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OnlineStudio Spotlight

Studio Spotlight: Innogames in Hamburg

March 26, 2014 — by Gamesauce Staff

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InnoGames has always enjoyed prosperous, organic growth, and has been able to maintain a solid user-base of dedicated fans. But were there tough times as well? Were there struggles? Have battles been fought in order to preserve the company and its ambitions? They never intended to start a company in the first place, that’s for sure. Founder and CEO Hendrik Klindworth takes us through the history of the company that he founded together with his brother Eike and Michael Zillmer.

The Founders
The Founders of InnoGames

Just for the Fun of It

“The original idea was to create a game which was fun for the three of us and our friends. It was never supposed to be a game for millions of players. We were inspired by games like Inselkampf (a very early browser-based game), but also by Age of Empires II, which was the game we played most in those days.”

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Founder and CEO Hendrik Klindworth

Though the ‘hobby’ project kept on growing, it wasn’t until four years later that they founded InnoGames. “In 2005, we already had 50,000 active players and we knew that the ‘premium accounts’ business model worked for us,” Hendrik says. “That gave us a good feeling about starting a business in 2006.” The brothers called their company “Klindworth Internetprojekte” and one year later, they founded InnoGames, solely to run Tribal Wars. Aside from the money they accumulated through the game, one of the main reasons for starting their own company was the feeling that is was a “now or never situation”. The early bird catches the worm, and it was with this mindset that they set out in 2006 to develop professionally, in part because they would need all the advantages they could get, not possessing huge funds. The risk involved was minimal: “Eike and I were still studying and Michael had an IT traineeship, so we were also not risking too much by founding the company,” Hendrik explains.

Having already established a steady revenue stream and accumulated years of experience, their start-up encountered almost no hurdles. Pretty much the only challenge was the formal side of things, to which end they decided “to hire an accountant quite soon”. Other than that, it was smooth sailing, with international success to boot! “Particularly the Polish version became extremely successful,” he says. Their second game, The West, also did well and after five years, they had experienced barely any setbacks. “One or two cooperative projects ended quite disappointingly, but we got over it quite quickly.”

One or two cooperative projects ended quite disappointingly, but we got over it quite quickly.

Which left plenty of room to learn from their successes, the major one being that “speed and timing matters a lot”. Tribal Wars would not have been such a success if they‘d had the idea five years later. “It is very important to do the right thing at the right time,” Hendrik says. “That is why we strongly value flexibility at our company.” Another lesson is focus. “It is better to handle one project with a lot of focus than spreading it out over three projects.”

Fun+Passion+Professionalism

The vivid company culture at InnoGames extends far beyond the office itself. Their core values are determined by “company goals, management, but also a lot by the employees we have,” according to Hendrik. They have a young team at InnoGames, “although our average age has reached 30 for the first time in 2012”. The vivid company culture simply reflects the vivid and lively people that work there. “The majority of us have turned our hobby into a profession,” he says. “This applies to us founders, but also to our colleagues. That obviously influences team spirit a lot, too.” It should come as no surprise then that they sum their company culture up as “fun + passion + professionalism”.

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“fun + passion + professionalism”

Keeping that culture going strong is a bit more tasking though, now that the company has grown to the extent of employing a couple of hundred people. “We want to maintain the start-up feeling to a certain extent, but we also see that we have to evolve,” Hendrik says. A great example there is the internal communication: “When it was just twenty of us, we used to have an all-hands meeting on Friday and everyone summed up what he or she did during the week. That way, everyone was in the loop about everything. That obviously does not work with a couple of hundred people, so we had to find new mechanics and new communication flows.”

We want to maintain the start-up feeling to a certain extent, but we also see that we have to evolve.

Attributing their success to ambition, they note a distinct difference between browser games and retailed games. “You don’t stop working on them just because you released them.” With update cycles of a few weeks for every game, they also have development teams for each of them (including Tribal Wars, which celebrates its 10th birthday this year). As such, growth is simply necessary, aside from wanting to start new projects. “Furthermore, we believe that the growth was also necessary to prepare our company for the competitive state the industry is by now in, compared to four years ago,” Hendrik says.

Staying Focused

As far as how to measure their success within the company, the answer it quite simple: “The most important measure is the fluctuation. We are losing very few employees and in these times of ‘warring for talent’, this is extremely important from a business perspective,” Hendrik says. When it comes to distinguishing themselves from their competitors, they take pride in preferring quality over quantity. “One of the major differences is quite obvious in the portfolio: ours is way smaller than most.” They believe this leads to a more sustainable growth pattern and a high ratio of successful titles. “In a market environment of masses of games and increasing marketing costs, this is essential,” he says. And as soon as they believe a project isn’t good enough for a commercial launch, “we’d rather stop it than just launch it anyway”.

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When it comes to distinguishing themselves from their competitors, they take pride in preferring quality over quantity.

Even now, they still focus their resources on just a few games a year, a strategy that might not seem too safe. “At first glance that might appear risky, as both could fail. However, we believe that the chance of having a major success with one of these games could even be higher since we can focus more on each of them,” Hendrik explains. “That definitely paid off with Forge of Empires, which was the most successful launch of a browser game in 2013, worldwide.”

When you focus on so much on just a few games, fostering the community takes on an even higher level of importance. Finding a formula that works is key. “You have to find the right balance between localization and centralization in community management. We have a lot of local community managers and supporters who know best about local culture and regional preferences. It is very important for us to stay close to the players and to understand their demands and needs,” Hendrik says. “But on the other hand, central tools which are provided by the headquarters can speed up the support processes.“

It is very important for us to stay close to the players and to understand their demands and needs.

Entering New Markets

Their overall success has seen them exploring different continents, and even different platforms. “We believe that mobile games have huge potential. It is quite likely that the tablet will become one of the major gaming consoles.” As such, they see now it as the time to evolve from a browser-based company to a cross-platform company. “Our goal is to publish our games for smartphones, tablets, and the browser, all in the same time frame, and with the best possible quality on all devices,” Hendrik says. Making the switch to a cross-platform company is a big step and needs quite some effort, but they are sure that it’s “somehow essential for the future”. Not believing that the market for browser-based games will remain the same, moving in a new direction is “needed for future success, you just have to go with it”.

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Not believing that the market for browser-based games will remain the same, moving in a new direction is “needed for future success, you just have to go with it”.

But branching out doesn’t limit itself to other platforms, as said before, new continents were explored as well. “InnoGames Korea was originally founded in order to buy Asian licenses and to publish those games in Europe,” Hendrik explains. They tried that with Bounty Hounds Online, but that didn’t really work out for them. As a result, they switched their focus there to publishing their own games in Asia. “In Korea, you legally need a local company to do that.” This also brought some insight into Korean company culture. “There is no sense in adapting all of them in Europe, but a new perspective on some topics definitely helps,” Hendrik says.

They didn’t stop there, however, and are currently entering the Brazilian market as well. One can imagine it being a far cry from the Asian markets. “The Korean gaming market in general is very big, but it is quite dominated by MMO client games and the browser games market is not that big.” The user’s willingness to pay for games and items is quite high, due to a good economic climate. That way they can do well enough, even without a gigantic number of players. “Business wise, it is the other way round in Brazil,” Hendrik says. The amount of browser gamers is huge, and they already have “more than 20 million registered players there, but the average revenue per user is quite low.” This means having to find smart ways to use marketing, but also finding feasible payment schemes. “We believe that this is most likely to be possible with a local office.”

