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League of Geeks: "We are a response to what was before"

Blake Mizzi and Trent Kusters on using the mistakes of Australia's past to build a better studio, and moving on from its hit digital board game Armello

League of Geeks is in the midst of expansion, one that may result in it leave the building it has called home for many years behind.

For co-founders Blake Mizzi and Trent Kusters, the departure will be bittersweet. The need for more space is rooted in the success of the studio's debut project, the digital board game Armello. At the same time, the collaborative space in which it is based is no ordinary building; The Arcade has been the heart of Melbourne's independent development community ever since it opened in 2013, a home to League of Geeks and dozens more studios besides.

"There's always a queue for the coffee machine," Mizzi tells me, proselytising the many "passive benefits" studios at The Arcade glean from being in such close proximity. "You'll see someone rubbing their head, and you'll say, 'What's going on?' And they'll say, 'I'm having trouble with Nintendo submission' -- or something like that."

"You can literally have a two minute conversation that will save you thousands of dollars," Kusters adds. "You'll find out something that means you don't bounce on that submission; something you wouldn't know apart from through trial and error, but someone in the building has gone through it five years ago."

"We never planned to build a studio. We just wanted to come together and collaborate on a game"

I am visiting League of Geeks' offices in a rare quiet moment during Melbourne International Games Week. At this point in Australia's resurgence, it is one of a handful of studios generally regarded as the future of the national industry. The Arcade was established to help nurture companies that rose up after so many Australian studios closed at the end of the last decade. The fact that League of Geeks must now move on to find space for its expanding team is evidence of a job well done.

Both Mizzi and Kusters worked in the Australian games industry before the cataclysm sparked by -- among other things -- the global financial crisis of 2009. Neither enjoys talking too much about that difficult period, save for the fact that League of Geeks was formed in 2011, as studios continued to fall and a generation of developers found themselves without an obvious path forward.

Indeed, according to Mizzi, while League of Geeks' founders -- the third, Ty Carey, was not present at the interview -- didn't come together with forming a studio in mind, the principles that it worked to were ultimately "a direct response" to the oversights that had precipitated the Australian industry's collapse.

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Blake Mizzi

"I think standing there in 2011, we didn't think we actually could build a studio at that time," Mizzi says. "The ground was still too hot."

"We never planned to build a studio," Kusters agrees. "We just wanted to come together and collaborate on a game. That ended up being Armello, and we figured that out pretty quickly -- a digital board game.

"But then when it came to eventually building a studio, how we interacted with those people [we collaborated with], and even our ambitions, that was a complete response to the Australian studios of the time, the ones that had collapsed -- the second generation of development that had resulted in so much talent leaving, that didn't invest in original IP, that didn't invest in new platforms, that didn't pivot when they should have.

"We invested from the start in not sparing any expense on legal, or accounting -- just doing things right, doing our homework, research, planning, making sure we were agile and able to weather any storms... We are a response to what was before."

Simply understanding how to run a stable business is one key aspect of that response. Fellow Traveller's Chris Wright described the brain drain that followed the industry downturn as akin to losing an entire generation of developers. Both Kusters and Mizzi believe that a lack of entrepreneurial knowledge was a driving force in why so many were forced to move overseas. Picking up a cheque for skilled programming and running a stable business are very different things, after all, and too many lacked the experience to take on the latter.

"We knew Armello had this awesome potential, but when we launched it we missed the mark of that potential"

The other key aspect is represented by League of Geeks' first project, Armello -- an original, owned IP of the sort that would have allowed more studios to survive the crunch. Work on the concept started in 2011, and the game was officially announced as an iPad exclusive in September 2012. League of Geeks kept working on it in part due to government funding: a AUD $30,000 marketing grant early on to help raise awareness around the studio, and a AUD $60,000 grant (eventually extended to $90,000) to help the project reach beta.

In April 2014, League of Geeks offered up Armello for public approval on Kickstarter, setting a AUD $200,000 target that would allow the team to work on the game full-time and reach more platforms. When the campaign closed in May, it had received more than AUD $305,000 in donations, meeting every stretch goal and providing strong evidence that there was demand for a game like Armello. The final stages of its development happened on Steam Early Access, between January 2015 and its full launch on PC, PlayStation 4 and iOS in September of the same year.

However, as Kusters put it to me, the "landing was quite rocky" for Armello, mainly due to a rushed finish to line up with a promotional slot on the PlayStation Store. The reviews were solid but not stellar, and the early sales were around a quarter of what League of Geeks had forecast based on its research of the market.

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Trent Kusters

"We knew it had this awesome potential, but when we launched it we missed the mark of that potential," Mizzi says. "Polish-wise and feature-wise, it just wasn't there. The standard we had in our head? It wasn't that game yet.

