reflect that shared passion through the gameplay, storylines, and artwork. The amount of work involved can be a problem, but they enjoy it regardless. “We are creating these whole worlds that players are asked to invest themselves in, so we have to make them seem as real and fantastic as possible,” says Winkler. “It’s not like a casual game, where you can design a whole game around one or two simple mechanics – there’s a lot of layers to our games, and they take time to flesh out, but in the end, we feel it’s worth it.”

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“We are creating these whole worlds that players are asked to invest themselves in, so we have to make them seem as real and fantastic as possible.”

5PG added another challenging genre to their portfolio: Digital Collectible Card Games. According to a report by the Casual Games Association this is one of the highest monetizing social games categories. They update these types of games by creating new cards with new mechanics. “With each new release, we risk that a new mechanic has a different effect on the game than originally intended, or that it severely alters the way the game is played,” says Winkler. While this can be a challenge, Winkler says it also creates unexpected opportunities for players, causing them to think up new strategies. He spoke more on this topic during a session at Casual Connect.

A Lasting Community

The community surrounding and supporting their games is key to 5PG’s success. “One of our guiding principles is building games that enable players to benefit from cooperation. Helping fellow players rather than rewarding payback and the demise of fellow players,” says Winkler. To do this, they incorporate certain ideas into their games promoting this type of gameplay, such as guilds and alliances. The team shows a lot of respect to the team members who interact with their community the most, and puts a lot of emphasis on supporting their large community. “Community interaction is so important to our games not only because it makes them more social, but because it depends on a player’s engagement and keeps them engaged for longer,” says Winkler. “We even fly in a group of players every month or so to hold player councils, where we can pick their brains directly on what new features they’d like us to implement, how they want to see the games evolve, and other ways to improve the games.”

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To create the feeling of collaboration, they incorporate certain ideas into their games, such as guilds and alliances.

With such a focus on the community, one sees why the fans stick around, but Winkler points out that there is another reason: “Our Games-as-a-Service approach, we are constantly rolling out new features and content so the gameplay never gets stale or boring.” Even Dawn of the Dragons, launched over three years ago, receives regular new updates. 5PG also takes player feedback into consideration when looking into new content. “We take in feedback – both constructive and not so constructive – and iterate on our designs and content based on this feedback,” says Winkler. “We find that our players understand the games at least as well as we do and more often than not, their suggestions are right on the mark.”

Find out what 5th Planet Games is up to now through Facebook and Twitter.

 

Studio Spotlight

Animoca: Making Games on a Global Scale

November 21, 2013 — by Clelia Rivera

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When mobile games exploded onto the market, many studios tried to cash in on this booming area. Animoca was built with the desire to develop and publish in this successful market. Founded in 2011 and incubated by Outblaze Ventures, they are a cross-platform app publisher and developer for  smartphones and tablets. They have created over 300 apps with more than 170 million game downloads and reaches many different genres and demographics.

Where It All Began

David Kim
David Kim, CEO, Animoca

Animoca was founded in January 2011 with a goal of making games for under-appreciated audience segments. Due to their past experiences with Outblaze Ventures and their companies, Animoca knew early what they needed to focus on. “For example, we knew that we needed a systematic, analytics-driven approach to allow us to understand user behavior,” says David Kim, CEO. “So we started tracking and measuring as much as we could from day one.” They started by creating games targeted towards women and girls. Their first game, Pretty Pet Salon, went on to be an international hit, and a top mobile time management game.

After their initial success, they went on to create many other games, such as Thor: Lord of Storms and Star Girl. They continue to pursue publishing great games, but they don’t let success go to their heads. “We have grown from a start-up into an established force in mobile games, but I wouldn’t say we have changed that much.”

Going Global

The company’s success is not limited to just the US, but has expanded into a larger scale. This was made possible due to how they approach their global work. Kim says, “We have a sophisticated process that we are always refining in order to help us translate apps, develop content for specific cultures, handle customer support in different regions, and do all the other things necessary to build a global audience.”

One of the details to pay attention to in a global market is regionalization. Kim believes that many developers work under the misconception that changing the language is all that is needed for a game to work in another country. “You also need to localize the app for different cultures, build in local payment options, develop a promotional calendar based on local events, find local distribution partners, hire local QA resources, offer customer service in local languages, develop content for the local culture, and more,” says Kim. He also advises people interested in other regions to take the time to understand the area they want to break into.

