I have absolutely no idea why, but recently whilst outside having a cigarette in the bracing Scottish summer, I looked at my phone and was fascinated how quick it was to get a mobile game up on the Google Play store (about 15 minutes for those who don’t know, all being well).

When I first started out in games back in 1994, things weren’t so quick and for such a high-tech, cutting edge company that Psygnosis was, delivery of builds was still either via floppy disk in the post or through the Bulletin Board machine that sat in the corner connected to a 14.4k modem. (For millennials, a 14.4k modem would take approximately 4 days to download the latest episode of Game of Thrones from whichever Torrent site you prefer).

Once we had the date, we then had the fun of getting into whatever format was required which could either be a floppy Amiga disk, a SNES ROM or a CD for various systems. When we first got the kit to create final discs for the Sega Mega CD, I thought someone had dropped off a high-end HiFi in our corner!

The kit consisted of two polished silver boxes around 8 inches tall, 18 inches deep and maybe 30 inches wide (this was over 20 years ago so forgive some inaccuracies!). One of them was used to create the disk image, the other had a solitary CD slot in the gargantuan front to burn the CD. Both of them were sensitive. Seriously sensitive. So much so, that we had to try and keep people from walking past desks when they were burning away as even the slightest jolt or heavy footfall would cause an error and lead to a restart. And when the process took hours, that was not good. Worse though was the price of the blank CD’s – whilst I can’t remember the exact price, I remember they were extortionately expensive given they were pretty much normal discs but a specific brand you had to use.

Nintendo and standard Mega Drive were easier as you just pushed the build through en EPROM writer on the EEPROM chip things and put them in a plastic sleeve for safeguarding and transit. Early on in my Psygnosis career I was on standby to fly with the chips for (if memory serves) Prince of Persia directly over to Japan to hand them over at arrivals before jumping straight on a flight home. Fortunately that didn’t happen!

When Playstation came along, or PSX I guess I should refer it as, we were provided with new CD burners that were the only ones allowed for creating discs to head into Sony QA and approvals. These were much smaller and around the size of the typical VCR at the time, although they were still damn sensitive. The first thing Sony QA did was do a detailed data test on them and any slight discrepancy due to a seagull taking a dump on the roof above your head whilst burning, would get them sent back for new ones. I seem to recall we had to send about 8 of the damn things off as well.

Flash forward 20 years and if I get a new build of our Bingo game to upload, it literally takes seconds to fire it up to Google’s Publishing portal and is available to everyone worldwide within minutes. Given the issues with games and apps needing large Day One patches to fix issues, we seem to have taken a step back!


Photo by joannapoe

Games no more…

So after close to 21 years, I have a job that isn’t part of the games industry. And I feel great!

Sure, a career change after so many years has been a proper culture shock but the removal of the stress of running your own company has improved my life no end. The culture shock was enhanced due to moving from self employment in the games industry to employment in the public sector – educations specifically. No longer do things ‘just get done’ but the positive is knowing that I am making a small change to peoples lives for the better. 

When I say education, this doesn’t mean that I have swapped the sheep herding of games project management for the sheep herding of teaching, but I am now International Project Lead at the local college. It’s a fascinating position involving leading the EU funded projects that the college takes part in – and recently I have now been given the college Incubation space to look after which is right up my street. Some great small businesses are already up and running in there and hopefully I can provide a bit of help to make them a success.

So all change although I still have a fair bit of travelling so no doubt I’ll still be complaining about airlines and dodgy overseas hotels although the days of travelling transatlantic in business class are long over.

GDC 2014 – “I’ve got code older than you”

Before heading over to my first GDC since 2011, I noticed some of the grumpy hits on the grumpy developers group on Facebook suggested making t-shirts with the slogan ‘I’ve got code older than you’. It would have been apt as I really did feel like everyone’s dad whilst wandering amongst the Expo booths with their hipster staff.

San Francisco was hotter than I had ever experienced around GDC time and this made me suitably grumpy, but it was probably the most constructive GDC I have ever attended. Maybe this was due to not partying every night and having a clear head, or maybe it was because we had complete product to sell – I’m not sure, but we came away with lots of potential opportunities.

Main points I took from the event?

