Q&A: Beanbag Studios' Bergenholtz Talks Casual Market 'For Dummies'
Sandbox Studios founder Steve Bergenholtz and his partner, Gary Corriveau, have announced the formation of Beanbag Studios, a privately-owned company dedicated to the design and production of casual games, based in Plano, Texas with a London, Ontario development studio.
Bergenholtz founded Sandbox Studios in 1998, which developed Shrek, The Emperor's New Groove, Disney's Dinosaur, ESPN NHL Hockey, Matchbox Emergency Patrol and other titles based on the IPs of Disney, DreamWorks, Mattel and others. Electronic Arts acquired the studio in 2001.
Beanbag also revealed to Gamasutra that it has acquired exclusive worldwide rights to develop interactive titles based on the For Dummies how-to books. The first two games, Sudoku For Dummies 2008 and Poker For Dummies 2008, will hit online distribution channels this year, with retail box versions to follow at a later date. Beanbag obtained the global rights to create interactive For Dummies titles, including cell phone and PDA games, in a deal with Wiley Publishing.
Additionally, the company anticipates completing over 20 original and licensed titles at its internal studio through 2008, and aims to grow its development capacity to include cell phone and console titles.
Gamasutra spoke to founder Bergenholtz about his lessons from years of industry experience, and the disruption he feels is necessary for the casual market to thrive.
When did you first join the game development industry, and in what positions have you worked through the years?
I started in the games arena back in the early 80's by assisting a school friend of mine with Montezuma's Revenge, an 8-bit hit title back in the Atari and Commodore days. We regrouped in 1993 to form Utopia Technologies and develop coin-operated arcade games and technology.
Our first hit title was a coin-operated countertop gaming system called Countertop Champion. Countertop Champion used all-off-the-shelf PC components, with the core being a 386sx33 with 512K of memory. Boy, those were the days!
Countertop Champion had over 30 different casual games targeted at ladies. It was the top-selling arcade game for three years in a row, and outsold all other coin-op games in 1994 and 1995. We sold the arcade side of the business in 1995 after I did a multi-million dollar deal in a hotel room with a coin-op manufacturer. And to think we'd hit the streets with this gaming system on a $12,000 investment.
After the arcade games sale, Robert Jaeger, Atman Binstock, Gary Corriveau, Rich Geldreich and myself developed a real-time 3D graphics technology called Uvision. Uvision was used to release Montezuma's Return and various kids games. My partner, Robert Jaeger, retired and moved to an Ashram to take up yoga full-time after the release of Montezuma's Return in 2001. With the other guys we pushed forward with Sandbox Studios. Atman and Rich headed up the tech side of the business, Gary everything creative and I focused on the business and staffing side as we grew from the original four to almost 70 people in 18 months.
The staff and I decided to change our focus, and instead of playing follow-the-leader with copycat 3D shooters, we decided to focus on licensed titles for the casual and kids markets. That's when Sandbox Studios was born. In 2001, after Jaeger retired, the guys and I started with hit kids titles. including Matchbox Emergency Patrol, Disney's Dinosaur, Disney's Emperor's New Groove, Shrek as a launch Xbox title, ESPN NHL Hockey and many other licensed games. Sandbox was eventually sold, and I was contractually required to take a sabbatical from the games arena for five years.
What motivated you to start Beanbag Studios?
We were motivated by the market's dire need for cool, fun and original casual games versus more of the same.
We see the core and old stable of publishers continuing on a downward spiral as they spend millions of dollars releasing their top-tier console titles for cross platform play while having a hard time recouping their investment. There are a few exceptions to this, including EA, but for the most part, Take-Two, THQ, Atari and others might go the way of the dinosaur, as Acclaim and many others did over the years. They learn their lessons for a short period of time, and then fall into the same mistakes by playing follow the leader, refusing to create original content, overspending and building teams so large, sales have to hit mega numbers for the publishers to just break even.
We agree with what Nolan Bushnell said in your interview with him about a lot of video games in today's market lacking social interaction and originality. We also second his comments about a lot of today's games being "pure, unadulterated trash." They're copies of copies of copies versus anything approaching NEW and fun. I've visited publishers who said they'd pay me nicely just to bring them more of the same. This is even true in the casual arena. One big publisher told me they wouldn't take our games if they weren't another Connect 3, Zuma or Diner Dash!
In August 2006, Beanbag Studios was created to develop major licensed casual games and fun original games based on our many years of creative experience. The core casual market needs original titles rather than more Bejeweled clones.
The casual games market has blossomed and is quickly approaching the $2 billion mark in global revenues. Beanbag Studios will tap into this revenue stream and develop what the market wants versus more of the same. Our goal is to release major licensed games that are a lot of fun, even if you peel off the license. Each title will be original, and hopefully set industry trends, especially with our launching over 20 titles through Christmas 2008. More will be possible if we can grow the studio with additional talented staff. As a side note, most of our staff members are coming from other top-tier publishers and studios, including Ubisoft, EA and others.
What platforms is Beanbag developing on these days, and how many of your titles will be multi-platform?
Beanbag anticipates releasing over 20 casual PC titles through Christmas 2008. Fourteen of the games are fully playable now, and are receiving great feedback from our focus group testing. In addition, we'll release downloadable titles for Xbox Live, Windows Live and Wii Marketplace. We're also looking into developing several Nintendo DS titles for release during Q3 and Q4 2008.
