MCV/DEVELOP ISSUE 964
THE ART AND BUSINESS OF VIDEO GAMES
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Elite © 1984 David Braben & Ian Bell. Frontier © 1993 David Braben, Frontier: First Encounters © 1995 David Braben and Elite Dangerous © 1984 - 2020 Frontier Developments Plc. All rights reserved. ‘Elite’, the Elite logo, the Elite Dangerous logo, ‘Frontier’ and the Frontier logo are registered trademarks of Frontier Developments plc. Elite Dangerous: Odyssey and Elite Dangerous: Horizons are trademarks of Frontier Developments plc. All rights reserved.
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KLEMENS KREUZER “We think it’s a big risk to just ride one horse into battle. That’s why we have a whole cavalry!”
PR PANEL 2021
The challenges and opportunities for the year ahead
In association with
Discover the world’s 100 most successful studios in this month’s 40-page supplement 03 MCV 964 Editorial Inside Cover V7.indd 1
05 The Editor
Why 2020 just won't end
06 Critical Path
The key dates this month
13 PR Panel 2021
The challenges and opportunities
PR PANEL 2021
22 Ins and Outs
This month's hires and moves
23 Rising Star d3t's Ryan Buxton
24 Levelling Up
Green Man Gaming's James Spicer
26 THQ Nordic
Boss Kreuzer on 15 studios and rising
30 SIDE & Cyberpunk Giving Night City its voice
Midwinter Entertainment's debut
38 Elite Dangerous
Stepping out of the ship with Odyssey
Creating the next big thing
44 Unity and next-gen Years in the making
48 Sumo spreads the jam 'Five and six-figure cheques'
50 Big in China
Arcus Key's PR plan for your game
52 Heaven Media Marketing in esports
54 When We Made... The Falconeer
58 The Final Boss Xbox's James Butcher
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“We must remember that, as an industry, we are in the main incredibly fortunate.”
TheEditor Happy new year? It’s often the tendency of journalists, particularly those writing for periodicals, to divide time up into chunks. Much in the way that popular historians talk about decades or centuries, monthly magazine journeymen look at months and years. But it’s all a bit forced really. I’ve never taken to new year’s eve. Oh sure, I once enjoyed my fair share of euphoric moments come midnight, hands in the air as the clock struck twelve. It just always felt, come morning, that we were still stuck in the middle of a miserably damp British winter. While Christmas serves to lighten our mood in the darkest days, new year should bring with it a fresh start, so I’ve always maintained that we should move it to the first day of spring. Now surely that’s a seasonal change worth celebrating – it would also give our bodies time to recover between the two, and businesses could unite their annual reporting around the date too. Putting such fancy aside, as you read this, we have certainly entered 2021. Although right now that feels about as refreshing as my own recent shift from Tier 3 to Tier 4 – I feel a grim certainty that we’ve entered a numbering system both as open-ended and despised as the Police Academy sequels themselves. (1989’s Police Academy 6: City Under Siege seems an appropriate touchstone right now here in London) Seriously though, I can’t ever remember the end of one year and the beginning of another to be so utterly trivial in the face of the events that surround us. With both the pandemic and Brexit rolling forward with ever greater menace. Vaccines should eventually defeat one, but I doubt there’s a vaccine for the kind of thinking that might yet divide us from our biggest trading partner. Within the industry, 2020 had many (sadly familiar) lessons: Don’t sexually harass your staff. Don’t overwork them. Don’t promise that your game is ready when it isn’t. Don’t exploit your players with unfair mechanics and micro transactions. And try and sell your consoles to the people who actually want to play on them. Issues that all pre-date the last twelve months, but issues that must be tackled afresh over the next twelve. Despite all of that, we must remember that, as an industry, we are in the main incredibly fortunate. The vast majority of the industry is still working, our companies are as profitable, if not more profitable, than ever before. The world has looked to games in this crisis and we have provided solace and connection, which has given us arguably greater purpose than ever before. For all our failings, we should still be proud. That said, please remember that not everyone has benefitted. Brick-and-mortar retail has suffered terribly, consumer print publishing took a knock, and those relying on events have been seriously affected. While charity isn’t the answer in business, do be thoughtful of those segments that are struggling and consider how best you can work together in 2021. Seth Barton email@example.com January 2021 MCV/DEVELOP | 05
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Here are the key upcoming events and releases to mark in your calendar...
Critical Path Hitman 3 The days when we could travel may be distant memories now, but globe-trotting baldy murderer Agent 47 has a frankly reckless disregard to social distancing guidelines. For those looking to check out gorgeous locations such as Dubai, Dartmoor and Chongqing – and getting some sweet murders done while they’re there, we really hope they pick up IO Interactive’s latest offering instead of the alternative.
The Medium This timed PC and Xbox Series X exclusive from Bloober Team finally launches this month, following its delay from December 10th. The developer said they needed the extra time to add polish to the game, and we’re sure avoiding launching on the same day as Cyberpunk 2077 was just a happy coincidence. Still, this horror title looks intriguing, set in 1990’s Poland, but sees the player adventuring across multiple realities.
Encodya Based on the award-winning short film Robot Will Protect You this cyberpunk (not that one) point and click title comes from Estonian developer Chaosmonger Studio, and is published by Assemble Entertainment. The game stars nine year old Tina and her adorable robot pal SAM-53 as they make their way across the dystopian megalopolis of Neo-Berlin.
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The Nioh Collection The Nioh Collection is a collection of remasters of both the original game and Nioh 2, coming exclusively to PS5. These remasters bring a 4K resolution at up to 120 frames-per-second – for all one of you that has a screen capable of that [and that one person is MCV/DEVELOP editor Seth Barton, hi Seth!] as well as all the additional DLC. The remasters will also be available to be purchased separately, and the (non remastered) Nioh 2 – The Complete Edition is also releasing on PS4.
Outriders Developed by People Can Fly and published by Square Enix, Outriders is a third person shooter announced back at E3 2019. The game is set on the alien planet Enoch, where humanity’s efforts to colonise the planet have been led astray by a massive energy storm, while the crew investigates a mysterious signal that may hold the hope for humanity’s future.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Earthblood Based on White Wolf Publishing’s tabletop roleplaying game Werewolf: The Apocalypse, this game is developed by French studio Cyanide and published by Nacon. The player takes on the role of eco-terrorist werewolf (the greatest combination of words in the English language) Cahal, banished from his werewolf tribe, as he fights against the Pentex corporation and the pollution it causes. Again, eco-terrorist werewolf. Give me this game.
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We’re Playing... CONTENT Editor: Seth Barton firstname.lastname@example.org +44 (0)203 143 8785 Staff Writer: Chris Wallace email@example.com +44 (0)203 143 8786 Design and Production: Steve Williams firstname.lastname@example.org
ADVERTISING SALES Senior Business Development Manager: Alex Boucher email@example.com +44 (0)7778538431
MANAGEMENT Media Director: Colin Wilkinson firstname.lastname@example.org +44 (0)203 143 8777
SUBSCRIBER CUSTOMER SERVICE To subscribe, change your address, or check on your current account status, please contact: email@example.com ARCHIVES Digital editions of the magazine are available to view on ISSUU.com. Recent back issues of the printed edition may be available please call +44 (0)203 143 8777 for more information. INTERNATIONAL MCV and its content are available for licensing and syndication re-use. Contact Colin Wilkinson for opportunities and permissions: firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ve talked about ‘that game’ enough. So instead I’m going to tell you how wonderfully charming UsTwo’s Alba is. It’s a childhood summer holiday adventure on a little mediterranean island, where you fix, tidy, and save animals. It’s heart-warming but also a reminder that it’s largely down to us to make things better.
Look, you know what I’m playing. I’m playing it, you’re playing it, everyone on Twitter is playing it. I like the Cyberpunk game, okay? It’s fun. Keanu Reeves is certainly an interesting choice to play a [redacted- spoilers] rockstar, but the dystopian Night City is more appealing than the unfortunately very real London right now. Chris Wallace, Staff Writer
Just before we break up for the Christmas holidays, I’ve been sinking my time into Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. While I’m not busy raiding quaint English churches with my viking horde, I’ve been dabbling in mobile games, playing Warp Drive, as well as Alba: a Wildlife Adventure. Alex Boucher, Senior Business Development Manager
Seth Barton, Editor
Paws the game The best furry friends the industry has to offer. Send yours to email@example.com
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Biz Media Ltd, 44 Maiden Lane, London, WC2E 7LN All contents © 2020 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: Poncho Owner: Beth Chapman Owner’s job: PR & marketing manager at Genba Digital
Pet: Rufus Owner: Wesley Arthur Owner’s job: Lead level designer at Sumo Digital
Pet: Kaka Owner: Claire Sharkey Owner’s job: Head of Comms and PR for Modern Wolf
Not entirely dressed appropriately for the season, Poncho is a fan of trees, birds, remote control cars and salmon-flavoured anything.
This mummified boy is Rufus, a 3-year-old rescued Lab x Whippet from Gran Canaria who likes to be swaddled in blankets.
Sharkey simply referred to Kaka as “the bear cat.” We’re not sure if this is for a love of picnic baskets or vicious maulings.
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Brought to you by
Test creative to optimize and drive campaign results Compelling digital creative isn’t only more enjoyable for audiences, it’s better for businesses. Great ads help drive engagement and boost efficiency in online auctions by lowering KPIs such as cost per ad recall and cost per action. But what makes for great creative? It can be difficult to understand what makes ads resonate and how to replicate their successes given the many components to consider. In working with advertisers to develop effective strategies, we’ve found the key to unlocking this value is a combination of systematic measurement and creative expertise. In this article we’ll look at how to design and perform simple creative tests on Facebook.
HOW TO APPROACH CREATIVE TESTING Like all good tests, scientific methodology should be used. This minimizes the influence of bias or prejudice while providing a standardized approach to conducting experiments and, in doing so, improving their results. In Marketing Science, the method is as follows: 1. 2. 3. 4.
Determine what the business goal or objective the creative is solving for. For example: what style of creative drives more installs, gameplay or CGI? Define a hypothesis to be tested. For example: Gameplay creatives outperform liveaction creatives in terms of cost per install. Design a test with metrics that can prove/disprove your hypothesis. For example: A/B test to determine which creative drives more installs, purchases, and so on. Plan your next steps based on possible outcomes. For example: If gameplay wins, use gameplay in the main campaign.
DESIGNING A TEST
“The key to unlocking this value is a combination of systematic measurement and creative expertise.”
Typically, when designing a test, you’re aiming to represent your normal environment in a cost effective manner so you will have to make decisions about the scope and execution which either increases the reliability of the results or reduces the cost or time required to run the test. You can see some examples in the chart below. It’s important to note the cost and benefits associated with the decisions you make during the design phase as this can influence the validity and scalability of the test results.
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GET STARTED WITH TWO BASIC CREATIVE TESTS It’s important to note the cost and benefits associated with the decisions you make during the design phase as this can influence the validity and scalability of the test results. Tests can be broadly separated out into standard or ‘always-on’ (A/B testing) and advanced. In general, standard tests are quicker to run and more simplistic in their nature. Advanced tests have more complex setup and design but tend to give more detailed and accurate insights. Below are two types of standard creative test methods you can try as a starting point. Test one: standard A/B Test When running A/B tests, our first recommendation is to use Facebook’s A/B Test tool [formerly Split Test tool] in the Experiments [formerly Test & Learn] section of Ads Manager. Standard creative tests can seem simple and easy to run, but to set yourself up for success and ensure that your learnings are robust, follow the below guidelines. With the A/B Test tool, it’s possible to design a test containing from two to five test groups. A test group can contain individual creatives, ad sets [for non CBO campaigns], campaigns or groups of campaigns. As a part of the test set-up, you’ll need to select the most relevant success metric(s) for the test (e.g. cost per result) most relevant to your campaign objective (installs, purchases, clickthrough rate etc). The tool ensures that each cell receives an even spend and selects a winner based on the lowest cost per chosen metric using your account attribution window in Ads Manager. When to use: Testing creative variations, video vs. static, video duration, including audio vs. silent, different concepts for the same audience etc.
Test two: ad ranking As the Facebook auction algorithm optimizes delivery towards creatives which show the strongest performance. Some advertisers utilize this to test creative performance and choose top-performing assets. An advertiser can put creatives in an adset, and the creative which achieves the most delivery and subsequent best performance is determined the winner. However, it must be noted that the auction is heavily biased by early performance and, unlike in a test, fair exploration isn’t forced for all creative candidates. As a result, we do not consider this to be a robust method to test creatives. It can be used in cases where it’s unfeasible to run a standard test on every creative, but it should not be the sole method of testing creatives. Where to perform: Ads Manager When to use: As a part of a testing framework where it’s prohibitively costly to run standard tests during all phases.
Advantages: Fast, simple to run, can be incorporated into a wider testing framework. More information While standard creative tests are useful tools in isolation, they deliver the most value when they’re utilized as a part of a testing framework embedded in your team’s ongoing operations. For more information on testing frameworks, best practices and FAQs, catch up on our Creative Testing Webinar at www.facebook.com/fbgaminghome/marketers.
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Name: Dean Barrett Contact: dean@bastion. co.uk
Name: Chris Clarke Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Name: Marc Guerrier Contact: m.guerrier@ warningup.com
Name: Mike Hendrixen Contact: email@example.com
Name: Dieter Marchsreiter Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Name: Caroline Miller Contact: email@example.com
Name: Charlene Sharp Contact: charlene.sharp@ waytoblue.com
Name: Stefano Petrullo Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
PR PANEL 2021 The year that lasted a decade is finally behind us. As we dust ourselves off, Chris Wallace reaches out to our panel of PR experts to take a look at the opportunities and pitfalls of the year ahead
than most, with people turning to gaming for entertainment and socialisation while stuck at home, the loss of major events such as GDC and E3 have presented major questions about what our work looks like in the new normal.
Sadly, 2020 will instead be remembered as the year of COVID-19. While the games industry has certainly fared better
While we hope for a better year ahead than the one we’ve left behind us, we’re not out of the woods yet. So we spoke to eight games industry PR experts about their stance on where the industry is now, and where we might be heading.
o say 2020 was a year like no other has become a terrible cliché at this point. The year was already supposed to be a big one for the industry, with the launch of the new generation of consoles back in November. In normal times, it would have been looked back on as the latest paradigm shift to change the next few years of our industry.
