Meet the best and the brightest from Paraguay, China, Brazil, Estonia, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Colombia and USA. Indie Prize, an international scholarship program created by Computer Games Association for independent game developers, announced the winners of the 19th Indie Prize Awards during Indie Prize Seattle at Casual Connect USA 2017 – representing the best of the best in independent game design and innovation:
Social media, whether it’s on our phones or a home computer, is something most people can’t imagine the world without these days. Despite their ubiquity now, most people didn’t know they even wanted a social media platform. Chris DeWolfe saw the potential while studying at the University of Southern California, combining the ideas of personally created websites from GeoCities, paired with a messaging service like AOL IM, and the personal connectedness of Match.com.
Chris helped found MySpace in 2003, which changed the trajectory of social media and the internet forever. It grew to be the largest social media site on the planet and was sold to News Corporation for over $500 million. Since leaving MySpace, Chris has shifted focus away from social networks to social gaming with SGN.
The initial focus of SGN was on Facebook gaming in 2010 but, seeing the increasing use of mobile, made its products available for iOS and Android as well. Under Chris’ leadership, SGN has expanded to encompass 6 different locations and with over 200 employees. SGN has released several Top 10 titles across multiple platforms, including Cookie Jam, Panda Pop and Juice Jam.
The Move to “Gamertainment”
The experience that Chris has had has given them a broad view of both video games and entertainment in general. They think that the paradigm is shifting in the gaming industry towards a new one: “Gamertainment”.
At Casual Connect USA, Chris will speak in the session “Games + Entertainment=Gamertainment: A Conversation with SGN Co-Founder and CEO Chris DeWolfe on the New Industry Paradigm”. They’ll talk about the trend of games becoming licensed out for films and well known TV/film brands (and celebrities) turning into games. This is in addition to streamers that have made watching games into a popular activity. Chris will talk about why the borders between gaming and general entertainment are blurring and why they’re making plans accordingly.
Mobile is a significant growth sector for the gaming industry and many are expecting VR to be the next big thing for the industry. In Next-Gen: VR & AR track, Casual Connect USA will explore the what game makers are doing to make the sector take off and what investors want it to succeed.
VR’s Rapid Growth
While there’s a lot of excitement surrounding augmented reality and virtual reality, there’s also a lot of confusion as well. The potential for VR is huge while AR might be even larger over the long term, right now there are more questions than there are answers. Looking at the full breadth of the industry, Tim Merel, founder/CEO of Eyetouch Reality and Digi-Capital, will look at AR/VR revenue forecasts, sectors, business models, investment, core tech, pricing and users. The session titled “The Reality of AR/VR” will look extensively at the facts and figures of AR/VR.
With platforms like Vive, Oculus, PlayStation VR and Samsung Gear VR, consumer VR has definitely arrived. However, it can be a challenge for developers to make sense of these myriad platforms and decided which to target. Game developer Edward McNeill will talk about the differences between these various VR platforms, talking from the experience of someone who has already launched to VR titles in “How to Pick a VR Platform”.
The year before last, Jeremiah Alexander had two new game ideas. The first was a card collecting game, conceived in response to an emerging trend – let’s call it Project A. The second was based on an impulse to make a minesweeper game – let’s call it Project B. “Project A was approached in classical fashion: production of an extensive and detailed game design document (40 pages to be precise), sent on to a potential publisher”, Jeremiah recalls. “Project B had no formal design, more of a hacked together prototype that then became a game”.
Project B is now called Grave Matters. It was selected for the Indie Prize showcase and publicly unveiled at Casual Connect USA in July 2014. Project A is still currently just an expensively bound design document, gathering dust in the corner of a publisher’s office on the other side of the world. Jeremiah shares the story about two different approaches to making a game.
