A NEW BREED OF
INDIES OF THE WORLD
WHY WE FIGHT OVER FREE-TO-PLAY
CONTROL MAGAZINE #35 • CONTROL-ONLINE.NL
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About Control Magazine Control is the leading Dutch publication on game development. With a readership exceeding 3,000 professionals and relevant students, the magazine is a pivotal platform for news, information, opinion and job opportunities within the game industry. Control Magazine was founded in 2007 by Matthijs Dierckx and Eric Bartelson
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RIDICULOUS THEATER IMAGINE a theater. A theater that boasts 2,000 seats, divided over 67 rows. On one particular evening a popular comedian sold the place out. Well, ‘sold’... Out of 67 rows, 66 are occupied by members of the audience who did not buy a ticket, they got in for free. Only the people sitting in the first row bought a ticket. And of those attendees, only three bought a VIP ticket. Just those three tickets make up half of the total revenue for that night. Three out of 2,000 visitors bring in half the money.
Eric Bartelson & Matthijs Dierckx Founders Control Magazine
Sounds ridiculous? Maybe, but apparently this is the current situation in the theater of freeto-play games. Three out of 2,000 players generate half the revenue. It was the most revealing and perhaps even shocking revelation of the January snapshot provided by Swrve, the Irish company providing tools for mobile developers. You know what sounds less ridiculous? The same theater with 2,000 people in the audience who actually bought a ticket. Still, in the gamesindustry, especially in the world of mobile games, letting people in for free seems to be the only way to actually get some revenue. Of course, the comparison isn’t completely fair. The non-paying members of the audience wouldn’t get the same experience as the VIPs. Still, sometimes it helps to take a step back
HOSPITAL INVESTS IN GAME STUDIO Well, that’s a first. A hospital and an insurance company buying half a game studio. It recently happened to Grendel Games, developer of health games.
Nothing in this magazine may be reproduced in whole or part without the written permission of the publisher. This magazine is fully independent and not affiliated in any way with the companies mentioned herein.
We did some searching, but couldn’t find another example, so we guess this is indeed a first.
Copyright © 2014 Control Magazine All Rights Reserved
The reason behind the investment? Grendel Games develops low-cost, high-impact games that either train medical staff or help patients. Their biggest project to date is called Underground, a not-so-serious game for surgeons using Wii-controllers to simulate laparoscopy. Last year, Grendel’s founders were invited by Google to demonstrate the game at the Googleplex.
Contents Opening..................................................................... 2 Interview: Concept Art Sessions.................... 6 Column: Microsoft’s Killer App....................... 8 Coverstory: Real Clash of Clans....................10 Feature: A New Breed of Publishers..........14 Interview: Indies Unite.....................................16 Column: In a world.............................................18
and take a good look at the numbers to fully understand what is driving our industry. Free-to-play has its fair share of opponents as well as a large number of evangelists. And for some reason they don’t get along very well. Discussions on this subject tend to turn hostile all too quickly. In our coverstory we take a look at some of the possible reasons for this animosity. Turn to page 10 to read our analysis.
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MOVIES GAMIFIED Gravity, The Hobbit, Men of Steel, Sherlock Holmes, Pacific Rim and most recently 300: Rise of an Empire. There’s one studio that turned all these blockbusters into one or more games and we bet you’ve never even heard the name: Sticky Studios. True, these are all promotional games – so no big budget console releases. However, these web- and mobile-games aren’t half bad, especially considering some of them were developed in less than two months. The audience seems to agree, some of the mobile releases reached over four million downloads.
Have a look at some of the movies that Sticky ‘gamified’.
300: Rise of an Empire Control
Man of Steel 4
‘NO HUGE INCREASE IN NEXT-GEN DEVELOPMENT COST’, SAYS GUERRILLA Are development budgets skyrocketing for next-generation consoles? Not according to Guerrilla Games’ boss Hermen Hulst. Note: that is Sony-owned Guerrilla Games, so there might be some politics involved.
150 MILLION DOWNLOADS… FROM THE NOKIA STORE? From a gamesindustry point of view the most surprising bit of info revealed during Nokia’s recent keynote presentation wasn’t the fact that the Microsoftowned manufacturer is launching an Android/Windows-hybrid. It was the announcement by a game company it had reached 150 million downloads from the NOKIA store.
But still, this is what the Killzone-chief had to say when we asked him about Shadow Fall’s budget: “Compared to Killzone 3, Shadow Fall’s budget increased by 10 to 15 percent. The team grew from 130 to 140 members. However, we did outsource a lot more, about three times as much.” Hulst did not disclose the actual budget itself, saying: “I would have to calculate that.”
Publisher/developer Lunagames releases its game on a host of platforms: iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone and of course Nokia. But somehow the latter proves to be more successful than all others combined with the aforementioned 150 million downloads out of a total of 250 million.
Earlier Epic’s frontman Tim Sweeny predicted the development costs for nextgen consoles would double. He based that statement on Epic’s experience with the Samaritan-demo.
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Practice makes perfect Concept Artists
“Getting feedback from your peers can be intimidating” Concept Art Sessions challenges you to create an artwork under time constraint. The goal: helping artists grow through practice.
