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ContributionsPostmortem

Indie Showcase: Critical Force Entertainment’s Critical Missions: SWAT (iOS, Android and Web)

April 8, 2013 — by Martijn van Dijk

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Critical Force Entertainment Ltd is a new game development studio founded in Kajaani, Finland. The studio created Critical Missions: SWAT, a first-person shooter available for iOS, Andriod (released under Studio OnMars) and playable on Kongregate. The company focuses on developing premium and free-to-play crossplatform games with a special focus on the Asian market. So far, the company is self-funded, but investors are welcome. 

Veli-Pekka Piirainen is CEO and founder of Critical Force Entertainment Ltd. He is a former studio manager of Supercell North as well as a lecturer and head of Kajak Game Development Lab. Piirainen is also co-founder of NMP Games Ltd.

A student’s hobby project

Veli-Pekka Piirainen
Veli-Pekka Piirainen

In December 2011, I hired Igor Levochkin – one of the students at a school I taught at – as a programmer in my new startup company after following his work for the past two years. Igor and I would make games for the Apple AppStore, and we started making a prototype of a game called BomberBall. At the same time, Igor put his hobby game project in Kongregate. Early January 2012, Igor showed me that there were hundreds of players playing his hobby project game, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. I just thought it could be a good marketing channel for our iOS game.

However, at the end of January 2012, there were a couple of thousand players playing it and I started to get more interested in it. I gave Igor a Sony Xperia Play phone and told him to port the game to that device. Igor managed to have it up and running in a matter of days. Next, I told Igor to port the game to iOS; this was bit more difficult since he was not familiar with Mac and Xcode. After a week, the game was also running on iOS. Now I really started to see some potential in the game. Despite all this work on Igor’s project, we also continued to develop BomberBall because I wanted to have a good prototype for the GDC in San Francisco. I demonstrated both prototypes at the GDC and Igor’s project, Critical Strike Portable, gained more interest from the public. After that trip, we decided to concentrate fully on Critical Strike Portable.

Keeping up with high popularity

Igor started fulltime development on Critical Strike Portable by adding new weapons and features. I still worked part time at the university and couldn’t fully concentrate on the game development. I trusted Igor and also a team of Russian volunteers, who supported us in the growth of the user community as well as map creation. Another important task was to make a proper and more user friendly User Interface (UI) for the game. Unfortunately, Unity 3D’s tools for this job were pretty limited and we didn’t have any artist or UI specialist in our team to design a nice, good-looking and functional UI. So Igor made a “coder-style” UI with many different settings and options inspired by Counter Strike style menus. That UI was easy to use with a mouse, but for mobile phones with touch screens, we needed a different kind of UI.

The user interface of the mobile version.
The user interface of the mobile version.

Because I was inexperienced in game marketing, I hired Teemu Riikonen in April 2012 to lead the studio as well as take care of publishing and marketing of the game. Our next employee was Thanabodi Thongchat, a 2D artist from Thailand. She started designing backgrounds and UI graphics for the game in June 2012. Igor implemented more and more features to the game like new game modes, zombies, graphical effects, as well as fixing bugs. We released new versions on Kongregate weekly and got feedback from players on how to improve the game. At the end of June 2012, we had nearly 30,000 daily average users playing the web version of our game, but we were still growing.

We got over 1 million downloads in one month.

On June 26th, we released a free Android version of our game with exactly the same UI and almost the same features as the web version. Even though it was not so easy to use and the menu elements were pretty small on a phone screen, its popularity surprised us. We got over 1 million downloads in one month.
But the problem was that many players didn’t continue the game after their first try. Only hardcore players did so. We decided to create a totally different and simpler UI for mobile devices, because the current quality was not good enough for Apple’s AppStore to sell it as a premium game.

At the end of August 2012, two game development students, Olli Lahtinen and Aapo Lehikoinen, started their internship in my company. They started to build a totally new UI, added new controls for the iOS version of the game with a new NGUI toolkit we bought from the Unity Asset Store and started to design new maps for the game with Hammer editor. We also needed new character models, guns and animations for the iOS version. Modeling and animations were outsourced to freelancers in Thailand and our Thai artist was leading that work. Unfortunately, the quality was poor and delivery was very late. After that, all animations were outsourced to two Finnish startup game studios and for the modeling of guns, I hired another student.

A screenshot of the zombiemode of Critical Missions: SWAT.
A screenshot of the zombiemode in Critical Missions: SWAT.

Unfortunately, we had to remake all maps done with the Hammer editor (16 total), because our lawyer said we probably weren’t allowed to use that tool, since it’s licensing agreement is not clear enough. Our lawyer also recommended us to change the name of the game from Critical Strike Portable to something else, because that name reminds too much of Valve’s Counter Strike (Critical Missions: SWAT was born then). Our original plan was to release the iOS version in the end of September, but it was released in the end of November due to these difficulties. A new Android version was released just before Christmas, a Lite version in the beginning of January 2013 and the Mac version is in the review process as of this writing.

The iOS market is very competitive

At the end of the year, the amount of our players had increased dramatically. We had almost 200,000 daily players on the web and over 100,000 daily players on mobile devices, but all were playing our free versions. Monetizing with premium version seemed to be much more difficult than we thought it would be. The iOS market is very competitive and full of games, so getting visibility is very hard. We also had bad luck with a very important review, because the reviewer didn’t like our controls at all (many other not so significant reviewers did like them, however). Because of this, we didn’t start to get income fast but our server costs rose dramatically due to the massive amount of users. We also had some trouble with one specific server provider, who just calmly cut off the lines to our map server without any warning due to dramatically risen network traffic.