A Minesweeper Game to Rest From Project A
This story begins in my office, an open plan space I share with two other games companies (Fluid Pixel and Whispering Gibbon). We have a very different attitude to most things, nevertheless, we try hard to help each other out. We have no formal partnership agreements to this end, but just share the belief that it’s better if we all succeed. Your lawyer and business consultant might tell you this is foolish, companies must operate in independence, with NDAs and policies to conserve secrecy and intellectual property integrity. Whilst I am occasionally forced to deal with these legal formalities, I do prefer handshakes and IOUs.
One (probably rainy) day, I walked into the office and said, ‘I want to make a minesweeper game’. This sort of random idea outburst is common and most often ignored, as it was in this case, too. However, I had a bit of hiatus in paid projects, and was bored of writing documentation for Project A. So, I cracked open Unity and just started making the game, designing it as I went along.
In a rather short time, I had a basic version of the game. It wasn’t a lot of fun, but a couple of rewrites later, it became much better! These rewrites included a complete grid structure change (from squares to hexagons), and some different ways of representing danger. Generally, the gameplay design was just a process of experimentation, this project wasn’t about doing things by the book, it was about just letting off some steam.
Not long afterwards, I stopped working on Project B and went back to working on the design document for Project A, the card-collecting game. I was convinced that if I picked an emerging market trend, designed an amazing game within it, and produced the most beautiful game design document ever to illustrate it, then we’d be onto a winner. We did this, then we sent it to the best suited games publisher and waited…
Digging Grave Matters Out of the Dropbox
… and waited. I soon returned to Project B, which was quite fun at this point but looked appalling! So, I borrowed some of Gareth‘s (Fluid Pixel’s art lead) time to help me out with the graphics. I had already enlisted his help on some steampunk designs for Project A, so it made sense to stick with the theme. At the time, I was also working on an educational project around 19th Century English history, which included some interesting research into grave diggers and resurrectionists such as Burke & Hare. This became the inspiration for the game and Project B became “Harey Burke”, later to be renamed Grave Matters.
So the Grave Matters game already had a name, some graphics, and was fun. But then the clients started calling again, bills needed to be paid, and the game was put on the shelf where it sat for a while. Not long after this, Project A was rejected both by the publisher we had sent it to and also by a small prototyping fund we had applied for. At this point, both projects seemed to have fallen into the abyss. Time passed. Client work was done. Bills were paid. Life went on.
Late in 2013, over coffee, Stuart, the CEO of Fluid Pixel asked me, “What ever happened to Grave Matters?” I responded: “It’s sitting in my Dropbox, along with the tea-making app and football game and other half-finished endeavors.” He suggested Gareth and Chai, who had some downtime, to pick that game up for a while. We were aiming on what could be called proper development, but our approach to this project lacked anything close to finesse.
Thanks to working on a lot of client projects, I’m well-versed with project management, source control, quality assurance, and so forth, yet Grave Matters employed none of this. New design ideas were often scribbled on the backs of envelopes containing letters from creditors (I will pay, I promise).
The complete source code was hurled back and forward across the room on memory sticks to whoever was working on it at the moment, and we generally made it up as we went along – it wasn’t lean or agile project management, it was blasé. Closer to the end of development, we started using a board on Trello, but for nothing more than a list to remember what still needed to be done when we’d not been working on the project for a while.
After about six months of development intervals interspersed between client work, we had Grave Matters, and now it was time to get it out there.
Here’s where I’d love to say: we self-published the game and it became a huge success, shooting to top of the App Store and making millions. In reality, as I’m writing this, we don’t yet know how this story ends. Grave Matters was released as a Halloween launch in October 2014. The game is still in it’s early days, and we’ll see how it goes in a few weeks.
Project A would probably have been a better game: it’s definitely better designed, more innovative, and has a better business model. Yet, we never had the resources or connections to get it off the ground. Grave Matters, on the other hand, has been released independently and, if early impressions are anything to go by, it could do really well (at least with fans of Minesweeper).
