Nothing. That is, if you consider that he’s been working hundred-hour weeks for almost thirty years and now he’s working maybe fifty. For him, that’s practically a vacation. Coming off his stint as President and CEO of EA, John‘s kicking back (in a manner of speaking) and watching the fruits of his labors ripen. Many of the games and franchises he presided over at EA are releasing now, and he speaks about them with the pride of a father watching his kids play little league. If there’s any residual bitterness or regret, I sure didn’t sense it.
I spoke with John briefly the other day. It was the first time I had met him, so to speak. It was a pleasant conversation and I found him to be extremely knowledgeable and optimistic – not just about his own future, but about the future of games in general. He is a man full of ideas and opinions, and if I somehow inferred that he isn’t busy, or that perhaps his head isn’t in the game, then let me correct that perception right now. His head is very much in the game, and he’s quite busy.
His focus today is in investing in game companies – primarily mobile start-ups. He acts as an advisor, guru and all-around Obi-Wan Kenobi to fledgling studios that show promise and by promise, he means future-oriented; as in vision and the ability to build products that last. John is bullish on the industry but is careful to point out that it is becoming increasingly difficult to break into the top of the charts and stay there. When I asked him if there was any hope for an Indie developer just starting out today, his response was not what I expected.
He acts as an advisor, guru and all-around Obi-Wan Kenobi to fledgling studios that show promise.
“It’s not hopeless,” he said. “It’s still possible to do, but it’s increasingly important to create a rich product experience that is well crafted.”
I’m curious to hear his upcoming Casual Connect talk on Tuesday at 1:30 – Fireside Chat with John Riccitiello, where he’ll sit down with the very smart and savvy John Gaudiosi. I’m hoping he’ll go into more detail about what he sees as important for a game developer to consider at this very crucial time in the evolution of the industry, and expound upon his vision. He gave me a lot to chew on, but I don’t want to steal any of his thunder, so you’ll just have to check out his talk.
I did however ask him how he views Casual Connect, a conference that has become increasingly significant as a disseminator of vital industry information and a hub of meaningful connections and influencers.
“Casual Connect is a very important show coming at a very important time,” He said. “Great new game companies will rise in the coming year, and some seemingly great companies of today will disappear. Fortunes are going to be won and lost here. I think it’s important to be there to see what’s happening on the ground. Learn from game developers what is working, what is not.”
Judging by this years’ conference line-up, I think he’s right. Casual Connect, which is being held in tech-geek mecca San Francisco for the first time, seems to be coming at a very interesting and critical time, when big data and analytics appears to be trumping innovation and pure design. Will the mobile revolution raise all boats or just the ones with the most resources? Can the Indie spirit thrive, or merely survive? Just what’s inside John Riccitiello’s crystal ball? Drop in why don’t you, come sit by the fireside. I think it’ll be worth your while.
Living rooms. Typically these are places where you watch TV, sit around on sofas and Lazy-Boys, talking, nodding politely at your grandmother’s adoration, maybe playing charades. Living rooms are not known as crucibles for great videogames. But it does happen. My own gaming career began in a living room. Start-ups run on the cheap out of necessity and living rooms are inexpensive alternatives to office space. Bonus if that space comes rent-free and with access to your parents’ fridge. The last thing you need to be worrying about when you’re in the fever pitch of developing a seminal game is where your next meal is coming from.
So it was lucky for Amir Rao that a living room was available. He and Gavin Simon were both Command & Conquer refugees and alums of EA with an idea for a game. They wanted to create an action-RPG in which players build the world themselves. That game was Bastion – beautiful, award-winning, much adored. But back in 2009, it was merely a glimmer in their eyes, a concept in search of a home. And it found a home. In San Jose. In a living room. Amir’s Dad let them set up shop in his house and it was thus that a great game, and a little studio aptly named Supergiant, was born.
They began with little recognition in an industry that tends to eat idealists alive. Two junior members of a large and storied EA team armed with nothing more than some (pretty valuable) experience on a great franchise and a dream, Gavin and Amir were inspired by games like Braid, Castle Crashers and Plants vs. Zombies – games crafted by small teams with lots of love and attention to detail. They left EA, not just because of those great Indie games, but because they admired what was going on in the Indie development community – small teams of dedicated gamers were building beautiful things, not for money, but for the love of games.
“We love it when games feel like they were made with care and bear the mark of their creators,” Amir says. “For us, we draw a lot of inspiration from the games that we played as kids and we seek to make games that spark players’ imaginations in the same way.”
Soon, several of Amir and Gavin’s friends joined them at Supergiant: Andrew Wang, who worked on the Modern Warfare series at EA; Creative Director Greg Kasavin, who also worked at EA and was once Rao’s roommate; Art Director Jen Zee, who was referred by a mutual friend; Voice Actor Logan Cunningham; and Audio Director Darren Korb, who has known Rao since elementary school. The living room was getting cramped, but something magical was happening.
They entered their game into the PAX 10, a hand-picked group of independent games selected by Penny Arcade to appear at PAX Prime. They were lucky to be selected in such an elite grouping and drove all the way to Seattle in a van to unveil Bastion to the world. The response was tremendous. The audience absolutely loved the hand-painted 2D artwork, the stirring score and the narrative technique of the game. That debut led to Supergiant partnering with Warner Bros. to distribute the game across a variety of platforms.
“We created Bastion in about twenty months and debuted it on Xbox LIVE Arcade in 2011,” Amir says. “We created all additional versions of Bastion internally over the following year and took the game to PC via Steam and other digital retailers, plus Mac, Linux, the Chrome web browser, iPad and iPhone. We developed a lot of design and technical expertise around these platforms and are proud to have a strong fan base on each of them.”
