An Audience With...
Success in mobile games? To the co-founder of Fireproof, it’s all about going with your gut
Fireproof Games co-founder Barry Meade on ignoring the numbers and going with your gut
The rise of smartphones and tablets promised a jolt of innovation for the videogame industry, but while there has been much to celebrate along the way, the devaluing influence of freeto-play, and severe discoverability problems, have led to stagnation. One company whose work consistently cuts through this creative enervation is Fireproof Games, the developer behind The Room series, which has sold around 12m copies to date. Here, director and co-founder Barry Meade reflects on the studio’s huge success, the state of the mobile-game industry today, and why artistry and passion still trump metrics. Let’s start at the beginning, in 2008: what were the origins of Fireproof? We started as an outsourcing company, making artwork for other people’s games, basically, so we were just six freelancers. And the way we established the business then was to be as cheap as possible, literally to only earn our running costs, and make our work as good as possible, so people could see that we were competitive. We knew that we were professional enough, I guess, from our backgrounds, and we could do good work. So if we went in really cheap, we could win some contracts. That’s how we started, and it’s pretty much how we continued. It’s also why we never made any money from that model [laughs]. But we were more concerned with being really good and staying in work than we were in trying to make a huge business out of it. But the long-term goal was always really important to us as well, because it helped us not to try and turn into an outsourcing business. We didn’t want to become 100 freelancers knocking out lampposts for people. Our future business was always going to be, “We have to make our own videogames.” How do you think that outlook set Fireproof apart? Having that in mind allowed us to make those shortterm decisions, or rather decisions about our short-term makeup. We didn’t agonise over things. If we got a contract that was too big for us, we said no, rather than desperately scrambling to make it work and hiring people left and right. I think a lot of people in our position didn’t do that – they took every contract they could, and hired anyone they could in order to get as much work as possible. I think that’s a natural reaction, but we went the other way. We wanted to stay as small as possible. Is going against the grain something that was already in you, or was it a conscious effort to work that way? It was a combination of our experience and also how we wanted things to be. Working with EA and Criterion, it was the best of times, and the worst of times. We got to make wonderful games and work with wonderful people, but it was tremendously difficult and we worked our arses off, in an unsustainable way. People shouldn’t have to work like that, or even work with those methods. So we came out of Criterion with some very strong opinions about what works and what doesn’t, and what’s right and what isn’t, and what is healthy and what is unhealthy. An awful lot of the practices that are put in place in huge offices are actually to train people, to get them into the swing of doing things a certain way. But if you’ve been doing it ten, 15, 20 years – over 20, in my case – you don’t need that any more. Those regimes don’t help – they just get in your way and cause you pain. They cause you worry and they cost you time. You burn so much time trying to manage upwards and outwards, justifying your work and your decisions, and getting measured by the producers – that situation is just managed chaos. What sort of practical changes did you make? We know what we’re doing, we know why we’re doing it, we know how much it’s going to cost, we know how much we’re going to make out of it, we know how long it should take… So all of the strictures that we would have placed upon ourselves have no place here at all. When we came out of Criterion we were naturally in the position of, “Let’s remove all of the bullshit from the working day that the industry has” – all the things that we had to go through and that we know don’t work, and that we never want to go back to. We wanted to look at Fireproof as a blank slate, work exactly how we want to and build it up from there. As far as industry decisions, or the business decisions we’ve made, I think that’s probably just an extension of that. We’ve always made decisions based upon what feels right, not what will make us the most money or anything like that. Last year you released a detailed infographic that revealed how much each instalment of The Room cost to create, along with your returns. What was the impetus behind making that public? We released the first one after The Room 2, and just updated it after The Room 3. But when we started, we were trying to learn about mobile and checking out the platform and the industry and how that all worked. But we couldn’t find any information from any company about the market. No one was releasing figures at the time. How much does a number-one premium game sell? We’ve no idea. How much does it make? We’ve no idea. How much do they cost? No idea. People have this thing in their head that what they’re doing is tremendously important and so they can’t tell people about it, when in fact no one cares. It’s not that important. You’re not that important. Why are you worried about it? Exactly what’s going to happen to you if this information gets out?
