An Au­di­ence With...

Suc­cess in mo­bile games? To the co-founder of Fire­proof, it’s all about go­ing with your gut

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY BEN MAXWELL Adam Gas­son Photography

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

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