Dynamo's Stuart Reid
The mobile developer's technical director on growing a start-up business, and the challenges facing the mobile scene.
Dynamo Games was set up by three graduates from Dundee who started out doing research for the local university, but soon found themselves working on a mobile version of one of the best-known football franchises in the world - Championship Manager.
Following two Tiga awards and a Scottish BAFTA award, the company's achieved a good reputation, and here technical director Stuart Reid talks about Dynamo's first five years, what lessons he's learned, and the challenges facing the mobile industry.
Q: Dynamo's a company that was set-up by graduates, but five years on it must be a very different place now?
Stuart Reid: Oh yes, we're nine staff now, looking to move offices, and also recruit more people - we don't want to be sitting on each other's knees, so we're looking for more office space at the moment.
Q: That's a pretty positive thing.
Stuart Reid: To go from three people to nine is quite frightening - I came into the kitchen the other day and there were five guys all having a conversation, and it was none of the original people that set it up...
Q: What you're best-known for is the Championship Manager mobile game series, that you won a BAFTA award for in 2007 - what was the background to that franchise for you?
Stuart Reid: It actually came from an idea we had when we first set up the company, because we're all football fans, all played the original Championship Manager series - but we were looking for an original concept to work on mobile. We thought it would be great to get a football management title on the mobile platform, taking all the best bits we like from all the football games.
So we took inspiration from a few things, aimed to get depth, but keep it in-tune with what people wanted from a management game, and that progressed as a sideline to our business at the time.
Then we got to the point where we had a demo, so we thought we'd start pitching it to see what people thought. We did a tour of the main publishers, which was a bit frightening to start off with, and then Eidos were interested - so we did a big presentation and eventually got the first ChampMan signed up.
Q: How long was it between starting the company and getting that signed?
Stuart Reid: It seems like a long time ago now... I think probably about a year and half.
Q: So how did you get from start-up to that? There must have been other revenue sources.
Stuart Reid: Yeah, we were doing a bit of research, software developments. We had some contracts with the university which got us started. But games wasn't actually a direction we were planning to take, especially not having any prior experience - it was a steep learning curve, although in many ways that worked for us, because we didn't have any preconceived ideas about the route we should take, or the kind of deal to look for, or how to make a game.
It was all very fresh, and I think that's what helped it work for us.
Q: And how's it been working with Eidos?
Stuart Reid: It's been excellent actually, the game's been very successful - four iterations down the line I guess speaks for itself, and winning a BAFTA award was pretty amazing.
We also won the Tiga mobile game in 2006 and 2007, two years on the trot, and that's good because it's industry recognition as well.
Q: Did you notice any changes after winning the awards in the way people approached you?
Stuart Reid: I think when we're speaking to potential publishing partners our reputation speaks for itself. We don't have to sell ourselves so much, people know what they're going to get - it's a bit easy.
We're quite picky with what we do - we don't want to do like a factory that turns out hundreds of mobile games, we want to make games that people want to plat, that are going to sell well and have a long life. The sort of games that we want to play ourselves.
Q: What kind of lessons have you learned on the business side of things in the past five years?
Stuart Reid: That's a good question. We grew organically, and never had any external funding - we even bought our own computers. Since then we've had a lot of offers from people wanting to invest and take a share of the company.
We might be open to that at some stage, but at the moment there's no reason to - we make a profit. We've met a lot of people, and one of the best lessons I've learned is to listen to other people and take on board what they say.
We speak to a lot of the industry guys around here - I think that's been a real help for us, the likes of Colin Anderson at Denki, these guys are all willing to give you advice. And especially for us, we didn't have any previous experience, so it was good to take the best advice from different people.
It was good to be able to ask people what a good deal is, what the standard way of doing something is - just simple, small things. It also gives you confidence as well, because you know there are other people out there making money doing games - you're not alone.
Q: What about Scottish Enterprise?
Stuart Reid: They've been fundamental, just helping us out with simple things like legal fees, and they used to help us bring in expertise way back at the start, and ongoing specialist support. Their advisors are excellent - without that support we might have struggled. It's made the path a bit smoother.
Q: So what does the next five years look like?
Stuart Reid: Well, we're expanding - but we don't want to become unmanageable, we want to keep it a small team. We don't want to become a console developer of 300-odd staff - we want to have a team that's interested in making high quality games. And it has to be a place we want to work as well. I set up the company to have my own working environment, and I want to maintain that. Our platform doesn't require massive teams, either.
Q: Talking about the mobile platform - how has it changed in your view?
Stuart Reid: Well, it's starting to mature - there were a lot of players in the market, a lot of start-ups. Half of them are gone now, there's been a lot of change. There are only a few key players left, but I think the quality's gone up.
We're quite positive about the iPhone and N-Gage platform, because we try and push the technology as far as we can - put as much into the games as possible for the device. These new devices with extra features allow us to really let our imagination go.
But at the same time they don't require massive assets to build, so we're not bogged down by them. We're working with the iPhone SDK, and because of the nature of the high-end phones right now, they're getting very close to the likes of the Nintendo DS.
Q: We've heard the iPhone SDK is pretty nice to use?
Stuart Reid: Yes, so far the technology is early, but the main issue really with these things is that you're efficient as a business. You don't want to be spending too much on what is, effectively, another port. It's got to make sense - if there's only 100,000 iPhones out there, for example...
[Note that this interview took place before the launch of the iPhone 3G.]
Q: What about the N-Gage platform - do you think that sort of Xbox Live approach to mobile games will help?
Stuart Reid: When that really takes off it'll be a good day for us I think - one of the stifling factors at the moment for the mobile industry is that the operators are controlling the decks, and they're not necessarily the best people to sell games.
With a better community aspect, it allows the best games to stand out, and take the number one slot - so the quicker that happens, the better for the industry. Whether it will succeed or not, we don't know yet.
Stuart Reid is the technical director of Dynamo Games. Interview by Phil Elliott.