MCV/DEVELOP 952 November/December 2019

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Thursday 5 March 2020 | The Brewery, London


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XDEV SPECIAL How external development is changing the industry Plus Virtuos on liberating Assassin’s Creed

THATGAMECOMPANY The creator of Journey talks about his move to both mobile and free-to-play



On buying work-for-hire studios, XDev’s everincreasing expertise and the next-gen transition ■ CYBERPUNK’S PEN AND PAPER ROOTS 03 Cover MCV 952_v7 FINAL.indd 1





05 The editor Awards season

06 Critical Path

The key dates this month

10 Ukie Green Game Jam Also Christmas party and manifesto

12 IRL

Real life events from the industry

16 Industry Voices

Our platform for the industry

20 Keywords Studios CEO Andrew Day on XDev

26 Ins and Outs

And all our recruitment advice

32 The X Games

Exploring the huge growth of XDev

20 38 Cyberpunk 2077

Building the future on pen and paper


43 Madfinger Games Finger on the trigger

46 Thatgamecompany

image s later)

Five million stars in the Sky

52 Good Shepherd

Licensed games: John Wick style


56 GameMaker Celebrating 20 years

61 XDev: Vita to PS4 Liberating Assassin’s Creed

64 When We Made... Oxenfree

68 The Sounds of... Winifred Phillips



71 Creatives Assemble! The development manager skillset

72 Casting the Runes

The value of influencer marketing

74 The Final Boss

Sumo Digital’s Gary Dunn

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“An industry awards, where the winners are chosen by you, the industry.”

TheEditor A vote that counts This is the second ever issue of the newly rechristened MCV/DEVELOP as well as being the last issue of the year. If you missed the rebrand last month, then I’m not going into it again here, suffice to say we’ve reunited two great brands into one, as the traditional divide between developing and publishing had blurred significantly and a lot of the most interesting stuff occurs somewhere near the join. Speaking of the merger, you surely can’t fail to have noticed that we’re also reimagining the MCV Awards for this new era of cross-industry relations. The new MCV/DEVELOP Awards will happen in early March, which gives us January to reflect upon everyone’s efforts in 2019 and then put the event together. With the new awards we have really started from scratch, thinking about why we have awards, how best to cover every aspect of the industry, who we want to recognise, and what we want to recognise them for. We’re now talking to the industry to finalise our new approach and we’ll soon be announcing a jury of industry experts, who will create the shortlists. Then, it will be down to you, the MCV/DEVELOP subscriber, to vote for the winners of the awards. This academy-like system will give the MCV/DEVELOP Awards broad industry-approved winners, something that will differentiate it from jury-voted or consumer-voted awards. It’s an industry awards, where the winners are truly chosen by you, the industry. And one in which your vote will truly count, unlike so many votes in the UK under the current first-past-the-post system Speaking of public votes, we’ve a proper double-whammy on the horizon. In the wee hours between the 12th and 13th of December, you can stay up late to catch the winners and losers of both The Game Awards and the UK general election. Go easy on the booze though, it would be easy to get confused and think the swingometer is the latest gameplay mechanic for Fortnite, while Hideo Kojima has just seized Oxford West & Abingdon from the Liberal Democrats as an independent. Once that trial is over, it’s a pretty clear run into the new year, or at the very least we can more easily ignore the news for a few weeks over Christmas. What do we expect from 2020? Well you’ll have to wait for the new year’s issue of MCV/DEVELOP, out at the beginning of January to find that out, alongside new regulars, new features and much more. And if you have any ideas for our annual redesign, or want to get more involved, then please drop me an email, it’s always great to hear from you. Seth Barton

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Here are the key upcoming events and releases to mark in your calendar...

Critical Path Sniper: Ghost Warrior Contracts The fifth entry to CI Games’ Sniper series, Ghost Warrior Contracts is releasing on PS4, Xbox One and PC. The latest title has dropped the unpopular open world from the previous title in favour of adding a contracts-based system to the franchise, as players work through missions across Siberia.

Phoenix Point After seeing several delays, Julian Gollop’s spiritual successor to his XCOM franchise is finally hitting PC via the Epic Games Store. Developer Snapshot Games has also announced that console versions are on the way – hitting Xbox in Q1 2020 on Game Pass, and PS4 later in the year.


DECEMBER 29th-2nd


Black Friday/Cyber Monday The annual shopping holiday is stereotypically known for anarchy in brick and mortar retail stores – but for gaming this is increasingly not the case. According to SuperData, last year’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday saw a huge surge in digital sales, pushing digital spending to a record $4b. This comes as an increasing number of gamers prefer to shop entirely digitally, instead of buying physical copies – 42% of those polled last year only or mostly purchase digitally, as opposed to just 27% who prefer physical sales.

Life is Strange 2 The fifth and final episode of Dontnod’s Life is Strange 2 is coming to PS4 and Xbox One, alongside a physical release that includes all five chapters. The sequel has left the original game’s cast behind to follow the adventures of two brothers dealing with tragedy, racism and telekinesis.

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Avicii Invector

Transport Fever 2

Avicii Invector is an updated version of the 2017 rhythm game Invector, from Hello There Games and Wired Productions. The game centres around the titular musician’s songs, who passed away in April last year. After his passing, Avicii’s family contributed to the project in his honour.

The follow up to 2016’s successful railroad-tycoon game, published by Good Shepherd entertainment (see page 52 for our interview) will see players rewriting transport history across three continents, offering a choice of over 200 vehicles.





Darksiders Genesis The fourth entry to the recently-revived Darksiders franchise, Darksiders Genesis acts as a prequel to the original game and sees the fourth horseman of the apocalypse, Strife, teaming up with his brother War. Console releases are penned for February next year.

The Game Awards Microsoft Theatre, Los Angeles The annual Game Awards returns for the sixth year running. Hosted by founder Geoff Keighley, this year’s nominees have already been announced, with Kojima Productions’ Death Stranding leading the pack with a total of ten nominations. The events will be streamed live across all major platforms, starting at 1:30am GMT on the 13th in the UK. Which means they’ll be coming in alongside the general election results. Stay up for one, suffer through the other.

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We’re Playing...

Editor: Seth Barton +44 (0)203 143 8785 Staff Writer: Chris Wallace +44 (0)203 143 8786 Designer: Mandie Johnson Production Manager: Claire Noe

ADVERTISING SALES Business Development Manager: Vanessa Joyce +44 (0)7815780182

MANAGEMENT Media Director: Colin Wilkinson +44 (0)203 143 8777

SUBSCRIBER CUSTOMER SERVICE To subscribe, change your address, or check on your current account status, please contact: ARCHIVES Digital editions of the magazine are available to view on Recent back issues of the printed edition may be available please call +44 (0)203 143 8777 for more information.

A month of modern gaming: We played Call of Duty across PS4 and Xbox consoles for the first time. When widespread crossplay could erode, for the better, platform loyalties. Then I played the amazing Lonely Mountains: Downhill, which I only discovered thanks to Xbox Game Pass, which could reinstate those loyalities again.

November is exhausting. Death Stranding? Pokémon? Star Wars? Please stop, I need to sleep and buy food. This is hell. Speaking of, I’ve been slowly working my way through Afterparty, from the creators of Oxenfree (see page 64 for that). Apparently hell is full of free cocktails. Finally, something to look forward to. Chris Wallace, Staff Writer

Vikki Blake, News Writer

Seth Barton, Editor

INTERNATIONAL MCV and its content are available for licensing and syndication re-use. Contact Colin Wilkinson for opportunities and permissions:

Late to the party as ever, this month I gave Man of Medan a spin. Though a little shorter than I would’ve liked, I was engrossed by the horror’s stunning (if not terrifying!) atmosphere and careful worldbuilding. Not everyone survived the night but it’s not my fault, I swear... those QTEs proved too much for my co-op buddy!

Paws the game The best furry friends the industry has to offer. Send yours to

MCV/DEVELOP has an exclusive media partnership with Famitsu – Japan’s leading video games analyst and news source


Printed by Buxton Press Ltd

Biz Media Ltd, Axe & Bottle Court, 70 Newcomen St, London SE1 1YT All contents © 2019 Biz Media Ltd. or published under licence. All rights reserved. No part of this magazine may be used, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any way without the prior written permission of the publisher. All information contained in this publication is for information only and is, as far as we are aware, correct at the time of going to press. Biz Media Ltd. cannot accept any responsibility for errors or inaccuracies in such information. You are advised to contact manufacturers and retailers directly with regard to the price of products/services referred to in this publication. Apps and websites mentioned in this publication are not under our control. We are not responsible for their contents or any other changes or updates to them. This magazine is fully independent and not affiliated in any way with the companies mentioned herein. If you submit material to us, you warrant that you own the material and/or have the necessary rights/permissions to supply the material and you automatically grant Biz Media Ltd. and its licensees a licence to publish your submission in whole or in part in any/ all issues and/or editions of publications, in any format published worldwide and on associated websites, social media channels and associated products. Any material you submit is sent at your own risk and, although every care is taken, neither Biz Media Ltd. nor its employees, agents, subcontractors or licensees shall be liable for loss or damage. We assume all unsolicited material is for publication unless otherwise stated, and reserve the right to edit, amend, adapt all submissions.

Pet: Sam and Mahkmal Owner: Kitty Crawford Owner’s job: Freelance video game producer

Pet: Ozzy Owner: Charlotte Kenny Owner’s job: Senior Publicist, Little Big PR

Pet: Harvey Owner: Lauren May Owner’s job: Social Media & Community Manager, Team17

Sam loves to play fetch with paper balls, while Mahkmal likes licking peoples faces. We suspect Kitty might have dogs disguised as cats.

Ozzy is a miniature schnauzer who likes nothing more than being wrapped up in a blanket, and looking like a wise, grumpy old Jedi

Harvey likes chin scratches and toys that make lots of noise. When he’s not got ‘the zoomies’ he can be found curled up in his bed, snoring his head off.

+44 (0)203 143 8777

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Team Sickly win Ukie’s Green Game Jam The developers took first place with their game Extinction Crabellion, which took UN Sustainable Development Goals into account

Pictured: This year’s Green Game Jam took place across 40 different institutions on the 5th and 6th of November

UKIE’S Green Game Jam, which encouraged students from across the country to create games centred around environmental and sustainable themes, took place earlier this month. And we’re delighted to be able to announce the winner. Team Sickly from the National Film and Television School emerged victorious from the jam with their game titled Extinction Crabellion, beating off fantastic competition from 80 teams and over 380 students across the country. As well as making a thoroughly compelling game, Extinction Crabellion stood out for the extent to which it took into account the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – fusing the theme of the jam perfectly with compelling interactive entertainment.

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Ukie launches The Next Level manifesto Calls for public funding to support creation of cultural video games, UK Games Fund and regional growth UKIE recently published its manifesto for the 2019 general election, setting out how the next Government can support the country’s thriving video games and interactive entertainment industry. We have produced ten key policy recommendations for the Government to help achieve the industry’s ambition to turn the UK into the best place to make, sell and play games in the world. The proposals are: • Providing public funding for cultural video games from sources such as the Arts Council and National Lottery, bringing the funding of games in line with other creative industries. • Assist the sector’s efforts to scale up regional interactive entertainment clusters, creating extra jobs and driving economic growth across the whole country. • Promote the UK’s regional video game industry success story further by funding new, or existing, local game festivals akin to the London Games Festival.

• Extend the UK Games Fund for prototyping video games and establish additional funding for mid stage projects to help turn promising concepts into sustainable businesses. • Encourage the use of games as a classroom tool across all subjects and change Ofsted inspection criteria to prioritise creativity. • Aspire to turn every school in the country into a Digital Schoolhouse to bring its inspiring play-based approach to teaching computing to every child. • Grow the esports sector by providing public funding for grassroots organisations, ensuring leading international esports talent can enter the UK and to create the infrastructure to help UK esports businesses reach a growing global audience. • Advocate, in partnership with industry, the use of games as a key digital literacy tool for people of all ages in order to safely navigate the online world. • Provide support from the Government for our efforts to improve diversity in the sector,

following the results of our diversity census, which is due to be published early next year. • Government, academia and the industry to support robust research into the way players engage with games. For more details head to

Join us for the Ukie Christmas Drinks

Team Sickly walked away with an impressive selection of prizes including a week long internship at PlayMob, an eco friendly trophy from All Brandz, a free round of Fire Hazard’s live game experience Operation Survival, tickets to Games First 2020 (including a chance to showcase their game) and a share of a £2,000 awarded by the Rabin Ezra Scholarship Fund. Our student game jam will return and we’ll aim once again to break all participation records, as we did this year. If you’d like to participate in our next jam, either as a sponsor or a mentor, then get in touch with Ukie’s membership head honcho Leon Cliff at for more information.

Thanks to Space Ape Games, Playmob, All Brandz, Tag Games, Epic Games, Fooditude and the Rabin Ezra Scholarship Trust for supporting the Green Game Jam. And if you’d like to play Extinction Crabellion, you can do so by searching for ‘Extinction Crabellion’ on the website.

IT’S nearly the season to be jolly, so we thought that this was the perfect opportunity to remind you that the annual Ukie Christmas drinks will be taking place very shortly indeed. The Ukie offices will be thrown open to one and all (in the video games industry) on Wednesday 11th December from 5:30pm for drinks, mince pies and some appropriately festive tunes. You’ll also have a chance to say hello to our wonderful sponsors GG Insurance and Green Man Gaming, who are helping us to bring the festive feel to our delightful office in London. Best of all, the Ukie Christmas drinks are free to attend. Make sure you grab your ticket on Ukie’s Eventbrite page and come join the fun next month.

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Real Life Events from the industry THE GOLDEN JOYSTICKS AWARDS 2019 THIS month saw the 37th Golden Joysticks Awards at London’s Bloomsbury Big Top. The proceedings were streamed live on Twitch and YouTube, with 3.5m public votes cast to decide the winners in 19 categories. Among the most notable winners were Dontnod’s Life is Strange winning for Outstanding Contribution, Yu Suzuki, the Sega legend of Outrun, Virtua Fighter and Shenmue fame, receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Ultimate Game of the Year going to Capcom’s Resident Evil 2 remake. Other notable winners include House House’s Untitled Goose Game winning the Breakthrough Award (with a gigantic goose accosting host Danny Wallace on stage) and CD Projekt Red’s upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 coming out on top in the Most Wanted Game category. “What a fantastic night and what a year it has been,” said Daniel Dawkins, content director of games and film at GamesRadar. “The Golden Joystick Awards is now in its 37th year – the longest running video gaming awards ever – and each year it just keeps getting bigger and better. We are so honoured to have developers from all over the world with us tonight to collect their awards. The biggest thank you of all goes to the amazing gaming public who took the time to vote and watch the awards tonight. We are humbled by your support.”

Over 3.5 million votes were cast for this year’s awards

Above: Host Danny Wallace was repeatedly accosted by a goose during the proceedings

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Pictured: Lifetime Achievement winner Yu Suzuki

Right: Epic’s Sean Denny accepts the award for Studio of the Year from Edge’s Jen Simpkins



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Above: London’s Copper Box provided a grand venue for the event X019 LONDON Microsoft brought its annual fan event to London for a weekendlong event at The Copper Box arena in the Olympic Park. The event kicked off with a special episode of Inside Xbox, with numerous new game reveals and insight from senior Xbox executives on its first-party strategy and xCloud service. The three-day event then ran on through the weekend with fans attending via a £19 ticket, with all proceeds going to the SpecialEffect charity helping disabled gamers. A wide range of new and upcoming titles were available to play at the event, plus there was exclusive merchandise and giveaways. The whole event looked to be a huge success for the brand, which has developed an impressive template for such outings, successfully mixing press, influencers, executives, announcements and fans into a single event. Congrats to all involved. Above: Sam, Benny, Charleyy and Henry from Xbox On

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Industry Voices

Why talent trumps genre experience Cristina Mereuta COO, Marmalade Game Studio

MCV/DEVELOP gives the industry a platform for its own views in its own words. Do you have a burning hot take for the world of games? Get in touch!

