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Stephen Lee on the Importance of Culturalization

May 15, 2014 — by Catherine Quinton

Stephen Lee, Vice-President, 6waves

As the Executive Director and Head of Publishing at 6waves, Stephen Lee spends his days speaking with developers from all over the world. And, while 6waves is one of the leading global publishers of independent social and mobile games, each developer may bring very different games, experiences, skills, resources, and needs to the publishing discussion. He says, “Having the flexibility to adjust to your partners, understand their situation, and come up with ideas that best address their needs, while still making business sense to all parties, is key.”

He maintains that flexibility is also the key to succeeding in all aspects of the games industry, since the industry changes more rapidly than most. Unless companies and individuals can adjust and pivot quickly, they won’t survive.

For the Love of Games

On a typical day at 6waves, Lee spends time with the team identifying high-potential games to approach for publishing, planning for the upcoming games in the pipeline, and exploring how to help the existing publishing portfolio. And they all spend time testing games that are being considered for publishing, although Lee has had to cut back on this lately.

“Having the flexibility to adjust to your partners, understand their situation, and come up with ideas that best address their needs, while still making business sense to all parties, is key.”

Gaming is not yet an established industry in Hong Kong, but it is growing steadily. Hong Kong is on an island, both literally and figuratively, so Lee is usually talking with people remotely using conference calls or Skype. As a result, he feels the best part of his job is traveling and participating in game shows, where he can meet others in the industry, catch up with peers in person, meet one-on-one with developers, and get a firsthand look at what is happening in the industry. He insists, “Any time I’ve had the pleasure of meeting developers that have worked on games I have enjoyed on a personal level is gravy on top!”

Lee has been a gamer as long as he can remember, but, with very strict parents, any time he was allowed to play was a special treat. And the love of games has stayed with him to this day. After working in Asia for 10 years, he knew he wanted to be a part of an industry he felt genuinely passionate about. The opportunity at 6waves came at just the right time, and he seized it.

Working in the Industry

At 6waves, he began on the business development team doing work similar to what he had done in his previous careers. Since then, he has had the opportunity to learn a great deal from colleagues and peers in the industry, especially about game development and product management. He emphasizes, “We’re very lucky to be working in a field with so many talented people. It’s non-stop learning and somewhat awe-inspiring. So I leverage my position to broaden my game knowledge as best I can.”

The 6waves team

Now, Lee leads the 6waves publishing business for both social and mobile games, which includes the business development, product management, localization, customer service and community management teams.

Lee believes the greatest challenge facing the games industry today is discovery. Technology is evolving and game experiences continue to improve, but most games will not reach a meaningful number of players in a cost-effective manner. Although he sees no easy or simple fix to the problem, there are a number of factors that may help: improvements by platforms to more easily surface relevant and quality content to their customers, growth of cross-platform technologies to make games more readily available on as many consumer touch-points as possible, evolution of successful publishers to help with the scale and services developers need, and innovation by developers to bring more unique and interesting games and ideas to the market.

The Perks of a Publisher

A developer should always keep an open mind to consider publishing support in some fashion or another, Lee maintains. There are large developers in the industry with the resources to successfully launch a game worldwide, but no one company is best at every game genre or in every language and market. If the business terms make sense and both partners are committed to success, developers may achieve much more with a publishing partner that has specific areas of strength than they could realize on their own.

6waves has partnered with many developers to deliver great games

In today’s challenging climate for games, with the console market share shrinking and platforms becoming saturated, developers are left hoping for the next big hit or relying on work-for-hire projects. Not every game can be a hit, but publishers can help developers reduce risks by fronting marketing costs, providing advances to help developers recoup their investment or improve their cash flow, and, in some cases, funding projects altogether.

Lee points out that, although developers can raise funds from more sources than ever before, experienced publishers have established networks and a wealth of experience with optimizing games. So publishers can help developers market their games more efficiently, as well as target and retain users with better LTV.

He also realizes that most developers want to focus their time and energy on making great games. With their existing infrastructure and experience, publishers can help look after all the other things developers may not have budget, bandwidth or desire to handle, such as Live Ops, QA, Customer Service, Community Management, Localization, Hosting and others.

When building a relationship with partners, Lee listens carefully while reminding himself that developers put their all into making great games: time, energy, blood, sweat and tears. He says, “If developers put their trust into 6waves as their publishing partner, we owe them the same level of trust and commitment, and that means delivering the best quality service and giving their games the best opportunities to succeed.”