Tell us about the development tools Beanbag is working with and how they affect the flow of production. How important is rapid, interactive prototyping in your studio?
As at Sandbox, where we released Shrek as an Xbox launch title six months after we signed the contract, Beanbag prides itself for having developed a strong technology base during its initial 10 months. The team is now focused 85 percent on high level gameplay coding and 15 percent on other tasks, such as base tech modifications and development tools. This streamlines production and increases title output. We don't believe in creating new technology for each title, as others do. We build on what we have, and will take this base to the consoles, too.
Beanbag has an internal policy for each new title: we spend up to two weeks developing the core gameplay mechanics and prototype using fuzzy artwork, and if the fun factor is there, the team is given the green light to continue to the next prototype. If the fun factor is missing, and we feel it can't be turned into a cool game people would want to replay, then it hits the trash bin on our server's desktop.
We understand what the core casual gamers want to play, and are 110 percent fixated on delivering it. If we can't meet their expectations with any title in development, production on it stops and the team moves forward with another game.
It looks like Beanbag has a soft spot for the casual gamer. What draws you to that market?
My dictum is: find a niche and fill it. There's a large hole in the market for casual games, and the need for original titles is compelling. So a few things draw me to the market:
First and foremost, the big publishers just don't get it. They don't understand the core casual market and what it wants. Take Activision, THQ and a few of the other majors as an example, and consider their casual offerings: football with simplified passing and less testosterone, horse racing made pretty, and absurd titles that underscore Nolan's comments, such as Prison Tycoon 3: Lockdown, Let's Ride Friends Forever and Hard Truck Tycoon.
The market is still in its infancy, with the big players on the sidelines; thus, we have an opportunity to become a major player in the market.
The monetary return on investment, as I personally funded Beanbag Studios. The Beanbag team has the potential for a huge return, especially as we evolve to add console, cell and other platforms to our portfolio.
Market forecasts for the core casual market are in the billions of dollars, which is a nice revenue stream to tap into with cool and original new games.
The market is exploding, and while others have hit nearly $100 million in sales revenues -- we understand Popcap is in that range and that PlayFirst is weighing in at over $40 million in the short time they've been around -- we feel we can exceed these numbers and be extremely profitable within a year of delivering our first games.
Does Beanbag have a publisher of choice yet, or are you seeking publishers on a case-by-case basis right now?
Beanbag has received offers to take its games to market from two traditional publishers and three online distributors. We're exploring various opportunities, including publishing our own titles. In addition, several publishers and online aggregators have offered us development opportunities. We'll maintain an open mind, and will entertain all opportunities that fit into our ongoing, but growing, business model. This includes having conversations with several investors who have brought us various growth opportunities to consider. An eventual IPO would excite the team and certainly boost morale!
With studios both inside and outside of the States, does Beanbag target any specific regional markets? And are you putting any effort into developing titles with international appeal?
Considering the international appeal and strength of our licenses, we anticipate sales outside North America to generate a significant percentage of sales revenue. International sales could exceed 50 percent of our revenue stream, with European sales in the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Spain being key markets. Sales in Asia and Russia should be strong, too. We'll introduce various modifications in some of the games to garner the interest of the specific markets and out of respect for their customs.
Beanbag will be opening a new office soon for the purposes of developing specialty technology. What kind of technology will that be?
In 2008, we need to re-tool and introduce content on other platforms now on the market, including Xbox Live and Wii Marketplace, and for a new system that will be introduced in late 2008 or early 2009 to a specific non-console market.
Tough question: Studios which develop casual games based on licensed IPs appear to be content with producing simple, mediocre titles that support themselves on brand recognition more than quality gameplay. What are your thoughts on that?
Sadly, I agree with your point of view. We've seen numerous big publishers do exactly that, including LucasArts, with their own key properties, THQ, Take Two, Atari and others.
The policy on this subject at Beanbag Studios is simple: each game must be able to stand on its own with or without a license attached. Additionally, each of our games must pass through focus testing and a rigorous round of testing in our studio for fun. As I have the title of Funologist, if our focus groups don't enjoy a game, all development on the project comes to a stop.
Our teams are assigned two titles at a time. One is the team's core game, which maintains a higher priority than the other one. We often take titles off the development schedule for fun factor testing, focus group feedback and so on. We needed to implement development methods that vary from the norm and fall outside the box, which is the place I most often find myself. We have no problem with terminating a project if the fun factor isn't there. We owe that to the marketplace.
Is there anything in the gaming marketplace right now and on the immediate horizon you'd like to see more developers doing?
For the sake of mercy, stop making clones of clones, and instead develop cool original games, like we did years ago, and like Beanbag and a few studios continue to do today. Maybe the word is 'innovate'. Give consumers a reason to buy more games.
Also, gameplay testing is critical at various points in development, not just at the end of the dev cycle. Studios should rethink their development processes and bring them up to date. Having managers over managers over managers is crazy, and serves no purpose other than to comfort executive level managers.
Finally, bleeding edge technology isn't needed, especially if the core gameplay mechanics fail. Advanced technology mostly serves to drive development costs through the roof and provide a few bullet points on the sell sheet.
Studios should also focus on one or two consoles at most, not three. Development costs are out of control, and the risks are huge when compared to the potential lackluster returns, especially after recently seeing lowered income projections from THQ and other big publishers reported on Gamasutra. These publishers are being hit hard, and their revenues continue to decline.