– VR is everywhere, not only Rift but Sony’s Morpheus along with controllers to go with them such as Sixense’s STEM. All interesting stuff
– Far too many ad networks. Funny how one mentioned a CPI of $5 when they only pay us $1 for showing the ad on our own titles. Thieving ****s!
– More women present than I have ever noticed before
– Everyone looks around 10 years old (or maybe that is just me)
– How many people are looking for content to publish in numerous territories and platforms

Arguably the biggest thing I got was the complete realisation that if you want to make money in games you should not bother making games, you should be making services that you can sell to games developers. GameDev is not a massively scalable business apart from the odd few and it is far easier to gather investment for scalable service companies than for game development. Sad but true. I guess I would advise any startup to consider entering the service side rather than the content side moving forwards – the odds are better.

Before GDC week, I was over in San Francisco with Cross Creative as part of our California trip. During this time I was fortunate to visit some pretty amazing companies like Pixar, Chartboost, Youtube, Eventbrite and the amazing VFX guys at Atomic Fiction. Again, the core impression I got was that getting investment in the area was far easier than in Scotland purely due to the amount of investors looking for the next ‘big thing’. Maybe Independence will help us out with more tax benefits for investors?

Start-Up Part 2: Become a Bi££ionaire!

So by the end of Part 1, you have you team, you have your logistics sorted, you have meticulously identified your market and created your product with that market in mind. Yes?

Good. Now it is time to sell.

But whooooah there! Sell? We were never taught how to sell! Uni never had any lectures on selling? We thought you just submitted your game and because it is so awesome, people will buy it?

Yep. Thats the impression the media give isn’t it? Dead easy this making a fortune from games lark. I don’t need to remind you that the media report on stories that people will read (so they can sell ads) and people want to read about a spotty 13 year old who licensed some tech from someone, created an awful app and then sold it to BigCorp for £1m a few months later (that had dodgy written all the way through it imo!). People don’t want to read about the hundred, or rather thousands of companies who don’t even break even on their game costs.

Lets be honest, unless you are lucky (yep, luck plays a MASSIVE part), have managed to secure a strong license or brand or have a load of money to run a good enough CPI ad campaign that can get your into the charts in the first day or two (think $10,000 per day minimum) then your game/app/whatever isn’t going to make you millions.

But you have still created it so lets sell it. Do your press pack, individually contact writers who may write for places that could be interested in your game – give them the link to your press pack. Create strong metadata for the stores, have great screenshots and make sure you put the best one first (iOS may only see one screenshot on your App Store page on device), have an awesome icon which reflects your title — and make sure the title of your game will work effectively on the stores.

Notice how I said storeS there? You are not just developing for iOS are you? Are you? REALLY???? WHY???? You are aware that iOS has less than 20% of the smartphone market? You are aware that other platforms are catching up in terms of revenue spend on them? You are aware that if you develop for as many platforms as possible, you have the best chance of getting a return? You are aware that multi-platform gives you the best opportunity of licensing your title out to different stores/portals/bundles whatever? Sure, they won’t set you up in Bermuda but a few grand here and a few grand there will soon add up.

So you are doing multi platform, good. Get it onto the stores and push it out to as many people as you can. Get them to download and play, even if only for 10 minutes. Get them to rate and give you a proper review. You can’t do that because they have to pay for it? You are charging for your game? /sigh

Do everything you can to get good ratings and reviews. Interact with your customers on your games Facebook page (you do have one don’t you?). Reward them for sharing your content and getting more people playing. Don’t worry about conversion or IAP, the key thing initially is to generate numbers and build up your reviews and ratings.

Anyway, now you are on iOS and Play take a look around at Kindle and Nook. I used to laugh at Nook with our non-existent sales on the platform then suddenly it took off and Nook is our second best revenue stream now. Look at the different carrier stores around the world to make deals, look at creating a HTML5 version to license to the major web gaming portals – again you can make a few grand here and there. See if you can push your free content onto non-gaming areas to generate more awareness. Our games are present on restaurant terminals in the US – we make nothing from it but generate new users who download after enjoying playing whilst waiting for their ribs to be served.

Continually support your product. Release updates and fix bugs. Give your customers what they want. See if you can rebrand or retheme your game to get better search results.

If you follow all this, you are guaranteed to have the average 0.01% change of making your millions. Just remember me when you do – mine is a latte with no sugar.

Game StartUps – easy $$$$!!!!

For those of us who have been in the games industry for a few years, we all recall the frustration of working on console platforms. Not so much frustration with the technology but with those who represented the Publishers – the people who paid for us to develop – frustration with Producers.