The latest game 6waves has launched is Cosmic Garden on Facebook
The latest game 6waves has launched is Cosmic Garden on Facebook

The Future

Lee believes the future of the games industry will see the growth of cross-platform games continuing, and most high quality games launching with a multi-platform, multi-device strategy. Already, some console titles are on mobile, and as this trend continues, gamers will be able to continue playing their favorite game wherever they are.

He has noticed considerable hype around the increased penetration of smart phones and wearable tech, but insists, “What’s largely missing in this discussion is that software will be just as important to success as hardware or the form factor. There will be a lot of people throwing their hats into the space, but after some shaking out, the cream will rise to the top. Hopefully, this will lead to more platforms for games to take off on.”

He also sees social elements continuing to be important factors in the most successful games, although, ironically, this usually leads to players being less social in the real world.

Looking at Asia

For developers to get the most mileage from their games, they need to carefully consider Asia, according to Lee. 6waves has an office with a large number of different nationalities, and a strong and diverse mix of cultural influences. This has served them well in building their global audience and helping developers to bridge the gap between East and West. People tend to think of Asia as a single region, but there are important cultural sensitivities between each Asian country and language.

People tend to think of Asia as a single region, but there are important cultural sensitivities between each Asian country and language.

Lee points to China as an example of how complex this situation is. For a developer to localize a game properly for the Chinese audience, they would first have to localize the language to Simplified Chinese for players in Mainland China. They also need to localize into Traditional Chinese for players in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but the spoken language of the characters is completely different in these two regions, Cantonese in Hong Kong and Mandarin in Taiwan. And each market has unique cultural references and slang. Most likely, the graphics would have to be changed to make the characters more appealing and features added to cater the gameplay to local audiences. It’s more than localization; it’s culturalization.

Asia is huge from a revenue perspective, but it is fragmented. Lee insists, “To really get the most from their games, developers should have a publisher willing to drill down to this detailed level, not only with localization, but also with online and offline marketing; this operates differently from other parts of the world.”

This is the area 6waves is focusing on, believing it is how they can help developers the most. They have local teams in the largest Asian mobile markets, strong relationships with local platforms, and an established publishing track record. Lee believes 6waves is in a great position to become the go-to partner for local publishing in Asia.

Stephen Lee will be discussing what developers should keep in mind when getting ready to launch and grow their games globally during Casual Connect Asia 2014. Find out more about his session on the conference website.


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Moving with the Latest Pendulum Swing: Right Before Our Eyes, Another Gaming Industry Transformation

April 4, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska


Nick ThomasNick Thomas, CEO and Co-Founder of SomaTone, Inc., is a video games industry veteran and thought leader with 10+ years of proven executive leadership results with a focus on developing strategic industry partnerships, innovating creative outsourcing solutions and managing talented teams that contribute to more than 100 games annually from nearly all major publishers and developers, as well as independent developers. He discusses the transformation occurring in the industry in this article.

It’s happening again, right before our eyes; we’re in the midst of yet another era of redefinition and reinvention in the ever-evolving gaming industry. While the landscape is changing dramatically, history shows us that something new and good will invariably emerge. After all, (and despite many attempts), you cannot own or control creativity, or predict the future of gaming.

We at SomaTone are ten years deep as a leading provider of creative content for mobile, social, and casual games, working at the forefront of gaming over the last decade’s explosive growth. Having produced audio content on hundreds of games for many of the top publishers as well as for the indies, our vantage point gives us a sweeping perspective across the landscape of the games industry– from AAA console games, to MMO’s, to Social/Mobile, to Casual, and beyond.

We’re seeing the cyclical pendulum swing of innovation, homogenization, and reinvention continuing to keep the publishers of gaming content guessing as the smaller, faster, and more creative start-ups are yet again redefining the gaming industry.

Creative comrades in the face of an ever-changing industry
Creative comrades in the face of an ever-changing industry, SomaTone’s Nick Thomas with Tap4Fun CEO Kevin Yang at GDC 2014

The Ripple Effects of Converting Players into Users in Mobile Gaming

Casual games continue to go through a familiar pattern, and we are currently emerging from a decline of the smaller “Mom and Pop” game developers, who have been squeezed out by the realities of mobile publishing and the dominance of Free-to-Play (F2P) games. This economic model has sought to systematically convert game “users” into a currency that has been hoarded, sold, and traded in an effort to control access to “game players.”