Looking back

Our biggest mistake was to save money in wrong places and get low quality from our international freelancers. We trusted our own artist’s capabilities to handle leading of the outsourcing, but she was too inexperienced for that. Of course, rates a quarter of the price compared to local studios were very attractive, but then the harsh reality revealed we had to do everything over again after that miserable trial period. It would have been wiser to use more professional outsourcing studios in the very beginning.

Our second mistake was not to solely focus on Critical Strike in the very beginning, but to also make the BomberBall prototype. Something else I would change was not to have a tighter management; everything went forward more or less without proper planning and scheduling. A fourth mistake was not to take a professional publisher to publish the premium iOS version. We thought it would be easy to self publish, because we had such great success with the free Android version, but we were wrong. A last mistake was not to pay enough attention to the server capacity, but that was more or less because of our inexperience with servers and also our idea to save money.

Online

Gamesauce Challenge Announces Global Game Jam Winners

February 2, 2011 — by Vlad Micu and Javier Sancho

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The GGJ2011 Poster by Sjors Houkes

We have announced the ten winners of the Gamesauce Challenge for the IGDA Global Game Jam!

The ten winning games were selected from the 1487 games that were developed last weekend during the Global Game Jam 2011. Each winning team has been awarded the opportunity to showcase their game during Casual Connect Europe on Thursday, February 10, 2011 in Hamburg, Germany and all-access passes to Casual Connect Europe and three nights of accommodation.

Submissions were judged based on the potential of their teams to create commercially viable projects and meet with publishers during Casual Connect Europe. Each Global Game Jam site was given the opportunity to nominate their very best project for the contest.

The Rhythm of the Stars team from Finland
The Rhythm of the Stars team from Tampere, Finland


The Winners (in alphabetical order)

Death Pizza
Turku, Finland
Sabastian Jakaus, Tatu-Pekka Saarinen, Arash John Sammander. [email]

Hamsters and Plague
Oulu, Finland
Mika Oja, Teemu Kaukoranta. [email]

The Last Fleet
Capetown, South Africa
Marc Luck, Luke Marcus Viljoen, Rodain Joubert. [email]

Ned, You Really Suck the Life Out of a Room
New York, USA
Team NED: New York, USA, Randall Li, Chris Makris, Ben Norskov, Matthew LoPresti, Roger Cheng. [email]

Planetary Plan C
Curitiba, Brazil
Henrique Schlatter Manfroi, Pedro Medeiros de Almeida, Amora B., Karen Garcia, Rafael Miranda Gomes, Rodrigo Braz Monteiro, Fernando Su, Ne Sasaki. [email]

Rhythm of the Stars
Tampere, Finland
Pekka Kujansuu, Olli Etuaho, Juho Korhonen, Aki Jäntti. [email]

Somyeol2D
Bremen, Germany
Kolja Lubitz, Jannik Waschkau, Carsten Pfeffer, Jan Niklas Hasse. [email]

Snobli Run
Kajaani, Finland
Veli Vainio & Ilkka Leino. [email]

Speck
Manila, Philippines
Marnielle Lloyd Estrada. [email]

Ultimate celebration
Rochester, New York, USA
Lane Lawley, Brian Soulliard, Devin Ford, Lawrence Jung, Kevin MacLeod. [email]

The Somyeol2D team from Bremen, Germany
The Somyeol2D team from Bremen, Germany

The Runner Ups (in alphabetical order)

Dramatic Extinction
Hamar, Norway
Stig-Owe Sandvik, Kenneth Aas Hansen, Andreas Fuglesang.

Glitchhiker
Utrecht, The Netherlands
Jan Willem Nijman, Rami Ismail, Jonathan Barbosa Rutger Muller, Paul Veer, Laurens de Gier.

How to Kill Pandas
Pelitalo Outokumpu, Finland
Antti Piironen, Anssi Pehrman, Tuuka Rinkinen, Salla Hakko, Heikki Koljonen, Hannu-Pekka Rötkö, Lauri Salo, Juho-Petteri Yliuntinen, Lari Strand, Henry Härkönen, Sina Aho.

Johann Sebastian Joust!
Copenhagen Game Collective
Douglas Wilson, Nils Deneken, Lau Korsgaard, Sebbe Selvig, Patrick Jarnveldt.

MeteorCrash
Córdoba,  Argentina
Ezequiel Soler, German A. Martin, Carla Soledad Corcoba.

Make sure to participate in the IGDA Global Game Jam next year for your opportunity to win!

Studio Spotlight

Studio profile: Nikitova LCC in Kyiv

January 27, 2011 — by Vlad Micu

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Nikitova's Business Development Manager Natalia Makarova, VP of Strategy Maxim Zasov and CEO Olya Nikitova
Nikitova's Business Development Manager Natalia Makarova, VP of Strategy Maxim Zasov and CEO Olya Nikitova

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

Just when I visited the Nikitova offices, an entire new section was opened to accommodate a new division of programmers.
Just when I visited the Nikitova offices, an entire new section was opened to accommodate a new division of programmers.

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

 All the participants of the Nikitova academy receive a legitimate certificate once they graduate and the top candidates are offered to take up a position inside the company after graduation.
All the participants of the Nikitova academy receive a legitimate certificate once they graduate and the top candidates are offered to take up a position inside the company after graduation.

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…

Senior staff inside the Nikitova offices can be easliy recognized by their abundance trophies and other spoils of battle.
Senior staff inside the Nikitova offices can be easliy recognized by their abundance of trophies and other spoils of battle.

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

Many starting game studios in Kyiv are founded by former employees who had their first taste of professional game development at Nikitova.
Many starting game studios in Kyiv are founded by former employees who had their first taste of professional game development at Nikitova.

