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Interview: NaturalMotion Talks Games Initiative, 'Repeatable' App Store Success

Interview: NaturalMotion Talks Games Initiative, 'Repeatable' App Store Success

November 18, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield




Game technology developer NaturalMotion, the company behind the physics heavy football title Backbreaker, has announced the formation of its new games division, which will focus on developing titles for mobile and digital platforms.

The new division, known as NaturalMotion Games, will release Jenga -- based on the popular block puzzle game -- and American football title Backbreaker 2: Vengence for iOS. The latter title will make use of the company's Morpheme animation tools and Endorphin animation and behavior technologies, previously used in part for the firm's own Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game Backbreaker.

Oxford, England and San Francisco-based NaturalMotion already has its tools used for games like Red Dead Redemption, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2, Grand Theft Auto IV and Enslaved.

It aims to create iOS, Android, and eventually digital console games that feature high quality visuals, accessible gameplay, and social connectivity, using the company's core technologies as the basis for most of its titles.

The company's previous Backbreaker American football-themed title on iOS was downloaded over 3 million times on the iTunes App store, a surprise success that NaturalMotion hopes to repeat.

The company's CEO Torsten Reil, noted that with thousands of user reviews, the developers could actually take real data from what customers wanted, and integrate that into future games.

Gamasutra spoke with Reil to discuss the company's expansion to game development, how to recapture App store success, and the evolution of the digital market.

What makes you want to move into publishing now? Why is this the time for you to start?

A large part of the reason is that we had a lot of success with Backbreaker on iPhone; we've had more than three million downloads and we are high up on the charts more than a year later.

We see that as an opportunity to use our technology in a way that is commercially very useful. To be honest, Backbreaker was a surprising success; our predictions were much lower than what we actually sold. But we looked at it and said "Can we make this something that is scalable?" We want to repeat this recipe of trying to push the limits of what is doable.

We're running a next gen console engine, Morpheme, on iPhone to give you very fluid animations, high quality graphics, and we wanted to make is accessible. It's quite deep, but it's easy to pick up. We aim to combine this mass market approach with high end visuals on these platforms. We thought, "Can we create a business around that?" And that is what we are doing right now. We think we can, and all the games that we are doing have this same recipe with high end accessibility, and social connections.

It's interesting to see people move into this lateral business when their main business seems fairly profitable. Sometimes the iPhone scale of return can be quite low, but it sounds like you have a plan to make that financially viable?

Yeah, the rate of return on Backbreaker was a tenfold return, so it's extremely viable. The question is, "Is that repeatable?" We think it is. We focus tested Backbreaker 1 so many times, and we looked at how people we pulled off the street, and those in professional focus tests played it and what they found difficult. We think we have a pretty good process of figuring out what makes these games good, but we'll find out.

Are you primarily interested in the digital space with iPhone and iPad, or are you also looking to digital or packaged console releases?

We're looking at iOS, Android, and also digital console, and we think there is a huge opportunity on console as well. It's certainly true that a big focus right now is on iOS because of the install base and the power of the platform, which is growing so fast now that we can do console stuff on it.

With the Backbreaker games on console and iOS, there was some criticism that they were more technology focused than gameplay oriented. Is that something that you've noticed or have thought about?

Well, that's not a criticism we usually got for the iPhone version, partially because we have more users and because it was more of a mass market audience that didn't know NaturalMotion at all. There wasn't much of, "Oh, it's just a tech demo," which was one of the criticisms leveled at the game on consoles, but we didn't really have that on iOS.

On console, considering were we came from, I can see why people had that feeling. It's also true that when we released Backbreaker at retail, we had to release it at that particular point.

There were a few things that we wanted to sort out to make the gameplay what we wanted it to be, which we simply didn't have time for. We largely were able to sort everything out in a patch afterwards, but I think that partially contributed to it. But to be honest, that story isn't over. It's the beginning of Backbreaker, not the end of one game.

As a tech company that is also making games now, how do you balance that in terms of your game development customers who want you to keep focusing on your tech, while still doing those other things?

The way we do that is by having the teams separate, and the technology team is growing pretty fast. We've been investing in this, and we've be reinvesting the revenues from it for quite some time, so it's been growing pretty fast.

I don't think in general there is anything for people to be worried about, simply because it is such a big focus of the company. The way we do this in practice is we have the technology side, and the games side, and they don't overlap in terms of staff, for example.

On the technology side, we have so many customers now; we can't give precedence to our own internal teams because otherwise our customers wouldn't be happy. I think we are quite strict with the way we treat that.