Supergiant builds their own engines and tools. Their engine started in XNA and has expanded to allow them to ship on XBLA, PC, Chrome, Mac, Linux, iPad and iPhone. They used Mono to power all the versions after the PC. Amir says that the biggest initial challenge was building a team alongside building the game.
“We started without the writing, artistic, systems, engineering and musical talents that would be brought on later members of the team,” he said. “There was significant anxiety around those things until we were joined by Greg, Jen, Andrew, Logan and Darren.”
At one point during development of Bastion, they spent a significant amount of time and energy integrating an elaborate ‘gardening’ system that would govern many of the game’s player progressions. Inspired by games like Harvest Moon and Viva Piñata, they wanted to design an organic ‘planting’ as a metaphor for character leveling. Ultimately, that feature did not come to fruition, and they removed the system before unveiling the game at PAX in 2010.
“Our best ideas often come from a problem-solving perspective,” Amir says. “So when we pursue ideas that simply seem unique, we sometimes have trouble integrating them into the rest of the game.”
Bastion has sold in excess of 2M copies, with iOS being a big contributor to that success. They re-imagined the game for touch devices and learned a lot about design and UX issues on tablet devices as a result. Now they’re ready for their next big project. The original Bastion team is intact, and they’ve moved out of the Amir’s living room into an actual office space in the SOMA district of San Francisco. They’ve brought on a few more people and are working on a new project called Transistor, a game so wildly anticipated that people stood in line for hours at PAX this year just for a chance to play it. Transistor is slated for release sometime in 2014.
So if your kid comes to you one day and says “Dad, I have this idea for a game that I think could be really great.” Don’t ignore him or her. Clear away the coffee table, relocate the flat-screen and give up your living room for awhile. It may just be your ticket to a comfortable retirement , and the world can always use another great game.
As soon as a few developers begin making considerably more money than those who are monetizing solely through virtual currency, real money revenues will become essential as acquisitions costs rise.
Jonathan Flesher is the Executive Vice President for Business Development at Betable, a company that is changing entertainment by merging the worlds of gaming and casino-based entertainment. For developers who want to offer real-money play in their games and apps, Betable legally enables them to do so without having to acquire their own licenses.
Jonathan runs Betable’s business development and partnerships. Because Betable is an early stage start-up, he is involved in many aspects of the business, from signing development partners, to working to obtain licenses in new jurisdictions, to signing vendor contracts. His previous work with Zynga and Electronic Arts has given him valuable perspective in this new company, which is a platform that partners with game developers. He came with a set of contacts and friends in the industry, as well as an understanding of what it is like to be in their shoes and what issues are important to them.
He joined Betable when he realized how deeply the social and mobile gaming ecosystems would be affected by real-money gaming. As soon as a few developers begin making considerably more money than those who are monetizing solely through virtual currency, real money revenues will become essential as acquisitions costs rise. He has already seen the signs of this happening in the UK as online gambling companies start to view virtual as an attractive customer acquisition channel. Betable offers developers a new and complementary way to significantly monetize their user base through real money play. The worlds of real money play and virtual currency are now starting to converge and Betable provides developers with the tools to succeed in this new landscape.
Asia’s Role in the Industry
Asia, as a leader in online and mobile gaming, as well as home to some of the top development talent in the world, is a key component in the game industry as it moves to include real money play. Jonathan believes these outstanding developers will play an important role in making real money content for the global market place. Since online real money play is a regulated industry and not currently allowed in most Asian markets, conferences such as Casual Connect are essential to make connections with local developers that have been successful on a global scale.
Jonathan emphasizes that establishing strong connections in Asia is crucial to Betable’s business, with the ability to partner with developers in this part of the world a major success factor in their real money platform. He says, ”We hope to catch up with existing partners and meet developers interested in learning more about how Betable can help them grow their businesses and offer consumers the best possible real money play experiences.”
What’s the Best Deal?
One of the most significant points in Jonathan’s career came when he learned that the product has to drive the deal or partnership that a company enters into, rather than the reverse. He tells us, “A very smart mentor of mine once said to me that he didn’t care how good the deal was if he didn’t believe in the product. Start with the product first and the deal will naturally follow.” And, Jonathan maintains, your engineering and product teams will thank you.
The best advice Jonathan has for making a better product is to make games fun.
The best advice Jonathan has for making a better product is to make games fun. He claims that, although this idea is simple enough, we often lose sight of the intangible quality that makes a game entertaining. He quotes a great game developer, Mark Skaggs, who told him, “I wasn’t successful in game development until I stopped making games I wanted to play and started making games other people wanted to play.” Jonathan adds, “Once you have that essential element of fun, then you can leverage all the great analytical tools to make it even better.”
Jonathan came from financial services before joining the video gaming world. But it took him a long time to understand that the “best” deal was not necessarily the “right” deal. He insists, “In many ways, getting the best deal terms on either side of the table can be counterproductive to a long-term partnership. It’s not a zero sum game.” He feels the best deal is a “balanced deal”, one which each partner can lean into and invest in the relationship. But there is an art to figuring out this balanced deal and it often requires considerable creativity.
Sean Clark has worn many hats during his time in the games industry. From designer to studio director and everything in between, Sean’s passion never seems to run out. He worked at Playdom, Electronic Arts, and LucasArts before settling as Director of Content Production at Big Fish Games. He enjoys everything he does in games, but what is most important to him is the fun of building entertainment experiences. “I get a rush from being a part of something coming together through a creative and collaborative effort, and I still get that rush working on great games at Big Fish,” he says. We were able to catch up with him to discuss his view on creating and producing games.
For the Love of Games
Growing up playing Pong and Atari games on the old family TV, Sean learned to love games early in life. When Atari released a Basic Programming cartridge, he immediately began learning the language and realized that programming consisted of a series of logical instructions. He discovered that building games could be an actual job.
