From PlayStation to Playrise
CEO Nick Burcombe on the leap from Wipeout to mobile independent development
Nick Burcombe is just one of the many console veterans who have decided to try their luck in the mobile gold rush. But what was it that made one of the creators of Wipeout, a brand so synonymous with PlayStation, set up Playrise, a company focused firmly on the mobile market? How is he coping with the change of pace, and more importantly, the change of business in 2012?
Q: There's a lot of console history among the employees at Playrise, so why move to mobile? Just because it's a bigger market?
Nick Burcombe: When I was at Sony we got made redundant in about 2010, and obviously there's a lot of restructuring going on in the console business at the moment, it's in a transitional phase. I had initially gone out and set up a different company that was just going to be a design consultancy to help other teams get their designs in shape. But at the time, when you're not putting your own products out, it just becomes increasingly frustrating. And I thought if I can find the right people, if I can find the right environment for us to produce in I think we can do this. I think we can do this on mobile, I think we can do better than those stupid little bubble wrap aps, I think we can bring decent quality console products to mobile at a fraction of console cost. And that was really what drove the business decision.
"Mobile gaming is often done by quite inexperienced teams who can't produce quite the right quality that I think a real modern game should be"
Q: Is that how you intend to stand out in a crowded market? Console quality on mobile?
Nick Burcombe: I think our background has always been focused on quality, obviously, right back to the Psygnosis days and Wipeout days and Formula 1. You want to put out something you're extremely proud of, always. And I know people say you can get stuff out on mobile and fix it afterwards, and to a point that's true, but actually that will be in response to the audience wanting more from the game, hopefully.
I think we want to hit the ground running, establish ourselves as a quality developer and show people what we can do with a compact but very efficient and very experienced team.
Q: And how have you found the change in hardware?
Nick Burcombe: Take Table Top Racing as our launch title and as a good example of what we're doing. For me quality is reflected in the smoothness of framerate, and I like to run at 60Hz on all my games, it's not always possible, but if we can do it we do it. So we set that out as a goal, to run as smoothly as possible on Table Top Racing, and as we've chipped away at it and discovered more about the hardware, actually, the mobile devices are catching up at an incredible rate of knots.
What we're able to produce, certainly on the retina display on the iPads now, all native resolutions, 60 frames per second, pixel shaders, lighting, it's all in there and it all works perfectly. It's a very, very good set of devices on iOS.
On Android there is more fragmentation, but there's equally some very good mobile devices out there. What we're hoping is that people will be able to see what these devices are capable of doing - they're capable of a lot more than just the 2D games that you see a lot of. This is a full 3D, console quality title.
Q: So a lot of the games out there at the moment aren't really doing the tech justice?
Nick Burcombe: I think it's an undersell in many respects, especially when you see people doing things like Infinity Blade and Real Racing and some other apps like that. We'd like to be up there with those guys and we think we're capable of producing that sort of quality.
That doesn't mean 2D games aren't fun, obviously Angry Birds is a great game because of the level design and the physics, it wouldn't benefit from being 3D but again, it still has to be executed with high quality. I still think mobile gaming is often done by quite inexperienced teams who can't produce quite the right quality that I would think a real modern game should be.
Q: Your two launch games, Table Top Racing and Baby Nom Nom, why did you decide those would be your first projects?
Nick Burcombe: As you know from Wipeout I'm a huge fan of combat racing games and I like Micro Machines and I love Mario Kart and it's kind of just in my blood, so that's where Table Top Racing started up from. It was actually originally put forward by Chris Maloney, my partner. It was something that we thought we could make a cracking good go at this, we could make it look fantastic and play fantastic as well, and that's where we started with that one. And it's a game we both want to play, we talked for days about Micro Machines and Mario Kart battles and stuff, and we thought we can bring this to mobile and make it a lot of fun.
Baby Nom Nom came from a completely different source and idea, and it's made with a different team as well. I like physic puzzles games as well, I'm a big fan of those. The ones where you can just sit down, play a level and see if you can get your three stars and then put it down again. The people that I knew from years back, Jason Denton is the programmer on that, and he was back on Wipeout but worked for fifteen years at Bizarre Creations. He was available, and the cartoonist Mick Harrison was available and my level designer Paul Hudd was available and we just started talking about the idea. They loved the simplicity of it. They saw that this could easily be a much more mass market, casual sort of audience rather than the sort of gamer's game that Table Top Racing was.
And so we went off and made sure we had two strands of the business working on two different types of products.
"The single biggest challenge we've realised since jumping from console into mobile, is how completely differently the audience behaves"
Q: Diversifying seems smart, one thing about the mobile audience is that it feels very different from the console audience?
Nick Burcombe: As a marketplace it's incredibly wide. When we were back at Sony you could pretty much identify exactly who you were selling to, but things are on mobile are easily cross-genre, we've found hardcore gamers that love Baby Nom Nom, we've found casual gamers that love Table Top Racing. When we've put it in front of people they've just enjoyed it, so that's the main thing, making games that are fun.
