NZ game industry: Insights from local studios

Tips from Sidhe Interactive, Grinding Gear Games and CerebralFix

With 70 staff and 15 years experience in the business, Sidhe Interactive is one of the most established local game studios – but CEO Mario Wynands’ advice to developers could apply to any would-be owner of a medium-sized business.

His presentation at the New Zealand Games Developers Conference Association conference on Saturday, was entitled “15 years/9 lessons”. Sidhe Interactive has produced a variety of movie licensed games, including Speed Racer, but is moving towards smartphone and tablet games under its division Pik Pok. It recently announced joint project with US games publisher Adult Swim.

Wynands says that game developers should look to build a business, not a game. “The expectation is ‘we are making a great game and it will sell,’” he says. However, it is important to create a sustainable business by drawing up a three-year plan that is continually revised.

He points out that employing “the wrong people can be costly,” and says that New Zealand law turns firing someone who is not performing, and as a result damaging your fledgling buiness, into “a 21-step process”. He suggested creating a culture of innovation by instigating “lab days” where staff members can work on pet projects.

It’s important to “spread the risk” by working on different projects and with different publishers, so that you aren’t reliant on only one source of income. “When you’ve almost been bankrupt two or three times you know you don’t want to be this place again,” Wynands says.

“Publishers are not evil” was the subject of one of his lessons. He says that large companies have habits and processes that might not make sense to outsiders. It’s important to have a “change process” in place in case a publisher wants to make changes to the game under development. He says that when negotiating royalties you should pay attention to the payment mechanism. “Never negotiate the number without a net receipts definition and recoup mechanism,” he says.

Also, ensure that if it’s a licensed game, your studio’s name, logo and website is on the box.

Grinding Gear Games co-founder Jonathan Rogers’ advice in his NZGDA session was centred on creating impact in a game. The studio has created Path of Exile, currently in closed beta. It’s a fantasy role-playing game, where players can power up as they move through the levels.

So how does a developer create impact, so that a player experiences a sense of loss or gain when new powers are added or existing ones taken away?

“Every effect in your game has to have some kind of effect on the player,” Rogers says.

For example if you give a character 17 items or special powers, then if one or two are taken away, it can mean little to the player. He says in Path of Exile there are nine item slots.

“Reducing damage is generally the most boring thing you can do,” Rogers says.

In his presentation CerebralFix CEO Ben Dellaca revealed he had no development experience. Prior to CerebralFix he worked for his family’s business, Postie Plus Group, which he describes as “selling T shirts”.

Despite his lack of industry experience, the studio he co-founded in Christchurch two years ago has relationships with Disney and the BBC and has worked on brands such as Transformers and Wheel of Fortune.

Dellaca’s message is to travel and make contact with international game publishers overseas. He says New Zealanders can find it easy to get meetings with influential industry folk, “the whole world wants to meet us”.

* This is part of a series of articles that Computerworld based on the Game Developers Conference on May 19.

See also Microsoft pitches new Windows mobile store, Indie game development is bad for your health and Govt support for development increasing.

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