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"Free-to-play is the most exciting opportunity out there for Britain"

Mobile developer Hutch is looking at the industry differently

Hutch released its first game, Smash Cops, on the App Store in the first half of 2013, but the company's founders certainly aren't new to the industry. They met while working at one of Sony Computer Entertainment's in-house studios, and the emergence of free-to-play gaming on mobile presented a gilt-edged opportunity to leave AAA and do things their own way.

So far, that plan seems to have worked. Hutch released four games within 18 months, and its latest, MMX Racing, already has more than 6 million players. GamesIndustry.biz talked to CEO Shaun Rutland, creative director Will Whitaker (the company's co-founders) and production manager Andy Watson making it in the still divisive field of free-to-play.

"No barriers to making great games. No bureaucracy. No chain of command"

“We had an opportunity to leave Sony and we could see mobile was getting pretty exciting,” explained Rutland. “Angry Birds had just come out and game quality was going up, the 99 cent price point was there, and we could see with iPhone 4 coming out, we could actually do some cool 3D stuff with it.

“So we made an action racing game, a cops-and-robbers type game [Smash Cops]. The five of us got it done in seven months.”

The studio now employs 25 staff, with plans to hire more in due course, but it intends to retain the intimacy and transparency of small-scale development. Hutch operates as multiple autonomous teams with their own leaders and power structures - “you have to, [because] the speed you have to move on mobile is so quick" - and each member of a team is encouraged to offer honest feedback on projects past and present, regardless of position or seniority.

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“It's not about the numbers of staff we've got, it's about getting the right people doing the right things and having all the tools in place. No barriers to making great games: no bureaucracy, no chain of command that goes right up to me saying 'you must do this'.”

“We're constantly iterating on how we make games, how we make decisions. And with every decision we make, that team understands why we're making that decision,” added Watson. “It engages them and makes them feel happy and motivated and part of the solution.”

Interaction between these autonomous teams is encouraged in the form of presentations from staff members to the rest of the company, on any topic they think might aid development. On Friday afternoons, everyone gets together to analyse other games in the industry, and talk about what they can collectively learn their peers. Rutland pointed to Blizzard's Hearthstone as a particularly popular topic of discussion.

"Our team really values Hearthstone. For us it's really shaken things up"

“Our team really values that game and I think for us it's really shaken things up,” he said. “There was a bunch of people on our team that still hadn't spent [money] on free-to-play games and Hearthstone converted about 50 per cent of them.

“So that, for us, on those Friday talks, that was a really exciting. We thought, let's have a look at it, and let's get the person who was refusing to spend on free-to-play games to present it.”

It's the kind of approach that was impossible within the AAA system that Hutch's founders once operated. Forging out on their own in a new market has allowed them to make a clean break from the restrictions of console development.

“The founding team have moved from console onto mobile, but it's much bigger than that, because what we've moved from is work-for-hire studios,” explained Rutland. “With a work-for-hire console studio your business is kind of weird, because it's in your interests to have a really big studio. You're making margin on bums on seats.

“What we've moved into is a focus on people being as efficient, experienced and self-managed as possible. I'm not selling these guys for $10,000 a man. We're making software that we make our own return on.”

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Of course, Hutch isn't alone in making that move. In recent years, a great many developers have left AAA to join or start smaller studios, taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the fluid digital commerce on PC and mobile. In that environment, success relies on adapting quickly and identifying your audience.

“The thing with mobile is you have to keep things simple and you have to give very clear purpose,” said Rutland. “Then underneath all that you have to make sure that the game's super fun and exciting so that people keep coming back.”

“We really have to think about the audience for mobile,” added Whitaker. “For example, we have to bear in mind how much time people have. If we've got people who are time-poor, we need to make sure they can have a very rich, very enjoyable, satisfying experience in bite-sized portions.”

That's a particular challenge for Hutch, because it's still aiming for production quality in keeping with its AAA roots. In a market where prices are low and the speed of a download can be a vital factor in a game's success, that kind of ambition can be a hindrance.

"We're trying to get the right priorities in terms of looking great, playing great, but also being really fast to download"

“It's a super-hot subject here,” said Rutland. “We've got to figure out the trade-offs between being beautiful, and being fast and accessible. We've had experience of making console games that look beautiful before, but here we're trying to get the right priorities in terms of looking great, feeling great, playing great, but also being really fast to download.”

Hutch places a huge emphasis on customer feedback. Just as it encourages transparency within the company, it also pushes for transparency with its customers, which in turn has a direct, positive impact on development.

