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A Journey to the East: From Dundee to Tokyo

How BearTrap games took Sky Patrol to TGS

Set up in October 2012, BearTrap Games is a small team who'd previously worked together at Cohort in Dundee, a studio which folded under the shifting pressures of a changing market.

Founded by creative director Fin McGechie, technical director Gordon Mclaine, operational director James Scanlan and marketing director Grant Alexander, the company has been quietly ticking over on its first major project ever since. Now that game: Sky Patrol, has its very own stand at the Tokyo Game Show, courtesy of Shintaro Kanaoya's Chorus. Alexander gives us some background.

"We (Cohort) produced a little game for PSN called Me Monstar! and it just went so well," Alexander explains. "I managed to do a deal with Sony America then Sony Europe to have it as a PSN + game just as Cohort was going under, so we knew we had a good team, and when we all went our separate ways we kept talking. Then we had some names form the industry ask us why we hadn't gone for it yet, so we did, back in October 2012.

"Since then we've been working hard. We're claiming Sky Patrol is our first game, and it is our first major release, but we have released two small games already. The first was around Christmas - we used it as part of our press message, a little game to say 'hello, here's what we do.' I wouldn't recommend you download it, it's just Snake with Christmas bits! We re-themed it for Valentines day for Android."

"Sky Patrol came about as part of App campus, which is run by Microsoft and the Aalto University in Finland - they gave us some funding to keep it exclusive on their platform for a while"

McGechie and McLaine are both names which are well known on the Scottish development scene, and Alexander is especially full of praise for the latter, despite some of his methods.

"Gordon is a complete genius," Alexander laughs, "which means that he often wants to do everything the long way so that he has complete control over the tech side. Which can be a bit frustrating! We're very lucky to have him, he's extremely talented. However, we realised that Gordon hadn't actually published any iOS games, so we wanted to be able to make a few mistakes."

Hence two under-the-radar releases, all preparation for Sky Patrol. So far, it's only available on Windows Phone, already cutting out a swathe of mobile users, but a decision that feels particularly curious for the Japanese market - I ask Alexander about the choice.

"Sky Patrol came about as part of App Campus, which is run by Microsoft and the Aalto University in Finland - they gave us some funding to keep it exclusive on their platform for a while. We're getting a lot of support from them, which is great. We've just done a deal to get it free for a day, which should really boost numbers.

"It's a small platform, though. We know that, but the news stories form the back of going to TGS with Chorus have been huge for us. They've brought a lot of momentum."

"We're not doing the Windows Phone version in Japan," Shintaro chimes in. "That was a global deal that they had with App Campus, but Windows Phone penetration here is low anyway, so it's not something we're considering for any game. We very much have an iOS and Android focus and that's what we'll be showing at TGS."

From the perspective of someone who has only ever attended Western shows, the concept of exhibiting mobile games at such an enormous carnival of lights seems an odd one, even though TGS is a very different event. What sort of cachet can a mobile title really gain from such an event?

"It'll be interesting to see, I think," muses Shin. "There's something inherently harder about showing a mobile game in a show forum than something that looks fantastic on a 50-inch screen, but I do think the exposure will be great. What I'm really excited about is the fact that we put the game forward (to the TGS selection committee) and it ended up getting chosen from over 300 entries. It was a fairly eclectic bunch, the winners, I think there were only three or four from the UK to be chosen.

"as long as there are shows, as mobile starts to dominate, people will expect to see those games there"

"Thinking back to PAX Prime, they have a big indie megabooth and a lot of those games are PC or console. Tablets and phones are harder, but people are getting more used to them - as long as there are shows, as mobile starts to dominate, people will expect to see those games there."

Another seemingly anomalous factor is that Sky Patrol is a premium title, not free-to-play. Does that make it a tougher prospect in Japan's crowded marketplace?

"I've been back in Japan for a week and I've realised that there's nothing more expensive than making free-to-play games in Japan now," Shintaro laughs. "If you're going to do it, you have to buy users in bulk, it's a very expensive business to be in. What we're doing with Sky Patrol is making it premium, so we have to get people to play it before they make that purchasing decision. TGS and other shows are hopefully going to be a big part of that.