We believe that mobile games have huge potential. It is quite likely that the tablet will become one of the major gaming consoles.

Focusing on just a few titles has paid off in terms of having a core of extremely loyal players, but what is key to creating such a player base? “Game design is very important. Tribal Wars, for example, is a classic ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ game, maybe a bit like chess even,” Hendrik says. By focusing on player-versus-player, the tactical and strategic situations keep changing. “Even after having played for a long time, you could find yourself in a new situation quite quickly. That makes it interesting to play the game for years,” he says. Another factor is the “fair premium” model. By making sure the player never feels ripped off when making a purchase, you ensure a long game life.

InnoGames' offices in Hamburg
InnoGames’ offices in Hamburg

Right now, plans exist to launch some initial titles in the mobile market. “If we enter the mobile market successfully, this might be one of our biggest strikes in the company’s history,” Hendrik says.

 

Studio Spotlight

Studio Spotlight: Goodgame Studios in Hamburg

December 26, 2013 — by Gamesauce Staff

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With Bioware’s founders having retired, meet the ‘other’ two doctors Kai and Christian Wawrzinek. Together, they are responsible for the highly successful social game studio Goodgame Studios in Hamburg, Germany. Founded back in 2009 and now one of the biggest social game studios in Europe, the Goodgame Studios staff has camped out their massive success and exponential growth at the very same office they started out in.

From Game Portals to Social Games

The brothers started out with their first company together with a friend during college in 2003 and named it after the initials of their last names joined together, thus calling it LWW. Their initial third co-founder later left the company in pursuit of other challenges. “Being entrepreneurs and having our own company has always been a passion of ours,” Christian says. “To do the things you really want to do, while still having fun at work, work together with people you like and be passionate about what you do.”

They earned their first revenue by building websites and by setting up their first game portal a year later. “We figured out first-hand how tough it is to build up a game portal from scratch, so we figured, ‘Why not try to buy another portal?'” LWW went on to acquire their second and third portal with the revenue made from advertisements. “We experienced that it was just slightly easier to build up something just by purchase.”

In the meantime, the brothers were able to finish their studies. Christian studied dentistry and Kai studied law. “We thought it might be good to get all our degrees, just in case our entrepreneurial endeavors wouldn’t go as planned, and we could have a back-up plan.”

It was just slightly easier to build up something just by purchase.

They set out to write their business plan, “We really believed we could grow something with what we called ‘website mergers and acquisitions’.” More money was needed to make it work, and so they visited the bank. Though game companies usually don’t get a bank loan, they managed to get one. Even though the bank had no clue about online business, Christian recalls the bank officials saying: “Ok, we trust you. You are a dentist and you are a lawyer, so if things don’t work out, you’ll probably be able to pay all that money back later.”

Christian is proud of their lack of investors in the company, which is very a-typical for companies the size of Goodgame Studios. “Game companies similar to us usually have investors who tell them what to do, and tell them what they think is right or force people to go into completely different directions.”

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“Game companies similar to us usually have investors who tell them what to do, and tell them what they think is right or force people to go into completely different directions.”

After investing all of their savings into the company and seeing some good revenue, scaling things up was becoming an interesting prospect. “We didn’t want to go through venture capitalists, because that kind of money is really expensive. The business model that we were doing was very conservative. We bought things that already worked and made them a little better by doubling the revenue, but you wouldn’t expect it to explode.”

We bought things that already worked and made them a little better.

When the financial crisis hit that year, the chances of finding alternative sources of funding were becoming slimmer. After some market research, the brothers decided it would be worth the risk to start developing their own games. “We were always very passionate about the gaming field and playing games. Before, we always thought it would be kind of impossible to get into that area. We always had a lot of respect for game developers. I never thought it would be possible to, you know, build up your whole game development company. But because we had some nice steady revenue from the early business model, we gave it a try and then went into the field of developing social casual games.”

It took the team half a year to build the first game and establish the company as a brand, while hiring more developers and also establishing a partner program (which Christian Wawrzinek still attributes a big part of Goodgame’s success to, even today). “We were partly an investment company and partly web guys. We had some programmers: my brother does programming too, and we were kind of experienced in the web area but not in the gaming field. So we had to build up the whole structure in the beginning of 2009.”

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It took the team half a year to build the first game and establish the company as a brand, while hiring more developers and also establishing a partner program.

The brothers also involved game veteran Simon Butler when setting up the Goodgame brand. He prevented them from making very big mistakes. Although they never shared the same opinion, he made sure not to just agree on everything they wanted. Instead, he would openly just say “No, I think it’s wrong, and I will tell you why.” Having a sparring partner like that is very helpful.

Balancing Creativity and Security

Things really started picking up in 2010: March marked the launch of their second game, Goodgame Farmer, and Goodgame Gangster (originally called Mafia) was made in May, while revenue streams were steadily growing. Production was constantly scaled up during that year, allowing Goodgame to produce 10 titles by the beginning of 2011. The office building that housed Goodgame was slowly but steadily being taken over by the company, with the team reaching over a 100 employees in 2011.

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The office building that housed Goodgame was slowly but steadily being taken over by the company.

The absence of any investment money in Goodgame forced the brothers to play things as safe as possible in order to not risk the company from going under. “We always did lots of research without being too experimental, because we wouldn’t have been able to afford big mistakes when just starting out.”

Goodgame experimented with different kinds of target audiences for their products, in order to gain experience and apply what they learned. Eventually, analytics became an increasingly important part of their business, leading the studio to develop their first key performance indicators (KPIs), metrics and tracking tools.

We wouldn’t have been able to afford big mistakes when just starting out.

The growth spurt that Goodgame went through from 2010 to 2011 is quite common to social game companies making it big with their early titles, but when it came to hiring new employees, they took a different approach. “One of the things that I’ve seen happen a lot is that a company gets a big bag of money from an investor and suddenly, they try to act like a big corporation, with the associated structure,” Christian says. “We were fortunate to see other companies around us grow from small to big in a really short period of time and what consequences it brought, like the employees becoming really unhappy. We found that out pretty easily because sometimes we would get waves of new applications from these employees.”

Noticing this pitfall, Goodgame recently invested in a Goodgame Café area in their offices, where they frequently host events, making sure their growing team (about 500 employees at the moment) gets an opportunity to mingle and meet coworkers from all over the ever-growing studio. “We think this internal mingling is very important, because we want a programmer from one department and a designer from another department (even though they don’t work together directly) to come together and have a beer with a sales girl at the end of the day and catch up on what they’ve all been doing.”

Christian offers a few pointers for other companies that are going through a rapid growth process like Goodgame. “First of all, listen to your key employees and acknowledge what they think about the general climate inside the company,” he advises. “Give them some things that they can hold onto and provide them with some responsibilities that are gratifying, but always make sure to listen to them. The second thing would be to manage decision-making processes. As you grow your team to 30 or 40 people or so, the point comes when taking all the decisions yourself just isn’t possible anymore. From that time on, you have to put a really big focus on your intermediate management team.”

“I think it’s inevitable that you have some, as I would call it, growth-ache or so,” Christian admits. “Things change all the time when you grow fast, and some things will inevitably come up that people don’t like. But you have to anticipate that and know how to appropriately respond to it. You have to demonstrate strong leadership and let them know that you’re listening and reacting accordingly.”