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.”

Girlpower

Nikitova's art department is dominated by female artists for a reason.
Nikitova's art department has recently provided art support for many big titles, inlcuding The Sims 3, Overlord I & II and Supreme Commander 2

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.

Studio Spotlight

Studio Spotlight: Codeglue in Rotterdam

January 19, 2011 — by Vlad Micu

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Codeglue’s CEO Peter de Jong and CTO Maurice Sibrandi recently celebrated the very special occasion of running their studio for an entire decade. The two founders have been friends since highschool and went to higher technical college together to study computer science. Their close friendship led them to create their own game studio in the Netherlands, Codeglue, with a focus on mobile games and applications. We recently sat down to talk with both gentlemen about the celebratory occasion, developing CD-i games, early adopting XNA and balancing passion with need.

The Dutch pride of CD-i

De Jong: "Our collection of hand-held LCD games. Most of from our personal inventory. Yes, we are old-school."
De Jong: "Our collection of hand-held LCD games. Most of from our personal inventory. Yes, we are old-school."

Back when De Jong and Sibrandi were just starting with their technical engineering degrees, the Dutch company DIMA (‘Dutch Interactive Media Associates’, red.) paid a visit to our department and gave a presentation about internships to make games. “Maurice and I had similar interests, so we quickly decided to both do it,” De Jong recalls. “There was no Dutch game industry back then. There were some studios making CD-i games, that was it.” Already making games themselves on their Amigas, De Jong and Sibrandi didn’t have a breakthrough by themselves yet. In 1993 both decided to take on that internship and work on CD-i titles.

After graduating from university, the duo continued to work at DIMA. Back then the company became well-known for producing some of the more popular CD-i games. The studio’s main objective was to produce low-budget CD-i games in relatively short production times. While at DIMA, de Jong and Sibrandi worked on titles such as Family Games, Christmas Chrisis and Christmas Country. The studio would later go independent and rename itself to ‘Creative Media’ after Philips pulled the plug from it’s CD-i production.

Glued together

Codeglue's artist Tom Rutjens hard at work
Codeglue's artist Tom Rutjens hard at work

When CD-i became unpopular, De Jong and Sibrandi spent a couple of years working IT jobs. In 2000, the dynamic duo took the step to found their own company and started working in the evening hours. In 2002, they finally took the step to go full-time with the company and focus on mobile game development. A lot of games were developed in cooperation with Dutch developer Two Tribes, who gained international fame with their Toki Tori franchise.

“We were always lucky that we were allowed to concentrate on the main reference handsets, which were only between 6-12 different types,” De Jong recalls. “The publisher would then deal with the other 380 types.” The number of handsets would later end up reaching far beyond 12, which forced De Jong and Sibrandi to seriously reconsider the company’s direction.

“We spent more time porting and adapting games than working on the gameplay.”

“We spent more time porting and adapting games than working on the gameplay,” he added. Codeglue would also start focusing on mobile multiplayer games. “We tried it together with a publisher, but the market clearly wasn’t ready for it. The operators had a lot of problems between them, communication went wrong, problems. The attempt did show a lot of promise.”

In 2007, the Codeglue team started working on Rocket Riot, their award winning XBLA title. “We spent the first half year trying to make it a mobile title, but it didn’t really fit with the concept,” De Jong recalls. “So we decided to turn it into a Xbox Live Arcade title.”

The team continued to build a prototype, pitched it to several publishers and Microsoft. “After the third time we talked to Microsoft, we were green lighted and received a slot on Xbox Live arcade,” At that time, we could’ve just published the game ourselves, but we needed the money to develop the game in the first place. We talked to publishers such as Ubisoft, THQ and Konami. All three were interested in the game, but also because we scored a slot with Microsoft. THQ was the fastest and most concrete with their contract. Their conditions were ok, so we partnered up with THQ.”

The XNA early adopter

Codeglue
The original Rocket Riot team standing inside the Microsoft booth during a Dutch game event. Rocket Riot was playable on 8 displays. Gears of War 2 only had 2.

When Codeglue actually started working with XNA, the toolset was barely out of it’s beta stage. “It’s a very cool technology and we had no problems making the game, but we experienced some serious delays during development.” Riot eventually took two years to develop.

Due to the delay, the project also became a financial challenge for the studio. With a full focus on Rocket Riot, alternative revenue streams were also found in making iPhone games. “Apple changed the market in one blow,” De Jong argues. “Offering fast mobile Internet made it a common thing with a flat fee.” Tackling the upcoming market, Codeglue used it’s mobile game know-how to dive into iPhone development. “While the industry was in a heavy dip, developing for the iPhone helped us get through that gloomy period.”

“While the industry was in a heavy dip, developing for the iPhone helped us get through that gloomy period.”

Codeglue currently spends a hefty portion of their office hours working on Playstation Home assets. “This also was the result of the financial crisis at first,” De Jong explains. “It became more serious and we’ve developed more things in Playstation Home.” Codeglue recently also received their own store inside Sony’s online service to sell their assets. The plan is to continue with developing for PS Home while it is still generating a satisfying revenue rate.

One would think that there is no real market for micro transactions on Home, but Codeglue has proven otherwise. The service packs quite the crowd. “Very few numbers have been made public,” De Jong admits. “We can’t tell you anything about the ones we know, but you’d be amazed how many people use it.” For Codeglue as a small developer, the hundreds of thousands of monthly unique visitors is good enough to keep developing for Sony’s virtual world.

“We’ve always worked with the publisher/developer model.” De Jong says. “But small developers like us have to focus on reaching the consumer directly instead.We have to start making sense of marketing and other things to go from developer to developer/publisher.” The Playstation Home store one of the first baby steps that is bringing the company closer towards that goal.