If Grave Matters is a success, it will challenge much of what I thought I knew about the right way of developing a game: comprehensive GDDs, robust planning, well-formulated business models, strict project management, etc. This might make me a little sad, but I’d have a successful game instead, so I’m sure I’d get over it 🙂
Grave Matters for iPhones and iPads is already available in the App Store, and an Android version will be released further down the line.
Gamblit Gaming’s CMO David Chang spoke about how Gamblit connects gaming and gambling, as well as the trends in both the gaming and gambling industries that he’s witnessed over the last few years, with TechnologyAdvice host Clark Buckner. TechnologyAdvice.com provides coverage content on teaching and training games, strategic employee engagement software, and customer loyalty programs and much more. Also be sure to check out their gamification tech conference calendar.
Jason Park provided a view of the Chinese mobile market compared to the other markets during Casual Connect USA 2014. “China’s big; we all know that,” he explained. “We’ve know that for awhile, but how big is it really? This year alone, in just Q1, the mobile market surpassed 630 million dollars. At this rate, they’re looking to surpass 3 billion by the end of the year.”
Jason Park, vice president of operations at Art Concept House/Spellgun, runs this world-class art service as well as managing the new China mobile publishing division. When Park met CEO of Art Concept House, James Zhang, and heard his vision for the company, they discussed how Park’s prior experience as general manager for global publishing at Perfect World Entertainment, as well as running his own startup, could help take the company to the next level. And Park made the decision to join them.
From Player to Creator
He was first attracted to the games industry through running a PC café at the time StarCraft, Warcraft 3, and Counter-Strike were the popular games. While there, besides running tournaments and fixing broken computers, he spent his time (sometimes more than 12 hours a day) playing Counter-Strike in the pro league. When the PC café eventually went out of business, he began his first corporate games industry job in QA, testing games for SCEA. He went on to hold senior positions at IGN Entertainment, Gala-Net, and Sony Computer Entertainment. He also founded his startup company, Mobula, a mobile studio that made real-time online core games.
Park has worked in almost every aspect of the games industry: development, quality assurance, production, marketing, localization, operations, and business development. He loves the products, the people, and the constantly changing process. Despite his extensive experience, he feels, “No matter how many games you’ve worked on, the next one is always a new challenge.”
Finding Interactive Gameplay
He has always been a PC gamer, but for the past year, his focus has been on mobile. Although a longtime MMORPG player, he now finds it difficult to find the five or six hours in a day to concentrate on the game. Instead, he is playing Game of War – Fire Age, which he claims is undoubtedly the mobile game closest to an MMORPG. But he keeps going back to Kingdom Rush Frontiers whenever a new update is released.
The next big trend Park sees coming to the industry is deeper and more interactive gameplay in mobile games. He points out that MMORPGs took PC gaming to a new level; similarly, more interactive online experiences must be the next stage for mobile gaming. Already full-fledged MMORPGs are hitting the top charts in Japan and Korea, while in the US, successful mid-core games have been adding more MMO-like systems, such as global chat, guilds and clans, and guild wars – features which are leading to exponential growth in monetization and retention.
At Casual Connect USA, Park announced a publishing partnership with Get Set Games to publish Storm Casters in China.
While on a panel about indie entrepreneurship at Casual Connect USA 2014, Robin Hunicke described an aspect of people that everyone should be aware of. “It’s fundamental to our culture that we sometimes would rather think of the list of things we can get as opposed to the things we can do,” she explained.
Robin Hunicke, co-founder of the independent game studio Funomena, loves the unique challenges every day brings. Since she started the company in 2012, her work has varied tremendously from day-to-day; at different times, she can be involved in art and design tasks, production, or marketing and business development tasks. Her most recent title is the award winning Playstation Network title, Journey.
Hunicke has a background in art, computer science, and applied game studies. Although, her first love was fine art, her career began in computer science and then moved to design and production. And, in fact, she has been designing, making, and teaching about games for over 12 years. So she knows her background is varied enough that she can wear whatever hats she needs to. However, she admits, “The fact that I know a little about each aspect of game development means that I really appreciate the experts I get to work with each day. Their excellence is an inspiration.”