Still, he did not plan for a career in the games industry. He graduated from Sonoma State University with a degree in Computer Science knowing he liked building things in software, especially games. LucasFilm Games (later LucasArts) happened to be hiring junior level programmers at that time. Up to this point, Sean had only created games as a hobby, but this sounded like the perfect opportunity for him. He was right: it turned out to be a great time to join the company.
All of a sudden, he was working with a group of people just as passionate about games as he was; real artists, musicians, programmers– talented professionals who could bring unique creative elements to the product. “It was a blast!” Sean says. “It was also an experience that has helped me through my whole career, right up to today as 3rd-party Director at Big Fish, working to bring fun game content to the company.” In all the roles he’s done, he’s always shown his love of games. He looks for the same passion and excitement for a game from developers, both internally and externally.
Point and Click Adventure Games Anyone?
Having been involved in multiple projects in a variety of roles, Sean has a soft spot for point-and-click adventure games. While at LucasArts, Sean helped develop The Secret ofMonkey Island in 1990, a popular point-and-click adventure. It was a great experience, but problems always arise, and the solutions were often unique. Sean learned a lot about problem solving and creatively mitigating issues during this project.
“I blame it on 3D. At the time, real-time 3D was such an amazing new capability that the faster computers and video cards enabled, it became the sexy new thing.”
However, point-and click adventure games started to slip into the background. In an interview with adventuregamers.com, Sean stated that the popularity of point-and-click adventure games would return. When we asked why he thought they had fallen to the background in the first place, his answer was emphatic. “I blame it on 3D. At the time, real-time 3D was such an amazing new capability that the faster computers and video cards enabled, it became the sexy new thing.” While 3D opened new areas of design, it also started a graphics arms race. Everyone focused on 3D graphics, with a game like The Dig being compared to Dark Force or TIE Fighter. But eventually, people realized that adventure games were a different genre to other games, like first person shooters.
He points out that in 2002, Big Fish took advantage of the 3D distraction and built a successful business recognizing and catering to the adventure gamer audience. Even Escape from Monkey Island still managed to do well in the “Adventure Games are Dead” era. Although there are not many classic 3rd person point-and-click adventure games coming to market, there is the very successful line of Hidden Puzzle Adventure Games that Big Fish is so well known for. These, Sean asserts, are a modern version of adventure game storytelling, similar to those he started his career with.
Another reason adventure games seemed to go dormant was the fact that retail space is both limited and competitive. Because attention was so focused on 3D games, it was challenging to interest retail chain buyers in adventure games. The big factor in changing the situation was the internet. Brick and mortar stores were no longer the only way to purchase games. Sean attributes Big Fish’s success largely to its creation of an online place to find and purchase great casual content, including adventure games.
Adventure Game Evolution
This new cycle of adventure games has evolved, bringing lower-priced games, which are also shorter in length, and tend to tell stories in chapters or episodes. According to Sean, these new games are still high-quality, well-polished games with great artwork, and compelling stories, although the format is different.
Sean believes Big Fish has been instrumental in bringing more attention to adventure games in a number of ways. They created a new format for adventure games, brought them to new audiences, and gave consumers a way to try the game before committing to a purchase. They figured out how to make adventure games easier to find and consume, at a time when retailers had all but abandoned support for the genre.
Sean is just as excited about the future as he is about the present. “We expect 2013 to be a year of innovation in game, content, and delivery, with games on almost every device and in nearly all casual genres,” Sean says. “In March alone, Big Fish launched 2 highly acclaimed mobile games: Fetch for the iPad, an adventure about a boy on the search for his dog; and Match Up! By Big Fish, the first iOS game to have real-time, 16-bracketed tournament play. Add to that the world’s largest interactive streaming casual game service and continuing franchises like Mystery Case Files, which has been downloaded more than 100 million times, and you can see how there is something to excite all types of gamers.”
Sean reminds us that Big Fish is an incredibly talented and creative company, with exclusive partnerships with more than 140 developers all over the world. He expects Big Fish to continue bringing fun and innovation to the games industry.
As some lucky parents have it, the passion they hold for their own careers can end up rubbing off on their offspring. Maryann Duringer Klingman, a seasoned producer at Disney Interactive’s Playdom and a professional who has spent two decades in the videogame business, saw it happen with her daughter Theresa. Partially due to her mother’s career, but mostly out of her own insatiable appetite and interest for everything digital, Theresa Duringer followed in her mother’s footsteps becoming a versatile game professional. I sat down with Maryann and Theresa to talk about their shared passion for the game biz, where it all started, and what both generations were able to learn from each other.
One career rebooted, another one sprouted
Back in 1993, after almost 10 years of being an at-home mom with one of her two daughters in elementary school, Maryann Duringer Klingman rediscovered her appetite for a career again.
“I rejoined the workforce working full-time again as an administrative assistant at Electronic Arts’ educational software department in November of ’93 and quickly went up through the ranks as a producer,” Maryann recalls. “I was fortunate enough to work with the some of the best children’s brands and licencors, including Sesame Workshop, Marc Brown Studios, Nickelodeon, Warner Brothers and DC Comics. I produced educational games with such characters as Bert and Ernie, Spongebob Squarepants and Reader Rabbit.”
Theresa Duringer, the younger of two sisters and only ten years old at that time, grew up with quite the appetite for technology and a penchant for creative, technical tinkering. “As a kid I was pretty shy,” Theresa admits. “We always had a computer, and I would tinker on it for hours, dabbling with scripting, making websites, and meeting other kids on IRC a million miles away.”
