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World in Motion

Tue 01 Dec 2009 8:00am GMT / 3:00am EST / 12:00am PST
BusinessDevelopment

Lightning Fish's Simon Prytherch on the Wii market, the impact of Natal and PS3 motion control and what the UK should focus on

Lightning Fish Games

Lightning Fish is a developer of video games in Oxfordshire, UK. The company is currently designing and...

lightningfishgames.c...

Lightning Fish Games was set up in June last year and announced its first game at the beginning of 2009 - NewU Fitness First Personal Trainer for the Wii, which will also be released by Ubisoft in the US as My Fitness Coach 2.

Now working on new products, and with plans to move onto Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, here Simon Prytherch, the company's CEO, talks about the state of the Wii market, the impact that Natal and Sony's motion controller can have and what the UK should be focusing on in terms of its place in the global industry.

Q: How has your first title been doing in its first couple of months on sale? It's fair to say that there are more fitness titles in the market now than there were even a year ago.

Simon Prytherch: I think in that market, you need pretty heavy marketing. Look at EA Sports Active. With NewU I thought it was a good move that Black Bean put it with Ubisoft, because they're one of the better publishers in this genre. It's going, in my opinion, steadily. Its highest position was 14 or 15 in the charts, and it's still in the twenties. It's had retail shelf space.

Q: Which, without Ubisoft being involved, it might not have had.

Simon Prytherch: Yes - and we've still got the Christmas and New Year period when fitness titles have a peak to go through. When Ubisoft picked it up for Europe, they didn't pick it up for the US initially, and now they've done that. It's going to be launched there as My Fitness Coach 2 - so they've obviously got confidence in it.

Q: What sort of lessons have you learned?

Simon Prytherch: It's probably on the business side, more than anything - as we grow we need a lot more administration and financial stuff than we'd normally have expected. I've run developers in the past, but these days it's much more professional industry. When you're dealing with publishers they expect you to have a much closer control over your business.

That's not a bad thing - it's absolutely a good thing. We've matured as people - I've got over 20 of experience now, and Mike's got over 25 years. So it's being able to have a close eye on your financial condition that wasn't there in developers in the past - and I think why a lot of them failed in the end, because they didn't realise they were running at a loss until it was too late. Working for publishers, I've seen that happen.

What this last year has given us is the opportunity to deliver two products in a year - delivered pretty much to time, and to budget. It's not a huge budget, it's only a small team still, though we've grown to 18 people now.

It's a team that, on the surface is very experienced just for one game, but we're in the process of transitioning to two separate games - NewU, plus another product. I see it as very positive that we've run a profitable business for over a year, we're growing the team, and we've got a lot of significant interest from major publishers.

Q: What skills have developing for the Wii given you as a team? Next year will be a pretty big year for motion control, after all.

Simon Prytherch: Wii is a very casual, wide market. It's a market that doesn't care about flashy graphics - it cares more about the gameplay and experience, and potentially the characterisation. You wouldn't normally describe NewU as a game - it's a serious way to get fit. Two of the QA guys who were working on it lost a stone and a half each.

But what it's allowed us to do is build up a tool chain and technology for gesture recognition, for editing very small clips of video together. We've managed to get the game production, film production and in a way a gesture recognition system that allows us to make fitness titles - and other self-improvement titles - both on Wii and potentially Natal plus the PS3 motion controller... and do other genres as well which can utilise that technology and toolset.

Q: And what about the Wii market - a lot's been written about its evolution this year.

Simon Prytherch: I don't think you can ever write Nintendo off, but the Wii market - from a third party software developer and publisher perspective - is over-saturated with product. Consumers have been damaged by a lot of sub-standard software, so now they only trust big Nintendo brands.

Q: And when consumers don't have so much money to spend, they're even more likely to attach to recognised brands...

Simon Prytherch: Yes - so going forward we're moving onto other platforms, and we always have been over the course of the company. But in this coming year we're definitely going to be doing PS3 and Xbox 360 titles.

Q: How much impact do you think motion control will have on the market next year?

Simon Prytherch: The short answer is that it'll have a huge impact. The longer answer is that it'll only have a huge impact once people start designing specifically for those controllers. The first-person shooters and driving games - they've already got a really good controller that people are really happy with as a hardcore audience.

There will be totally new genres that will be developed for those controllers, and it would be foolish of me to try and predict what they'll be - but I'd say they do involve a lot more characterisation and story, and a lot more social interaction.

If you're talking about something like Natal, where you're using your whole body to control something as opposed to just your thumbs, then it's a whole different way of looking at things. You've got to look at people's fatigue levels, and not keep them jumping around for hours on end... you need to give them rest periods.

Q: The PS3 and 360 should bring the online multiplayer angle to motion control in a big way - how important do you think it will be for those experiences to be connected?

Simon Prytherch: I see it as a crucial part of the mix. If you ask me to pinpoint what advantages the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 have over previous platforms I'd say there are two main things - their connectivity with the internet, especially the Live service and PlayStation Network, and also the ability to interact with them in a way that doesn't use a traditional, scary joypad controller.

