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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

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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.

Business

PopCap’s John Vechey on Why People Make Every Game Better

November 7, 2010 — by Gamesauce Staff

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Keynoting the IGDA Leadership Forum in San Francisco, PopCap Games vice president of corporate strategy and development John Vechey told the audience that in 2004 and early 2005, he and his fellow co-founders were offered $60 million to sell the company.

While PopCap was known for extremely successful titles like Bejeweled, the offer came as something of a surprise. Says Vechey: we didn’t start PopCap to make money, we started it to make games. They declined the offer, ultimately feeling that it didn’t value the capacities of the team that had been assembled.

But the offer did serve as a wake up call. After having been offered millions, and refusing, Vechey says, “We knew we had to change, we knew we had to grow.”

Today, the company is 375 employees, still privately held, and as Vechey says proudly, focused on great games. “We get to control our destiny,” he adds.

“But even with the success, there were a lot of mistakes,” he continues. Alongside an influx of new people was “a lot of firing.” Vechey says that while some people were incompetent, some were great — but not a fit with the company, even during the times of change and transition.

“If you take advantage of the social graph and the friends list, every single game will be better.”

Vechey says that PopCap helped create the business of downloadable games, but that his company has changed enough that they’ve become irrelevant to the company today. “We have to look at how games are made,” he says of the future, adding that there’s a way to improve. “If you take advantage of the social graph and the friends list, every single game will be better.”

World of Warcraft, states Vechey, would be a lot better if he could log into Facebook and see which of friends were playing.

Social games, he continues, isn’t about spamming your friends on Facebook, but something Vechey calls “social relevance.”

“Every game can get more social relevance inside it,” he stresses. “And it’ll be a better game.”

He also suggests a strategy of experiences that are more connected. In future, Vechey says, “Whenever you’re playing a Pop Cap game, it’s like you’re playing an MMO.”

Vechey further encouraged an audience of senior developers and production leaders to rethink the correlation between purchase and fun. “Item buy can be fun. Buying a $60 game in a store isn’t fun,” he says. He discusses ways that gameplay mechanics and rewards make the spending of micro-payments a pleasure. “You can actually make the act of buying your product be fun.”

But the one constant that Vechey sees is change. He concludes: “If we’re successful, in the next five years, PopCap will again be unrecognizable.”

Development

THQ Digital UK’s Don Whiteford on big studios going from retail to digital, borrowing brands, and making publishers see money in digital downloadable.

November 2, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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“We looked at Idle Minds, the makers of Pain,” THQ Digital UK’s creative director Don Whiteford tells me when I asked him where he looked for examples of developers that understand digital downloadable games. “They’re listening to the customers, they’re learning and they’re feeding it back to make it an enjoyable experience and keep that thing going.” Currently heading the Red Faction: Battlegrounds project, Whiteford hopes to show THQ the greater value of developing digital games in smaller teams with more rapid development cycles. He sat down with Gamesauce to talk about his findings, the challenges of adapting a game studio to developing digital downloadable games and how a publisher like THQ has a growing interest in it too.

Development

A chat with Krome Studios’ Steve Stamatiadis on pitching comic books, creating Blade Kitten and going downloadable

October 1, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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Steve StamatiadisKrome Studios recently celebrated the release of their newest downloadable title Blade Kitten last week. Krome Studios’ Creative Director and creator of Blade Kitten Steve Stamatiadis took some time to talk to us about the challenges his team faced pitching the game to Atari, moving from a comic book concept to an actual game and tackling the competitive market of downloadable games.

Business

PopCap’s Jason Kapalka on the state of social games, Zuma Blitz and the future of downloadable games

September 28, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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 Jason Kapalka

If it’s up to PopCap’s co-founder and chief creative officer Jason Kapalka, we would never the see inside of a retail store in the near future and download all our games from home. At least that’s what he’s been doing the past couple of years. Readying up to launch a new social game called Zuma Blitz, Kapalka took the time to talk with us about the current state of social games, PopCap’s development philosophy and the future of the casual downloadable game market.

The Facebook Nerf

“Some of those games, if they substract the viral and monetization foregoings, there’s very little left.”