Ultraman is just one of the games in Animoca's portfolio
Ultraman Galaxy is just one of the games in Animoca’s portfolio

Building good relationships is also important to succeeding globally. Animoca learned “that it’s extremely important to have a very strong partnership in the regions you are targeting in order to help with distribution and monetization,” according to Kim. The company has had a lot of practice building relationships, both with distributors and developers. As a publisher and developer, Animoca learned a useful tip to keep in mind when starting a partnership with developers. “You can’t treat all developers the same, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to publishing games,” says Kim. They work to create a unique, custom partnership with everyone they work with to meet everyone’s goals.

Publishing Today

With the change in distribution and the rise of self-publishing, the role of a publisher has undergone a change as well (a panel at Casual Connect discussed this change). Kim explains that it has become “less about driving new users and more about providing expertise.” “While the main role of a publisher is still to help drive users to a game, there is also a large component of expertise sharing on topics such as user engagement, game design, development, etc,” says Kim.

However, Kim says the usefulness of a publisher can vary from game to game. He believes there is not an exact way to decide if or when a publisher is useful. “For some games, a publisher may provide valuable assistance pre-launch, when the games is still in development, while other times, a publisher might make sense for an existing game that has launched, but was unable to achieve or sustain growth,” Kim says. It is important for a developer to consider their needs and decide what works for them.

Animoca is working to launch a lot of new games in many different genres. Follow their Facebook or Twitter to stay updated on their latest projects.

Studio Spotlight

Tripleslash Studios – Pushing Your Passion Forward

October 7, 2013 — by Clelia Rivera

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Being a college student can be hard enough without adding game development to the workload. Few teams manage to pull it off. One such team is Tripleslash Studios. Meeting at the University of Utah, this ten-person team decided to work together to bring their visions to life, the first of which was Magnetic By Nature, successfully funded through Kickstarter in May.

Tripleslash at SLCC
Some of the team at Salt Lake City Comic Con

The Beginning

The group first started out working on their senior project – to develop for Xbox Live Indie Service for the Xbox 360. But that was only the start. This team wanted to make something more than a class project, and they felt they could do that with their game’s core mechanic. “Our goal, from then on, was to take this game to a higher level of polish and bring it to as many platforms as possible for the world to see,” says Kyle Chittenden, Lead Animator and Chief Operating Officer at Tripleslash Studios. Inspired by the documentation style comments in C#, they decided to call themselves Tripleslash Studios, and hoped the sense of energy it invokes (“three waves symbolizing movement”) would show in their work.

“Salt Lake doesn’t have nearly the concentration of game developers as, say, Seattle or San Francisco, but it’s not entirely off the map, either.”

Being in Salt Lake City, their location isn’t exactly well-known for games, but the team has not had a problem working from the capital of the Beehive State. “Salt Lake doesn’t have nearly the concentration of game developers as, say, Seattle or San Francisco, but it’s not entirely off the map, either,” explains Paige Ashlynn, CEO of Tripleslash Studios. “The founder of Atari graduated from our university, and there has been a strong local game development presence here ever since.” Salt Lake City is also home to other studios, such as CHAIR Entertainment, Smart Bomb Interactive, and NinjaBee, with which Tripleslash Studios has associated with before. “We’ve been very fortunate to interact with developers from those teams, and we hope that our efforts, like theirs, will help the gaming industry not just locally but globally,” says Ashlynn.

Learning to be a Studio

Even though location was not a problem for them, they did have their fair share of challenges. Along with problems common to new studios (“miscommunications between team members, selecting less-than-ideal technology, holding on to ideas that proved too difficult to implement by deadline, and more,” according to Ashlynn), they also came across a few technical issues. “For instance, one of the libraries we made use of while developing the XNA game had been abandoned by its authors some years ago,” says Ashlynn. “We figured, ‘Hey, it’s open source, we can figure out how it works and make changes if need be!’  In the end, we made it work, but we would have been much better off picking a current technology with an active user community who we could have asked questions and traded ideas with.”

They also had to deal with learning about marketing and business. Luckily, they had good support. “This could have been much worse for us than it was though; we were very fortunate to have seasoned game publishers, reviewers, and developers to take questions to, both at school and in the local community,” says Chittenden. “Kurtis Constantine from Red Thread Games was especially supportive, and we wouldn’t be where we are without his incredible advice.”