SINCE the Summer of 2016, Marmalade has been making digital board games. We’ve learned a lot in that time, and we believe this evolution shows in each game we release. But one of the biggest lessons learned for me and my business partner, Mike Willis, came from our background working on franchises such as FIFA and Harry Potter. I joined EA in 2011 as a producer and, on my first day, I scored an own goal in FIFA because I didn’t know the teams change ends at halftime. Through my new colleagues’ laughter, I realised two things. One, it was going to take a lot of learning to get good at this job while working on a game I wouldn’t naturally play, and two, if I did get good at this job while working on FIFA, then I could make anything that I wanted. I did learn a lot – about football, of course, but mainly about the importance of rigour and discipline. Working on FIFA shaped my work ethic and helped crystalise my belief about how great games can be made – even if you’ve never been involved with a particular franchise or genre before. Day after day, I saw a core group of people who were prepared to fight for their ideas, to put their neck on the line for the good of the game, constantly in search of new and more effective ways of working. Alongside that, I also saw the entire team held back by those who didn’t share their enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Mike was working on Harry Potter, and while the environment and context were different, he was arriving at similar conclusions. He realised he couldn’t make a great game by simply making his bits

brilliant. He needed to be part of a diverse and motivated team, who shared his passion and enthusiasm for finding the fun in every element of the design. There was some exceptional talent on both teams, but we both saw endless waste and inefficiency. So when we took over Marmalade in 2016, we knew exactly where we wanted to focus our attention. We wanted to surround ourselves with the most exceptional and driven people we could find, and create an efficient and streamlined work environment that allowed their ideas to flourish. One of our key principles is to constantly reflect on what is and isn’t working. Even when we’re developing for an established brand, like our upcoming Monopoly game, we are always looking for ways to push the envelope and stretch ourselves. We look back at our previous work, identify the weakest parts, and focus on improving them – while always leaving room for innovation and experimentation. Neither Mike nor I had ever worked on digital board games before Marmalade. The same is true of many of our team members. But it doesn’t matter whether you’re making FIFA, Harry Potter, Monopoly, or something else entirely: when you piece together a team of exceptional talent, and create the right environment for them to shine, that’s how great games are made. Cristina is the COO of Marmalade Game Studio and, alongside CEO Mike Willis, one of the company’s creative leads. Their upcoming Monopoly game hits iOS and Android on the 4th of December

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The subs war arrives on mobile – but not how you think Craig Chapple, mobile insights strategist, EMEA at Sensor Tower

THE games market seems hellbent on heading towards a Netflix-like future of an all-you-caneat subscription service. On console and PC, Microsoft has the Game Pass, while EA has Origin Access and EA Access. On mobile, meanwhile, this year has seen the launch of services such as Apple Arcade, Google Play Pass, and GameClub, all costing $4.99 a month. Google’s Stadia is also launching as a cross-platform offering, promising access to its streaming service and a growing library of titles, though ones you’ll largely have to pay separately for. For mobile at least, the potential for success of subscription services is unclear in a market dominated by free-to-play. The premium games market has long since been in decline, falling every year since 2015 from $642 million to $337.3 million so far in 2019 as of September 30th, according to Sensor Tower Store Intelligence estimates. But while the mobile space has transformed, Apple Arcade seeks to try and pry back open the market to get it back closer to its former highs. The challenge is significant, however. To reach back to 2015 levels, Apple Arcade would need approximately 11.7 million subscribers paying for 11 months following a one-month free trial. For a market that struggles with the premium barrier, it’s a big ask. But while platformer holders are seeking new subscription revenue streams, new monetisation models are emerging on mobile: in-game subscription and battle pass systems. Mario Kart Tour made some headlines for its own $4.99 in-game Gold Pass sub, which unlocks in-game items and 200cc races. Compared to the 100-plus games Apple Arcade promises for the same price, it looks

like a bad deal on the face of it. But while the success of Nintendo’s implementation of such a monetisation method is up for debate, it recognises the current games industry landscape of games-as-a-service. People are playing games for months or even years, seeing these games as a regular destination to either hang out with friends or play as part of their daily and weekly routine. These players might be more willing to pay regularly for content they want in a game they enjoy playing, rather than a subscription service of 100 titles they aren’t as interested in. When Supercell introduced Season Challenges and a monthly Gold Pass to its 2012 release Clash of Clans, revenue grew significantly. Sensor Tower estimates that in its first week, the Gold Pass spurred on a 2.5 times increase in revenue to $27 million during the period. In the 30 days following its introduction, revenue reached $71 million, up 72 percent from the previous 30 days. PUBG Mobile’s Royale Pass saw first-week sales spike by 365 percent, grossing $6.1 million across the App Store and Google Play. In the month following its implementation, daily revenue grew by three times to $650K a day from $220K, with sales hitting approximately $22 million. PUBG Mobile is now the biggest mobile game in the world. In the mobile landscape of free-to-play and games-as-a-service, developers that are able to successfully implement regular payment systems for loyal players look to be creating more value than a Netflix for games ever could. Craig Chapple is Mobile Insights Strategist, EMEA at mobile intelligence firm Sensor Tower and was previously Senior Editor at

“The potential for success of subscription services is unclear in a market dominated by free-to-play.”

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Sharing the load Keywords Studios CEO Andrew Day now has over 7,500 staff. He talks about an increasingly decentralised development model and what that might mean for the industry, as well as answering Seth Barton’s questions on crunch, being credited, plus the next generation of consoles and streaming platforms

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inding someone with a well-informed view on the broader, evolving patterns of global games development isn’t easy. But Keywords Studios’ CEO Andrew Day has just such a view, one that comes from providing external development (XDev) services to largest publishers in the world for ten years. Following a rapid expansion over recent years, there are now 54 locations around the globe where we could meet on the Keywords chief ’s home turf. On top of that, with over 7,500 staff now in the group, that makes him one of the largest employers of game development talent in the world, and a true XDev goliath. For this meeting we plump for the mutually convenient Liquid Violet in Covent Garden, a voice production studio that has recently wrapped on work for a key Blizzard IP. Voice production is just one of the seven key segments that Keywords is active in, alongside working on art, localisation, QA, customer support, engineering and even developing entire titles on a work-for-hire basis. Supporting game developers is big business and it’s getting bigger all the time, due to widely-adopted changes in our approach to games development. CHANGING GEARS “I was travelling last week, and I took the opportunity to visit five major game development studios,” Day tells us, though he won’t reveal which ones exactly, as the work of firms such as Keywords remains highly secretive. “And I spoke to the heads of all of those studios, and every single one, volunteered to me, that they’re all going to be making more games in the future with the same number of people. Next year, the year after that, and the year after… They said, obviously, we’re going to need more of your support to be able to do that.” Day “thinks it makes sense” when we propose a future where game development studios become far smaller

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than is the norm today, with yet more services taken on by external developers, who are specialists in their respective fields. Though external doesn’t mean distant, as the working relationships between in-house and external will also shift. “More and more integrated,” is how Day describes that relationship. “Three or four years ago in our offices, we would never have been asked to do hero assets, certainly not whole levels of the game. And all of that’s evolved quite quickly, so that it’s not untypical for us to be doing 80 per cent of the art on a single game in a highly integrated pipeline. “It’s really interesting how quickly the industry has evolved. And I think that there is a degree of trust and a recognition that in order to build a game, you have to work in a distributed fashion. These days it’s almost impossible to assemble everything you need to make a game in one location.” “We are now increasingly integrated in our clients’ core toolset. So we’ll be delivering the assets directly into their environment and will be testing them in that environment, whereas only a few years ago they were literally sending us an Excel list saying please go and make these characters or these weapons. We are given privileged access to our clients’ game engines, for doing co-development projects obviously, but increasingly, for things like art outsourcing and so on.” THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE We wonder if the increasing use of third-party engines, namely Unity and Unreal, by the industry as a whole has made it easier for companies such as Keywords to ply their trade. But Day is keen to press the point that it’s flexible on that front and will take on co-development work whatever the game’s underlying technology. “On the one hand, having some sort of universal game engine or game engines can be quite helpful. But

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“We’re not going to be creating our own IP, we’re not going to be sinking $10m, $20m, $100m into a game, hoping that we’re going to make that money back. That’s very much the business of our clients.” if you’ve got a game that differentiates itself, because it’s on a proprietary game engine, it’s worth sucking up the cost of maintaining that engine because it’s much more important to have that differentiation.” “The world of game development and game publishing is so complex that what really matters is building a great game, and if you need to have your own toolset or have your own game engine, then that’s probably what you should do.” Grouping around specific tech isn’t essential for more distributed development – and the greater efficiencies and outcomes that it can bring. But a greater aggregation of resources, first at the publisher level and then within external development specialists, looks to be an inevtiable, ongoing shift. LUMP HAMMER “Aggregation is super helpful for us and for the industry as a whole as well,” states Day. “And that’s because games are inherently quite lumpy. If you’re a publisher, you may well have many major releases you’re trying to get out the door for the Christmas rush. And so that drives your supply chain and you have these lumps that all come together. Managing your staffing and your resources in such a business is really hard.” Day quickly shoots through decades of changing trends in game development. Starting with standalone developers “who dealt with lots of different suppliers and scrabbled for talent” who then had to downsize their teams at the end of each cycle and hope to hire them again when things picked up for the next project. Following that, “publishers arrive and they’ve got ten studios within the publisher, they then extract a bunch of services to a central services function, which provides a degree of aggregation across, for instance, ten studios. “Then you get Keywords coming along and we’re suddenly this uber central services operation that can help publishers – who even with ten studios don’t have this much aggregation. “So the more we can aggregate, the more we can smooth it out, and the more on-demand the service becomes for our publishers and developers. So they can

just come to us and at any point, turn it on, turn it off, pay only per hour, per day, with no cost of downtime or anything. So it really helps the industry, it helps us. And I think it’s the way external development will continue to grow.” It’s certainly a historical narrative that rings true, and with big games becoming ever-more expensive and therefore risky, it makes sense for their creators to do anything they can to spread the load and not take on fixed costs. And Keywords itself increasingly appreciates the benefits of that model, as it now undertakes entire games, producing titles using teams such as Brighton’s Electric Square, and utilising its own raft of services to support the development of those titles. Though it’s not about to shift into creating its own IP, Day explains. “We do full game production, having been commissioned. We will happily pitch an idea. So when a customer comes to us, to use Microsoft as an example, who came to us and said ‘we think it would be kind of cool if we could create a different sort of experience based on the Forza IP’, and we went back with some ideas. They liked them, we did some prototyping and we ended up building Forza Street and then doing the live ops and stuff that goes on the back of it. “So that sort of thing we’re very happy to do but what we’re not going to do is make our own games, and certainly not risk our own capital making our own games. We’re not going to be creating our own IP, we’re not going to be sinking $10m, $20m, $100m into a game, hoping that we’re going to make that money back. That’s very much the business of our clients.” EXTERNAL FORCES What we’re looking at here is a model where most, but not all, of the development talent will sit seperate to the IP holder. Something similar to, but also more nuanced than, the traditional work-for-hire model. And with an increasing amount of work done by such external development studios, it’s increasingly likely that development talent will find work at one. While it may sound like a step down to move away from where

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the IP is born, there are numerous advantages for both individuals and the industry in such a shift. We could be looking at a future where, like the special effect houses of the film industry, developers would increasingly shift to specialist teams. And in that case, how would that affect the distribution of jobs and talent in our industry today? Day points out that outsourced work can offer more variety: “If you work for a developer or publisher, whether it’s as a tester, a developer or as an artist, chances are you’re going to be working on the same IP year after year after year.” Something that’s been talked about a lot in recent year, with triple-A talent leaving such studios from tedium as much as burnout. “Whereas, in an external development scenario, you’re probably seeing a much wider range of IP. That’s helpful for staff retention, staff satisfaction. And it’s also helpful in terms of raising the level of expertise.” And it’s easy to see how a co-development team dealing with multiple projects in a year will gain a better insight than a singleproject team. “It’s helpful just because of the sheer range of game engines, the range of monetization models, the different sort of features that we will be building for different people’s games, the technology challenges, the distribution platforms we’re dealing with, the tools

we’re maintaining and developing. At a certain point, the market should expect companies like Keywords to have just as much expertise, if not even more, than they would have themselves,” Day predicts. So is he at all worried that external development work might be perceived as being less valuable? “I am quite happy for us to be the picks and shovels to the gold miners. And that work doesn’t have to be boring. We come up with some super interesting takes on shovels and picks,” he smiles. “We develop some really interesting tech and we do great work and increasingly the sort of work that we’re doing is getting deeper and deeper with our clients.” CREDIT CONTROL There are many key parts of a truly satisfying job: the kind of work that you do, the environment that you do it in, and the renumeration you receive for it. But another key issue for many developers is the public recognition of their efforts. So are external developers getting the credit they deserve for the increasingly key work they put into so many projects? “The vast majority of [our cleints] are very happy to credit the teams that worked on the games,” replies Day, who despite that statement, certainly sees it as an ongoing issue. “Whether it’s our testers, our artists,

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“It’s harder sometimes to invest and be able to say yes more often than you say no. But at the same time, it’s super important never to say yes and then not deliver, or deliver badly.” or our engineers. But then we’ve got others that almost want to pretend that they didn’t use external development at all.” “If our clients only realised how motivating it is for our people, I don’t care about Keywords itself, but for our people to be credited on their games. It means that the next time a project from that client comes along, the guys want it, because they get recognised, whereas if it’s a client that won’t allow them in the credits…” He tails off politically, but the intention is clear. Retention of talent is an issue for any company, but Keywords is not only retaining talent, it’s growing and not just through acquisitions. “At the half year we’ve grown 17% organically. So 17% when you’re a 7,500 person company – yes, we’ve created a lot of jobs. I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve created these jobs. And a lot of those people go on to feed the industry as a whole, which we’re very proud of. So whenever we have people that either progress their careers within Keywords or go to our partners, and progress their careers there, hopefully they’ll come back to us at some point, or use some of our services!” ACQUIRING TARGET Keywords has been notable in recent years for its nearendless string of acqusitions, something that Day is hoping to continue into the future, as he sees more value for both Keywords and the industry at large in further consolidation, though the nature of the targets has changed over the years. “I spend a lot of time talking to our investors, and they say: ‘[Acquisitions] seem to have been a bit lighter this year, what’s happening? Are you running out of things to buy?’ and I reply: ‘Absolutely not.’ “In fact, the list is longer than ever. But what we are doing is being very specific about the sorts of businesses we buy. A few years ago we were buying localisation businesses, then we were buying testing businesses. Now we’re buying work-for-hire businesses.” “We have a very deliberate acquisition strategy. And we’re basically trying to build each of our service lines into global businesses that have enough critical mass that they become the go-to provider for these services. So our clients think of Keywords first.

“And in order to do that, you have to have scale, you have to be able to accommodate a lot of client demands. In a service that’s matching demand, it’s quite easy just to say no to work when it comes in and a lot of people do. It’s harder sometimes to invest and be able to say yes more often than you say no. But at the same time, it’s super important never to say yes and then not deliver, or deliver badly. CRUNCHY ROLES That’s clearly a good sentiment, and one brings us on to a much-discussed issue of the last 12 months, that of crunch culture. It has long been a concern to us, that as the bigger developers get called out for poor working practices, the onus of hitting deadlines might simply move elsewhere. So is external development picking up the slack, and will Day say no to projects which look unachievable within the timeframe? “Very often we will say no. We scope for [each project], and we don’t scope with crunch,” he states emphatically. “We will take work on if we can do it within a normal schedule. If the timetable compresses, we try and obviously put more resources on the project. And we have more resources,” he notes, one advantage of all that aggregation. “Rather than crunch a smaller team, we try and make the team bigger so you can scale into the project. But we would rather say no to a client than say, ‘Yes, we’ll do it and our staff might not be able to go home for three weeks and they’ll live on pizza and sleep under their desk’. That’s not the Keywords way. “I’m not going to say people don’t pull late shifts occasionally, because everybody at some point has worked to deliver. But no, we try not to do that, we would rather say no to the work.” SERVICING AN AGING GENERATION Keywords has a pretty good handle on the ups and downs of the games development business (not that there’s been very many downs, globally speaking, of late). Traditionally the end of one console cycle and the beginning of the next would provide at least at speedbump to that upward trend. Though Day is hopeful about the changeover:

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“Fingers crossed, I think this console transition is going to be the smoothest yet.” Day says. “And very different to the ones we’ve seen before as well.” “Compared to the last console cycle seven years ago where it was surprising how quickly, [platform holders and publishers] cut off support for the old platform. They just sort of stopped making games overnight for the platforms. Now it’s very much games as service, long tail content, for any major game. “From our side, we follow the content. So what I’m seeing is that you’re going to have this content that is going to continue to run on the current generation of consoles, and will also run on the new console. And certainly our partners, our clients are not going to cut off support for stuff running on the existing console.” “Outsourcing that live operations part in its entirety: introducing new features, introducing new characters, producing the videos to advertise that, doing the localization, the testing. That’s the sort of thing that I hope our clients will increasingly turn to us for. And I think we can do that efficiently. And it’s still very interesting work for us. “I think they’re going to need help to maintain that, while trying to figure out how they’re going to take their IPs, whether it’s the existing game or whether it’s a new game, and design and features, richer graphics and audio, which are only going to be possible on the new console.” SERVING THE SERVERS With the Google Stadia launch this very month, and xCloud, currently in preview, close behind, the new generation of console platforms will be larger than ever, and not simply boxes in living rooms, either. And more platforms creates yet another potential revenue stream for external development services.

“We’re lucky. I mean, we’re working for those [streaming] players directly but obviously, we’re also helping our partners in importing their games or where we’re developing games for them or with them, we’ll be building in the Stadia version, as part of the programme of delivery. It’s a very good position to be in, we sort of know what it takes.” So has Keywords found the new streaming platforms to be a smooth transition too? “I’d say it’s been fairly smooth for us. It’s funny, we’re a publicly traded company, so we have investors and they ask interesting questions like: ‘What do you have to do to prepare yourself for streaming platforms?’ or ‘Does that mean you have to go out and hire a completely different sort of resource type, because VR is coming around the corner?’ “And actually, we get taken into those spaces by our clients who are the content holders, but they’re also very often the platform holders. So somebody like Facebook with Oculus use our services, extensively.” In short with both platform and content providers as clients, Keywords should be up to speed before most when it comes to such shifts. Over ten years, Day has built an enviable resource for the industry, one that provides many publishers with an essential service. Though amazingly, for a technology company, the overall strategy remains the same: “The mission, the strategy, everything that we always told people we would do is exactly what we’re doing. So we haven’t deviated one little iota from our strategy. That’s pretty unique in business.” And as we began, that strategy has that provided Day with an enviable insight on the industry’s health and direction. He finishes by simply telling us that “I love the industry and I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon.” Good news for all there.

