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Skunkwerks Kinetic’s Ian Jardine on Making Games as a Team with no Experience

July 29, 2014 — by Industry Contributions

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Since 1999 (the founders are old or, as they say, “seasoned”), Ian Jardine, Craig Martin, Julio Carneiro, Steve Parkes and William Gibson (who provided the story and background) have wanted to get into the game-making business but lacked time, funding, and expertise. By building a successful web application consulting company over the past seven years, they were finally confident enough to start their dream company. They had an inkling of what they wanted to build: namely a multiplayer tank-based game that harkened back to Bolo from the ’80s. “We wanted to make the game hard. We felt that too many current games make it too easy for players to win. We wanted the player to explore their surroundings and get that “aha!” feeling upon discovering something new and weird inside the game. We were missing one key ingredient: Game Company Expertise”, Skunkwerk Kinetic’s CEO and founder Ian Jardine recalls.


Drive and Ambitions Above All, Experience Not Necessary

We aimed to build our team around a talented group of developers who had drive and ambition, though not necessarily game industry experience. Provided below is a brief description of three team members who we think represent a good cross-section of the overall spirit of our company.

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Jonas, the lead engineer: a promising Belgian ready to take big risks, with a passion for strategic games and a coding background.

You always remember your first hire, and we picked our lead engineer Jonas, a beaming Belgian with a passion for strategic games and a rock-solid coding background. At our first meeting, Jonas told us his story: upon graduating from an obscure university in Belgium, he and his lovely girlfriend (seriously, how did she get stuck with Jonas?) packed up all their belongings and moved to Vancouver. That showed us he was willing to take risks and take giant leaps of faith…very good qualities to have in a startup.

Upon graduating from a university in Belgium Jonas and his girlfriend moved to Vancouver. That told us he was willing to take risks.

Jonas is also very good at asking questions…lots of questions. He forces us to really think through all of our crazy ideas, not hesitating to bring up the myriad technical difficulties associated with an ambitious new feature. It has been a real pleasure watching Jonas grow into his role as head engineer, and as a person (new dad!!).

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Erik, the game/audio designer: a team member adapting to the ebb and flow of the ever-changing company’s needs.

Erik, the game/audio designer, is a good example of a team member adapting to the ebb and flow of a company’s needs as they change over time. Erik was hired as our ‘sound guy’ early on, but we were too busy making art assets and solving the technical issues of creating an online multiplayer game from scratch to spend too much time on audio. Erik’s passion for games and insight into game design were evident from the start.

Erik was hired as the “sound guy”, but we were too busy making art assets and solving the technical issues of creating an online multiplayer game from scratch.

He became our primary game designer and produced all the internal documentation needed for feature design in both the Art and Dev departments. He still has his hand on sound design, managing our sound consultant and offering advice on thematic audio design in the game.

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Kevin: an undergrad in Japanese Studies turned into a game developer

Kevin, the lead engineer, is a good example of how an undergrad in Japanese Studies turns into a dev at a game company. He is fluent in French, German, and Japanese. He plays guitar. He sings. He can do Flash….oh, and he is a helluva coder. Realizing that the Arts degree was not quite enough to land for a full-time work in a game company, he went back for a second degree in computer science.

An Arts degree was not enough for a full-time job in a game company, so Kevin got a second degree in computer science.

Kevin came to Skunkwerks as a co-op student, worked his way up to a key member of the team, and we never want him to leave.

Multi-talented Flexible People: A Solution for Small Teams

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If the game idea doesn’t work, we’ll hit the road as a hair metal band called “The Skunkwerks 5”.

We refer to our team members as “Swiss army knives”. Our company is too small to have a specialist in every department. Instead, we need people who are flexible and multi-talented; it also helps if you’re a musician (our backup plan: if this whole game thing doesn’t work out, we’ll hit the road as a hair metal band called “The Skunkwerks 5” or whatever number of members we can rope in!).

