In the weeks leading up to this year's E3, Gamasutra had a chance to sit down with Reflexive Entertainment CEO Lars Brubaker and programmer/designer Simon Hallam. Among the subjects discuss with the developers of IGF Grand Prize winner Wik & The Fable Of Souls was the company's intriguing history, the company's recent Xbox 360 debut, and what they're planning next for the X360 - exclusive concept designs for the company's next project included!
Gamasutra: Tell us about your overall company background. You haven't always done casual titles - you've done both over the years, right?
Lars Brubaker: Absolutely. We founded this company in 1997, actually operating from within my condo. We had two desks in the kitchen and two in the living room, and network cables across the room. The first game we made, Swarm, was an Internet-distributed game that we self-funded and published. And it, bizarrely, was our intention to do this from the beginning—original works, stuff that we owned ourselves, stuff that we published ourselves.
But you can imagine in '97 it was a little bit early for the whole taking credit card [payments] off the Internet thing, and we didn't really understand what a casual game was. In any case, we made a hardcore game at the time. We all had a background in working in traditional development houses, so we went and got a contract with Hasbro from my kitchen table. From there [we] got a real office and got another deal with Activision doing a Star Trek game, and just kept at it. Since then, we did Star Trek, we did Zax: The Alien Hunter, we did Lionheart .
GS: And then during the end of 2003 or so, you switched over and started doing more compact casual game titles, right?
LB: I guess it was about 2001, we made Ricochet —the very first casual game that was quite successful. We did that while we were still working on more mainstream commercial stuff. With the proceeds we generated from that, we started to write our own purchasing and DRM solution.
The way that we actually got transitioned into being strictly a casual game developer and publisher, was back in Christmas of 2003, when we were working on a prototype for Atari and they called me up on December 23rd and said, “We're sorry. We're not going to be able to pick this up,” which was on the day before the contract would have paid us another month - we laid off 14 guys. When we got back from Christmas, we decided to devote ourselves completely to self-publishing… we had somewhere between about three and five months' of funding and decided we just had to make this work.
Simon Hallam: Six months before that Christmas we had set up another division with just a few people that was devoted to trying to build that whole reflection of arcade brand. Now we had to continue to invest in it.
GS: You may want to not exactly specify it, but how much does a casual title cost—in manpower or development time or actual dollars nowadays? How much longer are you taking on yours, and with how many people?
LB: We entered Wik in the Independent Games Festival, and one of the requirements was that we stated how much the development costs had been. That game had been about $350,000 at the time that we submitted it, which was about the total development time for the product.
SH: Which was about nine months.
LB: Our games typically range between about $150,000 and $350,000. What we budget for a title depends on whether or not it's a sequel, how much technology we are using, how much development we plan to do, etc.
GS: With regards to a location, it occurs to me that one of the issues in PC casual development is there are people out in the middle of nowhere presumably making games because it can be a lot cheaper out there. Is that a problem for you guys, that you're developers in California, one of the most expensive places to make casual games in the world?
LB: Theoretically, that's an argument, but the reality is our hiring practices and our company mandate is that we hire the best talent there is. The fact is that guys here like Simon are going to command that kind of salary wherever they work. If we're going to get them, it doesn't matter if it's So Cal or Wyoming . They're still going to ask for that much money. The reason our games are expensive is because we're hiring talent that's expensive.
|Concept art from Reflexive's next title.|
GS: One of the interesting things about the casual market right now is that everyone has gotten very excited about it and there's a lot of people pumping money into it, both on the development side and on the publishing side. Do you feel threatened at all by these companies that are coming through?
LB: I would have to respond... we're not threatened. But the reason isn't because there isn't great talent coming into the market, or that there isn't worthy money or appropriately spent money, it's because the games industry is kind of like the book industry or the movie industry. People think they're going to win the lottery. There's always venture capital pouring money down some movie's throat.
There's always money pouring down some game's throat as well, and casual games is just the latest place where someone thinks they can just walk in and win the lottery. The reality is it's as hard as normal games publishing. It's very, very hard. The competition is very, very good. The other games are very, very good. The psychology of the gamer is difficult to get a handle on and to try and understand what it is that you need to build to get into the market. A lot of people are going to lose their shirts. We struggled for a long time to figure out what we know now. I don't think it's something you can just get for a million dollars.
There definitely will be a few [nascent] developers that emerge from it successfully, but the vast majority as always are going to die.
GS: Speaking more from a design point of view on the casual market, I know there's always controversy, especially right now, about plagiarism in casual games. Do you have any comment on how you feel about that? There's always games that feel similar to other games. Where's that line?
LB: There's a million perspectives to pick on that as well, and the most significant is what does the customer want to buy. It's easy to say that one concept is plagiarizing another but usually the one plagiarized is the one that didn't sell, and the one that's plagiarizing is remarkably successful. No one really cares if you stole their idea for a game that doesn't sell. The reality is – and again I have to go back to the movie analogy or the book analogy – that it's always the same story, it's always the same book, it's always the same game in a lot of ways.
There are few game genres that games defined, like in our current market space we have the match-three or the puzzle or the find. But if really you look at the diversity that's been done with match-three, some are remarkably successful, and the vast majority aren't. To claim that they're all just rip-offs of Bejeweled is really simple.
SH: Ultimately the market will decide. The market dictates everything that happens, particularly with “try-before-you-buy” games. If another match-three game comes out and it's crap, it's just not going to sell. It has to have something that people want. It just constantly amazes me how much of an appetite there is in the market for match-three games.
GS: It seems like people are still coming out with plenty of new ones.
