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.

Want to make games for PlayStation Home?

You'll be able to do much more than this soon.

Sony has formed a partnership with independent game label Codename which will see a series of indie titles released exclusively on PlayStation Home. Some of these new games are being produced by ‘undiscovered first-time developers’

Therefore, perhaps it’s possible that a studio formed by Train2Game Games Designers, Games Developers and Games Artist & Animator students could be released through PlayStation Home in future? It could happen you know.

Of course, some of you may be completely unfamiliar as to what PlayStation home actually is. So what is it? Well it’s designed for online social gaming on the PlayStation 3. You design your own avatar  – and their house – wander around the environments, meet people and play social games like bowling and chess for example. Cynics might say it’s just an attempt to mix Second Life and the popularity of Xbox Live avatars. What do you think of PlayStation home?

Personally, I haven’t used Home since it was introduced in 2008, and generally prefer to use a PC over a PlayStation 3 console for online games. However, there are large numbers of people that use PlayStation Home, with Sony stating there are over 14 million active users.

Anyhow, back to the games. They’ll be made by indie developers – which could be you in future – from all over the world, and there are four titles that’ll be released in the coming months:

Dueling Gentlemen, created by Odd Gentleman, players strategize the right moves on a giant stage in Home’s Plaza, to outsmart opponents and win this old-time battle for honor and prestige.

Minor Battle, created by Peanut Gallery, winner of the IndieCade 2010 Audience Award, a team-based game where two teams run around a cube of four screens to beat each other in a capture-the-flag style platformer.

Super Awesome Mountain RPG, created by Codename, a blend of tabletop board games and fantasy RPGs, where players ascend a fantastical mountain in Home’s Central Plaza using a custom animated figurine.

Cogs in 3D multiplayer, a multiplayer version of Lazy8’s diabolically clever Steampunk-style game, this gear-based puzzler will also be a dynamic public spectacle in Home’s Central Plaza.

They sound quite interesting don’t they? And they’re just the first of many that will become available to PlayStation Home users in future. Founding Codename partner Jesse Vigil is excited by the new partnership with Sony.

“We’re thrilled to be partnering with PlayStation Home to create and develop games that step outside the parameters of traditional game development and we’re really looking forward to the creative opportunities that lie ahead.”

“Our model of pulling together teams of developers and allowing them to make their creative dreams a reality has only one main tenet — any game created for PlayStation Home is graphically and visually entertaining to both play and watch, at the same time.”

So Train2Game students, would you jump at an opportunity to develop games for the PlayStation home? Do you think it has the possibility to provide an indie developer with their big break? Or do you think that the whole scheme will be forgotten about in the near future?

As usual, you can leave your comments here or on the Train2Game forum.

Why aren’t you buying my games?

So, let’s imagine that you’ve completed your Train2Game course and a small group of you have formed your own little independent studio with a Games Developer, a Games Designer and a Games Artist and Animator. You make a game, a great game that you feel is amazing, but due to the competitive market, your title doesn’t sell as well as you’d hoped. What do you do?

Give up? No, don’t be silly! When did Train2Game ever teach you to do that?

Work on another project and just hope that it sells a bit better? Hmmm, maybe.

Send out a questionnaire asking people why they’re not buying your games?

That last one sounds a bit farfetched doesn’t it? Well, not necessarily because that’s what one independent developer has done.

Positech Games is a UK-based one man games company run by Cliff ‘Cliffski’ Harris, who last year released a title called Gratuitous Space Battles which has generally received favourable reviews. Now in the name of self-improvement, Cliffski is asking ‘Why didn’t you buy Gratuitous Space Battles?” He says:

“I am NOT complaining. I am NOT moaning about sales. I am NOT unhappy with sales, I am not whining or anything like it. I just like making games that people enjoy, and I don’t know why the people who didn’t buy it, didn’t buy it. I’d like to know. The answers may well make it a better game for everyone, if I fix those reasons (if they make sense). It will make the game attractive to current fence-sitters, better for current owners, and more sales for me and my cats.”

