Boomzap Entertainment is a game developer that creates casual games for the PC, Mac, Wii, iOS, and Android platforms. It is behind some of the most successful hidden object puzzle adventure (HOPA) games such as the Awakening series, the Dana Knightstone series, Otherworld: Spring of Shadows, and Botanica: Into the Unknown. Registered in the USA and Singapore, Boomzap has 70 developers based in Singapore, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia. Boomzap producer Gabby Dizon lines up some of the most important practices that keep the Boomzap Entertainment’team happy and their virtual game studio running smoothly.
There are plenty of benefits to having a virtual office. For Boomzap Entertainment, it has enabled us to recruit the best game developers from pretty much anywhere in the world. We also have minimal overhead, which makes sure that the company is very financially lean and can weather tough times in the game industry.
However, not everyone can imagine how to make a virtual studio work. Boomzap has been virtual since day 1 in 2005; it seems hard enough with five people, let alone seventy (our head count at the end of 2012). In the past seven years, we’ve evolved and tweaked our practices as the company has grown. Here are our top five practices that help us run our virtual studio efficiently:
1. Company culture is priority #1
While this is true of all companies, it is even more important in a company where none of you see each other face to face and everybody interacts with everyone else from behind a computer interface. Having a shared company culture ensures that people are aware of the company’s goals, and are going in the same direction with their individual contributions.
2. Real-time team interaction is the key to successful projects
A key to Boomzap’s success with online teams is having a chat client with a team room function. For years this was done over MSN, the only popular instant messaging (IM) client with a persistent team function. Groups were organized by projects and disciplines so that people were interacting in real time with the teams they were involved in. Team members can also jump in and out of groups depending on project assignment or interest. The company has since moved its IM to HipChat, but the principles stay the same. The company also moved its documentation from Microsoft Office to Google Docs to allow real-time collaboration of documents by team members.
3. Have constant, immediate feedback on yesterday’s work
The daily builds are also sent out to our publishers, so they know at any point in time the progress of our projects.
Boomzap has two iron laws: Daily reports (each team member posts a daily report on work done for that day, for everyone to see) and daily builds (all projects have a new build every single working day, no exceptions). Because of this setup, the team can immediately know if someone is contributing slower than expected or if there are problems in the games being developed. The game is also constantly being tested by the team members to make sure that the daily build is fun and bugs are immediately seen and reported. The daily builds are also sent out to our publishers, so they know at any point in time the progress of our projects.
4. Invest in the right tools
Are you managing your virtual team completely by email? If so, you are probably doomed to fail. Boomzap has a wide range of different tools (some free, some paid) to ensure that people are working together productively. These range from: IM (HipChat for team chat, Skype for voice calls), Basecamp (project management), Google Docs (real-time document collaboration and task tracking), SVN (code repository), Dropbox (asset repository), and our own file server to host our daily builds. Don’t be afraid of paying for online tools if the financial rewards of the team’s success far outweigh the tool’s cost.
5. Meet up once in a while
While we love working virtually from anywhere in the world and will never have a centralized office, Boomzap team members like to meet up once in a while for coffee, lunch, or the occasional big meeting where people fly in to talk about important projects in the company. The founders (one lives in Japan; the other, Singapore) regularly take the time to fly out to the different cities where the team members are based, to get to know everyone on a personal level. This social, personal interaction reaps dividends when the team goes back to working virtually on an everyday basis.
Ian Schreiber has been in the video game industry since the year 2000, first as a programmer and then as a game designer. He has worked on eight published games, two textbooks, two free online courses in game design, and several other things he can’t talk about since he’s still under NDA. He has taught game design and development courses at a variety of colleges and universities. He is a proud father of an almost-two-year-old, whose favorite activities include talking on the phone, going to the zoo, playing iPad games, playing in the sand, and tucking her stuffed animals into bed, although her favorite “toys” by far are mommy and daddy. From this experience of seeing his child playing with an iPad, Ian shares four game design essentials with us on developing games for toddlers.
1. Design for a child’s hand and touch
If you actually make a distinction between finger-swipe and palm-swipe, and if your hit boxes aren’t really tolerant of near-misses, you’ll have a hard time convincing me that any kids tested your app before release. Most storybook apps are pretty good examples of how to do this once you get them started – any kind of finger or palm swipe to the left or right turns the page, plus there are buttons in the corners to flip pages if you touch them.
2. Avoid having loading screens
If your loading screen takes more than a second or two, my kid will think your app is broken. She doesn’t understand the concept of loading screens, but she knows how to hit the button to get out of your app and pick something else. If your game is aimed at young kids, just how much complexity do you want to have in there?
I suggest two ways of testing your loading screen. One is to set an actual metric goal, like half a second or less from startup to full load, and then you would just measure it. The other would be to test with actual young children, give them an iPad, have their parents guide their finger to touch your app in order to open it, and see what the kid does from there. I recommend you test with some kids who have iPads at home, so they know how to hit the button to exit an app when they get bored.
