Eipix Entertainment is a game development studio based in Novi Sad, Serbia. Founded in 2005 by a small group of friends, today it is a home to about 300 people. With the current output of 25 hidden object puzzle adventure (HOPA) games a year, it’s safe to say it is the most productive HOPA studio in the world, with its sights set on branching out into other video game genres.
Nick Thomas, CEO and Co-Founder of SomaTone, Inc., is a video games industry veteran and thought leader with 10+ years of proven executive leadership results with a focus on developing strategic industry partnerships, innovating creative outsourcing solutions and managing talented teams that contribute to more than 100 games annually from nearly all major publishers and developers, as well as independent developers. He discusses the transformation occurring in the industry in this article.
It’s happening again, right before our eyes; we’re in the midst of yet another era of redefinition and reinvention in the ever-evolving gaming industry. While the landscape is changing dramatically, history shows us that something new and good will invariably emerge. After all, (and despite many attempts), you cannot own or control creativity, or predict the future of gaming.
We at SomaTone are ten years deep as a leading provider of creative content for mobile, social, and casual games, working at the forefront of gaming over the last decade’s explosive growth. Having produced audio content on hundreds of games for many of the top publishers as well as for the indies, our vantage point gives us a sweeping perspective across the landscape of the games industry– from AAA console games, to MMO’s, to Social/Mobile, to Casual, and beyond.
We’re seeing the cyclical pendulum swing of innovation, homogenization, and reinvention continuing to keep the publishers of gaming content guessing as the smaller, faster, and more creative start-ups are yet again redefining the gaming industry.
The Ripple Effects of Converting Players into Users in Mobile Gaming
Casual games continue to go through a familiar pattern, and we are currently emerging from a decline of the smaller “Mom and Pop” game developers, who have been squeezed out by the realities of mobile publishing and the dominance of Free-to-Play (F2P) games. This economic model has sought to systematically convert game “users” into a currency that has been hoarded, sold, and traded in an effort to control access to “game players.”
As a consequence, the industry was stratified into large game publishers–who controlled the access to “users” and thus the majority of the market–and new start-ups and Indies, who were either being gobbled up by these same publishers, or self-publishing and hoping for a Flappy Bird-style anomalous hit.
The middle-class of game development–studios of 20-50 working on games that were sold via standard pay-to-play standards with supportive publishing partners–has suffered. With limited access to users, who are carefully controlled by game publishers, it was nearly impossible for mid-sized independent game developers to make and sell their own games and support their teams. The result was a polarized and stratified industry in which a small fraction of game publishers own the vast majority of market, making it extremely difficult for small game developers to independently make and sell their games without yielding to the requirements of the publishers, who will own the IP, take the lion’s share of the revenue, with no clear obligation to bring “users” to their game.
Now while all publisher models attempt to control access and distribution to customers (this is in fact what publishers are supposed to do), there is a dramatic new variable at play, with the F2P economy. This “race to the bottom” business model, which has led to disruptive game-play mechanics designed to extract fees from “users”, in their efforts to enjoy a fully featured game-play experience and be “players”, is highly dependent on publishers’ access to users, and their ability to monetize these users. Those “old school” game designers, who sought to develop great games, that offered fully featured immersive game-play experiences at the outrageously expensive price of $.99, never stood a chance against “free” games, which are developed by game publishers and promoted to their “users”, requiring players to pay for the features included in a 1-dollar competing title.
This Latest Cycle Will Induce a Painful Rebirth
This cycle of innovation, homogenization and reinvention is not a new trend. We have seen this same cycle in gaming in the past, with Big Fish Games‘ consolidation of the PC Downloadable market and subsequently, Zynga‘s dominance of browser-based Facebook, and in both cases, there was a painful rebirth of the industry. Those fastest to adapt to the new ecosystems survived, and those who could not evolve, died away.
However, it is also true that every time the industry has homogenized itself by the few having control of the many, a new era of gaming has invented itself. Just after Big Fish unequivocally took control of PC downloadable, Facebook came along and completely disrupted their reign. A few short years later, the kings of Facebook (Zynga, Playdom, Wooga) have been dethroned, only to be replaced by the current leaders of the mobile industry. With each successive attempt to control and “own” the industry, new life has begun.
This reminds me of Jurassic Park. Life finds a way. In this case, creativity finds a way, and despite the attempts of the current reign of publishers to own and control this inherently creative marketplace, they are discovering, just as all others before them have, that you cannot control game players or “own” creativity.