“The mission, the strategy, everything that we always told people we would do is exactly what we’re doing. So we haven’t deviated one little iota from our strategy. That’s pretty unique in business.” November/December 2019 MCV/DEVELOP | 25

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Ins and Outs: Industry hires and moves 1


MIKE YBARRA (1) is joining Blizzard Entertainment as executive vice president and general manager. Ybarra announced the move stating “We will work with all our energy to serve gamers with incredible content and experiences.” HARVEY EAGLE (2) has been promoted to director for Xbox Live product marketing, placing him in charge of overseeing Xbox Live growth.



Former MCV/DEVELOP business and development manager ALEX BOUCHER (3) is leaving to join Team17 as their new head of sales: new business. On top of his new job, Boucher is continuing his work as managing director of Analog Ltd and at Game Dev Heroes, of which he is the co-founder. Staying close to home, Former MCV content editor JAKE TUCKER (4) has joined Red Bull UK as games editor. Tucker has previously worked as a freelancer and associate editor at Trusted Reviews.




Jagex has added new senior leadership to its development teams, making three key hires across the organisation. Having been introduced to the Runescape community at this year’s RuneFest, RYAN WARD (5) joins as the new executive producer of Runescape. Ward most recently worked at Blizzard Entertainment as product director of Overwatch. Additionally, Ward was previously director of product at Epic Games, and a producer at Nexon, LucasArts, CCP and Bioware working on titles such as Fortnite, Star Wars, Eve Online and the Mass Effect franchise. Meanwhile, ROB HENDRY (6) has been appointed executive producer of Old School RuneScape. Hendry has over 20 years experience in the industry, having started his career working on Starlancer at Warthog Studios, More recently, Hendry was head of studio at Ideaworks, managing the mobile game teams working on IPs such as Call of Duty, The Sims, Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil and Final Fantasy.

Finally, GAVIN IRBY (7) joins Jagex the new creative director. Irby previously worked for Bungie, where he was design lead for Destiny 2, and also worked on the original Destiny as lead raid designer and senior designer. His other prior roles include lead content designer for RIFT at Trion Worlds, and Irby has also worked at Carbine Studios and Flying Lab Software.





Mi5 Communications has two new hires. ANNA ERLANDSSON (8) joins as nordic community manager. Erlandsson is the former president of Swedish gaming association Sverok, and worked as project leader for the Female Legends mentorship program. Meanwhile, ISABELL RYDÉN (9) is the new PR assistant. Mi5 founder Marcus Legler stated: ”It’s been an eventful year and the digital entertainment industry keeps on growing. Mi5Com has been around for 14 years and with our unique expertise and knowledge of the Nordic market, we further reinforce our position with these recruitments.”

UK publisher Sold Out has appointed GINA JACKSON (10) in the newly created role of development director. Jackson was previously head of games at The Imaginarium, and has held roles as CEO of Women in Games and MD of NextGen Skills Academy. She is also currently vice-chair of GamesAid, an assessor for the UK Games Fund, a trustee for the BGI and part of UKIE’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion group. “I am delighted to be joining the hugely diverse team at Sold Out,” said Jackson. OSCAR DAYUS (11) has joined PCGamesN as their news editor. Dayus has a number of former jobs in the gaming press, including as GameSpot’s associate editor and as Pocket Gamer’s staff writer and he also undertook an internship with




RYAN KING (12) has joined SEGA as their new senior international PR manager. Regarding the move, Ryan tells MCV/ Develop “It’s a dream move for me, given I’ve

been a huge SEGA fan all my life! I am absolutely thrilled to be working with such a great team and on such exciting titles.” King was previously head of PR at Hadean, and he has also worked for Lick PR, Next Level Media and Imagine Publishing. OlliOlli and Laser League developer Roll7 have announced that PAUL ABBOTT (13) is joining the team as Lead Artist, working on an unannounced “exciting original IP project.” Abbott has previously worked as art director at Wish Studios, and as lead environment artist at Creative Assembly. Roll7 celebrated the announcement, telling MCV/Develop “Paul Abbott represents a key hire as part of Roll7’s planned growth as a distributed studio, he is a remarkable lead and brings so much experience to our team… Watch this space!” JACK LANGLEY (14) has joined Wargaming as their senior PR manager, spearheading Wargaming’s portfolio communications in the UK and to support the growth of the new Wargaming UK studio in Guildford. Langley previously worked at Alfred, where he worked across the agency’s games clients as a Senior Account Manager, including 505 Games, Gearbox Publishing, Voodoo and Square Enix Collective.

Got an appointment you’d like to share with us? Email Chris Wallace at 26 | MCV/DEVELOP November/December 2019

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Rising Star

Every month, we pick the brain of an up-and-coming talent

Stefan Oprisan, Material Artist, Frontier Developments

What is your proudest achievement so far? My proudest achievement so far would be giving the valedictorian speech at my university graduation to the entire School of Computing. I’m so honoured that I was chosen, and it was by far the most nerve-wracking moment of my life. During my speech, I quoted the phrase “choose a job you’ll love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” I stand by this point and its why I chose to be part of this industry.

How did you break into games? Whilst still at university I entered a competition ran by Aardvark Swift, ‘Rising Star and Search for a Star.’ I made it to the final challenge, where I was given feedback from industry professionals and the opportunity to connect with other students. This was a great experience, as it put my name ahead of the competition as I started to break into the industry. Sharan Bassi from Aardvark Swift, who specializes in graduate recruitment, helped me with my CV and interview preparation, and she also assisted me with interviews; one of which secured my first role at Playground Games. I went on to work on the awardwinning Forza Horizon 4.

What’s been your biggest challenge so far? My biggest challenge (and ongoing struggle) is trying to balance my personal life and work. Finding the time to work on personal projects outside of my career (particularly in making sure I am always working to the best of my ability) and also making time for social commitments, commuting and playing games can be difficult. I often challenge myself to create artwork that is outside of my comfort zone, to push my skills and learn new techniques and software. Our industry is fast moving and you need to be able to keep up with it! What do you enjoy most about your job? I really love working with likeminded people who want to create incredible art, fun games and push each other to the next level. Every person I get to work with - whether they’re a recent graduate or someone with 20 years’ experience – is able to teach me something new and this goes both ways. I love working in an environment where I can also share my experiences and skills, so we are always learning from one another. On top of all of that, I also get the opportunity to make some awesome looking materials.

“Our industry is fast moving and you need to be able to keep up with it!” What’s your biggest ambition in games? I would love to work on a narrative driven game. To tell a story visually, offering something relatable to every gamer, one that will be memorable for decades. I’ve worked on some incredible games, particularly in racing and simulation, and I would love to try something new, like a first-person shooter. Ultimately, creating amazing artwork that tells a story, a game that is recognisable both within and outside our industry is what I want to aim for. What advice would you give to aspiring material artists? Learn the fundamentals and structure of a surface as to what makes it unique. Every artist works with reference and a material artist is no exception. A material artist should be able to break down an image into smaller, more manageable parts to make your life easier, thus allowing you to put more detail into each layer and blending it to create the final surface. I would also strongly recommend entering competitions such as Rising Star & Search for a Star. I had an incredibly positive experience and landed my first job in the industry as a result of it. Getting that professional feedback and making connections with people who share the same passion as you is what makes our industry so special.

If there’s a rising star at your company, contact Chris Wallace at November/December 2019 MCV/DEVELOP | 27

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Cherry picked advice to help you reach the next level in your career

Playground Games’ Matt Pickering tells us what being a game designer entails, the varied challenges of working on a live game and making that move from quality assurance into game design it actually playable – things along the lines of defining the rate at which you earn experience points, and assigning what rewards you get when you level up! Working on a live game like Forza Horizon 4 presents all kinds of interesting challenges that are quite different to working on a title that hasn’t been released yet. Instead of larger and longer phases of concept, production and close-out, we have rapid iteration of content drops, bug fixes and improvements.

What is your job role and how would you describe your typical day at work? I’m a game designer at Playground Games in Leamington Spa, where I work on the Forza Horizon series. The game design team are responsible for deciding what the player does in the game, and what sort of experience they should be having at any given time. Game design requires a broad skillset that varies depending on the phase of development. Early in development, the designers concept new features based on research and analysis, before pitching them to stakeholders. As development progresses, designers continue to work closely with the team to ensure that the features are built to requirement, and then they switch to ‘content creation’ mode and populate the game with the data that makes

What qualifications and/or experience do you need to land this job? You could potentially land a game design job with very little experience or qualifications if you can demonstrate the right aptitude. This has happened several times at Playground Games, where we’ve hired bright and enthusiastic applicants as design assistants with the view of training them up over time. Some of the best designers I’ve worked with started out in a quality assurance role. Having a portfolio of small projects to demonstrate your abilities is something I would strongly recommend to any aspiring designer, especially if you haven’t got any shipped games on your CV. Don’t worry about making them look pretty – demonstrating interesting game mechanics is the important thing. If you were interviewing someone for your team, what would you look for? I think it’s important that you not only play games but you can think about them critically too. I’m also looking for exemplary communication skills. To make the best

“Some of the best designers I’ve worked with started out in a quality assurance role.” decisions for the game, you need to have all the required information at hand and that means speaking with engineers and artists to gather that information. This works both ways – engineers and artists will often have questions or problems that need a design decision and you need to be approachable in those situations. As for written communication skills, your designs need to be professional, free of mistakes, and show pride and enthusiasm in your work – this is important for instilling confidence in those who will be implementing the features you design! What opportunities are there for career progression? Playground Games has excellent career progression opportunities. Several members of the design team started out as sesign assistants and have ascended through the ranks into more senior positions and new design assistants have recently been hired with a view to do the same. There is no substitute for experience and the experience that you can gain on the job as a design assistant is invaluable, which is something that Playground Games recognises.

Want to talk about your career and inspire people to follow the same path? Contact Chris Wallace at

28 | MCV/DEVELOP November/December 2019

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28 DAYS LATER Taking a new opportunity in the industry can open a door to the job of your dreams. We catch up with a recent career mover at the start of their exciting new role through recruitment specialist Amiqus Congratulations on the amazing new job! What inspired you to join Wildlife Studios? Wildlife was a great culture fit for me. I was excited to start working for a fast-growing mobile games company with a start-up attitude and drive. I really wanted to build something new and amazing and this is a perfect opportunity to do so. We have so many engaging products on the horizon that I’m excited to be a part of. What’s the culture like at Wildlife Studios and what’s your experience been like fitting in? Wildlife is all about taking risks. We pride ourselves on being direct and honest. Most importantly, this is an organization that takes care of its people. I was incredibly happy to see that the culture that I was sold on when interviewing, was real when I visited the studio in São Paulo for the first time. It’s been a great experience! What are you most excited about bringing to the role? I want to take everything that I’ve learned over the years and bring that all to bare to build an amazing player support organization that competes with the best in the world. This is still a young company and we have a lot of work ahead of us. That challenge excites and energizes me. What will working at Wildlife Studios do for your career? Building something new for a growing mobile games company will be a completely different experience than what I’ve done in the past. This is an opportunity to prove myself in a fresh environment with a range of new challenges and opportunities. What would you like to say to anyone thinking about or undertaking a job move in this industry? Take a risk! Life is too short to meander through your career. Take bold actions to move forward, to learn, and to grow. The best in life always comes when we step out of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves and those around us.

“Take a risk! Life is too short to meander through your career. Take bold actions to move forward, to learn, and to grow.”

Name: Tom Shibley Studio: Wildlife Studios Job Title: Global Head of Player Support Education: Maritime Safety & Environmental Protection at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

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Iterating for Better This month, MCV/DEVELOP looks into the struggles of juggling a work/life balance as a parent, and the surprisingly positive effects of being a working parent MORE often than not we talk about work and parenting in a negative context, such as how difficult it can be to juggle home and professional life. But new research has highlighted that there can in fact be profound positive effects associated with bringing up a family while continuing with a chosen career path, for both men and women. The data, from a global survey conducted by Talking Talent, revealed that 20 per cent of parents actually feel better prepared for a busy work life after having kids, 44 per cent cited improved time management and organisational skills, while 39 per cent said they had become better managers of people. Improved leadership skills also came out strongly, with 38 per cent of respondents saying they had experienced a positive change in that skillset after starting a family. The findings are all the more interesting in the context of last month’s column, which dealt with issues associated with maternity leave, such as keeping in touch days and welcoming staff back who had been away for a period of time. Confidence is very much a hot topic for women, regardless of industry, and this shows in the research — 37 per cent of women thought that increased self-confidence would significantly help their career progression now that they had become a working parent; this was compared to 23 per cent of men. In fact, for men, the only skill set which appeared to be negatively affected by having children was networking, with 21 per cent saying that their skills had diminished. That’s compared to 25 per cent of women, which the report’s authors attributed to reduced opportunities for out-of-hours socialising. This is borne out by the fact that almost half of working dads (48 per cent) said that their networking skills had improved, while just 24 per cent of working mums said the same. A slight aberration regarding networking aside, the data suggests that rather than being an obstacle to overcome, employers should view staff returning from maternity or paternity leave as an opportunity to grasp. Greater flexibility in working patterns to accommodate parents is always great, but it’s clear there are actual tangible benefits for businesses stemming from the life skills gained as a result of bringing a new-born into the world.

“20 per cent of parents actually feel better prepared for a busy work life after having kids, 44 per cent cited improved time management and organisational skills, while 39 per cent said they had become better managers.” Tamsin O’Luanaigh CoSec & Talent Director, nDreams “I was pregnant when we founded nDreams so I know the challenges involved with work and family life. Parenthood can give a different perspective – we’re shaped by our life’s journey. If that means greater skills at organisation and multi-tasking then great, let’s harness it! But let’s also recognise there could be additional pressures we should support… Enabling working parents to attend school assemblies and sports days without guilt leads to a happier workforce, which can lead to better productivity. Your company’s approach to work/life balance makes a big difference and will ultimately impact your ability to retain talented staff who happen to have family commitments.” Putting The G Into Gaming is a pro bono initiative founded by and in association with recruitment specialist Amiqus. To find out more email or contact

30 | MCV/DEVELOP November/December 2019

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MCV-NOV19-INNOGAMES:MCV-NOV19-INNOGAMES 18/10/2019 16:09 Page 1

Welcome to the X Games No modern triple-A game is created without the help of external developers. But the sector isn’t sitting still, with an increased focus on co-development and engineering making those internal-external relationships both deeper and more valuable


xternal Development (XDev) is the most significant changing factor in how games are developed today. The shift started a long time ago, but its reach and depth has accelerated rapidly in recent years and shows no sign of stopping. We take a look at how the shift is affecting the way games are made and what impact it’s having on those working on both sides of what is an increasingly blurred line between internal and external. At the sector’s own industry conference, XDS, earlier this year, 92 per cent of those using such services foresaw a growth in their demand, with 44 per cent of developers and publishers surveyed reporting an annual spend of $6m or more on XDev. The biggest single area for such games remains console titles and it’s not just assets and multiplayer modes but fully-integrated parts of narrative titles too. For example, did you know that the Challenge Tomb levels in Square Enix’s most recent Tomb Raider game were created practically entirely, from their own designs, by a Virtuos team in Singapore?

Putting some smaller indie studios to one side, it’s been a while since most major PC and console titles have been produced entirely in a single location, or by a single company. The outsourcing of specialist skills – such as motion capture, voice and music – were followed by the creation of so-called ‘assets farms’ for art outsourcing. But the sector has evolved far beyond those simplistic early days says Microsoft’s Sam Carlisle, director, external partner relations: “The first step in the future of outsourcing is that it’s not outsourcing anymore. The word conjures up ‘throw it over the wall’ asset farms employed as a cost saving exercise and viewed with deep suspicion from front line developers, with the belief it marked the first step toward redundancy.” We’ll tackle that last point later, but what’s certain is that XDev now sits at the very heart of modern games development, Carlisle continues: “Fact of the matter is that there are very few triple-A titles that don’t have XDev deeply integrated into their production pipeline. It is not possible to make games on the scale and complexity that we see today without it.”

