Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Transcription of Interview with Stickmen Studios' CEO Wil McLellan

Stickmen’s goal, your internet site claims, is “breakthrough gaming”. Has this always been the case since Stickmen was formed in 2006? And how do you aim to maintain this goal?

It has always been the case, we didn’t want to make a company that followed a more traditional model which is I guess doing lots of projects for other people. Most of our projects we fund ourselves and as such we get to work on our own ideas, so our real drive is to make new original IP. It’s a real hard model to do because you’ve got to fund the whole thing yourself but it’s a real exciting one because the guys are creating genuinely new games. However, this model is high risk, because the newer the game concept, the more untried and untested it is, whereas if you take a well-loved franchise and put it out there there’s already a following. But we do like this approach because it was this desire to create new innovative and exciting entertainment that is behind Stickmen. Hence the first project Dragon Master [Spell Caster] is an original very bold project.

Breakthrough for Dragon Master is that it is one of the first fully 3D titles made for WiiWare so we really pushed the boundary there as a brand new studio. Another component we added into that particular product that was breakthrough: unlike a lot of games where the characters’ offensive weapons were like missiles, it doesn’t matter if they were like weapons or magic, they just fly past each other. Well we really liked the idea that when magic collided it does something magical. So in that particular title when a fireball hits an ice bolt it will turn into steam, and if you then hit that with an earth bolt something else will happen, and with a lightning bolt something else will happen, so you get all these magical combinations going on that players can then use to their advantage. So we went for a couple of breakthroughs there: one which was involving your characters magic; the other was the full 3D for our first WiiWare project, I don’t know if it was unique but it was certainly an ambitious move for a new studio.

We are working hard to ensure that all the games that we are currently working on at the moment have a new angle or breakthrough in them. What we didn’t want to do was follow the herd. We want to make original titles that will excite and entertain, which is a real challenge but it’s what why we’re into games.

Speaking of Dragon Master Spell Caster: when will that be available for release?

It’s in final stages of testing at the moment. With it being our first project we’re learning all the technical processes you have to go through.

Yeah I guess it would be a funny use of the word I know, testing time for you guys seeing as this is your first IP. This is your first real go at it, so it’d be quite important for you guys.

Dragon Master Spell Caster is our first complete project so you’ve just got to learn how it’s done first time round and that always takes time. Obviously what you hope is that the second one is faster and a lot smoother, and the third one and the fourth one... and you get better at it. It’s like anything I guess: provided you learn from your mistakes, the more you do it the better you get.

So tell me about ‘Project I’ and ‘Project F’, how will these contribute to ‘breakthrough gaming’.

Unfortunately I can’t say too much about the projects, but what I can say about them is that they’re both again original products. I can also say that we will be announcing a third project which will probably beat ‘Project F’ to market, and that one we’re just keeping really tightly under-wraps at the moment which is a very exciting collaboration that we’re doing. I’ll be releasing details in November. They [Projects I and F] do follow the lines of breakthrough and I think the exciting thing about them is that each one is very different. It’s not as if we’ve set up and just said “alright we’re just going to make one type of game”. Whilst there is a lot of merit in that because you create a fantastic asset base and you get a lot of experience making them, what we’re really trying to do is test what we can get out there that’s new and innovative and exciting and keeps pushing the boundaries. So for example Project I – as it is codenamed – is very, very different when you see the concept art shots on our website, from Dragon Master Spell Caster which is a 3D dragon flying game casting spells. Project I interestingly, even though it looks 2D, has actually been made using some 3D assets that have been rendered to made to look 2D. The actual gameplay behind it is very puzzle-based even though it looks like a platformer. So we hope people will be really blown away when they actually do get to play it and everything comes together; with a great story, humour, interesting sort of puzzles and challenges and really a fantastic main character. Actually there are two main characters which have a great dynamic and we hope that people will really enjoy some of the banter that goes on between them. So we’re trying to create something that people can sample for the first time and get excited about. Project F is going to be a little way off development. That’s actually looking more into the fantasy genre, and it will be a more strategically-based product. And there’s this new product that we’re actually bringing out which is substantially through development at the moment but we’ll be releasing details about it in November, and again: very different look and feel from all of them.
We want people to be excited about the products that are coming out. Regarding what’s coming out next; we don’t want to be predictable, and I think that’s why a lot of the guys really enjoy working here because everybody gets a shot at pitching their ideas, it’s not like they’re part of a big machine. I mean when we work on a project the whole team pitches in and gets involved in the storyline, it’s not just the writers. So in a writing meeting we’ll have the programmers, the artists, the animators, the sound guys, the music guys, the compliance guys, the usability, the testers. They’re really one team and so the project becomes theirs – it’s very much their creation. I think that’s actually quite exciting because you don’t just get artists who only want to do the art, they do want to have some say in the characters, the development, the story; the same with the programmers, it’s just the same with everyone. I don’t know if it’s unique, but it’s certainly a very enjoyable way to work.