Text: Alessandra van Otterlo
n November last year junior artist Isabella Koelman and programmer Joris Van Leeuwen started a website to help fellow artists. Here’s how. Most (concept) artists in the industry work with deadlines. You get a limited amount of time to turn a brief into concept art. Now, creating art and time constraint may feel conflicting but Koelman accepts them as part of the job: “Spending more time on your work can definitely improve a piece, but there is a point when that’s no longer the case. So working with deadlines is a given. That’s why we created CAS. The limited time gives an extra boost and forces you to finish the work instead of infinitely tweaking it.”
Artists make art based on tags. They get to choose the amount of time (max. three hours) and the number of tags (one, two or three words). The tags themselves are autogenerated by the website. In the private beta the combination of tags was not always logical. Weird briefs like ‘Sunrise’ combined with ‘Evening’ popped up. The system now uses user-input to prevent illogical tag combinations. Van Leeuwen: “Artists can
choose to play a sort of mini-game in which they pick three out of nine suggested tags. The website remembers these combinations to improve the random tag generation.” At this point there are 2,400 tag words and this number is growing rapidly, since users can also add tags. Most users start with thirty minute sessions. When not completely confident about your skill level, the short timeframe serves as an handy excuse. But recently the three hour limit has become more popular. Koelman and Van Leeuwen explain: “After giving it a couple of goes, people feel more comfortable in getting feedback and no longer need the time excuse.”
The community plays a big role in CAS. They submit work and also give feedback on the pieces of others. Getting feedback from your peers can be intimidating. Therefore, CAS allows you to choose the level of feedback you want. Ranging from very limited to complete paint-overs in which others paint their suggestions over the original work. Viewers can use the switch button to go from the original to the paint-over version to see the differences. CAS has also developed a Facebook-like
friend structure. This allows the more ‘shy’ users to share their work only with friends.
The flow of incoming artwork is constant. About ten new artworks are submitted every day. “A couple of weeks ago, we had a little spike of thirty pieces in one day, but that was because a teacher from one of the game education programs used it for his classes,” says Koelman. This is something she likes to encourage. “At this point we still need to get our name out there, but we definitely like for schools to use CAS this way.”
Koelman and Van Leeuwen want to add gamification to make CAS even more fun. People providing useful feedback can earn points and level up. Artists who submit a certain amount of artwork can earn badges. They also would like top artists from, for example, large companies like Disney to become (guest) mentors. Lots of great ideas that will take shape in the (not too far away) future. CAS is off to a successful start. So far users have already put in 800 hours of work. By the time you read this, that number is without doubt much higher. •
On the cover The cover of this magazine was made by Koelman using CAS: ”Control gave me the tags Seduction, Missed Opportunity and Games. I put those tags in CAS and made it a two hour project. The first hour, I used to test ideas and in the second hour I finalized it. What you see is a woman who seduces ghosts to enter the darkness. She leads them away from opportunity. Main inspiration were Journey and Transistor, two of my favorite games. People who know these games will probably recognize some elements.”
40 hours 2 hours 1 hour
4 hours 20 hours
“Titanfall could move millions of systems and push Microsoft back into the first lap of the eighth generation console race.”
Text: Dennis Scimeca
effectively paid $600 to play Titanfall. That was the total cost of my Xbox One console and my copy of the game. It doesn’t even feel strange to write that. I effectively paid $500 to play Gears of War on the Xbox 360. Paying $600 to play Titanfall feels downright normal. That’s just how killer apps for new consoles work. As I write this in February, the PlayStation 4 has sold 5.6 million units worldwide, versus the Xbox One’s 3 million units. Those numbers could be completely different in a month or two on account of the release of a single game. That’s also just how killer apps
work, and it’s crazy compared to every other consumer hardware business I can think of.
is Titanfall. Microsoft needs to hope for a few million people just like me.
I never wanted a VHS, CD, DVD, or Blu-Ray player on account of one movie or album. I don’t know anybody who did. I bought those machines for their long-term utility and to access huge media libraries. A new video game console eventually offers the same sort of utility as releases of previous-gen games slack off and eventually end, but it’s always a specific game that makes me run out to the store and upgrade to a new console.
The concept of the killer app originated in the early 1980s, when the spreadsheet program VisiCalc gave businesses a reason to invest in computers. The coining of the term is sometimes attributed to the book “Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance” by Larry Downes and Chunka Mui, published in 1998. The term may have worked its way into the public lexicon, in reference to Internet Explorer, during the questioning of Bill Gates in the United States v. Microsoft antitrust suit. But the killer app is most strongly associated with our industry because only we provide such frequent and powerful demonstrations of the concept in action.