Probably nothing. So we wanted other teams in our position, who have no money, no resources and fuck-all contacts, with nobody pushing them, to be able to have some information. Just something that they can base maybe a few decisions on. It was just us acknowledging that when we were really looking for the information it wasn’t there. So we always had this idea that if we were ever successful we would release that information for people so that they would know. You’ve collected and published that data, but how much do you care about the metrics that have become such a focus in mobile development and publishing? Not at all. It’s a function of the kind of games that they’re making, though, right? If you’re making a free-to-play game, you need to know all that stuff, because all your competitors have it, and they’re all using it. All that stuff in the right situation makes a lot of sense. But I would say that even there, they probably overdo it – they overthink it. I know so many people who put blood, sweat and tears into their game and it still fails anyway. There’s an over-reliance on people thinking that this stuff is science, that if you use this stuff it means success. That’s the issue I have with using data: it’s not that the data itself is wrong, or it doesn’t inform you, it’s what it leads people to conclude. Data will tell you that the only thing people like is Clash Of Clans. There’s literally only one game that can be made on mobile? Really? It’s not sensible to believe that. And yet the industry does – if you go and speak to them, that’s all they really want. And yet games such as The Room prove that it isn’t really the case, right? It’s changing slowly. Free-to-play games have always been getting better, and people are going the other way now, because that top-ten grossing [chart] is a really hard mountain to climb. And so people are looking for different ways to make money and they’re probably beginning to look at designs that maybe they wouldn’t have done before. Innovation is happening, but as far as the data stuff is going, it just depends on your game. We happen to be making paid games that don’t require it at all, but people are still surprised that we don’t use it for
something – like to follow up on how our users play our games, for example. That aspect at least seems like it could be useful. No, that stuff is just not interesting. I know that there are developers out there that will test 100 icons before publishing their icon. That kind of stuff – that to us now is someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Either that, or they’ve been so brow-beaten by the data that they’ve lost confidence in their own decision-making. It’s one way to do it, and it is a scientific way to do it – test 100 different icons, with 1,000 people, and see which one is clicked on the most, or whatever. But we would just see that as a minor, tiny extension of a million decisions we make every day without any input from anywhere else. A minor thing that wouldn’t even exercise half an hour of our time; rather than testing 100, we just make one and make it look nice. We don’t want to know what the audience wants. We want to give them something they haven’t seen. It’s not important for us to find out what they already like, because that’s not where we’re going with it. And as far as we’re concerned, if you want to be successful, you have to think like that. So you should be putting this other stuff away, and letting generic developers who are never really going to make anything good run up that tree. That’s not your job – your job is to surprise people, and to make them like something that they didn’t know that they liked. Do you think that’s why The Room was a success? To be honest, I’m not sure that it was, in comparison to other paid games. We released The Room in 2012, and it was a simpler time then. Granted, it was even simpler in 2009 and 2010 when Cut The Rope and all these other games were literally selling ten or 20 million, but that was an eon ago. No one’s ever going to go back there on paid – well, unless paid gets some kind of resurgence. But
the glamour was already gone from paid by the time we released our game and everyone had gone free-to-play. We’re motivated by making lots of money, but we’re not that motivated. We want a good life, and we want to go home to our kids every day. We have money now, so we’re not at all motivated to go out and make 100 million dollars, because we’ve made ten [million]. We haven’t really changed our attitude now that we’re successful. It gives us a lot of confidence, but it’s a hard attitude to have because the attitude is, our work has to be worldclass; we have to compete with the best that are out there, not just other indie teams. We have to compete with everybody, because that’s the marketplace. But as for why The Room worked? Well, first of all, the reason it got known when it was released was because it was pushed on the App Store – we got the Editor’s Choice that week, and that’s a huge deal. But once that is gone, there’s no impetus there to keep a game selling, to keep it in the charts and keep people talking about it. That’s where a huge amount of your success will come from, and we managed to do that. The game is still selling – in much lower numbers, obviously, but it still sells every day. That’s down to people just liking the game. We’ve never spent a cent on advertising or PR in the history of the company. We’ve had a week of featuring on launch, and that’s it. We’ve managed to sell over ten million games that way, so there’s definitely something about the game that appeals to people. If you wanted to say it simply, I just think it’s that there wasn’t another game like The Room when it came out. It’s that simple. Hindsight gives one perspective, but how risky did it feel in the run up to the first game’s release? To us, that’s the fucking job. That’s what we’re all supposed to be doing. You’re not supposed to look like the next guy over there – that’s what the mediocre people in the industry tell you [to do]. These are the people that don’t really believe in success. I’m sure if you walked into an average publisher, they’re just not really going to think you’re capable of selling ten million copies, or 20 million, or 30. It’s not how they think. They’re numbers people, and they’re like, “Pfft, yeah, no one sells that, so…” You know? They’re not motivated by the quality of the game, so if you show them an amazing game, but you’re making it as a paid game, they’re just going to tell you it’s not going to work. I think that’s something that maybe we’ve lost in the industry – the idea that we’re supposed to make people believe in magic with a videogame. You’re supposed to lift them, or take