Balancing passion with need

One of Codeglue's special Playstation Home items for Christmas was the popular 'Santa on a Reindeer' costume
One of Codeglue's special Playstation Home items for Christmas was the popular 'Santa on a Reindeer' costume

The work on Playstation Home has changed from a financial supplement into a creative output for Codeglue. “We’re in the phase of going back to devote ourselves to developing what we want,” De Jong confirms. “It’s been a tough period. We’ve talked to the entire team about the need to sometimes work on things that are less fun than developing your own game. Everyone knew about the situation and the financial crisis. I’m just happy we were able to keep everyone together and avoid any problems.”

De Jong sees Codeglue’s future in expanding the studio’s horizon to other platforms, creating separate units that focus on either PSN, XBLA, mobile and Facebook. “Our ambition is to develop a cross-platform game,” De Jong admits. “Not something stand-alone on the iPhone, but something that really connects.”

“Having one successful XBLA title in their pocket sadly isn’t enough to give any publisher enough confidence to work with you.”

Codeglue second step towards becoming directly connect with their consumers is their development of Ibb and Obb in cooperation with the small Dutch indie studio Sparpweed. “It’s our first project on PSN, so it will be quite the learning experience,” De Jong admits. “Having one successful XBLA title in their pocket sadly isn’t enough to give any publisher enough confidence to work with you.”

Going the digital way

Ibb and Obb are actually named after two characters in Jasper Fforde’s “The Well of Lost Plots”.
Ibb and Obb are actually named after two characters in Jasper Fforde’s novel 'The Well of Lost Plots'.

The adventure to build their first XBLA title with an unfinished XNA toolset brought about some wise lessons for Codeglue. “Next time we’re working on a project and a fancy new technology strolls by, we’ll make sure it’s proven before,” De Jong says. “We could’ve chosen to use the Unity engine to make a PSN title, but something like that hasn’t come out yet. I’d like to wait see one or two Unity based games come out first, so I know for sure that the worst wrinkles in the software are dealt with. Somebody else will have fixed it, saving you a lot of time and money in the process. My advice to other small devs is to wait and use technology that is already proven. If you’re the first and can experience the marketing push from Unity as well, it might result in something positive. Then again, that’s not a luxury we can all enjoy.”

“I’d like to wait see one or two Unity based games come out first, so I know for sure that the worst wrinkles in the software are dealt with.”

The Rocket Riot project ended up teaching their technical staff a lot as well. “It was very stimulating for our programmers,” De Jong admits. “They were able to work directly with the technical staff from Microsoft, you’re involved both technically and innovatively with the toolset. But if you have to run a company, it’s not the wisest of decisions.”

Over the hill

Co-founder and CTO Maurice Sibrandi enjoying some coffee from his 'limited edition' Rocket Riot mug.
Co-founder and CTO Maurice Sibrandi enjoying some coffee from his 'limited edition' Rocket Riot mug.

After ten years, it becomes clear the way De Jong and Sibrandi shaped Codeglue was strongly based on the ups and downs they’ve had in their personal working experience after they spent their initial entry in games within small multimedia studios with small creative teams. “We even ended up rolling into IT for three to four years,” De Jong recalls. “We had a company phone, car and laptop, the works. The environment simply didn’t fit us.”

With founding Codelgue, De Jong and Sibrandi strived to have a fun workplace where creative people would feel at home. The original Rocket Riot, published by THQ, sadly did not receive a very big push by the publisher itself. As a result, De Jong and his team decided to connect with the game press themselves. With success. Rocket Riot ended up attaining critical acclaim, a solid 8.0 on Metacritic and very positive reviews by media outlets such as IGN, Gamespot and Giant Bomb.

“We tried to connect with the game press ourselves, arranged a lot of reviews and competitions,” De Jong recalls. “We were lucky to also receive great reviews.”

The experience with THQ have given De Jong a solid idea of how he would do it himself. In this day and age, a direct connection with the consumer isn’t that hard to attain anymore, even for a relatively small studio as Codeglue. The consideration to self-publish has culminated into the development of Ibb and Obb. “We operate very openly and show our audience the first prototypes on Facebook, trying to get people to follow us,” De Jong says. “With Rocket Riot, we were relatively late with this and tried to still hype the game after launch.”

Self-publishing

De Jong and his colleagues recently moved to a cosy new office
De Jong and his colleagues recently moved to a cozy new office in the center of Rotterdam.

Pitching the original prototype for Rocket Riot and building up a relationship with Microsoft in the first place wasn’t a typical walk in the park for the studio. Luckily, the deal with THQ allowed Codeglue to keep the rights to the IP and resulted in Rocket Riot coming to Windows 7 Mobile and an upcoming version for the iPad.

“We walked around with the prototype for almost a year.”

“We walked around with the prototype for almost a year,” De Jong admits. It took us quite some time. Do visit the big international events like the GDC, E3 and Gamescom. Approach the publishers. That’s where you get the most business, especially if you want to work with a major publisher.”

De Jong simply reached out to different publishers by e-mail, with success. “It always works,” he says. “There’s always someone at an event looking for a new project. It’s never impossible to end up with the right person there.”

With the desire to take over publishing themselves, the need for Codeglue to find the necessary funds and internal structure to facilitate that is higher than ever. De Jong hopes that the sales on Playstation Home will fuel that desire significantly.

Codeglue is currently working on Ibb & Obb for PSN in collaboration with Sparpweed.