Through two years of development and working with a small team, we have felt the sting of developers leaving our team for larger companies (*cough* Amazon *cough*) with much more money to throw around than we do. Our entire server team was demolished within two months leading up to a critical release, forcing our downsized client team to pick up the slack within a number of weeks. The remaining dev team not only learned about the server-side codebase, but was also able to fix a number of longstanding issues with the server architecture. Lemonade out of lemons, baby! The good news is that the people left are in it for the duration, while all we lost is “deadwood” – like pruning a tree makes it healthier.

Before Legit Game Engines Started Suggesting Affordable Deals

When we decided to make a mobile game, it was about six months to a year out from when legit game engines began offering more affordable deals to indie developers in a meaningful way. After initial research, we decided to string together our own custom engine using a variety of open-source and licensed components. This proved to be a double-edged sword in the long run, although we learned a great deal about each part, including Scaleform for UI, FMOD for audio and Sparrow for texture rendering.

After initial research, we decided to string together our own custom engine using a variety of open-source and licensed components.

The ease-of-use and implementation took much longer than expected, compared to a more conventional approach using an all-in-one engine. Moving forward, we now know how to be able to fully utilize a commercial engine should we choose to use one and also roll our own if necessary.

Why just Apple?

“Where is the [insert any platform other than iOS] version of your game?” We get this question quite often, as our game is currently an iOS exclusive title. We chose the iPad as our primary device for a number of reasons: we liked the development pipeline and usability of the Apple mobile framework, and the lack of variability in screen size amongst the various retina and non-retina iPad models.

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The team decided to make the game primarily for iPad due to lack of variability in screen size amongst the various retina and non-retina models.

While we agreed that Android would be a good choice for the type of game we’re making, we were wary of the expansive device list and the necessity of making our game experience work consistently across many different screen sizes and resolutions.

Apple’s 30 percent cut of profit from App Store revenue was quite steep from a business perspective, although we did appreciate the distribution platform as a service.

The submission process proved to be frustrating during our initial release of MEG:RVO – we ended up getting rejected for minor UI issues (like where to place the “Restore InApp Purchases” button), and then felt like we got approved without any actual human verification. It felt like dealing with an amorphous gatekeeper at times, and unpredictable release and update schedules proved to be a challenge for our server-based game (we didn’t want to make updates to the server until the App Store update goes through, for fear of breaking previous versions).

MEG:RVO ended up getting rejected for minor UI issues, and then got approved without any actual human verification.

After our PAX East experience this year, we have received significantly more support from Apple, and the whole process has become somewhat smoother. It seems that as our app started getting more attention and updates on a consistent basis, the review timelines have shortened substantially.

Buying/Selling Wasn’t Fun – So We Removed It

One of the many things we learned from PAX East 2014 was that our game was suffering from lack of polish and usability in terms of the HUD design. PAX attendees who came to our booth approved the concept and look of what we had going on, but by the end of the three-day expo, we were all hoarse and exhausted from having to give a detailed explanation of the game mechanics to each person who stuck around to play.

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By the end of PAX East 2014, we got tired of explaining the gameplay in details

We then decided to re-design our menu and in-game UI in order to present all controls and information our game contained in a simplified and concise format. We removed some features that we felt were too complex or not fleshed out enough to belong on a release version of MEG:RVO. For example, we decided to get rid of the Marketplace for the next release, since buying/selling items didn’t seem that fun and in fact might have had a negative impact on first-time players. Instead, we built a combat training mission that we strongly recommend new players to try out before getting into a match with other players.

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We now give players all the weapons upfront, and people gain experience the more they play and participate.

The incentivization process was altered as well; we ended up giving players all of the weapons upfront. It’s now a balancing practice rather than a “pay to buy better weapons” system. Players gain experience the more they play and participate. Leveling up unlocks more maps, but the gameplay remains generally the same.