them somewhere else, or get them invested in this world that they find really interesting. And I think in mobile games that’s just been whittled down. I can’t prove this, but my gut feeling is that data has made people turn it into a process, because the problem with data is that once you engage with it and say, “I’m accepting what it says,” you can’t argue with it. I think it’s very difficult for new ideas to get expressed, or different ways of thinking to come up in a natural way, because the industry is bending all the developers in one direction, all of the time. It’s relentless. I think that’s basically meant that mobile is just a more boring platform for games than its size would suggest, than its userbase would suggest, than its hardware would suggest, I would say. It makes a shit-ton of money with games that are not very good, generally. How much impact do you think that has on games that take other approaches? If you count the amount of amazing games on mobile, there’s so many. But if you count the amount of amazing games that really do well on mobile, there’s hardly any of them. Free-to-play is the most active [sector], but given the fact that one-and-a-half billion, two billion people own these devices, everything should be way, way bigger, especially the paid market. And it totally isn’t. The
constant refrain you hear from the industry is, “Well, people prefer free-to-play,” and what they mean is, “People prefer free.” They add the “-to-play” bit afterwards, but actually this is why free wins, this is why free has always won, and this is why it always will win. As soon as it arrived, it just beat everything. But the other reason it won is because the industry beat a path to it once they saw someone making tons of cash. Everyone was struggling with mobile at the time, if you remember – no one could figure mobile out, and people were releasing ten-million-dollar clangers. They were doing really bad ports from PC, and there were virtual D-pad games everywhere – they were all bad. There was so much bad that when good ones came along they were seen as dumb or stupid, like Cut The Rope and any of the stuff Epic did – there was a lot that was going on there that was true to the platform, that used the touchscreen really well, that took it seriously and built a game based around the hardware and around the platform. And that was something we really tried to do with The Room. But the industry never came back – they’ve just abandoned it now. They’re making lots of money, so good for them, but unfortunately it has left a feeling that tiny studios like us are the only ones who still believe in paid games. People think we’re making a mistake by doing this, but we’re not stupid. It’s like, “No, we know we’re limiting our earning power, we know that we’re not going to make as much money – your mistake is to think we don’t realise this.” We know we’ll never be as rich as these people, but it doesn’t bother us, because we’re much more interested in making games – really good games that we believe in, that appeal to us, that we think we’ll be remembered for. There’s going to be so many games that made 50 or 100 million dollars on the App Store that no one will think about in five years’ time. But there’s going to be a lot of games that made five million that people will remember, and talk about. That’s where we want to be.
What we find weird about the mobile industry is that they say that if you’re not working with data, if you’re not building a shop into the middle of your game, you don’t care about money, you’re not doing right by your staff, or something like this. So it’s denying the relationship between amazing games and amazing money that has always been there from day one, and has driven the game industry for so long. The mentality in mobile games is that there are absolutes out there that are driving everything. Whereas we take the attitude that, no, the software we create dictates our success from now until the end of eternity. They should be innovating maddeningly right now, but they’re not. Look at what’s happening with King or Rovio – they have all the money in the world, and they can’t make another game that’s a hit. But SuperCell can. Why? Because for them the work is what matters most of all. They do everything that Rovio and King do, right? They market the shit out of everything, but they’re like the Blizzard of free-to-play: they know their shit, and they know that it comes down to the quality of the game experience at the end of the day. The game experience on its own will generate you shit-tons of cash if it’s really good. You don’t need any other accoutrements or bolt-ons to please people more than your rivals are pleasing them. That to us seems very elementary, but in mobile it seems to be a bit forgotten, I would say. What’s really true is that Clash Of Clans was the best mobile game on the planet when it came out, and that Candy Crush Saga is an amazing mobile game. But the data-guzzling side of the industry wants us to believe that it’s actually more process-driven, and the reason they think that is because they don’t have anything except money, so they want to believe that by spending money they will therefore get loads of success. What are your thoughts about Nintendo’s entry into the paid mobile market, with Super Mario Run? The way Mario’s being discussed has been really interesting because people cannot help themselves comparing paid and free-to-play games. This is something we’re so used to seeing as Fireproof. People just don’t get that we’re not in the same market. Just because we’re on the same platform they see it like we’re in the same business, but that’s totally not the case. We share nothing with free-to-play games. If you make a paid game, you have more in common with a paid game on a PS4 or PC, probably, than you have with any free-toplay game. We don’t know anything about their business – we don’t play their games – but whenever the press discuss paid games it’s always in the context of, “Well, they’re not really making much money, are they?” And we’re sitting there going, “Well, our life has been fucking turned around by this, thank you very much. This is lifechanging money for us – what the fuck are you talking about?” This is exactly what we hoped for. We planned for this to happen.
TheRoom series’ intricate puzzle boxes and mechanisms are a perfect match for touchscreens, encouraging tactile exploration and making interacting with them particularly moreish. The series also benefits from its imposingly dark atmosphere – a result of the studio’s prior experimentation with a horror concept
With each instalment of TheRoom, Fireproof has honed its ability to hide secrets in plain sight, and tell stories via the environment