The trick is to not have loading screens of any noticeable duration in the first place. Most kids’ apps don’t particularly need to be all that complicated, they should not have a massive memory footprint or CPU requirements in the vast majority of cases. I assume any app that is running into long loading screens is either not (completely) optimized (i.e. the programmers were incredibly lazy with memory allocation or the use of inefficient graphics algorithms) or else it contains far too many assets for its own good.
3. In-App purchases don’t work
Don’t monetize via in-app purchases
In short: Don’t monetize via in-app purchases, I turned those off ages ago (as did any other parent who knows better). Also, if your business model relies on toddler miss-clicks when parents aren’t looking: well… you’re the one who has to live with that on your conscience.
My toddler doesn’t really grok in-app purchases yet, so the subject of how to let her buy something that she wants in a game hasn’t really come up. I’m pretty sure she kind-of-sort-of understands the concept of exchanging money for a tangible object like a toy or stuffed animal, but in-app purchases are another layer of abstraction that my almost-2-year-old hasn’t really figured out yet. Mainly, any purchase screen, subscreen, or menu that takes her out of the game, she just sees as some kind of annoyance that takes her away from the game.
I decided to disable in-app purchases after seeing far too many stories of parents whose kids made hundreds of dollars worth of purchases without the parents’ authorization. Yes, there’s a password in there, and my kid probably doesn’t have the manual dexterity or understanding to key in my password. Yet. But she’s an information sponge who has shown herself quite capable of mimicking just about anything she observes. I know it won’t be too long before she’ll be able to enter my password and surprise me. Better to be safe, than trying to fight a protracted battle between me, my daughter, some hapless developer, Apple, and my credit card company.
4. Do you monetize through in-game ads?
I just can’t imagine ads working on really young kids (1.5 to 2.5 years) in any conventional sense
My kid doesn’t grok ads. She might click on it by accident or on purpose because it looks colorful, but then you just take her out of the game and confuse her and she’ll shut the thing down and try something else. If you use a third-party ad server that asks a 2-year-old if they want to find a date on Zoosk, your app is getting deleted. (No, “it’s a third-party component, we have no control over it” is not a valid excuse. Your app, your responsibility.)
I just can’t imagine ads working on really young kids (1.5 to 2.5 years) in any conventional sense. Perhaps an advertising expert would disagree, but just from observing my (pretty smart) kid right now, she really just does not understand the concept of ads in the way that advertisers would like. It’s like designing all-text ads in the Japanese language, to an audience of monolingual English speakers: 99% of your meaning is lost. And if you’re asking how to interest the advertisers, I’d say you’re asking the wrong question! The real question here should be: “Okay, so in-app purchases and ads don’t work. What’s the way to monetize a very-young-children’s app, then?”
The answer: monetize via app sales. Make a free version of your app that shows what’s cool about it, just enough for a kid to play around and get engaged and interested (and for the parent to observe this). Then make a paid version with the full feature / content set unlocked. If it’s a ridiculously simple app that kids just find fun anyway, like a set of interactive flashcards or a counting or drawing app or something, I’d expect to pay 99 cents for it. If it’s a more full-featured app, like an interactive storybook that will either read itself to you, let you read it, or let the parent record it in their voice, plus some minigames related to the story, I’d expect to pay $4.99 for it. Those seem to be the price points of the successful apps I’ve seen, and why spend more when there are plenty of great apps at these prices already? Only time I’ve seen anything go above $4.99 is when it has a golden IP like Disney.
Alternative monetization if you have a whole series of apps: make one app totally free, charge for the other ones as above. A lot of storybook apps do this, but I’ve also seen it for apps that use the same core engine with a number of different themes.
But… there is hope!
If you want to know the best apps out there, instead of just taking my word for it (after all, I’m just a random developer who’s never made a kids’ game, mouthing off about this because I have a toddler and am frequently frustrated by the apps I download for her), I’d recommend searching on Google for “Best apps for kids” or “must-have ipad apps for toddlers”. Then just find a number of top-10 lists from other random parents mouthing off and take note of the apps that seem to be on a lot of the lists. Besides that, you can try the top-selling kids’ games in the App Store or look for other articles on kids’ games.
That said, there are some games I would put forward as positive examples (and one mixed example):
Toca Doctor HD– similar to the Trauma Center series or the Operation board game but for a much younger audience. First of all, it is a perfect example of a game that is designed for kids. There are basically no loading screens and the main menu is a giant button that takes up most of the screen so my daughter can start it on her own. After pressing the giant button, you’re taken to the main game menu where the only controls are things that flash or animate so it’s pretty obvious where to touch (and the hitboxes are generous). Each touch takes you to one of a variety of WarioWare-style minigames. Playing it for the first time, the minigames were hard for her to figure out on her own, but once I guided her hand with each of them she was able to do most of them on her own. Each minigame also has an exit button that’s always in the same corner, so it’s easy to exit a minigame when you’re stuck.
Toddler Counting– a very simple app where it just asks you to count some number of objects using your voice. Touch an object and it counts 1, then 2, then 3, and so on until you’ve touched them all. When done, it gives verbal praise (and in some cases an additional sound, like if you’re counting kittens it’ll meow at you). The free version does this like 4 or 5 times with fixed content and then locks up; the 99-cent paid version has more content and keeps going forever.
