Some of the most successful companies in the world are where they are today because they know how to handle and learn from failure. Success doesn't come easily in games or any industry, and indeed the mobile industry is getting more competitive. For every hit game, there are countless others that go unrecognized, and importantly the companies behind the hits often have a slew of projects that they canceled mid-development because it became clear when a game would simply not succeed. Speaking with GamesIndustry International during GDC, NaturalMotion boss Torsten Reil said recognizing when to kill a project or to push forward is a crucial skill for management.
"It's an interesting discipline because it's a fine balance to strike. On the one hand, you need to have that discipline to do it, but on the other hand, you also need to have the inner conviction to pull through difficulties. Very often you'll have games where you'll go through difficult times, and you think 'this isn't going to work, this is so frustrating,' especially if it's new stuff because you have no reference. You go down all these dead alleyways and you have to come back out again and keep trying. Finding that balance between when it's time to actually stop or is there light at the end of the tunnel and we just have to power towards it... knowing which direction to take is an art. That's more than science," Reil said.
For a sector of the games industry that's been driven in large measures by metrics and analytics, ironically the art that Reil is talking about often comes down to plain old gut instincts.
"Sometimes it just becomes clear and then it's more a matter of having the guts. If you know it, you have to do it - that's true for everything. You cannot give yourself an excuse not to do it. If you know it in your heart, you have to do it. Sometimes it's harder and you have to almost listen to yourself and you have to let your gut feeling decide," he continued. "I'm a big believer in gut feeling anyway; it's essentially your neural network taking a lot of information and making a decision that you can't rationalize but that doesn't mean it's not rational."
"it is an important experience - you shouldn't be afraid to cancel a game if you know in your heart or you see the figures and you have to cancel it"
NaturalMotion is known for hits like CSR Racing and lately for Clumsy Ninja, but Reil acknowledged that his team has had to scrap "quite a few" projects over the years and it's happened at various stages of development.
"It can happen that the game gets canned pretty early on, or it can get canned the first quarter into development. Or it can even happen that a game gets canned during soft launch, very late in the game. That happened to us last year, for example, and we canceled a game that was already out in one territory for a soft launch," Reil said.
When this sort of thing happens, Reil said it's vital to learn from it, build on it and make sure the team understands why a cancellation is happening.
"What was really important to us was that the team understood this was not a failure because they worked extremely hard and they did everything that was asked of them. They were very passionate about it. And they then moved on to the next thing afterwards. We threw a party for those guys. We went to the pub downstairs in Oxford and we bought everyone drinks and we made sure people understood why we were doing this," he said.
Reil went on to describe another project that was canceled much earlier, about a quarter of the way into development. "It was a very attractive game in many ways but we couldn't make it work conceptually, and we realized that about one quarter through. And that was frustrating for everyone, but that team then went on to a different project which they started from scratch and that is now one of the most exciting projects we've ever worked on and it looks super amazing," he noted. "So it is an important experience - you shouldn't be afraid to cancel a game if you know in your heart or you see the figures and you have to cancel it. You then need to make sure you move on to the next thing..."
Having a number of canceled projects under your belt could be considered a good thing - it's a sign that teams are taking risks, trying to innovate, and if it doesn't work out, so be it.
"Really the vision for all of our games is to create something that really wows people, to create something that makes people go, 'I've never seen anything like this.' That drives everything. We really want to create and provide consumer value, something that is differentiated from everyone else and also hopefully something that disrupts a genre," Reil explained.
One of the keys to mobile design for NaturalMotion is what Reil calls the "Starbucks line test," meaning that you should be able "to start and finish a game session as you're waiting for your Macchiato."
"We like to take risks in a particular genre, we like to do it differently; look at CSR Racing, that's a game that has a loop of about 15 seconds, which is quite unusual for a racing game. We love racing games like Real Racing for example - we all played them and thought they were very well implemented but we didn't think they fit [our test]," he commented.
NaturalMotion's approach paid off in spades - at its peak CSR Racing was making over $500,000 per day, Reil said, and it was at that point that his company "realized this market is growing so fast, it's much bigger than we thought and there's a huge opportunity."
Reil said that NaturalMotion loves creating new IP but that sustaining and growing successful ones is also hugely important, which is why the company released CSR Classics, which also became a top ten grossing game. More recently, of course, NaturalMotion has seen incredible success with Clumsy Ninja, which Reil is immensely proud of. "It had the biggest launch we've ever done. We had 10 million downloads in the first week alone, which was just amazing. It's also had the biggest reaction from users that we've ever seen," he enthused.
Clumsy Ninja was built on NaturalMotion's Euphoria technology, and Reil reminded us that his company still has the technology business in its DNA - it pushes the team forward. NaturalMotion's technology was used to drive character animations in GTA IV and V and Red Dead Redemption, and while NaturalMotion is now owned by Zynga, Reil told us that his technology licensing business is actually growing - which means Zynga essentially has entered new business territory as well.
"In particular, on the next-generation consoles there's quite a lot of demand for the animation technology. So that's staying unchanged, but what's changing is that in general we're growing even faster on the games side, and what we are really trying to do is be thoughtful and aware of the DNA of the company, because what's really important to us is we have a technology business that provides services and value to customers - so that means when we use that technology internally with our games we know that it actually works. What we don't want to have is technology teams that just create technology for their own sake, and this DNA of actually licensing it to third parties, that really helps us to do that," Reil explained.
"When we are 70 or 80 years old we want to be able to look back at those games and think 'we did that - it was difficult, we pulled through and we made something absolutely amazing.' Those are the most rewarding games for us"
And while it's still early in the relationship, Reil has been elated with the Zynga deal thus far. There have been some horror stories over the years of talented studios getting acquired by large firms, losing their identity and then getting shuttered only a year or two later, but Reil said that he's very comfortable with Zynga and there's a "buzz" around the company.
"I think theoretically that danger's always there and we've seen it obviously happen with other companies. What really impressed me when I first met Don [Mattrick] is how thoughtful [he is]. There were two things. One of them was just the ambition about being number one and really being a leader... it's about really creating a meaningful company and it was great to hear Don having that same vision," Reil noted.
"The other thing is actually being thoughtful about how something like this works. When you join forces... there is a danger that culturally there's an impact. This has been handled really thoughtfully and that's something pre-acquisition we talked about and it's one of the reasons why we wanted to do it in the end, because if you can keep the best of both worlds and if both sides can learn from each other, then you just have an amazing combination. If you start to destabilize each other obviously it's the opposite."
In just the last few weeks alone, Reil said that NaturalMotion and Zynga have learned a ton from each other. "So we're learning a lot right now about how to operate live teams, and how to grow and sustain your games. I think we've been good at creating these amazing experiences but there's a lot that we can learn in growing and sustaining those franchises over time," he said. "For games like CSR Racing, we run live teams on that and we know some stuff because it's running and generating good revenues but these guys at Zynga are at another level. It's quite an eye opener. We're picking up a lot of stuff right now."
So what's NaturalMotion working on now? Reil said he couldn't share that information just yet, but he stressed that his team never looks for a quick buck. "They are all games we are making because ultimately we want to be proud of them. When we are 70 or 80 years old we want to be able to look back at those games and think 'we did that - it was difficult, we pulled through and we made something absolutely amazing.' Those are the most rewarding games for us," he said.