"Financially, it put us in this weird position, where it wasn't a failure enough to close the studio or have to fire anyone, but it wasn't successful enough to move on to a new project or do anything else."

What League of Geeks did have was experience with Early Access, a community-focused approach to iterative development that was both new and invigorating for everyone on the team. "We knew we wanted to do one update after launch, to put some shine on it," Kusters recalls. "But we'd been doing Early Access for nine months, and we loved it."

The games business changes quickly, and it's important to remember that Early Access was still the subject of discussion, debate, and even a touch of worry back in 2015. Valve's customers were being burned by developers with no clear plan of how to make use of the new approach to development, but League of Geeks grasped its unique strengths like few other studios. By the time of Armello's launch, it had built a strong community through Early Access, it was branding every update, and those best practices created a strong relationship with Valve.

"You close your eyes, you open them, and it's two years later and you're still working on the same game"

"I spoke with Valve about this Early Access thing -- releasing updates, working with the community," says Kusters, who was in Seattle on a press tour when the game launched. "Is this just an Early Access phenomenon? I was talking to [Team Fortress 2 designer] Robin Walker, and he was like, 'You get it. This is how we make games. This is how we feel all multiplayer online games should be made.'

"When I came back to the studio, I was like, 'Let's do it. Let's just continue.' We went to the community and said we would continue making Armello... I remember the [blog] post; as I wrote it, there wasn't even a vocabulary for games-as-a-service on anything other than mobile. I said to the community something like we were going to continue this 'Early Access style of development.'"

It is now more than three years later, and League of Geeks is still working on Armello. If the decision to adopt that Early Access structure after launch was informed by financial concerns at first, that quickly disappeared. The game improved, user ratings improved, sales improved, and League of Geeks saw the update-driven structure as a way to realise Armello's full potential.

Armello combines a vivid visual style, animal characters, and Game of Thrones-style betrayal and subterfuge

Armello combines a vivid visual style, animal characters, and Game of Thrones-style betrayal and subterfuge

That virtuous cycle has continued. Every branded update improves the game, bringing in more people to enrich the community, generating more revenue to push out onto more platforms -- the Nintendo Switch version launched last year. And much like Those Awesome Guys, which took a similar approach to branded updates with Move or Die, League of Geeks is releasing more updates now, and selling more copies of the game now than it did in its first year.

"A lot of us work in games because making games presents interesting problems, and we're problem solvers," Kusters says. "I can tell you right now, with games-as-a-service and a product like Armello, every day when I walk in there are fantastic and interesting new problems to solve.

"You close your eyes, you open them, and it's two years later and you're still working on the same game."

"We're doing another original IP, which will become another stable within our studio, designed from the ground up to be games-as-a-service"

That won't be the case forever. League of Geeks will continue to update and improve Armello for a while yet, but the studio is still living with the legacy of the game's rocky launch. The fact that it was able to adapt and find an even better path forward is proof of the agility and resilience that Mizzi and Kusters believed should be a bedrock of the new Australian games industry. However, that uncertainty is still marked on the bones of the game.

"The decision to support the game as a service was made post-launch," Mizzi says. "We never built the game for that, and we've been living with that headache, that hangover the whole time. Armello was never really made to be updated."

"We just rebuilt our entire multiplayer architecture," Kusters adds. "Now we've done, what, 30 or 40 major updates since launch? Our multiplayer literally started to collapse in on itself."

A comprehensive programme of "refactoring" has, by Mizzi's reckoning, opened up another three years of potential updates for Armello, but there is "a ceiling" to what the studio can achieve with the game.

"We argue that we are -- and we believe this -- the best digital card board game in the genre, and we can push that ceiling higher," Mizzi says. "But there will be a point where it will be better to tell the Armello tale in a different format, or to let Armello have its day and move on to a sequel."

First, though, League of Geeks will expand in order to ramp up development on a completely new project. Mizzi and Kusters expect the team to double in size, hence the reality that The Arcade may no longer be a suitable home. The new project is still too early in production to discuss many details, but it will be another piece of original IP from Australia, and this time League of Geeks will start as it means to carry on.

"One thing we can say is that we love this way of working. I almost can't imagine not doing it," says Mizzi. "We're doing another original IP, which will become another stable within our studio, designed from the ground up to be games-as-a-service."

"We've been working with this thing that was never meant to be games-as-a-service," adds Kusters. "Now think of all that we've learned over the last four years, post-launch, trying to be best in class... Imagine if we could start from scratch on a completely new IP, a completely new game, and try to do best-in-class games-as-a-service from day one. That's the stuff that, as a studio, really excites us."

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Latest comments (1)

Murray Lorden Game Designer & Developer, MUZBOZ4 days ago
Keep up the amazing work. :)
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