Preloaded's Phil Stuart

The creative director on maintaining an indie spirit, education and a multiplatform future

UK developer Preloaded has been in the business for 11 years, primarily concentrating on casual, education and brand games for contractors such as Channel 4 Education, The Science Museum and the BBC. This year, it adds the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim to its CV, having recently released browser strategy game zOMT for Adult Swim's increasingly indie-commissioning site. Most recently, it released a game commissioned for the London 2012 Paralympics.

Here, chats to the London studio's creative director Phil Stuart about keeping the creative spirit even during contract work, why multi-platform is a smarter future than targeting iOS, the hopeful advent of social games 2.0 and why brands are becoming publishers.

Q:Your most recent game is zOMT for Adult Swim - have you done stuff with them before?

Phil Stuart:We’ve worked with Turner and the Cartoon Network for a long time, and then Adult Swim… We’ve pitched a few things at them in the past, and this time they came to us asking for ideas, and we came up with loads - I think 10 to start with. They picked up on something that was originally called Bomb Bouncer, and then God Squad, and ended up being zOMT in the end. Yeah, it’s working out really well. It’s interesting for us, because we haven’t published it in the traditional way that we usually do it. Usually we publish a game then push it to different game portals and watch it move around. This one’s been a little bit different in that we’ve actually locked it down to Adult Swim. We haven’t got exact exposure to the stats, but people seem to be loving it and it’s going quite well. And it’s actually designed to be easily ported to iPad or any tablet, so with good stats hopefully we’ll be able to do that. But playtime has been really good - that’s the stat we do have, that people are playing it for 20 to 25 minutes, which is good news.

Q:Adult Swim has loads of indie and smaller devs - are they cherry picking people they decide are interesting or is there a sense of their having a huge cash pile that people are sniffing out?

Phil Stuart:Well, we’re pretty proactive. We’ve kind of been going in and showing them some work for the last couple of years, and I think every year they select a few people they want to work with, and this time it was our year. We’ve also been working with Cartoon Network on one of their television properties called Gumball - we’ve built a website and some games for that as well. That’s more like that kind of TV support stuff that we do, but zOMT is a completely unique piece of IP for them.

Q:What do Adult Swim get out of contracting developers like this, given there’s no money associated at the player’s end?

Phil Stuart:Well, Adult Swim in the UK is just a website, so the model they’re running is getting numbers. Games drive huge figures, so it’s about brand-building but it’s also about traffic on the site. I think it’s that, but I’m not shown their broader strategy. All I know is they love games, they really value games and games as we know can get a huge amount of people engaged. I’d like to think there’s some sort of bigger strategic push to develop unique IP on different platforms, but that would just be me hoping… [laughs]

Q:There are a few other places which seem to be doing something broadly similar - like Channel 4 and the BBC, both of whom you’ve also done projects for….

Phil Stuart:…One thing about Adult Swim is, they’re owned by Turner who also have the Cartoon Network, they’re a commercial entertainment network. Channel 4 Education who we work with a lot are completely non-commercial, as are the BBC and the Science Museum.

The remit for those guys is very, very different - C4 Education’s remit is to educate 13-19 year olds in areas that aren’t necessarily covered by the national curriculum. Whereas the Science Museum is about pushing science knowledge across all ages, and usually tied into exhibitions. While obviously the BBC is more and more about TV support.

One of the things that we’ve begun to do over the last year or so is get a very clear idea of who we want to be working with. About 70 per cent of our business is commission-based, so we do a lot of work for educators and institutions and brands, just sort of delivering games on a commissioning spec. Or, like with Channel 4 Education, we end up responding to open briefs - "come to us with an idea for a game about mental health" - and then we’ll come back to then.

And then the other third of the business is our own stuff, developing our own IP. That 70 per cent, the commissioned-based stuff, that’s the kind of stuff we’re known for, but one of the things when I go out and meet people, we literally believe in the power of game mechanics to educate and inform. We’re not strictly an educational games studio, but games are so useful in actually explaining complex concepts or eliciting emotional responses or behaviour change. Particularly when you’re focusing on younger audience, up to mid-teens, you can use games to show concepts and cause and effect. For someone like Channel 4 or the Science Museum, games are just perfect for that.

That’s historically where our focus has been, but now looking forward we’re spending more time doing pure entertainment products, like doing stuff for Adult Swim. And even looking at brands and how we can build what I call brand games rather than branded games. How you can take the brand values and embed it into the game mechanics rather than just sticking a label on it.

Q:How many of these brand opportunities are out there? It does seem that a lot of the same names like Adult Swim come up - is the pool limited? How much are you dependent on business from companies already known to commission in that way?

