Loot Drop's Brenda Brathwaite
On the talent acquisition battle in social gaming, fun before profit and Facebook growth
With a history of 25 years in game development, from Wizardy to Def Jam Icon, Brenda Brathwaite has now moved into social game development, working at LOLapps (Ravenwood Fair) and gravitating to a company she helped co-found, Loot Drop.
GamesIndustry.biz took the opportunity to catch up with Brathwaite following the Game Developers Conference, where she had taken part in a number of sessions including the impassioned Game Developers Rant, to discuss traditional developers moving into the social space, perceptions of the two markets and why the 'strip mining' mentality is on its way out.
Q: You're currently working in the social space where it's crowded with content and there's a lot of excitement - what does Loot Drop need to do to stand out and make an impact in that market?
Brenda Brathwaite: We've already done it. The first thing that we needed to do was to get great tools, designers - and we really have a motto for the company - 'believe in fun'. We really deeply want to create fun engaging games for people in Facebook. Someone said about a month ago that there was a talent acquisition war. I really believe that if you have great people who are really focused and have the career built on making great games for people, and you stick to that and focus on fun, that will prove to be a successful strategy. It certainly worked for John Romero, lead designer on Ravenwood Fair, and what I tried to do with that title as well. I think it's the top six title on Facebook. That strategy is putting itself out and that's a fine forward strategy. That's what we intend to do with Loot Drop as well.
Q: Do you think there is a talent acquisition war? And are you finding it difficult to attract the right skilled staff to Loot Drop?
Brenda Brathwaite: Well on the first question, is there a talent acquisition war? Absolutely. It's in two parts. In the San Francisco bay are where many of these social companies are there is an ongoing engineering war - and that's been happening for God knows how long. And the social space has certainly exasperated that war. And then you can also see with just a cursory glance of the media will tell you that there is a designer acquisition... I don't know if I would call it "war", but a battle - going on. You can see that in announcements, everything from Louis Castle joining Zynga to Gordon Walton going to Playdom. So a lot of the vets from the traditional games industry are coming over into high ranking positions in the social space.
A lot of coders who want to make the jump from the traditional space to the social space get rebuffed because people won't see Flash on their resume
We've been really fortunate with Loot Drop in that all of us on the senior team have 30 years experience. We're closing in on three decades each. In our coders the most junior programmer we have has 16 years game industry experience. Everybody is super-experienced, not just in traditional games but you also have to have your foot in social games too.
Luckily we've had to do zero recruiting, absolutely zero. I can't even tell you how fortunate we are. It's something I've said 100 times behind the scenes - when we announced Loot Drop and during and after GDC, the amount of IM's, DM's, text messages, emails that I've received that have said, "let me know if you've got an opening" has been overwhelming. Way more than I ever would have expected. Obviously when you go from company A to company B there's always a couple of people who will ping you, but this has been overwhelming.
Q: That's an encouraging sign, not just for your business but for the entire social gaming scene. That there's so much interest and activity in it.
Brenda Brathwaite: Yes and no. The people that are coming to us are not saying "hey, we'd love to break into the social space". They're saying "hey I want to join Loot Drop". It's very specific.
Q: So it's not an exodus of talent from the console space?
Brenda Brathwaite: There's some people that want to come over from the console space. One really odd thing I've actually seen is a lot of coders who want to make the jump from the traditional space to the social space get rebuffed because people won't see Flash on their resume. I'll look at those resumes and I'll see 20-30 years of game industry experience and ten different languages, and this is somebody who could probably pick up Flash in a week. If they can master those I'm not worried about their confidence in Flash. A lot of games industry coders are picking Flash up very quickly and moving to that, but obviously the games industry functions on C++ so that's where their tremendous proficiency lies. There are odd stories about coders being turned away - brilliant game industry coders who have 20 years of experience and algorithms in their head that are worth their weight in gold. There's so many stories like that, it's very surprising to me.
Q: Is that because some companies that are making social games don't understand where these guys are coming from, they don't understand the console business?
Brenda Brathwaite: No, I don't think that's it. My guess is that there's just a cursory look. People need a particular skill and are not necessarily looking as deeply as they should. Over the last couple of months I've seen more games industry coders come into the social space so perhaps that's changing.
Q: You touched on this at GDC, that there seems to be an element of the games business that looks at social games and thinks they're not 'proper' games and the creation of them isn't real game making. Do you think that mentality is passing?
