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Slam's David Thompson

Thu 14 Aug 2008 7:00am GMT / 3:00am EDT / 12:00am PDT
CasualScotland Week

The Scottish developer's VP gives his thoughts on the casual games space, and why it's game type and not player that's important

Moving out of Dundee briefly GamesIndustry.biz also ventured to Glasgow to chat with David Thompson, VP of casual games developer Slam Games.

Slam was responsible for Vista launch game Spinword, and here Thompson explains his feelings on the casual games space, and why labelling people as "casual players" isn't right.

Q: What for you characterises what Slam is about?

David Thompson: I guess it's about finally making the games that we want to make, after spending to many years in the industry. It's not just a case of making games for the sake of making them, we want to make games that other people want to play as well.

So we've been pragmatic about striking a balance between being creative and actually being commercially aware as well - will something work for the market.

Q: How has that manifested itself to date?

David Thompson: I think it's fair to say that so far, critically, we've done maybe better than we'd hoped. Commercially you always want to be able to say that we've exceeded our wildest dreams, but we'd have to say that we haven't yet - although that's not to say we're doing badly, just that we can improve.

Q: What's been the company high point so far?

David Thompson: There are probably two, actually - one was probably when we signed Spinword with Microsoft for the Vista launch, which was our first game, so that was obviously brilliant.

The second one was just recently which was when we launched a game on Steam, so now basically when we set about making our own games we had two objectives. One was to work with a company like Microsoft, the other was to get a title on Steam.

Q: So what's the next objective?

David Thompson: Create a massive hit, I guess. We've done okay, but we haven't had anything that's really breakout yet. That's what we'd like to do.

Q: Everybody likes the idea of original IP - you're doing okay on that front.

David Thompson: Yeah - a lot of the time people will ask for innovation. They want something completely different, but actually they just want more of the same, but a little bit different. Otherwise they can't predict what it's going to do.

Things which are completely different are actually harder to sell, because then you've got to spend more to explain to people what's going on. So the games we've done, we've tried to take elements of successful games and apply them in new ways.

We ended up with Spinword, which we think is probably one of the only original word games recently. There are only so many ways you can do it, of course, but we actually played a lot of other board and card games based on forming words, and not many of them were fun. But we think we came up with something a bit special, and unique, and it was great to have that recognised by Microsoft.

Q: What's your view on platforms, what are your ambitions?

David Thompson: Well we're registered for Nintendo DS and Wii, but as platforms we don't have any specific plans as yet, but it's definitely something that's very interesting if we had the right idea - then we'd definitely go for it. Obviously we're looking at PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade as well.

I think in terms of where we're trying to create our own IPs, originating them on the PC works out for us, because there's no approval process, and we can do whatever we want. Because we're now looking at taking the other games across to other platforms, we're starting to see vindication of that strategy.

Q: XBLA's been out for a while now, PSN a bit less time, and WiiWare's quite new - how do you assess their relative strengths?

David Thompson: I think it's interesting to look at the way that Nintendo have gone about WiiWare - they're essentially saying that it's open, but it's only open if you think you're going to sell x amount of copies, otherwise it's not worth your while doing it.

I think that's a very good way to manage it - because everybody was concerned originally that it was going to be a dumping ground, but they've been very careful to not allow that to happen. They've clearly separated the Virtual Console side of it out, so the WiiWare stuff is differentiated.

Q: And that's a problem that Microsoft is looking at with XBLA...?

David Thompson: Right, with talk of relegating titles - I think that comes down to problems with discovery. It's something that people have been talking about, the long tail for games, and actually nobody's properly managed it. It's exciting to talk about, but in terms of actually exploiting it properly, nobody's done it.

If you look at the way that Apple manages iTunes, or Amazon manages its stuff, there's so much extra functionality on top of just having the content. Even then, with those tools, only Nintendo are the ones looking to fully exploit it, because they're the ones seen as open.

iTunes makes no editorial judgement on music - it just has it all - whereas for each of the other platforms there is editorial judgement.

Q: What about for the iPhone - will Apple make an editorial judgement for games there?

David Thompson: I think that's going to be interesting to see how it plays out. They're still working on the details, but I think it's difficult to write any off these companies off in terms of what they're going to do next, because they're full of incredibly smart people - they know what the problems are, and they're bound to be thinking about how best to address this.

Q: Operators as gatekeepers has always been a problem for the mobile games industry, but isn't that really what XBLA and PSN does? Is there a happy medium in the middle?

David Thompson: I think so, yes, and because there's always going to be some level, at least for games, of middleman saying that a certain game could go on, for the argument that we don't want to overwhelm the consumer with so many millions of games or whatever. And games are a different proposition to a single tune - so I think that we're still working on finding the right balance, but hopefully it'll come sooner rather than later.

Q: Games audiences have changed a lot in the past couple of years - how do you evaluate those changes?

David Thompson: I think it's kind of the difference between people that go and see movies, and people that go and see films - completely different audiences, don't get them mixed up.

Saying somebody's a casual player is doing them a disservice, because there are people playing Bejewelled for twelve hours in a go - I wouldn't have ever played a game for more than a couple of hours in one go, so I think the terms are maybe mistaken somewhat.

I think it's more the style of game - something you can sit down and play in chunks, rather than having to sit down for three hours to play the next chapter of the game, whatever that it.

There are all these games now - there was an article recently that there are three or four different types of guitar controller now - who has that kind of storage space? I think people need to be a lot more aware, particularly on the download side of things for PSN or XBLA, of exactly what controllers are there.

People have guitar controllers - what else can you do with that? A different style of guitar game? Or a banjo game? Banjo Hero maybe...

But to be fair I think a lot of the platform holders are telling people to look at that - use the camera, use the peripherals, dance mats and so on. These things are out there in quite large numbers, but there's really only a couple of games that are actually taking advantage of them.

Q: There's a changing social view towards games too, and inevitably benefits - but how would you rate that impact?

David Thompson: Well every new form of entertainment has had that problem, it's nothing new just for games by any stretch. Eventually the people who don't like games are going to die, while people like us, who have grown up with games - it's just something that we do, and just another way of spending your entertainment budget, between cinema, DVD, TV, books, games.

I think people that have now grown up with games, and people talk about kids being digital natives who have never known life without the Internet... which I think is just amazing... these people don't think games are a bad thing, but because of that we need to learn how to make games for these people - and we might not be the generation to do that. The kids coming through will probably do that, and it'll be things we've never thought of, so it's going to be interesting to see how things develop over the next 10-15 years as they grow up.

David Thompson is VP of Slam Games. Interview by Phil Elliott.

This article is part of Scotland Week on GamesIndustry.biz, sponsored by Dundee City Council and Realtime Worlds.

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