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Q. How has the pandemic changed how you operate, and what changes from this time do you think you’ll maintain going forward?
COVID-19 has forced many of us to drastically change in how we work. While there are some aspects of the old ways of working that we certainly miss, not all change is a bad thing – even change caused under terrible circumstances. Has the PR industry learned any useful lessons from this experience? “Going forward I don’t think we will ever expect anyone to go to the office five days a week,” begins Indigo Pearl’s Caroline Miller. “We can see people are working really well from home so we will take a much more blended approach post-pandemic, and try to strike a balance between the joy of not having to face public transport but then the fun of having social interactions in the office.” This love for home working over an office commute is one that some of us at MCV/ DEVELOP share too – But it’s not universally appealing, as Marchsreiter Communications’ Dieter Marchsreiter explains: “I foresee keeping partial home office if it has an advantage for anyone in the team, but I would not want to have full home office for everyone in the team forever. The
communication between teams in a real office is better, big ‘in real life’ meetings are much better.” Still, a home office can certainly reduce costs – even if you’re maintaining an office in the city anyway. That opens up new opportunities, says Vertigo 6’s Mike Hendrixen: “Vertigo 6 is based in The Netherlands and our focus areas are Benelux and Nordics. Many of our gaming and hardware clients are based in the UK, France and the US. We used to visit them at least twice a year but because of the lockdowns across Europe, trips abroad have stopped and all communication moved to video conferences. “The entire team works from home, with just a few in the office to ship products. We miss seeing our colleagues and clients, but we have become more lean and more effective and our company has grown over 50 pre cent this year. Every year, our clients are surveyed for satisfaction. We had expected the scores to be a little lower because of the lack of ‘real life’ communication, but the customer score has gone up to 9.7!”
“The plethora of measurement and audience tools means we’re now able to genuinely quantify the impact of PR rather than second guessing”
Q. In a more globalised world, with ever more streamers in particular, how do you manage press relations at such a scale, and how important is data to your business?
The loss of physical events may have impacted PR’s contact with journalists, but the opportunities with influencers are bigger than ever. Twitch streamers in particular are seeing hugely increased engagement, with their fan bases seeking the social space they can provide – a huge opportunity for PR. “This is a golden age for PR,” says Bastion’s Dean Barrett. “Social media, influencers and the plethora of measurement and audience tools means we’re now able to genuinely quantify the impact of PR rather than second guessing. We can emphatically prove that the content and messaging we create delivers momentum and provides a solid base on which to build global media campaigns. But relevance should never be sacrificed for reach. ‘Think local, act global’ can creatively sometimes be a challenge, but good ideas nearly always translate anywhere.” “We work for some of the leading global entertainment brands across TV, film and games so the 24/7 nature of marketing to global online audiences must always be factored into our campaigns” adds Way To Blue’s Charlene Sharp. “That’s why it’s also essential for us to have a global team, who are available across different time zones 24/7. With so many streamers online, some of whom have huge follower numbers, it means that we can take an always-on approach, tracking online conversation for our clients and responding quickly.
“Therefore, social listening is key to our business strategy. It not only enables us to track conversation but also helps us to identify insight about a brand or product in real-time. It also enables us to research in advance the best streamers to work with for a particular launch. This doesn’t always mean working with the influencers with the biggest reach. We’ve seen some of our biggest success stories come from micro-influencer campaigns. It’s more about taking an insight-driven, creative approach to our client briefs to meet the desired results.” Still, with so, so many different voices out there now, it’s hard to know who is best to work with – making it a potentially risky strategy for some. “It’s getting harder to draw a clear line between all the opinion leaders,” says Warning Up’s Marc Guerrier, “whether they are media and/or influencers, because tools barely make the difference. Having access to huge databases and most of the automated platforms is like investing on the stock market. Therefore, most companies feel like they only have the choice between giving €100k to the #1 or to invest blindly. It has proven a worthless strategy for most of our clients. Making sense of this infinite and ever-changing landscape, and matching profiles with Key Performance Indicators requires the right balance of dedicated tools and market knowledge. This is why we have specialized teams at work.”
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FROM INDIE TO AAA AND SINGLE MARKET TO GLOBAL CAMPAIGNS – RENAISSANCE HAS ALL YOUR PR AND CONTENT CREATORS NEEDS COVERED
Our Values: We believe in ethical communications, working with the client to ensure their creativity is experienced by the right people at the right time.
Our Mission: Create the best possible conditions for your project to succeed; whether it’s a product launch or corporate announcement; through strategic thinking with measurable result but no unnecessary jargon! Our Team: Based in the UK and North America, Renaissance is built upon a foundation of talent and excellence with our core team boasting more than 100 years’ experience in games PR, Marketing, Product Management and Content Creator relations spanning the Indie and AAA categories.
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“We expect more casual gamers who bought old gen consoles during the pandemic to stick to them much longer.”
Q. This new generation of consoles provides greater continuity than ever before, there are thousands of games already playable. What opportunities does this present? And what issues?
The new generation of consoles is perhaps the friendliest to the concept of backwards compatibility than any we’ve seen in some time. The Xbox Series consoles in particular seem focused around continuity (hence the name, we suppose). Does this mean PRs are approaching these machines differently too? “The opportunity is: games for the last gen can be communicated more effectively, especially with a lack of real next gen games,” says Marchsreiter Communications’ Marchsreiter. “This might change in 2021. The issue is that stores are full and soon devs even on console will struggle to stick out without PR and marketing. Game Pass and other subscription models like Prime Gaming have become hugely important, as has platform support in general. Everyone needs to have a good reveal and launch concept, especially on PC but also on console.” This generation certainly had the weakest exclusive launch lineup of titles in a while. Not totally barren – the PS5 has Demon’s Souls, and indie titles like The Falconeer have had a chance to shine on the Xbox Series consoles. But there’s certainly little in the way of killer apps right now to appeal to those outside of the hardcore early adopter crowd. “The new consoles hardly have any exclusive games so far and the consoles have very limited availability worldwide” says Vertigo 6’s Hendrixen. “We expect more casual gamers who bought old gen consoles during the pandemic to stick to them much longer. And
core gamers to stick to or upgrade their PCs instead of waiting for new console shipments in the upcoming year.” Renaissance’s Stefano Petrullo picks up on the challenges of a crowded market, but also addresses the different approaches Sony and Microsoft are taking this time around: “I can honestly say that I love both the new consoles, and ultimately they offer different approaches that will favour the end user. With 200-250 games releasing on Steam each and every week, however, I believe the real problem is not the number of games but what the market will become and how to navigate through it. “Right now, we’re seeing a typical console war between PS5 and Series X|S that mirrors what we’ve been used to in some form from the Nintendo vs. Sega days onwards, but whereas in those previous eras you could usually pick a ‘winner’, this time the different approaches of both Sony and Microsoft mean it’s not a cliche to say everyone will win this time around: the different approaches lead to different objectives, and whoever sells the most this Christmas or in 2021, both PlayStation and Xbox offer viable and profitable routes to market. “What will be vital for the future is the ability to both synchronise and indeed work with first parties in order to better serve their respective user bases, on top of exploring new avenues to reach your games through media, content creators, as well as – from 2022 onwards – physical events.”
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Q. What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for 2021?
We’re certainly all hoping that life can start to improve in 2021. But as (or if) COVID-19 measures begin to relax this year, we also need to make sure the games industry doesn’t lose the momentum it gained from the lockdowns. “The biggest challenge games will face in 2021 is maintaining the momentum the industry has enjoyed in 2020” says Bastion’s Barrett. “Games helped people to stay connected and entertained during the pandemic and the desire for less screen time post pandemic will be palpable. But we also gained lots of new players this year, so the opportunity is to grow and feed their passion and develop them into long term players” As we discuss later, even if we can start moving back towards life as normal this year, there’s no guarantee we’ll all be hitting up the convention circuit just yet – presenting many of the same challenges we saw in 2020. “The biggest challenges are the lack of shows,” says Plan of Attack’s Chris Clarke, “and the simple fact that this means a lot of highly anticipated blockbusters don’t have release dates yet – so it’s hard to set too firm a schedule when we’re trying to avoid those. “The biggest opportunities are that the lack of shows allows for new space to fill as the
press searches for content to replace these. Furthermore, people are home significantly more during the COVID crisis, so people are playing games more than ever, offering a bigger potential audience.” Gaming had a very good year in 2020, and building upon that in 2021 is certainly a priority right now. But as Way To Blue’s Sharp points out, success attracts competition. “I think some of the biggest challenges for the PR industry in 2021 is that it will be a more competitive space. With so many companies impacted by the pandemic, many of the bigger agencies have faced huge challenges, including large losses in terms of revenue. This has meant that everyone is trying to encroach on the gaming space (one of the key industries to thrive during the pandemic). “This can be positive as it means exciting and fresh perspectives for gaming, offering new ways to reach mainstream audiences. However, in such a competitive space, publishers and developers want real value for their money. Therefore, I think the larger PR agencies will feel the hit more than smaller agencies who are well equipped to weather the storm and work creatively for different client budgets”
“We gained lots of new players this year, so the opportunity is to grow and feed their passion and develop them into long term players”
Q. Which PR campaigns have inspired you in the last 12 months and do clients need to take more risks to succeed?
So, after a tumultuous year, filled with business successes and immense personal difficulties, who has impressed our PR experts? “The marketing mood has changed significantly this year with campaigns focusing much more on humanity and emotion, and being much more reactive with their campaigns,” says Indigo Pearl’s Miller. “We’ve seen big brands outside the games industry taking risks and being very reactive to real life events; with some brands using social and PR ideas and content to spark whole ad campaigns. “I think taking risks is how you get great campaigns; and measured, well thought out risks are the best kind! Take PlayStation’s London Underground takeover a couple of weeks ago. A physical stunt during a national lockdown is a risk but Sony put in the prep work to make sure the campaign could pivot to online, and they invested in the photography and comms plan to help it go viral. It had the feel of a real launch event without anyone physically seeing it, and it worked a treat.” Sony’s PS5 launch impressed many on the panel, with Vertigo 6’s Hendrixen chipping in: “The campaign that comes to mind first is
Sony’s PS5 launch in London. How do you launch a console during a global pandemic? “Swapping the underground signs with the PlayStation icons got global traction, whereas the launch of the new Xbox was nearly invisible. Sony’s concept was so simple that it was brilliant. Kudos to Sony and their UK agency!” The industry’s success this year has allowed us to help out those who are struggling most, particularly those who have been on the frontlines of fighting this pandemic. Bastion’s Barrett has especially warm words for one company in particular. “Two campaigns this year highlighted what an amazing industry this is. Ukie’s Codes for Carers campaign, providing free game codes for NHS staff at the start of the pandemic, was incredibly humbling to work on, and demonstrated the enormous generosity and kindness within the industry. And prior to that, Ukie’s Get Smart About PLAY campaign also demonstrated what the industry can achieve together, creating national news and debate, and proving to the world that we, as an industry, take the trust that players and their families give us, very seriously indeed.”
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“At last count, I think around 194 events happened in 2020, 145 of which were digital.”
Q. How did the lack of events impact you this last year and do you think they’ll bounce back in 2021?
2020 has meant more than just working from home, of course. COVID-19 has shut down all major gaming events, and even with vaccines slowly rolling out, it’s going to be a long time before we’re all packed together in a noisy, crowded exhibition centre. How is the PR sector coping with this loss? “Events provide powerful images and storytelling that most potential ‘channels’ – media, social media and influencers – thrive on,” says Warning Up’s Guerrier. “The pandemic has made it a gloomy and ‘flattened’ year instead of being the expected rollercoaster and fireworks. Although streaming and digital channels have been an efficient alternative option, nothing (yet) has the same emotional impact as real life communications. “We do hope events will make a comeback in the Summer of 2021, but it will probably take years for the industry to commit to events at the same scale and with the same resources. Furthermore, digital components will have a predominant role in what future events will be and how the prime KPI is impacted.” As always, in any major change lies opportunity. There’s certainly an argument that the loss of major events dominated by triple-A titles has given more space for indies to breathe this year, as indeed Clarke from Plan of Attack states: “It’s worth noting that without the big shows like E3, Gamescom, and GDC happening, there aren’t the usual glut of major showcases that usually soak up all the oxygen in the room. This leaves a big void for media outlets and influencers to fill, which is great for indies.
Games that might have fallen through the cracks in lieu of big blockbusters at shows like E3 or Gamescom were instead picked up by huge outlets like IGN and GameSpot as part of their replacement showcases.” Still, the rush to digital events has felt like the year has been one non-stop event. There’s people doing some great work – but it can be hard to keep track these days. “Well, I think I’d actually argue there’s probably too many events this year, rather than a lack of them” says Renaissance’s Petrullo. “Almost every event has gone digital and, on top of those who already had a digital presence, it’s been hard to weigh up just what the return-on-investment will be for each one. With a physical event you tend to have attendance figures for previous years and other data, but this year everyone has essentially been starting from square one. “At last count, I think around 194 events happened in 2020, 145 of which were digital. Normally, you’d have two to four big events where the industry tries to grab a share of the noise, but this year, there are events weekly, almost daily sometimes. While that means there are more opportunities for developers that, in general, cost less to secure, the reach of each one is both indeterminable beforehand and – without naming any specific events – in many cases a lot smaller than the physical alternative. On top of that, the pandemic has meant there are less journalists covering each one, leading to a run of small events with much smaller impact than the traditional tentpoles of GDC, E3, and Gamescom.”
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Ins and Outs: Industry hires and moves 1
CHARLENE SHARP (9) has joined communications agency Way to Blue as their new head of games and interactive entertainment. Sharp is an experienced games industry marketer who has worked in-house as UK PR Manager at Eidos Interactive Entertainment and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and agency-side at Indigo Pearl. Sharp has 15 years of agency experience working across film, TV and gaming.