A new era is currently percolating under the thin crust of the mobile/casual games ecosystem, and by my observations, we are onto a new dawn of gaming. One in which King.com, and Kabam, or perhaps even the Apple Store and Google Play store, will soon find themselves trying to catch up, and wondering what happened as the world they felt so sure of has shifted beneath their feet.
“Mom and Pop” developers, take heart. The pendulum swings both ways. And from our vantage point, which reaches from the largest publishers to the smallest indies, the playing field is leveling.
2014 will be a year of reorganization and consolidation, as the bubble of Mobile/Social games refocuses its efforts, and quality will retake its place as the leading factor in a company’s success, rather than simply a publisher’s control of access to users. And developing innovative and high-quality games has always been what the “Mom and Pop” game studios have done best and are continuing to do.
Look forward to the next installment of this series next month, a case study on Zynga’s Puzzle Charms!
Big Fish Games‘ Fetch is about a young boy on a journey to rescue his kidnapped dog. Chosen as Apple 2013 Editors’ Choice award, it took a team of nine people working just over a year to create the game. Conor Murphy, an online marketing manager at Big Fish Games, sat down with Chris Campbell, Senior Producer, and Brian Thompson, Art Director, to discuss the development of Fetch.
Conor: Where did the initial creative come from? Who started the storyboards for Fetch?
Chris: One of my favorite things about our team is that when we release a game, it’s very difficult to pinpoint who came up with what idea and when. The initial conversations around the idea that would become Fetch started in February 2011, and a few weeks later, we’d settled on the idea that a hydrant would take Bear one stormy night, and the boy would go on a journey to save him. My second favorite time in the development of a game is this brainstorming process. We have a TON of ideas, and at the time, all of them are good. You have to be honest with yourself during this process because while all ideas might be good, they’re certainly not all good to use as the basis for a game.
Once we developed the premise, we asked everyone on the team to draw anything and everything they could think of that might be cool on these giant sheets of paper we had taped to a huge table in our area of the studio. One of our awesome artists, Hamzah Kasom Osman, sketched an alligator one day as part of this exercise, and I ended up designing Chapter 2 around the sketch. Throughout this process, Brian Thompson, Peter Yiap, our lead developer, and myself are constantly trying to organize as many cool ideas as possible into one wildly imaginative and coherent experience. Our preproduction is like watching nine people stand around a giant vat of super creative soup and toss whatever they have handy in. It certainly wouldn’t work for most teams, but for us, this is critical to our process.
Conor: Can you tell us about the thoroughness and time it took to create the game and quality images likened to “Pixar for casual gaming”?
Brian: First of all, we are huge fans of Pixar films and their approach to storytelling, so I cannot tell you how flattered we are as a team to hear the game being described this way. I believe the Pixar comparison comes from the story and how it is told, as well as the visuals and animation. Part of what Chris and I believe makes a great product is the personal investment of each person on the team. Each and every part of Fetch came from the great creative soup we as a team have been brewing and refining for the last four years. It’s not always the prettiest and most tasty thing, but it contains some wonderful one-of-a-kind gems. I know a bit about the going-ons of studios like Pixar, and I think we share some of the same philosophies. We have learned some valuable lessons in the past by trying too hard to tell complex stories (and then dealing with the painfully bad results), so we decided very early that Fetch would have an incredibly simple story. At its heart, Fetch is a good old-fashioned adventure with a simple premise: when his beloved dog is stolen, a boy embarks on a daring adventure to save his furry friend. It seems that the stories that often resonate the most with most of us are basically very simple. I think it is this simplicity that creates the freedom to create engaging and endearing characters, funny and goofy scenarios, and in the end, a product that touches the player and pulls on their heart strings.
From the art side, when I first started thinking about our next project, I had a couple big overarching goals for the art direction. First, I wanted to continue the high production value standard that we had established in the Drawn series. Second, I wanted a new challenge for the art team and a departure from what we had done in the past. And third, I wanted the game to have a nostalgic feel to it. With Drawn, we focused on a very stylized and painterly world, and with Fetch, I was interested in going for a more graphic 2D look. I have always loved the background art of older Warner Bros. cartoons like Wile E. Coyote and The RoadRunner, combined with the colorful styling of Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle. Contemporary artist Scott Wills and his amazing work on Samurai Jack was a major influence as well. Combining these goals and influences, with the big-hearted story we had really cemented the character of Fetch. Early on, we had played with different animation solutions for our characters. Our fantastic animators Mike Baran and Rebecca Coffman started modeling Milo and Bear off of some of my early sketches, and we played with different texture solutions. I wanted the characters to pop from the painted 2D backgrounds, but still feel very much a part of the world. We did a lot of tests on the look of the characters while the illustrators on the team, Hamzah Kasom Osman, Soi Che, and myself were creating final background art based on the environment concepts we had produced in early-preproduction.