Calculated Growth

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Olliver Heins, Head of Games

Though currently still on a giant hiring spree (with over 100 job positions open), the company has reached over 500 employees. But Goodgame wants to avoid as many obstacles and challenges that come with that kind of rapid growth. “From all applications, we only select 2 percent” says Olliver Heins, Head of Games. “We really focus on getting people that are experienced and fit within our plan and the team itself. You often see a lot of hires in the game business that center around personal contacts, but that doesn’t often guarantee a great chemistry and fit inside the bigger picture.”

Having worked at Bigpoint in the company’s earlier days, Heins has had a front row seat and seen how the Hamburg-based company grew fast and opened multiple offices around the world. Upon joining Goodgame Studios in the summer of 2011, Heins had a bit of a hard time adjusting to the atmosphere of a beginning company and the structure the Wawrzinek brothers had set up. “Everything felt small again for me after Bigpoint; travel budgets were limited, and teams were small again. It really was like going back in time and seeing how Bigpoint was years ago.”

But this also made Heins a valuable asset to Goodgame, being able to foresee the challenges of rapid expansion. “I was amazed at how much Goodgame was being driven by research and analytics. We have great analytics tools to work with that allow me to quickly see everything that is happening. The focus on driving revenue and business definitely is something I enjoy here.”

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Empire: Four Kingdoms, Goodgame Studio’s first mobile game

Since our last visit to Goodgame Studios, they have successfully released their first mobile app called Empire: Four Kingdoms, which at one point reached the iOS and Android top 10 grossing charts. Christian has since then also announced the studio’s desire to be amongst the top 20 biggest game companies in the world, taking on the likes of Electronic Arts and Ubisoft. They hope to achieve this goal by the year 2020.

Studio Spotlight

Studio Spotlight: Frogmind

September 11, 2013 — by Gamesauce Staff

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Regardless of what you do, there’s always the draw of something better. Working at Redlynx wasn’t enough for both Johannes Vuorinen and Juhana Myllys. They wanted to create their own games, decide upon their own direction and ideas. So they jumped, and – backed by the Finnish government – set up a small office in Helsinki: Frogmind.

Setting Out on an Adventure

“We received 15,000 euros from the ‘Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment‘ once we got approved to the Aalto Start-Up Center [a business incubator],” Vuorinen begins. “That has helped us a lot … to just focus on developing BADLAND.”

Frogmind’s inaugural title BADLAND is a dark physics-based platform game laced with equally dark humor; it was the “something better” they were drawn towards. Its physics-based elements came naturally; former employer Redlynx gained fame with their physics-based racer Trials. Redlynx initially didn’t want them to leave: “They would have wanted to keep us there, but they quickly understood that this was something we wanted so badly to do at this point,” Vuorinen muses. Luckily, it hasn’t soured relationships. “I haven’t seen any angry faces.”

Basically, we saw proof that, being a small indie team, you can create awesome games, so we decided to try the same.

Surprisingly, both never actually worked together on the same project at Redlynx (or even earlier at studio Universimo), the desire to work together and go indie evolved after seeing the success of indie-darling World of Goo on iOS. The success of that game helped them make the jump. As Vuorinen puts it, “We’ve always shared a lot of common visions and ideas. World of Goo was just one example of a successful indie game made with a tiny team. Basically, we saw proof that, being a small indie team, you can create awesome games, so we decided to try the same.”

From Friendship to Business

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Johannes Vuorinen

Vuorinen and Myllys have known each other since 2007, and their friendship provided the base to jump from, though the match-up was based on gaming preferences rather than skills. “It was a beautiful summer day in Helsinki…No seriously, it was, and I was going to work for the first time in my new job [at] Universomo. Back then, Universomo had this small team of 8-12 talented developers and I was so proud to be one of them. We met the same day and although we worked in different teams, we realized that we had common interests in playing FIFA and NHL.”

Vuorinen continues: “Playing those games heavily [together] lead to us getting to know each other better, and we soon realized that we shared a lot of the same thoughts about games and game design.” The friendship evolved into a willingness to work together, but it would take a while before Frogmind happened. “After Universomo was shut down by THQ in the beginning of 2010, we still weren’t brave enough to start our own thing, but rather we both went to Redlynx for a couple of years before we felt that we were ready.”

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Juhana Myllys

Yet being ready isn’t necessarily the same as being in tune. “Most of the time [it does], as we share so many common visions and thoughts about all the various aspects of the game,” Vuorinen mentions. “However, now and again we have some disagreements, and these can lead to really intense arguments. BADLAND is so madly important for both of us.” He starts laughing. “But these just make the game even better.”

Myllys chips in on the differences: “One of us is a very precise technical engineer and the other one is a lunatic artist. We often have a common goal but different approach. Of course, there are conflicts when you work with someone almost 24/7. We are generally very different persons. But that all being said, we are still alive and our first game is finished!”

Dynamic Differences

“It happens all the time that one of us comes up with some new idea, and then I give some thought to it and give a small adjustment or addition idea to it, and then the original idea becomes just awesome. In the end, that’s a good thing, and I bet our mad love for the game can be seen in the result,” Myllys concurs. “Probably the greatest thing was in the very beginning when we realised that we have this golden game idea, and it just started to grow and grow. We just threw crazy ideas together this one day and developed them the next.”

The dynamic of Frogmind is mainly based on these complementing differences, though Myllys adds another component to the mix: “The key thing is just having a vision and desire to do something of your own. It has very little to do with talent or skills. You can always improve those things. But passion is something you cannot learn. If you have co-workers or friends who share that vision, just go with it!”

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“If you have co-workers or friends who share that vision, just go with it!”

The remark leads to another point, as both developers like to ‘keep things small’. “The bigger the company you are working in, more unlikely it is that truly original ideas will flourish,” Myllys says, and he adds a few other positives: “the ease of communications and the total lack of meetings that you have to have when there are lots of moving parts in your development team.”

Myllys does note there’s a drawback to the small company stature, as the ease and speed come at a price. “You have to do everything. Don’t get me wrong; generally, it’s great. But there are numerous tasks that just aren’t much joy to do. Someone else might be able to handle those special tasks with better quality. Sometimes it would be easier to just ‘let the boys at the marketing department do that’, that sort of thing.” The monotonous tasks didn’t keep them from finishing BADLAND. They saw the game as a dream project, and to them, it meant they could optimize and change it as they pleased. “We are able to minimize the boring stuff and focus on things that we are good at,” Myllys confirms.

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They saw the game as a dream project, and to them, it meant they could optimize and change it as they pleased.

Staying Small

At Universimo, the duo saw 10 people working on just one mobile game. “We couldn’t understand why it wasn’t possible for just one or two people to do the same,” Myllys says. “Why have other random people involved if we could just do it ourselves, the two of us?” Universomo was the first game studio both of them worked at. “You could say we lost our game industry virginity there,” Myllys continues. “When I look back, it was a perfectly gentle place to do that. Lots of great people worked there, and we got lots of good memories.”

But the amount of people working on the game left another impression that influenced their own development at Frogmind. “In BADLAND, we could easily have a team with three programmers, game designer, level designer, graphic artist, Menu/UI artist, Producer, QA engineer and Sound Designer, and we would still be considered a small game company. But we felt that we can do most of that, just the two us. All we need is a work environment that suits us perfectly. We decided to concentrate on the essentials.”

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“Why have other random people involved if we could just do it ourselves, the two of us?”