Sumo Nottingham has announced three new hires. First, DARREN CAMPION (12) will be joining the studio as executive producer. Starting out his career in the TV & Film industries as an SFX artist, Campion moved to the games industry 15 years ago. He has since worked at Codemasters, helping to set up their Kuala Lumpur studio and producing the GRID, F1 and DiRT franchises. Campion joins from Rare having worked on Sea of Thieves, Rare Replay and Kinect Sports Rivals.
Exient Publishing has strengthened its marketing operations with two key hires. First, JAMIE WOTTON (15) joins as creative marketing manager, tasked with building out a specialist team and a diversified marketing strategy, encompassing mobile ads, creative and app store optimisation (ASO).
Splash Damage has been on a serious hiring spree lately, with seven new staff at the company. First, ALEKSANDRA JANKOWSKA (1) joins the studio as an environment artist. Jankowska was previously at Ninja Theory, where she had worked for the past two years as a junior environment artist. Next up at Splash Damage, GAETHAN BRACKE (2) signs on as an associate technical artist. Bracke joins the company from Cruden B.V, where he was most recently working as a freelance 3D artist. EDUARDO CUETO SOLA (3) also joins, as a game designer. Sola was previously a game design lecturer at ESNE, University School of Design, Innovation and Technology ALEX TROWERS (4) comes onboard as a lead level designer. Previously, Trowers has previously worked at numerous places in the industry over a career spanning Bullfrog to Boss Alien.
Next at Splash Damage, STEVE LANE (5) has also joined the company as a senior audio designer. Lane has over 18 years of experience as an audio engineer across multiple different mediums. Lane has spent much of his career as a sound engineer at Grand Central Recording Studios, where he worked for 17 years. Meanwhile, SAM BAKER (6) joins the company as an associate technical audio designer. Previously to joining Splash Damage, Baker was working for Just Good Company on a freelance basis as a producer and sound engineer, and worked at Quarter Circle Games prior to that. Still at Splash Damage, TOM STOCKWELL (7) joins the company as a senior concept artist. Stockwell has worked at Just Wonâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t Die Studio, where he worked for one year. Finally at Splash Damage, MAX DOWNTON (8) has had a promotion and is now a senior brand manager at the company.
Electronic Arts has confirmed that commercial strategy & planning lead, COLIN BLACKWOOD (10), has stepped in to cover the maternity leave of Samantha Ebelthite, UK&I country manager. Colin previously held the role of franchise marketing director and has been with the company since 2005. Curve Digital has a new CEO in JOHN CLARK (11). Clark joins Curve Digital from Tencent, where he held the role of VP Partnerships Europe. Prior to that, he spent 13 years at SEGA Europe, ultimately serving as EVP Publishing
STEVEN KIRBY (13) also joins Sumo Nottingham as a lead games designer. With over 16 years of design experience in the video games industry, Kirby worked at Frontier Developments PLC, Rebellion, Razorworks and Coyote Developments before becoming part of the Sumo Digital family. Finally, CHRIS GREEN (14) joins Sumo Nottingham as lead game designer having previously worked at Hangar 18, Studio Gobo and Climax.
Second, BECKY POMROY (16) joins as social and community manager after nine years in the industry working across social media, QA and design. Pomroy will be responsible for social design, player engagement and support across hit games such as Lemmings Puzzle Adventure, as well as driving deeper social integration across the Exient Publishing portfolio and building influencer partnerships. KATIE LAURENCE (17) has been promoted over at Ubisoft, and is now communications manager. She will be leading Far Cry 6 as her first title in the new role. This marks her second promotion in just nine months.
Got an appointment youâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d like to share with the industry? Email Chris Wallace at email@example.com 22 | MCV/DEVELOP January 2021
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Every month, we pick the brain of an up-and-coming talent
Ryan Buxton, programmer at d3t, talks about his first big break in the industry, taking inspiration from his dad and the horrors of waking up after the office Christmas party How did you break into games? d3t gave me my big break just as I was graduating from a Computer Games Programming course at Staffordshire University in 2018, but the desire to be a part of this world stemmed from a conversation I recall having with my dad in my early teens. He is a software engineer, and he described his work to me to help me realise what I want to do with my life. He mentioned that games were also created this way and being glued to games since childhood, I decided that pursuing this line of work was a no-brainer. What has been your proudest achievement so far? Without a doubt, working on Mafia II: Definitive Edition. My Dad and I played the original many times and absolutely loved it. I hardly expected to be working on games I had already played when thinking about games I might be working on and doing so, let alone taking ownership of a platform port for the game, was nothing short of amazing! What has been your biggest challenge to date? While yes, it was also my proudest achievement, Mafia II: Definitive Edition was also my biggest challenge. It was my first experience in remastering a game based on a proprietary engine and I was charged with managing the Xbox One port. Porting from ex-gen to nextgen hardware can have significant challenges exacerbated by limitations of proprietary engines optimised for those targets. Thankfully, I was working closely with other programmers familiar
with the porting process and learned lots which I will be applying to future projects. What do you enjoy most about your job? The best thing about my job is that it is hardly work. I never struggle to get up and get going, except maybe the morning after my first d3t Christmas Party, for obvious reasons (haha). I often joke that it is basically a hobby I am paid to pursue and what is more is I get to do this with people who are just as invested in their jobs and the d3team. Whatâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s your biggest ambition in games? I find it hard to believe that as game developers, we are simply here, just to make games. We are here to make games better. As my programming
experience grows, I will be thinking about how I can be involved in some R&D work within games. I also have a personal research idea, but I have a lot of groundwork to get done before I even think about pursuing that. What advice would you give to an aspiring programmer? To aspiring programmers looking for their first studio, I would totally recommend joining a co-development studio. When I was ready to join a studio, I did not know which area of programming I wanted to work in or what kind of games I wanted to work on and working at a co-development studio opened up many new opportunities to explore different disciplines, technologies and games.
If thereâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s a rising star at your company, contact Chris Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org January 2021 MCV/DEVELOP | 23
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Cherry picked advice to help you reach the next level in your career
James Spicer, influencer manager at Green Man Gaming talks about his varied role, as well as the need to be cold-headed and warm-hearted My approach has always been coldheaded & warm-hearted, finding influencers that will fit the campaign based on the data and then selecting the influencer that has the best authenticity.
What is your job role and how would you describe your typical day at work? I’m the Influencer Manager at Green Man Gaming which essentially means I oversee all things influencer marketing – from activities on the store to running campaigns on behalf of brands and publishers including our inhouse publishing department.. The exact nature of my role can often be quite varied so every day brings something new whether that be working to grow our Ambassador Program, or maybe I’m running campaigns across both gaming and nongaming brands. What qualifications and/or experience do you need to land this job? Influencer marketing has become an integral part of the marketing mix in recent years, it is critical for someone in my job to have a
fundamental understanding of how influencers work across platforms and how to integrate brands authentically. I gained my experience at an influencer agency, but most entry roles in digital, community or social marketing will have a component of working with content creators. Having a passion for social or a large following can be beneficial to understanding both the brand and influencer perspective to drive successful campaigns. If you were interviewing someone for your team, what would you look for? The first thing would be to understand how the candidate identifies and ultimately selects influencer for a campaign – what is their strategy, what tools would they use and how would they measure the best influencer to fit the campaign.
What opportunities are there for career progression? There are plenty of opportunities for career progress within influencer marketing, it is a growing field, with brands on track to spend 20 per cent of brand budgets on influencers by 2023. More budget for campaigns, internal influencer departments and number of external agencies growing has led to an increase of job opportunities within the sector. With varied roles across client service, sales, operations, R&D and more, there is really no limit to career progression.
“It is a growing field, with brands on track to spend 20 per cent of brand budgets on influencers by 2023”
Want to talk about your career and inspire people to follow the same path? Contact Chris Wallace at email@example.com
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A Swift Spotlight: Ballistic Moon With decades of industry experience at their fingertips, Ballistic Moon is pushing the game development envelope, disinterested in providing derivative experiences for gamers when innovation is at the core of what they do
aving worked alongside each other for several years, Duncan Kershaw, Chris Lamb, and Neil McEwan decided to create a studio together after a project they all enjoyed at their previous employer was sadly cancelled. With opportunity coming at just the right time, they were able to create and pitch out a strong concept and project which subsequently was signed off by a well-known publisher relatively quickly. James Bowers from Aardvark Swift speaks to them to discuss the driving force behind Ballistic Moon, what makes them stand out as a development house, as well as their hopes for the future. “Starting Ballistic Moon has been such a career highlight. To be in a position to do what we want to do, in the way we want to do it, is amazing,” says Chris Lamb, who functions as the studio’s head of technology. It’s a sentiment echoed by co-founder and director, Duncan Kershaw. “We decided the timing was right to make something of our own. That was a year and a half ago now. We’ve all worked together for years and our paths have crossed a few times. Our best days, both professionally, individually, and as a group, are definitely ahead of us.”
The drive behind Ballistic Moon is to be at the bleeding edge of innovation, and they’re not content to create experiences that people have played before. “Part of what we do as Ballistic Moon is embrace creative risks, even if some of them fail, it’s about refocusing quickly. It’s rare in games that you have the freedom to take these risks, but our publishing partner allows us to do that. Ultimately, the game is going to benefit from that.” As the studio looks to grow into 2020 and beyond, with several vacancies across a variety of disciplines, it’s the studio culture and underlining ethos that sets them apart from their peers. “The reason we set Ballistic Moon up was to collaboratively come at things from different angles, bounce ideas off each other, and regularly problem solve together,” adds Neil McEwan, who heads up the creative direction within the studio. “We are very software-driven in our approach, it’s a key part of our culture. What’s in the game, what areas do we need to make improvements to, and what comes next. We try to give everyone ownership of their own areas, rather than jumping in and telling them how things should be done. We collectively want to create games which emotionally resonate with people, and mean something to them, not just something disposable which they move on from.” Finding the right people with the right soft skills to fit within their team dynamic is a key part of their growth strategy. “We don’t want just bodies in seats, we’d love to have people who don’t accept the norm and want to innovate along with us,” says McEwan. “Even if people don’t have the specific experience or skills, we want to facilitate the type of person who can figure it out and grow into the role.” “Being confident enough to admit what you know and what you don’t is very important to us,” adds Kershaw. “You can’t do everything yourself, and frankly, you’ve got to admit to yourself that other people are just going to have better ideas sometimes. Not only that, but just being a nice person is a frequently underappreciated trait.”
Above (top to bottom): Duncan Kershaw, Chris Lamb, and Neil McEwan, from Ballistic Moon
To find out more about the studio, and to see updates from Ballistic Moon, please visit ballisticmoon.com. You’ll be able to listen to the full conversation with Kershaw, Lamb and McEwan in an upcoming episode of the Aardvark Swift Podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, third party apps, and the aswift.com website.
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A Nordic embrace W
hile we admit to preferring the old Nordic Games moniker, we’ve now gotten used to the amalgamated THQ Nordic name. After all, it’s actually the least of the changes made in recent years. Now a distinct part of the headline-grabbing Embracer Group, THQ Nordic is today the parent of no less than fifteen studios, as well as having many more titles on its slate from publishing deals. And that number of studios seems certain to rise further, with the
Embracer Group showing no sign of slowing down in either acquisitions or expansions. THQ Nordic alone has expanded by four studios over the last 12 months, and that’s during a global pandemic. With so much going on, we thought it was a good time to speak with THQ Nordic boss Klemens Kreuzer, and find out how he’s managed the constant growth and where he sees his arm positioning itself both within the group and the broader industry.
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INDIE GROUP Despite its name, the whole Embracer group seems happy to let its various parts operate at arm’s length. Whether that’s THQ Nordic as a part of Embracer, or the creative independence of the studios that exist under its umbrella. “When we acquire studios, we do it because we strongly believe they are good at what they are doing and how they are doing it,” Kreuzer points out, adding that “they have almost every freedom on the creative side.” Instead he sees THQ Nordic’s role as keeping things realistic. “Of course, as a publisher, we sometimes have to hold them back when they come and say ‘we’ll make the new world 12 times larger than in the last game’. In these instances, we might ask them to only do it three times larger and get it done before we all go into retirement!” Although of course, THQ Nordic, with a wide range of licenses and IPs at its disposal is most involved in deciding what projects should be pursued. “When it comes to the question ‘what will they develop next’, we sit together and discuss all options,” Kreuzer explains. CONFIDENCE AND SUPPLY So with all those options, and all those studios, where does Kreuzer see THQ Nordic sitting in the market, and does its expansion show a confidence that the market will both continue to expand, and continue to spend on a broad range of games, rather than clustering around a few games-as-a-service titles? “We see an increased amount of interest among players for our own games, in addition to keeping an eye on industry data demonstrating that the gaming industry is growing every year along with the game-playing audience,” replies Kreuzer, with an eye to the demographics of the situation. “The young players from the early ’80s are now in their 40s and 50s, and the term ‘silver gamer’ has only been around for a couple of years. We are certain that more people will start playing in the coming years, especially with evolving markets, stronger hardware and increased accessibility. The demand for content will only continue to grow,” he states confidently. He’s very happy to see the latest hardware too. “Finally, they are here!” Seeing the new consoles
as another part of that growth, one that his teams are already busy working on exploiting. “We are really curious to see what our studios can achieve with both of these very powerful platforms and are already working on some games for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S that will be released in 2021 and beyond. “A new console generation will also be beneficial for PC players, too,” he adds. “Stronger hardware on the consoles means less limitation on PC games, as well. We look forward to this new generation of console hardware and believe they are already having a strong impact on the market, exciting gamers worldwide.” The new hardware has come alongside other evolutions in the console market, most notably the biggest push the industry has ever seen to create a subscription service in the form of Game Pass, while streaming services such as Stadia and Luna test those waters. “They are great additions that are here to stay but we don’t think they will replace traditional distribution in the foreseeable future,” opines Kreuzer. “These programs are in need of new content every month. When I browse through Amazon Prime or Netflix for film content these days, there are not many interesting movies, for my taste at least,” and we can’t argue with that. “So, in my view, the more game streaming services are out there, the more content they will need. And THQ Nordic is delivering content.” Below: THQ Nordic and Gunﬁre Games reworked VR title Chronos as Chronos: Beyond the Ashes for non-VR players to great effect
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XXXXXX CONTENT PIPE And it’s delivering content in ever larger quantities. 2020 releases were numerous with a distinct flavour at making the most of existing IPs and licenses, although not without a fresh sense of creative vision. Destroy All Humans! and SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated, were both fairly straight and successful remakes. While the western-strategy IP Desperados was rebooted by Mimimi Games in Desperados III. THQ Nordic pulled a similar trick with Airships Syndicate’s Darksiders Genesis, taking the game successfully into a new, isometric, hack and slash genre. Meanwhile the reworking of Gunfire’s Chronos into Chronos: Beyond the Ashes removed the original’s VR requirements, opening the title up to a big new audience. Looking ahead, THQ’s exciting new IP BioMutant is now expected in 2021, while new acquisition Purple Lamp continues to improve The Guild 3 in early access. Plus the return of helicopter combat IP Comanche is as yet undated, but will launch into early access first. In terms of genres and audiences there’s an incredible variety there, so is there an overarching strategy? “We will continue to bring different games, tailored for different audiences. The typical SpongeBob-player might not want to play a game like Desperados III. As a company, we think it’s a big risk to just ride one horse into battle. That’s why we have a whole cavalry!” “In 2021, we will continue that strategy,” Kreuzer notes, mentioning BioMutant as well as “new racing games such as the next MX vs ATV and more!”
