nDreams' Patrick O'Luanaigh

The digital firm's CEO talks Facebook, Home and pursuing innovation on new platforms

While many companies find an angle - platform or genre - and focus efforts into a single product, Farnborough, UK-based nDreams has taken a different approach in the past couple of years, experimenting in a variety of sectors, both self-publishing and working with partners.

Here, CEO Patrick O'Luanaigh explains why that method has worked in the past, how the various digital platforms have developed, the company's learnings from working on Facebook, and why a greater focus is likely to come in the future.

Q: Why was nDreams started?

Patrick O'Luanaigh: Well, we've been around for about three and a half years now - I was formerly the creative director at Eidos, but I really wanted to set up my own studio, it's something I've always wanted to do. So I set up nDreams really to try and make innovative, different games.

What we tend not to do is focus on the big traditional games - we tend to work around the edges of the space, with brands or TV companies or film directors; or publishing on new platforms such as PlayStation Home; or bringing alternate reality games to console.

We work around the edges, and everything we've done so far has been around those lines. Our biggest success so far has been a game called Xi for Sony, which is a big alternate reality game in Home and has had three million visits in three months. We're really pleased with that.

We've also been doing some brand stuff - including a game with Lewis Hamilton for Reebok, some things with Crunchie, and a 3D Facebook game for a dance movie.

But we're also doing more and more publishing - we've published more and more apartments and items in PlayStation Home, as well as our first Facebook game, called Spirit of Adventure which is aimed at women. It's got great narrative, great puzzles, which open up week-by-week.

And we've been growing slowly - we're up to 25 people, we're self-funded, we're independent, we've never had any venture capital. We're exploring the new digital spaces that have opened up, so we're in a situation now where we're starting to focus a lot more. We've tried a lot of things out, but now we have a really big focus on Home - we see it as a growing platform in its own right, somewhere you can actually create a proper, big game, rather than just using it to promote PS3 or PSN games.

We've got some very cool things along those lines that we're working on; and we're also doing some very cool things - some very different kinds of games on PSN and XBLA. We think those are very exciting ideas, that we're buzzing to tell people about.

So - we're looking at new IPs, more and more publishing, and we'll continue to do some work-for-hire on some of the new platforms as well.

Q: Many companies, especially when starting up, tend to focus on a specific thread - although nDreams has dabbled... Was that an intentional idea to not get bogged down in one particular platform or play style?

Patrick O'Luanaigh: I think there's an argument that until you know exactly what you want to do, you should try a few things out and see what works - particularly when there are new spaces opening up. That was where we came from - the digital platforms were all very new, the App Store and Home, lots of new things coming on all the time.

We didn't feel we knew which one was going to be the winner - Facebook was taking off, but we didn't just want to dive into that, we wanted to play around. We're into doing innovative things - that's something that grabs our attention - but that precludes us from doing lots of things on the same platform... we'd get bored quickly.

That's not to say that if we find something hugely successful we won't focus on it, but we haven't really found that until now, so the idea was to explore different areas and try things out - discover which platforms were the most commercial, which we can make money on.

It seems quite a sensible model - if you want to go dig gold, you drill lots of holes and see which seam is the richest... and then focus on that. We're now moving into a phase where we've got a much better idea of where we want to go, so we're focusing more on a couple of different areas.

Q: You mentioned the words "Facebook" and "gold" in the same sentence there, although you missed "rush"... There have been a couple of companies that have had major success on that platform, so lots of companies are going into that space - but what's your appraisal of Facebook and what the opportunities are there at this point?

Patrick O'Luanaigh: Based on my experience, my view is that it's very, very hard. Commercially there are a lot of big challenges now - advertising on Facebook is getting more expensive, the cost-per-click that you have to pay is getting higher. Unless you have a load of games, and the scale and size to do a lot of stuff, then it's difficult to get people to part with money - it's 3-5 per cent of people on average paying for stuff on Facebook.

In order to make money you need to have millions of players - not just hundreds of thousands - and that's hard without marketing and PR. The big guys, like Zynga, Playfish and Playdom have got to a stage where they can spend an awful lot of money on marketing - there are stories about Zynga spending $75 million per year on marketing... which I can believe. That gets you a lot of attention, a lot of players - and they've worked incredibly hard as one of the first people in. They've built on it, and got a lot of funding to develop that.

But for a small, independent player now it's very hard - and pretty much impossible to do on your own. We've tried some things out and we've found the biggest successes where we've worked with partners, with a brand that has a big Facebook following already, that can help bring a lot of players to the game.