I never plan to hook my cable television into the Xbox One, and I’ve only plugged in the Kinect camera long enough to decide I had no patience for the motion controls or yelling at the thing just to pause and play video on Netflix. The only use I currently have for the Xbox One is to play video games, and what determined the purchase right now, versus a year from now when the price might have dropped,
Other than price, the differences between the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are blurry at best. What mostly separates the two consoles is public perception of the companies behind them. 8
Sony serves the video game audience. Microsoft serves consumers who love watching live cable television, want to hold Skype conference meetings, enjoy hands-free motion controls,
and who also want to play some video games. Titanfall is Microsoft’s first opportunity to counter Sony’s rhetoric and provide the gaming bona fides for the Xbox One, and you can tell just how sharply Microsoft realizes this by all the patches hitting the console in time for Titanfall’s release. They are patching in Twitch TV broadcast capability. 20% of all
needs theirKiller App Twitch streams were originating from PS4 units in January. Microsoft needs to cut into that number. After months worth of user complaints they are patching Party chat and friends lists on the Xbox One to make them function the way they always should have, i.e. the way they work on the Xbox 360. Microsoft realizes they can’t afford to let anything get in the way of a positive Titanfall experience. Titanfall could move millions of systems and push Microsoft back into the first lap of the eighth generation console race, or only appeal to early adopters of the Xbox One. And unlike Microsoft’s last system sellers, Gears of War or Halo 3, Titanfall is also being
released on the Xbox 360 and PC. It’s possible that a sizeable chunk of Titanfall players could choose to stick with existing hardware, considering the dearth of what else is available on the Xbox One. I remember when Sony released an overpriced brick at the beginning of the last round of the console wars. I remember the disbelief among investors and players that the clear winner of the Xbox/ PlayStation 2 fight could make such vexing decisions with their follow-up console. The PlayStation 3 lost out to the Xbox 360. Microsoft began this console generation with less of an advantage than Sony did in the last round, and Microsoft has inspired similar disbelief.
I wish I had a crystal ball. When I get home from GDC, I’ll either have people to play Titanfall with on my Xbox One, or I might have to play it on a different platform if that’s where my friends are. That’s just how it works if killer apps fail to deliver. •
DENNIS SCIMECA is a freelance writer from Boston, Massachusetts. He is usually on the video game beat, and has been published on media like Salon, Polygon, Ars Technica, VentureBeat and Kotaku.
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The real Clash of Clans The fight over in-app purchases in free-to-play
Brenda Romero (Loot Drop): “I want to make a game, not a compulsion.” Part of Romero’s speech at GDC 2013: I hate and I love free to play at the same time. It is a good way to make money, but also a great way to mess up a game. It is important that the game keeps its integrity. For example, League of Legends. The core of the game is free, everything else is paid, but the integrity of the game remains the same. This is different for friction-based free-to-play. By slowing down the player you change the core of the game. Players hate that, but they pay anyhow, because they want to play on. Bottomline: I want people to pay for games because the games make them happy. I don’t want people to pay for games out of frustration. I want to make a game, not a compulsion. Control
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“Why is it so hard to accept someone else’s point of view. Why is it so hard to find common ground?”
The debate on free-to-play games is the fiercest ever in the gamesindustry. Is that a problem? And why is it so hard to find common ground? Text: Matthijs Dierckx
eated debates are nothing new for the gamesindustry. For starters, there’s the ongoing discussion on whether or not games lead to real life violence, closely followed by the debate on game addiction. Participants are typically divided along the lines of industry versus non-industry. Put simpler: the gamesindustry versus the rest of the world. Lately, a number of discussions arose within the gamesindustry. These range from a friendly professional conversation on games as a storytelling mechanism, to a much more fierce debate on inclusion and gender. However, it took the subject of free-to-play to turn an industry wide discussion surprisingly hostile. The gloves are off and both parties are hell-bent on making the other adopt the ‘right’ point of view. As many industry people will have discovered, the tone of the discussions in the press and on social media has turned sour. It’s starting to resemble the heavily polarized American political climate. Less exchanges of arguments, more questioning the other’s intellect for not accepting the obvious truths. More problematic: this debate is starting to hurt the industry as a whole. No matter your personal
Rik Haandrikman (f2p-portal GamePoint): “What the market wants at the moment is free-to-play”
take on free-to-play, a divided industry is a paper tiger. Right now, the European Union is drawing up legislation making monetizing free-to-play games more difficult. Conversion rates are already reported to be as low as 1.5 percent (according to a recent snapshot by Swrve). Imagine what adding additional barriers could do to free-toplay depended companies. But since the gamesindustry itself is nowhere near a consensus, launching an effective lobby for a more industry friendly form of regulation seems an impossible task. There are more recent examples showing how a deeply divided gamesindustry could damage itself. GameOn is a combined governmental/private game investment fund in The Netherlands. Its recent launch was met by hefty criticism from within the industry itself. Mainly due to the fund’s focus on free-to-play investments. And again, no matter whose side you’re on in this discussion: an industry that apparently does not welcome governmental support with open arms, may soon find itself without.