Image credits:  Else Kramer assigned by the Rotterdam Media Commission

Audio

Composer and Audio Designer Jonathan van den Wijngaarden on How Ambition can Kill Your Project, Coded Illusions, Fairytale Fights, his Mentor and his Love for C&C.

January 14, 2011 — by Vlad Micu and Javier Sancho

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Jonathan vd WijngaardenAudio designer and composer Jonathan van den Wijngaarden has had a career where illusions got broken and fairy tales did not really end happily ever after. After working at two of the Netherlands’ most promising studios that failed for aiming too high, he remains optimistic and takes the lessons learned into his own endeavors as a freelance audio designer and composer. Van den Wijngaarden gives us a first quick post mortem look of Fairytale Fights. The final project of the fallen Dutch game studio, Playlogic Game Factory.

Long Distance Mentor

Klepacki visited the Netherlands to perform at the Games In Concert 3 concert in 2008, where gave quite the show performing the revised version of the Hell March on his custom guitar to an audience of gamers.
Klepacki visited the Netherlands to perform at the Games In Concert 3 concert in 2008, where he gave quite the show performing the revised version of the Hell March on his custom guitar to an audience of gamers.

In the era where the highest tech in the house was probably the VCR, Van den Wijngaarden was one of the first few privileged kids to have an expensive PC in his household. His dad worked in IT, which made him and his family one of the early adopters in the Netherlands. “He used to bring me floppies with games like Pac Man and Dig Dug but soon enough I got my own PC to mess around with and play a lot of shareware games”.

”I used to put my taperecorder next to the PC to record the music of Command & Conquer.”

A few PCs later, 14 year-old Van den Wijngaarden found himself making his own scenarios and mods of Command & Conquer. “I used to put my taperecorder next to the PC to record the Command & Conquer music so I could listen to it even when I wasn’t playing,” he recalls. Through the C&C modding community he decided to get in touch through email with the musical genius behind the game, Frank Klepacki . They started exchanging emails for about 4 years in which Klepacki gave feedback on Van den Wijngaarden’s music. He followed keyboard lessons at that time, but that never satisfied his craving to make his own music. “I quit the lessons, so I could pour my heart into tracking (sample based music, red.) and composing music. Frank Klepacki took me under his wing and became my official mentor giving me something close to a full scholarship in game audio design.”

Van den Wijngaarden's old office at Coded Illusions, stacked with cool collectible figures and posters.
Van den Wijngaarden's old office at Coded Illusions, stacked with cool collectible figures and posters.

Van den Wijngaarden’s first professional job in the game industry was at Coded Illusions. He got in touch with the founder, Richard Stitselaar. Stitselaar had just left the upcoming Guerrilla Games to start his own company. They shared the same interests in games, especially Command & Conquer, and when Stitselaar learned about his “scholarship” with Klepacki, he was as good as hired.

”I used to work on the audio with my headphones on while the rest would sit a few meters away listening to Elvis loud through the speakers.”

Their first idea became the illusion they never got to finish, Nomos (in the early days also called ‘Haven’): a sci-fi, Blade Runner-esque game with religious elements. “Huddled together in a small office, I used to work on the audio with my headphones on while the rest would sit a few meters away listening to Elvis loud through the speakers. We didn’t take things very professionally then,” he recalls. When Coded Illusions got its first funding, things started to get more professional with its first official employees, many of them coming from Guerrilla. Van den Wijngaarden remained as an all-rounder in the office not only doing audio design but also being involved in management, level design, pitching game design ideas, story and dialogue writing.

Illusions Breaking the Code

For the occassion of this interview, Vertigo Games allowed us to give a first exclusive glimpse of the Nomos project started by Coded Illusions.
For the occassion of this interview, Vertigo Games allowed us to give a first exclusive glimpse of the Nomos project started by Coded Illusions.

In 2004, the future for Coded Illusions looked bright and for four and a half years the team worked very ambitiously as what Van den Wijngaarden fondly remembers “a group of friends making cool stuff. What we lacked in experience, we definitely made up for in enthusiasm.” Unfortunately the team’s enthusiasm is what may have put an end to the illusion. In the end of 2008, Coded Illusion went bankrupt quite instantly and the close group of friends found themselves on the street before they knew it. What went wrong? “Things started well building our own engine for the game,” Van den Wijngaarden says. “But in summer 2004, some of our managers went to GDC and got their first taste of the Unreal Engine 3. At the same time, the Xbox360 had just been announced and things looked very tempting to start working with a new engine.” His explanation: “the industry was on the front of a major turning point, getting ready to develop for next-gen consoles. “ The new promosing tool in the studio became the Unreal Engine 3. “It was too tempting,” he recalls. “The Unreal Engine 3 made our project grow disproportionately because it enabled us to pour in so many ideas we could not develop. [Nomos] wasn’t a small humble title anymore, but a full blown Unreal Engine 3 title.” The enthusiasm made them want to add an endless list of features that this shooter-oriented engine offered, including RPG-elements, more action, more story. In other words, more illusions than the code could handle.

For this game Jonathan created over 150 minutes of music and nearly 3000 sound effects which was all discarded when the company was closed a year later.
Van den Wijngaarden created over 150 minutes of music and nearly 3000 sound effects for Nomos. All were discarded when Coded Illusions was closed a year later.

“What we had was not bad, but there was no way of getting our project sold to a publisher.” The team’s enthusiasm and creativity ironically started to become a burden. “We couldn’t sell this to publishers, because it was not finished enough and no one was willing to admit that the game needed a lot of cutting.”

“It was such an intense period, it kind of turned into a black hole in my memory”.