At the moment we're taking what we're good at - making innovative, creative games with story and narrative - and trying to find partners to work with. That doesn't mean we're not still publishing, but I don't believe that to be a successful publisher and developer that you have to do everything yourself. I think that's the approach we originally took, but it's hard.

Marketing and PR particularly, and financing, can be challenging - we're getting through that. And we've made great learnings as well. For example, you've got to spend half your development budget after launch, which is something that's very different for developers - after marketing you end up spending just a quarter of what you've put aside actually on the game pre-launch, which is very unnatural.

So we've learned a lot, we're continuing to push the stuff we've got on Facebook - we think it's a very interesting area, but to be honest we're slightly down on Facebook, because it's proven a lot harder than we thought. Partly that's the fact that we came to it slightly late - a year or so after Zynga and Playfish had success.

Q: Marketing for digital platforms in general seems to be a challenge; the more open the platform, the harder it is to get visibility, unless you have the right relationships. In your experience, where's the wise money spent?

Patrick O'Luanaigh: That's a good question - I saw a great talk recently from Bigpoint, and if you look at the number of players they've got and the growth they've seen, you have to say that the wise money in many areas is Bigpoint's money. What they're doing is spending an awful lot of money on Google keyword advertising.

Facebook advertising does work, as long as you can get your money right - as long as your cost-per-click is less than the average amount you make per new player coming to your app, you're laughing. You just do more and more advertising, and make more and more money. It's just so hard getting to that stage.

As a developer who's publishing you either need to get a great marketing director and raise a nice budget, figure out the best way to do it, try lots of things and see what works. I spoke to Michael Action Smith from Mind Candy and he said they tried TV advertising, and found that it was really successful for them... whereas I'd have thought it was the last thing you'd want to do.

Or the other option is to go and find partners to help make it work - there's no harm in finding a great brand or company that has access to lots of eyeballs, maybe 1 million followers on Twitter or whatever. If you find people with that access, then use that relationship. Get celebrities on board to help promote the game.

Because if you've got a really good, creative idea but no marketing behind it then it's incredbly hard to get recognised by Apple and featured on the App Store, or whatever. The longer a platform lives... look at Facebook now, it's hugely crowded, and that makes it much harder - so if you can get into a platform early, then it could be great.

That's why I think we've had so much success in Home, because we were there early - so we're looking at new platforms now that we could potentially get in early on ourselves.

Q: Talking of Home, when it was launched it seemed like an interesting idea, but maybe a bit aimless - there didn't seem to be a solid objective as a diversion for PS3 owners. It's evolved a great deal since then, but how do you view and evaluate that evolution?

Patrick O'Luanaigh: Well, we've followed Home very closely. I think there's no denying that at the beginning there was definitely a lack of content, and possibly not the clearest idea of where it was going and what it was there for. I think it was a social platform about community that promoted PS3 and PSN games, and what Sony was doing.

Now that focus has turned from Sony much more towards a gaming platform - now there are 'quests' within Home, and there's a real focus on making proper games for it. We're huge proponents of Home and we think the HDK is very powerful, the tools are great - it's basically a fantastic little MMO engine that you can do a lot of stuff with.

We're now looking at not just making great apartments, or clothing, or items, or a lot of the other stuff we've done - but actually making proper big games that you can't get anywhere else. There are about 12-14 million people using Home at the moment, and that's growing all of the time as the PS3 installed base grows - and as it gets a lot more content.

People that haven't been to Home for a while should really go take a look - I think you'd be amazed at how much there is in there. There's so much potential that's untapped in Home, and we want to be one of the first guys doing a big Home franchise that makes you want to go there just for that. I think it'll be a great moment when that happens.

Q: How do you make an MMO based on Home, structurally? Is it an extension of the spaces within Home?

Patrick O'Luanaigh: You'll have to wait and see - the stuff we're doing isn't a true MMO, as if we're trying to make World of Warcraft within Home. That would be great; but you can create all sorts of spaces and lots of fantastic things to do in them - and Home itself has this questing system now...

I don't want to give too much away, but it's multi-player and single-player, with some stealth adventure narrative. It's very exciting, with a great story; it's not an MMO as such, but it has elements of lots of players meeting up at points during it.

Q: If the work you do is fairly experimental, does that make it difficult for you to define success?

Patrick O'Luanaigh: I think so - we like to try and do things that haven't been done before, to try new things out, and there are good and bad sides to that. The risk is that it's new and unproven; you're much safer doing a me-too Farmville-type game.

But it's also where things get interesting - if you get it right, you can be the first person doing this kind of game. You can be the big company in a big new area.

Patrick O'Luanaigh is CEO of nDreams. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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