Director of Business Development (statements made in a personal capacity) There is a market for premium games. That market is small and getting smaller. You can’t build a scalable company based on (just) premium games in app stores now. If your ambition is to build fun games and make a couple of bucks while doing it, premium might just cut it. If your ambition is to build a sizeable company with revenues that scale with investment, premium is definitely not the way. Look at Ridiculous Fishing, for example. A great game by all accounts. Being named Game of the Year by Apple and plastered all over the App Store’s featured section, barely had them scratch the bottom of the Top 100 grossing games, though. Vlambeer has been very vocal about their opinion on free to play games, but if being Apple’s Game of the Year doesn’t get you revenue, what will? The economic opportunity simply isn’t there. We’ve spent the last years teaching an entire generation of consumers that games should be free to download and hard as they may try, it’s unlikely indies will change this mentality anytime soon. If you want to create games for app stores or the web and plan to grow beyond having a handful of developers in subsidized office space, your chances in the premium space are limited at best. For every Vlambeer out there, there are thousands of studios that aren’t able to pay their bills. If you want to build a business and aren’t looking for a subsidized hobby, look at what the market wants. What the market wants at the moment is free-to-play.
Why? The real issue is ‘why?’ – why is it so hard to accept someone else’s point of view. Why is it so hard to find common ground? After all, we are talking about a mere busi11
ness model, of which there are many. (In this analysis we focus squarly on free-to-play games based on in-app purchases.) Four reasons spring to mind.
1: Core interests no longer align Traditionally there has always been some kind of tension between publishers and marketeers on one hand, and developers and designers on the other. There are stories aplenty about publishers pushing developers in a direction they didn’t like - for the sake of increased sales potential. (We’re not taking a stand here, we’re making an observation.) But the general rule of thumb was this: a better game simply sells more, hence: the ultimate goal was either the same or at least very compatible for all parties. With free-to-play this is no longer the case. Everybody still wants to, no, has to make money in order to keep making games. And one could argue that currently, the free-to-play model is the best way of doing that. However, adopting such a model only really works if a game is completely build around in-game monetization. This leads to a paradigm shift: from a business point of view the ultimate goal no longer is creating Control
“It’s impossible to consider certain f2p games unethical, without questioning the morality of their creators” Luc Bloom (Blue Giraffe): Some thoughts on 1 vs 1 multiplayer in a ‘casual’ F2P game Free-to-play developer
For our upcoming game Duory, we’re still trying to determine the best monetization method. Free-toplay is certainly an option, even though it will be a multiplayer game (synchronous turn-based). The obvious problem with paying for things like power-ups in multiplayer games is that the gained advantages will drive the opposing player away. The money spent will feel as a ‘cheat’. What you want is that the opposing player will see the purchases as something they would like for themselves. This works well in cooperative games; Draw Something’s color palette is a good example of this.
the best game possible, but the best ‘monetizable’ game possible. To be fair: for game-startups launching with an exit strategy in mind, this is a solution, rather than a problem. The initial investments – i.e. risks – are a great deal smaller compared to traditional AAA or mid-core game development. This means it’s easier for game start-ups to get funding and if successful, to scale their company. Success almost certainly leads to a prolonged and steady cash flow, making the studio an attractive target for acquisition or in some cases, even an IPO. However, not all designers start a company much less a career in the gamesindustry with an exit in mind. Which brings us to:
2: Compromising game design For a free-to-play game to be successful, the core gameplay loop has to be designed around monetization. Not all designers oppose this idea, however the ones that do argue that currently gameplay is being severely compromised. Player progression is deliberately stalled, earning ingame currency a drag and spamming social media rewarded. For a lot of designers this is not the way Control
To make this work in multiplayer games however, you’ll need to make the player feel that the added features will give him or her an advantage because of their personal preference. In Duory one example would be unlocking a larger playing field. Players that have collected enough points (or spent a little money) can start a match with a larger playing field, which probably feels like an advantage because they are more experienced players. Another example would be card sets. Imagine playing Duory with a “Game Heroes/ Game Villains” card set. I bet you’re better equipped to remember them than some of your friends.
Rami Ismail (Vlambeer): “Willfully exploiting your players”
A third example would be purchasing actual power-ups. The match would start with both players having the same power-ups. The player that selected the power-up expects to have an advantage, because he expects to be better at using the powerup. Besides that, it’ll be more fun. Duory is a 1 vs 1 multiplayer game that will be playable on mobile devices. Its core mechanic is a twist on Concentration (Memory). The cards have two sides and both players see a different side. This way, besides memorizing the location of previous cards, they’ll have to think about which card is going to be revealed to their opponent.
they want to design games. And that’s exactly why many designers are so rigid in their complaints: free-to-play touches the very core of their job, the very reason they became game designer in the first place. Until somebody comes up with a successful free-to-play mechanic that does not compromise gameplay in any way, a large portion of professional game designers will remain firmly in the anti free-toplay camp.
Indie developer (Ridiculous Fishing) The model of free-to-play isn’t the problem. The problem is the implementation, which currently comes in one of three distinct flavors: “Pay to Win”, “Pay to Play” and “Play to not Play”. In all cases, the game is intentionally crippled to enable the player to pay. That means that a lot of people are playing subpar games, and only a tiny segment of them pays to access the proper game. Conversion is always a problem: only a tiny segment of players will pay at all. That means that F2P is as risky as premium: unless you have millions of players and your monetization is perfectly tweaked, you won’t make a dime. As F2P developer you have two options: either you make a game that rivals the quality of the premium apps, or you willfully exploit a small part of your players. I use exploit in the literal sense here. If only a tiny part of the users pays, companies have to allow people to infinitely pour money into a game. That leads to the ‘whale’ phenomenon, something that a lot of the less moral developers build their companies around. “Whales” tend to have bad self-control with regards to spending, and can end up in terrible financial situations. The ability of game developers to manipulate people into spending more money than they’re aware of, or using misleading terminology, is of such a level that the European Union is investigating the model. A continent is now reviewing the boundaries of a business model in video games. No matter your perspective, that’s a clear enough signal that something is terribly wrong.