They also managed to get some experiences from other start-up developers as well. “Cornfox & Brothers started their journey back in 2010, when Universomo was liquidated by THQ. They’ve done amazingly every since. First there was a huge success in App Store with Death Rally and now they are doing their first own IP with Oceanhorn. We worked with them briefly last year with Oceanhorn, and it was fantastic.”

Other Experiences

Competing differences, a hands-on approach and a clear vision helped them to create BADLAND. The dark and organic styling of the game actually had a very common inspiration: “nature and wildlife has always been the biggest influence in BADLAND,” mentions Myllys. “In nature, things happen because of the shape and weight of things. There is no right or wrong, nor what’s fair and what’s not. Also, for almost any artist who ever lived, nature has been the biggest inspiration because of the beauty of it.”

That includes nature’s brutality. “Maybe we are just twisted or something. Although set in a fantasy world with cartoony characters, we really wanted that BADLAND would feel real. That’s when the life-like physics and sound effects comes in. It’s so much funnier when something gets crushed with realistic in-your-face type of sound effect rather than with some arcade style ‘punch’.”

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“In nature, things happen because of the shape and weight of things. There is no right or wrong, nor what’s fair and what’s not.”

Taking in those elements also comes close to making sure no gamer is left behind. “For us, it was important that it would have two basic “layers” in gameplay. First would be for those gamers who only want to proceed and clear the level. Second would be for gamers who really love the depth in gameplay and replay ability.” BADLAND opened up to all kinds of players as a result.

Maybe that’s how Frogmind won a prestigious Apple Design Award in 2013. “For us, it was a clear message: Job well done, keep doing what you are doing. The whole BADLAND project was an opportunity to forget the rules that we used to have and just simply do things on our own way.” It creates a very clear path: focus and make great games. Or as Myllys puts it: “[it’s our] ‘own thing’ or ‘no thing’.” So far it seems to work. With countless downloads of BADLAND during the five year anniversary of the App Store, they’ve arguably reached the top already.

And yet, there’s always something better to jump towards.

DevelopmentExclusive Interviews

Blizzard’s Brian Kindregan on Realizing Your Dreams, Not Relying on a Straight Career Path and How Being Too Stupid To Give Up Got Him Where He Is!

May 6, 2013 — by Gamesauce Staff

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In the short space between numerous exciting projects, Gamesauce got an opportunity to speak to Blizzard’s lead writer on the Diablo development team Brian Kindregan about storytelling, changes within the movie business and why he switched to the games industry, where he worked for Bioware before ending up with Blizzard. Plus, he explains the key to his success: being too stupid to give up!

A Passion for Storytelling

Kindregan’s journey begins with his admission to the Character Animation program at the California Institute of the Arts. “I started out with a passion for storytelling,” he recalls.”I had known for years that I wanted to create stories, worlds, and characters. Since I’ve always enjoyed drawing as well, I thought it would be great to combine the two by becoming a storyboard artist in the animation industry. I’ve always heard that the Character Animation program at Cal Arts was the premier school for animation and I was lucky enough to be accepted there.” One of the requirements is that every student creates a short film every year, which narrowed down his aspired fields of expertise. “I found I enjoyed the story creation and storyboarding process much more than other aspects of creating a film,” he adds.

Once he had graduated, getting a job proved to be anything but smooth sailing. Kindregan ended up being one of a group of the lucky students that were hired out of school as an intern for Turner Feature animation. “They were wrapping up on Pagemaster and starting Cats Don’t Dance, but after three months, our internship ended and they announced that production had been delayed, and they wouldn’t need any of us for a year or more.” So he set out looking for work as a storyboard artist, only to be told that it was a prestige position and one would have to work as a clean-up artist, then “an inbetweener” and then an animator before he could even hope to get a job as a board artist. “It should only take a decade or so,” he was told.

But Kindregan had no interest in committing to that career and didn’t really see the point of being so far removed from storytelling. Instead, he kept looking for work as a storyboard artist, eventually getting short-term work storyboarding “fairy tale knockoffs that would be sold in supermarkets and such”. He also made some money reading and commenting on Hollywood scripts, but didn’t make enough to make ends meet. Taking up a job as a window blinds salesman was the only way to pay rent, but then his luck turned. Warner Brothers was starting a new animation division and Kindregan decided to drop off a portfolio. “A few days later, they called me at my window blind sales job to offer me a three year contract as a storyboard artist,” he says. “It was absolutely one of the best phone calls of my life!”

It was absolutely one of the best phone calls of my life!

Constant change

After showing what he was made of at Warner Brothers, Kindregan went on to create storyboards for an impressive number of companies, including Disney, Universal, and Sony Imageworks. Although happy with the many different projects he’s worked on, it’s clear that working on big franchises demanded some attitude changes. “It was a case of going from project to project. The film industry is very mobile and many professionals are hired on a per-project basis. I initially found the constant change a little unsettling, but eventually realized that it kept me sharp and focused,” he says. “I worked with a wide range of people at many studios, on different films in different genres. I got to work in live action and animation, in features and television. Overall, creative people are empowered by dynamic, changing challenges.” He eventually settled into animation quite well and started teaching on the side, next to his increasingly successful work as a storyboard artist.

Brian Kindregan

A few years later, however, Brian decided it was time to make some changes in his professional life. “I was working as a board artist and teaching at the same time. I enjoyed teaching very much, but I needed to be involved in creating content.” He became increasingly less engaged with storyboard work in the film industry, due to changes in the nature of his job. “The role of storyboard artist changed, and storytelling gradually became the purview of writers only. ‘Just board the script’, was a phrase I was hearing a lot. I’m not that great of an artist, and the main contribution I made to a film was as a storyteller. So even though my reputation was good enough that I kept finding work, I wasn’t as motivated about it since I wanted to do more than ‘just board the script’.” So he took his storytelling skills to the games industry and applied for a writing position with Bioware, admiring the company out of personal interest: “I was playing a lot of Baldur’s Gate II and really enjoying it,” he remarks. The jump from visual artist to writer did not seem at all odd to Kindregan, both being a means of expressing story through characters.

Overall, creative people are empowered by dynamic, changing challenges.

Bioware

Bioware had clear, simple criteria for Kindregan when he applied as a writer: “They wanted you to create a game mod using their Neverwinter Nights toolset,” he recalls .”So I sat down and did just that. The process of creating that mod was an education in itself: being able to play a quest I’d written taught me a great deal about how writing and story integrate into gameplay.” Bioware liked Brian’s mod and decided to hire him, where he started out working on titles like Jade Empire. Though making the switch from film to games wasn’t that hard for him due to his adaptability, he certainly saw some differences. “On the surface, a game studio looks very much like an animation studio: T-shirts and sneakers, toys on the desk, ping pong tables. But just under the surface, it’s still software development and so it moves in a different way than film. Games are a young art form and they change by leaps and bounds each year, whereas film is a fairly well established form.”

Funnily enough, after working on Jade Empire, he went back to work in film to direct the first two seasons of a CG animated show for public television. It didn’t take long for him to realize directing wasn’t all he’d hoped for. “I was too focused on the managerial aspects, which removed me from the actual content creation that I loved so much.” Luckily, after a few years back in film, his good friend Drew Karpyshyn, a game scenario writer himself, asked Kindregan to come back Bioware to write for Mass Effect 2 and he “jumped at the chance”.