Nowadays, smaller games, including bigger projects that got cut down, are easier to market through digital distribution and a broad market of casual gamers, “but in that period the market of digital indie games was not taken seriously yet”, Van den Wijngaarden explains. So he and his teammates got stuck with an overambitious project that had nowhere to go and an economic crisis that did not make things easier. Van den Wijngaarden admits: “it would have been a lot smarter to think and start small. Starting with a lower budget and consequently attempt to take a bigger step. We were not able to build a track record as a company and a lot of good work has gone to waste.”

Fighting for Fairytales

Fairytale Fights
Even after Playlogic declared bankruptcy, Fairytale Fights was launched as a downloadable episodic title on PSN in Asia.

The whole team of Coded Illusions ended up on the street at the beginning in fall 2008. Founder Richard Stitselaar managed to keep the IPs and start another company, Vertigo Games. He was able to hire some of his old team members to start developing Adam’s Venture. Like many of his former team members, Van den Wijngaarden wound up at the Playlogic Game Factory, a studio that was set full sail to release its first next-gen cross-platform title, Fairytale Fights. “I got in there very easily. I had built up a lot of experience with Unreal Engine and audio at Coded Illusion and I hardly had to do a job interview.” Working at Playlogic at that time was not that easy. He started at the company in holiday season and Fairytale Fights had to go gold after the summer. Van den Wijngaarden had his worries. “How was I going to finish this project in eight months with no plan ready yet and no audio design document? What problems am I going to encounter in crunch time in a team I’m not used to work with yet? I decided to get all those thoughts and worries out of my head and go for it.” Van den Wijngaarden has to dig deep into his memories to recall how that process was. “It was such an intense period, it kind of turned into a black hole in my memory”.

“The main thing I had to get used to was that this was not MY project anymore.”

“The main thing I had to get used to was that this was not MY project anymore,” he recalls. “Others already mostly worked the concept of Fairytale Fights out and was long past its prototyping.” With only eight months time to get the game on the shelves, there was no audio yet and Van den Wijngaarden had to dive into the documentation to get submerged in underlying ideas and feeling of the game. “My main focus on this project was to make it feel like my own project and give this game its own identity in audio”. Fairytale Fights already had its unique colorful art style, looking like a plasticine version of Happy Tree Friends. “Psychonauts was the game that inspired me the most. I tried to convey its diversity in settings to give Fairytale Fights its distinct character in sound. Especially giving all the weapons unique firing and handling sounds was a huge workload for me but crucial in giving the game its own identity.” This was one of the many lessons Van den Wijngaarden had learned from his mentor and inspiration, Klepacki: “always try to put your own signature on the music and sound. That’s what I admire about Klepacki, he always knows how to stick to his own style and sound. I can recognize the games he has worked on immediately, even without knowing he worked on it.”

Van den Wijngaarden took this picture on his final day at Playlogic. This office space served 40 people that worked on various products, including Sony's Eyepet.
Van den Wijngaarden took this picture on his final day at Playlogic. This office space served 40 people that worked on various products, including Sony's Eyepet.

So, what went wrong in this process? Again, it was the double-edged sword of ambition that killed the cat in boots. “We were under a lot of time pressure and in the end we had to cut about 25% percent of what we had made. Otherwise we never would have made it. Among the things we cut was a final chapter with four levels. This meant having to come up with a new final boss and invent a new main villain. Originally we also wanted to add some RPG elements and conversations with NPCs. There was absolutely no time for spoken dialogue, since that meant we had to localize it too. All kinds of drastic changes were made in a short time which stripped Fairytale Fights down to a pure brawler game.” At least this time the cuts were made and the game went gold. One of the main forces for getting the title shipped on time was managing director Olivier Lhermite. “He performed miracles. Not only by creating the right workflows but changing the focus on what was needed the most: game design.” Van den Wijngaarden admits that the game design aspect came late, maybe too late. During the process, the main focus and strength of the project had been its art style and setting, but somehow it lost it focus on the kind of game it should be. “Olivier made sure everybody picked up on the gameplay and worked fulltime on making sure everything worked and felt right.”

“As a creative person it can be difficult to balance the fact that on one side you are making an artistic creation and on the other side you are working on an entertainment product.”

Another of Klepacki’s wise lessons that echoed through Van den Wijngaarden’s mind throughout the tough process is one seems applicable for any game development process. “As a creative person it can be difficult to balance the fact that on one side you are making an artistic creation and on the other side you are working on an entertainment product. As an artist you are primarily concerned with creating the best quality, but at the same time you will have to deliver a certain amount of quantity. Therefore you have to find balance between quality and quantity and make sure that each sound is equally great. You can’t make everything as perfect as you want it to be, it is more important that all the components you make work in harmony and offer a complete package. That’s a lesson that I got to experience very closely while working on Fairytale Fights.”

Van den Wijngaarden is currently working as freelance composer and audio designer. He most recently created music and sound design for the official Need For Speed Hot Pursuit webgame and is now wrapping up music and sound design for Adam’s Venture 2 by Vertigo Games.

Exclusive Interviews

Gazillion’s Stuart Moulder on being a product person, loving casual and what two decades of expertise can get you

January 5, 2011 — by Vlad Micu

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Stuart Moulder
After almost a decade of being in executive and managerial positions at companies like Microsoft, WildTangent, Screenlife and most recently Gazillion Entertainment, industry veteran Stuart Moulder is now traveling the world in search of a new challenge. “If I was a corporate, political kind of person, then that was right,” Moulder says about his previous positions. “But I’m a product person. I came into the industry because I liked games.” We sat down with Moulder during Casual Connect Kyiv to talk about his interest in casual games, how big franchises can wear you out and the value of Western game professionals in Eastern Europe.