3: Missed opportunities Investors never fail to see opportunities. They see the increasing but still moderate financial success of dozens of indie developers. But most importantly, what they see is a tremendous potential – if only these studios would change their business model, ditch premium in favor of freemium and take investment to spend on marketing and user acquisition. So, no, investors and publishers will not be silent about the benefits of free-to-play, it’s their core business. Furthermore, they simply do not get why developers would turn down a chance to increase their profits. This became abundantly clear at the recent Casual Connect Europe. The traditionally free-to12
play oriented conference boasted a large indie expo. A place with certainly a lot of mix, but not so much match. It was easy to overhear conversations between developers and potential investors that went absolutely nowhere. They genuinely did not seem to understand each other. Imagine the surprise of a developer whose game is currently for sale on PlayStation Network, having an investor say: “So you don’t have a valid monetization model?” Certainly a Casual Disconnect. For developers who don’t feel like making free-to-play games, this poses a problem. They simply can’t match the attractiveness of free-to-play studios, so getting funded is becoming harder. They’re left with increasingly sparse options: doing work-forhire and hoping there’s enough time left for the development of their own IP; or launching a crowdfunding campaign – which is a huge risk in itself.
4: Ethics: where it becomes personal Another catalyst of the debate is the question whether or not free-to-play games are ethical. This is a subject that is extremely difficult to discuss. It’s impossible to consider certain free-to-play games unethical, without ques-
Reinout te Brake (game investment fund GameOn): “The industry has been pushed in the trend of F2P” Founder
tioning the morality of their creators. And by doing so, the conversation is basically over before it even started – nobody likes to be called immoral. This further explains why for some it’s so hard to just let the others be. He who considers freeto-play immoral, probably wants the model to vanish completely. And therefore others need convincing. (Which in turn is close to impossible, because it would take a lot of free-to-play developers and publishers admitting to unethical behaviour.) – Free-to-play has such a strong pull on developers, that even outspoken opponents like Peter Molyneux, are starting to experiment with the model. It will be interesting to see if it is at all possible to create a successful freeto-play game without compromising gameplay at all. •
Investors have shown in the past that they are pushing studios to explore new trends. I haven’t always liked that, because to get money you needed, for example, to completely focus on mobile games. It is challenging to make sure that you are one of the first and don’t end up in the league of „we are also mobile” and „we are the next Supercell”. If I look at GameOn, we are very willing to explore new models where payments, organic growth, retention and in game-purchasing are being used optimally. The industry has been pushed in the trend of F2P, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t innovate on that and create an ultimate successful model! Isn’t the focus on free-to-play dangerous because in its current form, the model is too young? It has not proven itself for the long term. I cannot say I agree with this. If you look at some recent success stories, I think more people get experienced with free-to-play. Of course, it’s still challenging, but if you see how the industry is sharing knowledge, the good and the bad experiences, then I am extremely confident. Still, having said that, I am looking at a model of a small payment to install or buy the game, with premium features that can be bought in the game. For example: Give the first ten levels for free, like the game, then pay an x amount, otherwise you cannot continue. So needless to say, we need to keep exploring to keep increasing revenues within the gamesindustry.
Eric Diepeveen (Stolen Couch Games): “Our game annoys users on purpose” Free-to-play developer During the concept phase of astaway Paradise, we created a modC ular structure. All aspects, from graphics to control, are designed to increase retention and monetization. Everything you do in the game is part of a loop that either earns us money or gets us more users. Our game annoys users on purpose so they will make an in-app purchase.
We manipulate the players so we can continue to make games. If there is a group of players who still enjoy our game, we’ve done well. That the quality of a game is influenced by business decisions is no news. Almost all AAA-games are much more polished in the beginning, much less at the end. Simply because just a small percentage will play the end.
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A new breed of publishers Erik Schreuder • Iceberg Interactive Games: Endless Space - Amplitude, Armada 2526 - Ntronium Games “We would rather be a bigger player in niche than tiny in ‘me-too’. “
In a time of self-publishing and crowdfunding, a few young publishers discovered how to be relevant. Text: Eric Bartelson
ure, they’re still around. The old massive publishing houses that used to rule the games industry. They are still big and still a force to be reckoned with, but more and more they become a relic of days gone by. Because in an industry that is constantly changing, big isn’t necessarily a good thing. It means that it’s harder to cater to the little guy. And there are more little guys every day.
Josh Presseien • Crescent Moon Games: Shadowsword: The Fallen King, Paper Monsters - Robots vs Wizards “Helping developers to improve their games so that they can get featured, is one of my specialties.”
Nigel Lowrie • Devolver Digital Games: Hotline Miami - Dennaton Games, Luftrausers - Vlambeer “If you have a game that’s worthy of the attentention, gamers will come.”