I’ve noticed that you guys have recently gained development status for Sony’s PlayStation 3 and for the PlayStation Network. This could be too early to ask you this but how will this compare to developing for the Wii due to the power differences between the machines. Would you guys also be aiming to pursue a different audience because of the Wii is obviously more aimed towards the more casual markets whereas the PlayStation is going towards the more blockbuster feel of these big powerhouses. Are you guys chasing after a new market or are you simply trying to do something different?

That’s a good question because as you correctly say a lot of the consoles are directed at different audiences. What we are looking to do is to have the option to move the products across onto platforms where appropriate because gaming isn’t standing still, the markets are evolving. The PlayStation is a very exciting platform for us and obviously our guys are looking forward to learning about it and getting hands-on. I think it will be nice for people to experience our products in different ways as well because we can obviously customise them to suit those platforms. Why did we do it? It boils down to the fact that if you’re going to have a really good opportunity moving forward then it pays to have as many open doors as possible.
In the global scheme of things NZ game developers have never really featured globally until earlier this year when Sidhe released Shatter. Do you think kiwi developers like Stickmen Studios will increasingly step into the spotlight, and thus get NZ as a game development base out into the global industry?

The NZ gaming industry is really just limited to a handful of players. There’s some embarrassing stats which are like Scotland employs 11,000 people in the industry, Canada employs 14,000, New Zealand: probably a couple of hundred people. That’s a real loss for New Zealand because these other countries are receiving literally billions of dollars a year towards their economy, New Zealand’s making a few million. And the real sad thing is that New Zealand is a great innovative country: there’s kids leaving university with the right qualifications and they’ve got nowhere to go. They’ve got a handful of organisations and if they don’t get the jobs there they have to leave the country or, as we found one of our lead developers, one of our great guys with a first-class degree, stacking shelves because there wasn’t an industry to employ him. They kind of jump out after education and go “Great I want to get a job!” and it’s either do you want to join corporate web design or graphic design? “No, I want to get into gaming” right well here’s a couple of companies to apply at and if they don’t have a job you can either join the queue and get a temporary part-time job or leave the country, or go into the corporate world and do a different career. So in regards to are we going to step out there: very, very much so. We have grown dramatically and that’s because there’s a lot of people around really, really keen to get into this industry. And Sidhe, who we work with very closely, they’re really driving the industry, trying to help people get out there, enormously helpful to me personally and to the company. Mario and the guys are excellent, so we are going to do everything we can to support that. And it goes without saying that if we get products out there we promote them correctly and publish them correctly then news will spread that people are actually making games in New Zealand. What I would like to see is some more government support for the industry. New Zealand’s embraced the movie industry because a few people did things the hard way and total respect to those guys. They’ve shown New Zealand can be a great place for movie-making, and Mario’s showing that you can make good games here. I mean Shatter is superb, it’s been very hard for New Zealand, or anyone in New Zealand, to achieve that. The incentives that are offered to studios opening up in New Zealand are non-existent when you compare to those in Scotland and Canada. So I think the answer to your question is two-fold. One is: yes absolutely, we’re going to do what we can to raise the profile of gaming in New Zealand and to show that it’s a fantastic place to make games. And why that is, is because you’ve got an educated population, a very attractive exchange rate, the games made in New Zealand are almost 100% export product; and you’ve got a Western culture so there’s no language-barrier when working with Europe and America which are two of the major markets. So you’ve got several enormous strengths and almost no companies here doing it. I really think the piece that’s missing is for the government to sort of sit back and go okay yeah this has got real potential and we should get behind this and see where it goes, because for an absolute miniscule investment and some incentives they could really develop a very exciting industry.

