An interview with Jake Birkett of Grey Alien Games
This week we have an interview with Jake Birkett. Although Jake is currently off in the wilds of Canada (ok, he’s actually in Vancouver), he still runs Grey Alien Games and has influenced many indies with his blitz framework. Hope you enjoy the interview!
I remember your “bonus” series of games which you pitched at the specific holiday periods. How do you think that specific targetting fared in terms of generating more sales? Do you think that kind of approach could work well for other types of targetted game creation?
Most games have a spike of sales when launched and then sales tail off pretty rapidly unless they are pretty special, but my Bonus titles spike every year when the relevant season approaches (and with a little help from portal marketing). In fact my Holiday Bonus game sold the most copies ever during Christmas 2008 even though it was launched in December 2006. This may be due to the growing size of the casual market, or just the fact that Big Fish Games has been growing a lot (my game was on there as well as other portals). Anyway, I’m certainly keen to see how well Holiday Bonus does this year!
Clearly sales for seasonal games do plummet when the season is not correct, but amusingly they do still sell all year round – I still sell about 50 copies of Holiday Bonus in months like June. However, sales are about 40x higher in December.
Some portals will not take seasonal games, reasoning that they want all year-round sellers. Thus some portals refused Holiday Bonus when it came out, such as Real Arcade. Unfortunately, as well as being their loss, it was mine too.
However, having seen how well some of my non-seasonal match-3s sell compared to the seasonal ones, I would have to conclude that making specifically targeted games it NOT worth it *unless* you can really crank it out quickly – perhaps by re-skinning an existing title in a shameless cash-in manner. So anyway, I can’t particularly recommend it and I’m not sure what other types of targetted game creation could do well. If you have an idea, please share!
If I recall correctly, you were doing casual games pretty early on in the casual game boom. How have things changed in the casual space since those early days? Do you think that the casual marketplace is as good for indies to work in when compared to a few years ago?
Great two-part question. It’s changed a lot over the last 5 years. Mainly the bar has been raised hugely for casual games in terms of graphics, sound and general production values (the games have got noticeably lots better). My first match-3 game had a budget of $220 (not including my time) and most of that was spent on the compiler. My fourth match-3 had a budget of $2300 (again, not including my time), but I needed to spend that money to have any chance of competing with other match-3s at the time. It has actually made me $23,000 in sales, and only took me 5 weeks, so I’m pleased with the result. My sixth game had a *much* bigger budget, and my current game’s budget is the biggest yet (can’t say how much because they are owned by BFG). The best casual games have budgets well over $100,000 but they make that back easily if they are good. Also team sizes have changed from a team of one to teams of three or four, or even more in some cases.
What does this mean for the average Indie? It means that you can’t make a casual game on your own any more with “programmer graphics” and hope for any decent sales. You’ll either have to team up with some brilliant people who will work for profit share (hard to find) or get investment (also hard). It probably makes more sense to make a low-budget iPhone game to get started these days (maybe), or specialist Indie titles.
Another point worth mentioning is the “great price drop” of February 2008 when Amazon started selling Reflexive’s titles at $9.95 and $6.95 instead of $19.95. This means that you have to sell more units to make the same money as before. Of course the theory is that more people buy at the cheaper price point and you ultimately make more profit, but not everyone has found this to be the case. I make hardly any sales from my own site, but I don’t really promote it. 99% of my sales come from portals who have really cornered the market now. So selling casual games on your own site at $19.95 is no longer viable, although it is of course viable for Indies who make non-casual games for a specialist audience because their games aren’t on the portals.
You recently made what is a fairly unusual move and went from being indie to actually being employed by a large casual developer/portal. What prompted that move and if you hadn’t made that change, what would you be doing now?
I ask myself the second part of your question all the time To answer the first part: in June 2008 when I received an offer of employment at Big Fish Games’ new Vancouver studio I had already been making games for them for about 18 months at my home in England but not as an employee. So I knew them well and had enjoyed working with them. I had already discussed moving abroad with my partner Helen just to experience a different lifestyle, so we weren’t too shocked at the idea of moving to Vancouver with our two boys and cat. I also knew that I would be able to learn from some of the best casual designers in the industry and do tons of networking. So for a learning experience it seemed like an excellent idea to move. I did have a great life in a lovely place in England (Bridport, Dorset). I was free to do what I wanted, when I wanted, and I was doing well financially. However, we did decide to move to Vancouver and give up certain freedoms (i.e. become an employee) just for the experience and it’s turned out great. It’s all part of a master plan anyway
So, as to what I’d be doing if I hadn’t made that change; well, after making Holiday Bonus I really wanted to start working on multiple games at once. I wanted to work with several teams of programmers and artists and direct them to make the games that I designed. But then I started making games for Big Fish Games at home and that took up all of my time, so I put the idea of making multiple games simultaneously on the back burner. If I didn’t take the Vacnouver job offer I would probably still be making games for Big Fish Games in England but I like to think that I would also have other projects on the go – in fact I had already initiated some other projects before I moved to Vancouver. Now that I’m here, I’m still working on one game but I do get to give feedback to the other designers and programmers in the studio about their games, which I love doing. Plus if I do a good job on my current game I’ll most likely be overseeing multiple games at once next, which should be fun and challenging. Wish me luck!