There were many challenges in figuring out just how to design the background art to serve the character actions. This is largely how backgrounds have been designed for cartoons and animated features forever. But unlike a feature film where you have a captive audience, a game world must be designed very specifically to provide necessary contextual clues for the player. These clues vary from very subtle to very obvious depending on the required message. A priority of mine on the art side is always to make the characters, their animation, and the environments feel very related and tightly integrated. We would iterate on the animations until they felt very smooth, and the animators worked very hard to create continuity of animation style across all of the characters. In Fetch, it was very important that the player really feel the emotion of the characters, so this gave us the opportunity and challenge to push the physical acting, as well as in some cases, facial expression. Rebecca and Mike really tackled the challenge and really enjoyed it. From the goofy robotic antics of the Dog Catcher to the big ol’ sweet-heartedness of Gil the Gator, and the ridiculousness of our voracious Coconut Bird, what you see is the results of truly talented animators having a ton of fun.
Conor: How many people did it take to make Fetch?
Chris: The core development team within Big Fish Studios for Fetch was nine people: myself, Brian, Peter, Sean Richer, Ryan Hoaglan, Hamzah Kasom, Soi Che, Michael Baran, Rebecca Coffman and Bear (little gray dog that lives at my house). We’ve been a team since late 2008 and have three prior games under our belts, so we work incredibly well together. As Brian indicated, we’ve been making this awesome soup for so long. We’ve been at the point of finishing each other’s sentences for years now. I think that’s a big reason we were able to build a game like Fetch in only 13 months. The only things we as a team don’t handle inside our studio in Seattle is music and voice over. Our team has worked with Clean Cuts for our audio for a few years now, and because they can also finish our sentences, we just call them Team Fetch East.
I do think it’s important to point out though that while nine of us lived and breathed Fetch for a little over a year, there are a lot of other people that helped it become the game that we’re so proud of. Big Fish is a big company and a lot of awesome people help us bring the game to market. I wish I could thank everyone here, but if you play Fetch, I made sure they were listed in the credits – along with all of their dogs.
Conor: How many hours did it take to make Fetch?
Brian: The game took a core team of nine people, 13 months. An interesting thing to note is that when we set off to make Fetch, we were a team that had made three successful, first-person, point-and-click adventure games for the PC, and now were trying to create a mobile avatar-based adventure in a new engine for the first time. Needless to say, we had a fairly long pre-production phase as we sorted through a remarkable amount of challenges and made a mountain of mistakes. But we love a challenge, so we huddled up and said “Bring it!”
Conor: Can you talk about the launch and promotion of Fetch to mainstream, including the exhibit at Seattle Museum of History & Industry. Was the seed planted ahead of time? Any big outlet that really helped push it mainstream?
Chris: Working with MOHAI on the Fetch exhibit was such an incredible experience, and came as a complete surprise to us. Because game studios are such an important part of Seattle’s economy, MOHAI wanted to include some information on the local game industry when they moved their museum to South Lake Union. Ann Farrington, the Creative Director for MOHAI, came to visit us in the studio one day to ask us questions on the industry in general, and we gave her a demo of Fetch as part of that meeting. She suggested that we consider creating an exhibit on the making of Fetch because an exhibit focusing on the development of a game hadn’t been done before. Several conversations later, Brian and I were frantically trying to distill game development into a handful of steps that would help teach everyone how a game was made. This is actually a lot harder than it sounds.
It took us three months of work to get the exhibit ready, and I can honestly say it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of. We got to tour the museum as it was under construction and watched as an exhibit based on our game was built piece by piece.
As far as an outlet that pushed Fetch into the mainstream – we had a lot of interest in the game as we were developing it. The Wall Street Journal wrote an article and a local television show filmed Bear playing in the park next to MOHAI. Apple also featured Fetch as their Editor’s Choice worldwide the day that it launched. It was surreal.
Conor: Any takeaways of what would be done differently? Any unexpected stories created because of the influence of the game?
