Jesse Schell has been running Schell Games since 2004, with the team currently working on Bigpoint's The Mummy Online MMO. Prior to founding his own studio, Schell worked for seven years as a creative director at Disney and before that a circus performer. Ahead of next week's Unite Conference, we catch up with the before presenting a keynote at the Montreal event.
Here we talk about working with the Unity middleware, the challenges of developing on some of the newer platforms, how the browser-based MMO is coming along and the state of the DS market.
Q: You're keynoting the Unite Conference - what were the reasons behind your accepting that invitation?
Jesse Schell: Well, our studio is very passionate about Unity, and I've been a huge proponent of 3D on the web for ages and ages, and I've been fascinated by the momentum that Unity is starting to get. We've been working with Unity quite a bit and I feel like it's coming into kind of a break-out year here - so when they asked me about speaking, I was pretty excited.
Q: The company has some pretty high-profile proponents as well as yourself - I remember it was Phil Harrison that keynoted a couple of years ago - so there is a good momentum. Is part of that the platform's flexibility? In days when development costs can get pretty high, is that important?
Jesse Schell: I think part of it is being able to have an engine that runs well in-browser without having to think about it... that's a pretty good thing to have. Then there's the whole multi-platform aspect that's very appealing - right now it's hard to know what the right market for a game to be in. Should a team be focusing on iPhone, on console, on the web?
This helps people feel like they can hedge their bets a little, because if they start in one place they can always port it over to another one if it doesn't work out. Or if it does work out they can get it to a lots of different places quite cheaply.
Q: What is your perspective on the platforms available for start-ups, splinter developers, micro-studios and the like? With iPhone, iPad, Facebook and now browser games really taking off, there's a lot of choice for products that are more affordable to make?
Jesse Schell: Yep, there's a tonne of choices.
Q: So what advice would you offer to people trying to make those decisions?
Jesse Schell: My advice would be to make a game on those platforms that you think can make you some money [laughs] - because what's going to make you money on different platforms will be different things at different times. It's not like there's any one platform that is the right platform for every game.
It's some combination of quality and novelty that really drives sales on a given platform, and if you've got some idea that got something that will work really well on a particular platform, that's what you should focus on.
I often tell people that if they've not sure what platform they should be on, then their idea might not be strong enough - because a lot of things that really succeed have a lot to do with the platform.
For example, look at something like Angry Birds, which is a huge hit on the iPhone. If you try to do that on the Wii or XBLA I don't think you'd have nearly the same success - because so much of it is that it's a nice touch-based game.
Q: The same is happening on Facebook. Meanwhile with browser games you're reliant on traffic, and with the console download spaces it's all about relationships... so there is choice - but where are the places to make money?
Jesse Schell: Well, you can make money all over the place, but the thing is, most of the markets are crowded. As it becomes easier to make games, more and more people are doing it - and more choice for the developer just reflects that the consumer has more choice as well.
They have games available all over the place, so there's more and more competition, and one of the things that makes it hard is that you need some kind of marketing concept - how are people going to find out about your game? You can cross your fingers that your game will be so great that everyone will talk about it, but there's so much to talk about.
The world is so crowded and there are a lot of great games that come out... viral appeal alone isn't enough to make them a huge success. If you don't have some way to get the marketing going, you're going to have some challenge.
Q: Indeed - so which are the platforms you can make money on, then? There's a balance between open versus closed platforms, and the resulting visibility you're likely to achieve. There are some stand-out hits on the iPhone, but so many apps to rise above in the first place...
Jesse Schell: Yes, absolutely. 90 per cent on games on there lose money, or something like that.
Q: It's a bit na´ve to think that if a game has quality, that's enough to succeed?
Jesse Schell: It's better than nothing, but the world is so big - there are so many things going on that for you to make something that's really going to stand out on a pure viral basis it needs to be incredibly unique and give a lot of fans an easy way to talk about it. Then, maybe it can happen, and we've seen a few of those lately.
But a part of the challenge is that, while it's easier on the web... I can send you an email or IM, you can click the link and you're playing the game. But if I find a cool iPhone game, how am I going to tell my friends? Some platforms are more- or less-suited to virality.
Q: On the flipside, it's very exciting for the industry, to see so many new ways for consumers to play games - I guess that's a combination of things, from new generations of players to platforms, price points, availability and so on?
Jesse Schell: It is a lot of things, but I think the main driver really is that things are possible now that weren't possible before. Even just five or ten years ago, the idea of selling games for 99 cents was, like, "How are you going to do that?" There wasn't a platform for it - but now there is, you can also make games you couldn't make before.
So it's really just blown open the doors for the types of games people are making, or trying to make. There are different price points, games where you pay while you're playing - in the game, and that changes the way you play - games that involve your friends in different ways... all these doors have been opened at once, and more are continuing to be opened.
Q: So how is work coming along on The Mummy Online?
Jesse Schell: It's coming along great. It's an exciting property for us, because it's so fun - it's a movie all about guys running around shooting each other, while finding treasure and fighting monsters. It almost makes a better videogame than it does a movie [laughs]
Q: How are you finding working with a big license? I talk to some developers for whom is doesn't work out well, while others seem to really enjoy it. On the plus side, you've got a body of information to work with, and there's bound to be some recognition in the marketplace, let's face it.
Jesse Schell: Yeah - I love working with licenses really. I've had a lot of experience doing licensed content with Disney, and I really believe that licensed content is one of the things we're really going to see an explosion of with social gaming.
That's how it always goes with videogames. They always start out with no licensed IP, then some people start to float with it - and then usually licensed IP becomes about 50 per cent of any game platform, in terms of where the money comes from. I think there's a lot of room for that with social games.
It is nice - you have a ready-made world, and you can look at it and ask, "How can we really capture the essence of this world? How can we take this and make it even better?" That can be a lot of fun.
Q: The game's not tied to a specific movie, nor is it something that will feature as a packaged retail product - does that allow you some creative freedom that you might not otherwise have had?
Jesse Schell: I don't know about that. It has to do with the licensor that you're working with and what they need to hold on to - so far our relationship working with Bigpoint and Universal has just been great.
Q: And Bigpoint just announced 150 million users, which is a nice number...
Jesse Schell: Yeah, it's a good place to start.
Q: Jelly Kingdoms is another game you're working on for next year, on the Nintendo DSi - how excited are you to be working on that platform?
Jesse Schell: The DSi can be a challenging platform, because it has its own little peculiarities. It's certainly not an open platform, but there's great support on the developer website for getting things done. Probably what's most exciting for us is that it's going to be a downloadable title.
Q: How important is that downloadable aspect - does it circle around the whole piracy problem?
Jesse Schell: It's a tough business doing retail handheld titles, because the price points are relatively low compared to say console titles - but at the same time the cartridge production costs are high, compared to a disc.
So you've got a situation where the margins are slim, and on top of that it's a crowded market - there are a lot of people making games for that platform. People have started to view the DS platform as a little risky for banging out retail titles, and on top of that there's the piracy - particularly in Europe, where it's growing more and more rampant.
The downloads do stop a lot of that, and for an independent developer it's really nice, because you don't have to do all the fussing about with the publisher.
Q: I've been a bit surprised that more downloadable games haven't been released for the DSi.
Jesse Schell: I think it's partly because of how many DSi consoles have been sold so far - I don't think the market is huge yet. But I personally think that the 3DS is going to change everything... it's almost like the DSi is a kind of warm-up for the 3DS.
Jesse Schell is CEO and creative director at Schell Games. Interview by Phil Elliott.