During my times, I was lucky enough to work with some excellent Producers but I also worked with some guys who really shouldn’t be put in charge of an international corporations $10,000,000 budget! Anyway, back during those times amongst the requests to make the grass greener and allow the player to complete a lap by pressing one button with the controller on their head (yes, that did actually happen!), we all dreamed of a time when we would no longer need Publishers to provide our revenue and negotiate retail space for our products. We all thought it would be fantastic to be able to develop our own products without their input and sell our products direct to our customers. It would be amazing…

…and a few years ago it all came true. The plethora of digital stores allowed us to self-publish our own creations and customer expectation on mobile and handheld platforms meant that budgets were low enough that developers could self-fund. It was all we ever dreamed of, the barriers to entry had been well and truly removed.

And it was awful! What we never considered was that the removal of the barriers along with the multitude of easy-to-use middleware solutions soon meant that anyone could create and release a digital product, no matter how tacky or pointless. We started to drown in a sea of fart apps and (lets be honest) total crap. Now, the major issue we face is not trying to manage an errant Publishing producer who wants to make a tiny change that would cost £20,000 (although they won’t of course pay for it), but fighting through the crud to generate awareness for our products.

So we come to my main concern about the future of the independent games industry. Being based in Dundee, I see many microstudios popup with dreams of being the next Rovio (btw, before raising them as the poster-child of current development, read about their history and how difficult it has been for them) but unfortunately many of them have little idea of the business and commercial side of game development. There is a expectation that quality == revenue which if you dig below the surface of app downloads and sales, you will see most definitely isn’t the case.

With this in mind, I would like to offer some thoughts and ideas on things the consider **before** deciding to open a new games studio.

Firstly, if you are doing this purely for the money then turn around now and start looking for a job with an established studio. A huge number of gaming start-ups do not make any money – it is only a tiny percentage of those that do generate strong revenues – numbers that will allow you not to worry about working again!

Now we have established that you really want to go ahead with this, the first thing you should do is to establish a formal company – registered a Companies House. This will not only provide some legitimacy, but also allows you and your fellow developers to formalise shareholdings and provides that limited liability that you hopefully will never need!

Once registered you may want to consider registering for VAT if you think revenues will be high enough. If you are employing anyone you will also need to register for PAYE – both are easily done via the HMRC website.

Don’t start developing yet though. You do need to consider what would happen if one of your happy team decides to leave. Remember that many co-founders of companies end up splitting up at some point due to disagreement or worse and you need to ensure that you are covered in this event. Probably the best way is with a Shareholders Agreement but this will cost money to get drawn up. Before you ignore this issue though, just think about what would happen if you are halfway through a product and one of the shareholders leaves – what happens to the work they have contributed? Do they own it or does the company own it? Do you have the work assigned to the company and if you release the product what will happen?

Right, so that is all sorted out – time to start developing surely? Well, not really… What sort of product are you making and how have you decided what to develop? Have you carried out any marketing to determine if there is anyone out there who wants your product or are you arrogant enough to think that what you want to play is what everyone else wants to play? If you haven’t carried out any marketing research then you are already on your way to enjoying <100 sales on the App Store -- in this day and age, creating a product for a specific market is **THE most important** start your project can make. Nearly there surely? You know what you want to develop and have carried out some basic marketing research to identify a need. It is time to develop but before you start you need to ask yourself 'How?'. Are you going to use middleware which will allow for speedier prototyping and release or are you going to start from scratch? Are you going to use industry standard tools like Max, Maya, Photoshop, Perforce, Visual Studio etc..? If so, do you have licenses or indeed the finances to purchase such licenses as they don't come cheap. It is possible to get free licenses for some tools such as Perforce through their small indie processes - likewise Microsoft run BizSpark which can get you free licenses if you have a successful application. If these don't work then look at cheaper or open source tools - think about Blender instead of Max/Maya, Pixelmator or the free GIMP instead of Photo$hop, InkScape instead of Illustrator - there are many other solutions available. Let's fast forward six months. You do have your product out in the market don't you - six months should be plenty of time? One issue I see time and time again (and have done it many times myself) is the search for perfection. Constantly tweaking and changing a product over and over again, adding more and more features and severe feature creep. Whilst we all want our products to be the best they can possible be, there comes a time when continued tweaking just wastes time and money and generates no additional revenue. Aim to push out a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) as soon as possible to generate feedback from customers and react to any feedback that makes sense. Think about platforms. If you chose a middleware solution for your core tech, utilise the different platforms they offer. You are thinking about platforms other than iOS aren't you? Look at all options such as the Play Store, Amazon, Nook, Samsung and all the other digital store options. Run tests on localisation to see if it makes a difference to your products (it didn't for any of ours but some products see positive growth when localised) This should give you a few things to think about - I will add Part 2 to this at some point and finish it off 🙂

Games that kill?