Having finished his work on Mass Effect 2, Kindregan once again decided to leave the company, though this time for as much of a personal reason as it was a professional one. “One of the reasons I’d gone back there was to work with Drew Karpyshyn,” he explains. “When he announced during development of ME2 that he would be leaving Edmonton to go work on the Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO in Austin, I found myself open to the idea of a move. At the same time, my wife and I realized that we are both coastal people at heart.” Since Bioware’s headquarters are in Edmonton, Alberta, they felt themselves too far removed from the ocean. It wasn’t an easy decision, however, and knew that he would only leave the company if he got to go to “another developer with the same commitment to high quality games”. This narrowed the list down “considerably”.

On the surface, a game studio looks very much like an animation studio.

Understanding Quality

Having made up his mind, he decided he wanted to join Blizzard’s Starcraft team. “It seemed perfect, I had always loved their games and they most certainly understood quality and . . . StarCraft,” he says. Kindregan emphasizes that it was only his enthusiasm for the IP that determined his decision and not the prospect of better pay or a better position. “I didn’t go to Blizzard as a lead writer. I was hired as a senior, but quickly found myself doing lead work there. They promoted me shortly after that. In general, I would not recommend taking a creative job solely for a higher title. I’d look for a company, team, IP, and project that all get you excited. If those elements are good, the job will be worth it regardless of your title. If they aren’t, then a title won’t help you.”

Even with his love for Bioware and the work he’s done there, “they have amazing, dynamic IPs, some of the characters I wrote on Mass Effect 2 feel like old friends”, he’s always fully immersed in the universes he’s working on at the time. “I am lucky enough to live in the fictional lands of StarCraft and Diablo. They are so fun, dynamic, and rich that they occupy my mind and creative interests. I love every game universe I’ve had the privilege to work on, but I’m always most excited to be working on the universe I’m in at the moment. If I am not excited to be there, that’s a sign that I should change!”

I’d look for a company, team, IP, and project that all get you excited.

Empowered to Keep Growing

Not a man for sitting still for too long, Brian explored his opportunities with Blizzard itself after finishing Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm. “At that time, the Diablo team had been looking for a lead writer for quite some time. All told, I felt like we’d gotten the StarCraft story on to a good track with Heart of the Swarm, and that I could do the most good by moving over to Diablo. I am very excited to be playing around in the Diablo universe and helping this talented team shape the future of the story.” Thankfully, Blizzard empowers their employees in this regard and encourages development where they can. “There are many discussions about career paths and growth, and they encourage continued education. They bring in guest speakers and allow employees to share their knowledge via a series of internal talks called ‘/learn.’ I’ve presented two of these in my time at Blizzard, and hosted one as an interviewer.” With Blizzard expecting nothing but the best from those who work there, Brian feels “very empowered to keep growing!”

Surely, specific choices and precise planning determine such a successful career? Nope, but here’s what Brian has to say on the matter: “Every person I know whose career has taken them to a fun and creative place got there in a different way. So the bad news is that there’s no set path. The good news is that there’s no set path! I always tell people that the key ingredient is: you should be too stupid to give up. You’ll meet many people who will tell you that you’re not good enough, that it’s not a ‘real job,’ that they don’t want people like you, that you can’t make a living at it and the list goes on. But if you’re too stupid to give up, it will bounce right off you. You’ll meet people who you will think are more talented than you, smarter, faster, better, and more creative. But those people will often give up, and you can always be better than they are at being too stupid to give up. That’s what worked for me!”

You should be too stupid to give up.

How Hard Could It Be? The Story of a Cinematic

At this year’s GDC, Brain talked about the role cinematics play in the storytelling of videogames and it’s pros and cons, speaking from his experience with Starcraft, which is notoriously reliant upon this tool. The mentoring role Brian takes on shows the teacher in him hasn’t gone for good. “I’d love to teach again, but it would definitely have to fit in with my schedule at Blizzard. I realized long ago that I always need to be on a job where I am creating content. If my schedule ever stabilizes enough to allow me to teach and still write for Blizzard, I would jump at it. Meanwhile, I very much enjoy speaking and lecturing on the things I’ve learned over my career!”

Video Coverage

Astralax’s Alexey Sedov on developing out of curiosity, being an programmer in the Soviet era and flying completely solo as an indie

January 17, 2013 — by Gamesauce Staff

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“The company only has one person, so you’re actually talking to the whole company”, Alexey Sedov from Astralax mentioned when he was asked about the size of his enterprise. Mr. Sedov from the Russian federal republic of Tatarstan has been programming for more than 20 years and is mostly known for developing Magic Particles, the special effects creation tool available both for game professionals and photo/video editors.

First project, bitter experience: the game that brought disappointment with publishers.

You cannot control sales.

Alexey’s first project, a real-time strategy game named Onimod Land, was released in 2005 with his programming and friends’ artwork. Nevertheless, this product was commercially unsuccessful. Sedov recalls that, back in 1998 when they started the project, publishers in Russia were demanding highest quality products they couldn’t even sell – in fact they had nowhere to do it. People wouldn’t buy games for their real prices, and the great deal of the market was about pirate content. What is more – one could only work with publishers totally sticking to their demands. The common scheme was that the publisher pays $10,000 in advance for a fully developed game, and promises about 25% royalty, while the latter was not necessarily paid. “You cannot control sales. There will be sold as many as they tell you. Without any doubt they all do accounting fraud”, Sedov explains. He says that the decision to work with a publisher in Moscow driven by being young and hopeful ended up in disappointment – the developer and his team understood the deal is initially an unfair one, and split up very soon. Alexey Sedov decided to finish everything himself and distribute the game for free. “And just as I started giving the game away, all those publishers appeared offering me to sell the product through them. I actually said no to all of those, since I found all their offers humiliating”.

A screenshot of Alexey's game Onimod
A screenshot of Alexey’s game Onimod

Because of just one person working on all, the game took ages to complete and, according to Alexey, is unlikely to impress people now due to drastic changes in both hardware and game graphics. “I came up with understanding that you either make games fast or don’t make them at all”, he concludes. And adds that if one day he becomes so rich that wouldn’t know what to do with money, he would consider re-making the game, but as of now it’s a dead project. The product is available through Astralax.com and various freeware sites by the “Onimod Land” search query.

No start-up capital? Better to work on your own

When he tried working with a small team of friends, Alexey Sedov understood that developing projects with no start-up capital might be too harsh for someone who is not as dedicated as he is, especially when they’re working on someone else’s idea. As a result, he decided to do everything on his own.

“These are current rules the world plays to – pretty much anything depends on whether a person has money or not. I hope it will come to an end sooner or later. But for now, you either have everything or work for someone”, says Sedov.

Sedov has chosen the riskiest path of any game professional: only doing what he likes. He already was able to make some money with the creation of Magic Particles, but a few years had to pass before the product caught on enough to sustain him. Sedov credits his own dedication and interest to have kept him going on all this time.

Though Alexey Sedov is known for the software he made from scratch, he doesn’t have a university degree in programming. “I graduated from University, but I’m no programmer, I’m a chemist”, – he reveals. In his senior year at college he was able to get a job that can now be called “network engineer” to serve hardware in healthcare industry.

How to assemble a computer from radio parts
Back then in Soviet times, computers were rare. Only big organizations could afford them. Amateurs and hobbyists were figuring out how to make their own by assembling their machines out of radio details bought separately.

