Train2Game interview with games industry consultant Nicholas Lovell – Part 1

Train2Game recently caught up with founder of Gamesbrief and industry consultant Nicholas Lovell. In a wide ranging interview he discussed subjects including the different types of game development studios, advice for small independent developers, social gaming and the business side of the industry.

The Gamesbrief founder also told Train2Game about a special offer on his book, How to Publish a Game. The 200 page book is available for half price until December 7th.

In part one of this three part interview, Nicholas Lovell tells Train2Game about the games industry in general and gives tips to independent developers.

You can read part two of the interview hereand see part three here.

Train2Game: Can you start by giving a general overview of how the games industry works please?

Nicholas Lovell: There are three types of companies. There are massive triple-A companies, those guys need to invest a lot of money. Modern Warfare 2 cost $50 million to develop; it cost $200 million on top of that in marketing, distribution and manufacturing. That’s a total budget of $250 million. If Wal-Mart doesn’t pay within four months – which it doesn’t – and you want to have three games of that size out at Christmas, that’s a $750 million capital requirement. If you then want to have other games in development at the same time, you’re nearer a billion dollars.

The number of people who’ve got a billion dollars a year to put at risk making triple-A titles is declining. In my opinion there’ll only be six to eight of those in the entire world of which Activision, EA and Warner are likely to be three. The other slots are up for grabs for people like Ubisoft, THQ, Take Two, those kinds of people.

But the number of them is declining and what we are unequivocally seeing is people who aren’t making blockbuster games – who are making nearly blockbuster games – they’re suffering, they’re definitely suffering.

The second group of companies make persistent social online games, games which you can release relatively cheaply and then grow over time. The interesting thing is that World of Warcraft is essentially a triple-A game, but it has that persistent element.

So, at one extreme you have games like Farmville and We Rule and the other games on Facebook. In between you’ve got games from companies like Bigpoint and Gameforge, which are either client based or browser based relatively hardcore MMOs or RPGs free to play with microtransactions.

And then the extreme, you have your traditional subscription based MMOs like World of Warcraft. I think we’ll see much fewer subscription based stuff, as the market is moving strongly in the direction of the free to play browser based games.

The third category is what I call independent developers. Those are teams of  less than fifty people – usually less than ten people – who can because of the existence of PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, iPhone, Android, the browser itself – are able to make and distribute games themselves with no publisher and make a living, a decent living. Not enough of a living to be really threatening to triple-A and the persistent social world, but drawing time and money from particularly the triple-A market, which is one of the reasons why its harder and harder for the also-ran triple-A guys to make money.

So if you’re trying to work out where to work in the games industry in the future, there will be many fewer jobs at the triple-A companies than there were this year. There will be many more jobs in the persistent social world stuff – The Bigpoint’s, the Gameforge’s, the Zynga’s, The Playfishes – and there is a new opportunity to create, launch and make games, just two or three of you making games for fun, distributed via PSN, Steam, the web itself, Kongregate, any of those kind of things. And of course iPhone and Android.

Train2Game: What advice would you give to a small two or three person team who want to make and publish an independent game?

Nicholas Lovell: The first thing is as you go through your game design document – do the first part with a lot of excitement in the pub, that’s fine – but after that take lots and lots of stuff out. Ernest Hemingway famously said about writing, ‘write drunk, edit sober’ and I think that idea could probably apply to game development. I wouldn’t necessarily be certain about that, but the principle goes that what you need to do above all things is release a product, that’s the most important bit.

Until you’ve done that you can’t make any money. So what I see often is people going ‘This is going to be the best game ever’ – That’s the end of your career, not the start of your career.  At the start of your career, you’ve just got to have a game. To be honest, what we’re seeing from employers is that they want to see people who have on their own initiative launched something, anything.  They want to see that people can see something through from the beginning to the end.

So, have your napkin with a gazillion different races and structures and plans and everything else. But then start boiling it down to go ‘What is the core of this game, what is the heart of it, and how can I get that out’

I’m a big fan of agile development methodologies and of agile business processes, and a great description of agile I’ve heard is it’s ‘half a product, not a half arsed product’ So, everything you leave in has to be good. The secret is to take stuff out that doesn’t matter.

So, the first thing I would say is as you’re trying to work out what’s in your game, try and reduce it to something which is fun – which works – and save a lot of the extra stuff for the sequel. Because you don’t know until you’ve got your first game out if anybody likes it, so why waste time building a whole load of stuff?

For example, I see a lot of people building anti-cheating mechanisms into relatively simple multiplayer games which they’re trialling. You haven’t got any cheaters until you’ve got any customers,  you don’t have any customers and the way you’re going you’re going to run out of money building the anti cheat system before you launch, at which point, what was the point of having an anti-cheat system?

Anti-cheat systems are the kind of thing you should build after you’ve launched in this indie world; the world is different if you’re Blizzard trying to launch a new mega title. But in the indie world, minimum viable product is the absolute heart of it.  That product needs to be fun.

There are a couple of other wrinkles with that; it does depend on the platform. So, with iPhone and Android, it’s pretty easy to update content, Facebook it’s easy to update content. If you’re building for PSN it’s harder, if you’re building for Xbox Live Indie Games it’s harder. Those businesses expect you to create content which feels more like a finished product.

I’m much more excited about platforms where you start off with something if people like it, you keep building it.

Part two of the Train2Game interview with Nicholas Lovell can be seen here. His book, How to Publish a Game, is available for half price until December 7th.

You can leave your thoughts here on the Train2Game blog, or on the Train2Game forum.

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