For the online side it you only have to look at Facebook and the proliferation of online networking - the way that people interact now, they want to be entertained, but they also want to keep in touch with their friends. If you can combine the two, where you play games that allow you to socially interact, then it becomes a much more fun experience.

I'll give you an example - we're doing fitness titles - I might go to the gym with a few mates because I don't like training on my own. But if I could do a workout in front of my console and be joined by my mates in their own homes, I might not go to the gym so much, but it would still be the same socially interactive experience - and I'd probably do it more often that way, because trying to align when you can all go to the gym... it becomes a lot easier.

Q: Staying in is the new going out - that's what we've learned in the past year... From the perspective of a developer moving on to those platforms, what do you think will be an interesting trend to emerge in the medium term?

Simon Prytherch: We've had to bring in people from outside of the games industry to help us with all of these areas - for example, directors and script writers from the film industry, even cameramen and lighting people.

And we're looking at authors what might have had success with books, we're looking at people that have worked on Facebook applications, people that have managed communities online, people who have backend server experience - because I'm seeing the games developer moving from something that delivers finished product to something that delivers an ongoing service, and that's a much more far-reaching task which requires a much wider skill set.

As a small developer we can't provide all of that straight away, but we can work with key partners and start to build up our expertise.

Q: The service mentality has traditionally been restricted to the MMO genre, but now games like LittleBigPlanet - which has released something like 25 patches - is up there as well. It's almost episodic in a way, so having an ongoing experience starts to introduce new opportunities?

Simon Prytherch: With our technology and toolset it's one of the areas that we want to grow into - producing episodic, story-led content. We're able to do it quickly and cheaply compared to other developers, and we have a toolset to enable us to take advantage of real actors with the aim of producing, say, an episode of a title every one or two months.

This is something that we're actively pursuing at the moment with new products.

Q: Do you look at companies like Telltale for inspiration?

Simon Prytherch: Yes - Sam & Max is definitely a pioneer in that territory, and I have the utmost admiration for some of the other things Telltale has been doing. Because when they started doing it, there wasn't a large market for it, and whoever set up Telltale had a lot of foresight I think.

I can see developers becoming a lot more like TV production companies, and they'll produce regular content to fill the content pipeline, while people like Microsoft and Sony will become the broadcasters of the future, delivering online entertainment which might be interactive, or slightly less interactive depending on how deep you want to go into an experience.

Q: Core titles are becoming episodic in a way, now that DLC is becoming a pillar of post-launch activity. It's not strictly the same, but it is educating users to expect an ongoing service.

Simon Prytherch: With something like fitness - and we're seen as experts in that field now after two released Wii titles - there's almost an infinite amount of material you could put down as DLC post-launch, from new trainers to new workouts, which might use the same exercises, but in a different way in order to target a different goal.

We might release exercises that use different accessories, such as dumbbells, for example.

Q: The point is, as a developer you've got the ability to make those decisions, and to an extent respond to what users want.

Simon Prytherch: I think the biggest change is that we're making the initial retail product as a sort of shell that we can slot whatever content we want into. From the initial design concept, that's the principle.

With our latest title we can change virtually everything, from the look of the front end, to update every piece of content and downloaded. So going forward, once it's in someone's home we can carry on changing the product into something else, and also selling them new content - not just for a three-month window after release, but possible for two or three years.

You see it with the dashboard on the Xbox 360 - look at the difference between that now, from when it was launched.

Q: As an independent developer in the UK, how do you feel the land lies at the moment?

Simon Prytherch: I think we're a relative success story in the UK market - there's been a lot of consolidation and closure in the past couple of years, and there aren't many studios that have grown in that last year, especially as aggressively as we have.

But I think that's because we're trying to play not just to our own strengths, but also to that of the UK development market. I see the UK market as excelling in several fields, and one of them is creativity. You only have to look at what's happened with the design-led industries, such as automotive design, fashion, music, as well as the games industry, to see that a lot of the best products in the world have been designed here. Maybe not monetised here, but the original ideas came from the UK.

The other aspect, and something that I think a lot of developers underestimate, as entertainment products become bigger and more all-encompassing, with social networks and other media such as film and television, and you're just part of a mix, you're working with more and more collaborators.

We sit here in GMT, and therefore we can be the central management and creative force behind these products - one of the reasons you need those teams somewhere central, like the UK, is because of the consolidation of the industry.

There are fewer and fewer developers and publishers, but more content being required by the consumer, so someone's got to provide that. As those developers and publishers get bigger, then need a higher level of expertise in the management and creative sides - and that's what the UK should be providing.

We haven't really touched on how the market has changed - I'd say the retail market, the boxed product market, is important for certain massive hits to have that consumer awareness.

But outside of that handful of major triple-A releases it's going to be much more about a bigger package, which involves digital distribution, might involve merging with other media, it might be supporting a film or book release, or a major product launch. So you might be doing things in association with the launch of a new car as part of the whole package.

Simon Prytherch is CEO of Lightning Fish Games. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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