Bossa Studios: Anti-Social Gaming
Social's upstart start-up on solving core games on Facebook, and the superstar designer helping it to get there
London's "Silicon Roundabout" is the beating heart of a resurgent UK tech industry, which really undermines the notion that first impressions mean anything at all. An unwieldy hunk of concrete, perpetually wreathed in traffic and dominated by a bizarre steel structure that is equal parts billboard and ill-advised public sculpture, the intersection of East London's Old Street and City Road is an oddly dispiriting substitute for an entire valley in Northern San Francisco.
But it's a start, and for the dozens of technology and internet focused start-ups clustered in this dubious location, a new start is exactly what the UK needs. The total number of companies is now thought to be more than 200, an astonishing rate of growth from the 15 or so back in 2008.
That number includes outposts from a number of larger, more established businesses, of course. Last year, Wired reported that more than 50 US tech executives from companies like Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon and YouTube have flocked to the area, but it remains defined by new companies and new ideas.
Companies like Bossa Studios, a social game developer with disruptive ambitions founded late in 2010. Henrique Olifiers, co-founder and "gamer-in-chief," rose to the head of game development at Jagex between 2006 and 2009, before moving to Playfish as studio director two months before EA acquired the company for $400 million. A year later, he left to found Bossa with marketer-in-chief Roberta Lucca, technologist-in-chief Ric Moore, and creator-in-chief Imre Jele.
"What I used to do at both Jagex and Playfish, they both felt like they were doing something different," Olifiers says. "Jagex was one of the first companies in browser MMOs. Playfish was one of the first companies to go into social games. They were leading the charge."
"What got me so disenchanted over time was that they stopped doing that. That's when I said, 'This is not what I'm about.' Social games for me were always on the cutting-edge until they became copycat, and after they became copycat I said, 'Well, this is not going anywhere. This will be like the Atari Eighties crash."
Social games were on the cutting-edge until they became copycat, and after they became copycat I said, 'Well, this is not going anywhere. This will be like the Atari Eighties crash'
Henrique Olifiers, gamer-in-chief
"Everybody and their grandmother had a version of Space Invaders, and these guys are going to do the same thing.'"
The notion that the social gaming scene is rife with plagiarism is on-topic right now, but Olifiers isn't simply playing up to a trend. Bossa is predicated on the idea that, at their worst, social games are manipulative, shallow and rightfully spurned by the more discerning gamer. This has created a significant opportunity in an already vast market that Olifiers fears will stagnate without original ideas capable of reaching new players.
"There are 350 million people playing on Facebook, but there are another 450 million who are not. Who are those people?" Olifiers asks. "Are they hardcore gamers? Who are they and what are they doing?"
"The other thing is that the 350 million people play social games today didn't play anything before. Social games have taught those people how to interact with an isometric environment, a mouse, and interaction with a basic game."
And that's no small thing, as Bossa's affable lead designer Mike Bithell, a veteran of Blitz Games, points out. Most people with no experience of AAA games struggle with simply navigating a 3D space and pointing the camera in the right direction, but a FarmVille player could approach Command & Conquer with a basic idea of how it works. Not only is more than half of the Facebook audience ignorant or uninterested in what social gaming currently has to offer, but those that already play will "evolve" beyond the sort of games published by Zynga, Playfish and Playdom.
"Social games should be growing at the same rate as social networks are growing, but they are not," Olifiers adds. "There is something there to look into. Clearly, [companies like Zynga and Playfish] are churning players, but they are only replacing those players with the organic growth of the social networks. Where are these people churning to? Hopefully to us."
Bossa's first game is Monstermind, a real-time PvP strategy game - co-op, competition and general contact between players is one of Bossa's core design principles - where one player builds and fortifies a city against an onslaught of B-movie monsters controlled by their opponent. It is a simple and utterly compelling game with a beautiful art-style and clear core appeal.
It plays like a mash-up of SimCity and Rampage, yet it sits beside, and operates on the same business model as, products that figures like Ian Bogost and Jonathan Blow barely consider to be games at all. Additionally, and this may or may not be intentional, Monstermind doubles as a delightful nose-tweak to Zynga's all-conquering CityVille.