Setting up the booth at Salt Lake Comic Con
Setting up the booth at Salt Lake Comic Con

As both students of various stages and game developers, there was a need to manage time wisely. “In addition to developing Magnetic By Nature, many of our members were taking classes, working jobs outside of school, and raising families, so it’s been intense for all of us,” says Chittenden. So how did they preserve? Why do it at all? Both questions have the same answer: their love of the game. “Probably the biggest reason we got through it without losing our minds was because we all love creating this game together,” says Chittenden. “It was a passion project from the start, so even though we had to make sacrifices, working on Magnetic By Nature always felt fun.”

Magnetic By Nature

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Magnetic By Nature is the story of a robot lost underground, attempting to return to the surface.

Magnetic By Nature is the story of a robot lost underground attempting to reactivate his friends after they were mysteriously deactivated. By manipulating magnets, the player can guide the robot through the terrain and help him reach his destination.

The inspiration of the game came from a multitude of sources, such as Mistborn and games based off magnetism, according to Jonathan Humphries, Lead Designer at Tripleslash Studios. After a bit of experimentation, they felt that there was a strong gameplay mechanic in using magnets to propel through levels. “After sharing the idea with the team, it was clear that the idea had potential, and we set out to start development on the game,” says Humphries. “Since formation, we have combined all of our minds (as well as gathered feedback from the community) to refine and solidify the concept into the game you see now.”

Knowing that funds were necessary to expand the game beyond a class project, they turned their sights to Kickstarter. But that wasn’t the only benefit to going with Kickstarter. In addition to getting their name out, it also kept them moving. “We often joke that as a team we seem to work best under pressure,” says Chittenden. “Not that we’re lazy, just that our brightest achievements have so far emerged from the cauldron of a looming deadline.” After Kickstarter, they decided to keep moving forward by always keeping the next deadline, such as a conference or convention, in mind.

Starting Out and Moving Forward

Tripleslash Studios is one of many indie studios making games they love, so they have to work to stand out. One of their noticeable traits, according to Ashlynn, is their large size, which has the benefit of speeding up their production rate, but also the added benefit of diversifying the group. “We’re not developing a single person’s private art project, but instead pushing for a well-rounded product that everyone on the team can relate to and feel proud of,” says Ashlynn. “Our hope is that we’re focused enough to create experiences that feel fresh and independent, but broad enough to ensure that our titles appeal to a variety of gamers.”

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“It was a passion project from the start, so even though we had to make sacrifices, working on Magnetic By Nature always felt fun.”

The team is moving forward with Magnetic By Nature, bringing it to as many platforms as possible, and adding a few more ideas. By 2014, they want to be working on their next game, and already have a few ideas. “The only thing we can say for sure is, whatever we do next is likely to be very different from what we’re doing now,” says Ashlynn. “We don’t want to sit still!”

To keep up to date with Tripleslash Studios, like their Facebook or follow them on Twitter. To find out more information on Magnetic By Nature, or to preorder the game, check it out here and look forward to its release for PC, Mac, and Linux in the near future.

Contributions

Ari Mir’s Idea to Revolutionize the World of Micro Currency

March 25, 2013 — by Clelia Rivera

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Ari Mir is co-founder and CEO of Pocket Change, a company with a vision to build the world’s first universal micro currency.

Ari Mir is no stranger to entrepreneurial endeavors. At 19, he decided to start a print magazine while still in college. In just nine short months and with no funding or experience, he built a team of 10 writers and photographers to get his magazine to the newsstands. But to him, there was something even better that came out of the experience. “Best of all, Paris Hilton graced the cover and Nintendo sponsored our launch party,” he remembered.

“As a product guy, I dream about building products that are woven into the fabric of society.”

Moving from print to tech startups, Ari started MyStreak, a social network focused on sports, but the company closed down about a year later.  Ari is always on the lookout for something new, and that is where Pocket Change came into play. “As a product guy, I dream about building products that are woven into the fabric of society,” Ari said. Noticing how much of people’s lives are spent on their mobile devices, Ari couldn’t think of a more intimate relationship. He wants Pocket Change to be a consumer’s companion as they lead more digital lives.