I agree because gaming is such a new form of entertainment people aren’t really catching onto how potentially powerful the industry is.

Well some industry statistics show now that gaming is growing at twice the speed of TVs and movies, it’s not bigger than TVs and movies. But you can look at stats all over the place, you can’t really hang your hat on any particular statistic because what’s the old joke: 95% of statistics are made up. But there are those out there that seem to show it at around $60billion a year at the moment, but that’s due to grow $100billion soon because it’s growing at 10.5%, allegedly, per year, whereas I think TVs and movies are growing at 5% a year so it’s growing at twice the speed. That’s because it’s not seen as a restricted medium anymore. Lots of different people are starting to game, casual gaming now, if not the majority of casual gamers are female. You’ve got a number of different platforms: iPhones, DS, PSP, all the WiiWare, Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, PC. There all these different ways of playing games and also the type of gaming is changing. The actual casual game market ranges from maybe 7 to 70 in all sexes because you’ve got things like Brain Training coming out and Wii Fit. So traditional non-gamers, or non-traditional people, are moving into and getting into games, they’re getting engaged, so it’s an enormously exciting market.

What, for you, makes a great game? Is it the fun factor, the immersion, or are you one of these high-brow types that argues that gaming can technically be viewed as a legitimate form of art because it is an expression?

I wouldn’t say I’m high-brow. I do believe that all the guys that work for us are artists: whether they’re a programmer or if they work in the art core because it is very creative, they’re using the tools available to them to make something new and exciting and I really do believe that it’s art. However I do believe that every game should be designed for the purpose that it is intended. So for example there are very different types of games: you’ve got the sort of AAA games where you might expect to sit and play it for say eighty hours in six hour sessions. I enjoy those games as well and there are some cracking ones out there, but then there are the casual games as well: which [appeals to] people sitting on the bus wanting a ten minute experience. My key sort of games test is does it make me smile, is there a moment in there where I get a bit of a smile or a laugh? It doesn’t mean that it necessarily has to be funny but it needs to be a sense of achievement or there needs to be a sense of immersion – these are the things that you are mentioning. I mean, overall people need to put the game down and get a sense of enjoyment. It comes down to the whole experience that you take away from it has to be enjoyable, and the way that you deliver that depends on the platform and the type of game that you’re making.

How did you get into gaming yourself?

I’ve been gaming for twenty, twenty-five years. I got involved in the arcades when there weren’t home consoles. I remember the very first Atari console with the...I don’t remember what the game was but it was basically two wooden blocks and you bounce a square block between them.