Below: Desperados III brings back the wild-west IP, with Mimimi Games using its experience from Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun to great effect
Above: A real blast from the past, Comanche makes a return, courtesy of Nukklear UG, after 20 years
“Our scouting teams are just looking for great experiences,” he explains. “Although THQ Nordic has made some remakes in the past and created new chapters in established, beloved franchises, we also like to experiment and create new franchises from scratch. “Just think of This Is The Police, Little Big Workshop from our friends at HandyGames, or Biomutant. Whenever we meet a studio with a great idea that fits into our plans, or someone looking for a strong publishing partner, we are eager to take the chance. And making the most of those chances isn’t limited to western markets, with THQ now also present in Japan: “THQ Nordic Japan is doing great,” he tells us. “The goal was and is to expand our sales in Japan and the neighboring countries with boots on the ground. We found it quite hard to establish a reliable business in Asia without professionals from there, who know the market as well as we do in Europe or the US. With THQ Nordic Japan, that challenge is now a thing of the past.” NO EMBRACING (FOR NOW) Sadly while that challenge may be in the past, the biggest challenge of recent years is set to roll on well into 2021. So just how has the pandemic affected so many aspects of THQ’s business: its studios, its launches, its catalogue sales, and the lack of events going forward? “Like every publisher out there, 2020 has given us a lot of challenges and a lot of opportunities,” he explains. “I think we’ve managed to overcome all the challenges very well so far and, of course, some lessons were learned.” Those include: “We’ve met all requirements for our people to work from home easily to ensure that productivity is at ‘in-office’ levels. This of course required investments in new hardware
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XXXXXX and upgraded internet connections, as well as establishing new routines. Enforced working from home is a mixed blessing, one that has become onerous now but still should provide long-term benefits, there have been clear upsides for publishers from the pandemic. “We’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to entertain more gamers spending more time at home. We’re very happy to have delivered an incredibly fun and diverse portfolio of new games during 2020 but we also worked hard with our console partners to create promotional opportunities that helped refresh some of our catalogue titles in players’ minds. “I am very proud of the entire organization,” he tells us. “They have truly risen to the challenge. We are prepared if we have to stay home for longer but, of course, we cannot find a proper replacement for a coffee with colleagues in the kitchen.” NEW YEAR, NEW COLLEAGUES And some of those colleagues are so new that they’ve not yet worked together in one building under THQ Nordic ownership. Those include Purple Lamp, based in Vienna, which joined the team in November 2020. But despite the obvious problems the team worked on multiple projects and releases over 2020. So what are THQ Nordic’s plans for the studio? “We’ve known Purple Lamp for quite a while now. Back when the studio was called Sproing. Now, we are working together on The Guild 3, which is still in Early Access. We also released SpongeBob: Battle For Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated with them earlier this year. “This was one of our most successful games in 2020 and our company’s history. Purple Lamp really did a Below: Purple Lamp Studios SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated received a rapturous response from fans on Steam
Above: Destroy All Humans! by Black Forest Games is a remake of the original 2005 title
fantastic job there. We managed to make a lot of fans very happy and the user scores are outstanding. This success made the acquisition a very easy choice. Purple Lamp’s experience and professionalism makes them an ideal developer for future licensed games.” But it’s not just buying in new talent, this year it also founded new studios in the shape of Pow Wow (Vienna) and Nine Rocks (Bratislava). Kreuzer puts those moves in context to its existing partnerships and to acquisitions. “We’ve made great games in the past with both partner studios and internal studios,” he notes. “Grimlore Games in Munich for example just released the second standalone expansion to one of our core franchises, SpellForce, and has managed to bring this RTS-RPG legend back to the screen in a really compelling way. “Setting up a new studio requires a bit more patience. But once you are done, you have a handpicked team that lives and breathes their franchises and projects. “Buying an existing outfit has also proven fruitful for us and it’s obviously a faster process in terms of getting the team ramped up on a project. Piranha Bytes, for example, has so much experience in creating open world games like ELEX and we were really happy they decided to join our THQ Nordic family last year. “Both of the newly-founded studios have started to work on one or more projects already and we will be happy to share more news in the next year.” There’s no doubt that THQ Nordic will have plenty to share in 2021. With a very veritable army of mid-sized developers under its wing, it’s now well placed to provide content for the ever-growing market – whichever platform they might decide to want it on.
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THE OTHER SIDE OF NIGHT CITY Chris Wallace talks to SIDE about supporting CD Projekt REDâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s biggest project yet
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From left: Jaqui Shriver Sladeck, Martin Vaughan and Sini Downing
ast month saw the long-anticipated release of CD Projekt RED’s Cyberpunk 2077, its first title outside of The Witcher franchise. And while CD Projekt RED’s name will be on the box, with concept development dating right back to 2012 and production starting in earnest in 2016 – there are others who played their part. When it comes to an enormous blockbuster titles like Cyberpunk 2077, there’s always specialist assistance behind the scenes helping to bring the world to life in a variety of ways So to hear a little more about what is undoubtedly the biggest release of recent years, we reached out to the award-winning team at SIDE to find out about the enormous task of portraying the many, many distinct voices of Night City. WHAT IS SIDE’S ROLE IN CYBERPUNK 2077? Jacquie Shriver Sladeck, head of studio at SIDE LA: SIDE provided all our core services to CD Projekt RED for this IP: casting, directing, recording, production management and post production. We spread this work across two locations: both SIDE UK and SIDE LA. HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INVOLVED IN THE PROJECT? Sini Downing, head of production at SIDE UK: We’d worked with CD Projekt RED on The Witcher 2 and 3, and the massive DLCs and were still working on Gwent: The Witcher Card Game. About four years ago, we started talking about their next game. It was so exciting, to see them going for a totally new IP, new style, new gameplay. We were thrilled to collaborate with them on their new adventure. HOW MUCH CREATIVE FREEDOM DID YOU HAVE ON THE PROJECT? Martin Vaughan CDG, SIDE UK’s in-house casting director: CDP were, of course, the driving force on everything, and they provided us with as much information as they had at the time and then let us go for it in terms of casting. The casting teams – in both London and LA – had their work cut out for them with all the different factions and ethnicities; the diversity of Night City was an exciting challenge to us.
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The great thing about working with CDP is that the worlds they create are conceived in such a vivid and specific way. For casting, it’s fantastic because it really helps to give a clear vision of what we’re aiming for and the type of performers that will be required to bring these characters to life. They were very generous throughout all the stages of casting, providing us with early character art, detailed backstories, story docs, and rough cuts of cinematics to help ground who these characters were and the context they existed in. In addition to that, as with any great collaborator, it helped that they were really open to exploring different ideas with the voices. Jacquie Shriver Sladeck: Out of LA, we have the option of having a multitude of talent self-tape auditions based on generic scripts so that we can get a handle on the available talent pool for any given demographic. From there, our skilled casting team were able to identify the talent that was going to bring something special to the project and get them in for recording. HOW DID THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC IMPACT THE PROJECT? Sini Downing: Luckily, we were pretty much wrapped before COVID restrictions came in.
Still, we worked with the CDP team to ensure that any pickups or trailers were produced, whether that was with actors recording from home or making sure the talent felt secure coming into the studios as we opened up again after lockdown. IS IT A LOT OF PRESSURE TO BE WORKING ON SUCH AN ENORMOUSLYHYPED PROJECT? Sini Downing: We’ve been lucky enough to work on some amazing and highly-anticipated titles in the past. It’s very exciting to get on board with projects like this – they have complex characters, big stories, lots to work with! Then you roll up your sleeves and get to work alongside the devs, figuring out what’s needed, by when, and how we’re going to do it. Our own quality threshold is high, so we knew we would be able to deliver. Jacquie Shriver Sladeck: The fact that this project was based on such a strong IP and had fantastic characters got us excited from the beginning; we love it when we have big, colourful characters to cast. In addition to the characters, this project already had an incredible story written by talented writers who were able to craft this expansive narrative into a playable game. The London voice director, Justin Villiers, came out of the studio one
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day after directing one of the endings, just shaking his head in admiration, saying: this is going to be SO good. Our LA Studio and Production teams were surprised how moved they were by what was happening in the studio. It’s awesome when the teams respond emotionally to the material, it tells me we’re really getting our teeth into things, and getting great performances.” WAS IT A CHALLENGE TO ACCOMMODATE CYBERPUNK’S OPEN WORLD AND BRANCHING NARRATIVE? Sini Downing: We never sit back and just use whatever worked last time – every project has its own needs and quirks. As you can imagine, an open world, branching narrative with a choice of two player characters has a fairly complicated script. We had a whole team working on tools that would incorporate the scripts produced by CD Projekt; we wanted to make them workable and trackable in-session, as well aid Post Production in keeping everything in order – not to mention delivered back to CDP in a way that they could implement the files easily. And those tools and techniques were reviewed and tweaked throughout the production. For a game this big, it’s never going to be plug-and-play when it comes to production. HOW AWARE WERE YOU OF THE SCALE OF THE PROJECT AHEAD OF TIME? Jacquie Shriver Sladeck: Given our work on The Witcher, we were expecting big, but it was only when we saw initial numbers for Cyberpunk 2077 that we got an idea of the scope – and that’s when we knew that our best solution was to split the recordings across SIDE UK and SIDE LA, so that we could both cover the diversity required as well as run multiple studios simultaneously. Having Male-V recording in London and Female-V in LA meant we could constantly swap files, providing each of the lead actors not only the other’s performance to work with but all the additional characters we were also recording, so there was twice the amount of feeder files coming in for the actors to play against. And it is that ability to play off another actor that really helps talent in session. The scope also continued to expand as development went on, as you might expect, but with our ability to scale up in terms of team members supporting the assigned production managers, we were able to keep up.
of diverse characters) to ensure the performances are engaging across the world. So often, reviews comment on voices for these types of games sounding either too “similar” or overly “heightened” which is usually a result of not being able to have enough actors cover the characters. The reality is, there’s always a compromise in the number of actors you can cast on these types of projects. From both a budgetary and practical scheduling/ production basis, being able to split the production across the UK and LA gave us the opportunity to bring in authentic, unique voices and run multiple studios. It also meant there were two incredibly talented production managers, Andrew Skillen and Nick Lanza, heading things up, across different time zones, so the production was literally transatlantic! Sini Downing: As mentioned before, the scope of the project meant SIDE put together a pretty big team to make sure everything was getting delivered: casting, production managers, production assistants, those creating bespoke tools, heads of departments, engineers, voice directors, dialect coaches, and post production crew. There were a lot of planning sessions – not just in the beginning of the project, but throughout, to figure out how to keep things going, how to deal with new challenges, whether it was video capture, getting files recorded in one location to the other in time for their sessions, updating scripts, etc. We’re so proud of our work on Cyberpunk 2077. It’s been years of collaboration with CD Projekt RED and we can’t wait to play the game along with the rest of the players eagerly anticipating this title.
WERE THEY ANY PARTICULAR ISSUES YOU ENCOUNTERED DURING THE PROJECT? Jacquie Shriver Sladeck: There’s a challenge with any massive open world game (populated by a huge number
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Scavenging in the bleak Midwinter Chris Wallace talks to Midwinter Entertainment’s Josh Holmes, a former Halo creative director, about the studio’s SpatialOSpowered PvEvP survival title
Above: Josh Holmes, Midwinter Entertainment
cavengers is the debut title from Midwinter Entertainment, a Seattle-based developer led by former Halo franchise creative director and 343 Industries studio lead, Josh Holmes. It’s that pedigree that has attracted a lot of attention for Midwinter’s first title, which is currently in closed beta, and set to release on PC this year. Early impressions of the game itself have been strong, and it’s an ambitious title for a studio’s first release. Scavengers is a free-to-play, PvEvP, multiplayer, team shooter, focused around survival. Which is… a lot of descriptors. Essentially, the player will be stepping onto a frozen Earth, chilled by a cataclysmic event when an asteroid shattered the moon and plunged the Earth into an eternal winter. To make matters worse, a mutant-creating virus has spread among the population. This leaves the remaining humans competing to regain control of the planet and hunt for a cure.
Fierce competition for survival is also a feature of such live service games – one that puts Scavengers in competition with some of the biggest names in the business. To find out how the title plans to stand out against the competition, we sat down with Holmes, now CEO and co-founder of Midwinter Entertainment. What was the original inspiration behind Scavengers? With the hand-drawn promo art it has a pen-and-paper RPG feel about it? It’s funny because as a team we often reference board games as a model, providing strategic depth, particularly as we discuss the design of our game mode and the dynamic nature of the choices we offer players with scoring objectives across our map. However, the inspiration for the game comes from a number of different sources and people from across the studio. We’re lucky at Midwinter to have a diverse team with a variety of experiences from across the games industry.