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XDev is far more than art or audio: the range of services provided externally has greatly increased, with the key growth areas being co-development. UI/UX, engineering, in-engine cinematics and trailers, plus of course live operations for GaaS titles. But it’s the way that these are integrated into the main developers’ work that is just as key to XDev’s own development. Elijah Freeman, VP of games division at Virtuos explains the scale of the shift: “The expectations of the developers are the same as they would be for a feature team on the core development team. The days of crafting a few trees have transitioned into designing and implementing an ancient, forest-themed environment with associated gameplay objectives.” Which is not to say that Virtuos isn’t providing art assets for triple-A projects, just that it now does a lot more besides, Freeman continues: “We are proud of being the world’s ‘go-to’ content provider. However, Virtuos has developed solid game development competencies that have transformed our traditional content provider relationship to co-development driven partnerships.” It’s a point that Carlisle, as a commissioner of such services, concurs with: “There is still the need to create large volumes of art assets. However, the shift has come in what the industry is expecting of the artists. We’re looking for more ownership, to be able to deliver further down the production pipeline, in the engine, with leeway to create assets in style without the highly prescriptive asset briefs we used to employ. We’re demanding more technical knowhow, more integration into development. We want problem solvers and artists who can interpret rather than people who just follow.” And being involved further up the development tree, so to speak, in engineering and the like, means providers can then work across numerous activities on a single project with greater understanding, says Jamie Campbell, engineering service line director at Keyword Studios. “Keywords already has demonstrable capabilities in both large scale co-development – developing full DLC maps, running LiveOps etc – and full game development, from concept through full production to release and LiveOps support. “As a game development platform we’re able to provide these high-value activities as entry points for our clients and allow them to make use of the full spectrum of services we provide throughout the game development lifecycle – user playtesting, concept art, engineering, art production, audio, localisation, QA, social user acquisition, analytics and post-launch player support.” WHY DISTRIBUTED IS GOOD That means that more games are getting made in more locations by more people. Which sounds like a logistical nightmare, but there are ups as well as downs.

External developments roots come out of taking on specialist skills and equipment – such as motion capture studios – that traditionally no studio would consider running full-time. But in recent times it’s been more closely associated with reducing spiralling development costs for ever more detailed games. While that’s still a driver, cost isn’t the key consideration of those commissioning such services. With an XDS survey showing that quality of assets, team skillsets and communication were the top three considerations. The real driver though is to being able to “add depth and breadth to the talent pool, providing a competitive edge in the global market,” says Virtuos’ Freeman. And it also provides flexibility, allowing developers to call on resources as and when they need them. And that global approach also allows a distributed team to literally make use of every hour in the day, notes Keyword’s Campbell. “If managed properly, working across multiple time zones can work well. ‘Follow the sun’ development has been adopted by numerous developers and publishers over the years and if sufficient project management effort is put in place, the methodology can work well.” Being able to make the best use of time when a project is in full production is a tempting proposition. But having a more distributed effort can also help nearer the beginning of a project too, Microsoft’s Carlisle explains: “We once employed a ‘shotgun’ technique where in early look dev we sent out the same broad brief to multiple art studios worldwide and asked them to hand their ideas back with no feedback. This way we received an incredible range of imaginative interpretations. There’s value in seeing what doesn’t work as well as what does. “We sometimes look at iteration as something that is very immediate. A group round a table, bouncing ideas off each other. What external teams allow you to do is try out some of the wilder ideas. What the external development partner does, is bring a fresh perspective from outside the development bubble. They allow you to bring in and test ideas that you may otherwise not have the time to do.” But whether you’re looking for inspiration from beyond your team, or just someone to execute your preciselydrawn plan, successfully communicating with your external partners will be the key.

Pictured above, from top to bottom: Virtuos’ Elijah Freeman, Microsoft’s Sam Carlisle and Keyword’s Jamie Campbell

HOW TO THINK TO MAKE IT HAPPEN It was only a few years ago that the communication between such partners might simply have consisted of some concept art and a spreadsheet of required assets, with the assets being sent, complete, on a disc when done. Obviously, tools as generic as Slack or Trello, or as specific as Shotgun or HackNPlan, have helped revolutionise the way we work together, be that in an

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Pictured right: xxxxx

office or remotely, but there’s a lot more to it than that, according to Virtuos’ Freeman. “The current crop of communication technology is fantastic and has dramatically improved access to information. We learn and adapt to our partners’ communication pipelines, providing a seamless transition and instilling best practices to ensure information accuracy and timeliness. It is the customised balance of technology and process that has provided us with the best communication results.” Of course there are downsides to the model, says Microsoft’s Carlisle: “A lack of in the room immediacy, which you get from traditional game development model, can make cooperation harder. However, it’s not an insurmountable challenge and I think we all know communication inside development studios itself can sometimes be difficult. What I’ve found is that time, distance and culture aren’t necessarily the barriers to communication.” Once communication is good, though, that’s only just the beginning of a great collaborative effort, continues Microsoft’s Carlisle: “Collaboration is a question of approaching the relationship with the right mindset and processes. Your external partners need to feel trusted, included and able to take risks without damaging the partnership. If you look at those factors, they are no different from creating an effective, creative internal team. “You need to find the right fit for you. This takes time. You need to foster the right production environment, that includes tools, systems and people who want to collaborate. None of these are givens,” he warns, adding that: “If not managed properly they just generate internal overheads and frustration.”

FUNDAMENTALS OF XDEV THERE is no one approach that works best. Every studio and every game are different. However, the fundamentals stay the same. • Decide why you want to incorporate XDev. What is it that you want to achieve? • Factor it into your planning from day one. • Allow time to find the right partner. Don’t only test quality, test communication, their ability to ‘own’ their work. • Understand how you’re going to track production and how that integrates with your internal tools. • Build an external development team, we often don’t recognise that the bottleneck is internal. Reviews take time. • Ramp your resources up slowly. Allow room for mistakes (from both sides) early on.

The process then takes time and requires some dedication. Which is probably why more and more developers and publishers say they are sticking with their current external partners from year to year, rather than cutting and changing to try and find a better deal. In short, a good relationship is worth paying for. HOW FAR WILL THE CHANGE GO? Those deepening relationships are part of why XDev has been able to spread its wings into more technicallydemanding areas. “Engineering was one of the last areas you’d go external with. Letting coders outside your studio into main branch was rightly seen as a very risky move. Once we learnt that you don’t augment a team with coders, but instead you give a team of coders a problem to solve. We found that not only could we bring in code support, but it became the door to the biggest current trend in XDev – co-development,” says Carlisle. “This has grown from two sides: work-for-hire development studios contributing to a part rather than developing the whole, and from service suppliers such as art studios who, thanks to the expanded integration and technical capacity we demanded, are able to deliver entire levels rather than just the props that go in them.” With external studios taking on entire sections of games, working side-by-side with the core studio, the possibilities open right up, and the very nature of the IPholding developer may change. “I believe we will see the ability to develop complex titles from a small core team directing the game. In fact, I think that it’s going to be vital, when you consider the content heavy strategies of the major publishers and newcomers such as Google.” Such a change to even greater involvement of XDev is then reinforced by the need to support titles post release, Carlisle continues: “If we want games to grow and evolve after release, then we need partners capable of taking ownership while the host development studio moves on the next IP.” And a new generation of yet more powerful console hardware, plus the advent of cloud gaming services, will only further grow the demand for such services, says Virtuos’ Freeman: “It is my opinion that the game industry is experiencing one of the biggest technical advancements in years, and we are about to have an exponential growth in content needs. High quality content is king. The expectation for current developers includes massive components of complexity, and a seemingly insatiable need for high-end visual fidelity. This type of development requires more content and larger teams.”

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X-WORKING More content and larger teams sounds like good news for developers. But XDev, as we touched on earlier, has often been looked upon with distaste by studio-based developers, who see work being outsourced to other companies in other countries. Carlisle, though, believes that the process doesn’t have to be a negative one: “The interesting side effect of well managed XDev is that it protects internal jobs rather than taking them. External studios can flex resources with production, minimising downtime. They can also bring in those specialist services that may only be needed for short periods of time. Making games is hard, being able to adapt as the challenges rise is made easier when you can draw on a wide range of outside talent.” Maybe then it’s better to use external resources, than have to inflict a constant cycle of hire-and-fire upon studio staff as projects scale up and down. Arguably, the rate of growth in game development has meant that few have been left behind by such outsourcing of what have, traditionally at least, been the less desirable tasks. Another concern is that studios under pressure to deliver, and under an increasing microscope of public opinion, are simply externalising their crunch to those who are less in the spotlight. Keyword’s Campbell says that isn’t the case there and that frankly it wouldn’t be sustainable anyway. “When development studios crunch they also provide a recovery period when their game ships, allowing teams to have some downtime. As a service provider, our teams are usually highly utilised and when one project ends there are other exciting opportunities ready and waiting in the pipeline. This means that staffing projects correctly to avoid crunching is vital for us; rather than asking people to run at 150 per cent for periods of crunch we aim for our teams to be running at 100 per cent consistently. “The result is that we have satisfied staff, demonstrated through three UK studios winning ‘Best places to work’ awards in 2019, who don’t get burnt out, deliver consistent and predictable value for clients, and have a ball working on a wide array of amazing projects.” Instead he points out that XDev is actually the solution for crunch, with studios at least: “Using external resources to bolster internal development teams is one thing that can provide an extra boost and relieve some pressure on the internal folk.” On the other hand, Carlisle warns that while XDev seems to be a silver bullet for crunch, you have to utilise it carefully and plan well in advance, in order to deliver on time and to the required quality: “Because we can grow external teams faster than internal ones, especially when we’re using multiple

studios, there can be this temptation to leverage numbers to ‘brute force’ a solution. I would caution against it. Ramping up resources externally has the same challenges as internally. They need time to learn art styles, technical requirements and team culture. If you simply expand the external teams, add more partners into the mix, the likelihood is that you’re throwing fire onto fire. Your internal capacity for review and management will also struggle to cope. He goes on to explain that the “basic the tools for tackling external crunch are the same as for the developer: planning, scope and resource allocation.” But if your planning fails then: “Step back, examine the issues from the XDev partner side. Visit them onsite if possible. Work together on the solution.” EXTERNAL DRIVE As games get bigger, more complex, and have longer lifespans, the rise of XDev is inevitable. The term now covers a huge range of activities, so much so that in the near future, games that are developed entirely internally, will likely be regarded as the exception. At the same time, the best XDev teams will grow more and more influential and their services more desirable, Carlisle reckons: “In the future, I believe we will see a lot of cross external partner cooperation and partnering. Which if approached the right way, will allow for smaller internal teams and the continued evolution of games as a service by the external teams, with little oversight from the developer. This in turn could lead to the inclusion of license or royalty deals with XDev suppliers. “The other interesting progression is traditional outsources moving into their own IP creation. I used to see a lot of resistance to companies that had their own IP. Often driven by concerns it would deflect attention and divert their best people into the project. However, as we have demanded more technical expertise and integration, the external suppliers have found themselves with almost complete game development teams. “They’re taking advantage of this to push into IP development. It’s something I believe is good for both the studio and the client as it gives the studio the opportunity to create new career paths for its senior employees, who may be looking for growth and new challenges. It also provides the studio with valuable insight into the development challenges their clients face. In turn they can become more proactive in solving problems independently. As a gamer I’m excited to see what these talented creatives release!” In short, today’s best XDevs may well be tomorrow’s best devs.

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CD Projekt Red’s Richard Borzymowski talks about Cyberpunk 2077, its RPG roots, player freedom and moving on from The Witcher

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s the upcoming launch of Cyberpunk 2077 looms large in the distance, currently slated for April 2020, it’s hard not to wonder if CD Projekt Red is feeling the pressure. The studio has a stellar reputation, following its astronomical success with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – a hard act for Cyberpunk to follow, which also marks the studio’s first title outside the fantasy novels from which Geralt sprung. Cyberpunk 2077 is set in a dark future that could hardly be more different from its previous work. It is another adaptation, though, this time of the cult pen-and-paper RPG Cyberpunk 2020 created by Mike Pondsmith way back in 1988. And that presents a new set of challenges and opportunities for what is the most highly-anticipated title of 2020.

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Pictured above: The game’s stunning concept art demonstrates CD Projekt Red’s commitment to making Night City as detailed as possible

While adapting Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy book series for The Witcher was a comparatively smooth transition, adapting a pen-and-paper RPG into an open world game with real-time combat was more taxing, as the game’s producer, Richard Borzymowski explains: “The thing is, every pen-and-paper RPG is essentially turn-based. It’s dice throwing, right? That doesn’t really work when there’s a zillion bullets flying across the screen.” “We’ve stuck to as much of the original Cyberpunk 2020 as we can, but to keep things enjoyable we’ve had to change some things to make it adapt well into the video game format. From things like character attributes to guns – a lot of it is taken from the core book. We’ve added some new ones, of course, but we’re staying true to what Mike Pondsmith created. It was really important to us to remain faithful to the original, because we know there’s this community of Cyberpunk fans that have been out there since the 1980s. We’re not going to be exploiting the franchise, we’re not going out there saying ‘Hey, this is our game, it’s entirely unconnected to whatever it was before.’ We’re here to enhance Cyberpunk, alongside Mike Pondsmith.”

While stepping into an established franchise with preexisting fans can be intimidating, as Borzymowski notes, it also allows CD Projekt Red to be more open with fans about what to expect. “Very often I think, not just in games, but in books and movies too, you see promises being made without actually showing anything behind it – and then you’re building hype essentially based on just your words. Even if the product is very good, people might feel let down, and be like ‘oh, this isn’t what I thought it was going to be.’” Enter Cyberpunk Red. The latest edition of the penand-paper RPG was released in August by R. Talsorian Games, and provides a teaser of what to expect in Cyberpunk 2077. Set in 2045 – the midpoint between Mike Pondsmith’s original and the upcoming game. The RPG acts as a ‘midquel’, bridging the gap between the two titles – directly linking CD Projekt Red’s game to the original work. Given the 32 year gap, there are unlikely to be any direct plot threads linking Cyberpunk Red and 2077, but the Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit establishes the game’s setting – Night City, and an explanation of the

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politics of the future, detailing the horrific events known as the fourth corporate war. Allowing the very keenest fans to get a jump-start on the game’s setting is key to alleviating the pressure to deliver on the hype surrounding 2077. Staying so true to Cyberpunk 2020, going so far as to directly link the titles, is a smart move – both paying homage to existing fans and enticing newcomers to play Cyberpunk Red in the meantime. “Of course cyberpunk is a genre in its own right, but Cyberpunk 2020 really laid out Mike Pondsmith’s take on what the genre is all about,” says Borzymowski. “In his particular vision, cyberpunk is all about having this world where there are no real governments anymore, where megacorporations are exploiting everybody just to get even more money and power. You have people living in extreme poverty, being controlled by these corporations, and in between the two you have

the people being pushed down into the poverty line, dealing with gangs. And that’s where you are – you’re constantly struggling to know where to go. We want players to be able to create their own personal stories, about freedom and following their own path.” This feeling of freedom has soaked into not only the game’s narrative, but into the gameplay mechanics themselves. Cyberpunk 2077 is the first CD Projekt Red game not to feature an established main character, and will instead allow players to create their own. This sense of freedom and player choice in character creation has created headlines in the run up to the game’s launch, as it was revealed that players will not select to play as a man or a woman, but start with a choice between two body types, one traditionally masculine and one traditionally feminine. A seemingly small point to some, but one that potentially allows for players to create gender nonconforming characters, a sensible choice for a game centered around body modification and player choice. To Borzymowski, the introduction of a character creator is a representation of CD Projekt Red’s evolution as a company. “With the first Witcher game, we were establishing the studio, establishing our style of storytelling. In the Witcher 3 we added the open world to ensure that Geralt is able to have the freedom to explore and to have some side activities.” “When it comes to Cyberpunk, we don’t have an established character like Geralt. You are not this particular monster slayer with those particular two swords. You create your own character and you choose how you want them to play. I call it ‘open gameplay’, customising a character for the exact style of play that you want. You can go out there and be this Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator kind of guy, running in guns blazing on every mission. Or you can be – and I don’t have a better expression for this – a cyber ninja, attacking guys from the shadows.” Of course, this commitment to player freedom creates game design headaches that the team didn’t encounter in the Witcher games. Without a universal main character, with a single style of fighting, the game had to be structured from the very start to allow for playstyles of all kinds: “It’s very challenging. It’s not like we came up with this developer track that ‘oh yeah, we’ll just design it in this way, so it will be easy to accomodate all those playstyles.’”

Pictured above: Richard Borzymowski, CD Projekt Red

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“The approach here is to be transparent, we are not creating an illusion out of words.”