Making an Impact
Winning the 2012 Game of the Year Award at GDC brought Hunicke the proudest moment of her career, one that she credits to the entire Journey team. She emphasizes, “It was such an accomplishment for this small team to make such an impact on games, and it felt great to be a part of that dream.”
Hunicke is a huge proponent of the metaverse, believing Virtual Reality is the emerging trend that will make a great difference to her business and product. But she is very close-mouthed about how she expects to incorporate virtual reality into the games Funomena is creating.
On the other hand, she is an outspoken evangelist for diversity of thought, design, and participation in both game design and game culture. Hunicke claims the biggest impact on the games industry as a whole will come as “more diverse people make games about more diverse topics and reach a more diverse audience.”
She describes herself as a curious person, so perhaps it is not surprising that she tells us her favorite platform to play on is the real world. Currently, she is playing a lot of the Twilight Struggle board game because she appreciates how elegant the game design is for a rather complex simulation of Cold War politics.
She also plays on console and owns all the last generation consoles as well as a PS4, stating, “I love playing games cozy on the couch in my living room and cherish the few games that really immerse me in that way. It’s an experience like no other.”
Her F2P gaming is quite restrained; her most expensive purchase has been $10 for a familiar (probably a Leprechaun) in Kingdom of Loathing.
Her many hobbies other than gaming include cooking, hiking, traveling and gardening. She also loves photography, comics, watercolor painting, and origami.
“We see this great opportunity between the smaller and the casual games that you see on mobile and the big Triple A budgets,” Ian Vogel told his audience during Casual Connect USA 2014. “There’s a huge market in the middle which I think is very exciting to me as a gamer and to me as a business person.”
Ian Vogel has been creating games for the past sixteen years, including work on Age of Empires Online, Bioshock, System Shock 2, Swat 4, and Thief: The Dark Project. He has held key roles at Microsoft Game Studios, Irrational Games, Airtight Games, and Looking Glass Studios.
Learning the Ropes
Recently, he was promoted to Studio Head at Amazon Game Studios, where he leads first-party game development and is focused on giving players fun, innovative experiences. He insists that he could not be in this position if he had not started out as a designer, and he feels fortunate to have begun his career working with Doug Church, Tom Leonard, Ken Levine, Jon Chey, and the others at Looking Glass Studios and Irrational Games. He emphasizes, “Building a lot of games over time, killing some, and succeeding and failing along the way – It makes for some tough skin.” He sees this as good for consumers because developers focus less on how incredible, amazing, and infallible their idea is and instead learn to look at it through the consumers’ eyes. What are they going to feel? Where will they be confused? Where will they be frustrated? He insists, “You need some wins and losses to get good at that. I’m still learning!”
Vogel gains the most enjoyment in the games industry through seeing the impact his work has on people. He talks about an incident that occurred when he went to GameStop after Bioshock was released.
“There were 3-5 enthusiasts talking about the game, and I asked them ‘What do you like and not like about the game?’ About 45 minutes later, they had told me everything they loved and hated about the game, and loudly and emphatically asserted ‘You must buy this game!’ Which I did. And I left the store never having told them I worked on Bioshock for two or three years; it was immensely gratifying to listen to them appreciate the craft of the game and talk of deep personal experiences in that world. I didn’t need to talk about myself, that day was about them. And it made my day, and is a great example of why I do what I do.”
He reveals that being promoted to Studio Head at Amazon Game Studios has been very gratifying and a challenge he is eager to take on. He has always had opinions on how to do things, and this position is his opportunity to put them into practice. “Amazon is full of intense, brilliant people so it will be a heck of a ride,” he says.