Yeah it might have been Pong. And I remember sitting on my Gran’s kitchen floor playing against my sister on that game. And that was just enjoyable and addictive and very, very simplistic and really the game mechanic was just fantastic. So I got into gaming from a very, very early age so when the arcades started opening up with the games there, got very into those. I remember the very first multiplayer games like Gauntlet which would have queues of people at the arcade queuing up just to a get a game on a 4-player game and it was absolutely superb. And then the home consoles and PCs started to open up. So I’ve been into gaming all the way through. It’s superb when you look back and see how gaming is evolving and how it’s becoming more appealing to everybody. It’s really sort of breaking the mould of gaming. Even the term ‘gaming’ these days, when you look at the introduction of edu-gaming products, the boundaries are being smashed. But it’s great to look back. It was really nice because my sort of background, and then I went into university, got a job and I got into corporate IT. And then when I was over in New Zealand I had met these other software developers and sort of started a company in our spare time, working evenings and weekends and thought eventually “Right, well are we crazy? Better check now”. That’s when I talked to a few people in the industry who were all very, very helpful who said “Actually you guys have got some reasonably good ideas about a business here” and they were very supportive and we took a step, left the corporate world, branched out on our own. It was one of the really exciting things for me when after working really hard in New Zealand and building the studio to go out and meet my heroes in the gaming world and actually chat to people. Talking to some of the big names and thinking “Wow I used to play your games and here I am actually talking to you”. The guys who made the original Ghosts’n’Goblins, Commando – I mean these are the sort of old ZX Spectrum and arcade games. These companies are now huge, and these guys just sort of sit there and go “yeah I did the artwork for that game”. And now we get to do that ourselves and you realise just how hard it is, but you also experience the joy of creating something that’s genuinely new and that’s what we’re working to do.

So that hobby-on-the-side you had, was that the beginnings of Stickmen?

The company started literally just through a conversation with two friends and we decided “Yeah we can probably make a game in our spare time and see what we can do”, and that evolved into something where we thought we might have something to actually go at here. Through meeting a lot of different people in the industry we thought we could actually form a company. And obviously we formed the company and then kept on doing research for a couple of years on exactly what’s smart, what’s not smart, meeting people, learning from their lessons, and then we opened the studio a couple of years later. So it was a couple of years of really hard work, evenings and weekends. And then the real hard work started, because then you go into your sort of eighty, hundred hour weeks and you realise just what a big challenge the industry is. It changes from then that hobby into your life, it really takes over.

Despite the massive technological advancements achieved in this current generation such as hyper-realistic graphics and blockbuster experiences, do you think that gamers could be distracted from what makes a game genuinely good?

I think a good game will never rely on fancy graphics. Because gamers are smart enough to figure that out in the first few seconds: if it doesn’t play well then it doesn’t sell well. There’s lots of examples of games out there that look amazing and the screen shots are fantastic but it falls over once people have played it. So I think the most important thing in games, and it sounds obvious, is gameplay. It really has to be an enjoyable experience and to do that you need to understand what people want from the experience, in your market, and design your gameplay mechanic around that, and if you can enhance that by making it look great with great graphics then that’s fantastic. Obviously there’s genres like FPS that are really enhanced by fantastic graphics, but then there are other games out there that are still classics like Tetris, the new Bejewelled and things like that that have nothing like those types of graphics but they’re enormously popular because they are delivering what people want from that experience and doing it really, really well. So I think a game that tries to cover itself up with fancy graphics will fall on its face, but a good game can be enhanced by nice graphics.

Your site says that Stickmen have done PC gaming as well, what projects have you done for the PC and have you guys done applications for, say, iPhones etc in the past?

We have worked with our business partners and done a couple of iPhone games. Working with partners such as Cerebral Fix, we’ve done two games with them called Swarm and Love Share Nurture, which are two very different games. Swarm is a retro arcade game and that’s actually out now. Love Share Nurture is actually a family game which is matching animal noises and cute pictures to words, which is designed for parents to play with their young kids. It’s a very fun little application where children can have fun with pictures and hear the noises and match it – it’s a great learning experience. So we’ve worked with our business partners there to deliver those products. We’ve also worked with partners on a number of Flash game projects for PC. We haven’t released any commercial, what I’d class as mainstream PC games but we’ve only been around a short time and have been focussed on console. We’ve got three main WiiWare titles in development and they’re really occupying the majority of our time.

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