Pictured above: The pen-and-paper RPG Cyberpunk Red acts as an introduction to the world for those who want to jump in before the game’s release

Credit: Interview by Marie Dealessandri and words by Chris Wallace

“No, for every mission that we derived from the overarching plot that was written down in the very beginning, we had to shape and scope them in such a way that each single approach can not only finish the mission, but also have fun doing so. We’ll have players choosing to be a cyber ninja with a ton of cyberware, sure. But you can also play as a guy who claims he doesn’t even use cyberware, and is just this… vanilla human. We had to ensure that those players would still have fun with the game, so we had to have generic paths while ensuring that every single mission, every single beat is enjoyable for players of all kinds.” Although, with the wide array of cyberware available in the game to customise your character with, it’s hard for us to understand why players would want to turn it down in the first place. One point of particular interest to us is the use of multiple languages in the game, requiring a translator implant in order for subtitles in the player’s language to appear on screen. “The universe of Cyberpunk allowed us to develop a believable gameplay mechanism that allows you to hear all sorts of different languages, while still being able to understand what is being said,” says Borzymowski. “It’s not just a game setting hidden away in the menu, you actually have to purchase this thing in order to understand people.” Character creation and customisation is not the only thing that’s new in Cyberpunk 2077, though. As the game is such a departure from their previous Witcher titles, a whole new engine was required to produce the stunning visuals seen in the gameplay footage released so far. The new engine, titled REDengine 3, promises to deliver state-of-the-art visuals forming vivid environments, realistic expressions of emotions and character interactions. Big claims indeed, though there are more practical reasons behind the new engine, as Borzymowski explains: “first and foremost, we wouldn’t

be able to develop Cyberpunk on the exact same engine as the Witcher. The benefits of the new engine are that we are able to develop Cyberpunk in the first person perspective, with all the verticality of the various buildings and skyscrapers around the place. “Another thing,” he continues, “is when it comes to doing global illumination. When we are creating anything, in this example the city, you have to have two versions of it: you have daytime and the nighttime city. And at night, you have all those neon lights in the city, especially after you know, rainfall or something like that. You could just develop the geometry for the buildings, and add the neon lights on top of that. You have the shader of the water dripping off, but this wouldn’t give you as big an impression as having global illumination as well. So while developing, we always wanted to ensure we have this wow factor.” Of course, talk like this does nothing to temper the astronomical hype surrounding this title, which brings us back to the pressure CD Projekt Red are under right now. While undoubtedly a talented team, they have suddenly found themselves about to publish what is bound to be one of the biggest releases of 2020. As the April release creeps ever-closer, the pressure from their ravenous fanbase is building. “We are feeling under pressure,” says Borzymowski, “but we are taking it as encouragement and we are lucky that what we’re showing to the community is well received. They have given us a certainty that the vision that we had is the right one, is a good one. The approach here is to be transparent, we are not creating an illusion out of words. We’re sharing what we’re up to, and ensuring that we are on track to do something that will be well received.” Borzymowski seems confident then, despite the enormously high expectations for the game – though this confidence seems to be based not on the assumption of reproducing their prior success with The Witcher, but an acknowledgement of the work that has gone on behind the scenes over the game’s long development. Still, we can’t help but ask if he’s feeling worried. “Worrying is not the word,” he says. “We know that people are waiting for this game, and the only thing we can do – the very same thing we did on The Witcher – is to pour our heart and soul into it.”

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Finger on the trigger Veteran mobile shooter outfit Madfinger Games talks monetisation and machine learning, and taking on Call of Duty with their latest title

E Pictured above, left to right: Creative director Oscar Soler Fas and Madfinger CEO Marek Rabas

ver since they first burst onto the mobile scene with Samurai: Way of the Warrior in 2009, Madfinger Games have seen the potential for console-quality experiences on mobile platforms. The studio is perhaps best known for their work bringing first person shooters to mobile, in both the Shadowgun games as well as their zombie shooter franchise Dead Trigger. As the company prepares to launch its latest title, Shadowgun War Games – a multiplayer spinoff of its 2018 title Shadowgun Legends – Madfinger Games CEO and co-founder Marek Rabas talks about how to fight off stiff competition as a small company, and looks towards the future of the mobile gaming sphere.

Free to play monetisation has come under fire in recent times, with multiple controversies surrounding practices such as loot boxes even making headlines in the mainstream media. To counteract this, Rabas has a clear image of the kind of free to play games he wants to make, and how the format can benefit the company’s work: “I love the free-to-play design,” says Rabas, “and when I say that, I mean the proper free-to-play design, not this milking, psychological thing that you see. I love that you can evolve the game, change it, that you are working with the players – trying to understand their needs, their behaviours, their emotions. Taking all of that to create an environment for them.”

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Pictured above: The upcoming Shadowgun Wargames is a team shooter with an obvious debt to Overwatch

It’s this attitude of evolution and change that has informed the studio’s upcoming game, Shadowgun War Games, which, as Rabas explains, has been designed off the feedback the team got from the previous Shadowgun games, Deadzone and Legends, and the mistakes they made along the way in their development. “Deadzone had two problems,” says Rabas, “it didn’t have good KPIs, and it was too hardcore. We basically knew nothing about how free to play was working, or the applied behaviours, and we were just working based on our own opinions. Turns out it was too hardcore, our day one retention rate was very low. We were just throwing players straight into a match and they were like ‘screw this’ and left the game. So we’re being very careful about that now. We want the game to be easy to learn, hard to master.” “We’re using machine learning for the bots,” he continues. “With Legends, you had people who kept

losing to the bots, and never progressed to the PvP because they thought they weren’t good enough. We want to keep them motivated, so we have to take care with it so they are slowly encouraged to try out the competitive side of the game. So from the beginning it’s all about the entertainment, having a fun experience with the game – and then they slowly get attracted to the metagame, and the competitive experience and they’ll start looking for new challenges.” Perhaps the most visible change in War Games, and what Madfinger hopes will make the game more welcoming to new players, is the introduction of a herobased system. The game’s launch trailer featured a selection of the game’s heroes, most prominently a fast-moving, timerewinding character – you’d have to be blind to miss the obvious Overwatch influences. Of course, Blizzard’s enormous success with Overwatch has seen hero

LIKE AND SUBSCRIBE? “APPLE Arcade haven’t approached us, seeing as we’re free to play and not making premium priced games. I’m not sure about the subscription model – It’s basically like Spotify. The musicians don’t make any money from Spotify, they have to do concerts to earn money. But games don’t have that other revenue stream. We don’t have concerts, or cinema, or blu ray sales,” Rabas tells us. “I also think it changes games into more consumable things. You know, I remember when games were on floppy disks, and I’d just play this one game forever. Now with downloads, I’ll have like ten games at once, and I don’t spend as much time on them because they get consumed immediately. I don’t think I’d have ever finished Dark Souls on a subscription service, because I’d immediately just close it down for another game.”

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shooters become the fashion in recent years, but there was an additional, more practical reason for the change. “In Legends, we found that the PvP was hard to balance, because of all the various combinations” says Rabas. “So for War Games we decided to do things differently. We were playing the games that are out there and thought, ‘Okay, so this is like what Overwatch is doing. This works for the balancing, and it works for creating some charisma for each of the heroes.’ On top of that, it also helps the metagame, because if you have a lot of heroes, people will choose different heroes based on different strategies, which could lead to some really entertaining situations.” Madfinger has plans beyond just making their games more welcoming to casual players, of course. With mobile games seeing increasing success in esports, Rabas is eager to get involved. Judging by the studio’s ten-year history, a break into esports seems like an obvious next step. For a studio that strives to create console gaming experiences on mobile platforms, taking pride in the graphical fidelity of their titles, esports seems to be too good an opportunity to miss. “With mobile esports on the rise, this is a great opportunity for us,” he says. “I feel that people shouldn’t be afraid to play mobile games for esports, especially if the games look good – like a console or PC game. That’s where we want to be. When we were on the ESL stage at last year’s Gamescom, we were testing how it looks, and it looks really lovely on the big screens. For us, there’s no

difference. The only thing is that instead of a mouse or a controller, you have a touchscreen.” Of course, be it in the casual gaming space or in esports, the small Czech studio is going to be facing some enormous competition. Rabas is well aware that, as a studio producing first person shooter games, they need to distinguish themselves from Call of Duty: Mobile, which released this October. “Even as a small company, we’ve always been fighting with the big guys,” notes Rabas. “All our lives we’ve been playing first person shooters. So we went back and played games like Halo, Overwatch, even the old Quake titles. Obviously Call of Duty is going to be competition, so we want to be a little different. Call of Duty: Mobile is just like the titles on consoles, it’s still this really fast twitch shooter. So we want to go in a different way. Because the controls on mobile react slightly slower, we give you a little more life, a little more room to use your skills and turn situations to your advantage.” From taking inspiration from Overwatch, to esports, to competing with Call of Duty, then. We don’t think anybody has ever told Madfinger Games that they have limited ambitions. Time will tell if the studio can live up to its lofty goals, but Rabas seems to be confident: “I hope that War Games will be successful, because we have a lot of plans for it, and there’s a lot of space for it. It’s not just about the competitive stuff: It’s a world of heroes and we want people to have a fun and fulfilling time with it.”

Pictured above: The Madfinger team at its offices in Brno, Czech Republic

Credit: Interview by Seth Barton and feature by Chris Wallace

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Having created titles such as Flow, Flower and Journey, thatgamecompany is a bona fide indie superstar. But for Sky: Children of the Light it switched from premium console titles to mobile and free-to-play. Seth Barton finds out how the company monetised its game while keeping its soul


t’s now six months from Sky: Children of the Light’s formal launch on iOS, and with five million players having played the title to date, alongside an Android version due very shortly and console releases planned, that’s just the beginning of Sky’s reach. So we sit down with co-founder and creative director Jenova Chen in a London hotel to talk about the game’s impact to date and where it’s headed. The title took an incredible seven years to come to fruition. That’s a development cycle more in line with a troubled triple-A console title than an indie game or mobile title, of which Sky is undoubtedly both in some respects.

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Pictured above: Guiding other players through the world is a key aspect of Sky’s cooperative design

The reason it took so long was that the studio shifted tack following a warning from Apple itself some three years into the game’s development. “We spent the first three years making an emotional storytelling game, kind of like Journey. But then Apple comes and tells us that people stopped buying games on the app store completely, saying ‘you’re not going to make your money back. Please change your game to free to play, that’s where people are spending money’. “This is why the game took seven years.” PENNIES FROM HEAVEN If you know thatgamecompany’s work – beautiful, emotionally-impactful, pared-down experiences in sumptuous yet minimal worlds – then it’s hard to see how it could possibly integrate free-to-play monetisation. But Chen was undaunted. “I spent the first year studying every successful freeto-play game. I’m a game designer, I design games to create feelings. And every monetisation system is itself an interactive gameplay system. And they’re designed to give you a feeling when you spend money.” “If your goal is to make money out of people, you will go for their weakness, their fundamental desires.

I sometimes think that with many PvP games, the game developer is essentially playing the role of arms dealer. And I’m thinking is that really what I want to do to make games? I was trying to create something that could make more people respect games.” He namechecks Toy Story for lifting computergenerated imagery out of being a mere technical demo and into an emotionally-impacting storytelling medium. “I had to find a monetisation [strategy] that would live up to the heart of a Pixar movie. We had to reinvent monetisation, so that it does not ruin the emotional experience.” “In the game, we’re trying to evoke positive behaviour, to show players’ humanity towards each other in this world. So when it comes to monetising we want people to feel positive towards the spending… I create emotional experiences. I didn’t really expect to jump into services. In order to keep the business going, we’re now an emotional service!” In practice, Sky’s monetisation comes primarily through a season pass, which gives access to additional activities, though the free-to-play title is generous in its content even without it. In addition, its key in-game currencies of candles and

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future. Android [should come] within a month. In the future, it’s going to cross all platforms. And whether you have PlayStation or Switch we will support crossplay. “It’s difficult to say what this game is. Ultimately, I built it for gamers who want to show their friends a game that they can play together. I hope that Sky will be their choice.” And Chen is full of stories about the broad range of players who enjoy Sky. From an old lady who played the game with friends who helped her navigate the world, to a man who spent much of his final months helping others in the game before succumbing to cancer, to a pair of sisters, part of a feedback group, who said who they played the game together, in their own beds, for an hour every night before going to sleep.

hearts are encouraged to be gifted from player to player. The $10 season pass is trumped in value by a $15 pass for three players: the game is literally half-price if you have others to play it with. Chen wants those others to be your closest friends and family, gamers or not. SPREADING YOUR WINGS Mobile games reaching a demographically broader audience than console titles is nothing new, but there remain a limited number of successful titles that have equal reach across both gender and age divides. Sky is a fully-formed 3D world with explorationcentric, MMO-lite gameplay and a constantly expanding set of activities for players to undertake. It’s not typical match-three mobile fare, and it comes from a developer used to creating titles for a console-owning audience. But Chen was dead set on reaching as many people as possible with thatgamecompany’s first mobile title. “I have yet to see an emotional game that was able to engage both children and adults, men and women… so that it’s cross generation. That’s what I have been trying to build. And I wanted to build it on a platform that they could actually access in order to play together,” Chen tells us. “That’s why we we made it on iPhone first. But our game runs on iPad, on PC, it will run on console in the

Pictured above: Jenova Chen, thatgamecompany

A WHITER SHADE OF PALE Thatgamecompany’s previous titles all have something very meditative about them. They are beautiful games, which touch upon the sublime, in which you can easily lose yourself and get away from reality. And that even goes for Journey with its intentionally minimalist cooperative multiplayer. Expanding that title’s sense of working together into something far more complex was always going to be Sky’s main challenge. To create a multiplayer world that celebrates togetherness and understanding, rather than competition and conflict. “So many games, such as battle royale titles, don’t necessarily take interactions from society, they instead capture a different reality, a reality where only one person can survive. That starts to push the people in this virtual space to behave a certain way. And then you evoke survival instincts, those dark instincts that all of us have. “My interest is in creating a virtual space, through the design of the world, where we evoke the part of humanity that we’re proud of. Where we can be genuine, can be vulnerable, can connect, can trust each other. Can I create a virtual space that evokes that?” “It’s almost too easy for video games to go to the dark place. Because we’ve done so many games on that side.” And even games where players are working together can often fail to generate the most desirable outcomes. “Part of the reason I created the world of Sky, which is an extension of Journey, is that I played a lot of MMO games when I was younger. I was really there looking for relationships because I was lonely. But it’s difficult for me to form [those] in a classic MMO game where all people focus on is waiting for the raid to start, or telling me to do my job in the team, or arguing over the loot afterwards. And then everyone is gone.”

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Pictured above: As two players build a deeper bond in the game, their options to interact grow too

While some obviously built strong bonds in such games. It’s often true that the social elements around such games often happen before and after the core gameplay experience, in forums or over team chat, rather than in the game world itself. “When I created Journey, I wanted to create a social game where people won’t be judged based on their skin, labels and age. And so when we extended it into an MMO space with Sky, we wanted to bring the whole family. The family identity is super crucial for me. I want a space where even parents would appear to be children. And I think the reason we picked the children is because it doesn’t come with sexuality. You’re not judged by way of gender. And everyone is a child at heart.” Characters can interact in many different ways, with further actions unlocked as two characters spend more time together. They can take each other’s hands to guide them through the world, whether running or flying, they can gesture to each other, and even piggyback on each other. Bond enough and you can eventually open up in-game chat. “It’s basically if you’re at that level, you’re then willing to allow another person’s reality into your reality. You have to do a lot of investment into the relationship first.”

There are lots of cosmetic items to earn from activities in order to differentiate characters, but Chen has avoided creating a monetised arms race for rare items. “Very quickly, we realised that players gathered towards the rarest combinations, so it’s still difficult to tell which one is your friend! To that point, we needed names. But we still don’t want to bring reality into the game. That’s why we ask you to choose the names of those you meet.” LOFTY AMBITIONS One thing that’s recognisable from previous titles is thatgamecompany’s visual stylings. Sky looks divine, quite literally, as your cherubic character flies through a world comprised largely of clouds. “I’m very drawn towards the sublime when it comes to personal style – I’m not HR Giger, looking for the darkness! Whether it was Flow, Flower or Journey the aesthetics tend to be more on the romantic side,” Chen tells us. “I like to capture the beauty of truth, use abstractions to catch something that is usually hidden in the noise,” which gives Sky a visually clean style which hasn’t aged at all despite the title’s many years in development. It’s quite unlike anything else that we’ve seen, with the very

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obvious exception of the studio’s own titles, of course. “We want our game to be timeless in a way. I’m looking back at Flower which is 10 years ago and it’s still a beautiful game. We don’t want them to be just following a trend.” Chen tells us how he sits between eastern and western traditions, culturally speaking: “I grew up in Asia, I was fed up, growing up with Japanese manga and American Hollywood movies. And then I come to America. I realise cool American kids don’t watch those movies, they watch David Lynch, the cool stuff that I didn’t know. Then I spent most of my graduate school trying to watch all the things that I didn’t see. So I had a sense of both what western people like and a sense of what eastern people like.” “And so, as we create visuals, I wanted to have something that nobody had seen, but yet still feels familiar. And so the majority of the architecture from Journey had Middle Eastern influences. Because that still felt exotic.” “For Sky most of the architecture we took was from Burma, Bhutan and Tibet, which is exotic to Chinese and Japanese people.” He notes that it engenders a sense of high spaces, of altitude. “We want to bring something fresh in terms of aesthetics. The game is also fresh in terms of technology, we render our clouds in a way nobody else does.” Rather than using say Unity, the game is built on the studio’s own engine technology, created during its early days working largely on Playstation hardware. Visually it looks to have paid off, though the lengthy development time, and with the Android version still to come with the varied hardware support that entails, the choice may well have had its cost. LONG DEPARTED Whatever the reasons behind Sky’s epic development time, it certainly had an impact on the team, many of whom moved on before the seeing the project to launch. “Many of the developers could not sustain it, so after around five years, we had to change quite a lot of the staff,” Chen admits. “We are a very international studio. We have people from Israel, the UK, the Netherlands, Mexico, Ecuador, Japan, Korea... So when we create things we want to be global, we want to be respecting every culture, even religions – we don’t want to accidentally make this into a religious game.”