Competing For Time
The biggest challenge Vogel sees in the games industry today is the competition for people’s time. There are hundreds of great indie games, too many copycats, and expensive, but intriguing console titles, all clamoring for attention. It becomes harder and harder for a game to actually make money. He points to the many lay-offs in recent years, with very talented studios and people gone. He would love to see the industry solve the problem of discovery and get interesting games in front of the people who want them, at a regular, dependable pace. He notes, “The barriers to succeeding at either mobile or console get higher every year. We have to help games find their audience.”
But Vogel sees a huge opportunity in the middle space, between casual/mobile games and AAA console titles. Indies are venturing into this space, but he believes there are markets we don’t know about that are looking for smaller, crafted games in that middle space. He emphasizes the need to understand this market and be ready with good titles when the opportunity arises.
Virtual Reality, Micro Consoles, and Hardware
For the future of the industry in the next few years, he is interested in the possibilities of VR, but needs more experience to understand the ups and downs of the tech. He also likes the trend to micro consoles; he thinks they are great products and looks forward to exciting possibilities as the hardware ramps up. He believes procedural games like No Man’s Sky and similar efforts will drive the potential for smaller teams to make bigger games. If that can be done at reasonable prices, the games industry will grow even more than it has in the past.
Vogel is an eclectic gamer, using every variety of device and game. He plays FTL and 10,000,000 on his iPad when he wants an engrossing but snackable experience. When he wants to sit down after dinner and play a game, he plays Badland or Double Dragon on his Fire TV. For a few hours of concentrated play, he uses his Xbox 360 to play NHL games, Skyrim, Fallout New Vegas, or Demon Souls. But when he is looking for a total forfeiture of normal life and 13 hours of getting lost in a different world, he plays XCOM, Civilization, and (he hopes) upcoming space sims, like Star Citizen and Elite.
He believes exposure to different experiences, different art forms, and other cultures of the world would make everyone better creators, so travel is extremely important to him. Some of the interesting places he has visited are Istanbul, Romania, Paris, and Fiji. One of the art forms he immerses himself in is music. He plays and records music on bass and guitar. One of his bands, The Model Sons, was on the original Guitar Hero. He also sails, hikes, and takes improv comedy classes.
“In my almost 16 years of experience, I began as a professional gamer myself,” Marcus Graham shared during a session at Casual Connect USA 2014. “Back then, it wasn’t going to pay my rent, but it was the love of the game, the passion for the competition that continued to drive it. And that’s probably one of the reasons I’m still in eSports today: the fire of competition and to see these amazing players and what they are able to do within these virtual games.”
Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham, the director of community and education at Twitch, is a man whose passion for games began when, at the age of four, he picked up his first video game, and he continued to be involved through middle and high school. When he discovered competitive eSports, he became a professional Quake 3 player, traveling around the country, playing wherever he could find a tournament. The lure of competition led him to become one of the first professional hosts of esports and a well-known commentator. Eventually, he expanded into other game genres, and in 2004, he hosted the first LIVE DAILY video game show, Epileptic Gaming. He reveals, “From there, my love for gaming and for streaming were eternally united, and I’m pretty sure I’m here to stay.”
A New Age for Gaming
When Graham steps out onto a stage in front of thousands of people and feels their energy and excitement flowing across the stadium or arena, he is amazed to realize that, 10 years ago, seeing thousands of people cheering for their favorite gamer was an almost unimaginable idea. Yet in 2014, we have reached the point where stadiums fill with rabid gaming fans.
Graham is equally ardent in his own gaming, playing an assortment of different games at any given time. Currently, he is playing DOTA 2 and CS:GO on his PC; on his iPad, it is Fates Forever; and on console, he plays a few Nintendo 3DS games. Although his favorite platform is PC, he also owns all the current consoles, saying every console and platform has given him a reason to play on it. And he loves mobile, admitting that he plays at least one mobile game almost continuously.
He was an early adopter of iOS, with most of his application investments on the App Store. The majority of his devices are iOS, but he also owns Android.