Brian: I don’t think we would have done anything differently. Like I mentioned, we made many mistakes. In fact, we have fully embraced mistake-making as an integral part of our design process. But our days are spent coming up with crazy, inspired ideas, chasing them down, and giving life to them inside a game, so mistakes are bound to lurk around every corner. We just try to learn from each one and move forward.
I think the greatest thing that came from making Fetch is the effect it has had on players. Young and old, game reporters, school kids, families, GTA fans and housewives, have all loved the game. Fetch tells a story that is hopeful and sincere, and it moves and breathes in a special way that could only be achieved by a special team. I think we left something wonderful behind, and I am so proud of that.
The first global conference program to recognize and serve the game development community in Eastern Europe, Casual Connect works every year to bring great speakers, the most current topics, valuable industry learnings, and meaningful connections with the most qualified, successful game development community in Eastern Europe and beyond. The show included speakers from a number of multinational organizations such as Facebook, Game Insight, Big Fish Games, G5 Games, and Unity, as well as key domestic success stories like Odnoklassniki and Creative Mobile Games. More than 60 speakers from all over the world presented information-packed sessions about free-to-play games design and operations, social casino games, technological evolutions, development methodologies, new platforms, postmortems…and the list goes on.
In addition to the sessions, attendees at Casual Connect had the opportunity to build relationships with other businesses and create strong community ties, something that Casual Connect strives to accomplish with each conference. Networking opportunities were everywhere, including at the fun and unique sponsored parties. The Indie Prize Showcase also gave new developers a chance to talk to publishers and other developers about what they’ve been doing.
The Most Prominent Woman in Games Award from Casual Games Association was also awarded in Kyiv to Julia Palatovska, Business Development Director at G5 Entertainment.
With Casual Connect Kyiv now a fond memory, Casual Connect turns their attention towards their return to the location of the FIRST-ever show, and hopes to see you in AMSTERDAM in February 2014!
If you were unable to attend the show, the presentations were recorded on video and made available for free on Gamesauce and the conference website.
Casual Connect Videos on Gamesauce:
Barak Rabinowitz: Analytics and Social Casino
Artur Sakalis: Opportunities in Eastern Europe
Oleg Pridiuk: Dare to Own the Task
Kresimir Spes Pursues Perfection
Roman Povolotski: Stabilizing Success
Oren Kaniel: Measure Twice, then Measure Again
Katia Vara: Leveraging Global Experience
Nemanja Posrkaca on Making Games Accessible for Everyone
Kadri Ugand: The Value of Accelerators
Roei Livneh Sets the Bar High
David An: Kimchi and Publishing at ProSiebenSat1
John Gargiulo: Looking at the Potential
Sara Lempiainen: Reaching and Supporting the Developer Community
Ville Heijari: The Importance of Focus and Collaboration
Maarten de Koning: Navigating the Minefield of Rapid Change
Patrick Wheeler: Bringing Mobile Gaming to China
Valentin Merzlikin: Putting On Your Game
Michail Katkoff on Staying Out Front
Dan Prigg: Moving Forward
Ivan Lavoryk: Facing the Latest Challenge
More videos can be found on the conference website.
Other Coverage of Casual Connect Kyiv:
“Mario is Out, Mobile is In” – App2Top
The Long Lasting Aftertaste of Casual Connect Kyiv – Renatus
Shorts Cuts: Why Fishing Cactus wants its next game to turn gamers into coders – Pocketgamer.biz
Big Fish Opening the PC Market to Android Devs – App2Top
BlueStacks partners with Big Fish on mobile game integration – CNET
WildTangent Expands to ASUS Tablets and PCs – App2Top
5 promising indie games from Casual Connect in Kiev – Pocketgamer.biz
Casual Connect Kiev 2013: Interview with DeNA – App2Top: Russian Version and English Version
Community spirit: Why every dev needs to foster a relationship with their players – Pocketgamer.biz
Casual Connect Kyiv 2013: App Annie will soon open an office in Moscow – App2Top: Russian Version and English Version
‘Mario is out’: Why BlueStacks believes microconsoles will fill gaming’s console shaped hole – Pocketgamer.biz
Casual Connect Kyiv 2013: interview with WildTangent – App2Top (Russian)
Short Cuts: How small studios can benefit from the power of recognised IP – Pocketgamer.biz
Casual Connect Kyiv 2013: Interview with Big Fish – App2Top (Russian)
Casual Connect Kyiv 2013 – glafi.com
Jessica Tams: People Don’t Sneer at Casual Games Anymore – App2Top: Russian Version and English Version
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.
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?
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.