Gareth Edmondson on why he left Reflections and his big plans for mobile outfit Thumbstar Games
Having been at UK studio Reflections for 14 years, Gareth Edmondson has stepped away from the respected Driver team and swapped triple-A games development for mobile publishing, joining the board of Thumbstar Games and acting as CEO, alongside his brother Martin Edmondson, and COO Martin Kitney.
Thumbstar itself has already carved its own niche, with over 2000 games delivered through international markets including the UK and Europe, south east Asia, the Middle East and Americas. Having established a rock solid distribution channel the company now hopes to create original IP at a new studio in Newcastle, and here Gareth Edmondson takes GamesIndustry.biz through the initial plans and philosophy behind the company's business strategy.
Q: So when did you leave Ubisoft?
Gareth Edmondson: Officially about three weeks ago. It was hard because I'm very emotionally attached to the studio, I'd been there 14 years, MD for seven years, and it was a studio my brother founded. It's a personal decision but I saw this new opportunity to do something different. Some of the guys I worked with have been there for 20-plus years. I spent my last couple of months trying to make sure the studio had as much work as it could get. Reflections is fit and healthy and well supported.
Q: So Thumbstar is going to start developing its own games, which was the reason you and your brother [Martin Edmondson] came onboard…
Gareth Edmondson: Yes, the company has been established for about three and a half years and Martin was one of the original investors although he's been pretty hands-off. We thought this is a brilliant opportunity because they've done such an amazing job with the resources they have. We saw a real opportunity to grow it. The strategy we have is develop our own stuff, in terms of IP creation which will be exclusive to us, which in turn will help grow the publishing side. And with high quality content we can offer that to networks and so on.
I'm fairly well connected with third parties and we're also seeing the obvious trend of companies like us dropping out of relationships with big developers and trying to self-publish. I don't think self-publishing is the right way to go for a lot of those guys that are setting up on their own. What Thumbstar can do is help those guys get their products in a lot of different markets and territories, and a lot of platforms. So we're growing distribution and growing the products coming in. It's simple from that strategic point of view.
Q: It's a brand new studio in Newcastle, what size are you initially looking at?
Everyone is hoping for the next Angry Birds but that's not going to happen. It's stupid to think that can happen to you
Gareth Edmondson: Pretty small because we're only looking to make mobile games. We're only looking at recruiting ten people and we're going to use third-parties as much as we can. We're going to make small games on iPhone and Android but also start making higher-end games on tablets. We do expect tablets, particularly Android tablets to be everywhere.
Q: Why Android in particular?
Gareth Edmondson: That's where the growth is going to be. In the next 12-24 months you'll see an explosion in Android tablets because the price point will be low and the performance will be high. Whilst Apple will still be the premium product its expensive. If we're looking at Asia Pacific and the growth of the market there over the next 24 months, it's going to be massive. And that's going to come from Android sales. Not necessarily just there but we're targeting all regions. Martin Kitney has done a great job of growing the company with so many distribution channels. We want to help that grow even more.
Everyone is hoping for the next Angry Birds but that's not going to happen and it's not our strategy. It's a worldwide phenomenon, not just on a video game scale but on a brand scale. It's stupid to think that can happen to you. Our strategy is to get into as many markets as we can with good product that does decent sales in each. We're not looking for a breakout hit, if that happens it would be wonderful, but we're being much more realistic. It's a volume game.
Talking to developers that are forming their own companies coming out of the triple-A studio, they're not really looking at Android yet. We're trying to persuade them to get on Android quickly, and give it to us and we'll get it out there. If you take an Android phone they're all pre-paid. So with an Apple phone we know how easy it is to purchase content. But if you're in Thailand on the AIS network, the handsets are prepaid and people don't have credit cards to input their details in to buy something. You go to the operator store, and that's where most of our distribution is, it's with the operators. There's a revenue share the whole way down, and especially in the emerging markets. With Vodafone, 3 and Orange in the UK as well that's where we think the real growth is.
Q: There was a bullish attitude 12-24 months ago that developers could publish on their own and achieve a fair degree of success, but do you now think the reality has set in, that it takes a lot more than quality product to be a success on mobile?
Gareth Edmondson: Yes. Publishers have a bad name. But I've got 13 years of experience so hopefully we can offer something a little bit different because of our background. When you look at self publishing it's really, really hard. Getting noticed on the App Store is really hard. We want to offer something that developers can actually make some money out off because if we've got the right product we will push it in a more traditional publishing sense. But it's not the key offering, the key offering is that we can get it out to many countries quickly and you'll sell moderate numbers in a lot of countries.
Q: You must have projects in the works already…
Gareth Edmondson: We've got more ideas than we know what to do with and we'll probably commission some third parties to work with us. It's like the old days, once you get out of the mindset of the big triple-A developments you can take some risks. And if it fails you can move quickly onto the next one. What we're also seeing is a real rise in quality that for 69p is delivering a very decent game. We've got to focus on innovation.
Q: Do you think you can survive on that price point? There are few higher priced titles like Infinity Blade that push above £5 as an asking price.
Gareth Edmondson: There are a few high-end games that you need to price appropriately. For our business model with the number of channels we have, smaller prices are fine. People think twice about something that costs £2 on the App Store. The value of software has gone down and consumer expectations have gone up.
Q: Why did you want to go from development to publishing?
Gareth Edmondson: Partly for the opportunity, partly because we can see that digital distribution is here, there's no point fighting it even on a triple-A level. I've done triple-A development for 13 years and I'm actually excited about doing a game every six weeks.
Many of our developers are putting out a game a week with their small teams taking around six weeks to make each title. It's a volume game to reach all the markets.
Q: What would be the optimum releases schedule for the new studio and the publishing business.
Gareth Edmondson: For the studio we'll see, it's too early. We'll run a few teams and see how it goes, we'll experiment. For the publishing business, we've already got 2000 titles in the catalogue and we're signing developers all the time. Many of our developers are putting out a game a week with their small teams taking around six weeks to make each title. It's a volume game to reach all the markets we want to.
Q: Have you got a location in Newcastle you've settled on?
Gareth Edmondson: We'll be city centre and we've found some nice space but we haven't signed the deal yet. We've had a lot of choice because not many people are starting new businesses right now. Newcastle is a nice spot for developers, there's Eutechnyx of course, and CCP Newcastle and then support studios like Atom Hawk. It's like it used to be 15 years ago. I think we're actually going to go back to a lot of small development studios. You see it when the big studios close, and it becomes affordable to start over again. I personally believe that the games development industry is going down the film model, of contracts and set work. One of the advantages of a company like Ubisoft is they can keep workers busy between major projects. I see quite a lot that cynical view that you finish a project and you get sacked, and I know it happens, but it's more about other circumstances than a hire and fire attitude. Maybe I'm naïve. There's a few companies like Ubisoft that have enormous teams, but everyone else is going down that market of getting freelancers onboard and small third party studios to work on contracted work. It's actually healthy, the big studio model works fine, but the keenness of new starts and small team is a big advantage.