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Whether a person is a veteran game developer or a graduate fresh out of college, they each bring a unique perspective and a range of different influences that have helped shape Scavengers. For me personally, I have spent a lot of time absorbing dystopian, post-apocalyptic science fiction. Whether it’s John Carpenter’s The Thing, Hugh Howey’s Wool Trilogy, Annihilation, The Road, even films like The Hunger Games and Hanna when it comes to our Explorer characters. Post-apocalyptic sci-fi is a deep well to draw from, and my hope is that we’re able to contribute our own unique perspective that resonates with people once the game releases.
The studio was acquired by Improbable in 2019. How has that changed your working relationship with the company and the platform? We’ve had a close relationship with Improbable since we began working together on Scavengers in 2018. At that time we chose to leverage SpatialOS to realize our vision for the game, achieving a large scale PvEvP experience with high player count and hundreds of active AI. Since the acquisition we’ve deepened our technological partnership at the platform level, whilst also benefiting from our relationship with other game studios across the company and around the world. The amount of support that we’ve received has been incredible.
The game has obvious battle royale tropes but it’s more than that, right? It is. Some players have categorized us as a ‘battle royale’ and it’s understandable, given that we share some familiar elements with that specific type of game experience – small squads descending into a large map to compete, a closing storm that pushes players together, scavenging for weapons and equipment. However, we never set out to make a Battle Royale game, instead, we looked at where we could push and expand online competitive multiplayer in new and exciting ways. If you play Scavengers, you’ll see that a huge focus for players is on PvE and completing objectives, with the emphasis not on wiping out other teams and players to secure victory but to strategically explore and conquer the challenges across a vast frozen wasteland. Players are tasked with securing the most datapoints before they extract from the planet to secure victory. If played a certain way, it’s entirely possible for a squad of players to extract and score a win without engaging in any PvP combat whatsoever. However, we do balance PvE and PvP in such a way that both offer their own strategic value, and require degrees of skill to fully master. Ultimately, for us as a team, one of the most exciting things is how different it feels to anything else we’ve played, or worked on, before.
The GaaS model often vacillates between monstrous success and disappearing without a trace, how do you plan to build interest prelaunch and sustain it post-launch? From the very beginning, we’ve taken a community-first approach to the development of Scavengers. We don’t exist in a vacuum; for over a year we’ve been playtesting with a community of thousands whose feedback has allowed us to shape and evolve the direction of the experience. It’s been hugely rewarding for us as a team to have that type of interaction with our community, which is why Closed Beta represents such an important milestone in our development. We often think of our community as an extension of the development team, and we’ll continue to expand and actively involve them in our plans through the coming months during the game’s continued development.
Below: The cold kills in Scavengers, so fights can break out over heat sources
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Genuine PvEvP shooters are still a rarity, what are the benefits and pitfalls of mixing enemy PCs and NPCs in the same live environment? For us it was about offering the player a level of agency and strategic depth that goes beyond just hunting down a target on the map. There exists a balance between objectives, survival systems, deadly weather that pushes across the map, unpredictable wildlife, and roaming bosses – all whilst delivering satisfying gunplay in both a PvE and PvP environment. The opportunity is to explore new ground in the competitive multiplayer space with an experience that offers many avenues to success. There are many challenges, beginning with the fact that there isn’t an existing model for the type of experience we’re creating. Finding the sweet spot between cooperative PvE and competitive PvP has required constant iteration, and we’re still refining that balance. There’s also a degree of technical complexity because you are managing so many moving parts, at such a large scale.
“There’s a degree of technical complexity because you are managing so many moving parts, at such a large scale.”
Are you concerned about this being a hypercompetitive market? What would you say is Scavenger’s unique selling point in this market? We’ve not really been too concerned about the wider market. Scavengers takes a unique approach to competitive multiplayer by embracing PvEvP. We’re a survival shooter set on a vast strategic battleground. The goal is survival, not elimination. Our hope that our vision for a different type of competitive multiplayer experience resonates with gamers. And we’ve been encouraged over the past year by the fantastic variety of gaming experiences that manifested seemingly from nowhere to become hugely popular – a testament to the power of great ideas and captivating gameplay. How have playtests been so far? How are you balancing what players tell you, with what you see in the data? Playtests have been incredible for creating a bridge between our community and the development team. We’ve been running intermittent playtests over the past year, and we’ve received an overwhelming amount of feedback that has been vital in shaping the direction of the game during development. But to your point, there is always a balance. We look closely at player behaviour; interactions both on the macro and micro levels, to really get to the root of what motivates and compels players through a match. It can lead to simple tweaks such as AI density or loot drops, or scale up to more sweeping adjustments, such
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as outpost placements, or how our endgame plays out. Ultimately, each bit of feedback or data is its own puzzle piece that together creates an elaborate picture of the player experience. It’s rare to see such anticipation for a studio’s first game. How are you making sure you manage expectations, given the Halo legacy at the studio? It’s always hugely gratifying to see players respond positively to a project you’re working on, especially when it’s been the combined passion of an entire team working on it for a number of years. We’re a pretty small studio, and we tend to digest feedback and response from players together. We’re constantly sharing observations from the community with one another on our Slack and Discord channels. We really appreciate the diversity of perspectives we see represented in the feedback we’ve received, especially when it causes us to revisit our own assumptions about a particular part of the experience. The game has a lot of elements and considerations – How do you ensure it’s accessible to first-time players? The game offers a lot of depth and different strategic options for players to employ as they pursue their objectives and fight to survive.
“We’re a survival shooter set on a vast strategic battleground. The goal is survival, not elimination.” We think a lot about the first-time user experience. There is a lot to take in and it’s important that we don’t overwhelm the player with a mass of information and systems immediately. Each match can be broken down into three main phases, which are ‘Scavenge’, ‘Hunt’, and ‘Extract’. Once you understand the core principles of the match, all of the other components and features fold organically into that experience. We don’t necessarily expect a new player to jump in and immediately master all the options available to them, but we do want to make sure that the mission and objectives are understandable and compelling from the moment you get your boots in the snow. As players familiarize themselves with additional systems and side objectives, they can experiment to discover the best strategies for achieving victory.
Below: Intentional or not we love the nineties pen-andpaper RPG vibes we get from the concept art
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One giant leap... After six years in the pilot’s seat, Elite Dangerous is now fulfilling many players’ long-held desire to get up and have a walkabout. But putting one foot in front of the other on a galaxy’s worth of planets is no mean feat. Seth Barton speaks to the team at Frontier Developments about the multiple challenges involved in creating Elite Dangerous Odyssey.
W Above: Piers Jackson, Frontier Developments
hile we tire of relating everything back to the ongoing pandemic, there is something resonant about a development team working hard in 2020 to allow a community of players to get out of the spaceships (which they’ve called home for some six years now) and let them step walk on the surface of planets for the very first time. And it’s not just the one planet either. Elite Dangerous’ new Odyssey expansion is providing on-foot access to planets across all 400 billion star systems in the Milky Way. Of course, such projects have been tried before, and there have famously been both issues and delays. But the Elite Dangerous team is working off the back of a successful six year stint to date, and a supremely wellengineered universe. Throughout all those years, and more with development of Elite Dangerous dating back to 2012 at least, the game’s creators have long looked forward to this moment. “It would be fair to say that the on-foot experience has been in our minds since the inception of Elite Dangerous,” says game director Piers Jackson. “It’s
something we’ve played around with for a number of years, experimenting with different ideas for gameplay, but Odyssey in its current form started taking shape around the beginning of 2019. And the team to bring this next evolution of the game to its player base? “We’ve averaged around 100 developers working on the project with a peak of around 140,” Jackson reveals. With a couple of years of development time and a sizable headcount, the team could have completed the development of a substantial standalone game. So how does creating an expansion on this scale compare to a wholly new project? “In terms of its scale, and in large parts its development, Odyssey can definitely be compared to a new game,” says Jackson. “What Elite has leant to Odyssey is a foundation and principles on which to build – core experiences to transpose down onto the surface of planets – the vision of freedom for a player to forge their own way in the galaxy, the wonder of exploration and, of course, the danger.”
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And this desire for more personal exploration doesn’t just come from the team: “Players have been asking for on-foot gameplay from day one, you can go all the way back to the Kickstarter campaign and find a ton of discussion.” Which begs the slightly unfair question of why it’s taken so long? “It’s always been something we wanted to bring to the game but it had to be a meaningful experience and we always had to balance that with our desire to enhance and develop the in-cockpit gameplay,” says Jackson. FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT Coming back to the idea of extending the core experience and values into the on-foot gameplay, Gareth Hughes, lead designer, explains how the existing experience, and the franchise as a whole, has defined Odyssey. “As with Elite over the past four decades, players will be able to forge their own path and take their own approach to the game – whether that’s fighting for factions as a mercenary, stripping wrecks as a scavenger or pursuing discovery in its purest form, exploring planets and their organic life from an entirely new perspective. And that freedom needs to operate at two distinct levels, Hughes explains: “One of our core design principles when designing Odyssey has been to ensure that we offer player choice at the macro level – the type of activity they want to engage with – but also at the micro level – how they want to achieve their chosen goals. “For example, players could be tasked with stealing important data files from a heavily guarded settlement. Some players may choose to armour up and shoot their way in with heavily upgraded weaponry, while other players may instead choose to infiltrate using specialist tools and devices to gain access and avoid detection and conflict.” Another example are assassination missions, where players are given a name and told the planet and settlement, but have to locate the target themselves, by say hacking into a computer network. Alternatively, they can just indiscriminately wipe out the settlement entirely – it’s not efficient, but it works. And they’re not in it alone of course. “Players will have complete flexibility over whether they want to have these experiences as a solo player, in a team with their friends or alongside random players they have encountered along the way.
“Odyssey will transform the multiplayer experience in Elite – to date players have been able to wing up with team mates for missions or appear as virtual crew members, but in Odyssey they’ll be able to physically board fellow commanders’ ships and travel the stars together.” PLANET EXPRESS And, as we mentioned before, that means all the stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. “We won’t be setting any limits here” stresses Hughes. “Elite Dangerous contains more than 400 billion star systems, and light-atmospheric worlds such as those opened up in Odyssey are found within many of them. Players will also be able to disembark their ships and SRVs [Surface Recon Vehicles] on the non-atmospheric worlds introduced in Horizons [the previous expansion], opening huge opportunities to understand those planets better than ever before.” On many of these planet’s surfaces new settlements will be waiting to be discovered offering opportunities for new missions, intense combat and plenty of looting, explains Hughes. “Ports and Outpost will become social hubs where players can meet, team up and choose the missions and activities they want to experience together. These locations will also be a great place to show off the latest armour, weapons and decals players have earned.” Those planet surfaces need to be detailed and believable of course, so how did the team go about creating the planet surfaces for literally billions of worlds? And how has it moved on from the
Above: Gareth Hughes, Frontier Developments
“Odyssey will transform the multiplayer experience in Elite”
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Above: Dr. Kay Ross, Frontier Developments
vehicle-based exploration found in the earlier Horizon update? Lead programmer Dr. Kay Ross explains: “In Odyssey we are changing the process in which we generate landable planet surfaces. Where before we had a generator for rocky surfaces and one for ice surfaces which both took Stellar Forge inputs,” Stellar Forge being the core procedural generation engine in Elite Dangerous that is responsible for detailing everything in our galaxy. “We now have terrains and terrain materials of various different types and scales which are deterministically selected and blended together depending on the Stellar Forge driven properties of that planet,” Ross continues. “Landable planets are still classified between rocky, icy, rocky ice, high metal content and metal rich depending on what emerges from the Stellar Forge simulation, but their terrains are dependent on those simulation values more than these discrete titles. Terrain shapes, styles, and combinations are mixed together, meaning there is a lot of variation within these classes. “As with everything in Elite Dangerous, the planets are full sized,” unlike say No Man’s Sky, which chose to use miniature planets as opposed to realistic-sized ones. “And so it is a challenge to ensure that the resources we make work on all scales, work with each other, and provide detail all the way from orbit to the surface. I think we’ve done a grand job selling the scale of these things. “Across a planet there is now a large scale mask processed which determines different zones of types of terrain based,” Ross expands. “The mask depends on things like how gravitationally stressed the planet is, the crust thickness and if the planet is, or has been, tectonically active.
“These zones mask out further subzones of terrain and material types, and follow the flow patterns laid out by the layer above it, creating a seamless landscape across the planet. INTERSTELLAR UBER The planets look varied and interesting then, but how has the team added interactivity to these vast landscapes? “They’ll be populated by a variety of elements that the player can interact with including settlements, flora, different points of interest such as ship crash sites, and social spaces inside planet ports,” Hughes explains. “When approaching a planet in their ships players will be able to scan the surface at a distance to search for and highlight the things that they wish to investigate more closely. “All of this content is hand crafted, resulting in a high quality experience, but it’s also affected by the background simulation to create a huge amount of variety and ensure that each element feels bedded into the game world from a thematic and narrative perspective. That experience also has to be meaningful to ship-based play, adding opportunities without making previous ones redundant, says Hughes. “We’ve always been aware that Odyssey needs to feel like a layer that fits over the existing ship experience, the two elements have to feel seamless and not compartmentalised. While offering many new experiences for players, Odyssey also transposes many of the core game loops from ship gameplay and adapts them for on-foot experiences, creating a real sense of continuity between the two. “At the same time we’re aware that some new players attracted by Odyssey’s on-foot gameplay may find that they are overloaded when also trying to get to grips with flying a ship,” Hughes notes, and they’ve come up with their own Uber service to tackle it. “To help on-board these players – and also to give more experienced players the chance to put their feet up – we’ve added a new service to the game called Apex. Apex is essentially an interstellar taxi service that will deliver you to a variety of destinations, for a relatively small fee. This allows players to navigate the galaxy without the complexity and risk of flying their own ship, which is especially useful when venturing into hostile territory.”