That’s why we see a new breed of publishers emerging from the drop shadows of the giants. Small companies that know their clients by name, that actively help with virtually every aspect of development and that can switch tatics if the rapidly changing market so demands. A publisher that doesn’t act as a loan shark, but as a partner. But why now? Especially in a time when self-publishing and crowdfunding could have easily meant the end of publishers. “Well, it didn’t so much end our role as publisher, but is has certainly changed it dramatically”, says Erik Schreuder, CEO of Dutch publisher Iceberg Interactive. “You see, self-publishing doesn’t equal self-promoting per se. There are plenty of developers out there that realize their strenghts lie in design and programming. They simply lack the skill, the desire or the money to promote their games to the exponential degree that a publisher can.” “We also offer other services such as advancing development budget, quality assurance, producing-aid, localizations and age-rating to name a few. Of course a publisher will take a cut of the revenue, so each developer has to make that leap of faith that co-operation will 14
lead to far more sales than going solo. Luckily we have plenty developers that took that leap and are happy with the results.” Josh Presseien, CEO of publisher Crescent Moon, started out as game developer and rolled into publishing by chance. Now his company is doing both, a combination he feels is really beneficial to his clients: “Helping developers to improve their games so that they can get featured, is one of my specialties.” That doesn’t mean he can just promise that all important feature in the US iTunes App Store, Steam, Google Play or Amazon, but he sure has got enough experience to predict what title will get picked up. Never bored Presseien now spends most of his time on publishing duties. But his love for creating games remains strong. So strong in fact, that he has found a way to get more involved in the creative side of things this year. “Fewer games from third party developers and more time coming up with my own ideas. It’s a fun mix that keeps me busy and never bored.” No time to get bored at Austin based publisher Devolver Digital either. Nigel Lowrie sums up an impressive list of games to come this year. “The first years we were actively looking for new games and new studios to work with, but now we are overwhelmed by the amount of developers that are coming to us.” Devolver debuted as publisher in 2009 with Croteam’s Serious Sam HD. “That established us as not assholes to work with.” Since then, there has been a string of edgy indiegames like Hotline Miami. “We are publisher for developers that
BROFORCE, Devolver Digital
don’t need one”, says Lowrie. “We make investments in all our games but it’s never a full on development budget advance. That would make it business. And we like to think of it as a partnership.” All three publishers were founded in 2009. That’s no coincidence. It was the year that digital distribution really took hold of the industry. The original Angry Birds launched, paving the way for the boom of mobile gaming. “The biggest change no doubt is the transition to a market of digital download”, says Schreuder. “The once powerful boxed market is completely overtaken. But no matter how little there is left, it’s still here and we don’t ignore it. Our games continue to be released in traditional boxed retail. It has become sort of a marketingtool.” Worthy of attention According to Lowrie the rise of digital has taken away a layer between gamers and developers. “Retail was always right there in the middle. Now we communicate directly with consumers and that has changed marketing and PR in a big way. You see communities form around certain games and even though you can’t manipulate it, if you have a game that’s worthy of the attention, gamers will come.” Presseien takes maintaining the Crescent Moon community seriously. “Social media, forum communities, stuff like that. Keeping them updated on the progress of games, updates, things that need fixing, or new things coming out. It takes up a lot of my time nowadays.” Iceberg Interactive also recognizes the impor-
tance of a strong community. “It’s vital for our business. Reason why we created a fulltime position of Community Manager over a year ago. This person is dedicated to forum monitoring, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest even. Press coverage is shifting to the What The Fuck Is... and Let’s Play vids so we have to get on board asap, as we believe Twitch is the next big thing.” Deep experience These three worldwide publishers have a lot in common. They are mean and lean (none of them employs more than ten people) and have found a competitive edge in a specific niche. Presseien: “We started out with role playing games for touch screen and built a loyal fanbase around that. We are releasing lots of other types of games as well. Platformers, action games, even racing games. I believe our core audience wants a more deep experience on mobile devices, mostly, than what is usually available. That’s sort of the niche that we like to fill.” Lowrie: “At Devolver we look for small indie developers with interesting ideas. We want something new and exciting in terms of design, visuals or narrative. I think we have the games to back up our philosophy.” Iceberg Interactive has found its niche in space. “Space – strategy and sim – is one the genres that we focus on indeed. We’re not going to come up with the next FIFA or Call of Duty so we have to be smart and operate in other areas. It’s part of our company strategy that we would rather be a bigger player in niche than tiny in me-too.” • 15
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Indies of the world
UNITE! All over the world indie developers join forces to raise a fist against triple A studios and their big budget
uppose you have a development budget worth of six months rent and a cupboard full of Cup Noodles. Once the game is done you might find it difficult, if not impossible, to actively market and promote it. All your money is invested in the game and you need cold hard cash for everything these days, right? Well… no. That’s not necessarily true. There’s a network of connected indie devs around the world ready to lend a hand -or a couch- if so needed. There is a growing number of trade conferences, consumer conferences and other cons happy to show of your new game. And if you play it smart, you can maximize the visibility and buzz of your game without spending crazy amounts of money. Indies just have to stick together. Unite. Make themselves heard.