Again, there are no noticeable load times. Besides that, the main menu has two really big buttons: “easy” for counting 1-10, and “hard” for counting 11-20. No other controls at all, just touch the objects. About as simple as it can get.
I Hear Ewe Animal Sounds – another simple app. No main menu at all – it just throws you right into the app. The screen is divided into 12 large buttons, each one with an animal icon on it. If you tap an animal, the graphic will enlarge. Then a voice says “this is the sound an owl (or whatever animal) makes” and it plays the sound. You can sweep between three pages worth of animals with a finger or palm swipe.
Miss Spider’s Tea Party, and Toy Story Read-Along – both of these are interactive storybooks and similar in format. The main menu has relatively small buttons and does require my input to start off, at first. However, she’s seen me do this enough now, so she can start up the app and select what she wants on her own. The app features options to read the story manually (finger-swipe, palm-swipe, or touch a button on the side of the screen to turn pages); have the story read to you (basically playing a video, pages turn automatically, voice reads to you, words highlight as they are read); and play some mini-games with the story theme (small jigsaw puzzle, card matching, etc.).
While neither of these seems to have any load times, both have a brief intro animation on startup (same way the Sega Genesis always started up with “Seeee-gaaaaa!”) so I suppose it’s possible that it’s doing some loading while that animation plays, without announcing that it’s doing that – if so, clever for them.
So both of these apps include a lot of rich content and lots of stuff to do, which is pretty impressive for free apps. The other storybooks in the same series cost – and cost a lot – but they do show how you’re getting your money’s worth with the free app.
Play Phone– this one, I have a love/hate relationship with. Every time my daughter starts it up I debate whether I should delete it. On startup, first thing it invariably does is pop up a small text dialog asking if I want to leave the app, for reasons I don’t understand. Tapping ‘no’ reveals the main menu, which has three buttons which are all horizontal and spaced fairly close together. One of these takes you to the actual game, another to the developer’s page, and the third pops up some kind of announcements page (and they like to make frequent announcements that are, of course, completely meaningless to a toddler). So, a play session of this basically starts with my daughter starting the app then calling me over to help her past the main menu.
Once you get past that, it’s a simple app where you have a standard 12-button phone layout. Hit a button and it plays a short animation. My daughter finds quite fun, even if I find it grating to hear the same sounds over and over. Additionally, the app includes one button where the parent can record their own message for playback on one of the buttons. This is done by hitting a two-button combination, in order to prevent the kid from recording over it accidentally. Great idea for a feature, but there are two problems, which I assume came from a simple lack of field testing. First, hitting the playback button before anything is recorded leads to the app locking up for 30 seconds or so. Second, hitting the record button on its own pops up a small text dialog that explains how to record properly. which is fine for me, but meaningless to my daughter, and difficult for her to dismiss if she brings it up by mistake. The app is free though, so I guess you get what you pay for.
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.
Located in Gothenburg, Swedens second largest city, Free Lunch Design employs a creative team that produces world class games for multiple platforms. The team has produced over 70 games for PC/Mac and iOS/Android so far; some of them have been downloaded millions of times. Free Lunch Design is looking to keep innovating and develop games that will knock your socks of, no matter what platform or genre. In this article we will focus on describing some major events in the development of Icy Tower 2.
A successful release of a Facebook version of Icy Tower in 2009 solidified the pursuit for B2C, and a name change to Free Lunch Design confirmed the decision.
Free Lunch Design was originally a one-man-army (consisting of Johan Peitz ) making retro-inspired PC games for free download. Out of the numerous games released, one of them stood head and shoulders above the rest: Icy Tower. Since its release in 2001, it became especially popular among young students around the world, in part due to the ease in which it could be installed on a school computer. The simple and fun game found a following and lived a life of its own for the remainder of the 00’s. Meanwhile, Johan Peitz joined forces with local game developers Muskedunder, to create advergames. Soon Muskedunder aimed to change focus from B2B to B2C, and to build on the previous success of Icy Tower became the obvious first step. A successful release of a Facebook version of Icy Tower in 2009 solidified the pursuit for B2C, and a name change to Free Lunch Design confirmed the decision.
Once mobile gaming became the next big thing, we knew the time for Icy Tower 2 had come. The game hit the app store in November of 2012, containing several exciting changes from the original to keep it fresh and suitable for handheld devices. The release was another success with 1 million downloads in 10 days, which led to the decision to bring the game to Android.
The Game Design Gauntlet
Game director Johan Peitz had the initial game design responsibility. This was during the early phase of the production, where the game had to have the “Icy Tower feeling”, something Johan has a unique sense for. Shortly after we completed a good version of the core game play, Johan had a son. This meant he was leaving us for more than a month in a critical stage of development: fine tuning the gameplay and evaluating new features. Luckily game designer Jimmy Öman jumped in to take over where Johan left off.
Johan’s short leave could have gone horribly wrong, but in the end just cost us a little bit of extra time. Actually, it led to a new way of working with game design proposals. Johan and Jimmy are game designers with different approaches and strengths. The key was not to let egos run the show, but to allow them to contribute mainly with their respective strengths. We went all in with this approach, involving the entire team in the game design. This made the differences between the designers play a proportionally small part and tapped into the full potential of each team member.
