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“Companies don't build games, people build games”

Ignited Artists CEO Danielle Deibler on tackling mobile development with a people-first approach

Having only recently come out of stealth mode with an investment deal from Sega Networks, San Francisco-based Ignited Artists is still somewhat of an unknown in the mobile space. While the company certainly intends to make some great games, CEO and co-founder Danielle Deibler would probably rather have her studio build a reputation for the way it treats its staff.

"We are looking for work life balance and to keep people at their freshest; make sure people actually get enough sleep and that they're healthy. They're coming in and they're working and [we want to ensure that] they still have lives and they still have enough time to play games that other people are making out in the marketplace so that they're not so myopic in terms of only being focused on their work," Deibler stressed to

"I think that's different than a lot of the game space. I'm not saying we're never going to crunch. I've never worked on a software project, whether games or not, that doesn't crunch a little, but I want it to be planned. I want to be able to support the team if they're doing it. I've heard these stories about some companies that will get a babysitter for your kids, they walk your dog - that's the kind of company I want to be. If you're going to put more time in, I want your life to be easy," she continued.

"We want you to work more for us, but in order to balance that and have people work for you, you have to make their lives easy. If you work 17 hours in a day and then you go home and you have to wash the dishes or make dinner or god forbid do laundry then you're wasting that small amount of very precious time that you have to either sleep or have fun. I think people do better work when they're rested and happy... Companies don't build games, people build games. And happy people build better games."

""We keep it small. I love teams that are around that 10-12 range... it tends to streamline communication and keep everybody feeling like they're super involved and they're really a creator on the project"

Part of keeping people happy is making sure the team size never explodes; smaller sizes facilitate camaraderie and better working relationships. Deibler is one of three co-founders but she noted that Ignited Artists will probably never grow to the significant sizes typically found in the AAA space.

"We keep it small. I love teams that are around that 10-12 range. We'll probably be capped at about 15 in the first year of growth. We shouldn't need really more than 10 people to ship a good, high quality mobile title. And it tends to streamline communication and keep everybody feeling like they're super involved and they're really a creator on the project. That's a big differentiator for us as well," she noted.

Ignited has yet to announce its first project, but the company is definitely targeting the core crowd. In fact, the studio is probably looking more at something that's hardcore than midcore, Deibler said. "We want to go just a little bit farther... get some of those midcore players looking for a more immersive experience. And I think a lot of it is building it for the platforms and getting the controls right. That's what I feel like Clash of Clans did right on mobile was they was a good, solid game, but, ultimately, they thought about UX and they gave a UX experience that people like," she explained.

"It feels comfortable, it feels natural, it feels intuitive... I just want to be the ones that hit on the UX and find that kind of golden key. Then you open it up and sure, you can have a floodgate of other people who are doing that kind of stuff, but that actually just gets consumers used to that type of content. Then they have an expectation that quality bar just moved up a little bit."

With more and more interest from the core crowd on mobile with efforts like Vainglory, Dawn of Titans and others, Deibler clearly sees a market Ignited can target.

"The timing is right... And it's not that [core gamers] don't want to play on their phones, it's that there's not something that they want to play on their phones. They've proven that if there's a better console game, they'll buy a console. If it's a PC port of a console game, they'll buy an Xbox controller to play on their PC. This is a group that wants to play good games. You give them an experience on their smartphone or their tablet, they're going to play it," she said.

Deibler herself isn't a longtime gaming veteran. She was at Kixeye for three years and at Adobe for five years before that, working on making Flash more accessible for games, but she's learned a lot from her prior experiences. She's also joined by Mobile Gaming Hall of Fame inductee Scott Foe, who's been a pioneer in free-to-play, and Alessandro Tento, a former Activision executive who not only worked on Call of Duty and Skylanders, but also won an Oscar for work on Shrek. "He's a fantastic artist in his own right but has really impressed me with the talent he's been able to pull in to work on the project, whether it's freelancers or full time people that we've been talking to," Deibler said.

The team's pedigree should certainly be an asset, but even the best games in mobile can face discoverability problems. That's where the relationship with a publisher like Sega should make a difference, though, Deibler noted.

"That's a lot of the reason that we chose a publisher strategic money route... we looked at the market and we said, 'what's actually the biggest problem in the market in the space right now?' It's discoverability. It's getting featured. It's all of the work that goes into user acquisition (UA) and getting highly qualified users in and the infrastructure around tracking that, and that means if you're building an analytics system and you're partnered with 50 million people to do UA and you're trying to work all these deals, you're not going to be a 10-person studio that's focused on making a really great game. You're going to be like a 25-person studio that's focused on making a really great game and then highly measuring it and having a marketing machine. I think that's too hard as an indie dev," she explained.

"Some people walk out and raise money, but it's not the vast majority. You're going to have to work for free for a while and that's why what you do has to be something you're passionate about"

"You've gotta build a great game first. That's what consumers want. I look at it as having a publisher as a strategic [move] for us makes the most sense. It really does. And Sega has just - not only reinvented themselves in the last couple of months - but in Japan they had the same strategy. They basically moved their way up, created a huge conglomerate network with all their game developers that had come in and pulled their way up into top 5, top 3 in terms of the publishing in Japan. I think they could do it here too."

Ignited doesn't know exactly when it will release its first title yet, but Deibler said she hopes it's within a year. And as a relatively new startup, she was more than happy to offer some advice to others looking to found studios of their own.

"Don't give up and really want it. And be realistic... realize that you are not going to get a paycheck for a while and own it. Figure out how you're going to do that. Some people walk out and raise money, but it's not the vast majority," she remarked. "You're going to have to work for free for a while and that's why what you do has to be something you're passionate about and something that you love. You're going to put lots of extra hours in and there's going to be ups and downs so make sure it's a team of people that you like working with, that you can be happy and you can be sad with. And make sure that you know how much time you can survive and stick to it and be true to it.

"Like, if you say, I can go without a paycheck on a budget for a year, great. Make the most of the year, but know it in advance and talk about it. Have blunt, honest conversations with the people you're starting the company with so everybody knows where they're going to be as well. I know that maybe that's not glamorous, but it's real. And then when you do close it, you are so excited that it's the best feeling in the entire world. That 's when it feels like everything- the responsibility, the real work really starts. Even though you've been working your butt off for however long, it feels like, 'wow, this is awesome, we did this.' Even just getting the investment is such a great feeling of 'we did this and it was worth it' because somebody else is saying 'you did this and it was worth it. You should totally be doing this'."

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James Brightman avatar
James Brightman: James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.
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