LB: I have to say that the try-before-you buy [method], it's risky and dangerous – is really wonderful from a creative perspective, in the sense that you can really win simply by being great as opposed to being full of marketing hype. If your game isn't good enough to sell itself, there will not be a sale. That's been a really rewarding experience personally for us. When our games really sell, it's completely to our credit, as opposed to the credit of any kind of marketing machine, placement, or advertising.
GS: It definitely seems that the casual market is good in that way. In terms of how you sell, do you sell mainly through portals and are there particular portals that you sell through? I noticed you're trying to develop, to a certain extent, portal-selling on your own site as well. Is that a significant portion of the money you make right now?
LB Our portal is a significant revenue generator for us. We also have an affiliate program so we allow other people to distribute our game content - we essentially establish contracts with all those developers and make that available to a portal for distribution on their own site. We encourage all of our developers to participate in that because we tell them, “You have a website that you've built this reputation around with your own games and you should leverage it as much as you can.” We've actually had a great deal of success with some of developers we've worked with, in helping them generate more revenue.
GS: Let's talk about conversion rates. I wonder if with something like Wik , have you found exponentially better conversion rates on the Xbox 360?
LB: Consoles have zero piracy. They have by definition every single participant in the market space. And that's not true with PC. There may be a large body of PC players going to the website who do not buy games. But there isn't a console player that buys a console that does not attempt to buy a game. You're just targeting a very different demographic right off the bat, and then you have zero piracy. I think that's the largest reason for these --- potentially an order of magnitude difference in conversion percentage. A typical game will convert at about one percent. A really good one will convert between two and three percent.
GS: On Xbox 360, I believe they're claiming that maybe over ten percent is entirely possible.
LB: It's a higher conversion ratio—somewhere between about ten percent to about as high as 25 to 30 percent.
GS: It's nice to see games that are good for the gamer who doesn't have 60 hours to play on their TV, so I appreciate that.
SH: Actually Wik , as an example, is literally doing ten times the conversion rate than it did on the PC. Wik was a game that actually had a pretty good conversion rate on the PC. It just didn't have as many downloads as many other games.
GS: Let's talk a little bit about Wik . One of the things I've been particularly interested in – because obviously I've played both the PC and Xbox 360 versions – I found it to be an interesting conversion because obviously the gameplay had to change or at least the method of gameplay had to change, so I wondered if you could you talk a bit about how the process of converting the game and the changes that were necessary.
SH: We had a number of ideas that we wanted to test out with the Xbox 360 controller, and we spent about three weeks with an Xbox controller plugged into the PC version of the game just experimenting with every different control method that you can imagine that seemed to make sense. We came up with something that started to feel pretty good and we just fine honed it. After about three weeks, we got something we actually felt was better than the original mouse control that the PC version shipped with. We were pretty happy with that.
|Mosaic: Tomb Of Mystery|
GS: Let's talk briefly about your current game - Mosaic: Tomb Of Mystery - explain how you feel you differentiated it? I noticed you're using the mouse wheel, which many games don't seem to.
SH: (laughs) It seemed such a logical thing to do. Why not take a control that allows you to rotate something with your middle or index finger? We were actually pretty shocked when we played some of the other puzzle games out there that very few actually seemed to have mouse wheel control, and it just. We spent a lot of time thinking about the controls. That's how the player interfaces with the game. It's a very important aspect of any game, and we spent quite a lot of time thinking about it, experimenting, and making sure that it feels right.
That just seemed like a logical thing to do and once we tried it, it just made so much sense that we felt we had to go with it. In terms of other additions, we tried to layer a lot of cool new player mechanics and things on top of the basic gameplay to really try and differentiate us from any other similar type games out there. We also spent a lot of time brainstorming trying to come up with: “What is going to be so amazing that it could almost overshadow the core thing that you're doing?”
And that's where we got a play mechanic called chain lightning, which will join two special pieces with a flashing line of shapes that get filled in. And also, we built something that we called the fold-out effect, which is where when you place a shape and hold the mouse button down for a second, it will literally fold extra pieces outside of the shape that you placed. Once we got those down, then we knew we were on a cool track that was really going to make this game feel different and take it to a different level.
|New Reflexive game art|
GS: The game is themed around Egypt . Are there particular themes that everyone loves in casual games?
SH: You probably won't believe this, but we started working on Mosaic right after finishing the PC version of Wik. At that time, the only Egyptian themed game we knew of was Bricks of Egypt, I think it's called. It seemed like it was a theme that hadn't been tapped out too much. Then we had some ideas – how can we take this placing shapes mechanic and fit it into a theme that makes sense. The idea of actually filling in Egyptian hieroglyphs as a mosaic, just made perfect sense.
That's actually how a lot of Egyptian art is built. They built mosaics. It kind of seemed logical. Then we got distracted for a little while with Wik on the Xbox 360, during which time it seemed like every game that was coming out had an Egyptian theme, but we fairly well into development and decided to just run with it because the game looked gorgeous already.
GS: Can you talk at all about the theme of your new in-development title, which may come out for Xbox 360?
LB: We can talk a little about it. The most significant thing that we can possibly say is that it's not actually a 360 title yet in the sense that Microsoft has not seen it, picked it up, or agreed to it. The next thing is…
SH: The game is very heavily based on a really cool physics system. There's a lot of interacting with the environment and things in a way that just – you'll really get to kind of feel what you're doing. It's hard to explain. I mean when I say “you'll feel it”, obviously I don't mean literally. It's like in Wik, when you're doing loops and things, when you're swinging around, you really get a feel for the weight of the character, how he's spinning around, your kinesthetic sense.
This kinesthetic feel is very important and we have a cool unique main character in the game as well.