Brenda Brathwaite: I think the mentality is passing. We're not too far past the peak of that mentality. I hear from a lot of people who say things like "I told people I went to work in social games and they seem disgusted, go work at a real game company." I feel like we're past the peak of that sentiment, for a couple of reasons. People understand that these type of games are here to stay. It's not a bubble, it's not a fad. The 100 million gamers that have been woken up that like a more casual style of play are not going anywhere. That audience is growing, it's becoming more sophisticated, it's wanting to move into more deeper game experiences. I can see a player who starts in Ravenwood Fair go through a series of games and think it might be interesting to try a game like Civilisation Revolution - a turn-based strategy game. I can see that for some players, not all, and it would be a minority, but nonetheless.
With the traditional games industry it can be hard to see and appreciate games that we ourselves would not play. There's this whole range of very light-touch games that are played for 10-20 minutes at a time, and because that's not the type of gaming experience you're used to - you're used to destination games where you literally sit in a chair for three or four hours - so a Reader's Digest version of a game may seem trivial to you, or silly to you and not enjoyable in the way that knitting feels trivial or annoying to some people.
But it's a completely valid market. People in the industry are seeing Facebook as a platform like we see the PlayStation 3 or the PC as a platform. They all have a particular audience and the demographic tends to like a specific type of game more predominantly than others. By looking at it as a platform and not judging the whole thing just based on a few games or a subset of mechanics that you deem unacceptable for whatever reason, I think traditional developers are coming around to the opportunities of Facebook.
There have been free games available on the internet... I don't really perceive this as new problem, it's about how do you rise above that?
Q: What was your reaction to Satoru Iwata's comments that the mobile space is drowning, there's too much content priced too cheaply, and developers will struggle to make a living off that - do you think that was that a realistic assessment?
Brenda Brathwaite: No. I don't. In fact I think it's an odd thing to say. When I heard that comment it made me think of two things. There's so much stuff that I can read for free right now. The internet is awash with free stuff. But that doesn't mean that on my bedside table I don't have five books that I can't wait to take a look at. I'm still willing to pay for quality. Likewise, I could spend the rest of my life watching YouTube and still never even come close to scraping the bottom. But none the less I'm willing to pay for great theatre experiences. I have a Netflix subscription, I'm willing to pay for quality.
This isn't a new challenge, there have been free games available on the internet and with broadband now so easily available... I don't really perceive this as new problem, it's about how do you rise above that? Doom was available for free, but if the gameplay experience is good people will pay for more.
Q: In your GDC rant you also spoke about 'strip miners' using technology to exploit Facebook and other social platforms to take the user for every penny they have. Is that still an issue, are there still companies that are doing that to take advantage of the hype in the social space?
Brenda Brathwaite: I think there are people who do not care about the players. And I think there are people who do not care about fun. And I think there are people who do not care about the gameplay experience first and foremost. And that results in gutted games and bad decisions, when fun is not at the forefront of your mind - delivering players something that enriches - if your first thought is "what can we get from them" instead of "what can we give them".
This is for all games, not just social games. We are the games industry, and as an industry it means we're for profit. So we all need to make money. One of the things I thought about doing prior to my rant was showing the back of several video game boxes and seeing that each one of these signature features is a lie. We've all played this game, how can you say "it's the greatest, blah, blah, blah". That's just garbage. As a developer I personally feel responsibility to try to deliver a compelling gameplay experience to my players, because I am one of my players.
I think that in some areas there's still a feeling that... it's a challenging question. What are you going in with? Are you going in fun first or are you going in with "let's take this for as much money as possible" first? We are our players. I've never really been capable of developing a game with anything other than fun first because that's what I've always driven towards - I want the game to be fun and compelling. But there are certainly others who the fun factor is not the first consideration. I find that sad. And I think with the ever-growing ranks of game industry people coming into this space that's changing.
Q: Where do you see growth for the video game space in the next couple of years, in terms of formats, or hardware or general trends?
Brenda Brathwaite: Well a couple of years is 10 years in Facebook time. I feel it's safe to say that Facebook is going to continue to fill in. So, we have some light offerings on Facebook for the casual space, and we have some hardcore-ish games on Facebook for the more hardcore market. I think we're going to see a filling in of the space in between. More varied gameplay experiences will be available on Facebook like there's a variety of experiences I can have on the PC - from PopCap to Ghost Recon to Warcraft. There's a whole range of experiences available and I think we're going to start to see that on Facebook as well. I'm not suggesting you'll see a Ghost Recon alternative or Warcraft on Facebook but we will see a broader range of games just over the next year. I bet that starts to fill in pretty heavily within the next six months.
Brenda Brathwaite is creative director and co-founder of Loot Drop. Interview by Matt Martin.