Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Developer Interview: Brian Meidell Andersen

This is the second in a series of interviews I am doing with video game developers. The first interview, with Japanese game developer Shuichi Ishikawa, can be found here.

In this interview, I had the opportunity to talk (through email) with Brian Meidell Andersen of The Game Equation (Bo Cordes, Brian's partner is mentioned in some of the Q&A but he was not interviewed) about casual gaming and it's impact on the gaming industry. Brian had several interesting things to say regarding casual gaming and I hope you enjoy his interview:

First off, I was hoping to get some background on both of you. What companies have you worked for and what games have you worked on?

I'm a and previous companies most relevant to our current endeavours are IO Interactive, Titoonic (maker of high quality web games) and now-defunct networkleague (multiplayer gaming middleware/service company). The most well known games I've worked on are "Hitman: Blood Money" and "Hitman: Contracts".

Bo is a and before going into the games industry at IO Interactive, he worked with cutting edge virtual reality at Aalborg University in Denmark. He has worked on "Hitman 2", "Hitman: Contracts" and "Hitman: Blood Money".

In a recent article on, you mentioned you were fed up with large-scale game production. What about large-scale game production did you grow tired of?

There were several things, but I think they all stem from the same problem.

As the game machines capabilities grow, the number of things that are expected from a game grows with it. For example, the first game that introduced ragdoll physics touted that as a special feature. Today, better ragdoll physics are simply expected, together with normal mapping, per pixel lighting, and many other features that were unique selling points when they first appeared. To keep up with the bleeding edge, it requires that you either outsource a lot of work (either directly or by buying middleware like Havok), increase your team sizes or lengthen the production cycles. Any combination of these three methods will increase your production costs, sometimes by a lot. The more money it costs to produce a game, the more power is handed to business people, and their trained response is typically to take less risk by copying proven success. This has a tendency to change game making from a highly creative process into factory work.

In my eyes, making good games is inherently a very creative process, where the best people have a combination of immense technical skill and a great deal of creativity. It used to be that most game developers were people like this, but today I think these key people are usually supported by a number of people who are simply good craftsmen, be it programmers or artists. In most large game teams, I think there are a handful of people that are critical for the game to be an inspired piece of work. These types of people are often innately uninterested in factory work. There are of course cases where some of these creative, talented people actually like the big corporate environment, but I haven't met too many of them.

I grew tired of this situation, and the direct consequences like colleagues quitting, big teams, long crunch periods, unrealistic deadlines and unrealistic sales expectations. I have a strong feeling that it has gotten better since I quit in late 2005, but I wasn't willing to sit around and wait for it to improve.

What about the casual game business attracts you?

There are several things. Most importantly, the games are of a scope that is realistic for a few people to do well in a reasonable amount of time. For example, Deep Blue Sea was made by a team of two people in the span of 4.5 months, except for the sound which was contracted from an external composer. This makes it possible for a company to be competitive and successful without having to endlessly expand the company simply to keep up with the market.

Second, the direct consequence of the modest resource requirements is that developing a title represents a much smaller risk. This makes it more possible to try new things in terms of both gameplay, themes, format, marketing, distribution and so forth. This is not something we have exercised so far, but we are certainly planning to.

Another attractive aspect is the norm of purely electronic distribution methods. This means a much shorter path from developers to consumers and thereby less overhead.

I went to your website and noticed that right now you are strictly PC/MAC. Is releasing a value title ($20-$30 range) out of the question for the 360, PS3 and Wii?

Developing a regular boxed title to sell in that price range is out of the question for most developers. However, the barrier for entry on the consoles seems to have been lowered a lot with the arrival of the new digital marketplaces like XBox Live Arcade, PSN and WiiWare. The console companies seem to be going out of their way to bring the casual market to their consoles, and I think that is a great move for both themselves, the consumers and the developers.

That said, the technical and financial prerequisites for developing for these platforms still makes that market inaccessible to most of the casual games developers currently targeting desktop computers.

Do you have any plans to work on any titles for Xbox Live, PSN or WiiWare?

We're looking into it, but there are no details that I can share at this point.

Casual games seem to have found a home on the Nintendo DS. Any plans there?

We're looking into it, but there are no details that I can share at this point.

Last night I went on to your website and downloaded the demo of Deep Blue Sea (which I enjoyed quite a bit). While at first glance it looks like your typical tile swapping game, there is quite a bit more depth there. There are actual objectives, missions and even a store for upgrades. Do you feel this game is a fair representation of the kind of games you want to create?

I think Deep Blue Sea is a good game, especially for the development resources we put into it, but our long term ambitions are greater. Deep Blue Sea was in many ways an experiment in minimalism - it was made with programmer graphics and the only contracted work was the music. The focus was primarily on gameplay, a solid progression ramp and accessibility. For future titles we are planning to put more resources into production value, and developing our technology.

