The video game industry is changing fast, and Kuju Entertainment is determined to change with it. Traditionally a work-for-hire studio, it's teamed up with mobile developers Crash Lab to launch a project that could see it taking an entirely new direction.
Their collaboration has taken the form of Attack Games, a new company whose first game Crack Attack will be released for iOS on the 2nd April this year. Crash Lab has handled development of the game, and in a first for the studio, Kuju has taken on publishing responsibilities. GamesIndustry.biz spoke to Kuju's commercial director Gary Bracey about finding your own path in an unfamiliar market.
Not only do we not normally publish games, but we don't commission other people to write games for us, so this was a massive departure, says Bracey. But it's also a sign of the times, and in response to the changing face of the traditional games development industry.
For over a decade, Kuju has been developing games for major publishers, including Nintendo, Microsoft, Ubisoft and EA, with a focus on games based on existing licenses. That work-for-hire business model, however, has become increasingly challenging for any studio to sustain.
The market's become very volatile, explains Bracey. It's been massively disrupted by the introduction of mobile and tablet to the market, and the main publishers have their own studios which they have to keep busy as a priority. Work-for-hire has diminished quite a lot.
There are not quite so many licenses, for instance, whereby a publisher used to acquire a license and then look to a company like ourselves to build the game around that IP. That type of work, by and large, has declined quite a lot over the last 2 years. Companies like ourselves have to look for other ways to do business.
"It's become a marketing issue. Before it was a marketing and inventory issue, but there's no inventory now, so that mitigates 50 per cent of the risk"
Kuju sees a move to publishing as the right next step. With games increasingly seeing purely digital releases, publishing has become more accessible and less costly than ever.
It's become a marketing issue, says Bracey. Before it was a marketing and inventory issue, but there's no inventory now, so that mitigates 50 per cent of the risk.
That doesn't make it easy, of course - publishing is still an incredibly difficult challenge, especially in the often-unpredictable and ever-changing world of mobile gaming. Having spent the last two years researching, attending conferences and talking to those with direct experience of the market, Bracey is acutely aware that there's no sure path to success.
There's no rulebook to say this is the way it should be done, he says. If you speak to one successful publisher their experience and the way they've achieved their success will be so different to another publisher.
What complicates it further is that they might have had their hit six months ago. If they were to do the same again, the outcome could be entirely different, because the market changes. You've got this shifting landscape - even if you feel you've discovered the formula that makes a game successful, it doesn't necessarily mean that by applying it to your next game you're going to repeat that success.
They're problems that all too often clash with the risk-averse sensibilities of big publishers. As a 30-year veteran of the industry, Bracey is all too familiar with the more conservative, trend-following approaches to the market, and he's keen that Attack Games take a different path.
"It's always been massively frustrating to me, the 'me too' attitude of many publishers"
It's always been massively frustrating to me, the 'me too' attitude of many publishers, he says. When a successful game is released, and is demonstrably successful, then it's a question of trying to mimic that, rather than going for anything innovative. So you end up with a load of games of a similar genre, a similar type, everyone trying to achieve the same sort of success which, you know, people might do, they might not, but what it does is it stunts creativity and innovation.
His frustrations were reignited in the early stages of Crack Attack's development. Originally the company considered going to a third party publisher, but the few that were approached advised that the colourful puzzle game wasn't close enough in design to proven hits like Candy Crush. For Bracey, that was a sign that Kuju needed to go their own way with the game - and affirmation that the game was different enough to stand out.
That attitude is just prevalent in this industry. That's why I believe indies have flourished over the last five, ten years, because they're the guys with the creativity. he says. They're not trying to copy something that's gone before.
Now that publishing is more accessible, they can release a game that's innovative, and consumers are accessing content that they probably wouldn't have been able to five years ago.
With Attack Games, Kuju is trying to channel some of that indie spirit, and for Bracey the key to success is absolutely the game itself. The developers behind it at Crash Lab are industry veterans, formerly of Free Radical Design and Rare, whose past credits include TimeSplitters and Goldeneye, and he believes that with Crack Attack the team have come up with something that will really resonate with consumers.
It's the right game, we believe in the game and in the pedigree and track record of Steve [Ellis] and Martin [Wakeley], the two main people at Crash Lab, explains Bracey. They've demonstrated they know what they're doing. They know games. They're smart guys. They make very, very playable and engaging products.
The game came first, and Kuju's decision to enter publishing in order to release it followed. Bracey describes the move as opportunistic - the company was looking for a chance to take a new direction, and Crack Attack seemed strong enough to make it work.
"You have to trust your game and trust the people to find it. If the game isn't good it simply won't play, let alone make money"
It wasn't something we were deliberately looking for by any stretch of the imagination but it was timely, it was serendipitous if you like, he says. That became the catalyst for us to explore the market further and say 'Ok, well, we want to get into mobile games and this is our entrée into it'. It became a great collaboration.
That faith in the game is reflected in Attack Games' overall strategy. With no sure-fire method for cracking the mobile market, and without the unlimited marketing budget of a larger publisher, Bracey believes the only approach that makes sense is to produce a quality product, and trust that if it's good enough, it will succeed.
It has to be product-driven, he asserts. It's first and foremost about the game.
You have to trust your game and trust the people to find it. If the game isn't good it simply won't play, let alone make money. It simply won't be played.
To further ensure that quality of product, Attack Games is using analytics and player data to get instant feedback on how consumers are playing the game. For Bracey it's an unfamiliar but exciting new aspect to the development process.
It's something that was unknown in previous generations of video games. You did the game and you put it out, and whether it was bad, good or indifferent, there wasn't an awful lot you could do about it to change it afterwards. This is live and it does allow you to hone the game.
Once the game's live that's pretty much just the start of it. There's going to be endless tweaking and refining and enhancing as we go.
Attack Games seems to be a confident first step into a new world for a company eager to adapt. What, then, is the plan for the future?
If we achieve a level of success with our first game, then obviously we'll be looking to follow that up, and we do have some idea on how to do that. If it doesn't, we're still looking to venture into other publishing areas such as PC and Steam, and maybe even digital console.
We believe that this is a major direction for us. Publishing is certainly part of our future.