You also moved to canada to take up the job. How are you finding life abroad? Does it feel strange to be working for someone else so far away from the UK? What do you think would be different if you were actually doing the indie thing in canada instead of the UK?
Canada has been great. The language is the same but the culture is different, plus Vancouver is very multi-cultural anyway. It’s a really beautiful city with mountains, sea, beaches, woods etc. People are friendly and there’s plenty of things to do in the city. Also we had an awesome hot sunny Summer but I gather it was unusually good this year (global warming anyone?) We went back to the UK for three weeks in the summer, and it was nice, but it felt good to get back “home” to Vancouver – I guess you get used to change pretty quickly. Our kids love it here and they like going to school, which is a big plus for us as parents.
It certainly felt very odd working for someone else at first, it took me months to get used to it and a little part of me still isn’t used to it. Luckily I’ve still retained my company Grey Alien Games, so I feel partially Indie
If I was an Indie in Vancouver, it would probably be awesome because there’s a really good talent pool here as well as close by in Seattle, and also tons of industry events to go to (I just went to PAX last weekend to speak on a panel). I know that you can work with people in a distributed team (having done if for several years) but it’s much easier and faster to work with people in the same office, believe me. Let’s say, hypothetically I lost my job, I would prefer to stay here and start up an Indie company with some of the people I’ve got to know than to move back to England and to be Indie whilst living isolated in the countryside.
Another thing that strikes me about your games, is that they are written in Blitz. I’ve never used it myself, but I assume there are some benefits to using it to produce casual games specifically?
Yes, there are benefits to using BlitzMax for sure. Having programmed in BASIC, Assembly, C, C++, Delphi etc. I find BlitzMax to be very easy and fast to make stuff happen in. For example it has an auto-garbage collector, which is very useful. Also it handles all the DirectX/OpenGL stuff and cross-platform compiling for me. The language itself is a (modifiable) Object Orient BASIC language that relies on underlying C++ modules. Also it has a great forum with very knowledegable and helpful members. All of these things mean that I can focus on making great games instead of fiddling around with technical crap. Although, I must admit that when I first got BlitzMax and began writing a framework for casual games I spotted lots of problems with the languages. But, to the authors’ credit, they fixed the the issues when I pointed them out, which was great. The default IDE is also very limited, but there are some great third party IDEs and tons of third party modules including 3D ones. Several years on the language is very stable, advanced and has a good user base – I highly recommend it. I’ve used it for four games and I’m on the fith one now. Three of those games got in the BFG top 10, so I know that the tech is viable because it’s been tested on a large audience of millions.
Working for a large casual portal, you must be aware of some of the trends happening in the casual space. Are there any you think are particularly interesting for indies?
The resurgence of adventure games is neat because we all love those old Lucasarts titles right? This means that Indies could make some really cool adventures that sell brilliantly and not feel that they are “selling out” by making some kind of fluffy time management game, or God forbid, a match-3 game
Also social gaming is getting very big now. In 2007 and early 2008, everyone asked “How will Facebook games really make any money?”, and some people said via advertising. Well then the global recession hit and advertisers are not spending as much as they used to. But from that fire emerged the phoenix of micro-transaction-based (can I have that many hyphens?) social games. Micro-transactions were already big in East Asian MMOs but now some games on Facebook are making a killing with them. Assuming you can program in Flash and have knowledge of a decent way to manage the transactions, this could well be an arena worth getting into.
Alternatively there’s always the iphone. Cheap to get started, many casual games doing well on it, but also tons of competition. We should also keep an eye on Google Android to see what happens.
Another interesting trend is casual games by PopCap and IWin appearing on Steam. I’ve yet to see any sales figures published, so I don’t know how well the games are doing, but I’d imagine it must be pretty good for the best sellers.
Also Casual games are making it onto consoles via XLBA, WiiWare and PSN, and onto DS of course. Big Fish Games’ Millionheir title reached #1 in the UK DS charts for example.
Do you have any advice for indies starting out in the UK?
Move to Vancouver or Seattle. That is serious advice. Anyway, wherever you start, the rest of the advice is still the same: Save up some emergency money so you can live off it for 6-12 months whilst you make your first game or two. Don’t plan everything to the last detail, try out the Ready Fire Aim approach. Keep it simple – no MMO as your first game, start small and build up with each game you release. Speculate to Accumulate (I’ve already explained that one above with regards to spending more on making your game), but don’t spend tons on your first game, learn the ropes first. Learn from Experts – go on forums, read relevant material (like my blog: http://greyaliengames.com/blog ), ask questions, hook up with other Indies to ask their advice about what went right and wrong. Stay abreast of the industry but don’t read so many forums, blogs, books that you never get started making your game! Network, because it creates opportunities. Be open to change and roll with the punches. Keep yourself healthy! Live, breathe and eat games. That’s probably about it. I was able to rattle these off because I just did a talk last night to a bunch of budding Game Designers at the Vancvouver Film School – that’s the kind of opportunity I get over here. Oh one more thing – get stuff done, stop procrastinating, and finish something (the holy grail!)
Finally, is there anything you want to say to other indies?
Good luck! It ain’t easy but it is rewarding when you finally succeed. Believe in yourself, want it enough and go for it!
You can find Jake’s games over at his company website http://greyaliengames.com