As a consequence, the industry was stratified into large game publishers–who controlled the access to “users” and thus the majority of the market–and new start-ups and Indies, who were either being gobbled up by these same publishers, or self-publishing and hoping for a Flappy Bird-style anomalous hit.

The middle-class of game development–studios of 20-50 working on games that were sold via standard pay-to-play standards with supportive publishing partners–has suffered. With limited access to users, who are carefully controlled by game publishers, it was nearly impossible for mid-sized independent game developers to make and sell their own games and support their teams. The result was a polarized and stratified industry in which a small fraction of game publishers own the vast majority of market, making it extremely difficult for small game developers to independently make and sell their games without yielding to the requirements of the publishers, who will own the IP, take the lion’s share of the revenue, with no clear obligation to bring “users” to their game.

“Every time the industry has homogenized itself by the few having control of the many, a new era of gaming has invented itself.”

Now while all publisher models attempt to control access and distribution to customers (this is in fact what publishers are supposed to do), there is a dramatic new variable at play, with the F2P economy. This “race to the bottom” business model, which has led to disruptive game-play mechanics designed to extract fees from “users”, in their efforts to enjoy a fully featured game-play experience and be “players”, is highly dependent on publishers’ access to users, and their ability to monetize these users. Those “old school” game designers, who sought to develop great games, that offered fully featured immersive game-play experiences at the outrageously expensive price of $.99, never stood a chance against “free” games, which are developed by game publishers and promoted to their “users”, requiring players to pay for the features included in a 1-dollar competing title.

This Latest Cycle Will Induce a Painful Rebirth

This cycle of innovation, homogenization and reinvention is not a new trend. We have seen this same cycle in gaming in the past, with Big Fish Games‘ consolidation of the PC Downloadable market and subsequently, Zynga‘s dominance of browser-based Facebook, and in both cases, there was a painful rebirth of the industry. Those fastest to adapt to the new ecosystems survived, and those who could not evolve, died away.

However, it is also true that every time the industry has homogenized itself by the few having control of the many, a new era of gaming has invented itself. Just after Big Fish unequivocally took control of PC downloadable, Facebook came along and completely disrupted their reign. A few short years later, the kings of Facebook (Zynga, Playdom, Wooga) have been dethroned, only to be replaced by the current leaders of the mobile industry. With each successive attempt to control and “own” the industry, new life has begun.

“You cannot control game players or ‘own’ creativity. A new era is currently percolating under the thin crust of the mobile/casual games ecosystem, and by my observations, we are onto a new dawn of gaming.”

This reminds me of Jurassic Park. Life finds a way. In this case, creativity finds a way, and despite the attempts of the current reign of publishers to own and control this inherently creative marketplace, they are discovering, just as all others before them have, that you cannot control game players or “own” creativity.

A new era is currently percolating under the thin crust of the mobile/casual games ecosystem, and by my observations, we are onto a new dawn of gaming. One in which, and Kabam, or perhaps even the Apple Store and Google Play store, will soon find themselves trying to catch up, and wondering what happened as the world they felt so sure of has shifted beneath their feet.

“Mom and Pop” developers, take heart. The pendulum swings both ways. And from our vantage point, which reaches from the largest publishers to the smallest indies, the playing field is leveling.

2014 will be a year of reorganization and consolidation, as the bubble of Mobile/Social games refocuses its efforts, and quality will retake its place as the leading factor in a company’s success, rather than simply a publisher’s control of access to users. And developing innovative and high-quality games has always been what the “Mom and Pop” game studios have done best and are continuing to do.

Look forward to the next installment of this series next month, a case study on Zynga’s Puzzle Charms!


Studio Spotlight

Animoca: Making Games on a Global Scale

November 21, 2013 — by Clelia Rivera


When mobile games exploded onto the market, many studios tried to cash in on this booming area. Animoca was built with the desire to develop and publish in this successful market. Founded in 2011 and incubated by Outblaze Ventures, they are a cross-platform app publisher and developer for  smartphones and tablets. They have created over 300 apps with more than 170 million game downloads and reaches many different genres and demographics.

