Formed with the intention of making better Flash games, Denmark-based studio Press Play has evolved over its four year existence to offer consulting, make contract games and now, finally, release its first self-published WiiWare title Max & the Magic Marker.
Ahead of his session at this year's Nordic Game, in which he'll discuss the processes behind bringing Max to market, studio co-founder Rune Dittmer spoke to GamesIndustry.biz about the indie scene in Denmark, how the team managed to fund its first title, and what it was like working with Nintendo to publish it.
Q: Can you start off telling us a bit about Press Play and what the team has been doing up until now?
Rune Dittmer: We formed the company in 2006 and we formed with the ambition of making much better Flash games than we thought were out there at the time. But then we changed that slightly to a consulting focus, and from 2008 and onwards - on and off - we worked on Max & the Magic Marker, which was released in January. We are about ten people now and we were three when we started.
We did some game consulting and we also did a lot of hired work, which was convenient to make some money. It was kind of a two-part plan. We did a lot for the national broadcast channel - kind of the equivalent to the BBC in Denmark - doing games for television shows.
Q: As you say, that sounds like a good way to get funding before doing your own game...
Rune Dittmer: Exactly. It was always our ambition to make our own stuff. But we did the hired work in order to survive and be able to make the first demo.
Q: And you part-funded Max yourselves but also received money from the Nordic Game Development Fund?
Rune Dittmer: Yes. We actually received the support from the Nordic Game Development Fund and from a Danish support scheme they were trying out in 2008. It was called New Danish Screen and we were getting some funding from that as well and from EU MediaDesk.
Q: Those are relatively new schemes for developers in Nordic?
Rune Dittmer: They were developing that back in 2008. They were testing it out to see how developers reacted to it. And we just applied in the first round they had.
Q: And how easy was the process to gaining the funding?
Rune Dittmer: The way it worked, we did an initial prototype of Max & the Magic Marker - we did that in Flash and we did it because we had been playing around with a lot of 2D physics engines and stuff at the time.
Then we came up with the idea and we had this prototype and made some videos that described the concept. Then you just apply. And it definitely helped us that we were, at the time, already an established company so we did have quite a bit of a track record - not on the consoles, but all the television games and other work we'd done previously. As we had some turnover, so we had the resource to make proper applications.
Q: Is Denmark a good place to be a games developer, in terms of support and funding?
Rune Dittmer: Yes. I think we're in a transition right now because there's a lot of evaluation going on with support schemes. And there are putting into process right now in Denmark, to see if we should establish a more permanent support scheme for initial support of games. And I think it's necessary.
But it also reflects on the state of Danish game development right now - there's a lot of small companies that kind of need to have something to believe in their project, to get them going. And perhaps to see all these alternative forms of distribution and types of games that are opening up - digital download, internet, Facebook and all of that.
Q: Does it feel like the indie scene is growing at the moment in Denmark, and that it's a good place to be?
Rune Dittmer: I think that it is and there are quite a lot of us. We're based in Copenhagen and there are ten companies in this building. I think it's very helpful for us that we inspire and help each other. In that way it's like there's a small scene right now.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your talk at Nordic Game and what you'll be discussing?
Rune Dittmer: I'm going to be talking about the difficulties building titles on your own unfunded - how to manage that and how to get it out, and get it out on as many different platforms as possible in order to collect enough revenue to make it all worthwhile.
Q: What bits of the development and publishing processes were the most difficult for a small team to manage on its first game?
Rune Dittmer: There were, of course, technical issues we had. Like it was a difficult process for us because we still had to make money on the side making other games. So it's like a focus problem, which also reflects on development - it took us two years to develop a game that, basically, if you took all the man hours out it's not a two year project. But we had to spread it out to remain alive.
Q: Do you think that was made easier because you were developing for WiiWare, rather than a traditional boxed product?
Rune Dittmer: Yes. Well, first of all it was a perfect fit for Max because we needed the controls, so that was the main reason for choosing the Wii. But also - you're right - it's easier and more accessible, not so much in terms of the technical stuff - for us at least that wasn't so much of the issue - but more the getting approved and all of those processes. It was definitely much more accessible for us, and we wanted to use that to get that console title out there to help us with doing other stuff later on.
Q: Did you find that Nintendo was helpful with the publishing side of things? It can't be easy when you're a team based in Copenhagen trying to market a game in the US.
Rune Dittmer: They did help us, yes. They were very supportive and we were invited to several media summits to help us to get in touch with the press. So they were helpful in that regard.
Q: What advice would you give to other small studios thinking of going down the same route as you have and publishing a game on a service such as WiiWare?
Rune Dittmer: I would say that you should definitely make sure that you have a good fit between your target audience and the platform you choose. Because I think that it's really essential if you want to self publish that you know who you're going to aim for. I mean, you can't make a very broad title and just hope that somebody will pick it up. You really need to know who you're making the game for and that needs to fit with the platform because otherwise - with no marketing budget - it's impossible.
Q: You sounds like you were very aware of your target audience. When you're an independent developer I imagine it's quite tempting just to make the game that you want to make, because you don't have to worry about getting a publisher onboard.
Rune Dittmer: Sure, that's the big thing about indie publishing that you have the freedom to do whatever you want. But if that freedom helps you to make a game that nobody wants, it's not really helpful for you either. We are very aware - at least we are now - and are thinking the same for future titles.
When we're evaluating how things went with Max, and what went right and what went wrong, it's one of the things we want to be stronger on in the future. To be more precise on our target audience, or the game's target audience, and how that relates to the platform.
Q: Are there any other lessons you learnt during the process?
Rune Dittmer: We learnt obviously a lot technically and about production management - a lot of lessons were learnt there definitely. But I guess that there is no studio developing its first console game that doesn't say that. The most important lessons that we've learnt have been around the publishing side and making sure you test the game. Not in terms of technical tests but that it's fun for the people that you actually want it to be fun for and that they think it's appealing.
Q: Do you think you'll continue to work with WiiWare or are you looking at other platforms as well?
Rune Dittmer: We are looking at everything. We have two different games right now in development as well as some work for hire games that we're doing for Wii right now. So we're still looking to the Nintendo platforms, but we're also looking at projects on other platforms as well.
Q: You started off working with Flash - so are you quite excited by online developments and opportunities, and platforms such as Facebook?
Rune Dittmer: We do look at those platforms and see there's a lot of opportunity, but it's also very difficult to reach I think. We don't have any projects in development right now although Facebook is something that you have to consider in every project. And not just Facebook, but the whole social aspect - that's definitely something that we're working a lot with. But we aren't working on any specific Facebook games - it's not really our focus right now.
Q: But you think that social integration is an important thing to consider when developing any game now?
Rune Dittmer: Yes sure. But I don't think that I'm the only one thinking that. You don't see many games that aren't taking that into consideration right now.
Q: Finally, how important do you think Nordic Game is for the local industry?
Rune Dittmer: I think it's important. We have attended every year, and the whole studio is going. For us we perhaps use it in a different way than most others. We use it also to get everybody in the studio together - like I said, we're around ten people - and it works for us like a common line of reference.
So it's the place where we have time to talk about other stuff, and the things we see there we discuss, and we meet other people. For us it's very much a common point of reference. To the Nordic region I think that it's important that it's there as well as the whole Nordic Game Programme, not just the support scheme but attending of the conference, and other conferences and game shows is also there.
Rune Dittmer is CEO of Press Play. Interview by Kath Brice.