Even with friends from school, we would make up our own board games, which was probably even more fun than playing them
Theresa would even start modding games and submit her own art to different projects. “It just clicked for me. I got this incredible energy from seeing the art I was making come alive on the screen. Even with friends from school, we would make up our own board games, which was probably even more fun than playing them. I still remember printing out our own adventure-game playing cards on an accordion of dot-matrix card stock my dad brought home from work.” Her passion for drawing since a young age could be seen everywhere, from the margins of her notes from school to books and mirrors at home. “Growing up in Silicon Valley, having a programmer father and video game producer mother, and being surrounded by creative tech types gave me a familiarity with the industry that let me dive in and thrive in game development.”
Through the ranks at EA, just like mom
Three years later, after graduating from Berkeley, Theresa went right back to testing games and landed a testing job at EA. After several months of working as a tester for EA’s The Godfather, she was appointed to being the main contact for her QA team to share their findings directly with the production team. “One thing that is also cool about working at EA is that they really recognize talent from the testing group and give testers opportunities to prove themselves with bigger projects to work themselves out of testing into production,” she says. “It’s from testing The Godfather that I was able to work my way up from tester, to community manager and end up in production at Maxis.”
According to Theresa, the most important thing a tester can do while working your way up from testing to development, besides working very hard, is to hang out with the developers as much as possible. This is known to be a tricky challenge, as testers and the ‘testing pits’ they work in are often segregated from the development teams. Theresa had her own way of making sure that kind of contact was possible.
“I started out on a dedicated testing floor, and didn’t have any development contacts at EA. I ended up buying popcorn for a fundraiser from one of the lead’s kids in order to have an opportunity to march over to his office, pick up my popcorn, and make my case for why I wanted to join the dev-test team over at Maxis.”
I ended up buying popcorn for a fundraiser from one of the lead’s kids in order to have an opportunity to march over to his office, pick up my popcorn, and make my case for why I wanted to join the dev-test team over at Maxis
Theresa’s one-on-one with the lead paid off and got her a foot in the door to a team she would later join at at Maxis. “I participated in Art Lunch, Board Game Night, rallied folks to go on Bike Lunch Fridays, and hung out in general with as many developers as I could who had common interests with me, even taking up a few new hobbies like Victorian ballroom dancing and even rock climbing.”
“The more you interact with the developers, the firmer an idea you can form about which specific jobs would compliment your talents, and what kind of team you would mesh with,” Theresa suggests. “You’ll also have advocates when you go for that new opening. Try not to stagnate in testing too long.”
While at Maxis, Theresa would first be put in charge of being a community manager for Spore, before she later became assistant producer on Dark Spore. “I once again got to see her bring that creativity to life in the little programs that she would write for her work,” Maryanne says. “She took on some responsibilities at Maxis that, as parent, you’re just really proud of.”
My mom’s gone through it all, so she really can help, lend an ear and provide advice when I need it
Having a mother who had grown through the ranks of the same company two decades before not only gave Theresa a source of inspiration and support, but also a place for comfort and advice. “I’ve learned to not take the first offer and really push ahead while still being professional. My mom’s gone through it all, so she really can help, lend an ear and provide advice when I need it,” Theresa says.
“I’m very proud of her,” Maryann adds. “I believe Theresa was very quickly identified at EA as someone who could take all feedback and information, assimilate it, write a complete sentence and then share that with the entire team.”
As an assistant producer at Maxis, Theresa was able to explore the full range of strengths and weaknesses. “When I was working on Spore as a tester, I didn’t have a ton of influence on the game or decisions,” she says. “But once I moved into community management, I was able to craft that user experience from outside the game. It was a challenge because I’ve never done it before. “Another challenge for Theresa was to rely on someone else than herself. “I would find a community member who was really excited to put their energy in moderating the forums and then engage them, asking them to think about ways of ranking Spore creations made by community members. Eventually I would provide the community member with production tools and rely on that individual completely to moderate the forums. That was not intuitive to me because I’m a doer, but you can’t always do everything yourself.”
While Theresa is currently exploring the exciting challenge of being an indie game developer, her mother recently got back to her production roots. Previously working at Playfirst as their developer relations manager, Maryann saw an opportunity to find another challenge at Playdom.
“My previous position at Playfirst was more of a business position where I was out basically meeting and greeting with the development community,” She explains. “I was responsible for sourcing production talent to work with my organization. Over the years of working with external development studios, I learned about contracts, negotiations and the business side of gaming; all useful skills when working with external partners. Although I enjoyed business development a production opportunity presented itself at Playdom. I would get to work with talented individuals, many of whom I have worked with in the past and whose careers I have watched grow over the years. It is a pleasure to see individuals whom I initially met as testers or producers now comfortable and successful as senior producers and studio managers.”
People often get surprised when they get to hear that Theresa’s mother is also a game producer. Most find it the most amazing thing ever, and it’s hard to disagree. “She is someone I can rely on, she’s one hundred percent honest with me and gives me the advice that might not always be exactly what I want to hear,” Theresa says.
“I try to live my life as an example,” Maryann says. “What Theresa gleaned from her childhood and chose to pursue as an adult has more to do with how she comes to her life. I provided an environment where she could feel comfortable being herself and I exposed her to my work life. It was up to her to choose her path. Having said that, I did provide a home where creativity was appreciated and intelligence respected. And we played games! If I influenced Theresa, it was that she saw what I did for my work, and that I enjoyed it; the game industry was familiar and appealed to her.“
If I influenced Theresa, it was that she saw what I did for my work, and that I enjoyed it; the game industry was familiar and appealed to her
“Its exciting to see your child grow into their adult life and then move into a career and be successful at it,” Maryann adds. “Seeing my daughter moving through ranks from testing to community manager and producer and to see her teaching herself programming and being an artist, makes me very proud as a parent.”