And the fact that they will appeal to different audiences and probably you need different strategies to launch them and to reach the right people is just the way the market is.
Q: People have said in the past that's the hardest part of the mobile market, getting your game discovered. Is that daunting or is that your PR manager's job?
Nick Burcombe: I believe, particularly for Table Top Racing, there's plenty of gamers out there like me with iPhones and iPads that are not mutually exclusively just console gamers, they're gamers.
Baby Nom Nom is a different sort of challenge again, which is why I think some of the strategies employed by mobile in cross promotion and finding other ways of reaching a wider audience, certainly the free-to-play market, is the right way to go. There's lots of casual gamers who won't even jump a 69p barrier to get in there.
The single biggest challenge we've realised since jumping from console into mobile is how completely differently the audience behaves. There's no point in spending money on press adverts, there's no point in spending money on TV adverts or anything like that, I've not seen those. A lot of it is to do with the viral nature of the internet and word of mouth and engaging with users directly. It's a very difficult challenge and I'm sure people from the console business, same as us, have found it to be the biggest challenge in mobile without a doubt. Making the game is only half of it, getting people to discover it is the other half.
Q: With all that in mind how do you go about choosing a business model or a price?
Nick Burcombe: Even in the time that we've been in mobile the business models are evolving and changing and transforming. It seems almost on a bimonthly basis. Anything could work. There's lots of people we've talked to, lots that we've learned from other companies and we've talked to lots of publishers and they're telling us lots of different stories. But it seems in the mobile space, obviously free-to-play is where you can get a lot of download numbers but then you've got to be serious about how you monetise them.
Certainly with something like Table Top Racing I believe that the quality is high enough that we can charge a premium for it. It won't be an expensive game, it's less than a pint of beer, but it's a lot of content and a lot of quality for that sort of money. And I think people who are gamers will appreciate that and realise that it's very good value for money.
The nice thing is the business models are very flexible, it's not like the retail space with fixed distribution costs and all the other stuff that goes with it where you can't really change from that £45 launch title for a triple-A game. There's lots of flexibility in it and there's lots of other ways of monetising. Video adverts are playing very well at the moment, there's so many different schemes out there, the real problem is choosing the right one for your product and get's you to the widest audience. It's still a challenge and it's something that we address every day.
Everyone that we talk to will tells us that their strategy is the right strategy and the right approacn. But one of the other things we've tried to do as well is engage with strong developers and find out their experiences. We talked with Hutch and we talked with Natural Motion, we've talked with a number of people. And they've all come from different angles. It is daunting and there's a lot to choose from but actually you have to stick to what you believe your product is worth and find the right way to reach the audience.
Q: The Walking Dead and Infinity Blade seem to have proved their is a hunger for high quality, premium games on mobile.
Nick Burcombe: Absolutely. I think when people see high quality they recognise the work that has gone into it. I'm not saying it's going to sell mega loads, you can't tell that, you have to go where the market goes. But I still think there's a gaming audience out there that will really appreciate what Table Top Racing is, and for that kind of money it's incredible.
"Indies are doing the most creative work in the business right now"
Q: Playrise is based in the north west. That seems to be a very vibrant place for the UK industry at the moment.
Nick Burcombe: There's a lot going on here. There's an independent group called NWIndies which is just a collection of all the independent developers - talking and sharing stories and stuff. The amount of potential that there is is just absolutely incredible.
The amount of people, that's all the developers that have recently been made redundant from the (Sony's) Liverpool studio when they closed that. And then prior to that a couple of years back when we were made redundant as well.
The console business is really taking a pounding right now, and EA's own numbers show it in decline. Mobile is significant growth, and I think bringing those skills and that discipline and those quality standards we expect from console games over to mobile is the right way to go. I would hope that would help to settle the business model as well, as to what premium product actually means and what it's worth.
Q: There does seem to be a lot of console developers, even in the US, moving over to mobile...
Nick Burcombe: It's very exciting, and you also get creative freedom back. The problem with console at the moment is that the risks of failing with a new IP are absolutely devastating. I remember with my early days at Psygnosis it was much more entrepreneurial, let's take a risk, let's make this, let's make that because we want to make it. That's back again, and it's back again in force with indies. Indies are doing the most creative work in the business right now I'd say.
[Big companies] have become so risk averse that innovation is sacrificed in some respects. That's not to say there isn't original product on console, there are some great games out there. But where is the next generation coming from? Where's it going to lead us? I think it's happening in the mobile space at the moment. If you look at what's on the horizon for the next set of hardware for mobile, you're looking at Xbox 360 levels of performance anyway. That's really exciting. I hope it doesn't just bump up the cost, I hope people keep to the innovation and the lateral thinking and some of the more outlandish ideas, and some of the great core games.