Accelerate - April 2016

The level playing field

open this image in new window: LevelUp

When it comes to game development, is being small the secret to making it big? Some industry players discuss where the culture of innovation resides in game dev.

Andrew Stairs, director of escpodgames and Rox Flame, KiwiGameStarter winner for Dynabrick, opened indie game dev co-working space LevelUp in January, with eight workstations in Wellington’s Cuba Quarter.

Within weeks the space is full and breaking even. Expansion plans are already being hatched.

LevelUp draws its inspiration from Melbourne’s The Arcade, an 80-person space which has also spawned an Auckland namesake.

The pair did a feasibility survey among gamers in Wellington and talked to Melbourne’s Arcade founder and Australian Game Developers Association CEO Tony Reed before starting their venture.

“We did an agile process on the business,” says Flame. “We started it with a minimum viable product then expanded it once it was up and running.”

Currently that minimum viable product is a space with eight permanently-rented workstations.

“In many ways it’s good that their big companies closed down because it’s never been easier to make a game.”

Stairs says expansion is highly likely in the medium term, with a lot of indie developers making games in their bedrooms under the radar, and looking for a home.

He is unequivocal that, when it comes to developing games as an indie, small teams are often better.

“Indies want to be indies – working for larger companies is often a good stepping stone or fallback option.


EPIC, Christchurch: game developers CerebralFix are a key tenant

“When the large Australian studios shut down that’s when the Arcade started. So in many ways it’s good that their big companies closed down because it’s never been easier to make a game.”

Flame says they want LevelUp to achieve the key innovation benefits of co-working, in particular retaining the nimbleness of a small operation while being able to scale up to get the work done.

“A space like this allows indies to form small teams – one person on art, someone else on code – so the diversity of talent produces lots of good ideas, and the collaboration with other devs gets the game into production.”

By seeding the initial space with some experienced developers they aim to provide for informal mentoring as well.

Stephen Knightly, New Zealand Game Developers Association chairperson, agrees the genius of co-working is that it emphasises collaboration rather than competition.

Co-working spaces dedicated to gaming are opening across New Zealand. As well as LevelUp and The Arcade Auckland, Christchurch’s EPIC Centre has CerebralFix as its biggest tenant, which has expanded to Westport, while Dunedin has just opened its own co-working space.

But Knightly – perhaps not surprisingly, as he represents the whole industry – has a slightly different take on the role of indies vs big players.

“A healthy industry has a mix of larger projects and small projects. There’s a role for those 50 – 100 person productions to provide experience, skills and international publishing connections.”

Knightly notes that many of the residents in Level Up are alumni from Wellington’s largest games studio PikPok who have started their own businesses.

To Knightly, the term ‘indie’ can easily encompass a studio with dozens of employees.

“There are two senses of the term ‘indie’ – the indie ethos of unconventional and original work, and being independent in the sense of owning your own IP.

“For indies, doing something alternative that doesn’t initially appear ‘commercial’ is in fact a smart business ploy.  Innovation in a creative industry means originality and novelty, something people haven’t seen before.  There are a number of two-to-three person game studios in New Zealand with plus-million dollar revenues. But having New Zealand-owned IP is what makes the industry sustainable.

“When you own your IP, you are the publisher as well as the developer, so you have more vertical integration. You manage the marketing and the customer experience, and it means higher margins for your work.  With a hit game and a scalable digital product, those margins can be significant.”

Knightly says just 15% of game development revenue in New Zealand comes from off-shore contract and service work, a figure he contrasts with the screen and IT industries, where the bulk of work is service work for others.

A key difference is the lower cost of entry.

“For a smaller initial investment you can put something in the market, measure success then continue to expand. You can treat the game as a service and update it as you get feedback from players.  Game startups typically get far faster market traction than most SaaS startups, although there are many other business similarities.”

So when it comes to game development, it seems the indie culture of innovation can transcend size and scale.

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Updated: 7 April 2016