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FACE TO SPACE One reason to get out and about in titles such as Mass Effect, is to interact with NPCs and pick up missions. But with a perfectly functional ship-based UI already existing for that in Elite Dangerous, how has the team ensured that settlements and space ports aren’t simply a more unwieldy version of the UI writ large across an environment? “Elite Dangerous is a living galaxy with a plethora of minor and major factions vying for influence in the different systems and settlements scattered throughout the galaxy. One of our proudest achievements with Odyssey has been bringing that background simulation to life inside our stations, outposts and beyond,” replies Hughes. “The influence of the background simulation now manifests itself in a much more physical and human way, from the background chatter between faction NPCs to the tone and thematic presentation of the locations themselves. “One key area where this can be most keenly felt is in the difference obtaining missions; the mission board offers a quick and efficient way to pick up regular missions but engaging with a physical faction representative offers more nuanced missions with greater personality and narrative depth and also the opportunity to barter for a better reward.” GREAT EXPECTATIONS All of this sounds amazing, but the whole space sim genre has come under greater scrutiny in recent years, after both No Man’s Sky and Star Citizen struggled to manage expectations of their fans, both in terms of ambition and delivery.
“Our focus for the Odyssey campaign has really been to show people what’s real – we’ve avoided the big CG reveals and every asset we produce has been made either with in-engine footage or with pure gameplay,” Jackson explains. “I think what’s great here is that our community puts a huge amount of trust in us – when we set out to build Elite Dangerous it was really, in terms of scale, one of the most ambitious video game developments ever and not only did we deliver on our promise but we’ve followed that up with six years of incredible content. “That being said, we don’t take that trust for granted so we’re revealing Odyssey little by little with everything we show being absolutely true to the player experience.” And that brings up to one final question, given the recent tribulations with Cyberpunk 2077, will Odyssey run well on last-generation hardware? “Absolutely! We’ve worked incredibly hard to ensure that performance remains consistent with the classic Elite Dangerous experience and we’re pleased with the results that we are seeing. We remain absolutely committed to bringing a great Odyssey experience to all of our Commanders on whichever format they choose to play Elite Dangerous.”
“I think what’s great here is that our community puts a huge amount of trust in us”
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Time to get CREY-ative The Roblox IPO has brought further attention to user-content driven platforms. In development for a few years, CREY is just such a platform, which uses a code-free design system to allow anyone to create content for its community. Seth Barton finds out more about its potential.
Creativity in games isn’t exactly new, but with the continued growth of Roblox, and the success of Media Molecule’s Dreams on PS4, the huge potential size of the market is becoming ever clearer. Another player in the space is CREY, which looks to create a ‘social gaming network’ of creators and content sharers, all based on a code-free platform. We ask Fabien Rossini, CEO of CREY Games, about where the platform is positioned and its key strengths. How would you describe CREY? CREY is a games creation platform and digital hangout where you can play games, create games or just connect Below: Fabien Rossini, CEO of CREY Games with friends. Our aim is to provide the first true social gaming network, a code-free platform built with social at its heart. A new, fast and playful way of creating games and experiences without coding. How does CREY compare to other similar platforms, such as Roblox? For builders, CREY is simple and accessible. Our goal is to allow users to create and publish worlds in a matter of minutes, with no previous skills required. For players, CREY offers a super versatile experience, gorgeous
graphics and deep gameplay. But for everyone, gaming has become a central element of self-expression. People define themselves by the gaming community that they belong to, in the same way previous generations defined themselves by the music they listened to or the films they loved. It’s only natural that players have become increasingly knowledgeable in games and game design, with a hunger to create something of their own and to share it with their friends. That is the platform we want to deliver with CREY and we aspire to deliver the first true social gaming network through our gaming hub, which will be released this year. What is CREY’s target audience? We are building a platform for Gen-Z to connect and play games with the world. Gen Z is the first true digitally-native generation, who live and breathe this digital world we inhabit, and gaming has increasingly become a social hangout for them. So we want to provide CREY as a social hangout platform and cater for that social need and self-expression for users to have their own space to play games, create games or just hangout.
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How does the toolset enable that audience to create great content? It’s about having the lowest entry barrier and being able to welcome audiences of all abilities. As the toolset is entirely code-free, users without any previous experience can create and publish games within minutes. While our other platforms require their game creators to be both talented coders and have a creative mindset, CREY only needs the latter. We enable creative minds to use our drag and drop tools, rich asset packs and environments without any coding barriers to make games, democratizing the game development process. That ease of use is really important as is having the ability to quickly create and share content to your friends and community, and that’s something we’ve looked to reflect at CREY. Does CREY have an educational potential? Absolutely. In fact, we already have a program in place. In collaboration with teachers and researchers, CREY has developed an educational branch specifically directed at schools which is being successfully implemented at various schools in Denmark and the US – There are at least 25-30 schools and technical colleges making use of CREY for education, with the majority being in Denmark. CREY Education has managed to engage and captivate students that otherwise have difficulties with school projects in groups. Additionally, the CREY platform lets the teachers define project scopes and create ‘production teams’ in the classroom, where each student can design and build their own part of the world they are creating with their fellow students. Projects can then be shared and discussed with teachers and students across the globe in collaborative and creative ways otherwise not achievable through conventional tools. Students can even pick-up other student’s work and refine it, and teachers can inspire and educate each other across regional and national borders. CREY Education has been used for the past two years as part of full-term school semester plans as well as focused, two-week courses. Topics covered and implemented in CREY ranges from gender equality and farming economy to dam building and virtual museums - some projects are being facilitated by external CREY “ambassadors” while others have been initiated by teachers themselves, to address a current school topic in a new and interesting way.
How is content monetised for the community, and how is the platform monetised for you? We have an in-game currency system to buy content on the platform. We are also planning to add more content with our new avatar system next year, along with a subscription offering. In addition to this, we’re working on a monetisation model for content creators to earn direct revenue from the sale of their user-generated content, not limited to in-game currencies.
“A new, fast and playful way of creating games and experiences without coding.” We’re also introducing a CREY studio function that will allow users to set up with a friend or colleague and create content together for the platform. These are features we’re bringing to CREY in 2021 which we believe gives us a unique position in the market. With the Roblox IPO in the offing, will that drive more industry interest to such platforms? People are always looking to back the next big thing, and when IPOs are in the offing there is undoubtedly more interest in that genre. It helps to frame what the opportunities are for games in this field and that in turn makes it easier to frame what we’re doing with CREY. Do you think that the traditional games industry has slept on the potential of user-generated content? Traditional games companies rely on big brands and IPs to drive their value creation. They are more used to controlling the output, and user-generated content doesn’t always sit well within that. That said, UGC has been around for a long time. We have the modding community to thank for games like Counter Strike, Team Fortress or DayZ and if we look at games like Minecraft or LittleBigPlanet, those are built with UGC as part of their core appeal. Everyone has ideas for what would make a great game, and UGC has already proven itself to play an important role in innovation and creativity. The power of the user’s imagination is exciting. We don’t know how users will eventually use our tools, what worlds they’ll create or what ideas will come to life, but I do know that they will surprise us. The game that will define the platform will come from the community, and I can’t wait to play it.
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From the top: The Falconeer, Overcooked All You Can Eat, and Ori and the Will of the Wisps. All of which launched in next-gen form with the new consoles
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UNITY’S BIG LAUNCH “It’s the first console generation where you’re seeing Unity creators right out the gate.” With support across all the new consoles, Unity’s ‘creators first’ philosophy has been building up to the next generation launch for many years. Unity CPO Brett Bibby tells Seth Barton about how the engine enabled its creators to be among the very first on next-gen consoles
nity’s chief product officer Brett Bibby is very animated about the next-gen console launches. “I’ve never been more excited about a console generation. I like the fact that we have great choices. And it’s not just, you know, ‘I prefer Microsoft’ or ‘I prefer Sony,’ I think they’re gonna have different kinds of experiences tailored to them this time around. And I think that’s great.” And it’s great for Unity too. The engine was in its infancy on console back when the PS4 and Xbox One were launched, and while since then it has powered numerous incredibly successful games for the outgoing generation, the new generation marks a major milestone for the engine. This time around Unity has been involved in the development of the consoles from the very beginning. Years of work to ensure that Unity, and the many developers who use it, were ready for the new hardware, not at launch, but every step of the way leading up to it. All that effort has culminated in a brand-new, launch day title in The Falconeer for Xbox Series X|S. As well as launch window games, such as the PS5 version of Overcooked: All You Can Eat. Plus many, many more, both upcoming new titles – Oddworld: Soulstorm – and those which have received next-gen enhancements – such as the 120hz patch for Ori and the Will of the Wisps. In short, Unity is already having a big impact on next-gen. And while first-party exclusives are thin on the ground, there’s still a huge variety of games to play on both consoles at launch. And that’s in part thanks to Unity (and other publicly available engines of course), giving consumers lineups that have far more variety than the console launches of yesteryear.
“For us it’s been 15 years of vision around the idea of ‘creators first,’” says Bibby. “You talk about it, it’s a slogan, ‘the world is a better place with more creators’, but what exactly do we mean by that?” Well, if you compare this console launch to ones that have come before, you might have a perfect example. “If you think about [launch lineups] in our lifetime, and you go through all of those titles, and you look at what was required, decisions by committees and publishers, were those really the best possible stories? “Do you really think that the decisions were made based on a passion to build a game or tell a story? Or was it based on well... ‘EA is going to have the sports games, we shouldn’t do a launch title that will get killed… Ubisoft is probably going to do something with Assassin’s Creed or whatever. Okay, hey, let’s find a space for us… let’s get as much traction as we can get on a new generation’... I don’t feel that those were creator-led decisions. “I think what Unity has allowed is that because we’re so strong, in so many platforms, we’ve brought so many kinds of creators to the mix. And this is the first generation where you’re seeing Unity creators right out the gate, actually there. And so this is a milestone for us.” And it’s a milestone that’s been in the making since Unity first set out on its journey to bring creators to platforms everywhere. LEAP FOR THE PLATFORM Unity’s core appeal hasn’t changed of course. In fact while the new hardware generation forms a milestone for Unity and gaming in general, they are also examples of how an outlook, be that Unity’s ‘creator first’ or the industry’s more generally ‘player first’ outlooks are
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Above: Brett Bibby, Unity
now set in stone from one generation to the next. More prosaically, the benefits of Unity remain the same. “It’s rapid development. An extensible editor, so you can customise it or use other people’s tools and customizations. And then reach – reaching your audience on whatever platform they are on. Those three get you to that rapid iteration that you need to get to the fun, to explore a bunch of ideas, and zero in on the ones that work.” Of course with the new hardware there are now more platforms to reach and more features to support: SSDs, new controllers, advanced video modes, and more, are all supported. To achieve that Unity has been working closely with both console platforms for many years, preparing the way for Unity to fully support the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. The company met many times with key figures in the hardware development teams and received some of the earliest dev kits available in order to ensure that the engine, and the many games that are made with it, was ready for launch. Bibby admits that, when it comes to console gaming, he’s “biased, I’m an old school guy” and he was therefore incredibly keen to get Unity ahead of the curve when it came to Sony and Xbox’s new devices. “I went for Sony and Microsoft every time and said, ‘I want to change the world together’. I believe that hardware is growing, that technology is growing. And we need to get so far out ahead of everything else. I want to put consoles back in the living room. ahead of the game. “That was the conversation six, seven years ago. And on the back of that we just never let up. We just kept in there all the time. showing what we’re doing, where we were going… We deal with all of our platform partners like this. We’re users first and what do those creators want. “You don’t just throw money at us and we’ll go support a platform. This was us really reaching for it, I mean, internally for years, prioritising, investing and just really trying to make this happen. If we’re going to wait for somebody to pay us to do it, then we’re going to be late. And if we’re gonna wait until the creators, that we love and support, need it, then we’re too late.” Speaking around the global Xbox launch, Bibby is particularly taken with The Falconeer (see page 54 for more on that), a one-man indie title, with a unique look, made with Unity, which shows how
powerful the engine’s workflow can be: “To have a title like this come out. It’s phenomenal. And, of course, there’s others in the pipeline. But you know, just to be able to get there on an indie title at launch. Wow.” NEWBIE LEGION Indie titles, be they single man or smaller teams, remain the engine’s core audience – on console at least. Titles such as Oddworld: Soulstorm, Iron Man VR and Fall Guys, show that it’s certainly moved beyond that uncertain definition. But when will it start to drive the biggest games? Bibby recounts a story from a major first-party studio he visited, in which he was told that lessthan-half of the workforce of hundreds of people, arrayed across the main floor of the office, had ever actually shipped a triple-A title. Because they take so long to make, because of cancellations, because it’s a young and growing industry. “They’re all newbies, they’re running a marathon, but they don’t know what the end looks like,” notes Bibby. And with the demands of the next generation, those team sizes are only going to grow again, and with that even more of those staff will be inexperienced at shipping games at the highest level. “So the next generation is going to be about who can deliver. How can we capture that creative vision and optimise for creator workflows?” Unity is certainly flexible in the way users can set it up for the workflow that they want. It’s also potentially easier to manage than an in-house engine can be. “I’ve got an editor, I made an engine. So I’ve now made an upgrade to it. You know what you have to do? I have to wait till night, everybody goes home, and then I have to deploy a brand new engine, all at once, to every machine. Because I can’t have people on different versions.” Unity is a somewhat more flexible beast: ”Because of the way our compilation model works, you can actually roll it out. And when somebody gets the latest version, it’ll recompile on their local machine with the content.” And such versioning and support issues will be multiplied by the current shift to work from home. “Now, when you have all these studios distributed, and the employees are getting Unity, they’re getting an LTS (long term support) version. So even if we’re off by one [version update], that’s still gonna work.”
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LONG TERM PLANNING While the LTS version of Unity is now at 2019.4, those that want the very latest Unity has to offer can now update to Unity 2020.2, which was released at the end of last year. “Unity has been laser-focused on delivering the updates and features that our users have asked for. We have been actively following their feedback, and have rearranged our product strategies and plans to ensure that we’re addressing their specific needs,” Bibby explains. “Unity 2020.2 TECH Stream is packed with even more improvements to quality of life – that means improved workflows and better performance across the board. We’re proud to share this next stage of development with our community, and will continue working closely with our users to ensure that the platform is closely aligned with customers’ expectations.” And those expectations are now broader than ever, with Unity being used in numerous places, as real-time 3D becomes more and more prevalent in our lives. That
ubiquity means more Unity users, and they (and their skillsets) represent an opportunity for our industry, as it continues to grow. Add to that the ability to, relatively easily, reach all the available platforms, and to maintain the engine over a distributed team and we can see clear reasons for the engine’s continued growth right across this generation.