The way we involved the whole team was by letting all game design ideas run through a “gauntlet”. Every member of the team sat down in a “group design session” and it was the designer’s (or anyone else in the team with an idea) job to sell an idea for a problem solution, a feature or design change. It was everyone else’s job to try their hardest to shoot the idea down. If the designer could defend the idea in a convincing way, the idea passed the “gauntlet” and earned a slot in the next sprint. This went on for several weeks and really made a huge difference for the design quality, team morale and general fun factor of working on the project.
Be problem oriented and assign a moderator to pull the brake
Everyone was involved and felt they could bring up worries they had about the game in a constructive way. This was a new way to work with design for us, and even though it cost a lot of hours, we’ll be using “the gauntlet” again! One important thing to remember is to have some form of emergency brake, when the sheer joy of being creative is no longer relevant to solving your problems. Be problem oriented and assign a moderator to pull the brake.
Good is not good enough
One lesson from our former B2B business model was that “good is good enough”. This had to be repeated as a mantra whenever our pride and ambition to deliver premium quality products was larger than what the budget allowed. At the end of the day we had to deliver what was paid for, not what we wanted to deliver in order to feel proud.
The game was good, but not quite good enough, when the budget was spent
Going from B2B to B2C, we had to re-program our minds in this area. Simply being “good enough” wouldn’t cut it, facing the cut-throat competition on the mobile platform. We had to raise the bar several times, which was an internal struggle. The uncomfortable truth was that the game was good, but not quite good enough, when the budget was spent. The budget for the project was set with the old “good is good enough” in mind, and we had to admit defeat when we realized the production would need to be extended several more weeks in order to get the game where it needed to be.
In retrospect this could be viewed as a failure to see the obvious, but the lesson is to understand that every start-up company has its growing pains. The discomfort it brings must not be seen as failure, but instead an opportunity to grow. We had in fact changed our business model completely and there are hard lessons every time you face a new area of expertise to master. This was one of them. Handling them successfully – albeit at a real cost – makes you grow. Growing is painful, so prepare to deal with it.
The complexities of being simple
You would think that having simple gameplay and having made several successful incarnations of that gameplay would make things easier. In some ways it is easier, since we have the experience and a proof of concept. In some ways it’s harder, since you work under the restrictions to not stray too far away from the original.
We knew there would be some fundamental changes to the game. The big one was controls. We wanted to design it for the handheld touch device and that meant getting rid of keyboard-like controls. This seemingly small change has effects that ripple throughout the product. It sets the bar for the speed of the game, the difficulty level of interactions, input frequency, etc. Getting it right took numerous iterations and only through hard work were we able to create controls that felt simple.
One other challenge was to add new and exciting features without changing the objective of the game. It has always been about getting as far up the tower as possible. Introducing mechanisms to acquire money – and things to spend the money on – diluted the simplicity of just beating your high score. We were obsessed with the thought of keeping the game objective true to the original. In the end we had to accept that the game could be played with different objectives for different players. Some want to complete stuns, others try to hoard money and yet other just want to have the highest score possible. You can’t tell someone how they should have fun, just let them play and figure it out themselves. We could do other things though: put in extra effort in the tutorial; adjust the timing in which we introduce new features and in overall presentation of the tower collapsing.
You don’t have to be a designer to propose an idea, just getting a design idea challenged from different points of views is healthy.
The biggest impact from a personal growth aspect was probably the way the game design gauntlet affected the team. Some team members stepped out of their ordinary role and got to shine elsewhere, either with an idea or throwing something wacky out there that triggered another person to formulate the “sane” version of the same idea. You don’t have to be a designer to propose an idea, just getting a design idea challenged from different points of views is healthy. It leads to constructive dialogues where people not only grow closer, but team members can have a lasting impression on your personal methodology in creative scenarios.
The development of Icy Tower 2 took longer than initially expected, but resulted in big value. It taught us how to act when losing key members, what it takes to raise the bar (quality-wise) and how to keep our heads in the game when assumed simplicity grew complex. Involving all team members in the design process gave us a fresh take on the creative process and we think that’s reflected in the game, which we feel successfully introduces new and fun ideas to a classic game.
Icy Tower 2 has recently been released on Google Play. Free Lunch Design will be sharing more in-depth insights on Icy Tower 2 during their indie-postmortem talk at the Casual Connect Europe conference in Hamburg, Germany.
Stolen Couch Games is a young Dutch game studio formed by six alumni from the Utrecht School of Arts who decided to continue working together after their college projects. A part of the team came together to make a multiplayer prototype for XBLA and PSN title Chime made by developer Zoe Mode in collaboration with the One Big Game initiative. Stolen Couch Games then reformed and expanded the core team with an extra programmer and artist. Their first big title fresh out of the Utrecht School of Arts was Kids vs Goblins.