“I want other women to negotiate more and not settle so easily,” Theresa says. “My mom is awesome at this, and I always love to hear her stories about mediation and negotiation. I push myself to follow her lead. Also, I think there can be a bit of a locker room vibe at game companies, often times just because there are so many guys. For me this was intimidating, but I’ve learned that my differences can actually help me set myself apart and be noticed. I’m so pleased to hear more and more women talking about their game development projects lately, so hopefully this will change soon. I also think women get nudged into marketing and management positions. If this is your passion, wonderful, but if you want to be engineering and get your hands dirty in game dev, hold your ground. Come up with a clear goal for how you want to contribute to games and go for it.”
The initial spark to consider becoming indie came after Theresa had moved from the EA testing pits to Maxis, showing her a different atmosphere in a smaller studio where you could easily get to know everyone and remember their name. “I liked the ability to wear more than one hat, and to have my work really matter,” she says. “I didn’t feel so much like a cog in the machine. The idea of going indie became intriguing once I started really getting to know what I loved doing, which was being creative, and making games.”
Theresa was able to work on a small flash game called Psychic Spore, intended as an example for kids who wanted to dive into the Spore API to make their own games. “I had so much fun working on this, and I knew I wanted to make smaller games where I could make more of an impact and really have creative liberty,” she adds
Theresa is the lead artist on Cannon Brawl. Another quite daring leap into a role she had not yet been fully in charge of before. “I did some art for Maxis, but a lot of that was graphic design focused for UI or website interface. Now I’m doing characters, backgrounds, animation, all kinds of things I’ve never done professionally before. It’s a ton of fun, and I’m pushing myself to learn as I go.”
Seeing her daughter take that daring leap, Maryann couldn’t be any prouder. “I’m impressed with Theresa’s choice,” Maryann says. “Not only that she is confident enough to establish a business, but also that she managed her finances so that she could take the time required for this entrepreneurial endeavor. I have watched Theresa grow into a capable and fearless woman. I have seen in her a willingness to jump in and just get the job done, whether it is pulling together the daily QA report, organizing a San Francisco conference for Spore fans, building a community web site, teaching herself C++ or starting her own game development company. As a seasoned producer and as her mother, I am delighted with how she has plugged in to the industry and now finds herself between all of the industry’s up-and-comers.”
“As a game professional, she has also shown me that there are alternative avenues to success and the independent game developer route is a viable option,” Maryann says. ”Even if Theresa returns to work for a large company at some point, she will have an impressive background in game development to offer.”
Theresa Duringer is continuing her work on Cannon Brawl, which is scheduled to launch later this year. Maryann Duringer Klingman is now working on various unannounced projects at Disney Interactive’s Playdom.
Nikitova is not only one of the first art outsourcing studios in the Ukraine, but is now considered to be the largest game development services company in the Ukraine. They have built up quite the rep sheet with companies such as EA, Activision, Sony, Namco Networks, Oberon Media/Iplay, Trion Networks and Triumph Studios as their clients. Their main activities are not only art and engineering outsourcing for well-known titles, but also creating full games for PC and consoles. With the company prepping up to release a new line of casual downloadable titles themselves and a possible studio in China, we had the pleasure of paying their Kyiv studio a visit and find out how the company is dealing with moving from outsourcing to distributed development, what it’s like to have their own game development academy, befriending China and have a true 50/50 male/female ratio inside the office.
Distributed development > Outsourcing
Outsourcing has become quite the dirty word in Eastern European countries, even though it’s been one of the main livelihoods of most game studios based there. “Most of the studios here, they use outsourcing as help, to stay alive,” VP of Strategy Maxim Zasov says. At Nikitova’s offices, everyone has stopped talking about outsourcing and have started calling their work distributed development instead. “We feel that outsourcing is evolving into a more mature form of development service we see as distributed development,” President and CEO Olya Nikitova adds. “Clients started to realize that treating your development services partner as a part of their team will add a great value to the quality of the product . In certain ways, the team has to feel a sense of belonging.”
“They’ve finally started to realize that not treating us as a part of their team will influence the quality of the product as well. In certain ways, the team has to feel a sense of belonging.”
Vice president of production Michael Vatsovskiy has enjoyed the use of the word even more. His team has had a great boost in motivation seeing their names actually appear in the credits of some western games they’ve done distributed development on. “We are still something like 7 or 8 years behind software outsourcing,” he admits. “But with distributed development, in a production sense, we are partners now. It’s great for the team’s motivation.”
The Nikitova academy
In 2006, Olya Nikitova decided to open a small game development academy to create more educational opportunities for young people in Ukraine that wanted to explore game development and become a part of an exciting industry. “Introducing something like an academy gives kids a chance to have a choice,” she explains. “If you compare it to the other job markets, game development itself is one of the highest paid industries here.” Nikitova’s academy is currently schooling 30 students at a time, testing people for their aptitude on both art and programming.
“We feel responsible for the lack of support for education on the government side.”
“We feel responsible for the lack of support for education in game development field on the government side,” she adds. “We aim to be a good example of a nice place to work, develop yourself and get excellent career growth opportunities.”
If you can’t beat em…
With outsourcing to China becoming popular, even Nikitova is feeling pressure from the East. “They put a lot of money into education, and that counts as government-financed help,” President and CEO Olya Nikitova says. “So, that by itself requires us to be on our toes.” The challenge to keep costs down and retain a high-quality standard has become even bigger, especially since Ukrainian studios lack any kind of government support or quality education for game developers at all.
“You don’t compete with China, you just open up there.”
Aware of the quality of education and work in China, even an Ukrainian company like Nikitova is strongly considering to create a presence in China. The decision to open an office in China within the next six months is already on the table. “There are also advantages here [in the Ukraine] and the cultural connection is much closer to western clients,” Zasov adds. “You don’t compete with China, you just open up there.” The goal is to find a company that can complement their own skills and allow them to create a stronger international organization. “It’s a tendency for outsourcing companies to start and understand that we are stronger together than we are separately.”