We hope that these changes along with our focus on user experience will allow users to stick around a bit longer and appreciate the depth and relative complexity of our game compared to more casual mobile games.

We’d Better Have at Least Someone With a Gamedev Experience

Have we made mistakes? Yes…quite a few, but no fatal blows.

Hiring people with no prior game knowledge had its pros and cons. It would have been nice to have at least one person with prior industry experience. This might have helped us avoid some common pitfalls in our design, and reckless ambition in terms of what we wanted to create.

Should we have hired people who were passionate about games instead of people who just wanted a job? Definitely. Did we assume that most people would “just figure out” how to play our game without any guidance? Yes. We have since realized that we need to show people how the game works first, and then let them explore. This has shifted to our primary focus over the last few months and we hope that this will be reflected in our next release around August 1st this summer.

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“We have since realized that we need to show people how the game works first, and then let them explore.”

The value of our team comes from learning from these mistakes, and we feel significantly more prepared to deal with design and implementation of features than we did at the outset. Our website tag line “Doing things the hard way” is very apropos. We’re looking forward to making more mistakes in the future and further sharpening our expertise through them!

Grants: A Framework for the Business Plan

What we did right was to apply for grants (CMF) as it forces you to think through your game-plan. We used those grant applications as a framework for our business plan which we then used to to raise money. Have a proper budget and stick to that budget! Do not assume you launch the game and get an instant cash-machine. This is not going to happen. Plan for no money, but hard work, loads of “impossible” problems, and all for a very long time.

Plan for no money, but hard work and problems.

Be adaptable to changing situations; the only constant is constant change: “We adding dragons today? – No wait, robots, yea, more robots and some sparkly stuff…”

Probably the most important thing we did was to be naive. If we knew all the pitfalls from a suspect iTunes market (bots much?), technical problems (server down again..ack), personnel problems, and day-to day operational problems (why are there plants in the bathroom? payroll is due today?), we would never have started the journey. And that would have been a shame as everybody is having a blast doing what they want to do.

MEG: RVO – Battle for the Territories has been approved by Apple, and will be released July 31st. The Skunkwerks Kinetic team is now working with the Unreal4 engine to expand their reach. It will be the same universe/setting as MEG: RVO: Battle for the Territories but using the Unreal4 platform, that will provide reach to the desktop/console and Android markets, and vastly improved graphics. MEG: RVO has been Initially released as a single player game, but multiplayer is high on the list.

Video Coverage

Crzyfish’s Jin Ho Hur on the Korean Mobile Market, Starting a Successful Business and Adapting to the Market

February 5, 2013 — by Catherine Quinton

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The Two Essential Keys to Starting Your Business

Jin Ho HurThe absolutely most critical aspect of starting a business is building a good team with a clear understanding of the goal of your business. This is also the most difficult thing about both starting and succeeding with the business. Having a common understanding of the goal is the key to succeeding.

The second important aspect of starting a business according to Hur is focus. “You  should recognize that a number of different opportunities exist,” says Hur, “not only the main business that you started with.” He maintains that there is a temptation to become involved in too many different opportunities, and this is one of the main reasons businesses fail. Focus on the key things you decided to do.  Hur emphasizes that team building and focus are the two most important things to remember as you start a business.

What Does the Market Need?

“You should recognize that a number of different opportunities exist, not only the main business that you started with.”

Next, Jin believes you need to address what the market needs rather than emphasizing what you can provide. Many startup businesses make the mistake of focusing on what they can do, when the important thing is to offer what the market needs

Determining what the market needs is not a task with a simple solution. Hur looks at a number of different things to help in this assessment. First, he observes what people are doing on the street, in the metro, wherever he is going. He also compiles ideas and market reports. There is no single thing you can do to find out what the market needs, but you should always be working to understand what that is and what you can do to provide it.