Ari Mir and Amos Elliston, founders of Pocket Change

Pocket Change was also built to address the major problem Ari noticed in the games industry: user acquisition costs due to poor engagement and retention. “If you spend $3 to acquire a user and 50% of users leave immediately, you’ve actually spent $6 to acquire a user,” he explained. His idea is to reward users for staying engaged through the use of a universal micro currency. With over 50 million users rewarded, Pocket Change is on its way to making its vision a reality.

So what does Ari see happening in the games industry in the next five years?  “You’re going to continue to see more social casual games like Ruzzle and Bubble Galaxy with Buddies come out,” he predicts. “These games have lower development costs and higher retention, which makes them very appealing to developers.” He also believes gambling will be a big hit in the industry. “The idea of a casino in your pocket is very disruptive,” said Ari.

To find out more about Pocket Change, visit https://pocketchange.com/.

Exclusive InterviewsNewsOnline

IGDA’s Kate Edwards on the Evolution of the Industry, the Role of IGDA, and her Goals as Executive Director

December 31, 2012 — by Clelia Rivera

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Kate Edwards has enjoyed building a fulfilling career in the video game industry (read this interview to find out more). Now she is going another step forward as she accepts the Executive Director role at the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). Being involved with IGDA since 2004, she founded the Localization SIG in 2007, served on the board of directors of the IGDA Seattle chapter since 2009 and received the MVP award in 2011. She sat down with us to discuss issues the game development community is facing, the importance of IGDA, and what she hopes to do in her new role as Executive Director of IGDA.

Current Issues

Throughout her time in the industry, Edwards has noticed several challenges the community has faced, from within the community as well as outside it. It is a lot to manage, but Edwards believes the rapid evolution of the industry is a particular issue which needs attention. The tricky economics of game development can be difficult to deal with, having a direct impact on the community. Mercurial audience demands also make it difficult to keep ahead. When a company does not evolve fast enough, this can lead to cutbacks, or in the worst case, layoffs. “The dynamic nature of the consumer market and the industry demands that both development companies and individual employees remain very agile,” says Edwards. She doesn’t see a short-term resolution to this problem, but she also feels that this constant change is part of the excitement.

“As the global gamer population continues to become very richly diverse across geographies, cultures, languages, genders, ethnicities, and so on, those who create games need to accept the fact that this is the world in which we live. When embraced, such differences can be leveraged as a powerful creative and economic force.”

Another issue Edwards feels needs addressing is workplace diversity. Management and HR circles will mention it, and the media highlights it on occasion, but Edwards feels it is important that this be decided by the individuals of a company. They have to choose for themselves what type of industry they want to work in. “As the global gamer population continues to become very richly diverse across geographies cultures, languages, genders, ethnicities, and so on, those who create games need to accept the fact that this is the world in which we live,” says Edwards. “When embraced, such differences can be leveraged as a powerful creative and economic force.” She believes resolving this issue is going to be a long-term cultural change. It may not go away completely, but it can lessen through a developer’s individual actions.

Importance of IGDA

Having been involved with the IGDA for a number of years, Edwards has been in a position to see what IGDA has been able to do for developers. Completely dedicated to game developers and their needs, IGDA has volunteer-run chapters around the world and expands the global effort of game development. While involved in the Localization SIG, Edwards witness the connection of like-minded professionals in localization and globalization issues. It broadened her understanding of those issues as well as her connection to professionals outside her expertise. One of her greatest memories of IGDA was the first time the Localization SIG conducted its annual meeting at GDC in San Francisco. “We had an awesome turnout and people were so eager and ready to engage, and the meeting lasted far longer than expected because of all the networking and collaboration discussions,” she recalls. The eagerness to be involved was astounding to Edwards. As the creator of the Localization SIG, she was amazed to witness the enthusiasm in the group. Throughout her time at IGDA, Edwards found IGDA to be indispensable for making connections in the game development community.

Kate Edwards at Game Developers Conference 2012

According to Edwards, IGDA initiatives take place on two levels: key organization initiatives and the pursuit of advocacy on a wide range of issues. However, there are three key initiatives she is most passionate about currently:

• Employment Contract Review process (currently in development) – IGDA identified 10 key areas for evaluation in an employment contract so a developer can understand the document they are signing. This process will also provide information to the company in the form of an assessment of their contracts through a game developer’s perspective.