Stuart <3 Casual

age-of-empires-2
Did you know? Korea once threatened to arrest the GM of Microsoft Korea. The reason being that the “history” used in Age of Empires for the Yamato (Japanese) campaign was derived from Japanese sources. It did not portray the historical events accurately, at least not from the Korean perspective.

In 2003, Moulder realized that he had very little opportunity at Microsoft  to have any real impact on the games he worked with, Moulder quickly considered finding a new challenge. After a year of ‘detoxing’ as a consultant, Moulder joined WildTangent full time. “They were a casual game company and that was pretty interesting to me.”

Probably because as I had gotten older and had a family, my own playstyle incorporated more casual game types. I think that hardcore gamers in their 30s and 40s are all pretty similar that, most of them want to be good parents and have a balanced lifestyle, and they don’t want to give up too much time for gaming.

Moulder believes casual games have been a great answer for gamers who’s lives have changed, but still have a passion for gaming. It later became one of the reasons Moulder got involved with Screenlife, who would later bring their Scene It? franchise to the Xbox 360 and several mobile phone platforms. Moulder moved over to Gazillion in 2009, but left the studio last summer because his job ended up being a lot like his previous position at Microsoft. “You have that amount of management responsibility, that the amount that you can affect game development is pretty modest,” he recalls. “The other thing that I was struggling with was that Gazillion was founded on the old online model of having a high concept or a great license and then building a rich Warcraft-like MMO.”

“Even when you do three-year games that are successful, it actually wears on you.”

Moulder soon found himself uncomfortable with that model and the estimated development times of two to three years per product. “But it’s usually four to five years or more,” Moulder says. “It didn’t feel like they were able to throw aside the work that they’ve done and shift gears to try and reinvent themselves.”

Now that the business aspect of monetizing online, social and casual games has become more developed, Moulder is on the hunt for potential partners. For a product-oriented person like himself, the idea of rapidly working out the core gameplay and marketing it quickly is golden.

Close Combat
Moulder: "When Microsoft decided to stop publishing the Close Combat series of games, we gave the rights to the series name to Atomic Games for free. Additional titles in the series were created and published subsequently without any obligation to Microsoft – an all too rare example of publisher magnanimity."

“You’re not stuck with the same for two, three or four years only to have it not be a success in the marketplace,” Stuart argues. Recounting his own motivation to orient himself to another direction, Moulder remembers recognizing the same kind of fatigue one can get from those kind of projects in the eyes of many developers he previously worked with at Microsoft.

“Even when you do three-year games that are successful, it actually wears on you,” Stuart says. “Part of why Bungie left Microsoft was that all Microsoft cared about was more Halo. The people who started on Halo in 1997 have been doing that same basic game for over ten years–in some cases, more than half of their lives. It’s hard to feel like you’re job is creative and innovative when you’re working on something for so long.”

XP points

Halo: Combat Evolved
Did you know? The hardware choices for the original Xbox to have a Nvidia GPU and Intel CPU were only finalized a week prior to the deadline that was set to reach the holiday period of 2001. The Intel choice was a last minute reversal of plans, which was imposed from above based on larger Microsoft/Intel relationship considerations.

Moulder’s search for the right partners has also led him to Eastern Europe on multiple occasions where many developers are very much interested in western developers for their expertise and experience. “Their games are a very solid top 10% kind of quality, but it’s definitely not that top 1%,” Moulder argues. “It’s like wine tasting, where there are people that taste wine and can really tell. […] I think the talent is there. What they need is people who can transfer that knowledge and can partner with them.”

According to Moulder, the expertise he and many other western industry professionals have acquired could play a key role for talented Eastern European developers to significantly improve their business. “It’s the polish, the tuning and the feel,” he says. “You can talk about it, but it does take a certain articulation beyond ‘it wasn’t fun’. That’s what twenty to thirty years of playing and developing games gets you.”

“Nintendo has done this in the past, where they’ve worked with a non-Japanese developer.”

Moulder admits to be surprised that Western publishers seem to rarely send experienced professionals and producers to provide assistance to their Eastern European partners. Having consulted several companies in the region himself, Moulder suggests more publishers should build on such a model. “Nintendo has done this in the past, where they’ve worked with a non-Japanese developer,” Moulder recalls. “The best-known one was Rare. They would bring them into Kyoto and Myamoto-san would have them in their shop as kind of apprentices if you will. They would take the game through its next stage of development in their environment. […] Rare could go back and could deliver that level of quality of their own.”

Carrying with him a wealth of experience in managing development teams behind big-budget titles, Stuart Moulder is but one of many industry veterans who have happily embraced the shift to more rapidly developed, iterative and smaller size projects in the casual and social game sphere. That shift has struck more and more developers all around the industry, who are now roaming the world in search of new projects to challenge them.

As for Moulder himself, he is currently doing full-time consulting at Gazillion’s Netdevil studio in Colorado, where he is working with the teams of both Lego Universe and Jumpgate Evolution.

BusinessExclusive Interviews

Easy Studios’ Ben Cousins on Avoiding Disasters, Building a Career in Games, the Sacrifices for Control and the Benefit of Being First (part 2)

December 31, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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Ben Cousins
Ben Cousins

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.

Avoiding disaster

A glimpse of the fancy glass decorations inside the Easy Studios offices
A glimpse of the marvelous view over the city of Stockholm from the Easy Studios office.

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.”

Leveling up

No game studio can go without the all mighty power of the Post-It
No game studio can go without the all mighty power of the Post-It.

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

The Easy Studios recreational room.  Note the fancy carpet.
The Easy Studios recreational room. Note the fancy carpet.