Anyone, including you – yes, you – can email Cliff and tell him why you didn’t buy his game. Responses so far range from ‘I have too many games to play’ to ‘I don’t like strategy games’ to even ‘Before reading this I’d never heard of your game’ Hopefully this information has been useful to Cliffksi and he’ll benefit from it as a independent developer.

However, it isn’t the first time he’s asked the general population on the Internet about issues relating to his games. Two years ago, Cliff asked ‘Why do people pirate my games?’ and the responses he got led to the removal of DRM from his games.

Positech games may be a tiny developer, but he has allowed the general gaming public to have a say on his company’s products and this has had had an impact on sales. This could be an important lesson to any Train2Game students trying to break into the industry – you need to listen to your audience – their attitude towards your games could essentially make or break them.

Would you consider asking people who haven’t played your game why they didn’t buy it?

A PSN ‘Gold Service’ could benefit indie developers (like Train2Game students…)

With the E3 expo just around the corner, it’s now that time of year when games industry rumours are appearing thick and fast. We’ve already heard that GTA V might be making an appearance, but E3 isn’t just an event for developers to show off their shiny new games…they also use it to reveal a variety of other games related innovations.  The Project Natal and PlayStation Move control systems are probably going to be the headliners in this department, but there are reports that an announcement about a Premium Service for the PlayStation Network will prominent on the undercard.

Now, usually rumours about this sort of thing can be labelled under the banner of ‘wild speculation’ However, this information has originated from the well-respected VG247, and as a result has been taken very seriously by the video games press. So, what’s actually going on with this story?

Well, VG247 claim that a ‘highly placed source’ says Sony is set to unveil a premium subscription gold service for the PlayStation network that will cost “less than £50 per year”.

Cynics may suggest that Sony are merely attempting to imitate the success of Microsoft’s Xbox Live Gold service, while some PlayStation gamers will no doubt have concerns that they’ll have to play for the privilege of playing their favourite games online.  Well, it seems that PS3 users have nothing to fear in that department as the report says

“Nothing planned will impact the service’s current free aspects.”

Or to put it bluntly, you’ll still be able to play, say Modern Warfare 2, online without having to pay extra. (Unless you’re happy to give Activision money for extra DLC maps anyway)

Of course, details of what this proposed Premium Service would involve are sketchy at the moment, but it’s likely Sony has something up their sleeves.

What we do know is that according to VG247, the PSN Gold subscribers would get one free PSN game a month from a choice of “two to four” every month. Their source adds:

“If you work it out, PSN games cost an average of £6-9 each, so over a year you’re basically going to be breaking even,”

For those unfamiliar with PSN games, they’re games that are bought and downloaded from the online PlayStation Store for both the PS3 and PSP consoles.  These games started out as mainly re-releases of classics from the original PlayStation, but now there are more and more independent games available from the online store. Independent games available include the highly successful Flower which has won varies titles including Best Independent Game at the 2009 Video Game Awards.

Now, with the prospect of Sony offering a ‘set menu’ of PSN games for Gold subscribers, it’s entirely possible that some of these will be independent games. So, with these games being available for ‘free’ as part of the subscription fee, we could see PlayStation users take chances on buying independent games rather than just going for something they already played and finished ten years ago.

Essentially, it’s unlikely there has been a better time for a Train2Game student to try and get into the industry. Digital downloads are getting more and more popular and with innovations like Steam, Indie Bundles and the possibility of independent games being heavily pushed on the PlayStation Network, it means there are plenty of places available for Games designers, developers and artists to demonstrate and distribute their work.

Of course, we’ll need to wait until E3 to see what Sony actually reveal, but if free independent games are part of any package then excellent news. If they aren’t then fine, it’s not a massive problem because plenty of independent games sell well on the PlayStation store. Whatever happens, the future seems very bright for the games industry and who knows, maybe in the future a Train2Game graduate will make a huge announcement at the biggest games expo of them all.