Tag's Paul Farley
The Dundee-based developer's MD on the mobile scene, and why the company will never go through crunch
The last interview as part of Scotland Week is with Tag Games, a mobile developer that's just two years old, but already profitable and looking to expand on to other platforms and original IP.
Another company to be formed from the DMS-VIS experience, here MD Paul Farley gives his assessment of the mobile games scene, and explains the company's ethos - particularly its strong views with regard to crunch.
Q: How did Tag Games come about?
Paul Farley: Well, Tag Games is about two years old, it's a company founded by myself, Jamie Bryant who's the creative director and Robert Hennings who is the technical director. Our history is really in console gaming - myself and Jamie were both at DMA Design. I worked on Grand Theft Auto I and II, and some of the lesser know DMA titles as well. Jamie was head of art there, and also led the Space Station Silicon Valley project for Nintendo 64.
And we both ended up at VIS Entertainment after that - at the time I'd become bored working on GTA II, it felt more of the same, and I wanted to work on something a bit fresh.
Q: [laughs] You should have taken it 3D...
Paul Farley: Yeah, well that was the thing...we all knew where we wanted to take it next, we were just waiting for technology to catch up with our ideas really. At that point I was seduced by VIS Entertainment who was working on a GTA 3D-style game called State of Emergency. So I went down there to head that project, but unfortunately it didn't turn out quite as we expected and I left after about two and a half years.
I felt pretty burned out on console development, even though I'd only been doing it for about six years, and I used to love some of the stuff we did at DMA in terms of small teams, prototyping news ideas - I really enjoyed doing that.
So at that point a company called Digital Bridges had formed down the road in Dunfermline, and I was really intrigued by this idea of putting games onto mobile phones - at that point you were talking WAP and SMS mostly - and they were kicking off with a massively multiplayer Star Trek game and some Choose Your Own Adventure stuff...crazy ambition, probably ten or fifteen years ahead of their time from that perspective.
But I thought it was really interesting - part of the appeal was getting back to small teams, short development periods, a chance to work on a lot of different titles and do some really fast-track learning, and also a real chance to get back to basics, and as a designed that sort of approach really appealed as a challenge.
I think on the other side there was the ubiquitous nature of mobile - everybody had a mobile, or everybody was going to get one, so if we can produce some quality content for mobile phones, then consoles will be a niche and mobile entertainment will be mass market.
That's not to demean console or retail product, but I think going forward - and you'll certainly see this with Tag - that mobile is very much at the core of what we do, just because the market penetration is so huge, the potential is so huge.
And I still believe that - we're what, seven or eight years into mobile gaming in one form or another, and we've only just scratched the surface.
Q: It seems to be a pretty interesting time with the N-Gage and iPhone shaking things up, Neil Young setting up his company - a number of things seem to be coming together now?
Paul Farley: When you look at mobile and see the 4 or 5 per cent that download games and paying for content, versus the 50 or 60 per cent that are quite happy to play games on their phones - we've got a long way to go and lots of barriers to overcome.
I think the iPhone and N-Gage are certainly going to have an impact. For us, Jamie and I have both had experience of being on the publisher side of things, as well as being a developer, and the previous console and mobile experience - we really wanted to something a little different whereby we felt we had to be in the top 5 or 10 per cent in terms of quality, really focus on gameplay, and try and do something different.
It's very hard with mobile - on the one hand the cost of entry is very low, the SDKs are free and a phone costs you a couple of hundred quid. Unfortunately then you've got to support hundreds of them...so the barriers are low, but in terms of breaking original content it's very hard. It's all about brands.
We know that's going to change, and it is slow, but we're starting to see some breakout hits on mobile, titles that are doing well, and for us we're not an EA - we don't have huge overheads - so for us a hit game is a fraction of the size that an EA game potentially needs to be.
And again, for Tag, we're focused on building a brand, building a franchise, and exploiting that over a long period of time - and that's a hard long-term goal to have.
But saying that, last year we were profitable.
Q: That's pretty quick, isn't it?
Paul Farley: Yeah, we were working to a five-year plan where break-even was year three, and profit was year four - so to do what we've done in the market we're in, with the competition and how difficult it is to break original content...and we didn't do that off the back of a lot of work for hire, we did it from original content and a bit of licensed stuff.
So that was really positive, and I think last year proved to us that the business strategy was correct, that the quality of what we were doing, and certainly the general brand of Tag was working. This year is very much about taking that forward, diversifying onto other platforms - but certainly not at the expense of mobile.
Our strategy now is very much the portfolio approach. A third of what we do now is original IP, around a third is licensed, and a third is work for hire. I think with that it does ebb and flow, so with that so far we're released one licensed title - and licensing is a hard game because we don't do movie licenses and we don't have the purchasing power to go out and spend hundreds of thousands...so we've got to be pretty clever about what we do.
So - work for hire is great, but you've got to do the other two things first before that starts coming on board, and we've actually seen a massive interest now in work for hire. I think a number of publishers and media companies now are crying out for good quality developers they can trust, so that's great and ticking over nicely now.
With original IP, it's always hard to put resource on original IP, but that's long term.
Q: And ultimately that's what you want, because it's all coming back to you.
Paul Farley: Yep, and that's where things like iPhone and N-Gage are really important because you can publish direct. Mobile is behind technology-wise in some ways, but in terms of route to market it certainly is the way that digital entertainment is going to be consumed going forwards.