Above: Unity 2020.2 contains new features to improve Lighting workflows
MCV-OCT20-LUCID GAMES:Layout 1 06/10/2020 12:22 Page 1
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SUMO SPREADS THE JAM AROUND Game jams are just a bit of fun, right? Well not entirely, as Sumo is now paying staff big bonuses for the ideas they come up with during in-house jams. Seth Barton talks to MD Gary Dunn about the scheme
hile the phrase ‘game jam’ still brings to mind images of fledgling developers and pizza boxes, the technique is now firmly established as part of many a company’s creative toolset. With a wide variety of benefits for staff, helping them meet people, test ideas and break out of the routine of their own roles. Game jams were added to Sumo’s working practices by the group’s non-exec chairman, Ian Livingstone – an industry veteran who understands the value of a good idea, as well as the value of play and creativity for their own sake. Sumo Digital MD Gary Dunn tells us: “At Sumo their primary purpose is actually as an outlet for a bunch of really creative people. Teams work on three or four year projects here, on multi-million pound games, and it’s nice to let them freewheel for a few days, to let off some steam, have an outlet for their own ideas, and have fun.” And the value of play has now turned into value for the company. With these days of R&R finding their way
onto the P&L, delivering two commercially released products, with another due before Christmas. Dunn says: “The first game that made it to market from the game jams was Snake Pass, which went to number one on Nintendo Switch. Earlier this year we released Spyder on Apple Arcade, and in the next couple of months we’ll launch a 2D beat-em-up, Pass The Punch, on iOS and Android. “Pass The Punch is an interesting one. It was actually developed by a non-development member of staff, one of our guys in biz dev came up with the idea. And it was a great opportunity for our India studio to make it, and actually take the charge in making an original game.” Both as a creative outlet and commercial pipeline, game jams bring dual benefits to Sumo as a whole. And to those staffers who ‘win’, they can also deliver some pretty serious money Dunn explains: “The team that comes up with it gets a 10 per cent royalty. So we’ve written our staff five- and six-figure cheques for royalties simply off the back of
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“We’ve written our staff five- and six-figure cheques for royalties” them taking part in a game jam. Like I say, the primary function is for a bunch of really creative people to have an outlet – and have fun – but, yes, there are sometimes great dividends for us as a company and our staff. I think it’s a fantastically rewarding process.” The group’s aim is for each of its nine studios (with locations now in Sheffield, Nottingham, Newcastle, Leamington Spa, Warrington, Brighton, Leeds, and India) to run two game jams per year. They take place over a long weekend, with all teams having the option to continue to work in their own time on anything they think is really promising. Then there’s a date where all the games are played or demoed, followed by judgement day, with the winning titles decided on via a company-wide vote. Dunn continues: “The ones that really stand out we ask to be brought to the IPCC (Intellectual Property Creative Committee). If it’s something we really like, we’ll greenlight it and make a prototype. From there, hopefully, it goes all the way to market.” Strategically, the game jam culture is part of a wider picture sees Sumo move beyond its reputation as one the best-regarded ‘work-for-hire’ studios, by building its own
portfolio of original IP and taking its first steps in self-publishing, as we reported on last year. “Sumo has got a great tradition and a track record of working on other people’s IP,” says Dunn, “but, as I say, we were keen to start creating original content, and game jams were a way of reaching that goal. Our intention is not to publish games with budgets measured in the tens of millions of pounds. “So, if a great concept comes out of a game jam that requires that sort of funding, we’ll work with a publishing partner, possibly co-fund it, or just take the development role. But, something smaller, with a smaller budget, absolutely, we’d be keen to publish it ourselves.” He concludes: “There’s a deliberate strategy here to move up the value chain by creating more of our own IP. We’re doing that in lots of different ways, one of which is certainly game jams – the difference is, they’re probably the only part of that strategy that has inherent worth, to the staff and culture of this company, even if they never make a penny. It’s just a huge bonus that, so far, they’re making the odd penny and a bit more!”
Above: Gary Dunn, Sumo Digital
Below: Sumo Digital’s Pass The Punch
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Want to be... BIG IN CHINA? Western publishers have long-held China as a land of opportunity. However, the options for reaching that audience have been somewhat limited. Arcus Key, led by a dual UK-China team, thinks it has the solution
hina has long been talked about as a huge opportunity for western game developers. It’s pictured, quite rightly, as a massive market with huge potential revenue. However, approaches have usually swung between two poles. One, find a Chinese partner to publish your game in the territory, do a deal with them to promote the title and host it on local store fronts. Or two, just add Simplified Chinese to your supported languages, and hope that word of mouth will do the job, with the hardcore of Chinese gamers using Steam to find and buy your title. Well, Arcus Key thinks there’s a middle ground between those two. And having already worked with Gearbox, Landfall and Headup games, there’s obviously others that agree, with Jeff Skal, marketing director at Gearbox being especially complementary to the team’s efforts. GATEWAY GAMES Arcus Key is actually a meeting of east and west. In the UK is industry veteran David Clark, Arcus Key’s global client director, having moved on most recently from Green Man Gaming. While CEO Logan Liu is based in Beijing, and comes from a development background, having co-founded
Chengdu-based Viking Games – which self-published a VR title, Bullet Sorrow VR, and is co-publishing another, Gladiator The Unconquered, with Versus Evil. Clark sets out the basic position. “Publishers in the West think they need a publisher in China.” Most commonly because they simply don’t understand the market and discoverability in that market. “They go to a top level publisher, Tencent or Alibaba, who says ‘sorry, I’ve only got a limited number of licenses, not interested’. Nobody knows who the second tier is... And even if they did use them, it tends not to work,” As those companies have little experience with marketing western titles. “Which is where we come in and why we’re beginning to get the traction.” Liu tells us that many people asked him how to launch games in China without a license to do so. At first he tried to hook them up with other companies, but it soon became clear that there was a business here, and so he set up a marketing and PR agency centred on bringing western games to China, and getting them attention in the region. To launch a mobile game you’ll need to be on the big local app stores, but console and PC titles are often bought from overseas stores.
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“So we focus on the hardcore tier players and we do PC and console games only,” says Liu. “The hardcore players know how to use these overseas platforms, whether its console or PC,” he adds. Those stores are legally accessible by using a specific type of VPN called a Game Booster, which allows access to those stores, be it, for example, Steam or PSN, without the unlimited access that an (illegal in China) VPN service provides. Of course, tracking the purchases from China is not so obvious, as they may have accounts registered in other countries. However you can still identify them via the payment method used to purchase the game. UNLOCKING THE REGION So there’s a route for Chinese players to access your game on existing stores. But that’s only the beginning. As in any market, unless your game is a monster hit (and sometimes even then) how will consumers discover it? Clark and Liu reckon there are around 7m hardcore games players in China. Official estimates for consoles are 2.2m for PS4, and 1m for Switch and rising fast, although that is likely only the tip of the iceberg when you add grey market bought devices. Liu tells us that in China they’re aiming at a floor of 15,000 copies sold for a game to be considered a success. Arcus Key ascertains if your game will be suitable for the market before taking it on, based on its knowledge of current trends. Based on that, the company comes up with a campaign and a budget. For some titles, a press and media-based campaign is best, as the game will not recoup enough money to make it worth investing in, say, a streamer-based campaign. “You will never get enough sales in China in this genre,” to recoup the investment, Liu tells us. That’s not to say there aren’t surprise or breakout hits in China, Liu explains, “But we can tell you what Chinese players certainly don’t like.” Moving onto the campaign itself, once the game itself has been localised, Arcus Key will assist with localising any assets for the campaign, from the Steam page to video trailers and release dates. “Making sure that not only is it localised, but that the nuance of the localisation is relevant to China,” adds Clark. The nuts and bolts of getting noticed are largely the same, Clark explains: “You’ve got the same building blocks. So in the west, you’ve got YouTube, you’ve got Twitch, you’ve got social media, web-based media, and then advertising etc. All designed to build awareness of your game. It’s exactly the same in China.”
However, he points out that they are not all the same size with streamers and social media-based brands and influencers making up a far larger slice of the pie, whether they be free or paid. And there’s no legacy of web-based written press in China, so social media is often self-contained, it doesn’t always link to a longer article, although such online press does exist. Working out the correct marketing spend, for an indie game, is a tough process even in well-known western markets. “Typically video games publishers will spend somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent of their forecasted revenue on marketing. The problem is that very few publishers have any experience of China, so they don’t know what to add in,” says Clark, so they simply don’t spend anything. Because of that Arcus Key’s core service is a PR one. Getting your game to the correct people, to enthusiast streamers, to push the title with zero marketing spend. And for the PR service: “It’s a flat fee, everybody pays the same, it’s cost effective,” says Clark. There are, of course, campaigns that will benefit from paid marketing, and that usually means paid streamers in this case. Arcus Key will set up paid influencer deals for clients, passing the base cost through as part of its service. “It means that everybody knows there’s no markup from us,” Clark explains. Pointing out that the agency is prioritising landing repeat business. And it can count on that business, as unlike the west, there’s less chance of anyone cutting out Arcus Key and going direct. And that’s not just down to the language barrier, in the west a streamer might have a manager but you can basically reach out to them directly. In China, “the platforms have account managers, they control everything… so you’ve got to understand the process to get through to that streamer.” It’s an intriguing proposition for those who have found the market to be opaque in the past. Arcus Key has the local knowledge, which is then relatable thanks to Clark’s ability to explain the differences between the two markets. A combination which could open up the market to many, many more titles.
Above (from top): Logan Liu and David Clark of Arcus Key
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How to win at esports (marketing) Seth Barton speaks to Mark Reed from Heaven Media about how brands, both inside and outside gaming, should approach the often misunderstood space of esports marketing
sports continues to grow. And while it’s certainly a distinct area of the gaming diaspora, it nonetheless still represents a huge opportunity to reach core gaming audiences – whether your brand is endemic to gaming broadly, or if you’re a non-endemic and looking to reach similar demographics. “Esports has developed exponentially, we can see that,” Heaven Media’s Mark Reed tells us. “Has it transcended obscurity and arrived in the mainstream? Not quite,” he admits, “it’s still pretty niche in some key areas.” However, that’s not the main problem with esports marketing, he explains: “The main issue here is that the mainstream doesn’t really know what to do with it; especially from a commercial point of view.” And that’s not from want of trying, the demographics esports reaches often hard to access via traditional channels, making them very attractive to many kinds of brands. However, buying into such a space effectively isn’t as straightforward, and in parts that’s because esports truly global reach is ahead of the curve when it comes to how most contemporary campaigns operate. “Traditional sports are almost purely regional in structure,” Reed points out. “This allows monetisation from regional sponsorship and local merchandising — while players are recognised in promotional activations. For instance, seeing someone like Harry Kane do a shaving ad has a positive impact on the UK market, but it means very little to people in Russia, the US or China.” And that’s name checking a top talent in one of the most globalised sporting leagues. “I often use the example of how Ford sponsors College Football in the US to promote their F150 pick-up truck. Ford doesn’t sell the F150 much outside the US. So, now imagine what Ford would achieve if it were to sponsor the Dota International. This would equally help it reach millions of viewers — but in what countries? “If Ford wants, or indeed needs, US eyeballs then it doesn’t work for them,” he notes. And adds that even if the product was a global one, then many brands rarely have their budgets organised in that way, so who would pick up the bill, North America? “Ah but what about Coke? I hear you ask, which is sold the world over,” he notes, heading off our next question. “Well, yes it is, but outside of the Olympics they do hardly any international
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sponsorship deals. Their foray into esports was paid for by a North American marketing budget. This could be considered the emperor’s clothes of esports.” So does that mean that esports marketing will struggle until brands become more global in how they spend their budgets? “This may sound a little negative, but I assure you it’s not. In more than one way that problem will be solved over time.” And that’s not only on the clients, as grass roots growth in competitions will also help with local targeting. “To me, it’s obvious that esports will continue to evolve over future years and we’ll see esports leagues for popular games cropping up in every local city, town, county and state. It may be a few years away but I’m one hundred per cent convinced it will happen.” To which Reed adds: “Hopefully in time to save GAME & Gamestop, as this would play into the strategy of Belong and GameStop’s Centers, beyond parties for kids.” STEADY ON APPROACH Coming back to the present, though, how best should any brand approach esports marketing? Well for starters don’t think about them as traditional sports for starters. “Brands have to understand how best to leverage esports; instead of simply applying traditional sports methodologies. Ultimately, brands using it as an ‘ad buy’ do get value on a geotargeted CPM basis but that doesn’t really achieve great ROI.” Esports audiences aren’t mass market consumers, they need something more than simply being shown the product. “Wrap it up in a story and tie your message to the audience, show how much you believe esports matters to you as the brand… just speak to them, as one of them. “Esports audiences are, unsurprisingly, hyper-social and connected. If you get your strategy wrong, you’ll probably live to regret spending in this space. If you spend a little time on Reddit and you can easily see the impact on brands when it all goes wrong. However, get it right and you are welcomed into the brand hall of fame.” Reed sums it up with a pithy statement: “Esports marketing is simple but also really hard.” “To be more precise, those of us familiar with esports can navigate that market and find value for brands. However, the problem is no longer just knowing the esports scene; it’s navigating a scene littered with alleged experts, consultants, and thought-leaders. Many of these have been in esports for ten years but have little commercial experience; or have commercial experience and have been in the scene for one or two years. “As it often does, such a market progression has added layers of complexity which aren’t always entirely necessary.