“We've got a really good loyal fanbase,” said Watson. “They understand what we're trying to do. We listen to them in terms of what features they'd like to see, and if something's not possible we just let them know.

“The response we get from that, rather than just fobbing them off, is great. They feel like part of the process.”

Whitaker added: “Seeing how people react to the game and the ability to change it, it's a very raw experience, very invigorating. It's completely opposite to making a game, releasing it into the wild, and then forgetting about it.”

For Rutland, one of the benefits of a smaller-scale studio is that freedom to be truthful with players - not having to “hide behind a corporate statement”.

“It can be really stressful because you know you've done things that have upset players, but you just have to be honest. We've found that by being honest and straight-up about it, that actually gets people most engaged.”

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The spectre hanging over any free-to-play mobile game is, of course, the business model itself. Finding the right balance with monetisation is notoriously tricky, and despite the model's obvious popularity some still maintain that it's an inherently cynical way of making money from games. At the same time, the value perception of consumers in the mobile market is such that it's difficult to make a profit without a free download and some form of in-app purchases.

Hutch sees free-to-play as a positive force, and something developers should be keen to embrace, regardless of any bad feeling that may exist in the industry.

“It's super exciting,” said Rutland. “A lot of people are really negative about it at the moment and it's a real shame because, actually, it's a real opportunity for the smaller studios to innovate and do exciting things.

"Free-to-play is the most exciting opportunity out there for Britain"

“I think it's actually the most exciting opportunity out there for Britain. It allows developers to stand on their own two feet and have a service relationship, not with publishers, but with their players. That's pretty cool.”

Hutch believes the free-to-play market is heading in a positive direction away from the stigma of the past. Perhaps as more developers choose the same path as Hutch - mobile gaming as a route to greater self-determination, a viable alternative to the restrictions of traditional AAA studios - others will share its perspective.

“If you look at the games that are doing the best in the charts, fewer and fewer of them have an experience that sucks or tries to manipulate,” said Whitaker. “The ones that are doing the best are the ones that have really engaged users.

“There are millions of people playing these games, and the dodgy ones, the ones which offer a bad experience or use 'dark psychology', they're getting weeded out one-by-one. The ones consumers enjoy are going to the top. I think there's a really positive trend.”

Latest comments (15)

Craig Burkey Software Engineer 2 years ago
I still think there needs to be safe guards put in, to protect vulnerable players from being fleeced, like daily, weekly and total spend caps and the option to pay a lump sum to remove pay walls, moves like these would certainly make me look on f2p in a better light
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@Craig As far as I know F2P survives on a very small minority of players that will spend unlimited amounts. Imposing a cap would take the legs from the model due to 95% of players refusing to pay anything at all. As it stands F2P can work really well and does allow small teams like Hutch to get traction in a world where the big boys with big budgets control the cost of advertising. Any 'solution' needs to deal with that or it only helps those groups who really don't need our help.
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Also, go Hutch! :)
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Show all comments (15)
Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 2 years ago
One way to judge the quality of a game is by the feeling you have when quitting it. That's where f2p usually falls flat on its face. Anyone here who is nostalgic about a f2p game he/she formerly played? Not in the same sense of being nostalgic about having been a smoker, of course.
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I spent a huge amount of time playing a certain free-to-play game that shall remain nameless as a teenager and I still have very fond memories of it! It still exists, and I sometimes think about going back, but it probably wouldn't have quite the same charm over ten years later.
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Jeremiah Moss Software Developer 2 years ago
Our team really values Hearthstone. For us it's really shaken things up
It's definitely a game to learn from. It's probably one of the most friendly free-to-play games out there. You can get all of the cards using free-to-play methods. You can build good decks with only the base cards. You can get new cards nearly every day you play, without paying. You can play as long as you wish, and continue to rank up and gain some gold.

And, perhaps most importantly - it's a good game with good depth. A lot of mobile games end up being shallow, and many of them sabotage depth and game mechanics for the sake of their business model. How many times have I seen some mobile game that goes "OH wait - you haven't payed us yet, you can't really do anything in the game anymore until you either pay us or wait X number of hours"?

I gave up on pretty much all mobile games due to business models sabotaging gameplay. Most of my mobile games are metaphorically "collecting dust" at the moment.

Hearthstone didn't do that. In fact, the designers of Hearthstone were smart and borrowed their business model from a proven business model that already existed in physical card games: Buying booster packs.