Sedov’s very first encounter with a computer happened at the age of 12. “It was a BK-0010, it had 4 colors and a tape machine – there were no disc drives then. It had a crazy price of 650 rubles – while the average monthly salary of an engineer was 120. No wonder nobody had those computers at home. There were gaming salons where you could play for a ruble per hour”, he recalls.

Programming ended up eating most of Sedov’s time even during college studies. “I was only using Assembler, basically a machine code, but quite understandable for a human. I spent almost all spare time on learning programming as chemistry was gradually disappearing from my life.”

Programming enthusiasts in Russia didn’t have a big choice of information sources, they mostly got coding instructions from rare articles in technical magazines. Sedov would find pages with those tables full of directions on how to program and learn how to use Assembler. He still keeps the cutouts at his place.

A fragment of an ancient cutout with assembler code
A fragment of an ancient cutout with assembler code

Sedov left his first job in 1998 because of the crisis when the Russian ruble drastically collapsed. “I pulled my savings out of the bank on the last day – on the following one they didn’t give money back. And these were the funds I used for my first project of the game. Simply speaking, I was guzzling it away”.

The developer’s first notable project has been the Onimod Land game, but it was Magic Particles that came later and made him known.

“In my case, it is one person who makes and sells it, and technical support is also on me. Magic Particles is completely my own personal creation.”

Things are difficult before they are easy

I’m sure, nobody should do it like I did

Curiosity has been the initial reason to start Magic Particles – Sedov just wanted to experience how special effects are created. He says that in the beginning had no idea about how it’s done. “I decided to try just for myself and create a small special effects editor and a library for it. Later I thought I won’t manage it, the editor had too many capabilities and the library was unlikely to be used for real-time calculations in games.”
Thanks to internet mates’ encouragement, he didn’t stop on that. First users came rather soon, though it took up to two years to gain the first paying client.

“I started developing a graphic editor without a library. Then it happened so, that I showed it at the gamedev.ru website, and everyone started telling me to make a library. And I was like – guys, the calculations are too complicated, it won’t work fast enough. They said – no it will, just make it. And in 4 month I split the thing and made both – an editor and a library”.

Since then things went up for Astralax. Sedov explains that nobody wants to be the first one to use some software in a serious project since everyone is interested in experience of the others. It always takes some time before people start paying for software.

Magic Particles 3D
Magic Particles is now available as 2D and 3D versions, and also as a free one for non-commercial projects.

The technology was eventually picked up by game developers, and several known titles have been made with it. Among those are Dark Strokes: Sins of the Fathers and Treasures of Montezuma 3 by Alawar, Jewel Legends: Tree of Life by Cerasus Media, Garden Rescue from RainbowGames and Vampire Saga: Break Out from Go!Games.

According to Sedov, success has no recipe and is a truly individual thing. However, he did have some advice to share. “If I ever become a millionaire, and people will ask me about how to make money, I’ll say – guys, don’t act like me. It’s for sure, no one should do like me, hardly anyone would be able to stay without a salary for half a year while life keeps dictating its conditions”.

Sedov is currently working on the next version of Magic Particles, and as usual it takes him quite a lot of time to make it just the way he sees it. “My aim is to get to the modern 3D games market. Special effects for those are made in a way different from casual ones, for which I think I have everything”, – he shares. These new features will not only bring him to a new level of the 3D market, but are also likely to enhance the existing 2D features.

DevelopmentExclusive Interviews

Elonka Dunin on Online Games, Keeping Up as an Online Gaming Pioneer, and Fantasy University

February 1, 2011 — by Gamesauce Staff

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Elonka Dunin
Elonka Dunin is a game developer who has twenty years of experience in the industry with her. She advocates for the online game genre and co-founded the International Game Developers Association’s Online Games Group. She shares her start in the game industry, reflections on a constantly changing industry, and her current work on Fantasy University for Facebook and other web portals such as Kongregate.

From Gamer to Developer

Dunin studied Astronomy at UCLA and then joined the US Air Force. There she worked on different tankers and spy planes.

Elonka Dunin has been playing games since a time before PCs. Dunin’s father was involved with IBM computers in the 1960s and programmed mainframes to play games with her. As computers started moving into people’s households, Dunin was one of the early explorers of online fantasy worlds. She played every MUD she could get her hands on. When the game industry moved in the direction of Bulletin Board Systems, she played those too, until the industry and her along with it transitioned to online services such as GEnie and CompuServe in the 1980s.

In the 1990’s, Dunin went to GemCon in St. Louis, Missouri, where she got to meet some of the people involved in writing one of the games she played—GemStone ][ on GEnie. They hit it off, and a few months later she quit her non-game job in Los Angeles, California to make the leap to Simutronics in St. Louis. She has been there ever since.

“I have a special fondness for each game in their own way.”

Since taking a position at Simutronics, Dunin has been in the game industry for twenty years. Some of her most-loved games she worked on include popular MUDs such as one of the longest-running online games GemStone, Orb Wars, DragonRealms, and Modus Operandi. In 1993, CyberStrike won the first award for “Online Game of the Year.” It’s hard for Dunin to pick a favorite: “I have a special fondness for each game in their own way.”

Social Games Development

Fantasy University intends to combine snarky humor, endless pop culture references, and the FUBAR (the game’s form of virtual currency) with solid RPG gameplay Simutronics has been known for.
Fantasy University intends to combine snarky humor, endless pop culture references, and the Fubar (the game’s form of virtual currency) with solid RPG gameplay Simutronics has been known for.

Dunin is currently most excited about Fantasy University for Facebook, which is Simutronics’ first game for the social networking market. The Open Beta launched in mid-October 2010. So far, thousands of players have poured in from all over the world. “It’s got such a great energy about it, with wonderful humor and writing, and I am very proud to be part of a team that is bringing such a high-quality game to the space,” says Dunin.

For Simutronics, the biggest challenge has been the way the industry keeps changing so rapidly. However, Dunin is equipped to tackle the shifts, because of her love for and growth alongside the game industry since its beginnings.

We couldn’t look to how other companies were doing things, because we were often the first!

Dunin elaborates: “We couldn’t look to how other companies were doing things, because we were often the first! And the business model kept changing out from under us, so we had to be nimble. When we started, games were provided on major online services that charged an hourly rate, of which we got a percentage. Then the online services started changing their business models to go flatrate, so suddenly our number of users skyrocketed, but we could no longer rely on hourly fees. Then we moved our business to the web and had to come up with an entire billing system from scratch, as we re-worked everything to go with monthly subscriptions.” Now, the industry is changing again, so Fantasy University employs a microtransaction business model.

“It’s like we have to re-invent ourselves over and over again, which is fun at times, but definitely challenging!” exclaims Dunin.

Elonka Dunin also happens to be an internationally recognized expert on the ciphers of the CIA’s Kryptos sculpture and authored The Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms. Dan Brown named a character after her in his latest book, ‘The Lost Symbol’ called  ‘Nola Kaye’, an anagrammed form of ‘Elonka’.

Exclusive InterviewsIndie

Game Designer Erin Robinson on Free Games and Indie Life

January 27, 2011 — by Gamesauce Staff

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Erin Robinson is a game designer who blazoned her way in the game industry by making much-loved free games such as Nanobots, Spooks and Little Girl in Underland. It helps that she can make her own concept art, too.