Collaboration in Kyiv
According to many Ukranian developers, there appears to be a certain Ukrainian mentality still subconsciously active in the minds of some game studios that sharing information and being collaborative while exchanging ideas and visions is a bad thing. Five years ago, Olya Nikitova and some other developers took the initiative to start an IGDA chapter in Kyiv. “The idea of the IGDA chapter was to bring down those fences between studios and talk to each other to find the benefit,” she explains. “Anything that has a collective origin is always better than being individualistic. That has been my message for over 10 years.”
“The idea of the IGDA chapter was to bring down those fences between studios and talk to each other to find the benefit.”
For Olya Nikitova, it has become clear that in this day and age a collaborative attitude would allow her countrymen and women to achieve greater things than ever before. “You cannot stay by yourself, you need to look around,” she argues. “It’s all about being social. It’s a social environment, a social network: games for everyone.”
Being at the head of her own company for almost 10 years, Olya Nikitova once took the plunge into the game industry after become tired or running a foreign exchange company. “I quickly realized it wasn’t my cup of tea,” she says. “I just like creativity and was looking for an industry that can get me inspired.” Applying her knowledge of how to start and run a business she aimed at game development industry with the goal of becoming a premium services provider and learn from the best game development companies creating best practices in the area game development outsourcing. The desire to learn has stayed with the company throughout its growth and has given Olya Nikitova the possibility to share attracts and fosters more female talent as well. The company possesses almost a 50/50 ratio of women in most of the teams in the company; a rather unseen feat for most western studios. “Being a female, and not being afraid to attract female talent, I have no reservation towards what females can do,” she says. ”The idea was to look at what women do best, because game development is such an abundant area where females can work.”
“Being a woman, and not being afraid to attract female talent, I have no reservation towards what women can do.”
Olya Nikitova especially noticed the value of a woman’s touch in the growth of her own art department. “Especially on the texture side, certain types of modeling work, certain assets, women flourish, they’re just so good at it,” She says. “They have better eyes and a better sense of color. Intuitively, they’re better on many levels. […] I really like the fact that women want to work in game development and aim to support it on every level.”
Nikitova recently celebrated it’s decade long existence. With one of Kyiv’s largest studios sharing her name, Olya Nikitova aims to move the company forward by letting her employees learn new things, make new new friends, explore opportunities and create their own story in the world of games.
In the first part of his interview, EA’s general manager Ben Cousins looked back at his career in digital, turning an experiment into a separate business unit, why he never ever wants to go back to retail and shared some very valuable wisdom from his time as a producer. In this second part, we continue to talk about his lessons learned as a producer, building a career in games, the sacrifices needed to gain more control and the opportunities of being first.
Cousins has had his share of both good and bad projects in his career, but found one returning element that marked all the bad ones. “The bad projects were ones where the leaders of the team were changing their minds,” he argues. “You need to pick the right goal, communicate that goal very clearly and stick to that communication all the way through the project.” According to Cousins, the trick is to stick to those initial decisions with a “real laser focus” and not let yourself, your team and even your boss be distracted by anything else. “You have a lot of responsibilities as a vision holder to maintain that focus,” he adds. “Make sure that the team implements and perform based on that end-goal rather than what they want to do or what the latest flavor of the month in the industry is.”
“You need to pick the right goal, communicate that goal very clearly and stick to that communication all the way through the project.”
Another point of advice that Cousins stressed throughout his own career, is the need to make sure all the key players on your projects are very generously rewarded for helping the project and team stay focused enough to reach the project’ s goals successfully. “People need to understand that they get rewards for their work,” he argues. “That’s kind of the loop I like to see.”
The early start of Cousins’ career might look familiar to many producers in the industry. In 1999, Cousins started out as a QA tester on several N64 and Playstation titles at Acclaim Entertainment. He later ended up as an artist on Sabrina the Teenage Witch: A Twitch in Time by Asylum Entertainment, followed by his first job as a lead designer on a canceled prehistoric action-adventure game at Lionhead studios. “Between being a tester and then being at Sony in charge of a project, that felt like a really fast journey,” Cousins recalls. “Then it felt like it slowed down, but it probably hasn’t.”
One of the key moments in those early days came when he was unexpected laid off from his QA job after Acclaim Entertainment was closed down. “It’s generally when you move companies when you see those key moments,” Cousins recalls. Me might have ended up staying in QA much longer if he hadn’t been forced to look for a new job. “There wasn’t any QA work or any good QA teams around in London at that time, so I was forced to take on a junior production role instead,” he explains. This change was completely unexpected, but not unwelcome either. “I haven’t been on a career plan, it just happened,” Cousins says. “When I entered the game industry, I just wanted to be a level designer. That was my end goal. I hadn’t been driven by anything other than helping out and filling the gaps where I saw them.”
“If you trust your judgement and you think you won’t be very good in the company you’re working at and you don’t think you’ll be able to change that, you should just leave.”
Nevertheless, Cousins embraced the change of direction. It happened again after the project at Lionhead studios that he was heading eventually got canceled. The following move to Sony gave his career another upwards swing. “One regret that I had was not leaving Lionhead earlier,” Cousins admits. “If I had left Lionhead after one year instead of two, I would’ve gone to Sony and I would’ve been involved with the EyeToy much earlier. That would’ve been a better learning experience for me.”