"The other big part of us being over here is getting in front of the games media. One of the best things I've noticed is that they tend to be pushing mobile more and more. Sites and magazines that maybe used to have a small mobile section are now having more dedicated coverage, putting a lot into it. As much as TGS is about getting consumers in front of the game, we're also here to get media to evangelise it. We're not about to spend half a million dollars on acquiring free-to-play users."

A vertical shooter with a very Western art style, Sky Patrol certainly has some cross-border appeal. I ask Alexander if this global approach was always the plan.

"Sort of," he admits. "The art style is very much Fin's, but when we were looking at the genre and style of the game, we were actually looking at making a free-to-play game, if I'm honest - that's just what the market seemed to be demanding. Then we spoke to some friends who started asking, 'Why are you making a game for the sake of making a free-to-play title?' The alarm bells started ringing and we went back and tried to work out what we really wanted to do.

"The international market is going to be huge for us. We've had a few opportunities. When Gree were making a lot of moves we had several companies approach us for different markets, but when the connection with Shin came to light we took the chance. We knew the market was huge, so we didn't want to ignore it."

Sky Patrol isn't a game with a lot of text or particularly strong cultural references, so I'm curious as to what the process of taking it to the Japanese market actually entails. Turns out, there's more to it than meets the eye.

"In the game we've kept the amount of content that will need localisation to a bare minimum," agrees Grant. "We were worried about item and character names and things like that, kept an art style that sits nicely in the middle. But Shin's advice has helped a lot, we're introducing some entirely new elements that Shin has strongly advised on - end of level bosses and things like that. A lot of them are things we wanted to do but had run out of resources for, that we now know are pretty essential for certain markets."

"The end of level bosses one is actually a really big one," Shin adds. "When we were showing it to a few people in Japan, their immediate question was, 'Is there a boss?' The assumption is that, in a vertical shooter, there is one. There's something missing otherwise, players feel let down. Mostly it's been pretty easy, though. We'd looked at making the characters have a more anime style, but part of what we're trying to do with Chorus is to bring something different to the Japanese market. If you import stuff that's too similar to what's already out here, it won't differentiate itself and ends up drowning in a sea of other games that look the same. The art style isn't like Asian art, nobody in this region would have been able to do what Fin has done - that's a USP."

"Funnily enough, now, the two biggest retailers of games in Japan are Apple and Google. You couldn't get two more Western companies. That idea that Japanese gamers only play Japanese games is really changing"

The flow of games from Japan to the West has faltered considerably in recent years, from reasons as diverse as platform changes to currency rates, but with the partial retreat of Gree and DeNA to home turf, I wonder if there has been a rush of Western devs looking to capitalise by exporting Eastward.

"I don't think we're seeing people coming over en masse, certainly not suddenly," says Shin. "The UKTI actually just gave a presentation on helping UK businesses to come over and actually pointed out that it's something they've been doing for 15 years. Still, it's hard to point at anyone and say, 'They've had massive success,' perhaps with the exception of Supercell.

"I do think there's more of a chance than ever for Western games to succeed in this market, though, for two reasons. One is that, back when it was more traditionally a console market, and before the information flow of the internet, Japanese users didn't know about Western games, didn't understand them. So publishers bringing games over found that people had very little awareness, no concept of where it was coming from. That was a barrier. The other is the change from physical to digital. A physical retailer is almost always going to be more conservative in their stocking. They'll fill the shelves with Konami, Capcom, Namco, not Call of Duty. Traditionally, it's always been more appealing to Japanese consumers. With digital, retailers aren't that roadblock anymore.

"Funnily enough, now, the two biggest retailers of games in Japan are Apple and Google. You couldn't get two more Western companies. If you look at the stuff they choose to feature, even over here, they do push more Western content than any Japanese packaged good retailer ever would. That idea that Japanese gamers only play Japanese games is really changing."

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