Building Kids vs Goblins
When we initially started out Stolen Couch Games, we wanted to make something that would appeal to a large audience and show our potential as a start-up game studio. It was important for us to use our first product as a kick start into full time game development. After a prototype and concept phase, we formed the core idea for Kids vs Goblins. We decided to go all in on it, and for eleven months we poured our time, energy, and above all love, into this project. We strive for high quality in all our projects, but this one was particularly important for the team. Unfortunately, attaining perfection is impossible. Sometimes things went right and sometimes things went wrong, and then sometimes things just went completely awful. We would gladly like to share some of these moments with you.
Most of this experience took place in a learning environment where many mistakes and blunders were accepted as a normal part of an educational project.
Our team has had plenty of experience with designing and developing videogames, from concept to completion. Most of this experience took place in a learning environment where many mistakes and blunders were accepted as a normal part of an educational project. Transitioning to the real world was hard, as commercial game development can be very harsh and unforgiving. Our team had experience with Unity 3D before starting the Kids vs Goblins project and the Unity engine was a logical first choice that fit our requirements neatly. We also worked with software such as Photoshop, 3DS Max, and SVN along with a free A* pathfinding plugin as well as a series of commercial plugins by Prime 31, such as the StoreKit, iCloud and Etcetera plugins. We worked on Kids vs Goblins for slightly more than eleven months in total. Pre-production, or the design period, lasted about one month.
A Light and Casual RPG is born
Kids vs Goblins is a bite-sized lite RPG action adventure game for iOS devices, but optimized for the iPad2. The story of the game revolves around a trio of young heroes that are in search of their kidnapped little brother. During a storm at sea they get stranded on a magical island. During the night their little brother is kidnapped by two goblins that take him to the evil goblin king. While the children are planning their attack they find a magical stone that transforms them into three powerful heroes. With magical spells and different tactics the player takes on the battle against all kinds of enemies in various surroundings.
The player controls the three characters with simple finger movements while attacking the enemies. Dragging spells on the enemies will give the player total tactical control over the combat situation. The goal of the game is to defeat the waves of enemies and surviving the different level conditions. For example the Roulette mode is a variant in which you get random spells which you need to use to win the game. But do not use too many because for each spell you use you pay a couple of stones (the in-game currency). You can use the stones you gather during the game to buy spells and thus customize your characters and define the strategy for the next battle. The RPG elements in Kids vs Goblins are very light and casual. With over 60 spells and 6 different levels and 30 missions, Kids vs Goblins gives the player at least 3 hours of gameplay.
What went wrong during the making of Kids vs Goblins?
Choosing a target platforms & compatibility: Tackling a hard decision
We got a lot of 1 star reviews from people discovering the game didn’t work on their devices.
A couple of months into the project, we decided to make Kids vs Goblins for the iPad2. This decision was based on the possibilities the Unity engine gave us to port to iOS devices. We removed the controller support and started work on touch interaction. From a game design perspective this was a great step towards making Kids vs Goblins more approachable for a wider audience and it enhanced the speed of control of the game by just simply dragging your finger across the screen. But, as young enthusiasts often do, we overlooked the importance of checking the compatibility of every device after we ported to IOS, even the devices that were almost depreciated by their age such as the iPhone 3Gs. The difference between the different generations of devices became a big problem for us at the very end of the project.
During the first months of development this compatibility problem was not yet clear to us. But, around the time we wanted to submit Kids vs Goblins to Apple for approval, the question arose if it would run smoothly on older devices. We tried different optimizing processes, such as atlassing the textures and removing lots of particle effects. But in the end we had to make a big decision: Would we exclude the old devices and still release Kids vs Goblins only for the iPhone 4s and iPad 2?
We made a pros and cons list and decided to go on with only releasing the game on the newest devices, against the advice of our publisher. The game got really nice reviews from the press.
Resolution dependent art: Thinking Ahead
Our art pipeline was built up by trial and error. This was something that ended up costing us a lot of time and energy to fix.
We all want to make a product that the player enjoys in the end, but sometimes things do not end up looking like they did on the drawing board. Therefore, thinking ahead and planning your implementation of art assets during these kind of big projects is a must to save time and energy.
Our art team made some great artwork for Kids vs Goblins. This makes a great contribution to the quality of the game and shows off the talent of our artists. But during the production, we never thought through the art asset exporting process. Our art pipeline was built up by trial and error. This was something that ended up costing us a lot of time and energy to fix. We made the 2D art resolution dependent on top of that. Later on, when porting to the iPhone, this proved to be a problem. We had to redo a lot of GUI work which cost us weeks.
We realized we would have to plan and think ahead more for our next projects. For example, if we would have thought about making the 2D interface resolution independent from the start, it would take us a lot less time to fix it later on. The graphical part of the interface as well as the programming part of the job should have been thought out more thoroughly. All our newer games have resolution and aspect ratio independent GUI’s. Everything scales, repositions like you expect and it’s super easy to setup.
We just took a big leap with Kids vs Goblins and realized our mistake far too late along the way. You can make your pipeline so much more efficient and save a lot of time during crucial times if you just take some time before you start to think about the applications and the different ways the assets need to be used in the future.
Planning: Getting a Producer
Making use of every talent in the team at its best at all times if possible, a dedicated producer would have saved us loads of time and energy.