Many industry professionals believe that social games on Facebook have gotten a beating recently. Nevertheless, Kapalka does not seem to worry. “It’s true that Facebook has neutralized a lot of more effective viral channels,” Kapalka admits. “From our point of view, we’re doing fine. Bejeweled Blitz is actually going well. Its peek was just last week. I don’t know if that’s because we’re really smart or really lucky. I think part of it is that we never really relied as heavily on some of those viral channels as other games have.” That might as well be the reason Bejeweled Blitz is still doing so well. As Kapalka told his audience during his talk at GDC Europe 2010, the social and viral features were only added once Bejeweled Blitz was done. “Some of those games, if they substract the viral and monetization foregoings, there’s very little left,” Kapalka argues. “In some cases, the game is just an excuse to get a viral spam moment and the next viral spam moment. Which can be effective, but once you burn out your audience on that, there’s really very little game left.”

More recently, PopCap CEO also addressed his concern with the nature of some social games, while PopCap’s own new social title Zuma Blitz is scheduled to come out soon. Using some of the same formulas and building forth on the successful elements from Bejeweled Blitz, Kapalka confirmed that his team will also be adding a whole new set of features to Zuma Blitz. Kapalka also admits that this is also a small scale project and emphasized that this does not mean PopCap will have a more than regular interest in social games. “We think social is really interesting, but because it’s not our main business we don’t have to throw everything we have into it,” he admits. “We can experiment with stuff there, the same time we were working on other avenues.”

Kapalka also recently spoke out about the risks and instabilities that social games are currently having, pointing to certain degree of self destructiveness he saw in certain social games. “Sometimes, you have to be very aggressive and in some cases desperately so with efforts to drive traffic and monetize it,” he argues. ”Anyhow, at a certain point it starts eating on itself. You start putting more and more spam things in there and it will work temporarily. But when you eventually hit that critical mass, you won’t have a fun game anymore.”

No grace periods for the wicked

“It feels like we’re true to ourselves and our kind of developing. My hope is that this model continues to work”.

Having had the same type of development philosophy, PopCap has remained on a steady course with their work in the casual downloadable market, keeping social games on the side as a small-scale side-project. “Within the casual downloadable space, the one thing that space encourages, well forces, is that games have to be good,” Kapalka explains. “When you’re doing a downloadable game with a 60 minute trial, it has to be good. You can trick people in downloading it with a brand or some sort of clever hook. But they need to fill in the 60 minutes and say alright, I’ll buy it.”

This is the main challenge Kapalka beliefs PopCap and many other companies in the casual downloadable market are currently facing. “It’s kind of different than the game where there has to be the hype before even,” he says. As an example, Kapalka points out to the success of several long lasting franchises such as Call of Duty. Fueled with marketing dollars, another possible sequel would not require any quality to gain massive sales numbers. “For the casual downloable games, there’s no grace period like that,” he says.

For ten years, this is the sort of environment PopCap has specialized itself in. “We have to build games that are fun and accessible,” Kapalka says. “It feels like we’re true to ourselves and our kind of developing. My hope is that this model continues to work. The scary part for many people is that if they look at some of the social games that are developed, seemingly made by a completely alien method of game development where it doesn’t appear to be made by humans, but generated by some sort of marketing algorithms. I know they’re successful, that’s the scary thing.“

According to Kapalka, this alternative method to game design and development has sent many game developers thinking they’re not developing their games the right way, or perhaps using the wrong tools. “They’re thinking ‘holy crap, I’m in the wrong business’”, Kapalka jokes. “They’re all struggling to make a game awesome and aren’t finding the necessary funding.”

Developing the downloadable market

“In a few years, everything will be downloadable”

With the casual downloadable market being PopCap’s primary focus, Kapalka argues that every successful title has made a major contribution to the transition from physical to digital distribution. “Developing an innovative game as a downloadable title, that strengthens the entire channel,” Kapalka argues. “The last time I bought a PC game in a store, I can’t remember. I buy them all on Steam. That’s what I do. I think a lot of PC gamers are in that position now. So I think those downloadable channels, the more games we’ll be there, the stronger it will get”. Kapalka considers the big challenge for developers to be in dealing with the current generation of consoles and their possible successors. “In a few years, everything will be downloadable,” he suggests. “It’s probably going to have a lot to do with the next console cycle, which is a very scary area right now.”

Zuma Blitz currently in development by PopCap Games and has been scheduled to be ‘coming soon’.

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