Vital Rami Ismail, business guy at Vlambeer, world traveler and -according to Gamasutra- ‘an omnipresence’ within the indie community, Control
calls it ‘absolutely vital’ for indie developers to work together. “Indie can’t exist without uniting. We’re too small as individual studios to have any impact on our own, but together we can make a difference.” It’s one of the reasons why Ismail travels around the world and spends so much time on helping out with several initiatives and meeting different people. “I feel it’s important to support things like the Indie Megabooth and local Dutch conferences like Indievelopment and Control Conference. Free flow of information, support and having people to talk to is such an intrinsic part of the culture of indie games.” Ismail is convinced that there is an increasing amount of possibilities to reach an audience. “But there is also an increasing amount of competition to deal with. I feel democratised platforms like YouTube Let’s Play and distribution methods like itch.io seem increasingly popular. Also you can team up with a publisher to let them do the marketing.” Ismail is also associated with Indie Megabooth, one of the largest organized initiatives to improve visibil16
ity of small indie developers at game conferences like PAX, Gamescom and GDC. “PAX and other consumer events are such a great way of reaching out to gamers, to get feedback on your game and to figure out what you’re up to. Indie Megabooth represents a lot of my values, which is the reason I invested so much time and effort in the whole thing.”
Mega Driving force behind the Indie Megabooth is Kelly Wallick. She started the first one at PAX East 2012 when she got 16 companies together in one booth to compete for attention against the triple A studios. Since its debut the Megabooth has seen incredible growth. Starting with those 16 indie studios, the current count is over 80. Wallick didn’t know much of the games industry when she first organized Megabooth. As an outsider looking in, it just felt wrong to her to see small studios struggle to get the gamers’ attention. “What struck me was how passionate and thoughtful the developers were”, Wallick says. “It’s really inspir-
IGF Awards One of the first events to bring together the indies of the world in order to celebrate, promote and award their work is the Independent Games Festival. (IGF). Set up in 1998 to ‘create a similar event to Sundance for independent game developers’. Now it’s an annual event during GDC in three parts: Pavillion, Awards and Independent Games Summit.
Photos right: Indie Prize Director Yulia Vakhrusheva (top) and Megabooth’s initiator Kelly Wallick
“The need to unite was mostly ing and I think an important part of the creative side of games. When we first started this, the need to unite was mostly because it was so unheard of and indie games were not part of the normal gaming community. Working together allows everyone to benefit and helps developers create a network and community that will help them be successful outside of traditional corporate structures.” Indie Megabooth is so succesful that Wallick had to start up a selection procedure that all new games have to go through. Wallick: we want to make sure that when people come to check out the Megabooth they are able to find what they are looking for and are not overwhelmed by the amount of options.” According to Wallick selection is not just a question of ‘good enough’, but also on market trends and the number of games within a specific genre. “For the games we don’t offer space to, we try to give them some alternative options, hook them up with space outside the Megabooth and invite them to parties and such if they plan to attend anyways. We want to be
as helpful as possible. In 99 percent of the cases it’s not that the game is bad, it’s just that it might not be far enough along, or not a good fit, or just part of a tough decision. We don’t want to discourage anyone!”
because indie games were not part of the normal gaming community”
Prize Indie Prize Showcase is also an event for indie developers. Set up to give smaller developers a chance to attend Casual Connect conferences and come into contact with potential publishers, distributors, platform partners and of course press. Indie Prize Director Yulia Vakhrusheva emphasizes the importance for indies to unite. “Being part of the community means free educational resources, getting various discounts for attending game industry events and it’s always cheaper to travel together. Making friends in the industry means more people to support you with advice or to help you spread the word as you release new games.” 17
But as with Indie Megabooth success brings its own set of problems. Here too a selection is being made of all the games that apply. Vakhrusheva: “When we first started the Indie Showcase, our goal was to be inclusive, not exclusive. But since the space in the showcase is limited, we have to make a selection. Luckily we have a panel of jurors that help us select the games, and, eventually, the future winners of Indie Prize Awards. The juror’s names are no secret, you can find them on our landing page. That way we keep everything transparant.” So next time your game is done and you’re looking for a way to promote the damn thing, make sure you explore the countless options at your disposal. There are friendly indies all over the world to share a Cup Noodles with. • Control
“Start small. Start with a single location. Explore.”
Text: Ernst-Jan van Melle / Image: DONTNOD Entertainment
Like our own world, believable virtual worlds consist of millions of seemingly insignificant details. Get it right and players will call it home.
Many of us spend our free time inhabiting other worlds. We escape to outer space or fantasy realms and marvel at these constructed realities and their combat-capable natives suspiciously willing to sleep with our digital selves. We immerse ourselves in these seductive landscapes and compelling vistas and only rarely stop and appreciate the fact that these worlds were purposely built for our enjoyment by people with pencils and machines. On the face of it, ‘Worldbuilding’ sounds like it should take some effort. Most of us are acquainted with the world we currently inhabit, which has taken the cooperative efforts of several billion individuals over several thousands of years of post-cave development. A feat that can apparently Control
Tolkien’s perfect world
be matched by a handful of selfstyled ‘narrative designers’, who manage to simulate complex paradigm shifts, biological evolution and cultural development in about a year. Or less. Invariably resulting in cool-looking corridors inexplicably fit to shoot firearms in.