Shareware For Life

Robinson being interviewed by Morgan Webb from G4TV
Robinson being interviewed by Morgan Webb from G4TV

Even in her early years, Robinson was a fan of indie games. She played every shareware game that she could get her hands on. “The first game I paid for was The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain and I did chores for weeks to earn the money. Maybe associating video games with chores was the reason I became a developer.”

Despite working in the publisher scheme nowadays, Robinson still believes strongly in her independent roots and free games. “For starters, your audience is significantly bigger. It doesn’t take nearly as much to convince people to check out an offbeat indie game if it’s free,” says Robinson.

“Free games can help a new developer build up a reputation.”

Further, working on her own free games helped Robinson find her style and share it with players. “Free games can help a new developer build up a reputation. The style of your work will become more apparent with each project you release, and can help you find your audience, or help them find you!” she shares.

The Indie Road

Robinson having breakfast with fellow indies during GDC 2010
Robinson having breakfast with fellow indies during GDC 2010
Even with these advantages, free games are not often a viable option for professionals. It can be a tough path to keep afloat financially while investing time and energy into developing free games. However, there’s a payoff. Robinson has been embraced by publishers because of her proven effort.

Finishing a game is a skill of its own, declares Robinson. “If you develop a reputation as someone who gets things done, it will only help you down the road.”
Most importantly, free games are a good way to get established and respond to feedback without incurring the risks of commercial game development.

“It’s the feeling of creating something from nothing that I find so engaging.”

Robinson has also discovered through experience that it is very rewarding to work on a commissioned project and pitch ideas. She experienced this first when designing Puzzle Bots and later when designing missions for social media company Akoha. “It’s the feeling of creating something from nothing that I find so engaging,” adds Robinson.

Into The Future

"Manning (ladying?) my booth at the PAX 10."
"Manning (ladying?) my booth at the PAX 10."

Lately, Robinson is learning how to program in Unity. “It’s going slowly but surely,” she admits. She is tackling programming because she understands how useful it is for game designers to be able to sketch out new ideas on their own.

Robinson is working on a small game that she occasionally updates people about using Twitter. “Nothing has been announced yet, but I can’t help but post concept art sometimes,” she admits.

Finishing a game is still the bane of her existence. “It’s easy to think a project is 90% done and then find your to-do list getting longer every day. It just happens,” Robinson shares. After all, releasing a game is only partly about ensuring a bug-free release. Creating promotional materials and sending a game to the press takes quite a bit of time and pushes budget constraints.

But in the end it’s worth it.

Erin Robinson recently talked about the neuroscience of gaming at GDC China, summarizing findings that video games are increasingly being used in medical and rehabilitative therapy and playing First-Person Shooters improves visual and auditory perception.

Exclusive Interviews

Writer Toiya Finley Talks About Text-Based Games and Paths to Game Writing

January 25, 2011 — by Gamesauce Staff

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Freelance writer Toiya Finley discusses writing for Academagia and shares her story of hope for other freelance writers who want to write for games.

Text-Based Games Live

Text-based games are making a comeback in the world of smartphones, handhelds, and good ol’ cell phones. Finley, who fairly recently transitioned her writing skills to the game industry, started in browser-based games. She is now looking ahead to the future of texting games.

Finley writes for Academagia: The Making of Mages, which was released a couple of months ago by Black Chicken Studio. This PC game, aimed at audiences ages 9+, combines mechanics from life simulation and text-based role-playing games.

Academagia, although not a console AAA title, has been a great learning experience for Finley as a freelancer. Undoubtedly writers, especially those working online, often struggle to be fully included in the development process. “It’s a vast game, so I was able to add a lot of my ideas to the universe,” says Finley.

”I was able to add a lot of my ideas to the universe.”

Finley is currently writing the downloadable content adventures. Soon, she will be starting design work on the sequel. Above all, player feedback drives her as she thinks ahead to the sequel. “It’s been a pretty awesome experience watching the community on the forums respond to the game and discover the elements which I contributed.”

Shortly after working with Black Chicken Studio, Finley also picked up a contract as an Interactive Story Designer and Game Designer for Slooce Technologies. Slooce creates single-player and multiplayer text-based games over Short Message Service (SMS). She gets to spend her days writing choose-your-own adventure style stories, albeit within a tight word count limit.

”I’m also playing around with new game concepts, which enable friends to play with each other, even if they don’t have smartphones,” Finley shares. Of course, she can’t talk about those, but their impending releases will demonstrate the exciting possibilities of the text-based game genre.

Freelance Beginnings

Academagia: The Making of Mages is both a life sim and a text-based RPG. Players characters live through their first year at the Academagia.

Finley’s journey into the game industry started with literal journeys to the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco.

“I’m one of those ‘I’ve been writing since I was three!’ types and I’d been playing games since I was five,” says Finley. About four years ago, she began to explore how she could combine her two passions. A friend of hers who was an owner of a game development studio suggested she check out GDC. Although she enjoyed the event and met with several very helpful Human Resource representatives, there weren’t any openings for game writers, let alone studios with in-house positions or freelance contracts.

Despite the setback, Finley attended the event again the following year and met a community of supportive writers. “After spending time with them, I was pretty confident that I could work in the industry,” Finley shares.

It took time and lots of posting on message boards and mailing lists, but eventually Finley found a request on a writer’s forum for lore writers, which turned out to be Academagia. Her enthusiasm and skills led to a position and later promotion.

Freelance Life

Map of Mineta: A conceptual map of one of the game's major regions, the City of Mineta where the Academagia resides. Many of the landmarks appear in random events and adventures.

Now, Finley is balancing the age-old challenge of freelancing—continuously seeking new work while completing contracts. Each project is different, which means that Finley can’t recycle writing samples time and time again.

“When applying for a job, you need to create all new samples that show you tailor your work to the project’s genre, tone, and style,” advises Finley. This can take a lot of effort and energy, and doesn’t guarantee getting the position, but it does build a portfolio for future work.

” When applying for a job, create all new samples that show you tailor your work to the project’s genre, tone, and style.”

Notably, freelance writers also face the unfortunate reality that their supportive community can also be their competition. One strategy for handling this situation involves finding a unique niche and sticking with an established client base. The other strategy requires developing your skills by focusing on getting a position using tailor-made writing samples and then learning along the way. After all, writing styles for games are just as unique as the mechanics themselves, as Finley has learned.

Finley is looking forward to unveiling her latest writing that involves unique game concepts for phone-based games.

BusinessExclusive Interviews

D’Accord Music Software’s Americo Amorim on playing the music game, being a startup, and the importance of being lucky

January 6, 2011 — by Gamesauce Staff

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Great games can come from the most unexpected corners of the globe, sometimes years in the making before finding their rhythm. Brazil’s D’Accord Music Software started ten years ago. “We were doing music education software,” recalls chief executive Americo Amorim. The company made mostly PC-based downloadable products, which were very successful in schools.

By 2007, he says, “We got bored with only doing educational stuff.” So, the company created a division called MusiGames. It started with ten people, hired more along the way, and has reached thirty people so far. Amorim reports, with a touch of pride, that almost all of his company’s current development efforts are in games.

Legacy of games

The original idea for Drum Challenge came from one of the D'Accord's own software engineers.

“In Brazil, we had a lot of experience with SEGA consoles,” says Amorim. “But our team’s background is PC development and mobile development studios, like traditional J2ME development.”