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

The outside view of the Easy Studios office building located in Stockholm, Sweden
The outside view of the Easy Studios office building located in the center of Stockholm, Sweden.

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.

Development

Redlynx’s Antti Ilvessuo on their Multi-platform Background, Tuning to Perfection, Staying Indie and the Future of Digital

December 29, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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The Trials HD team near launch with Ilvessuo standing second from the right
The Trials HD team near launch with Ilvessuo standing second from the right

Having just finished the Big Thrills downloadable content pack for Trials HD, RedLynx’s Creative Director, Antti Ilvessuo (2nd from the right), takes some time to talk with us about the multi-platform background of the company, keeping their financial and creative independence, managing growth and what lies after digital.

Exclusive InterviewsPR & Marketing

Gearbox’s Steve Gibson on the catharsis of Borderlands and promoting a legend

December 13, 2010 — by Vlad Micu

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Having joined Gearbox two years ago, VP of Marketing Steve Gibson found himself in the middle of the studio’s structural change that allowed for daring and adventurous projects such as Borderlands and more recently the further development of Duke Nukem: Forever. We sat down with Gibson to talk about the upbeat atmosphere at the Gearbox headquarters, the catharsis of Borderlands and promoting Duke Nukem: Forever.

This life-size Claptrap replica lives in the Gearbox lobby where it provides companionship to both visitors and the office’s receptionist.

When Gibson entered the marketing team at Gearbox around the same time Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway was released, he found himself inside a studio that was going through structural changes. “I can’t speak for everybody at the studio, obviously,” Gibson admits. “But the impression I have is that for a lot of years Gearbox was working within the confines of the Half-Life universe. With the Brothers in Arms franchise, the confines were in making a new world plausible and authentic. So there was a lot of structure to the design, the characters and everything else.”

Witnessing the studio freeing itself from a strict structure demanded by the franchises they’d worked on, Gibson noticed that the Borderlands project proved to be more than just a creative change of pace. “Borderlands ended up acting as a catharsis,” Gibson argues. “I think a big part is the way Borderlands started and the way it ended. People were still rolling out of the strict structure of what they’d been doing for the past five-plus years.”

Having ‘the look’

Gibson and his marketing team in action with ‘Minister of Art’ Brian Cozzens (left)

Even though Borderlands started out with a strict mindset, Gibson noticed the development team gradually realized the potential of its new found freedom. “It got wilder and wilder,” Gibson recalls. “The art style bubbled up from this new freedom and everything started feeling like fun and games.”

”One of the hardest parts of the job when trying to get people to look at games is having something that is interesting to look at.”

Experiencing so many changes from a PR & marketing perspective might be hard to handle, but Gibson says otherwise. “It made my job a lot easier,” he admits, “It did!.” Everybody had to look. “One of the hardest parts of the job when trying to get people to look at games is having something that is interesting to look at. Just in the fact that we did a very dramatic change, which was perceived to be late in development, everybody was looking.” While the perception of rapid change got everyone looking at Borderlands, Gibson fully focused his efforts on showing the press and public the quality of the game.

It’s alive!

Pitchford and Gibson
Pitchford and Gibson charting the course ahead towards a Merry Christmas, followed by a bright and prosperous 2011.

During this interview, Gibson and Gearbox President Randy Pitchford were presenting Duke Nukem: Forever to the Dutch press during the Firstlook game event in Amsterdam, taking their first step of a long and tiresome press trip all around Europe. “I remember working on a website ten or twelve years ago and thinking that this game is going to come out one day soon,” Gibson recalls. “Ten years later, I’m still working at a website thinking this game is never coming out.”

Finding yourself managing the marketing of that same project a couple of years later was summed up by Gibson in one word: “Surreal”. “I think is a lot what we say,” Gibson admits. “In our department, we had a couple of guys work on the press release to announce it for the first time. Every few minutes we’d stop and be like ‘I can’t believe I’m working on this’. To be on that flipside, is just absolutely crazy. It’s hard to describe.”

“Everybody has a story of how they interacted with this game, sometime, somehow.”

Promoting Duke Nukem: Forever, Gibson found himself in the rare situation of promoting a legend that had already touched almost everyone he met. “Everybody had a story of how they interacted with this game, sometime, somehow,” Gibson says. “Different publishers, different developers, all kinds of people passed through it. It’s been really weird running into a guy that tells me ‘Hey, I worked on that concept seven years ago. It looks completely different, but I did want to do it in a stadium’.”

Duke Rising

A towering Duke banner with a tiny Steve Gibson below it

Gibson faced a big challenge keeping everything secret during this year’s PAX gaming expo. “We knew word was going to leak that it was coming,” Gibson recalls. “But we had this panel that was on Sunday, we had an investor call the day before. All those things would point that we would make an announcement.”

“There are some things that people talk a lot about, even if it was from a long time ago.”

The big secret would eventually be preserved until the final moment. Duke Nukem: Forever would be hands-on playable at PAX. The revelation of not only its existence, but the actual witness accounts of it being playable resulted in the game’s title topping all Twitter trends and catching the world’s attention in one big blow.

Legacy of Duke

Gibson suddenly points to a random gamer trying out the Duke Nukem: Forever demo next to us during our conversation. “This guy was 4 years old when Duke came out. He’s enjoying it, he stood in line to play it!” The legacy of Duke seems to have continued on. “Star Wars also lived on through parents down to their kids,” Gibson argues. “There are some things that people talk a lot about, even if it was from a long time ago.”

Calling the atmosphere at the Gearbox offices ‘giddy’ and admitting to having to force his own colleagues from the marketing department to go home late at night to catch some sleep, Gibson is currently enjoying a rare commodity for many PR & marketing folks out there: promoting a legend.

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