• Changing the perception that IGDA is a mostly-US entity – Due to the large US membership, many non-members are under the misguided perception that the IGDA is a largely-US entity. Edwards wants to change that idea, since the organization is a global entity.

• Changing the perception that IGDA is meant for large studio-based developers – There has been a recent rise of successful indie developers, but many non-members believe that the IGDA is not available to any developers other than studio-based developers. Edwards wants to emphasize the face that the IGDA exists for all developers.

Moving Forward

Kate at IGDA Summit 2012
“That level of dedication is something I not only wanted to be a part of as a member, but compelled me to do more to help the cause.”

As enthusiastic as Edwards is about her work as a geographer and culturalization consultant, she is just as enthusiastic about the IGDA. Because of this, she has stepped into the role of Executive Director. “As my involvement in the organization expanded over the years, I came to know so many outstanding, brilliant people who give so much of their time and effort to push things forward for the greater good of all developers,” says Edwards.

“That level of dedication is something I not only wanted to be a part of as a member, but compelled me to do more to help to cause. “ She believes her experience working side by side with every function on a game will help her in her new role. When asked what she now hopes to accomplish, she provided the following four goals:

“1. Reemphasize the “I” in IGDA: The perception of the organization needs to change. The IGDA is not a U.S.-based organization that happens to be in other countries; we are an international organization that happens to have a large U.S. membership. I’d like to improve our inclusion of people, best practices and creativity from all chapters worldwide by better managing the communication and execution of ideas to and from IGDA leadership. This starts with providing better access between my role and the membership.

2. Reassert the IGDA’s relevance: The IGDA will be more proactive and visionary as a force in our industry. We will reassert a thought leadership position for issues affecting game developers and to achieve this, I will rely on our vast SIG-based expertise on key topics.

3. Reiterate the IGDA’s value proposition: I hope to demonstrate the value of our membership through stronger partnerships and incentives internationally, nationally and locally; an IGDA membership should benefit members at any level, from those in major studios to indie developers.

4. Reinforce the IGDA as a professional collaboration: I’d like to see a membership of incredible volunteers being even more proactive to engage and feeling empowered to act on their initiatives. Our mutual respect for one another – regardless of our genders, ages, nationalities and so forth – needs to be an example to those who play our games.”

Video Coverage

Peak Games’ Robert Unsworth on establishing a global presence with a local approach, empathizing with different cultural needs and making games relevant to all players

December 15, 2012 — by Clelia Rivera

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Peak Games has been striving to create engaging and culturally-relevant games for players in emerging markets as well as underserved segments of developed regions. As one of the three largest social gaming companies globally, they have more than 30 million MAU. Peak Games’ Past Director of Business Development Robert Unsworth has to be ready for anything, but his time in the industry has prepared him for just that.


Gamesauce: Why did you decide to enter the video game industry?

Robert: I’ve always been a keen gamer, but I guess subconsciously I didn’t think I could mix business with pleasure! My initial entry into the industry came partly through serendipity. I was working in Paris as a Telecoms consultant for France Telecom, and I was looking to move out of the capital but to stay in France. A Bordeaux-based mobile games publisher was recruiting actively at that time, and my experience in working with FT’s subsidiary, Orange, was relevant to the company’s plans of building out their partnership with the French mobile operator. This was back in 2003, and once I was in the business, like most people, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. As my two sons often ask me, “so Daddy, you get paid for playing video games?” – sort of.

How did your past career experiences helped you during your time at Peak Games?

If you don’t understand, or at least empathize with the different cultural needs, then, at best, you won’t be working effectively and at worst, you’ll completely miss the opportunity.

Right from my early career experience, I’ve always worked in an international environment; in the military, in inter-governmental work, in telecoms and especially in gaming. I really enjoy the richness of a mixed cultural environment. You can always learn something from your colleagues no matter what their experience or background, and this is accentuated when you put different cultures together, each one with their own unique approach and reasoning. Social games require scale to be a sustainable business and for that they need to transcend national boundaries. If you don’t understand, or at least empathize with the different cultural needs, then, at best, you won’t be working effectively and at worst, you’ll completely miss the opportunity.

 

GS: What traits do successful social games share?