I noticed on both of your games, Deep Blue Sea and Constellations, you point out the original music that was created for both. I find that interesting because I think music tends to take a back seat in most casual games. How important is music to you in your games? Do you compose the music yourselves or do you work with a musician for that?

Quite important. Music and sound is immensely important to establish atmosphere in a game, and I think a relaxing atmosphere is a very important aspect of a casual game. We contract a very talented composer named Rasmus Hartvig for the music and the principal sound design.

Is there anything else you are working on right now that you can talk about?

Not at this time - we'll make a public announcement when that changes.

What are your long term plans for The Game Equation?

We're planning to develop and release casual titles as we push our technology along. Eventually, we are hoping to also find a viable market in the space between casual games and big budget games.

Do you feel that many of your peers in the gaming industry feel the same as you about working on big budget games?

Yes. Though most of them definitely still prefer it to creating casual games.

Due to the rising development costs, do you think we will eventually end up with two kinds of developers...those who produce $15 million games and those who produce casual games with few developers in between?

Actually, I think that has been the situation until now, but we're moving away from that, towards a more varied game ecology. The online console markets and sales channels such as Valve's Steam seem to be able to support games that are somewhere between casual and big budget games, since many of their customers are people who are more hardcore gamers than your typical casual gamer. Indie games for non-casual gamers have existed for a long time, but there haven't been a lot of clearly defined sales channels for them - the developers have proudly been cutting their own paths.

It seems that the major game companies are increasingly interested in the casual market, so I don't think the separation you mention will happen. Rather, I think it will move the other way, where the big companies will have teams of varying sizes that produce a much more full spectrum of games, from casual to big budget titles. There'll probably also be a good deal of mergers and acquisitions in this process. In many ways, I think it will be a miniature replay of what has happened to the "big" game industry in the last many years.

I was shocked when Sony announced the original price of the PS3. Most systems start to sell well after a $200 price point has been reached. At $500 and $600, the PS3 was years away from that price point. It seems very difficult for a developer to make a big budget game when the install base is going to be so low. On the other hand, consumers who pay $500 or $600 for a new system want to see something big and exciting that takes advantage of the latest technology. It appeared that Sony put developers and consumers in an awkward spot. Do you think there is a lesson to be learned here? Is it possible in the next round on console wars that we won't see the same leap in cutting edge technology due to high cost? And that maybe hardware companies will take a different approach like Nintendo did this round with the Wii?

I don't think there is an inherent problem in selling a console for $500-600 as long as people are buying it, which they seem to be. Sony and Microsoft might take less chances when designing their future consoles with emerging technologies, but I don't think they will stray radically from their current competitive areas of graphics, sound and processing power in the way Nintendo did. I think the Wii will probably make them consider adding unique interaction features to the console, but not as a replacement for raw power.

The PS3 in particular has taken a lot of abuse in the press, but I honestly believe it is going to do just fine in the long run. I am guessing here, but I think the high price point from Sony was an unfortunate necessity, not something they planned. The price to be paid for the awkward spot you mention mostly lands on them - failure is not an option for the PS3, so whatever it takes to make it an attractive developer target, that's what they'll do.

As a sidenote, I think the fact that the press has declared the PS3 unattractive to develop for is a business opportunity in disguise for smaller companies. According to wikipedia there are at least 5.6 million PS3s out there. There are only a handful of games on PSN right now, and the people who shelled out 500 bucks for their PS3 are likely happy to pay 10 bucks for something that is a bit of fun, and which really shows off some aspect of their consoles abilities. That's 5.5 million content-starved people who can potentially visit PSN and see your game among only a handful of games. Those are a lot better odds of selling copies than what you get in the PC/Mac casual games industry.

Where do you see the gaming industry in 5 years and where do you see yourselves in 5 years?

As mentioned under the "rising development costs" question, I think we'll see more big players moving into the smaller games space, and more sales channels will be established for smaller games that are not typical casual games. Rotating developers into smaller game teams once in a while would also help make life better for the overworked developers at the big companies, and maybe hold on to some of those key people I mentioned earlier.

As for myself, I hope I will be at the helm of a small but successful game company publishing fun games for both the casual and less casual consumers.

Finally, what will it take for developers to turn casual gaming into a big business?

Casual gaming itself is already big business. If you mean what it takes for a new developer to make their casual game into big business, I'd prefer to answer that question a couple of years from now, once we've managed to do just that.

End of interview.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed it. Just a note, this entire interview was done through an email Q&A system. It was printed here in complete form with no editing to preserve the original spirit of both the questions and the answers. Once again, I'd like to thank Brian Meidell Andersen of The Game Equation for his participation.