So instead of sabotaging their game mechanics for the sake of their business model, they used a business model that had already been proven to work with similar games. Something to learn from, I think.

I should also note that there's no "premium currency." You either buy packs directly, or use gold, which is obtained for free by playing. That really makes me question whether having a separate "premium currency" is really a necessity for a mobile game.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development2 years ago
Combat Monsters? Ticks all of those boxes, has deeper gameplay, NO secondary currency at all.
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in the main Free to pay isnt free to make or play - on mobiles
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 2 years ago
Those saying that there needs to be limits, I've been advocating holding casinos legally accountable for exploiting the mentally ill for years. Casinos literally know everything about you when you walk in the door thanks tom actially matches, and they know how much you make and all that. Mobile doesn't have that, but while it's not good for business to keep them from mortgaging the house, it is good for humanity.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development2 years ago
What this subject needs is more hyperbole and navel gazing. There's just not enough of it right now...

"Gamblers = mentally ill". Helps a lot, that. Made me smile so a net win.

If you care so much about protecting people from themselves, knock the easy "gamers" route on the head and go deal with drug addicts on the street.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 8th January 2015 9:07am

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the problem with F2P still remains,it is the long range implications of this monetary scheme. ( But then again, I may be silly for talking about what may occur 5 to 10 years down the road in a world where all that matters is the here and now and damn the consequences)

So again what happens to our industry if and when enough of the bad players sour the player base on this monetary F2P scheme? What then? The industry in it's short term money grab will have devalued the price point and worth of games to pennies in the eyes of the public, so there is little chance to going back to actual historical price points. So what then? I guess some other non gaming bean counter will have to come up with some other nefarious way to extract money from players???

Its so sad that our industry has sub come to the same practices to that of the vampire squids of the world.

I already left wall street earlier in my life because I think life is about more then just how much fiat currency I can extract from my fellow humans, it would be a shame if this industry continues down that same path and starts losing people due to this all encompassing desire to extract wealth. Getting paid for you hard work need not be this hard....or smarmy..

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 8th January 2015 6:46pm

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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development2 years ago
So again what happens to our industry if and when enough of the bad players sour the player base on this monetary F2P scheme?
That's already happened. The result is we ignore them and carry on with the only system that gets our games into our customer's hands these days.
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I already left wall street earlier in my life because I think life is about more then just how much fiat currency I can extract from my fellow humans, it would be a shame if this industry continues down that same path and starts losing people due to this all encompassing desire to extract wealth. Getting paid for you hard work need not be this hard....or smarmy..
I think, all sorts of business ecologies can work out, some more successfully for some companies, right time/right place , right product, right marketing...and I agree, it would be a shame if our industry sucuumbs to a fiat currency/central banking type monopoly of games development.

F2P isnt a panacea for all future games models, in the same vein, the traditional packaged games model needs tweaking.
For those that can/have made F2P a core biz model, good on you. you did amazing. For the rest of us, I would still caution that F2P isnt free to make and can be a very very expensive endeavour if the product/game genre does not fit.

Ultimately, most folks would like offer a fair price for the product, and the devs would like to break even, and maybe make a decent profit without having to resort to asymetrical game biz models. So maybe its worth having a relook at how conventional biz models can still be a good road for developers/publishers
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That's already happened. The result is we ignore them and carry on with the only system that gets our games into our customer's hands these days.
No, its already begun, the alienation of users/players and customers via poorly implemented F2P still continues to happen everyday. Hence my point, what happens in 5 years when you simply cant ignore those alienated any more.

When the industry abused the traditional pricing practice in the 80s and flooded the market with crap, the industry crashed, badly. It was able to reboot a few years later, however because the price point in the public minds still allowed for a nice profit. My point is, what happens if and when all the crap games and their F2P schemes crash the industry again? How can you reboot if the price point has been set to $1 or free?

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 9th January 2015 4:58pm

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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development2 years ago
I'm doing my bit. Our generous and ethical F2P game earned £10.39 yesterday. So next time I will do what sells.
Hence my point, what happens in 5 years when you simply cant ignore those alienated any more.
Not sure what your point really is tbh. The punters are driving this by not bloody paying for anything.
How can you reboot if the price point has been set to $1 or free?
I presume you're talking about PC and Console. Frankly I couldn't give a monkeys, my market has been ruined by that already. What you describe is already the standard in mobile. And there is no way back. The crash you only worry about has already happened in one place and the other places will definitely be getting it within a year or two.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 11th January 2015 12:03am

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