Middle-Earth is almost unparalleled in detail and sophistication, with intricate histories and fleshed-out linguistics, but it is still very much the product of one biased mind. A strict Catholic belief prevented J.R.R. Tolkien from dreaming up an organised religion, as he was expected to have no other Gods before someone else, resulting in a world with existing, tangible deities, which curiously failed to affect the inhabitants of the world. His religious inflections also negated any mention or occurrence of sexual activity, later explained by the author as ‘none of the cultures having any interest in such things beyond procreation’. This resulted in a world of men with no discernible ambition apart from being platonic friends with other men and not being killed by Orcs. For all of its linguistic depth, Middle-Earth shows little indication of being inhabited by people.
So what makes a game world, or any sort of world believable? Well, worlds are quite large. We have just the one in what passes for real life, and this one alone is extremely difficult to grasp as a whole for anyone. Perhaps a more constructive approach is not to dream up an entire world, but to work in reverse. Start small. Start with a single location. Explore. Ask yourself questions. Consider the toilets. Where are the toilets? Why did the architect see fit to 18
install them there? Who cleans the toilets? How? Is there a dedicated toilet-cleaner? Where does he live? Complex settings can be pulled from very trivial details.
Many of these questions might seem utterly useless. Unnecessarily detailed. Superfluous. They are. Consider our own reality. We’ve got spray-on cheese, Batmobiles, fireplace DVDs, and singing animatronic Christmas trees. All of these things are largely useless and don’t mean much in and of themselves. Yet they are all the direct result of thousands of years of cultural development, ecological influence and natural decay. Reasonable nonsense. A world is many small things pointing to a vague large thing, not a large thing with boxes in it, to provide cover from the people with the guns inexplicably coming at you. A world is amorphous, always developing, never standing still. As creators, we should not attempt to distill what little we think we understand of the whole, but rather, learn from the little things that make our world tangible, and use these to pencil in other worlds to
“For a writer, in the traditional sense, this is terrifying”
a World escape to. A world does not have to be understood from the outset. To understand it means there is nothing left to learn.
made, and suddenly the setting and context are revealed to be far richer than they initially appeared.
Perhaps more interesting is the question of how little worldbuilding a developer should engage in. There is a special niche of games inhabited by EVE Online, DayZ, and, more recently Rust, where world and setting have been absorbed by the players themselves. In EVE, developer-written factions have made way for player-controlled corporations exercising pressure on the game’s economy, the slightest imbalance of which can result in player-instigated wars costing many of thousands of real-world money in damage. In DayZ, players were originally meant to survive by hoarding supplies and evading zombies, but active player interest has made humans the most dangerous predator of the game. Players have taken on the roles of kidnappers, slavers and worse, without the game or setting having been meant to. Lastly, Rust, a game similar to DayZ in many respects, has done away with zombies very quickly after open-
Some games manage this quite well. Portal 2’s story mainly concerned diabolical and/or clumsy robots trying to prevent you from escaping a large laboratory, but manages to interject several narrative layers that both complement and stand apart from your own progress. Audio logs give an insight in Aperture Science’s eccentric CEO, but a larger and more complete story about the company is told completely through level design. History can be read in the buildings and machines like geological layers, leaving every keen-eyed player with a detailed history of the world by the end of the game. Historical markers are used to denote time, allowing you to easily deduce that the room with the huge computers is probably older than the one with the small computers. After a few hours of play, these three narrative strands - direct interaction, audio logs, design - start to converge, connections can be
ing Early Access - it was already clear that the players posed a far more interesting threat to each other than any NPC.
In a Galaxy far away A single author might make a world or setting overly specific and one-sided, a group of authors can pose problems of its own. ‘Many bakers spoil the crust’, as the saying goes, which is especially true of large franchises that have known the hands of hundreds of writers. The Star Wars-universe started as a wellexecuted but fairly run-of-the-mill epic saga. Thousands of novels, comic books, videogames and other tie-ins later, the entirety of that universe has become so large and unwieldy that its roots, that of the farm-boy destined for greater things, are more or less buried.
Because film is the most prominent entertainment industry preceding video games, it’s easy to think of them in similar terms. Both have directors, artists, and, interestingly, writers. But it is important to remember that films tell stories. All information and all interaction is carefully presented to the viewer in the most stimulating and interesting way possible. Games, on the other hand, are at their core still interactive. Which means that discovery should ultimately be because a player wants to discover and acts to discover. And, once given the slightest bit of control, the player will want to change things. For a writer, in the traditional sense, this is terrifying. Every detail they so lovingly put into place will be waltzed over by clumsy, inattentive players. Yet this is what makes a game interesting, and should be allowed for by a designer. Ultimately, a player should be allowed to play, not played at. Control
gdc europe returns august 11–13, 2014
game developers conference europe ™
Congress-Centrum ost Koelnmesse · Cologne, germany august 11–13, 2014 · expo: august 11–12, 2014
call for session submissions open March 24–april 21, 2014 gdceurope.com
Magazine for game developers.