For a big project such as Kids vs Goblins, planning is key to make it a success. We tried to make schedules for all the different stages of the project and mostly worked with sprints of a couple of weeks, mostly 2 to 3. These sprints worked just fine in a team with clear goals. These sprints are great for the small parts of a planning and almost part of a bigger entity. But the bigger picture for Kids vs Goblins was not set into a planning and thus we had some major delays solely based on bad or insufficient planning.
To give the responsibility of planner or dedicated project manager to one of the team members was not possible because we all had plenty of work in our own fields. But a producer during these long compelling projects with different disciplines is essential, not only to finish the product in a predefined set of time but especially to maintain the level of morale and motivation of the team. During the stressful moments in crunch time, somebody that keeps track of every process in the game development can make a big difference in not only the quality of working but the quality of the product as well. This remains an outcome based on the employability and the mental health of the team, after all.
If we would ever again work on a big project that last for the bigger part of a year we would assign a dedicated project manager to secure the quality and pleasure of making games at this scale. It would be someone that is not involved in the creative process of game development and he/she would only be focused on making the process as efficient and streamlined as possible. Making use of every talent in the team at its best at all times if possible, a dedicated producer would have saved us loads of time and energy.
Bringing the message to the masses: Share often, but don’t rush announcements
To get the audience to notice your product you need to reach your target audience in a compelling way. The Apple Appstore as it works now makes it very hard to get noticed without being directly featured by Apple. All the apps are thrown on the same pile and thousands of apps keep getting added daily. It proved very beneficial to get Apple on our side and get a feature of some sort in the Appstore. But besides this feature from Apple, it is important to keep the attention of your audience tight and release enough information on a regular basis.
We did this completely the wrong way. We waited too long to show of the game while we were waiting for the game’ graphics to get just a little better. And yes, it is a good thing to show off with the best of the best, but to give your audience the feeling that they grow with you is a good way to get them involved with your project. Clarity is also important. If you don’t know the exact release date of your game yet, don’t share it with the world until you do. If you’re dependent on release dates set by Apple because you hope for a feature like we did, then just wait until it is approved. Even when that happens, be very careful because there are still a million things that can go wrong. In the end Kids vs Goblins got a little feature on the iOS app store and a huge one on the mac app store. This didn’t give us the amount of money we thought it would, but it would’ve been worse if we didn’t have those features. Our relationship with Apple has been great since day one.
What went right during the making of Kids vs Goblins?
Designing the theme: Stick close to your concept art
When we started Kids vs Goblins, the design of the graphical layer went pretty smoothly. It was almost developed independently from the core game. Our design team would work out the game’s mechanics without sticking to a predefined declarative and narrative structure. This meant that our artists were almost free to do what ever they wanted. So they got their inspiration from movies such as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, and artists like Anton Pieck, Rien Poortvliet, Brian Froud and Paul Bonner.
Starting with the basic story, we expanded the game’s entire theme from thereon. The story led the creation of the game world in shaping the architecture. The science and the technology the goblins use give the world its credibility. The shapes of the enemies were very important because they should tell you what kind of enemy you have in front of you. We believe cartoony approach combined with the painted style of environments make the graphical layer of Kids vs Goblins one that speaks to many different kind of players.
The thing that especially went right with the design of the graphical layer was how the ambiance on the island was communicated to the player. The concept art our art team made for Kids vs Goblins was absolutely beautiful. People seemed to really like to our style and the world they created. When creating assets we stayed very close to these concepts so that we maintained a consistent style throughout. Even-though we had to cut texture resolutions in half to save on RAM, we’re still very happy with the end result.
Iterative design process FTW!
To make a product that will be enjoyed by your target audience, constant iteration is invaluable for the success of your company
At the Utrecht School of the Arts, we were always taught the importance of an iterative process in making games. This is a great way of thinking and dealing with problems you encounter when making a product for a large group of people. Our iterative process is not only driven from within the team (we’re all very, very critical of our own work), but mostly driven from the feedback we gathered from test players. To make a product that will be enjoyed by your target audience, constant iteration is invaluable for the success of your company.
Kids vs Goblins started out as a turn based-shooter with a cover system. It was a cross between Gears of War and Company of Heroes. When we switched to the iOS platform we believed the target audience had to be adjusted as well. So we changed the gameplay accordingly. Kids vs Goblins became a game that could be played by casual as well as hardcore gamers, instead of just the latter group.
We also took play testing rather serious. We used several techniques to gather feedback from testers that played the game. We started play testing early on in the project and continued even after the release. We used Testflightapp.com to send out build to testers around the globe. We also did play tests where we invited several testers to come and play in our office so we could directly observed their player behavior. Both ways gave us different kinds of information. In addition we developed a system that tracked what players did in the game. Every spell they used, every step they took was recorded and put in a database. Within days of release we got data from tens of thousands of play session. We used this data to balance our game in an update.
This iterative process was quite a success. We iterated on every aspect on the game and got a product that was way better than we would have gotten if we stuck to our initial ideas. Our approach is definitely a keeper for our future projects.
A team that is attuned to one another: Trust matters
At moments where one of the team members fell ill, the team could still function and we actually never stood still for more than a couple of days in the worst of cases.