Phil Stuart:Our business has been built on some really strong relationships with the major players - again, Science Museum, Channel 4 - but we’re talking to brand agencies, advertising agencies and brands themselves about games, and actually there’s been such positivity around games. The whole gamification thing is something we’ve tried to stay away from a little bit, because it kind of oversimplifies what we’re trying to do, but there’s a lot of smart in some key agencies that we’re talking to. The real potential, and I think this kind of transcends brands and institutions and educators, is trying to make these kinds of bodies more like a publisher. So they self-publish titles, take their content to their audience. We’re trying to make them see themselves more as a publisher of content than a commissioner of it. That can work for brands and educators, and we feel like we’ve done it pretty successful on Channel 4 Education, and we’re working with another couple of clients trying to do the same thing.

The idea of being able to engage an immediate audience directly through games portals or via iTunes or Xbox is a really exciting thing for them, because it used to be just a few triple-A game studios - but now they can come to us and say ‘we want reach this audience around this piece of science’ and we can reach them through loads of different channels. The advent of really decent platform agnostic tech like Unity makes it so much easier. That’s the future of our business really - looking at how we work across different platforms using some really decent agnostic tech. We’re looking at HTML5 as well, but trying to use that to target a much broader audience.

For us, as a sort of casual social games studio we see the future of casual games as being multiplatform. There’s no point building casual games on one platform, it needs to be on all platforms. That’s the essence. The games are so simple, the reason casual games have been legitimised over the last couple of years is they exist on social platforms and mobile platforms and they’re essentially self-publishing. The opening up of it has allowed it to get everywhere, and that’s why it’s much more mainstream and much more accepted.

Q:Internally, is this a line you won’t cross in terms of accepting a commission? If someone comes up to you and says ‘Make FarmVille, but based around this brand of cheddar cheese’, would you accept the contract?

Phil Stuart:It’s an interesting one, isn’t it, because we’ve been going for 11 years and there’s only 15 people here. We’ve got big plans this year and next year, but the focus is building quality products. Our portfolio is really strong and we’re proud of our products, and the reason for that is we think we’re making really good quality work. We’ve got one social game in production for Channel 4 at the minute and another for another broadcaster, which is a little bit secret, but there is such potential now in social games. They’re moving into almost a new stage, internally we talk about it as Social Games 2.0, where people are trying to put the fun into those games. So many people now kind of accept microtransactions in their games - people are downloading freemium games, it’s become convention, people understand that there will be monetisation in games. But now social games have to try and add more fun, less cynical mechanics and what we’re doing is trying to demonstrate what our take on social games is. It’s not just about compulsion loops, but general engagement.

So to answer you directly, we’re probably not going to make a social game about cheddar cheese, but it probably isn’t going to work. We’ve got to really believe what we’re doing, and one of things with being a studio for who 70 per cent of our work is from commissions, is that we’ve really got to love what we’re doing. You only three or four commissions that aren’t good to end up changing what people think your business is. We pitch the ideas we want to make, we control what we make and who they’re for, and to be honest we have to trust the autonomy to deliver the best product for our client. Our clients that we’ve worked with for years really trust our opinion, so we’re making what we think is right for them but also what we want to make as well.

Q:If, God forbid, you lost one or two of your big clients, would the company be okay?

Phil Stuart:Well, over the last year we’ve been developing our own IPs and components, and I think we see very much the future of our business doing much more self-funded stuff. The games market is so buoyant - there are definitely areas we’re beginning to expand into, and we’re going outside the UK. We think games and education is such a powerful combination, so we’re looking at educators outside the UK as well. We do a lot of work for C4 Education, but there are a lot of briefs that we don’t pick up and don’t take, so I don’t think we feel concerned at all about the market at the minute. We’ve never felt more confident, really.

Q:But not core games? Is that too risky?

Phil Stuart:I look at game studios, and a lot of the more traditional ones supplement their own work with outsourced work and production work. What we’ve got at the minute is a fantastic selection of clients and briefs that allow us to do really great work, as well as supplementing that with our own stuff. We’re not about to start competing with traditional game studios, but we are very much trying to establish ourselves as a credible player in the games industry.

Q:And iOS? It seems a bit boom or bust for games there at the minute…

Phil Stuart:Yeah, giving control to Apple isn’t what we’re looking to do. The future for us is multiplatform. With things like Unity and HTML5, we’re now in a place where as a small studio we can begin to be multiplatform. I look at someone like PopCap, who we respect so much, and they’re targeting different platforms with core IPs. It’s a bit of an ambition of ours really - once we’ve built more of our own stuff we’re going to be targeting as many platforms as possible.

Phil Stuart is creative director at Preloaded. Interview by Alec Meer.

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