Firstly, social games need to be universally accessible, both in their appeal and also in accessibility – they can’t be too complicated or too simple, they need to be instantly understandable and the gameplay needs to be intuitive. In order to be social, everyone needs to be playing. You can’t have fun if you’re the only one at the party! Secondly, they need to be relevant to the player, both in the language (i.e. presented in one’s native language) but also in the cultural and social context that the game is presented in. Players quickly tire of games that bully you into inviting friends when there is no inherent added value brought to the game play. Compare this with something like poker or pool or even bingo, where it’s naturally better, even necessary, to be playing with friends. Finally, for social games to be persistent they need to create their own communities within the game; only when people start exchanging their own views with others about the game do they become emotionally invested and will then be more likely to stay around for months rather than days or weeks for more ‘one dimensional’ games.

“Firstly, social games need to be universally accessible, both in their appeal and also in accessibility – they can’t be too complicated or too simple, they need to be instantly understandable and the gameplay needs to be intuitive.”

GS: How does Freemium or Free-To-Play benefit developers?

The Freemium model has revolutionized the games industry. Until the arrival of Facebook, in the online gaming space and smartphones in the portable space, developers had to rely on consumers investing upfront for a dedicated gaming device. Furthermore, it took many months, if not years, for these platforms to reach meaningful volumes that would make game development a viable economic prospect. Furthermore, by obligating consumers to purchase a device, there is inevitably a large portion of the population that will never invest and therefore be excluded permanently from the experience regardless of your marketing. In this ecosystem, a game can never be truly social – you’re just not able to play with all your friends. With the Freemium model on Facebook and also with free-to-play mobile apps, developers can potentially reach all consumers – the platform is already there – there is free trial, and therefore, discovery. This means everybody can play games and that they can now provide true social interaction.

This means that developers can really invest in what they believe in without fearing that they’re taking too big a gamble.

Every medium in history has shown that once it becomes social, consumer spending increases by multiples because of the inherent emotional investment. Free-to-play ultimately means more revenue for developers over a longer period and therefore, less hit-and-miss tactics and more sustained revenue streams. This means that developers can really invest in what they believe in without fearing that they’re taking too big a gamble.

GS: Why is localizing a game important to its success?

While social games may appear to be simple, they are enormously complicated to design and operate successfully. This requires significant investment on the part of the developer. It therefore makes economic sense to leverage this investment in all possible markets; particularly as the distribution costs are incremental. However, for a social game to be relevant, it must be in the players’ native language.

GS: What advice can you offer developers preparing for localization?

Take things slowly at first and don’t underestimate the task that proper localization can represent – social games aren’t products; they are services so translation is not a one-shot affair. It’s also not just about simply translating the text using Google translate. For example, thought and development must go in to the conversion of any text which is graphically represented and then planning must be made to ensure the images are presented correctly on the screen and make sense to the native speaker. Good social games often involve humor, and this is difficult to respect with a direct translation. Furthermore, literal translation is only the first step: to fully leverage a local market, the game should be culturalized as well – that means including images and items that are found in their players’ everyday culture. Presenting Egyptian players with sky scrapers and in-game characters wearing ripped jeans and baseball caps isn’t tuning in to their culture.

Presenting Egyptian players with sky scrapers and in-game characters wearing ripped jeans and baseball caps isn’t tuning in to their culture.

My advice to developers is to prioritize the countries you’re going to target by first monitoring how the non-translated version is doing in each of the different territories. Translate the game first to these countries, and then take stock of your situation to see if additional translation makes sense.

If you don’t have the resources to do this, or the expertise in-house, then obviously work with a trusted and respectable publisher, such as Peak Games.

GS: What do you predict for the future of the industry?

A wealth of new opportunities. Like any nascent industry, there will be consolidation as the market shakes out, and only the quality developers are able to build out a sustainable business. We will see an increasing focus on the mobile gaming experience in the next two to three years as this represents the nirvana for a social gaming platform – it’s a communications device, it’s personal, it’s always connected and it stays with you wherever you are. Right now, the market is still too fractured and too dependent on local operating systems to be fully social (an iPhone user finds it difficult to recommend a game to an Android user and provide the latter with a quick and easy means to trial the game). When we can transcend the hardware and O/S boundaries with solutions such as HTML5, then we’ll have a really exciting market to work with.