Adapt to the Changes

The ability to adapt to the market is crucial. Crzyfish is a good example. When Hur started the company three years ago, there was no iPhone; the feature phone dominated the market and the carriers were in control. This market was not growing, and he didn’t see any opportunity there. But two years ago, the iPhone was introduced; the new Android dominated the market, and he realized there was a new opportunity coming. Within the last year, there has been a shift to mobile gaming.This is the kind of market change that Crzyfish adapted to in order to take advantage of the new opportunities.

It is critical to adapt in real time. “The fundamental thing is the business model is changing,” says Hur. More than 90 percent of the market is now the freemium-based business model, which means the market will grow to several times its present size. Hur tells us, “Many people, including myself, believe that the mobile game market will grow to a couple of billion dollar market in a few years.”

Market to Local Users

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Their awareness of local requirements is one of the things which makes Crzyfish an excellent partner for developers interested in moving into the Korean market.

When promoting a game, it is essential to gather feedback and be prepared to adapt to the local market based on that feedback. Hur uses five to ten different types of promotion programs for the game, then monitors KPI on a daily basis, changing the promotion plan as a result of this information. There is no single formula for how to do this; it is subjective, but the key is being flexible and adaptable, using KPI and customer voices for guidance.

Always be aware that games are games, and as such they are dependent on the culture and behavior of local users. Hur says, “It is very important to understand how the local users would like to have the game and also how to address that kind of requirement.” He reminds us to address the preferences of the local area whether that is Japan, China, or any other area. Their awareness of local requirements is one of the things which makes Crzyfish an excellent partner for developers interested in moving into the Korean market.

Crzyfish’s gaming platform Vivagame performs a number of different types of the cross promotion and viral loops for promoting the game.

ContributionsPostmortem

The Global Game Jam and beyond: Pulse (2009)

December 13, 2012 — by Mariia Lototska

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The Global Game Jam and beyond series sheds light on the few brave Global Game Jam (GGJ) teams that have decided to take their GGJ projects to the next level and continue development after those challenging 48 hours. We ask each team to tell about their experiences, share learned lessons and offer advise on their attempt to turn their Global Game Jam project into a full fledged commercial product.

Pulse was made during the first ever edition of the Global Game Jam in 2009 and was the result of a highly collaborative effort of a bunch of the enthusiastic Dutch ‘Team Alfa’ during the very first edition of the Global Game Jam in 2009. The game ended up becoming the very first game in the history of the Global Game Jam to receive a publishing deal. The original Global Game Jam version looked like this:

The Pulse team won third prize at their GGJ site in Hilversum, the Netherlands and received a publishing deal with the Dutch game studio Virtual Fairground shortly after. It was launched in the Apple Appstore in March, 2010 as Pulse: The Game a year later as a promotional game for the popular Dutch DJ Ferry Corsten, who also produced an exclusive soundtrack for the game. The game received rather good scores on various popular mobile game websites, including TouchGen (3.5/5) , Pocketgamer (7/10) and many others.

The final iOS version featured above was released in March 2010 after being completed by Dutch game developer Rough Cooky, famous for their famous iOS game Star Defense.

It also forced us to make some solid agreements because not all of our original team members would put in an equal amount of work in the future development.

What triggered your initial consideration that your game was worth to continue development?
From the very moment we decided on the game’s concept during the first hour of the jam, it felt like we we’re working on something valuable. Our team was radiating with energy as each of us produced our separate parts. When everything comes together like that it just feels right. We won the popular vote through our site’s Audience award, so we knew there was an audience. Also the Dutch game studio Virtual Fairground was one of the judges and was interested in further development of the game. It was super exciting, but it also forced us to make some solid agreements because not all of our original team members would put in an equal amount of work in the future development. We solved that problem with a one contract between all the original team members and another one between us and Virtual Fairground.