For most developers the idea of accidentally making a religious game would be unlikely (as opposed to one that simply offends on a religious level), but there’s a deep sense of spirituality that runs through thatgamecompany’s work, so it has to be more careful than most that it doesn’t step on any real-world toes. Instead Chen hopes that the game can bring people together, bridging language barriers, gender, age and even political divides: “Since we launched in July, we’ve actually seen a lot of Korean and Japanese players form relationships playing the game – while at the same time, in the real world [the countries] are actually in conflict.” “That was an eye opening experience. The [real] world at large is a system that induces certain behaviours in people, but every virtual world is a society as well and through how you design that world, you can make people treat each other in a different manner.” And if those behaviours can be channeled to support our best selves then that’s among the loftiest ambitions we’ve heard from a game designer – and one that Sky looks to be backing up within its playing community. It’s something Chen hopes will motivate other designers: “I want more people to focus on making games for a broader audience with an emotional intensity that can touch people.” And Chen himself isn’t sitting back to enjoy his latest success: “We have pre-production for a new game but Sky is a live game and we have at least a couple years of content planned for it… we have plenty of cool ideas that we didn’t have time to add to the game.”

Pictured above: The development team at thatgamecompany in Los Angeles

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Executing licensed games: John Wick style Good Shepherd on John Wick Hex and experimenting with licensed games


s both a publisher and an investment platform, Good Shepherd games has never been a stranger to change, or been afraid to try something new. Indeed, when the company launched its equity crowdfunding platform in 2012, it was the first of such platforms to be focused entirely on video games. It’s no surprise, then, that Good Shepherd have gone on to take chances on indie titles that try to do something different. On top of continuing their success with Train Fever, following up with 2016’s Transport Fever and the upcoming Transport Fever 2, Good Shepherd is also responsible for publishing Dim Bulb Games’ narrative adventure Where the Water Tastes like

Wine, and Bithell Games’ strategic take on John Wick with John Wick Hex. In fact, it’s their recent success with John Wick Hex, in which Bithell Games took Keanu Reeves’ stonecold action star and ran him through a timeline-based strategy game, that inspired what might be Good Shepherd’s next big change. That is, focusing on unique creators and delivering quality games based on established IPs. John Wick Hex was an unusual approach for a game licensed after an action film series, but it was one that immediately got Good Shepherd’s attention, according to their Marketing Manager, Vernon Vrolijk. “We wanted to make an amazing licensed game,” says Vrolikj, “because there’s so many licensed games out

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there, but unfortunately most of them end up not being very good. There are exceptions to the rule, like the Spider-Man and Batman Arkham games, but overall, the industry has had a spotty record at best when it comes to delivering the vision of these IPs.” “It’s hard to figure out why that is,” he continues. “Why does it seem like we struggle so much as an industry to do that? And we realised that most of the time why people struggle with this, it’s because if you’re trying to meet a deadline, trying to release at the same time as a movie or TV show, the game will never capture what the IP is. It’s almost like a reskin. You take a movie in which someone shoots and you go: ‘I have a game where somebody shoots, we should change the character model and it’s the same thing’. So once we identify those problems, we said okay, how can we avoid those? How can we do something truly original?” According to Good Shepherd, the answer to lackluster licenced titles it to allow the development team the creative freedom to take the IP in unexpected directions. Vrolijk explains the mission statement: “The idea is to deliver something truly unique. Not just unique because

it fits with your IP, but unique in the game itself. So that, even without the IP, the game would be unique.” Enter Mike Bithell, who pitched his idea to Good Shepherd – which at the time was for a more turn-based approach to John Wick. “Mike’s idea was a really unique approach to strategy. He wanted to make a strategy game based on John Wick. No one we’d ever spoken to had suggested that. Everyone wanted to make a shooter, either first or third person, like Max Payne. That didn’t interest us because... well, Max Payne exists. Call of Duty exists. They’re amazing at what they do. So he brought this unique perspective that we hadn’t seen before.” Working with Bithell brought another benefit to the studio. Not only did a huge IP such as John Wick bring extra attention to the game, Bithell’s large social media following allowed the team to gather feedback from fans in ways they hadn’t been able to before. “We knew very well going in that Mike has this stature within the industry, and this huge fan base, this respect both of his peers and fans. So we always wanted to open

Pictured above: Vernon Vrolijk, Good Shepherd

Pictured below: With Keanu linked to both Cyberpunk 2077 and John Wick Hex, he undoubtedly won the best celebrity award of E3 2019

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Pictured above: Good Shepherd’s key offerings at this year’s E3

up the project and be more community-focused, with Mike being able to talk about his experiences making the game. That’s the real problem with licenced titles: usually you never hear the story, good or bad. That proved to be super useful for us, being able to hear all these opinions on the game immediately.” Their success with John Wick Hex, and the feedback they received along the way, was not just a good result for Good Shepherd, but it was also one that has given the company a new strategy going forward: embracing

unique, licensed games. “This is something we’re really excited about. This is a new kind of project for us, and a new way forward for the company. John Wick Hex is super important to us, because it is a proving ground that this can work – not only work, but be a pleasant experience for all the creative people involved. It doesn’t have to be a chore, you can create something truly innovative for the game, outside of the licence itself.” This strategy is something that comes back to the name ‘Good Shepherd’ itself. The company rebranded

Pictured right: John Wick Hex takes a radically different approach to a game about shooting people

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from Gambitious Digital Entertainment in 2012, in order to respect its changing ambitions and values. “The reason we rebranded was that we were looking at the future,” Vrolijk says. “What do we want to be in two, three years? So we laid out our strategies. One is IP, the other is doing bigger, more ambitious projects. So we’re releasing less games, but doing more for the games that we use. As a result of these new ambitions, we looked at the branding that we had with this identity that we had, that was still a little bit too focused on the financing of it, and the investment part of it, which we didn’t feel fit our new vision. And to be honest, it didn’t fit us as people either, because we’re all creative, and that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.” Of course, Good Shepherd isn’t just a publisher. The company still maintains its investment platform, and their knowledge of the game industry helps guide (or shepherd) investors to the most interesting projects they can find. “We basically act as a filter,” Vrolijk explains. “The reality is, a lot of investors don’t understand games. Investing in any entertainment, be that films, TV or games, is a very high risk. Video games are so relatively young, so you have investors that just have never played games. But they see their kids play games, the grandkids play games. They see how big it is, but they don’t understand. On top of that, we have our own culture, we speak a certain way we have our own dialogue. We have our own terms that we use. We do events very differently than everybody else. If you’re an outsider looking in, that is so overwhelming. So we go out there and find the best project we can and act as a mediator. We translate everything. We go to them and say, ‘okay, this is the team, we believe they can do this. We’re going to shepherd them, we’re going to work with them. And we are we really committed to this project.’” It’s a strategy that Vrolijk believes will benefit not just Good Shepherd, but the future of the industry itself. With the explosion of the indie scene, more projects are being made than ever before. However, this explosion in productivity has not been matched with an explosion of investment. “Again, the cultural difference with investors is how scary it can be. We believe by acting as a mediator, we can show them that you can be financially successful by

investing in these games. It’s going to make it less scary, invite more people in and bring new money into the industry – which hopefully will help a lot more indie developers in the long term. I’m excited to see where that goes.” With its new IP strategy, Good Shepherd is hopeful for the future. Time will tell if its grand ambitions will bear fruit, but even today its work is a boon for both the future of licensed titles and the indie scene as a whole.

“It doesn’t have to be a chore, you can create something truly innovative for the game, outside of the licence itself.”

Pictured above: John Wick Hex was a press hit when first shown at E3

Credit: Interview by Marie Dealessandri and words by Chris Wallace

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r e k a M e m a G twenty at DAY! A S P IGN U S 0 0 0 , VER 1 O L L I ST

Chris Wallace takes a look at the remarkable history of GameMaker, speaks to the creators of some of its most famous titles and looks at its continuing mission to educate the next generation of game developers


ince the first release of GameMaker on November 15 1999, the game creation tool has become an industry stalwart. From inauspicious beginnings, the engine has grown to become the go-to for fledgling game developers, and is even frequently used by more established indie game studios. As a result, GameMaker has become hugely beneficial to the indie game development scene, having been used in the production of titles such as Mossmouth’s Spelunky, Messhof ’s Nidhogg and Toby Fox’s Undertale, alongside those we feature here. The program was originally designed as an educational tool for kids, using its simple drag and drop interface to make game development more accessible for young children. In fact, as GameMaker

creator Mark Overmars explains, the program was inspired by a very different educational tool: “I was particularly interested in creating software that was very easy to use and would spark creativity,” says Overmars. “My first product along these lines was Drawing for Children, where my challenge was to create an interface to a drawing program for young children that could not yet read. After that I wrote Drape, which was a programmable drawing program. You composed programs using drag-and-drop that would make drawings, and it has actually been used in many schools. But I realized that kids wanted more than drawing. So I decided to create something with which kids could create games, using my own children as the first target market – though they never used it much.” Thankfully, his brood weren’t to prove typical.

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Pictured above: GameMaker creator Mark Overmars

With these humble beginnings, it would have been hard to imagine that GameMaker would go on to be the industry staple that it is today. Overmars himself certainly had no larger ambitions for it at the time. “It was just a hobby project, with no commercial ideas whatsoever. I was really surprised when it started to become so popular. I guess the name helped a lot – people were searching for something to make games with and ended up with GameMaker. Of course, it helped that it was completely free, but it did take a couple of years – and many improved versions – before this popularity started to happen. If I had started with the goal to make something very popular, I would probably have given up at some stage.” Of course, while the project’s original goal was to encourage creativity in children – in the hopes of inspiring young people to consider studying computer science, GameMaker has since grown far beyond that. While the program has become a vital tool for first-

time and independent game developers, GameMaker’s parent YoYo Games has continued its legacy as an educational tool, as YoYo Games general manager Stuart Poole explains: “Education has always been a big part of the heart and soul of GameMaker,” says Poole. “GameMaker is now used in thousands of schools across the globe, teaching children between the ages of 12 to 17 how to code, and in universities as an art medium and a rapid development tool. “We surveyed 150 of our educators this year, and over 74 per cent found GameMaker to be somewhat effective or better at improving learning engagement. Individual confidence, planning and improving the student/teacher bond all scored over 90 per cent. Our role as a formal product for supporting the teaching of coding, taking students from drag and drop to coding is proving very effective and we are delighted to see the rapid growth that we’ve experienced over recent years.”

Ojiro Fumoto – Downwell OJIRO Fumoto used GameMaker to create Downwell, a vertically scrolling platformer that saw remarkable success following its launch in 2015, going on to win multiple game of the year awards. What advantages are there to creating Games with GameMaker? I feel that GameMaker has many advantages but the biggest one for me is that it was super easy to learn! When I decided to start making games with GameMaker, I had no previous background in programming. But with the abundance of video tutorials on YouTube, and GML (GameMaker’s programming language) being beginner friendly in general, I was able to get the hang of it quickly and was working on my first prototype in no time. How long have you been using GameMaker for? What is your proudest achievement using GameMaker? I started with GameMaker: Studio, so that gives me about six years of

experience. And I’m most proud of having made Downwell! What advice would you give to a new developer using GameMaker for the first time? I’d highly recommend doing the ‘Game A Week’ challenge for a few weeks! That’s how I started making games, and it helped me immensely starting out in learning to use GameMaker and also in practicing game design.

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Jan Willem Nijman – Minit NIJMAN, along with co-founder Rami Ismail used GameMaker for projects including Super Crate Box and Nuclear Throne, as well as prototyping early versions of other titles, such as Luftrausers. He also used GameMaker for the project Minit. Do you think GameMaker still has a lot of untapped potential, in terms of what devs can do with it? Sure, the same thing goes for any medium! As making games gets more and more accessible we’ll get more people from all walks of life making their art and telling their stories.

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ton of smaller projects. It’s always important to remember that finishing is a skill in itself. What is your proudest achievement using GameMaker? I’m proud of the fact that I get to work with so many awesome people on professional games, while still using the software I’m extremely comfortable with. I’ve come a long way since my very first edit of the Click The Clown tutorial.

How long have you been using GameMaker for? What version did you start with? I found out about GameMaker in a Dutch magazine called CompuKids in 2001 or so, that was GameMaker 4. Never really looked back since then, and I’m still using it. What advice would you give to a new developer using GameMaker? Make really tiny things that are within your capability. If you start out too ambitious you’ll take way longer learning than if you finish a

Of course, GameMaker’s educational capabilities aren’t limited to just the classroom. The program’s simple drag-and-drop features has allowed it to become a stepping stone for would-be game developers of all ages, making game development more accessible than ever before. To further help in this effort, YoYo Games’ website features a number of both video and written tutorials to help first-time developers get started. “Over 1,000 people every single day sign-up to use GameMaker for the first time,” says Poole, “and they are overwhelmingly beginners. We’re really proud to not only have responsibility for cultivating the next generation of game developers, game designers and artists, but to have maintained it for 20 years.” “The focus in schools on STEM learning has provoked a huge interest in using game design to teach children how to code, and this coincided with the launch of GameMaker Studio 2, over the last three years we have seen annual growth rates of over 50 per cent in our education program. We now

have thousands of schools across the globe using GameMaker. Primarily because it’s a fun way to learn for both teachers and students alike.” YoYo Games isn’t just content to look back at GameMaker’s 20 year history. The tool is continuing to expand and evolve – perhaps their biggest coming change is the introduction of Sequences, which will allow artists to manipulate pixel graphics to add motion, without the need for technical expertise. “We will be launching Sequences soon. It will be in Open Beta by the end of the year and available in Spring, and that is going to be a massive leap forward for supporting creative design in GameMaker. We are putting a lot of effort into the top and bottom of GameMaker, and by that we mean making our advanced functionality easy to use for beginners, while providing our top-end developers with the tools to more quickly make amazing 2D games.” The company hopes that features like Sequences will help both small and larger developers. By lowering the technical skill required will help

Pictured above: YoYo Games general manager Stuart Poole

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“Sometimes, something small and nameless, created by an eight year old, is way more impressive than one of the big game titles.” first-time developers to produce games, while larger, more experienced teams will benefit from the ensuing autonomy it allows for their team to work on other tasks. Alongside its uses for education, its this democratisation

of game development that has made GameMaker the success it is today. Not only has the tool grown beyond what could have been imagined back in 1999, but it has also allowed for an explosion in indie game development. GameMaker has levelled the playing field for a number of first-time developers, introducing artists to a space they might have otherwise been unable to enter. For all the many indie developers that have made their start in GameMaker though, its creator has stuck to his roots as an educator. When we ask for some of his favourite GameMaker titles, Overmars replies: “It is impossible to point to games I have been most impressed with. Sometimes, something small and nameless, created by an eight year old, is way more impressive than one of the big game titles.”

Seth Coster – Crashlands SETH Coster is CEO and game programmer at Butterscotch Shenanigans – developer of titles such as Crashlands and Levelhead, both created in GameMaker. Butterscotch Shenanigans even produced a video demonstrating how Levelhead’s areas were made in GameMaker. What advantages are there to creating Games with GameMaker? The biggest advantage GameMaker has is speed. We’ve been able to make and publish games in under 10 hours, and we even made an MMO in a weekend for a recent game jam. Once you really get the hang of the software, you can move like lightning.

What advice would you give to a new developer using GameMaker? My advice is to start small and focus on finishing games. My first game was a huge project that I worked on for over a year, and at the end of that year, the game was only three per cent finished. My skills and knowledge of GameMaker didn’t really start to accelerate until I focused on making a lot of really small games, really fast.

How does GameMaker compare to using other engines? In the past, I dabbled in other engines off and on, and I even tried to learn raw C++ to make games. None of them stuck – I felt like I couldn’t really get a foothold on any of them. So I had given up on the idea of being able to make games. But when I found GameMaker, I was suddenly able to do all the things I wanted to do, and it was easily understandable. And that changed the entire trajectory of my life. Without GameMaker, I would be a lawyer right now instead of a game developer!

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Virtuos Games worked closely with Ubisoft to bring Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation from its PS Vita origins and bring it to modern day consoles as part of Assassin’s Creed 3 Remastered. Seth Barton talks to game producer Paul Loumouamou, and technical director Xavier Rozé about the process. So the project was to bring Liberation to modern consoles – using the PC version as a basis? XAVIER ROZÉ: Yes but not only. We also wanted to refresh the visual quality of the game in order to reach the current standard. As PS4 and Xbox One hardware are more powerful than the original devices, we have the opportunity to push the capabilities of the engine. A first HD version was originally released on PC with improvements from the PS Vita version, and we wanted to push those further for this remaster. PAUL LOUMOUAMOU: This is also why we released a PC version as well. This allowed us to offer the visual improvements of this remaster to PC gamers. What are the key considerations when budgeting for such a conversion? XR: One key consideration is to adapt the game to the current player audience, which has significantly evolved since the original release. We wanted players of the original game to rediscover it by amazing them on aspects they did not expect, and at the same time, we wanted to offer them a title which fully matches their original memories. This is why we were focused first on the visual improvements, but also on gameplay and UI adaptations as well as fixing bugs from the original. PL: Another key consideration is that there are cross adventures between Connor from Assassin’s Creed 3 and Aveline, the heroine of Assassin’s Creed Liberation. It was important to keep the entire story as a whole, so it made a lot of sense to release both 3 and Liberation together in a single bundle.