While addressing this, Cousins wanted to share a similar piece of advice with our readers on the matter of personal judgement and timing. “If you trust your judgement and you think you won’t be very good in the company you’re working at and you don’t think you’ll be able to change that, you should just leave,” he suggests. “There’s always a better opportunity somewhere else.” The promotion to a GM came as a pleasant surprise, but didn’t require Cousins to apply any pressure from his behalf. “The main thing I would say is that, I have never specifically asked for a promotion,” he admits. “I’ve never asked to change my job title or get more responsibilities. It’s always been offered to me. Either the person above me had too much work to do or they sucked and I think I can help out that person or in that situation, I’d just do the work. I don’t even ask permission, I just start doing the work.”
Cousins’ methods, modesty and openness to help his peers seem to have worked in his favor, making him quite popular within the EA ranks. “I don’t ask for a promotion when I take on more responsibility, I just take it on,” he says. “I’ve always said yes to people when they staid ‘Ben, can you deal with this’? That has hopefully given my bosses a fair amount of faith in me. That’s probably why I’ve been promoted several times.”
GMing is like playing the guitar
Becoming the general manager of Easy studios wasn’t an easy task for Cousins and required quite the amount of learning new tricks and reinvention on his behalf. It demanded the greatest sacrifice of all: giving up the tight involvement he enjoyed as a producer. Cousins offers a simple analogy to explain his experience with this change. “I used to be a musician and play the drums. I gave it up, even though I loved playing the drums. Drummers never get their songs listened to by the band. If you’re a drummer and you come to the band with a song idea, they never listen to you. You’re just the drummer. So I gave up playing the drums and started playing guitar so I could have my ideas heard better and I could have more control.” This is what Cousins also did with his career.
Though game design was always a passion for him and he’d always wanted to be a game designer, he quickly I realized the position would not give him what he wanted. “I quickly learned that the game designer didn’t really make the decisions or had enough control in order to really follow through on a complete vision. In order to take up that responsibility which gives you complete control, you have to learn more about the business. You have to think from a total leadership, rather than just the design.” So once again Cousins gave up what he loved in order to be able to make a bigger impact on his projects and have the degree of control he’s always wanted. “The business knowledge is not naturally where I excel,” Cousins admits. “I have to make an effort in doing that.”
“I think that sometimes you need to walk away from what you love in order to grow.”
For Cousins, the recent years as a GM have forced him to learn that and many other new things. But as he says himself, “It’s the learning and growing that is most rewarding.” With his creative nature, Cousins does not have a hard time have fresh ideas come to him naturally. Even though he has things come to him naturally, the river of creative ideas had lost its shine over time. “What is rewarding is understanding metrics, a business plan or creating a change which increases your profitability, because that’s all new for me,” he says. “I think that sometimes you need to walk away from what you love in order to grow.”
The Next Challenge
During his last four years at EA, Cousins decided to leave packaged goods behind him and fully devoted himself to free-to-play and digitally distributed games. In that time, his team’s efforts behind Battlefield Heroes paid off, showed EA that the market for this type of games had grown tremendously got him a promotion in return. “We’re stepping out of the exploration stage now and moving into the growth stage,” Cousins says. “The next step in my career is going to be about exploiting this knowledge from the research and development stage I’ve gone through and really use that to grow and turn this into a really big business. I may not have changed job title, or the kind of work I do, but there’s going to be more games, bigger games and a more mature organization.”
”If you’re always the first, you’re the guy with the most knowledge and experience.”
The freedom Cousins and his fellow colleagues enjoyed while pioneering this new business model within EA was not a given, but an unexpected treasure of opportunity. According to Cousins, this was caused by two reasons.
“We were always the guys in the icebreaker,” he recalls. “We were first and had more knowledge than anybody from day one. The first time I sat down with Johny Mang, who was our business guru for our games, we knew more than anyone else in EA about the Western world’s free-to-play business. If you’re always the first, you’re the guy with the most knowledge and experience.” The second reason for the freedom Cousin’s team enjoyed was that EA didn’t have a structure ready to operate online games. “So we had to build our own structure,” Cousins says. “If you’re doing something typical, which is standardized, you’re within the confines of an existing organization in terms of publishing, legal, finance, marketing, etcera. But because EA couldn’t offer us any support. We were doing something so new that we were forced to create our own organization. And when you have your own organization, you have more freedom to design it as you see fit.”
Cousins and his team over at Easy Studios are still making good use of that freedom while hard at work with the closed beta of Battlefield Play4Free, the newest addition to EA’s Play4Free brand. Cousins will also be speaking at this year’s Casual Connect Europe about the topic of getting EA ready for free-to-play gaming.
Joining EA at the roaring times of the publisher’s early interest in free to play titles, Ben Cousins was able to quickly rise in rank and devise the publisher’s strategy towards the free to play market. Now that he’s a general manager of the new free to play business unit at Easy Studios in Stockholm, Cousins looks back with Gamesauce at his career in digital, turning an experiment into a separate business unit, how he never wants to back to retail and some very valuable wisdom from his time as a producer.
At the front of free-to-play
“Franchises have their own financial goals, but they’re generally not as explicit as a business unit,” Cousins explains about his position as a GM. “Because I’m a separate business unit, I can look at all of the money coming in and out of the studio and I’m driven by profit levels on that. It’s much more like running a business.”
Two years before his promotion, Cousins found himself working at EA during pretty interesting times. The big publisher had just gotten interested in the [free-to-play] business models in their dealings with a Korean company called Neowiz. EA ended up buying a portion of the company in early 2007. Starting working in 2006 with Neowiz on a version of Fifa Online for Korea.
“EA was probably one of the major publishers who had the most mature relationship with Korean companies,” Cousins recalls. “EA being very aggressive about growth always and Activision in particular had managed to buy themselves quite a bit of insight into the free to play market in South Korea. Then this quickly transformed into an experimental phase within the company, where they started to think ‘maybe we could do free to play versions of our games in the Western worlds’ , which was at that time completely unheard of and completely exotic idea.”