What do you believe was the main element of your game that allowed it to be commercially viable?
It was a game focused on experiencing dance music in an interactive fashion. It was one of the first of its kind and super casual with its one button controls. The way the audio works together with the rather trippy and colorful visuals instantly gave it that special look. We had some pumping beats and vivid colors going on from the very start, creating an experience that would make you bang your head without a doubt. A lot of people also liked the GGJ version because it was co-op, but we made sure to make the single player experience on mobile as fun as possible when we developed it for Virtual Fairground.

One of many pieces of concept art team member Samar Louwe drew after the Global Game Jam to further flesh out the game’s visual style.

How did you manage the step to go commercial in your team?
We decided to split the IP right evenly over the team members. So if there was going to be any revenue it would be divided accordingly. A few team members where hired by Virtual Fairground to work on the game at their offices. I was responsible for initial project planning before it was gradually passed on to Rough Cookie.

What were the three most important experiences/learned lessons and/or challenges that you had while further developing your game?
1. It’s hard for people to make a switch between the GGJ-mindset and a commercial mindset. It was the first commercial project for many of the team members to work on from start to finish. A lot more stuff comes at you and if you don’t have the experience to turn your prototype into a product or the proper guidance from senior developers, prepare to learn a lot of new things.
2. Good ideas depend on a lot of factors to turn into good products.
3. We were funded with €10.000 euros to turn the original GGJ version into an extended version, but that wasn’t enough to finish it completely with just a part of our original team. Virtual Fairground ended up deciding to pass on the development of Pulse to another Dutch game studio, who eventually made the iOS version. In hindsight, we could’ve made the game for mobile ourselves, if only we had more time and funds to do so without the involvement of another party. Then again, we all had responsibilities at college, a job or a company to worry about outside of our team effort for Pulse, making the further development quite tricky.

Our team was completely exhausted at the end of the Jam, but the vibe after finishing version of Pulse and the excitement of showing it kept us psyched until the very end of the jam!
Our team was completely exhausted at the end of the Jam, but the awesome team vibe after finishing Pulse and the excitement of showing it kept us psyched until the very end of the jam!

In your case, what did you learn from getting the game out to the public?

Assumption is the mother of all great screw-ups, they say. And it’s true.

A lot of things came up, but if it comes to releasing a mobile game, especially now more than ever, good marketing really makes a difference. In our case, the marketing done for the game wasn’t optimal and Ferry Corsten’s fans apparently didn’t all own an iPhone as we hoped. As for getting the game ready for the public, testing remains the most important part of development. It’s always a scary moment to show your game to new players, but you want to do this as much as possible before getting your game out.

What kind of tips would you give to other GGJ participants who might decide to continue developing their 2013 project?
1. Make sure to have a solid agreement in place with all your team members before continuing to commercialize your GGJ game, so everyone knows what to expect from each other.
2. How will you fund your game development? Free time just doesn’t cut it. You need a better plan, divide the responsibilities among your team and find more support to further develop your ideas into a real product.
3. Do you have enough skill and knowledge in your team? Just having a game designer and programmer isn’t enough. Bringing a game to the market also requires product management and a ton of PR & marketing. Prepare for it to be quite the learning experience.
4. Make good decision tools. Or find someone to advise you, like a game studio or experienced game developer.
5. Try to keep your team small. Don’t involve too many extra people in the development process.
6. Don’t create too many features. Remember how you made this game at the GGJ in the first place!
7. Try to finish your game quickly. Promote it as much as possible and put it out there. If it’s successful, you can go on building all the features you wanted to in the beginning and introduce them with updates.
8. Make very nice graphics. High polished graphics are a must to stand out in the oversaturated mobile and tablet markets of today.
9. Playtest a lot. Every build, every prototype, you should play test on at least a few people. It speeds up your process, and makes it easier to make decisions.
10. Recognize assumptions. Assumption is the mother of all great screw-ups, they say. And it’s true. If you ‘think’ something will be great, or won’t be very hard, chances are reality proves you wrong. Be honest about what is unknown and unproven.

Pulse: The Game sadly is no longer available for download after Virtual Fairground closed down in 2011.

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