Where It All Began

David Kim
David Kim, CEO, Animoca

Animoca was founded in January 2011 with a goal of making games for under-appreciated audience segments. Due to their past experiences with Outblaze Ventures and their companies, Animoca knew early what they needed to focus on. “For example, we knew that we needed a systematic, analytics-driven approach to allow us to understand user behavior,” says David Kim, CEO. “So we started tracking and measuring as much as we could from day one.” They started by creating games targeted towards women and girls. Their first game, Pretty Pet Salon, went on to be an international hit, and a top mobile time management game.

After their initial success, they went on to create many other games, such as Thor: Lord of Storms and Star Girl. They continue to pursue publishing great games, but they don’t let success go to their heads. “We have grown from a start-up into an established force in mobile games, but I wouldn’t say we have changed that much.”

Going Global

The company’s success is not limited to just the US, but has expanded into a larger scale. This was made possible due to how they approach their global work. Kim says, “We have a sophisticated process that we are always refining in order to help us translate apps, develop content for specific cultures, handle customer support in different regions, and do all the other things necessary to build a global audience.”

One of the details to pay attention to in a global market is regionalization. Kim believes that many developers work under the misconception that changing the language is all that is needed for a game to work in another country. “You also need to localize the app for different cultures, build in local payment options, develop a promotional calendar based on local events, find local distribution partners, hire local QA resources, offer customer service in local languages, develop content for the local culture, and more,” says Kim. He also advises people interested in other regions to take the time to understand the area they want to break into.

Ultraman is just one of the games in Animoca's portfolio
Ultraman Galaxy is just one of the games in Animoca’s portfolio

Building good relationships is also important to succeeding globally. Animoca learned “that it’s extremely important to have a very strong partnership in the regions you are targeting in order to help with distribution and monetization,” according to Kim. The company has had a lot of practice building relationships, both with distributors and developers. As a publisher and developer, Animoca learned a useful tip to keep in mind when starting a partnership with developers. “You can’t treat all developers the same, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to publishing games,” says Kim. They work to create a unique, custom partnership with everyone they work with to meet everyone’s goals.

Publishing Today

With the change in distribution and the rise of self-publishing, the role of a publisher has undergone a change as well (a panel at Casual Connect discussed this change). Kim explains that it has become “less about driving new users and more about providing expertise.” “While the main role of a publisher is still to help drive users to a game, there is also a large component of expertise sharing on topics such as user engagement, game design, development, etc,” says Kim.

However, Kim says the usefulness of a publisher can vary from game to game. He believes there is not an exact way to decide if or when a publisher is useful. “For some games, a publisher may provide valuable assistance pre-launch, when the games is still in development, while other times, a publisher might make sense for an existing game that has launched, but was unable to achieve or sustain growth,” Kim says. It is important for a developer to consider their needs and decide what works for them.

Animoca is working to launch a lot of new games in many different genres. Follow their Facebook or Twitter to stay updated on their latest projects.


Cyto’s Puzzle Adventure – Breaking Out and Evolving Ideas

October 31, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska


Ukraine-based Room 8 Studio‘s mission is to break ground in the mobile games space. With the big sense of purpose and effort, they created their first game, Cyto’s Puzzle Adventure. The Room 8 team tells the story.

For about a year, the Room 8 team has been working on Cyto’s Puzzle Adventure, but the development process turned out to be longer and harder than we expected. Still, our whole team looks back on that time in a positive light, and we received invaluable experience.

A Sticky Start

The story of our game begins in late 2011. None of our team had experience in developing for iOS, or game development, for that matter. What we did have was a great desire to make a really high-quality product that we could be proud of. We came up with a great idea about a cute little creature with tentacles that could cling to different objects. Without thinking twice, we started to develop this game we called Sticky. The plan was to make it in a couple of months to be just in time for the Christmas sales, but in the end, the process was somewhat delayed.

The first demo we sent to Chillingo looked like this.

By creating the first working demo, we immediately sent it to Chillingo, our prospective publisher. There were no levels or design, just the bare prototype with a brief description and some concept art. This is a very useful practice. The mistake of many developers is that they give publishers an almost complete, or even completely finished game, when publishers can also be beneficial to noticing a promising project at an early stage. The sooner they join in on the development process, even if it is at the level of general council as to which direction to go, the better it is for everyone.

However, we were disappointed. After looking at the concept, Chillingo said that the mechanics of the game was not new or original, and forwarded us several variants of such games. Although these examples had little resemblance to our concept, we started to think about alternatives. Looking back now, we realize that the publishers helped us a lot. If development of Sticky was not delayed, it’d be lost among the other similar games, many of which have become quite successful.