 

Video Coverage

Bees and Pollen’s Alan Avidan on Optimizing your In-game Conversions, Staying Focused and How to Serve Your Users

December 12, 2012 — by Clelia Rivera

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Alan Avidan has been a major contributor to Bees and Pollen in the past year. As the company’s director he’s been busy driving the HoneyLizer, an optimization platform that collects and parses social and behavioral data to enrich a game’s performance through virality, monetization and engagement.

He reminded us that the platform, a visionary brainchild of Udi Barone and Yaron Cohen, was started with research and patent filings in social networks back in 2005.  Both Udi and Yaron understood the potential of leveraging social data for optimizing users’ experience in websites and apps, and pursued their vision by developing the HoneyLizer technology.

Although Avidan has been involved with startups for the past 20 years, his interest in the video game industry blossomed when he noticed the social features-centered state it was in. “The video games industry is just screaming for help in getting users better engaged and better monetized,” says Avidan. Engagement and monetization were just the tip of the iceberg of problems he saw, and he felt that he could help chip away at those issues.

Udi Barone (co-founder and CTO) and Alan launching the HoneyLizer at Demo, Santa Clara 2011 – and the world has never been the same.

Learning to Listen

Throughout his career, Avidan learned lessons that have been useful to him now. “Over time, I’ve learned to focus on the real goals and not be distracted by every twist in the road,” says Avidan. “But the most important thing I’ve learned is to listen (really listen) to our customers’ needs and dreams.” Listening and understanding the customers has been a key strategy for Bees and Pollen—an important key to its success.

“There are a number of ways to understand a user.  A well-known, highly-practiced method in the industry is A/B Testing,” say Avidan.  “The problem with A/B Testing is that ultimately your final choice is only the marginally better option of those you’ve tested, which then becomes the ‘one-size-fits-all’ default option.”  According to Avidan, user segmentation can provide specific preferences of subgroups, even increasing key performance indicators, if done right.  He also says that cohort analysis can be effective in tracking user’s performance over time through a common reference point, possibly providing insights into what’s wrong and right with a game.

“Over time, I’ve learned to focus on the real goals and not be distracted by every twist in the road. But the most important thing I’ve learned is to listen (really listen) to our customers’ needs and dreams.”

“More advanced segmentation methods can produce better results but are sometimes not worth the results received,” says Avidan.  “Consider having ten game elements that need to be tested, each with five options. That’s 50 tests, each lasting a couple of weeks. By the time you’re done you need to get started again, as your user base and their preferences may be changing.  You will also need dedicated staff and a good platform to really make that work.”

“HoneyLizer, on the other hand, provides each user with the game options they are likely to prefer, based on algorithms crunching their social and behavioral attributes,” says Avidan, “it does all the heavy calculations seamlessly, automatically and in real-time.  This invariably leads to higher conversions and higher KPIs.”

There are many ways to learn more about users, but choosing to do so is only part of the battle. What to do with the harvested information is a critical piece of the puzzle. “There is not enough I can say for how important it is to understand user behavior to benefit the game,” says Avidan. “The trick to winning, though, is to be able to reliably predict behavior and automatically act on the prediction in real-time so that you can serve users with the options they prefer.”

Video Coverage

David Thomson on Ludometrics, his own game creation process and avoiding creative ‘writer’s block’

December 6, 2012 — by Clelia Rivera

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David Thomson has been involved with the Scottish games industry for the past 13 years in a variety of roles, from being the founder of The Game Kitchen to senior positions with Slam and Denki. He has worked the spectrum of game creation aspects on a wide range of platforms and games. As an entrepreneur, game designer, and writer, he is a pioneer of the mobile games industry and is the founder of Ludometrics.


Gamesauce: What is your earliest memory regarding video games?

David: My earliest memory is playing Pac-Man on a wood-finished Atari 2600! I remember being entranced by the colors and sounds (I think I was about 5 or 6) and wondering how on earth they made it. It definitely made me want to make games and see if I could create something that people would reacted to in the same way I did. Pac-Man is still one of my favorite games to play, even now. Namco has done a great job of keeping the game alive and up-to-date for 30 years, and they’ve not been afraid to experiment with it along the way.

What skills have proven useful to you at Ludometrics?

My background is programming, but typically my job is to do everything that lets the programmers and artists with actual talent focus on what they need to do! I seem to have a knack of picking up the basics of new skills pretty quickly, which in a small team is pretty critical. It also means I have a good feel for what a job entails if it gets to the stage where it’s worth hiring for that role.