“That was an interesting transformation to go from being kind of a skunk works style research and development organization to being something that was completely a key way of EA to learn how to operate in this digital age that we’re in.”
As a result, several products were started up to test the waters. The earliest two being Battleforge and Battlefield Heroes. “But then very quickly, as the virtual goods business started to kick off in the Western world around 2009, we went from being an experimental group of people kind of messing around with a business model, to being something quite important to the company,” Cousins says. “That was an interesting transformation to go from being kind of a skunk works style research and development organization to being something that was completely a key way of EA to learn how to operate in this digital age that we’re in.”
Nice timing, Ben
Finding a place within DICE as a senior producer for Battlefield Heroes, Cousins had already had his taste of working on digital products. “I had come to EA from Sony and the last project I’d worked on at Sony was Playstation Home, which is obviously a free virtual world monetized by both advertisers and a micro transaction element,” Cousins explains. “When I moved to EA, there was an opportunity to work with Neowiz on [Battlefield Heroes]. So I kind of chose to continue that path in digital distribution rather than packaged goods. Maybe I was in the right place in the right time, but I also made a conscious decision that I didn’t want to work in packaged goods and I got no interest in entering that space again.”
”I think long term about my career and there isn’t going to be very many interesting jobs in packaged goods in a five to ten year timeline.”
The choice to remain on digital was quickly made after the huge success of Battlefield Heroes. When Cousins saw the opportunity to remain at the vanguard of EA’s move in the digital space, he was quick to take it. “I think long term about my career and there isn’t going to be very many interesting jobs in packaged goods in a five to ten year timeline,” he argues. “I think that people who have experience in digital distribution early are going to be the guys best prepared for future. I would characterize it like this. In 1998, who would you rather have been working for, iTunes or Warner Brothers Music? One of those is growing very quickly and the other is declining. We’re in that similar reflection point in the game industry now. Do you want go digital or do you want to be part of the old guard?”
One of the most rewarding aspect for Cousins has been the direct connection with the customer. Working on the Battlefield franchise, blessed with a very active and enthusiastic community of players, a digital title such as Battlefield Heroes only brought him closer to his customers. “People talk about this a lot, but it’s a generational leap from what we have with packaged goods,” he argues. “You never really meet the customer, you don’t know anything about them. The only time you really learn anything about them is when you do very specific market research.”
“Don’t be scared of the competition. Don’t be intimidated by the competition. Just work towards your goals and don’t get rattled by happenings in your market.”
With those vibrant communities in all of the games, Cousins found a great source of what players say and are thinking. “My e-mail address is also public to all the users of our games and they can contact me directly,” he adds. “I have several key members of the community that I talk to on a regular basis.” When Cousins and his team decided to change the prices behind the microtransaction payment model of Battlefield Heroes in late 2009, many players were outraged. Cousins ended up receiving up to 200-300 e-mails in the course of a week. Though the game’s community was in uproar for quite some time about this, the changes eventually worked in favor of the game and resulted in a substantial growth in revenue.
Part of making sure these changes were effective was the result of the very quality focused culture of DICE. “It’s actually a culture where everyone in the company wants to produce the right quality,” Cousins explains. “There’s a sense of innovation and risk taking, which I haven’t seen in others companies. They’re willing to take their chances and really think big.”
Cousins also has some pretty good advise from his time at DICE. “Don’t be scared of the competition. Don’t be intimidated by the competition. Just work towards your goals and don’t get rattled by happenings in your market.”
Producers as leaders
With a career spanning from QA jobs to becoming executive producer on DICE’s Battlefield franchise, Cousins has traveled an all to familiar path for many game professionals these days. Looking back at his time as a producer, he recounts some of the most valuable lessons he learned in the trenches himself.
“The first thing you have to do is you need to be honest of what your capabilities are and where the edges of your capabilities are.”
“The first thing you have to do is you need to be honest of what your capabilities are and where the edges of your capabilities are,” Cousins argues. “As a producer, I was terrible at planning and really bad at task tracking, dates and organizing the team. I always delegated that to a good project manager. The way EA is structured is that development directors do the organizing of the team, the tools and the technology. Producers work in much more of a leadership role. That worked very well for me. So I was able to hand off large portions of responsibility to various members of the team.”
The structure Cousins encountered at EA made it a perfect fit for him. Equipped will all this self-knowledge, it enabled him to focus on the stuff that he believed he was best at.
“What I try to focus on as a producer is first of all, hitting the right strategy,” he adds. ”Making sure that you, from the get go, create the right game and that you take into account all of relevant information to make that decision correct. So, consumer data, knowledge of the market place, knowledge what the company is good and bad at. You need to get all the right information and then make some seriously well informed decisions of what you’re doing and what’s important about it.”
X marks the spot
In his first months moving over from Great Britain to Sweden, Cousins started out as a creative director at DICE working on several new concepts for the studio.
”If you waiver from those initial decisions and statement intent, then disaster ensues.”
In the years that followed, Cousins was also able to devise a formula with his team that kept them focused on achieving a high grade of quality by concentrating on only the most important elements of their projects. “So you start out having an ‘X’,” he explains. “The ‘X’ is a one phrase description of what you’re doing, which everyone can rally around. Then you pick key areas of focus, which are the things that really matter in your game. Once you pick those, you have to stick to them.You have to just trust that you made the right decisions early on. If you waiver from those initial decisions and statement intent, then disaster ensues.”
The second part of Cousins’ interview will be published next week, including tales about preventing projects from going wrong, him looking back at his early beginnings in the game industry, picking the time to move companies and moving from development to business.
In the meanwhile, everyone is invited to check out some brand new updates and holiday specials in Battlefield Heroesand Lord of Ultima.