If development of Sticky was not delayed, it’d be lost among the other similar games, many of which have become quite successful.

Just a couple of months after freezing the project Sticky, Chillingo released the game Munch Time, and in October 2012, Microsoft introduced Tentacles: Enter the Dolphin. The appearance of these two games blew away the novelty effect we would have liked to achieve with Sticky. Then a new game Tupsu was released, which included some features we had planned to implement, not to mention the gameplay itself.

This happens all the time in the App Store: as long as you think through and develop some “brilliant” idea, someone has already started to implement it. Or, even worse, you can see a clone of your game in the Store just when you have done about 80 percent. You have to be ready for this and not delay the development of applications for iOS.

The main character Tentacles is almost the exact opposite of Sticky

Changes in the Concept of the Game

At the close of the Sticky project, we had approved the concept art and character, and had finished the physical model. We didn’t want to start from scratch, so as a basis, it was decided to take the ready developments and modify them qualitatively. On one hand, this limited us in making some decisions, but on the other, it saved time and, although in a different form, helped us realize what we originally intended. After several days of stubborn brainstorms, we prepared a new concept. Among the sketches of the Sticky character, we liked this one the most:


The idea is that the character itself is inside the gelatinous envelope. We can see an expressive little face with different emotions, surrounded by a deformed envelope from which the tentacles can be drawn out. Such a character perfectly suited our new concept: we don`t pull the tentacles from the outside, but rather, the character itself deforms the envelope in which he lives.

At first, it was assumed that the character would stick its shell to multiple objects and move around in this way. But after some thought, we abandoned this option because there were no interesting mechanics with it. After observing the behavior of the different elastic objects (don`t get it wrong, haha), we came to the conclusion that the best thing would be to make the skin more elastic, like a rubber band, so the character could run itself like a slingshot. Such game mechanics have already become clear and familiar to many people, but with our approach to the game, it does not look like a clone of Angry Birds. With this in mind, and with enthusiasm, we started to develop.

Microscopic World

As for the setting of the game, it was decided to put the character into the microscopic world. Its shell could stick to organic objects (cells), and float around different crystals, viruses, and other poultry. Of course, we had to abandon the backgrounds that were drawn for Sticky.

The first concept art, collected from real macro-photos
The first concept art, collected from real macro-photos

In some sense, the nature of the game world dictated the design requirements. It was supposed to be rich, “juicy”, and minimalist at the same time. So we thought to make the whole design monotonous, almost monochrome, and play with only a few shades of the base color. Also, it was planned to present levels in the form of macro photography with a deep background and a set of realistic small details. However, these locations poorly suited the cartoon character, and so it was decided to simplify them, too.

Our approved version of the concept art
Our approved version of the concept art

Naming the Game

When we came up with the name of the game, we wanted to convey the microscopic nature of the game world, make it unique, like a biological term, but short and well-remembered. A perfect example is the term Osmos: it has all of the above, plus, in some way, a description of gameplay. There were not so many options, but among them was Cyto. This is not an independent word; it is a prefix meaning cell and is used in compound terms, such as cytoplasm.

It was a good idea for the working title of the project, so we went with it. More than once, we tried to come up with a new title, but in the process of development we got so used to Cyto that we could not imagine it being called something else. We even decided to name the main character Cyto, even though we had assumed that it would have its own name.

Revealing Cyto’s Puzzle Adventure

CytoIn the end, after many revisions and improvements, Cyto Puzzle Adventure finally came into existence. In this regard, we would like to advise novice developers to assess their strength and timing realistically. We planned to make the game in a couple of months, but spent much more time on it. We were lucky, and were able to complete the project. For most startups, unfortunately, the overestimation of the forces is equivalent to failure.

Optional, but very desirable, attributes of high-quality games are the little details, like sailing bubbles and particles on the background, beautifully appearing buttons, and all sorts of invisible (at first glance) animations and effects. For example, has anyone tried “to tap” on Cyto’s face? 🙂 Start your fabulous journey in microcosm now by downloading the puzzle!

Cyto’s Puzzle Adventure took part in Casual Connect Kyiv 2013‘s Indie Prize Showcase. To stay up to date on the workings of Room 8, like them on Facebook.