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Nikitova's Game Ambitions

The development services company is adding a new string to its bow - its own games

For a long time now the phrase "casual game" has been considered rather an impolite term to bandy around in the games industry's equivalent of polite society.

But while most of the in-crowd focused on what Sony and Microsoft were up to, Nintendo stole a march, and opened the eyes of many to the real appetite for gaming outside of the traditional demographic.

Nowadays almost everybody's keen to offer some sort of stripped down game offering on consoles, prompted by the stunning success of the DS and Wii - platforms that swap stratospheric development costs for accessibility and sociability.

One such company that's looking to move in this direction is Nikitova LLC, which has been up until now considered more of an outsourcing company than an entity looking to create its own product.

But that's set to change, and GamesIndustry.biz spent some time finding out more with Jon Hare (formerly of Sensible Software and Codemasters), who since last October has been working for Nikitova as the director of development for its now-announced games division.

GamesIndustry.biz: Tell us about what your initial plans are.

Jon Hare: The main focus at the moment is on Wii and DS development. We're working at the budget-to-mid range of games, because it's where we're going to be the most competitive as a company, and in some ways we can also have more control over the games and what's in them.

What will the first set of titles to launch be?

The two games we've initially signed up at the moment are both licensed games. One of them is a sports game, a link up with a TV station in the US, and the other one is a film license.

We've also got three projects simmering in the background - one of those is a brain-training style game with a license tie-in and a more scientific angle.

The second one is based on an established licensed game character, and we're working on a game with that character in it.

The third is something that I've been working on for the DS that's a totally original game. We'll be looking for publishers for all of those very shortly in fact.

We also have a couple of other more long term deals we're looking at, including a series of games for a bunch of TV and film licenses. They're basically all going to be Wii and DS titles, but some of them might also include conversions to the PlayStation 2.

How will the business side of things work?

It's a slightly different model of business to how other companies work. What we're trying to do is leverage different strengths. Although Nikitova is an American company it has an Eastern European staff base, mainly in Kiev.

I've been thinking for the last two or three years that it would be good to work with Eastern European companies to try and involve them in the process of what we're doing. Not just in the sense of outsourcing, but a little bit more than that, in terms of working with the skills of people. There are some very technically-skilled people out in Eastern Europe, some great artists too.

It's always interested me, having run Sensible for years, and finding that the problem is that English people are too expensive to employ. This kind of market, which is quite volatile in terms of stability of business, it's quite hard in the UK to keep a company going, that's one of the reasons we've seen lots of companies hitting the wall, or selling up.

So, to me this is really exciting because it's an opportunity for me to have as much control in development as I used to have, working very closely with the top management, without having to worry about the company having to pay loads of people UK wages.

There are certain differences that need to be taught about how business is done in the West, but by and large it's a very rewarding process. Working on the Wii and DS platforms, we're working on a virtually level playing field.

What's the time scale for releasing the first games?

We're already up and running with some titles, one will be finished in just over a month, and I think that if we play our cards right there's no reason that by the middle to end of next year that we can't be one of the top three to five European companies in this area, specifically developing for the Wii and DS. That's my target, my ambition.

I don't think there are many companies that are looking to combine Western management with Eastern European talent, not as part of the same developer. They maybe do it as publishers, but not developers, so business-wise it's slightly innovative I think.

Why did Nikitova decide to start making games now?

Nikitova's been making games already actually, it's done over 100 titles on mobile, and been making casual games for the PC. But it's always wanted to get involved in making bigger games. The reason it started doing outsourcing is because that's a way in, and it's always been a Nikitova ambition to develop its own content.

In the past I think they've found selling original games difficult, but I think I've managed to help in some ways by sharing my experiences. I've had quite a lot of successful original games in the past twenty years, and yet at times I have also found find it hard to sell my original concepts to publishers, so I have shared with them the realistic approach that, although it's a nice idea, it's often really hard to do.

There's a strong romantic, artistic side to Eastern European society in general, and what's been interesting for me is that all that really needs to succeed is a little bit of Western realism about how you sell your creative desires into the market.

For example, the attitude in Ukraine is a bit like the attitude that existed in the UK in the 1970s, that you can just do your own thing - which you could do then, but you can't do any more, because the market's become so commercialised. You have to jump through some hoops now, such as working with other companies and licenses, in order to express your creativity.

So what I'm really enjoying is bringing my own personal experience to it, and we're responding to the requirements of the market. And in a relatively short space of time we're seeing the benefits of that, working with license-holders and publishers, adding our own creativity to the projects - both in terms of game design and in terms of art - but still managing to work within the current commercial environment. And delivering products that carry licenses that are ultimately more likely to get into shops.

Do you see this as a spring board to next original IP, once you have an established base?

Basically we do want to have original IP, and we do want to do bigger formats, in the long term. But I don't want us as a company to bite off more than we can chew at this stage. So by the time we hit the middle of next year, we might be looking at doing one or two projects on that level.

We have the desire, we have the art team, and we've been building the programming and production teams up over the last year. We've already been outsourcing programmers to some of the biggest publishers in the world, and now we're about to ramp up to more projects by the end of this year. When some of those projects finish then we'll look at moving up to a different platform. What I don't want is to go up a notch and suddenly have a development team of 800 peopleâ¦

Jon Hare is director of development for Nikitova Games. Part two will be published next week. Interview by Phil Elliott.