How big was the team, and were they all based in a single location? XR: At Virtuos, three studios worked together: Paris, Chengdu and Shanghai. Each had a dedicated topic. Paris, who was the lead studio, was responsible for all the visual and gameplay improvements regarding development and technical art. Chengdu was in charge of the target platform development and UI improvement, whereas Shanghai worked on the asset improvements. I think that around 40 to 45 people worked on the project at its peak. PL: It is one of our key strengths here at Virtuos, we have a very solid codevelopment culture, both internally and with our clients. What were your ambitions for bringing what was a Vita title to machines many times more powerful? XR: Quite a large amount of improvements have been made to AnvilNext, the engine that runs the Assassin’s Creed series. For us, this was a wonderful source of

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Pictured right: The move to current gen has allowed for significant graphical improvements, especially in lighting

inspiration to demonstrate what could be achievable for this new version of the game. We wanted to improve the experience by offering a more advanced immersion for the player. This has been our chance to demonstrate what we are capable of, by implementing the most appropriate features in the game. PL: Assassin’s Creed Liberation had the potential to integrate visual features that can only be implemented on current gen consoles or PC. Our ambition was to give this title a new life with key ingredients that can be found in recent games. What areas did you concentrate on in order to improve the title? PL: The graphics were something we spent a lot of time on. One of our main concerns was the lighting, on which we made a lot of changes. We tried to bring a

more realistic side to the game’s atmospheres, such as in the bayou area, while still staying true to the initial artistic direction. As for the UI/UX, our main focus was to modernise it. We implemented UI features such as, for example, the mini-map which is an essential feature in games nowadays. We also redesigned some of the UI, like achievements, to reach a more up-to-date UI overall. Were there any gameplay changes? PL: Yes, we upgraded some of the gameplay with a particular focus on two main features. We made a free aiming system which is more representative of the latest Assassin’s Creed games. That introduced a lot of new issues we had to fix one by one due to the fact that we were modifying one of the core features of the game. However, it was a very worthwhile implementation,

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since it added more depth to the shooting gameplay. We also made improvements to the canoe controls, making them more accurate. In addition to the visual improvements we made on the water, and specifically on the canoe’s interaction with the water, it made the canoe much more realistic. XR: We had long discussions with Ubisoft to determine what the best angle to improve the original game could be. We wanted to optimise our effort in the parts of the game that were the most visible to players. For instance, one of the key points of improvement is the water rendering in the Bayou, a swampy map of the game that the player visits frequently. The original rendering was limited by technical constraints, and we have been able to make significant improvements by implementing a water rendering system adapted from the ocean system of Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. Thanks to this new implementation, the waves are far better rendered on the water surface, and accurately reflect the moves of the canoe driven by Aveline. Another example is the parallax occlusion mapping that we have implemented to bump up the grounds of the levels, especially in New Orleans and New York maps. As the ground usually fills a third of the screen, this is the kind of asset improvement which requires a very specific work, but is largely applied and obvious throughout the game. We have also focused on frequently displayed UI such as weapon inventory or the mini-map to refresh their ergonomics and make them closer to what the players are now used to. Were the original assets up to the task, did you have to work on them at all? PL: We kept the same meshes as the PC version, but we upgraded the textures to a higher resolution. We also added new objects in the environment to increase the immersion of the player into the game. XR: The most efficient task for us when it came to assets was to improve resolution of textures and details of some materials for the ones which actually needed to be refreshed. The game is built on the Anvilnext engine, for which there are already PS4/XB1 releases, did that make the process easier? XR: Actually, using existing PS4/XB1 implementation of other AnvilNext-based games has been quite useful to design our low-level architecture and quickly get a first version running on these consoles, even if each game requires a dedicated implementation to fit its own source code anyway. This has helped us to faster

implement some multithreading optimisations as well, to benefit from new hardware capacities. Moreover, this has offered us more time to polish the improvements of the other game parts. What was your relationship with members of the original development team and how did this help you achieve the final result? XR: Numerous people have worked on various parts of the game and the engine! Fortunately, we have built a strong partnership with Ubisoft, who has provided us with support to explain some code parts or process to comply with in order for us to avoid wasting time. PL: We had the opportunity to talk with the original developers of Assassin’s Creed Liberation for our specific questions. We also had weekly calls and a close relationship with Ubisoft Barcelona who was developing Assassin’s Creed 3 Remastered at the same time.

Pictured above, from top: Game producer Paul Loumouamou and technical director Xavier Rozé

Did the project go as you were expecting? What areas were problematic? Where did you manage to do more than you expected? XR: The project went as expected and even more! It is rare enough to be pointed out. This is the reason why we dug into R&D of PBR (physcially based rendering) implementation, whereas it was not expected at the beginning of the project. Earlier we wished to improve lighting on the materials to emphasise better specularity in the game, but the previous attempts were unsuccessful or not noticeable enough. So, we decided to first move to a rough implementation of physically-based rendering. The jump was not obvious, as this is a shift of lighting paradigm and we did not want to break all the game rendering to rebuild everything from scratch after. So we first prototyped a hybrid implementation of no-PBR and PBR models, which was able to display untouched objects and PBR-ised objects in the same tiny scene to demonstrate that both kinds could cohabitate. This allowed us to validate that this strategy could be extended to the whole game in order to improve only the materials we wanted and keep therefore the production under control. PL: If I had one thing that I would recommend to be wary of during a remaster production, it would be changes in the art direction. It’s very easy to change the original intention of the art direction without intending to. We had weekly reviews with comparisons of both games (our remastered version and the original version) to be sure that we were still in harmony with the initial art direction. All our artists always had a second (or third) monitor with the original version.

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When We Made... Oxenfree

actually look at you. And even with that little bit of work, with the help of the animation and really smart designers and engineers, with everybody working together, you could tell from the very beginning that Chris Wallace takesshea was look behind the scenes a character that people would really gravitate of Night School’s narrative adventure Oxenfree, toward.” Quill really becomes a fully fleshed out character with a game inspired by Telltale and kickstarted into the help of the game’s strong world-building. action by the failure of Disney’s mobile arm As an interloper in Quill’s world, the player experiences it not through her eyes, but as an observer watching as she lives her life in her familiar setting. It’s a strangely intimate feeling, and one which gives way to joint apprehension asFOR both athe player Quill enter new, unfamiliar game thatand explores the notion of time – areas. haunted “When go throughand Mousetown youofsee by both you metaphorical very literaland spirits theQuill past, it runis through see that sheon has hometown, perhapsthere fittingand thatyou Oxenfree lived foraso long after theitsfeeling of her leaving of that town maybe being in initial release, acrossit,numerous platfroms. danger, gives you morefor of athe bond,” “If Originally released Xbox Alderson One and says. PC, Oxenfree that partnew was life lefton out, yousubsequent wouldn’t feelplatform like there was found each it was much to fight Everything thatas we’ve done,ofthe mood released on for. – finding its niche a coming age cult settings, from onepart area next andartletting classic,taking thanksQuill in no small toto itsthe distinctive style you rest take in‘walk-and-talk’ this environment… It’s all supposed and itsand inventive dialogue mechanic. to exaggerate andOxenfree accentuate that mood that you’re The idea for predates the studio itself feeling. It all ties backStudio into how you are connecting with – as Night School co-founder Sean Krankel Pictured above: Night Quill and herOxenfree world.” was born through after-work phone explains, School Studio co-founder Sean Krankel conversations with his cousin, Adam Hines. SAME QUESTION EIGHT “I was working at DisneyWAYS at the time,” says Krankel, Collaboration key started during the development of The Moss, “and Adam was had just working at Telltale. nottwo justofwithin thewanted team itself, but something with the help of external us had to make together for playtesters. were often brought in tobe. feedback on years, butPeople we didn’t know what it would So just one night on the phone, we started tossing around the idea of: ‘what about a Telltale-esque game with branching narrative that has consequences, but where the gameplay and movement through the world are never interrupted by cutscenes?’ So we’d brainstorm once a week or so just chatting about like, how could that work? What would that type of game look like? And how can we do it with a small team?”

the game and asked questions about their experience – even if most of these questions were actually very similar. “External playtests were mostly about ‘Okay, how do people feel when they play? Do they like it or not like it?’,” Alderson explains. “At the end of playtest we would ask the same question eight different ways. The question is really ‘What didn’t you like?’, but we would ask it differently: ‘What pulled you out of the experience? What took you out of the headset? If there’s one thing you could change what would it be? If you had two weeks to finish the game, what would be the thing that you’d fix?’ “Those help bring a playtester into their comfort zone, because no one post-work wants to play something that people put These cathartic, phone calls transitioned into a lot of care and loveonce into and thenwas turnlaid around andhis say real-world ambitions Krankel off from ‘This what I didn’t like about it’. So it takes a little while job atisDisney. to “Disney get the playtester weDisney found mobile that laid off like,comfortable, 70 per cent and of the finding different ways to ask didn’t the same question means staff after a bunch of games succeed,” adds you eventually the really stuff after the fourth or Krankel. “Onceget I’d been laid good off, it rapidly became a ‘shit fifthget time ask it. or off you the pot’ moment. So I started to recruit a few “I don’t thinkwould anyone our studio has small ever made folks I thought beingood for a very team.”a game like this, I think it’s important youpart trustthere. the Krankel isn’t so joking about the “smallthat team” process. You trust playtesting and you make sure that Not including contractors, Oxenfree was developed byyou freedom to try something aallow teamyourself of four.some Sean time and and Adam alongside lead engineer and then keep going. Try something new and out, Bryant Cannon, lead artist Heather Gross andbranch featuring but also usecomposer your experience games that you’ve music from Andrewfrom Rohrmann. made before you’ll be initial fine. As long ason you’re having Despite theand small team, progress the game fun too! We enjoyed playing went very quickly, with manyMoss of thethroughout game’s mechanics the entire coming in athat fewreally shorthelps.” months. processtogether and I think “Even before coming up with the full narrative for Oxenfree,” Kranek continues, “the mechanics started to make sense. We would toss around this shorthand of like, what if you had Limbo, but you could talk? So in the beginning, that was what we started prototyping.” “During those three months of me not having a job, I ended up raising enough money from some folks that I had worked with in the marketing world, to get together about five people to make a game for 18 months. And

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Pictured left: Oxenfree’s memorable artstyle was provided by lead artist Heather Gross

in that really short window, we built a very simple prototype of a character walking with three dialogue choices pop up over their head, and that resonated really well.” With that barebone prototype in place, Night School Studio was free to start filling in the blanks of Oxenfree’s narrative – something that ultimately came to form the heart of the game’s experience. In fact, the limitations of a newlyformed studio’s first title helped the team to focus on the exact kind of story they wanted to tell. “That’s when the story really started to come together. We thought, what is a good story that we could tell that doesn’t feel like a result of its limitations, but instead feels like a very natural piece of this type of design?” “So we had this isolated environment, doing something that felt fairly scary – but built more around building tension and not jumpscares or weapons. Those narrative constraints helped us hone in on this kind of

teen adventure vibe. This was a couple years before this 80s revival, Stranger Things stuff. But we really loved that kind of thing, and wanted to build a story that felt kind of Spielbergian. Something which has been done to death in movies but not really in games. So we thought that was a fascinating thing to do: something that felt really familiar in other media, but to do it in games.” “What made some of the prework go so well was that the story and the design are so intertwined, that we didn’t just come up with a story first and then cram it through a design that might not manifest it well.” That’s not to say Oxenfree was born fully-formed, of course. The ambitions of a newly-minted studio weighed against the severe time constraints, team size and budget meant that many aspects of the game had to be scaled back, or cut entirely. “I think in the very early days,” says Krankel, “there were aspects of it that were ambitious just for the sake of

Pictured left: The use of polaroids featuring the game’s cast combines Oxenfree’s retro feel with its coming of age narrative

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Pictured above: Oxenfree’s ‘walk and talk’ mechanic proved difficult to perfect during development

ambition, so it’s probably a good job we cut those things. We actually thought that Alex and the cast might even have powers, like an X-Men kind of thing. That included the ability to create reflections of yourself that you can communicate with, or to control time. With some of these ideas we realised, this isn’t really serving the story. We should just throw this thing out, because it sounds cool on paper, but it’s lame once we start building it.” “It comes back to the question, ‘does this make the experience better for the player?’ I think the constraints of time and a small team made a leaner game.” Focusing on improving the player’s experience is a sensible choice, but easier said than done – as the team learned throughout development. “We severely underestimated what it would take to make the intent of the game come through with a way that felt polished and grabbed people” says Krankel. “Our first prototype was very effective in showing that yes, you can have agency over your movement through the world and your story choices. Even just with some

scratch audio and a simple grey box environment. It already felt promising.” “But then halfway through development, we realised that a lot of the game was frighteningly bad. Either we had stuff that didn’t feel scary, or it just felt like shit because the camera is so far away from the cast and we don’t have the benefit of the language of cinema with cuts and close ups and all these other things.” Of course, Oxenfree is a dialogue-heavy game – as you’d expect from a title inspired by Telltale Games. Its central walk-and-talk mechanic allows players to fully express themselves in conversations. They can interrupt the other characters and talk over them, they can stay quiet, or they can even walk away from the conversation. Branching conversation trees require a lot of extra writing and voice-over work as it is. Add in the option to silently storm away from all conversations like an impolite lunatic adds in a whole host of new problems. “The rewrite process was pretty difficult,” says Krankel. “The script itself was already a massive spaghetti of dialogue – somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1,500 pages, and that’s not linear. So when you start playtesting, you realise this player doesn’t know where they’re going, or they walked away from a scene without the key plot point in their head. You have to find ways to sandwich in new dialogue that will work well with that, which often means a total rewrite of the scene. “With the walk-and-talk mechanic, it was a thing where we said, if we’re going to go all in on this idea, then we have to fulfil it completely. It’s not complex for the sake of being complex, but it should behave the way the player wants.” “That meant a lot of extra work on the interrupts, because then there has to be a line for almost any moment where we can have these shorter snippets of a character you interrupted saying, “So like I was saying…’ before going back into their dialogue. And it has to be

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appropriate to the tone or to the moment, so if you’re in an argument there’s a different way to handle that.” “At the same time we wanted not saying anything at all to be a valid choice for the player as well. So the entire game needs to react to if you want to be mute through the whole thing and characters need to communicate with you appropriately. Telling a great story is already hard enough, but then on top of that, making the player have actual agency inside of that story and make the choices matter is a whole other layer.” Getting the dialogue to flow naturally, and reflect its teenage coming of age setting was certainly a challenge – but one Night School Studio more than rose to. While the game has many intriguing qualities, such as its realistic portrayal of awkward teenage relationships mixed with gripping horror themes, it’s perhaps best known for the engaging dialogue, and the freedom it allows players to create Alex in their own image. This success in characterisation has attracted a devoted cult fanbase, inspiring countless fan art and cosplays. So it’s surprising that, at the time of release, the game struggled to find its audience. “In hindsight, it’s clear that with a game like Oxenfree, we had to be ready for the long haul to tweak how we messaged it,” says Krankel. “We needed to see what people were responding positively to, and what didn’t matter. It took a while for Oxenfree to really take off – it was about four or five months until we were comfortable with where it was headed. It was a mix of livestreamers picking it up, because it’s a very streamer-friendly, as well as getting it out on as many platforms as possible.” “By the end of the first year we were really happy, but at month one I was scared out of my mind. It was not selling that well, and the reviews were not matching what the expectations were internally. So yeah, I thought we were going to go out of business for the first couple of months for sure, if not the first six months.” While having streamers pick up your game can purely be a matter of luck – getting Oxenfree out on as many platforms as possible certainly helped Night School Studio. After its initial launch on Xbox and PC in 2016, the game was later ported to PS4 later the same year, and to Switch and mobile platforms in 2017. “Steam has certainly been the lion’s share in terms of sales,” notes Krankel. “It really helps to have this ongoing dialogue with your audience, which was helped to create this very long tail for Oxenfree. But Switch and iOS proved to be surprising success stories. iOS is actually probably the most consistent, even to this day, it still moves a fair amount of units every weekend. As for the Switch, I don’t know if it’s just because we hit the right time there, or if it was long enough after release that fans wanted to double dip on it. It’s a great form factor for

it - the bridge between iOS and the console experiences. The Switch is probably my favourite place to play it now.” Despite not seeing that seemingly crucial initial success on release day, Night School Studio were able to recalibrate their messaging to allow Oxenfree to live on and find success long past its initial release – and all in the studio’s first title. It’s the kind of underdog success story that coming of age fiction thrives on. So what advice then, does Krankel have for budding game developers seeking to follow his example? “That’s tough,” says Krankel. “Make sure that you want to do it. Because there’s going to be a lot of stress, a lot of fear, a lot of terror. But ultimately, if you have an idea that you really believe in, that can speak for itself, either in prototype state or even in paper state, if it really can hold water and withstand people shooting holes in it – then you have something special there. Beyond that, just make sure you have the most manageable scope possible. Keep the team as small as possible and make the leanest version of that idea first because the less people you have, and the faster you get it out, the more likely it is to be an actual success.” “Finally, find other partners in the industry that you can trust, because there’s a lot of people out there who’ve done this before. We wouldn’t have made it through those first couple of years without being able to lreach out to other indies and get advice. So I think this heroic concept of working out of your garage and doing it all by yourself is less and less likely: it’s more about having a good network of people out there. Fortunately, a lot of people in the games industry are really nice and want to share their knowledge. They don’t want to see other developers step in the same mess that they’ve made themselves. So feel free to reach out to people because they’ll be more than willing to give invaluable advice.”