So that's a bit of a shift in mindset for us, but what that does do - and a lot of developers are naturally excited about this - we can have a direct relationship with the consumer. We don't need to print lots of DVDs and boxes, and all the rest of it - all the cost and difficulty associated with that. We can actually publish direct ourselves.
I think the two big issues that jump out for me in that model is that, number one, you've got to fund all that upfront yourselves, or find a partner for that. With original IP it's especially hard.
And the second thing is that we're not marketers - we have no idea about marketing games, so we either have to buy that experience in or we need to use a partner that has that expertise.
I think that's especially true of iPhone and N-Gage. iPhone - fantastic, great piece of kit. The SDK is a breeze to use, we've been working with it for a couple of months now. We're just going full on for an original IP title on that first up - it's 3D, it's connected, it basically uses everything except for the location based stuff for now, but who knows? We're throwing everything at this because we know there'll be a lot of mobile games converted, a lot of 2D casual titles, so you've got to stand out.
We could have taken one of our Java titles, brushed up the graphics a bit, but that's not what we're about - we'll bide our time and make sure that when we launch, we've got something really spectacular. That's important for us, and we know it's not going to be easy, because we're not just going up against traditional mobile developers, but also console developers as well.
Q: It's a potential concern when you have people put out a lot of content that's maybe not of the optimum quality - if it floods the market, and consumers aren't blown away, does the format suffer a perception hit?
Paul Farley: I think we've seen that in mobile generally. I think we're at a stage now where things have matured within the mass market mobile environment. Whereas three or four years ago you had a lot of bedroom developers churning out a lot of rubbish - not even just a lot of original rubbish, but licensed rubbish as well - and really the market was saturated and the quality was poor.
One of the things I feel is very important is repeat business, so a lot of people who downloaded a game three or four years ago - it probably didn't even work, didn't even pass the menu screen - but if it did then the gameplay experience was poor and people would think that they've wasted five pounds.
But now, for the most part, the quality level has been raised significantly, and I'd say that if you were downloading a game on to any half-decent phone, you'd get a good experience. I'm at the point now where I'm playing mobile games and they stand up in their own right.
But it's a hard sell - so those that aren't doing it right and putting any old rubbish onto mobile, you've got one sell, great. But you're damaging your future sales, and you're damaging everybody else's as well. So we have to get to this point where quality is being seen as important.
I think there's this perception still that mobile games are the poor relation of gaming, and they're really not - I've seen better mobile titles than DS or PSP titles. Okay, graphically they're not quite as capable, but in terms of gameplay there's some great stuff out there. We need to educate people and make them aware.
Q: The office you're based in is part of a new building, and the sign outside says "Scottish Enterprise" on it - is that part of the reason why you're set up in Dundee?
Paul Farley: Sure, it is - originally we were based across the water in Fife, and we were very much aware of what was available through Scottish Enterprise. We set up the business in a year that, for budgetary reasons, Scottish Enterprise was quite restricted in what it could do.
And I think we were very fortunate, because we were bringing together Tag with three very experienced industry veterans, with a good portfolio of hit games in our back catalogue - and that opens doors not only within the industry, but also with public bodies as well. And I think we have a good story to tell, and people like a good story, so that put us pretty high up there.
Ultimately, being in Dundee - it's a creative location and it's a hub for the games industry. We're starting to see that grow - traditionally we've had two or three big companies, or big developers anyway, but now we're in a much healthier position with a lot of small start-up companies, there's great diversity.
Within Dundee you've got everything from the massively multiplayer, through to retail console development, console download development, mobile, interactive TV - we're pretty much ticking all the boxes - and students as well. Some fantastic talent as well.
But it's still taking a long time to get experienced people, and I think there's still a perception - down south at least - that Dundee is this grimy, dirty dark place. And it isn't, it's an up-and-coming city, with a youthfulness and vitality that it didn't have ten years ago. I'd challenge anyone to come and see how it's changed. It's never going to be Edinburgh, Glasgow or London, but we're half an hour from the Highlands, where you've got river rafting, snowboarding, skiing - whatever. And if you want the big city thing at the weekends, you're an hour from there by train. I think there are a lot of positives.
We're in a purpose-built building for digital media, there has been support from Scottish Media, it's a great space, and we get on very well with the other games developers in Dundee - there's a great community spirit.
Q: Is it hard to attract people to Dundee?
Paul Farley: Well the appeal for us is that we're getting experienced staff, probably coming up to their late twenties or early thirties, they have a family or want to settle down. And they're looking for a job where either they can make games that are small and fun, enjoy day-to-day, work solid hours - work hard during the day, but go home at the end of it and have a life.
That's always been very important for us at Tag - we don't do overtime, we don't do crunch. We've been going for two years and we've never had crunch. We never intend to, and we're very strong that crunch equals bad management, bad project management, bad timekeeping, or exploitation of staff. And that's not what we're about.
So we want to create the sort of environment where people are positive about what they're doing, and enjoy it. We're picking up people at a certain stage at their careers, and for what you'd get in London they've got a five-bedroom house, a sports car in the drive, and still have money left over.
Paul Farley is the MD of Tag Games. Interview by Phil Elliott.
This article is part of Scotland Week on GamesIndustry.biz, sponsored by Dundee City Council and Realtime Worlds.