Twitch: Where Voices are Heard
Shortly after Justin.TV became Twitch, Graham began to work there, a natural progression in his career. He had been focused almost entirely on content when, in 2011, he had the opportunity to step off the stage to help Twitch build the eSports side of their business. He and his team have worked extremely hard to make Twitch the home for competitive gaming and eSports through securing every possible player, tournament, and organization. Being able to give back to the community and industry that have fueled his passion for years brings him great satisfaction; he believes his work on the successful build of eSports continues to contribute to the overall success of Twitch.
Over the past year, developers and publishers have realized how big Twitch’s impact has been on the gaming market. Graham insists that Twitch sits in a unique position because it offers a platform for people to showcase their gaming, and he believes during the next three to five years, more game companies will be using Twitch as a way to showcase their games, interact with their fans, and even show transparent development. He states, “In 2004, gaming blogs changed the voice for how gamers get their news and who they get it from. In 2012, this changed again, as suddenly Twitch became a platform for gamers across the world to have a voice and to share it with others.”
When Graham is not gaming or streaming his gaming on Twitch, he is a big fan of comic books and movies. His favorite comic books include Saga, Preacher, Fables and The Authority. Because he loves cinematic storytelling, he will give any movie a chance, but his favorite genres are horror and psychological thrillers. And, of course, he loves to spend time with his wife and eight-year-old son.
Josh Nilson talks about managing your community through various platforms in a panel during Casual Connect USA 2014. “You have to start planning from the start of the project and organically build that into your game, what channels you want, and allow time for iteration, just like game design,” he advised. “So you want to work closely with your creators, your artists, and your game designers to do that.”
Josh Nilson is the co-founder and CEO of East Side Games. Before starting this company, he worked in tech startup companies in the Vancouver area and also for Relic Entertainment in Vancouver. Now, he finds the greatest gratification working in the games industry, through building games and creating new worlds with them. He claims, “It’s inspiring and amazing to see the stories our fans come up with in our games.”
He also enjoys connecting with other studios to share information and learn from them. He values the parties they throw, often through Indie Power, for the networking opportunities they give. In this industry, he believes, “You never stop learning.”
Bootstrapped and Scrappy
Nilson describes East Side Games as bootstrapped, scrappy, and active in the local games community. He is very proud of the way they have built this company and grown with their fans over the last 3 ½ years. They are still building all the games they want, but now they are seeing former East Side Games people move on to create their own Indie studios and projects, something he considers “all kinds of awesome!”
At East Side Games, Nilson handles what the company will be doing over the coming three to six months, as well as overseeing projects and business development. They have now hired a team of passionate people; Nilson makes it possible (or, he says, gets out of the way) for them to create something wonderful.
User Acquisition Challenges
The most challenging aspect of the games industry today, as he sees it, is user acquisition. He asks, “How do you turn people trying out your game into players? Then, how do you turn them into fans?” With the cost of acquiring players increasing, he knows it is extremely important to consider the fans from the start of a project. Many studios build amazing games, but think of player support as something to deal with later.
At East Side Games, they assemble their teams with acquisition in mind, and have set high benchmarks for customer support. They keep the metrics open to the entire team, and everyone working on the games works alongside the CS team for the first week so they will understand the importance of this aspect of the project. He admits that there is still a lot of work to do in this area, but feels they have made a good start and are making continuing efforts to improve.
When Nilson considers how the games industry will evolve in the next three to five years, he notes that casual games have already vastly increased the number of people playing games, and considers this a great development. He believes we will see even more casual game hits, with companies like Toca Boca and Sago Sago driving younger, engaged players into games even earlier. He expects amazing growth in this area to continue.
Time away from work has Nilson hanging out with his grouchy old Pug, Jabba. He also enjoys hipster beer, coffee, and good movies. And, like every good Canadian, he is always ready for anything hockey, anytime.
At Casual Connect USA, Nilson announced that Munchie Farm is coming out for mobile devices. He says, “The game world is crazy; you grow junk food from plants because junk food has been banned in the world. This game is going to be a lot of fun!”