Disinformation springs up and sometimes there’s just a need to peel those layers back and rediscover the basics,” Reed advises. THE BIG QUESTION “Sometimes it starts with the question: is esports even right for the brand? Unfortunately, with the esports hype train having now left the station you are unlikely to hear that question. Certainly not before we’re all making unnecessary stops on a journey that could have been shorter, more pleasurable — and definitely less expensive. “A well-drilled, experienced marketing agency, working on campaigns in sports sponsorships and helping FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) brands or large consumer electronics brands, can often struggle to adapt to esports. “Those aforementioned complexities arise when they want to treat esports like football or basketball. Firstly, esports is not like conventional sports; each game has a different community, different access points, different demands. Making it unlike any one sport — it’s not football, it’s not cricket or tennis, it’s not even surfing, sailing or cliff diving. “Brands like Bud with Bud Light, even Mercedes, have made big fumbles with this because they have used tried-and-tested formulas for successful sports sponsorship activation on esports. The key is in understanding the audience, says Reed: “Unfortunately, almost without exception, they got the audience wrong. It’s not simply a case of positioning yourself within an esports fandom; there is a prerequisite that you are there to enhance esports and gaming. “You need to be part of the culture. Red Bull is honestly the only brand that has done it well and really only by virtue of the fact that they were already a part of that scene and that culture – before spending a single dollar on marketing.” That sounds like a tough act to follow admittedly, but the rewards are worth the effort. “Marketing in esports is a battleground, yes, but — largely because of how hard it is to navigate — there are genuine opportunities for brands to make a lasting impact, in a very cost-effective way. And while that opportunity will become easier, it will also become more expensive. “It won’t always be the case; each successful activation, and brand finding the right formula for esports, raises the cost of entry for everyone else. Like every marketing activation it is about knowing your audience and, just as importantly, knowing how to pull the right levers to have that audience find genuine affinity with your brand. “Heaven Media has had 12 years working in and around esports, all the time striving to improve that formula. The results we’re achieving for our clients in that space prove, beyond all doubt, it’s worth the time and effort.”
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When We Made... The Falconeer
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 a character that people would really gravitate Chris Wallace takesshea was look behind the scenes toward.” of The Falconeer, a Xbox Series X|S launch title Quill really becomes a fully fleshed out character with taking flight from a solostrong developer the help of the game’s world-building. 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 as both the player and Quill enter new, unfamiliar areas. “When you go through Mousetown and you see Quill run through and you she has hometown, he there Falconeer is asee solothat project froma Tomas Sala, the feelingpublished of her leaving it, of that town maybe by Wired Productions. Thebeing gameinwas danger, gives you more a bond,” Alderson says. “If an exciting firstoffor both Sala and his publisher, that part was left out,Productions’ you wouldn’tfirst feelever like console there was coming as Wired launch much fight Everything that we’ve done, the mood title to – for thefor. Xbox Series X|S. settings, from one area to theofnext and letting Thattaking meantQuill a tremendous amount attention for you restisand take indie in thisgame, environment… all supposed what a small especiallyIt’s when the nextto gen exaggerate and accentuate mood that you’re consoles were very lightthat on true launch titles. And feeling. It all ties back into how you inspired are connecting with to for a personal, one-man project by the desire Quill and her escape intoworld.” a new life, it’s a remarkable achievement. Above: Tomas Sala The Falconeer is an open world air-combat game,
SAME whichQUESTION sees playersEIGHT takingWAYS flight atop giant birds. It’s a Collaboration was key during thefeaturing development of Moss visually stunning experience, fast and brutal, notdogfights just within not the just team across itself,a but gorgeous with theskyline, help ofbut external under playtesters. the wavesPeople in the dark were depths often brought of the sea. in to feedback on
TAKING FLIGHT Prior to working on the game, Sala had stepped away from his studio, Little Chicken Game Company, where he was the founding partner and creative director. “I stepped away from being a co-founder in the studio, because I had burnout and I just didn’t like doing it anymore,” says Sala. “I didn’t like Scrum or Agile, it just didn’t click for me. I’m not that guy.”
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 wants to play something that people put a lot of care and love into and then turn around and say ‘This is what didn’t like about it’. So it takes little You’d thinkI solo-developing a game wouldabe a while to get the enough, playtester“but comfortable, and wewas found that challenge the other reason I wanted finding to askathe same to workdifferent at home,ways I became father forquestion the first means time you eventually get the stuff after the fourth or during this project, andreally nowgood I’ve got three! fifth time you ask it.thinking seriously about The “When I started “I don’t think anyonewas in our studio has a Falconeer, my partner pregnant withever ourmade eldest. game likehe this, so born, I thinkall it’sI important thattoyou the And after was wanted was be trust at home, to process. work from You home, trust playtesting and find aand new you way make of living.” sure that you allow Of course, yourselfthis some was time back andinfreedom 2017 – to long trybefore something working and thenfrom keephome going.became Try something a realitynew for many and branch of us. out, Though but alsothanks use your to experience his early switch from games to home that working, you’ve the made pandemic before and hadyou’ll very be littlefine. impact As long on the as you’re game’s having development, fun too! We enjoyed Sala notes. playing Moss throughout the entire process It’s a good and Ithing think too that–really whilehelps.” Sala had no way of knowing his self-driven game would end up being a launch title for a then-unannounced console, hitting that deadline is impressive in itself. “At some point, I knew we were going to go for the Series X,” says Sala. “I’m a small fry in the scheme of things, but we knew we were going to try to get it out on there, which then evolved into being a launch title. Speaking to him around launch, he notes that the further delay to Cyberpunk 2077 meant there was far more attention for his title.
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Left: It’s incredible to think that The Falconeer’s expansive world was created by a single person “Which is weird for our launch – you have a lot more exposure for The Falconeer, which is, in essence, a dinky indie game. It’s an off-beat idea made by one guy, and it got huge. We’ve got people fighting the console wars in the comments of our Tweets. It’s surreal, I can’t describe it any other way.”
DOING IT BOB ROSS STYLE The game hasn’t just attracted attention purely for being a launch title, mind. It’s a visually stunning game to behold – though this is more due to its minimalistic art style, rather than the game being a graphical powerhouse. “Growing up, I wasn’t a huge Disney fan, but I loved Fantasia growing up. It had these hand painted skies, and these simplified dinosaurs stomping about. I think I always liked that kind of thing.” Sala describes his approach to designing the game’s visuals as “Bob Ross-ing it.” Taking advantage of the easy iteration allowed by Unity (see page 44 for more on that), and the game’s lack of premade texture maps to alter the game’s look on the fly. “I just fiddled around with it without using textures, and made it just using gradients and geometry. I really
enjoyed that, because the modelling part goes really fast, as I don’t have to do a lot of steps. “But I also enjoyed it because, thanks to modern anti-aliasing, you can actually have sharp edges that look nice. Which is something we haven’t done in games because you had jaggies, so sharp and jagged was a no no. “But graphically, if you look at concept art, the sharp lines and jagged rocks are beautiful. Especially if they’re simplified – some people call it cel-shaded or low-poly. I mean, it’s definitely not low-poly in any sense of that word, because there’s plenty of detail – it’s clean. “Not using textures is just something I did to be different, which sounds quite pedantic. I started it, and it forced me to make the entire pipeline of the game in Unity in a different way. It started to look different, which is what I like. “It’s a crutch I used to force myself to find different solutions to visual problems, like doing a day night cycle. I’m not a mathematical genius or anything, so I just called ‘brute force of trial and error,’ or ‘Bob Ross-ing’ it. “So the sky is just a gradient from left to right and up-down. And then I connected that to a sun direction.
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Above: The sky’s dynamic colour changes are a key part of the game’s dinstinctive look
So there’s literally a list of colours in my editor that says, okay, around sunset, I want yellow, orange, a bit of purple.... There’s no scientific model, it’s just me actually setting the gradients. And it looks really good. It doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before. “Then everything else is just finding art that is the right level of detail to work, which is messy – like I am. So in the game, you’ll have very detailed ships with little turrets and little flags on it, but they’ll be next to it a giant rock, which isn’t more than a couple hundred triangles. To see gamers saying ‘oh, It looks beautiful. It’s great graphics…’ It’s not, not in any technical sense!” This iterative, Bob Ross approach to the game’s design bled through to the development as a whole. From the start, Sala didn’t constrain himself to a singular vision of what the game should be, but allowed himself to discover the game along the way. “It’s all an iterative process, again it’s very Bob Ross” says Sala. “I read this quote by George RR Martin. He says there’s two types of writers – architects and gardeners. The architects will have spreadsheets with everything mapped out in advance, that’s the Tolkien approach. And then there’s the gardener who will plant a seed, water it and wait to see what happens. It’s the Bob Ross style of making a story, and I’m all about that. I’m just making it and discovering it. “And that’s where the criticism comes in – you can sometimes tell that. It’s just me, and time pressure kicks in at some point.”
ESCAPING INTO A NEW LIFE Still, this process was a valuable one to Sala – freeing him up to look at game design in ways he hadn’t before. “The thing I learned in this game is to analyse your own emotive process where you go, ‘what am I trying to do?’ I didn’t ever do that before. “The mother of my children, my partner, she’s a ceramics artist. So she understands things I don’t understand. She showed me that I was doing art, and that art is about emoting a lot of what you’re doing, and then understanding what you’re doing so you can work off that. “So this game is about escape. It’s about escaping my work situation, into a new life. It’s flying off into my own fantasy. And the opposite of that is that ocean, that darkness of the water and swimming somewhere where you can’t see the bottom. I figured out that that was the core visual theme I was doing, and I figured out that people would enjoy that. Because everybody has that sense. You want to escape, but there’s always something dragging you back to reality.” Speaking of coming back to reality, one-man indie projects are known for being stuck in development longer than initially planned. Ensuring that The Falconeer shipped in time to be a launch title must have been a stressful, nagging reality. “Well, there’s a lot more grey hair now!” begins Sala. “There was a part of me that just wanted to keep going
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and not feel constrained, because that’s what the game was all about. “But then there’s part of me that’s a realist, and has been in the industry long enough to see that... yeah, [the console launch] is a huge opportunity.”
DEALING WITH REALITY To meet that opportunity though, Sala is very open about the fact that while he’s proud of the writing in the game – some of it just had to get done in order to get the game out on time. Not that any of us at MCV/ DEVELOP can relate to compromising on our writing to meet a difficult deadline, of course. “So I had no experience with voice acting,” says Sala. “And then suddenly I have deadlines and dialogue that needs to be written.” There’s dialogue in the game that I’m quite proud of. As I’m writing in English, I had an editor helping me to make sure it’s in proper English, as I’m not a native speaker. There’s writing in the game that I’m really proud of, that had a time and a place where it was written. “And then there is writing in the game that just needed to get done. So in some of the banter, there’s stuff that just needed to be written. It wasn’t rushed,
but it could do with a lot more love. I readily admit that some of that writing was done on just the fact that needed to be done. But then there’s other writing, like the storyteller for the game, that had much more time to breathe. And you can see the quality difference in that.” The need to get the game shipped goes beyond the opportunity to be a launch title. Sala stepped away from his old studio as he became a father and wanted to spend more time at home. While The Falconeer is unquestionably a labour of love, it ultimately became a responsibility to get the game finished. “It needed to be done at a certain time. You know, nobody can live on air, and I have a family. Maybe when I was younger – you know, when you’re just living in a room somewhere, and you don’t have any dependencies. I might have said fuck it, and taken longer or whatever. But this always was going to be done on time, that’s how I started it. “And it’s not done in the sense that I’m not done with exploring this world. I’ll need a creative break for a little bit, but I’ll happily craft on and there’s bits I want to add to the story, stories that still need to be told. That’s the beautiful thing about digital delivery. You can keep crafting on what you’ve made. That feels less stressful, in a way.”
Below: There’s a lot of content on offer in the game
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The Final Boss Every month an industry leader wraps up MCV/DEVELOP with their unique insight
You’ve worked across a lot of different segments at Microsoft, how has the company changed since you started there? I’ve worked at Microsoft for over ten years now and over that time we have become increasingly customer-focussed. We’ve moved away from a more closed-off approach to a place where our services are accessible and specifically designed for multiple platforms. Within gaming at Microsoft, our vision has evolved to building our offering around the gamer – which means instead of just selling Xbox consoles and games to go with those consoles, it’s about meeting gamers where they play, across console, PC and mobile in the most convenient way possible. That’s been a big shift going into the next generation especially. Do you feel the games industry is headed in the right direction? While entertainment value is at the core of the industry I think what has become more prominent and ever more important, especially at this time, is the ability for gaming to act as a source of social connection. During lockdown, we saw huge demand for our services, and we saw millions of new connections being made over Xbox Live which was indicative of the desire for social interaction. I also think that innovation has resulted in the gaming industry being more accessible, more inclusive and ultimately safer and more secure than it’s ever been before. Consequently, while there’s certainly work to be done in that area, we are heading down a positive path – one where ultimately more people get to play great games. What are some of the biggest marketing challenges today in the games industry? Gamers know where to get the latest and greatest on product releases; specific influencers and media outlets that resonate with fans are regularly used as a source of information to help make purchase decisions. So I think the challenge has largely moved on from identifying the right channels to using them more efficiently, creatively and transparently. We’re constantly evolving our approach as platforms mature and change over time; I think it’s important too that we nurture talent on those platforms where we can. I see one of our challenges as effectively engaging with parents, who likely haven’t grown up playing games or have less of an understanding of online safety and the family settings available to them, and may not know where to look for information
James Butcher, Xbox UK and Ireland Category Director
“We are heading down a positive path – one where more people get to play great games.”
What was the funniest single moment of your career to date? Earlier in my career, I worked within the Marketing Communications team at Microsoft, responsible for Bing brand marketing. I led a campaign that worked with Kayvan Novak from FaceJacker to release a web series with his eccentric character ‘Brian Badonde’. This was pretty new and slightly risky ground for Microsoft given the nature of the content, and I was proud of what the team created. I really learnt the importance of challenger brands taking risks and having a unique tone of voice and brand personality. Can the games industry possibly change as much over the next few years as it has over the last few? Certainly – firstly, I can’t wait to see how studios embrace the true power and capabilities of both the Xbox Series X|S and PS5. I also think the advent of 5G will be significant; with game streaming becoming more widely adopted, mobile gaming experiences will ultimately become more diverse. Also I think the landscape will change as new business models are broadly adopted, particularly subscription services; customers being able to instantly choose from a broad library of titles will see more variety in games played. We’re seeing this with Xbox Game Pass: gamers can and do discover new games they may never have come across before, which is encouraging for the industry.
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