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Work-for-hire is not an admission of failure

Pastagames' pragmatic approach lets dev make passion projects without needing them to be hits, says Pix the Cat designer

As developers consider premium or free-to-play approaches for their projects, they might be torn about whether they should focus on quantity or quality of players. With Pix the Cat, French developer Pastagames is making a play for both.

Pastagames designer Nadim Haddad explained the company's strategy on Pix the Cat to GamesIndustry.biz, starting with its inclusion from day one in Sony's PlayStation Plus program, which makes the PlayStation 4 and PS Vita game free to download for Sony's subscribers.

"The PS Plus opportunity is amazing for us because it opens up many gates," Haddad said. "Tenfold more players will play our game."

"We're not trying to make a game that will please our players. We're not trying to make a success that would follow any kind of wave of games that are working at the specific moment they are released."

Haddad said Pix the Cat isn't the sort of game that would jump out at players otherwise, lacking a popular brand or a title that explains exactly what kind of game it is (an arcade-style game mixing elements of Pac-Man Championship Edition and Snake). Giving the game away should help address the quantity of customers issue, but what about quality?

Pastagames' hope with Pix is to win over loyal customers for the future, to build its brand and give players a reason to care the next time the studio releases an original game. To that end, the developers have tried to cater to players in a big way. There's no downloadable content or microtransactions or post-purchase revenue stream in Pix. However, there are two more complete game experiences (a local multiplayer mode and a nostalgia mode) that unlock as surprise rewards for players.

"If a million people are playing our game, we'd rather have 30,000 of these [playing] enough to unlock all the content and be very excited and thrilled about it, to have the feeling that they were given something big as a reward, to remember Pastagames and the way we do things for our next project," Haddad explained. "We are building on the long-term relationship with our players."

If that doesn't sound like a plan to make Pix the Cat a huge hit, that's because it isn't.

"We're not trying to make it a success in any way," Haddad said. "We're not trying to make a game that will please our players. We're not trying to make a success that would follow any kind of wave of games that are working at the specific moment they are released."

"We haven't managed to make enough money with our own original IP to invest in another game right behind. And I find that very positive, because it forced us to maintain our work-for-hire connections..."

Pastagames has the luxury of taking a flier on a project like Pix thanks to its work-for-hire business. Two-thirds of the company's games are created for other people, and the money generated from efforts like Build-A-Bear Workshop on the DS or last year's mobile hit Rayman Jungle Run goes to fund original fare.

"Until now, each of our [original] games that was released was a commercial failure," Haddad said. "We haven't managed to make enough money with our own original IP to invest in another game right behind. And I find that very positive, because it forced us to maintain our work-for-hire connections and our work-for-hire activity, which helped us sustain until now."

In the past decade, Haddad said the French development scene has been hurt by the closure of multiple mid-size studios (50-100 people or so) who couldn't find enough work-for-hire to stay above water. Pastagames has survived for 13 years in part because of its size (about 20 people at its peak, but now at a more ideal size of 10 employees), and in part because of its pragmatic approach.

"I think the reason we survived is because we were doing all this work-for-hire that helped us in the bad moments, whereas lots of companies who stood by their creativity and only wanted to do original, creative IP games... the day one of their games didn't succeed, it would be more complicated for them to sustain."

Even if Pix the Cat did wind up a huge success, Haddad said Pastagames would likely continue with its rhythm of two work-for-hire projects for every original title.

"[S]ometimes it's a break for your nervous system to work on games for others."

"It's very useful sometimes to work for others because you put a lot less pressure on yourself. It's not your heart that you're giving out to people," Haddad said. "It's not your tiny little game that you've been working on for so long and put all your effort and imagination and heart in it. So sometimes it's a break for your nervous system to work on games for others."

With the resurgence of indie games in recent years, it's a little unusual to see a studio embrace work-for-hire not just as a stepping stone to enable original development, but as a welcome end in itself, something to be done even in the best of times. It's a sentiment that Haddad says gets a little blowback from particularly idealistic indie developers, who might think of accepting work-for-hire as an admission of failure.

"We have that a lot," Haddad said. "I feel like it's dependent on maybe a little bit of experience or maturity. I'm not saying it in a mean way, I'm just saying that lots of young developers we meet do have an itch in their face when they see we've been working for big licenses like Build-A-Bear, Baby Life, or even Rayman. But I do have the feeling that older generations of companies who have survived a little bit do see that as a pragmatic way of being able to keep doing games for a long time. Because we don't think one game ahead. With the system of work-for-hire, it allows us to see one, two, or three games ahead, so it gives us a little visibility into where we're going as a company."

"The problem is most of these schools are making these kids into tools, not into creators."

That tension between youthful idealism and experienced pragmatism is nothing new or unique to the game industry, and Haddad has significantly bigger concerns with the next generation of developers. French game development schools in particular are outrageously expensive and mostly private institutions, Haddad said. As a result, the people paying for those educations want to see kids coming out of school completely prepared to work on full-scale development. Even at Pastagames, recent graduates can come in and be as technically useful as some of the senior staff in a matter of weeks. But that's not what Pastagames wants from its new hires.

"The problem is most of these schools are making these kids into tools, not into creators," Haddad said. "If you put a hammer in front of a screw, you won't have the same result as if you put it in front of a nail. That's my issue with French gaming schools right now. I don't know how it works in different environments, but when I see online different projects and schools from all over the world, I do have the feeling they're experimenting a lot more than we are here."

Haddad doesn't see this as a danger to the French development scene so much as it is a danger to the students. There may be hundreds of people graduating from French development programs each year, and competing over perhaps a couple dozen open spots in the French industry. The best and brightest, the ones who show creativity and experimentation despite the scholastic environment, will find work where they want without a problem. The rest of them, Haddad reasons, would have to leave the country to find work, and even then could have trouble further on in their career.

"We have great developers making great games who don't know how to talk about them, that can't give out a positive image of their game."

That issue could be further complicated because the variety of skills aspiring developers need to learn is only growing. With discoverability becoming a huge challenge for any developer, Haddad said game schools should be integrating more marketing lessons into the core curriculum.

"We have great developers making great games who don't know how to talk about them, that can't give out a positive image of their game," Haddad said. "And at the same time, if we teach kids in schools that talking about their game is as important as making it, maybe things will be easier for them."

Despite Haddad's aforementioned pragmatism, this is one issue where a bit of idealism still peeks through. The skillset required to make games is already incredibly diverse, and Haddad doesn't think talented creators should have their games overlooked because they aren't fluent in a foreign language, or they're shy, or they can't articulate how their own life shaped the game.

"I have an issue with promotion and creation blending in such intricate ways," Haddad said. "At the same time, you don't want somebody from outside your studio talking about your game because he won't talk about it with the same passion. We have an expression in France, 'Our ass is between two chairs.'"

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