"Definitely, our audience is not social gamers in general. It is hardcore gamers, and those guys are difficult to convert," Olifiers says. "It is very difficult to make them try it, but once they do they stay, and they stay for a long time."
"It's a stigma," Bithell adds. "Facebook games have a stigma; understandably given the content the audience has had thus far. So trying to come in and present an experience that's tailor-built for them, while also hopefully trying to bring in a broader audience as well... It's a big sell."
Roberta Lucca, Bossa's head of marketing, is very clear about the difficulty involved in getting core gamers to look at a game on Facebook. Monstermind's first public showing was at the Eurogamer Expo, where it was sandwiched between huge stands for Rage and The Old Republic. The fact that Bossa was at the Expo at all speaks volumes about the sort of gamers Lucca is targeting, but Monstermind generally attracted more interest when running in full-screen, with no Facebook branding in sight.
Bossa acknowledges that making a genuine difference to social games means disregarding pre-conceived notions of what they 'should' become. Audience reaction will play a key role in that process, of course, but Bossa is an open-minded employer when it comes to necessary skills. One employee has a masters degree in robotics, another a masters in anthropology and Olifiers believes that any subject that relates to, "the way things work and the way that people behave," can be useful in pushing social games forward.
"Obviously you have the uber-talented coding ninjas, but there are a lot of people in this building whose technical skills...basically they have to use word processors and e-mail," Bithell agrees." It's more about what's going on intellectually, more about those thought processes."
"I think actually you can have a breadth of skills and abilities in the company that don't need to be focussed on computer science. I read an interesting article that was a few industry people saying that they don't want anyone that doesn't have a degree in computer science, which I think is closing the door a little bit."
Not that veteran design talent is in short supply, of course. Indeed, late last year Bossa pulled one of the hiring coups of 2011, successfully courting the Japanese industry veteran Yoshifusa Hayama. A former vice president of Sony Computer Entertainment with experience on classics like Shenmue and the Final Fantasy series, Hayama is arguably the most high-profile example of AAA talent making the transition to social development. What's more, he was working on Fumito Ueda's long-delayed The Last Guardian at the time.
From a game design point-of-view this is where the cool work is to be done. I've worked in a lot of genres, and honestly the best that you can do is not mess it up, to a certain extent
Mike Bithell, lead designer
"I wanted to send him back to finish it," Bithell jokes, but despite working side-by-side with Hayama for almost two months now, both he and Olifiers still seem amazed at what Bossa has achieved.
"We had this friend in common. He said, 'I have this friend, Yoshi, he works in games.' And I said, Who is Yoshi?'" Olifiers explains. "Then I looked it up and [Jaw falls open]. He was coming to England to spend a week here and my friend set up a chance for us to talk. So we met, in a bar in Shoreditch, and we did the sales pitch for him, right? This is what we stand for, this is what we plan to do, and at that stage we had Monstermind up-and-running already - not launched, but up-and-running - so we could bring him back to the studio and actually show him."
On that particular day, the team was engaged in a long, intense discussion about a huge lizard creature and what its method of attack should be. Hours of talking and dozens of tweaks later, Hayama had made up his mind. In an interview session following his arrival, Hayama said that social gaming needed a "masterpiece" to help remove the stigma. In his view, Bossa had that potential.
"From a game design point-of-view this is where the cool work is to be done," says Bithell. "I've worked in a lot of genres - predominantly platform games, third-person action games and that kind of thing - and honestly, the best that you can do is not mess it up, to a certain extent. There are great games in those genres, and your job is to keep up."
"Whereas every day is an opportunity to innovate within the social space, because there are solutions to problems but there's nothing solidified yet. It can all be played for. We can have a conversation in the office, have that awesome idea, then we can see it in-game a few weeks later, and then we can see how it does in the world after."
"It's a very exciting model for a game designer. And to have that instant feedback; to not have to watch Metacritic and become terrified that other people won't like it, but to actually be able to say, 'Do they like this? No? Okay, let's work it out and fix it.' It's a whole new way of working."