Before making a game together, they started with research, attending developer conferences, and meeting publishers. “We weren’t sure what platform we were going to work on,” says Amorim. “Of course, the team wanted to do Wii games, Xbox games, PlayStation games. But it didn’t really make sense for a start-up company at that time to do those kind of things,” he says.

They found the smartphone market to be open in 2008, and there were even fewer music games on the market.

Proof of concept

D’Accord’s first game was Drums Challenge for the iPhone. When they released it in June of 2009, it managed to sell 500 copies in the first three weeks. “With the public we drove to the game,” explains Amorim. “And what really happened was that Apple started promoting it. So when Apple started promoting it, the sales skyrocketed.”

“What our experience says, what really matters, is Apple promoting your iPhone game.”

The initial price was $2.99, and is $0.99 today. “What our experience says, what really matters, is Apple promoting your iPhone game,” Amorim reveals. “If they promote,” he laughs, “you’re successful.”

“And, of course, they don’t promote crappy stuff.” Amorim says that Apple doesn’t have room to promote everything that is great.

“On our side, we’re focusing more and more on the quality.” Last year, the company produced five games to create a portfolio. “For this year, specifically, we’re focused more on quality. So we’re doing only two games, and we’ve been developing them for six months.”

“Right now, we are focusing on smartphones: iPhone, iPad, Android, Symbian, and Facebook.” says Amorim. When asked about budget, he replies: “It’s usually $50,000 to do a nice music game.”

For MusiGames, both iPhone and Android development are done with the same budget. “That’s where we are improving,” Amorim points out. “It’s not a very high budget, but it’s a complicated budget for a small developer.”

Key learnings

Released right after the iPad launch, Drums Challenge became the bestselling iPad music game in its release month.

Some games, Amorim’s team promotes on their own. On others, they’ve tested distributors like Chillingo and I-play. “Some of those guys have more access to Apple, and that makes it easier for us. But, of course, they get a share of the game. So it’s really a decision that depends on the game we are talking about.”

The company decided to aim for a global audience, because the game market in Brazil is still growing. Amorim reports that the marketing is “starting to happen right now. Two years ago, it didn’t make sense to do smartphone games in Brazil.”

Today, they’re developing a title for Google-owned social-network Orkut. “Orkut is the Facebook of Brazil,” Amorim explains, adding, “Our first experience in Brazil will be this Orkut game. I really have high hopes for it.”

Playing social

iMusicPuzzle HD
The idea for iMusicPuzzle came from one of the company's artists.

While social games have been a strong trend in recent years, Amorim says: “We are really trying to focus on music games — because our expertise is in this. This social game is really musical,” he adds, about their upcoming product.

It could mark the first cross between the music genre, and a game for the social network platform.

When asked what a music game on a social platform would look like, Amorim smiles. “You’ll see in a couple months.” And that raises the question of whether it’s even possible. “Yeah, it is. The challenge is to get the friend’s interactions. You have to interact with the music, and you have to interact with friends.”

Amorim considers the question of whether music is universal on a global scale. “It really depends on the songs that you have in the game. So as we try to do games that you can play with any song: that makes them universal. So if you have ten-thousand songs in your library, you can play with them: that’s great.”

Market growth

Something they’re investing in more and more is letting the user play with their own songs. It saves the hassles of licensing, and the company had developed chord-recognition tech from their education software days. “We have a very good technology and we started applying this to games,” says Amorim.

This year, the company managed to get some VC funding. It allowed them to grow their development capabilities, and as Amorim adds: “We grew our marketing team, which we didn’t have before the VC guys came in.”

“We want to be known as the music games studio, and the Brazilian leader.”

Amorim says the strategy for MusiGames is to position themselves as “the big independent music game studio.” Beyond that, they want to have a strong position in Brazil. Amorim reveals: “We’re seeing the market grow a lot there.”

Which is why they’re investing in that growth. “We want to be known as the music games studio, and the Brazilian leader.”

Sound advice

The MusiGames team celebrating the company's anniversary with some fresh t-shirts
The MusiGames team celebrating the company's anniversary with some freshly printed t-shirts

And when it comes to what other developers can do to achieve success, Amorim has a few pieces of advice: follow game-business news, follow the market, and try something different with your game.

MusiGames’ best successes weren’t radically different, he says, but all “had something really unique.” And having a specialization is a great way to keep from losing good ideas along the way.

“What’s our guideline? If it’s a music game, we’re interested,” Amorim says. “And if it’s a platform we already know how to develop for, we can even study the idea. If the idea’s really good, we may do it. But, on the other side, we try to keep the focus.”

MusiGames is currently working on a music game for the Orkut social-network.

Development

Cellufun’s Sande Chen on Freelancing, Social Games, and Writing for RPGs

December 24, 2010 — by Gamesauce Staff

Sande2008.jpg

Sande Chen

Writer and designer Sande Chen reflects on her journey as a freelancer, breaks down the budding field of social game design, and recalls memories of working on her favorite role-playing games.

From Serious Games to Social Games

With a background as a games writer and serious games designer, Sande Chen is currently navigating the fairly new space of social game design. She continues to consult on other titles but is content with a steady design position.

Although Chen went to film school at the University of Southern California, she aspired to work in the games industry from the moment she graduated. Her first contract position as a game writer was for Terminus, which won two awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival.

“As a freelance writer and game designer, I have worked on pretty much every platform, games big and small, from serious games to MMORPGs,” says Chen. She relies on a wide range of ongoing and overlapping work, which is the lifestyle of freelancers.

Transitional work is key to a stable career as a freelancer. “Since some of my freelance work had been in social games, I had a pretty smooth transition into working full-time as a social game designer,” says Chen.

Aspects of Social Game Design

“Social Game Designer” is a title for designers who primarily design games to be played on social networks like Facebook. Social games require a unique approach to users. Chen explains, “One particular facet of working in social games is dealing with metrics and the immediate feedback from users. Of course, other types of games deal with such issues, but I find in social games, user impact on design is faster.”

“In social games, user impact on design is faster.”

Social games especially appeal to Chen because she can have a more direct relationship with players. To Chen, social networking trumps AAA titles, particularly when you take into account that Facebook social games can reach more than 500 million active users.

Chen deals with more than writing and design. She also has to consider the economical and marketing aspects of games as a consultant. Recently, she has been familiarizing herself with free-to-play mechanics paired with microtransactional elements in social games. “It’s very important to understand your monetization scheme or to build in ways to monetize when designing a social game,” Chen advises.

Before Social Games

CD Projekt's The Witcher
Chen: “I really loved the dark atmosphere and the richness of the world.”

Although Chen enjoys social game design, she does miss the richness of writing for role-playing games. By far, her best experience was writing for CD Projekt RED’s first large-scale game, The Witcher, which won Best RPG 2007. She had the opportunity to work with a unique story created by leading Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowsk.

One of her most interesting experiences was working on a Serious Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (or SMMORPG, now that’s a mouthful). Like pushing the boundaries of social games, “the most exciting and challenging projects are outside the norm,” says Chen.

“The most exciting and challenging projects are outside the norm.”

Chen explains what brought about the game: “My friend is a physics professor and an avid fan of fantasy MMORPGs. He wanted a fantasy MMORPG to teach university level physics. It also needed to be non-violent.” For this project, Chen had to figure out what the basic gameplay mechanic had to be, what the quests would be like, and how a physics curriculum could be integrated into a MMORPG.

It also had to feature magic and elves.

Sande Chen also coordinates the International Game Developer Association’s Game Design Aspect of the Month.

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