Besides a good product and a bit of luck, a tight team is always the beginning of any success story. The team is the core and determines the potential of the final product. If a team member is off or cannot do the job, the whole team gets affected. The fragile relationships inside a functioning team are important and should be looked after. Our team had a structure where everybody had their own little island of responsibilities that was based on a lot of trust. We trusted each other to do their best in the time given with the vision we had set ourselves. There isn’t a typical hierarchy in our team. Even-though there are three artists not one can be considered the “lead” artists. Everyone has his own discipline and is responsible for that part of the development.
At moments where one of the team members fell ill, the team could still function and we actually never stood still for more than a couple of days in the worst of cases. Every talent was employed to the max and we had defined what everybody’s area of expertise was at the beginning of the project. We used Mantis, which is actually a bug tracking system, to give each other tasks. So everyone would know the status of a ticket and would know what to do. This is basically a digital scrum board. It worked on for Kids vs Goblins. But since then we have created a better system with a physical and digital ticket system combined.
There were of course a couple of setbacks that had to solve with the team dynamics, but nothing that couldn’t be solved by talking things through. Building a team as attuned to each other as ours takes time. We still need to grow to perfect our dynamics, to get all the creative juice flowing at optimal efficiency and still have fun in the process. Having our team bond by growing together from a team of students into professionals is a rather rare thing that we strongly value and which has shaped our studio culture.
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.
Peter Alau sits across from me, eating a sandwich. We’re discussing the cost of game development. The executive from Digital Extremes says that they discovered, years ago, a third of development gets sunk into time that is actually not spent making the game. “It’s waiting for stuff to happen.”
If that’s true, it would mean a three-year development cycle is a year longer than it needs to be. He confirms, “Close to a year could be wasted.” And close to a third of the budget. Alau continues by saying that with a $30 million title, “You could probably make it for $20 million.”
“Ask a producer who’s not trying to hide the costs of how much time they spend on reddit, getting coffee, watching Glee on Hulu.”
“I’m not joking,” he tells me, leaning forward. He says to ask a producer who’s not trying to hide the costs of how much time they spend on reddit, getting coffee, watching Glee on Hulu. Alau explains this is done when developers are in-between, waiting. Compile issues, packaging the software, waiting for downloads, content servers.
“It’s weird things,” Alau muses. “The amount of time it takes to process something. Or pre-process something. It’s the amount of time it takes to pull something off your hard-drive. It’s your network bandwidth. All of these things. Thirty seconds here, forty-five seconds there. Another two minutes here. Seven minutes here.”
When you add that up, multiplied by number of compile runs, times the number of hours it takes to do that per week, per programmer, times the programmer’s annual salary, “That adds up fast,” concludes Alau.
So game development is death by a thousand cuts? Alau considers, and replies, “That’s fair.” Then he chuckles. “I would say more than a thousand.”
Finding the right model
Alau refers to several GDC sessions about optimizing a process here, a process there. But there’s no holistic model, Alau says. “Look at the entire world of your development environment and your process and your tools,” he advises. “And find ways to reduce the time on all of them, a.k.a. the cost. It’s the only non-recoverable resource.”
Alau adds that Digital Extremes has been working on the problem for years, after having been bitten a number of times in the past. The studio is currently up to 140 people, and located in London, Ontario, and Canada.
“The Mythical Man-Month is fact. The more people you throw at it, the longer it’s going to take.”
“There’s an old model, where you do your demo on a team of about twenty people. Get your vertical slice at about fifty people. And then when you’re ready to go into full production, you throw in the ‘army of monkeys’ anywhere between 120 and 300 people.”
The result, Alau tells me, is a completely disastrous project. “The Mythical Man-Month is fact. The more people you throw at it, the longer it’s going to take, because the training time is crazy.”
“Better to have your best people be super-efficient,” he says, “And have a group of people working to support your best people, equally as efficient.” All with the intention of those new people being trained up to be as good as those super-programmers, super-artists.
Tools as a crutch
“The only way that can be done now,” says Alau, “Is with tools.” Why, he asks rhetorically, are we having people do a lot of the things robots do better, faster, with more accuracy? “These are all problems we’ve been looking at, and trying to solve for many, many years now.”
“We’re frankly kind of amazed when we hear of post-mortems where people are using Excel spreadsheets to track stats,” he says. “Really painful scripting languages, when Lua is pretty much an established standard at this point.”
“Why … are we having people do a lot of the things robots do better, faster, with more accuracy?”
“When I hear of people waiting seven minutes for their level to build, when they just want to test that one thing they just put in, I cringe,” Alau says earnestly. “That should be about thirty seconds.”
“But you need higher-end computers now to do those things,” he admits, continuing: “More importantly, you need to be coding towards that metric, versus the gameplay or the immediate game need.”
Fields of flow
Before the conversation can flag, Alau starts talking about how people get into “those flows,” especially artists and musicians.
“Well, programmers get into them, too,” he beings to riff. “Where it’s like ‘okay, I’ve got something brilliant, I’m just going to burn through it, and I want to see it immediately. And I can do my code, and I want to compile it…’ But every time you have that little break, you’ve sucked away a little bit of that creative moment.”