Despite the obvious achievement of a UK start-up hiring a developer of such pedigree, Hayama's arrival still wasn't enough to break through the core audience's resolve to hate social games. With the specialist press on full alert for news of The Last Guardian virtually every major site ran the story, and the comments threads made for interesting reading.
"People were foaming at the mouth," Olifiers recalls. "'This guy's a sell-out! What the hell is he doing?' So [core gamers] were complaining that Facebook games were crap, and they were complaining about a company that realised and was trying to hire talent to make Facebook games that weren't crap."
"[Our games] should look and feel like nothing else on Facebook... We want people to look at the screen and not believe that it is running on Facebook even if we tell them. That's a buzz, and that gets word-of-mouth... If I'm having a great experience with a game that looks this good and is co-op in real-time, I will poke my friends on Facebook. It doesn't matter whether they're hardcore or not."
The 'fanboy', Bithell argues, is Bossa's secret weapon for attracting new players. The way the company approaches design and the way the team regard themselves has more in common with the indie scene than social development, where hits are generally excellent products that spread via enthusiastic word-of-mouth. Stigma or no stigma, the "rabid desire for information and to talk about opinions" that Bithell believes defines fanboy culture will respond to quality, regardless of
"It's exciting. They want to be the person to tell their friends about the cool new game," he says. "We need to place ourselves in a position where they can play our game and tell their friends about it in a way that doesn't feel fake or false. Virality should be about empowering players to talk about the game they are playing in the way they want to. It shouldn't be about tricking them or forcing them into doing something."
"We're working really hard top use these amazing tools, because there are so many things in Facebook that, if used right, make it better than Xbox Live."
We're working really hard top use these amazing tools, because there are so many things in Facebook that, if used right, make it better than Xbox Live
Mike Bithell, lead designer
However, while Bossa feels a kinship with widely admired indie studios like Mojang and Team Meat, neither Olifiers or Bithell believe for a second that the feeling is reciprocated. The general antipathy of indie developers towards social games is well documented, most famously in Ian Bogost's satirical game Cow Clicker, and Braid developer Jon Blow's outburst in April last year in which he branded the entire form as "evil".
This is the general impression of independent PC and console developers' attitude towards social games: happy to highlight and criticise/mock their problems, but markedly less engaged with finding answers. It isn't hypocrisy, exactly, but it places an arbitrary division in what is, essentially, the same community of people. As more companies like Bossa emerge the situation will improve, but Bithell and Olifiers refer to "the stigma" of social development as something present, an obstacle to overcome in the here and now.
And while Monstermind is a good idea and a well-crafted product, it served a dual purpose: it was developed in tandem with virtually every aspect of Bossa's operations. Web servers, hosting platforms, databases, analytics, it's all custom built on team, and it's all now in place. From now on, Olifiers believes that the company can assemble functioning prototypes of entire game concepts in just a few weeks.
"I think [Jon Blow] is reacting as a player," Bithell says. "The reason I joined Bossa is I looked at social games and I thought, 'These are rubbish.' And it looks like Jon and I had a different approach to that; he decided to say publicly how much he hated them and I decided to try and do something about it."
"I think Jon Blow could make an awesome social game if he wanted to. The medium isn't evil; the medium is incredibly powerful. A lot of the games that have been made for it have not served players in the right way, but I don't think there's anything in writing off an entire way of playing games."
"Minecraft is the best social game ever made. The fact that Minecraft 1.0 runs in a window by default; I don't know if Notch did that on purpose, but it's the perfect game to have open while you're sat on Facebook. The fact that he obfuscates the crafting mechanic, so that the only way to play Minecraft is with the Minecraft wiki open in another window."
"He made a game - and I really want to believe that he did it entirely on purpose - that you literally couldn't progress with without engaging with a community online. You can't play Minecraft in isolation. Anyone who has played Minecraft for more than 5 minutes has had to ask someone for help. That makes it a social game - it's excellent. And that's why we need those people to come into social games and do interesting things."