Some people say that teams working with Epic will request changes, and those changes will be implemented in Unreal Engine, and then be there for everybody. How do you feel about that kind of interaction?

To be honest, I don't think there have been particular requests from the games team that would have distracted the technology team from doing something that wouldn't have made sense for other customers. In general, we've learned a lot, particularly from Epic on console, about pipeline, about what kind real world issues that will be on features about performance, for example. These are very general areas that really benefitted the product.

Certainly some tools are divorced from real development application. Some are developed, and then people figure out how to fit them into their pipeline rather than being developed within a pipeline, so perhaps that is a good thing too.

You always have to strike a balance. With all of these tools, it's different and difficult to get the right balance. You don't want to be particularly focused on one type of pipeline that works, because other people might want to work differently. On the other hand, you don't want to be so abstract in terms of your pipeline that it has nothing to do with the real world.

Do you feel as though the quality of your games will reflect on your tools as well?

I think so. Certainly, there is the potential for it to affect them positively or negatively. To what extent that actually will be the case, we will have to see. Like with everything else, a game is only as good as you are able to make it. Tools obviously contribute to that, but so do time and other factors as well.

What will be your focus in terms of games? Does the company have a vision for that, and where are your designers and directors coming from?

The focus of our games, as I mentioned before, is combining high end animation and graphics with accessible and socially connected gameplay. That's the core of what it is. We are not trying to so social 2D games on Facebook, we're not trying to do super hardcore games; we are trying to make accessible games that use graphics that are advanced for the platform.

It's not one or the other; it's really the combination of both that's important. What that means in practice is that pretty much all our games are using our technology to differentiate themselves. I say "pretty much," because there is one exception: Jenga. All of our other games, and there are about six in development right now, all use our technology.

There seems to be a lot of contraction in the tools space right now. Obviously, some recent closures and acquisition stories have been going around lately. How have you felt about that, and do you see moving into games as a potential buffer?

To be honest, we don't look at it that way. The technology business is strong enough and growing, and is looking to make really interesting headway in Asia, which is becoming a very interesting market. I think there are massive opportunities in that market, anyway. The way I look at it is there is just such an amazing opportunity also in the content business to use the kind of technology we have to create something new and create an interesting business.

How large is your publishing branch going to be, and do you have an internal development team still?

Yeah, we have a pretty sizable internal development team that's working on a number of things. For example, we did Jenga internally, which was unusual given what we typically do. We are also working with external partners as well, but production and design always comes from the main studio.

Where do your directors and designers come from?

From the games industry. We recruited a lot from Europe, also from the U.S.; in general they tend to be from the console side, and we are trying to get people in from the social side.

Yeah, it's really hard to know who is good at this point in the social games space, because it's still so new.

That's very true, and it's one of the things that is changing very quickly too. I would argue one of the main thing you need to have as a skill right now is being able to adapt, because the market is changing on almost a weekly basis. Things like freemium models were not so viable 12 months ago as they are now, especially on certain platforms. That sometimes means you even need to change your monetization strategy as well.

It's fun watching this problem sort itself out. Nowadays, it's pretty much accepted that free-to-play models are how it is going to be for social games and most online stuff in general. I wonder how the consoles are going to have to adapt to that.

Yeah, it's really interesting. In Korea, it's been popular for quite some time, and I remember a couple of years ago, everyone thought this might come over, but there was no acceptance of the freemium model whatsoever, but things have radically changed. Even on iPhone, quite a few of the top games are free-to-play, and that wasn't the case sex months ago, so it's changing very quickly.

Where do you see the future for social?

I do think that think we will see a second and third wave of social games coming up really soon. Right now, you have a lot of simple 2D games, and those won't go away, but we will see more games that use more of the richness from console development. I think this is interesting because it means something new for the consumer, and it means the skills of console developers are applicable on these platforms very quickly.

On Backbreaker 2 on iPhone, we've actually been able to use our console assets on iPhone 4, and that's pretty cool. Fast forward a couple of years, and we have different hardware evolution, and we have a different business model and a different audience that we can sell this to. It's not just the current console audience, it's even wider.

Yeah, even in the browser space it's moving toward 3D, and it almost seems like all of these things are chasing each other's tails.

They are, and it's interesting because it doesn't mean that the console market won't be very important, it will always be very important, but it's a different kind of experience. We are obviously massive proponents of the console space anyway, because that's where our business is, but there is a lot of other stuff coming up right now.


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