Can you tell us about creating Ludometrics? Has its vision changed since its creation?

I started Ludometrics after leaving Denki in April 2010. I didn’t necessarily want to jump in to someone else’s company, so I did some consultancy work for a year or so before realizing that I really missed making things. In that sense, the vision (in as much as there was one) has definitely changed from when I started.

More recently, Casual Connect Seattle has reinforced my thinking on what the exact strategy should be for the company, and you’ll hopefully start to see some of the results of that in the coming months.

What is your favorite game? What traits appeal to you in the game?

As mentioned previously, I’d have to say Pac-Man, possibly because it’s been so influential. What appeals to me is that it’s a very simple game to play and get into, but there’s an underlying depth to it in terms of strategy and dealing with the ghosts. It shows how combinations of simple rules can combine to create great moments. It’s also perfect for short play sessions, which is pretty much all I have time for these days! I imagine I’ll be playing it for another 30 years.

“It shows how combinations of simple rules can combine to create great moments.”

What effects do you feel games have on society? What are the benefits of a good game?

The best games, like the best books, films, albums, whatever, all feel like time well spent. I never get the feeling I’m wasting my time by playing something like Super Mario 3D Land or Triple Town. There’s been a lot of research on “brain-training” games, but I suspect any well-crafted game experience has the same effect on keeping your mind and reactions sharp, whether it’s by design or not.

We’re at the point where people who grew up with games being a form of entertainment form a huge market. The danger is that we just keep feeding people the same games over and over, and we end up boring our audience. We need to figure out how to tell new stories as well as tell old stories in new ways, just like every other medium.

Can you tell us about your process of creation? What is your inspiration?

My time working with Denki was hugely influential in how I try to work now – those guys have great processes and frameworks that help make sure you build quality games efficiently. Working there helped formalize what I’d previously done by instinct—for example, having a useful design vocabulary.

In terms of inspiration, that can come from anywhere – TV, film, books, toys, or other games. As my talk at Casual Connect suggested (“Selfish Creativity”), sometimes it’s as simple as playing a game I enjoy but really wish it had some other aspect – that provides a starting point to make the game I want to play. My assumption at that point is that my tastes are not so unique that other people won’t also want to play that game too.

When you encounter a creative block, what strategies do you employ to get past it?

There are a couple of things I’ve found have worked for me in the past. One is to walk away and do something else. Normally not making a game, but doing something mundane such as admin work. That seems to let the brain figure things out in the background, so suddenly an idea will strike when least expected.

The other strategy is to just do something, anything, to keep things moving. Doing that allows you to not dwell on being ‘stuck’, and of course as soon as something is in there, you normally see ways to improve it quite quickly.

How can a developer use analytical data to benefit a game?

Metrics are no substitute for product vision.

Data helps because players often don’t mean what they say, so it helps you interpret feedback by comparing what people ask for versus what they actually do. It can also help in terms of giving players more of what they like. A few years ago, I heard a story from The Sims team that said the items people bought in game more than anything else were doors and windows, which they never would have guessed in advance. So they did an expansion pack that was full of new windows and doors that sold millions. However, it’s also important to realize that data doesn’t become the only thing you use to create your game – it’s just one of many tools. Metrics are no substitute for product vision.

What is a common mistake developers make when creating a new game?

The most common thing I see, especially with new teams, is not finding the fun early on. They’re too keen to make it look pretty, but that normally just acts as a distraction. It helps that I can’t draw terribly well, so any prototypes I make are made using colored blocks or bits stolen from other games, especially board or card games. But that really helps, because the assumption is that the team can make anything look good, but what’s the point if the underlying game isn’t actually fun?

The other thing, as mentioned above, is that you need a clear vision of what you’re trying to create. The exact route you take to get there can alter, but having a strong idea of what your game is and isn’t is really important to creating something good.

What new ideas can we look forward to from Ludometrics?

We’re working to finish up our first time-management game in conjunction with Big Fish Games, and then we’re just starting on a pretty exciting new project that unfortunately I can’t talk about yet! That will need to be another article, I’m afraid. One thing I would say is that I don’t see us as being limited to any one platform or technology – it’s about picking the right platform to find the right audience for the right game.

 

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