Pictured above: Protagonist Alex and stepbrother Jonas encounter the island’s mysteries together

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The Sounds of... Winifred Phillips

Every month, we discuss the unique process of making music for video games. This month, Marie Dealessandri dives into the musical universe of Winifred Phillips, who’s behind the soundtracks of the Assasin’s Creed franchise, The Sims, LittleBigPlanet 3 and more

How early in a game’s development process do you usually start working on the score? That can vary, depending on the workflow and management style of the development team. For a really large scale project like LittleBigPlanet 3, I’m brought into the development team early on, and my collaboration with the sound designers and audio directors lasts for years. For other projects, such as Total War Battles: Kingdom, I’m hired more towards the end of development when everything about the game is nearly complete, and those kinds of projects can take a year or less. For projects developed by indie teams, I might have a few months, or even a few weeks. What type of material do you request from a studio before starting to write the score? I try to request everything that the development team might be willing to share. Game design documents are helpful, as they can provide lots of insight and inspiration. Concept art and screen shots can greatly assist in defining the emotional mood and character of the project. Of course, gameplay videos are essential, and I always request those. For some projects, I’ve also received early builds of the game, but unfortunately that isn’t always possible. What are the typical challenges of writing for games as opposed to more linear narrative forms? Since the action of a game is dependent on the player’s choices, events play out in unpredictable ways. The music can’t be composed in a traditional, linear fashion. Instead, it needs to be able to adapt to changing circumstances. Composing music for games usually involves the creation of modular musical components

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Games indie studio. For me, the size of the game and the development team makes no difference in terms of the creative approach I take. How free are you to experiment when you take on a mandate from a studio? That depends on the team. For instance, when I was hired to compose the music of Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, the team at Ubisoft allowed me a lot of freedom to make creative choices. On the other hand, working as a composer on the original God of War meant that I needed to shape my musical creations to fit in with the other compositions being created by the rest of the composer team. In that case, there was a specific style to which the entire team adhered, although there certainly was room to be creative within those boundaries.

that are fitted together by the game engine as play progresses, according to how things are going. For a composer trained in traditional musical composition, the transition to composing for an interactive medium can be daunting. The discipline of video game composition is a much more technical and time-consuming process than composing for television or films. Does your approach differ between writing for a big triple-A title vs indie games? Not at all. I approach every game project with the same enthusiasm and focus. In my experience, there’s no typical musical style or scope to be associated with an indie game versus a triple-A title. I created lighthearted and whimsical music for the triple-A Sims franchise from EA, and brooding orchestral music for the Shattered State VR project from the Supermassive

Pictured above: Phillips’ work on Assasin’s Creed will be part of an upcoming concert tour

Pictured below: Alongside indie games, Phillips has worked on triple-A titles such as LittleBigPlanet 3 and The Sims

Do you feel like game soundtracks get the same recognition as film scores? If not, why this difference? Back when I started as a game composer, there was certainly a difference in the respect afforded to mediums such as film and television as compared to the way in which game music was regarded. When you consider that game music originally began in the ‘bleeps-and-bloops’ era, it’s definitely understandable that people might have a misguided impression of what game music is. But now, things have been rapidly changing for the better. Game music now enjoys a loyal and enthusiastic fanbase, and those fans support game music by buying albums and going to live orchestral concerts performances. My own music from the Assassin’s Creed franchise will be a part of an upcoming concert tour, so I’m definitely really looking forward to that.

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Brought to you by

Swift studio spotlights: Sumo Leamington A brand-new office in Leamington Spa and 19 members of staff is the current setup for one of Sumo’s newest studios, the aptly named Sumo Leamington, and there’s plenty of room to grow

Pictured above: studio director Chris Southall and operations director Harinder Sangha

SUMO Leamington’s studio director Chris Southall and operations director Harinder Sangha recently sat down with Aardvark Swift to chat about the brand-new mobilefocused Sumo studio in the heart of Leamington Spa. “We’re currently in start-up mode,” Southall began, “but it’s the start-up mode of what is going to be a big studio. We’re envisioning a staff of 80 to 100 people eventually, working on lots of exciting mobile projects.” “There are so many developers in the area, it’s a real positive,” continued Southall. “Leamington Spa is home to around 3,000 games industry professionals, earning it the nickname ‘Silicon Spa.’ Both Southall and Sangha see it as an ideal place for a Sumo studio.“It’s quite a collaborative atmosphere. Where appropriate there is communication between the developers and a really nice community here.” For Southall, opening a mobile studio with Sumo was an opportunity that made perfect sense, because mobile is not something that any of their other seven studios have an exclusive focus on. Sangha joined Sumo Leamington as employee number two back in March 2019 and has since been working in conjunction with Southall on building the studio from the ground up: “It’s amazing to set up a studio from scratch; we know what sort of culture and atmosphere we want to create and it’s fantastic to see that take shape in front of our eyes,” said Sangha. “Watching the team come together and bond has been brilliant and I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to achieve in these early stages.”

“Watching the team come together and bond has been brilliant.” Focusing on mobile development for clients brings challenges of its own. “One of our values is to really think about the communities of players that exist with our games,” said Southall. “The sorts of games we’re interested in have those social elements, they’re not throw-away games.” Mobile games aren’t constrained to the hyper-casual anymore, Chris and the team find the idea of mobile games as a hobby, with a community surrounding them, much more interesting. But a wealth of mobile-specific experience is not necessarily what Sangha and Southall are looking for in their hiring for the studio, “it’s more about people’s attitudes and fit within the culture we’re creating.” Both have previous experience building studios and teams from scratch so they’re keen to create a culture they know will work, Southall said: “We’re looking for collaborative people, we want to be a studio that is always improving, growing and learning.” They’re also happy to speak to graduates, even at this early stage. “Grads come in and they’re really passionate,” explained Sangha, “before they’ve even finished their degree, they know this is what they want to do, and we aim to foster that enthusiasm. No matter how many years of experience you have,” continued Sangha, “don’t let that put you off applying, there are great opportunities to grow with us.” “We’ve got a very exciting future ahead of us, we’re trying new things with a great partner,” explained Southall. Sumo Leamington is the start of a big and exciting studio, that wants to grow with the right people and work on multiple mobile projects with great partners, “It’s the future,” noted Southall, “and it’s nice to be in the future.” You can hear more from Southall, Sangha and more about Sumo Leamington in the Aardvark Swift podcast coming soon.

70 | MCV/DEVELOP November/December 2019

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Creatives Assemble!

WHAT makes a great development manager? Most in our industry will respond with “someone who gets the game shipped on time, on budget, and to quality.” Although that is describing the result rather than the skills and characteristics required to achieve it, this answer is fundamentally correct. A major part of a development manager’s responsibility is to balance the competing project constraints of scope, schedule, and budget (and to a certain extent quality). They need to identify and address project requirements and risks, while planning, executing, and monitoring the development process. And there is a certain skillset and mentality required in order to do this efficiently: • Excellent communication skills to collect, process, and present information to relevant channels, as open communication is a key factor for a project’s success. • Leadership and team building, to focus the efforts of a group of people towards a common goal and enable them to work together as a team. • Organisational skills in planning, tracking, and forecasting a project’s progress. • Analytical thinking and strong decision making. • Problem solving skills, with a mindset of focusing on the solution rather than the problem. • Being proactive and able to prioritize not just the team’s, but also their own work. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is most likely what people have in mind when defining the development manager role. However, with video game production being such a team centered effort, I believe you need to be more than just a talented project manager: A development manager helps the team in making video games. In many cases this means taking the burden off the developers and

The team at Creative Assembly debunks some common dev role myths. This month, Stefan Aluttis, development manager at Creative Assembly explains the mentality and skillset required to deliver a project successfully

removing obstacles that prevent them doing what they do best: writing code or creating art. That could be identifying and improving shortcomings in a workflow between disciplines, chasing that one code task that will unblock the environment art team, or be as simple as fetching food when the team stay to finish the latest build. But more importantly, a good development manager will help the team to become better at making video games. By creating and facilitating an environment of continuous improvement, in which teams look back and reflect on the way they work together and learn from their mistakes, to become better developers. Teams that I recently worked with on a Total War project had great results from sprint retrospectives we ran every two weeks; discussing what went well, and not so well, during the last development cycle. If conducted in a positive atmosphere, where teams focus on the things they can make a difference on, they can see improvements in their day to day work and appreciate the chance to inspect their collaboration. Finally, as development managers require a high-level view on every aspect of the game they are helping to make, they are rarely experts in any of the many disciplines involved. It’s important to recognise your lack of knowledge and not be afraid to ask seemingly stupid questions. You will find that others in the room had a similar question and benefit from you seeking clarification. Ultimately a development manager is successful if the team are successful.

“It’s important to recognise your lack of knowledge and not be afraid to ask seemingly stupid questions.”

November/December 2019 MCV/DEVELOP | 71


Casting the Runes

USING influential people to promote your brand isn’t a new thing. While footballers and film stars still hold massive pulling power, social media has allowed anybody to become influential. Gaming has been at the forefront of this change. The 30 top gaming influencers have more than 340m subscribers across the major gaming platforms Influencer marketing works because it’s authentic, and putting a value on its effectiveness was something we wanted to examine in more detail for our Old School RuneScape influencer campaign. We worked in conjunction with Google to see how best we could accurately measure the results.

BRINGING A CLASSIC GAME TO MOBILE RuneScape and Old School RuneScape have enjoyed a long and illustrious lifespan and are supported by incredibly dedicated communities. We’re renowned for producing high-quality PC games, but in October 2018 we brought Old School to mobile as one of the first fully-fledged MMORPGs to offer the same immersive experience on both mobile and desktop.

Jagex’s developers visit us from RuneScape’s Gielinor to talk about their latest adventures. This month James Day, head of community management & social media, identifies the true value of influencer marketing

More than 270 million accounts have been created across our games and, unsurprisingly for an 18-year-old game, many of these players have moved on from PC gaming. Our task was to use mobile as an opportunity to welcome them back to the game using influencer marketing. Our advantage was that many creators began their careers producing RuneScape content, enabling them to tell credible and emotive stories across the campaign. Measuring the impact of influencer marketing is tough. Initially, we attributed two main key performance indicators (KPIs) to our campaign, one focused on reach and brand awareness, and the other on conversion. While we found that these KPIs often ran at odds with each other, these goals formed the basis of our success criteria – a £45 cost per thousand views (CPM) and £4.50 cost per install (CPI); both comparable to our digital marketing benchmarks.

WORKING TO IDENTIFY THE TRUE VALUE OF INFLUENCER MARKETING While tagged and tracked download or purchase links in influencers’ content can tell you some of the story, it is often not the whole picture. Our initial cost-per-install KPI measurement was based on a linktagging methodology. One month into campaign, and after 25 YouTube activations, our CPI was tracking at almost double the cost of our target KPI. However, we knew the link-tagging results did not provide the whole story – there were undoubtedly players watching the influencer videos, heading straight to the Play Store and App Store to download the game without touching our tracked links. We were finding that while link tracking is a good start for measurement, it by no means can be considered to be an accurate measure of all of the downloads and spending that resulted from watching our videos. Here, (opposite, top) you can see our initial findings, from a sample of seven of the 25 activations.

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Tracked installs (across Google Play and Apple Store)


Choose. Create. Execute.

Creator A



Simple rules to follow when choosing your influencers.

Creator B



Creator C



Creator D



Creator E



Creator F



Creator G






• Know what ‘hard’ characteristics you’re looking for (demographics of audience, viewership, engagement) and ‘soft’ characteristics (tone of audience engagement, game experience, how they present sponsored content) are most important to you. • Do due diligence on audience numbers and engagement levels before agreeing creatives and costs with creators. • Be aware of timezones. When dealing with global creators, it can be all too easy for you to expect creative to go live at 8pm BST when the creator is working in PST. • Be prepared to engage with people when the content has gone live. Potential customers, unfamiliar with your product, will have questions that creators may not be able to answer. • Ensure the creator discloses that the content is sponsored within the body of the video AND corresponding social content. This isn’t merely friendly advice – it’s a legal requirement • Many contracts you sign as part of an influencer partnership will include a license to use the content they produce for your own needs – so use it. As influencer content can be some of the most authentic testimonials, use it to bolster your digital marketing creative mix.

After speaking at length with Google about our experience, they invited us to collaborate on a pioneering study designed to bridge the gap between the limitations of a tracking link and the true value of influencer marketing. By looking at anonymised cohorts of signed-in Android users and their journey across YouTube and Google Play we strove to discover if there was an incremental upside to influencer marketing nobody had been able to quantify or prove thus far. As it turned out, there was. Working with Google, we were able to track and understand which cohorts had watched a video and downloaded the game on Google Play within four days, but had bypassed the link-tracking. Below are the findings after adding those who had watched a video and downloaded the game on Google Play within four days. This tracking had a profound impact, increasing App Store-attributed downloads by 357.6% overall. Some individual creators saw an uplift of over 1,000% compared to original tracking. It lifted our so-so CPI down to a very impressive £2.78 – putting it on a par with comparable digital marketing practices for this campaign. While our sample size was relatively small, this rang true with the results Google discovered with other developers. It is also worth pointing out that within this study, 50% of users downloaded the game within 30 minutes, indicating a direct behavioural change not attributable to other marketing touchpoints. Small-to-mid-tier creators tended to work harder and proved better value based on spend.

THE ENDURING APPEAL OF CREATORS This campaign had a profound impact with how much importance we place our relationships with creators – both organic and paid – and has gone a long way to improving our own forecasting and attribution models for influencer activity. While it is difficult to measure the true value of influencer marketing, it has huge potential for all-manner of companies. It’s easy to be put off by exorbitant prices for the top-tier talent – but with a clearly-defined strategy, effective outreach and proper diligence, you can get one-of-akind, enduring content for a captive, engaged audience that drives and changes a customer’s behaviour.

Tracked installs (across Google Play and Apple Store)

Original CPI

Original Play Store downloads

Additional installs (4-day, tracked by Google)

Total installs (App Store and Play Store)

% increase on original Play Store downloads

New CPI* (across App Store and Play Store)

Creator A








Creator B








Creator C








Creator D








Creator E








Creator F








Creator G
















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The Final Boss Every month an industry leader wraps up MCV/DEVELOP with their unique insight

Gary Dunn, Managing Director, Sumo Digital “I was once shot at with an air rifle whilst trying to repair an optical fibre cable down the side of a railway line in Nottinghamshire. It’s fair to say I enjoyed moving into games after that.”

You’ve been in senior roles overseeing development teams for approaching 20 years, how has the approach to games development changed in that time? The first game I shipped in the industry was Colin McRae Rally 4. A great game, but it was absolutely finished on the day of gold master. The first real sense of things changing was shipping Empire: Total War, it was the first TW game with full Steam integration, and we definitely made the most of the fact that we had now shipped a game which could be updated and developed over a lifecycle – I think CA were at the forefront of that phase of change in the industry. Wind forward to today and GaaS is just a hygiene factor for all games – who today plans to release something and forget about it? With the greatest respect to your current role, what is/was your dream job? This one is easy. I would be a commentator for Sky Sports Cricket, although those of you who have witnessed my skills at the GamesAid Cricket Day know just how big a dream that is….. Sumo has a lot of different teams and studio now, whilst elsewhere we’ve seen a number of developers acquired recently, why is the industry consolidating? I would challenge the view that the industry is consolidating. The industry I joined in 2002 had many developers, but the route to market was boxed product only. When you look at how many developers are on the Steam store and iOS & Android app stores, I imagine there are many more today than back then. The industry is evolving in layers, both in publishing and development, with great content being created at every level. What was the most ludicrous single moment of your career to date? The weirdest moment of my career was actually pre games industry. I was once shot at with an air rifle whilst trying to repair an optical fibre cable down the side of a railway line in Nottinghamshire. I think it’s fair to say I enjoyed moving into games after that. Do you feel the games industry is headed in the right direction? I think the industry is headed in the right direction. We now create such diverse content across so many axes – be it visual fidelity, gameplay length, financial model or many others – essentially there is content to suit your gaming preferences. The industry continues to grow, providing more livelihoods for more people whose day job it is to bring some joy to people’s lives – how can that not be a good thing? Finally, do you think that there still is a single entity you can call the ‘games industry’? It is easy to think of it as a single entity, when you view it at a high level, but when you start to look at establishing boundaries – what is ‘in the industry’ and what isn’t, the lines become blurred. Are the datacentres which hold the servers of so many multiplayer games part of it? If not, how come, because the virtual machine next to it is counting loyalty points for a supermarket? I think ultimately if you care about it and contribute to it, you’re part of it.

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New name. New awards. New opportunities. The MCV Awards are now the MCV/DEVELOP Awards, with all new categories reflecting the full breadth of talent in the industry and a new decision-making process that allows you to have the final say on who will take home an accolade.

How does it work? We’re introducing new awards that will recognise and reward the talent, innovation, achievement, growth and cultural impact of both teams and individuals.


The refreshed process will start with an independent panel of industry experts identifying the companies and people most deserving of recognition and producing a shortlist in each category – to be revealed in January.

This is where you come in. These shortlists will then be put to an online vote, in which you – readers of MCV/DEVELOP – will be invited to make your voices heard by casting a vote for those you believe are award-worthy. Those who receive the highest number of votes in each category will be announced as the winners at the MCV/DEVELOP Awards ceremony, which will be heading back to The Brewery, London on Thursday 5 March 2020.

Find out more at


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27/11/2019 11:58

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