I downloaded and started playing Outlast as part of this months PS4 PSN freebie last week. Being the big scaredy-cat that I am, I didn’t last very long before throwing the controller down with a big ‘fuck this’! I really don’t want to be playing games that give me nightmares!

Then this morning, a colleague shows me a video of a chap playing a similar ‘scare the crap out of you’ game using the Occulus Rift, and the guy nearly fell of his chair with fright. Which got me thinking, given that VR could be the next big thing for certain games, how long will it be until playing a VR game gives someone a heart-attack? And when it happens, will it make the Daily Mail and it’s readers self-combust?

The Games Industry: Flapping its head up its own backside…

Look, I get frustrated at the best of times with the ignorance and stupidity of people inside and outside the games industry. Their self egocentric, arrogant attitudes and complete lack of any form of empathy for any opinions other than their own drive me to frustration virtually every day (and yes, I do see the irony there), however events over the past week have led me to believe that the industry has finally got its self-important head stuck so far up it’s own arse, that it really can’t see what it is walking straight into.

So, Flappy Birds. Or, Flappy Fucking Birds as it has been commonly called on social networks. Here was a simplistic, difficult but damn addictive little game from a guy in Vietnam that did nothing for nearly a year before exploding up the charts and capturing the hearts of the mass market of mobile gamers — and introducing them to a gameplay mechanic that didn’t involve asking friends for help — and the ‘industry’ HATED it. Well, that isn’t entirely true, most people appreciated it for what it was, a small but tough game taking design and visual cue’s from other products (something that nearly every other title does).

So why all the fuss? Why did the industry essentially implode on itself in a frenzy of outrage and utter bullshit? Ignorance? Stupidity? Fear?

In all likelihood it was all three, but mainly the latter. Developers, or rather those who call themselves developers and look down their nose at ‘others’ who create games for the ‘mass market’ suddenly realised that the gaming taste of ‘mass market’ they have feared for many years was ever so slightly changing and was starting to appreciate the frustration of an incredibly tough game whose mechanic only ever made you feel that failure was YOUR fault. This was an area that had been held by the ‘hardcore’ and was deemed (and I too thought this) not really suitable for the mass market who enjoyed matching their three candies (and don’t get me started on King. Some people need to read up on their IP law before coming up with the streams of bullshit that accompanied that story!) and didn’t appreciate a truly difficult challenge. Were these ‘traditional’ developers getting afraid that they too would soon be making Barbie Match 3 Saga soon?

And so to the journalists. Although, I was always under the impression that a journalist was meant to write about news and investigate facts as it appeared to me that all of a sudden, the mainstream industry sites become dedicated to opinion pieces on how the Flappy Birds phenomenon was detrimental to the industry. This is where it started to get quite amusing as certain elements of the press did some of the quickest face changing ever seen with the print freshly drying on their King ‘candy’ word outrage as they started to lambast Flappy Birds use of green pipes as obstacles.

Now I actually quite like most game journalists – most of them are nice people who just want to write about something they love but they have to be getting fearful for the changes going on in the industry at present. I’m not convinced the new gaming markets get their recommendations and reviews from gaming sites, and definitely not the major ones that don’t really cater for the current batch of casual titles. Traditional gaming will of course remain via PC and console, but surely the number of writers will diminuish over the coming years?

Anyway back to the flapping. After a week or two of great chart success, the author decided to pull the game. This was then greeted with howls of derision and astonishment that someone who was (supposedly) earning so much could NOT want to continue rolling around in his bed of cash (I couldn’t get the image of Huell in Breaking Bad lying on that cash out of my head). What was completely ignored was that the author may well have earned more money in a weekend that his peers in Vietnam may have earned in a lifetime, and money does not always buy happiness! Anyway, it has fuck all to do with anyone else but still the story ran and ran and comment threads all over the internet were glowing red — all over a one button game mechanic, a bird, an annoying sound effect and Nintendo’s green pipes.