“And inspiration is kind of a fleeting thing,” says Alau. “You’ve got it for a short period of time, and then it disappears.”
But creativity also replicates itself, he notes. “If you’ve done something brilliant, and it shows, and you can see it immediately, that spawns some more inspiration and some more brilliance.”
“And I’m talking super high-end hypotheticals right now,” Alau admits. “But you can see when an artist has had a great day, because they’ve checked in tons and tons of assets, and they all look beautiful, and they go home saying, ‘yeah, this is my best day, I managed to get so much done.’”
And it shows in the game, he states.
Flow vs. anxiety
On the other hand, some artists go home after a week of nearly no productivity, because they’re trying to wrangle the machinery of the tool-set to just get this one little thing done.
“The amount of hours and man-months wasted on that amazes me,” says Alau. “And somehow we accept it because we don’t understand it, it’s so complex, and there’s no one producer who understands every single sub-problem of game development.”
“The amount of hours and man-months wasted on that amazes me…and somehow we accept it because we don’t understand it.”
Producers are supposed to sit there at the top, and manage the schedules and the budgets. “Each one of the sub-disciplines that are out there,” Alau finds, “It’s their responsibility to build the correct tools or at least request a build of the correct tools.” And that’s always a function of time, which is always a function of money.
Digital Extremes is working on the PC version of Homefront for THQ. Their proprietary Evolution Engine is also available for licensing.
Deborah Mars has been managing the chaos of producing for 20 years in publishing, media, and entertainment industries, which has no doubt contributed to her expertise as Senior Producer of External Development at Sony Computer Entertainment America. She sat down with Gamesauce to talk about her life’s calling—producing games that are accessible to players of all backgrounds, including the forthcoming PixelJunk Shooter 2 on the PlayStation Network.
Producer from the start
Mars’ love tangle with games goes back much further than her role as a producer, to the age of playing games like Decathlon on Wang computers. “Back then it was all about who could repeatedly hit the keys back and forth faster,” she recalls. “I was only 4 years old, but I won a lot.”
”It shed light early on that I had potential as a producer since it required so much attention to detail and I made fewer mistakes than my brother.”
When the Mac launched, Mars spent countless hours copying lines of code from Mac magazines to create her own games. “Of course we were just inputting the code, but it was incredibly satisfying when it ran successfully. The kicker was that if we made an error, we had to backtrack each line. It shed light early on that I had potential as a producer since it required so much attention to detail and I made fewer mistakes than my brother.”
Producing with a passion
Mars’ passion for her projects has always stayed with her. “Having the opportunity to work on titles like Fat Princess and the PixelJunk series is fantastic and really fits well with my belief in developing games that are approachable and accessible to everyone—casual and hardcore gamers alike, male/female, young/old, you name it.”
For Mars, producing is as much about the players as it is about the game itself. “If you jump into an online game of Fat Princess anytime now through the end of November, you will see that we’ve swapped out cakes for pumpkins. We’ve received loads of fan email, and it makes us feel good about keeping the title fresh and surprising the community with these little enhancements.”
Managing the chaos
In the midst of the fun, Mars reminds us that anyone actively involved in the games industry knows that it’s not easy to make games. “There are times when concepts or projects simply don’t work out as you would have hoped, and it can be a major disappointment.“
”Learn to embrace the successes and failures equally.“
However, Mars’ years of experience have led her to a place of calm in the face of difficulties. Mars advises, “Learn to embrace the successes and failures equally. This proves to be quite possibly one of the most invaluable learning experiences you can have working in this business.”
Looking forward to the future
Despite any challenges in the past with other projects, Mars’ forthcoming title PixelJunk Shooter 2 for PS3 PSN has an excited player base eager for its launch. “Dylan Cuthbert and his team at Q-Games are really shaping the game up nicely,” shares Mars.
“We try to be as receptive as possible to fan support and feature requests.”
As always, Mars is driven by her tendencies as a gamer to satisfy the requests of fans. PixelJunk answers to her desire to work on games that appeal to all types of players. It’s the type of game that parents can play casually alongside their kids or completionists can play for hours to earn all of the trophies.
“There has been a huge demand from the player community to have an online component to PixelJunk, and we try to be as receptive as possible to fan support and feature requests. This is the first PixelJunk title that has an online battle mode, and I think it adds a significant amount of depth and strategy to the game.”
For all of those PSN players out there—Mars is listening.
Deborah Mars can’t spill details about new initiatives that Sony is working on, but we’re sure to hear about them soon.
“We started from a small apartment just to show our investors from the US that we were able to assemble a team and start a studio,” Vogster Entertainment’s head of development Maxim Novikov tells me while he gives me a tour of their Kyiv studio. “Our first big idea was to create a GTA MMO.” The studio’s new two story office has CrimeCraft posters everywhere, housing 86 people while 15 others are located in the New Jersey office on the other side of the world. Looking down on the Kyiv skyline, we sat down and talked about the lessons learned from making CrimeCraft, housing US developers in Kyiv and why the Ukraine needs its next blockbuster since S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl.