Break­ing back

How a frac­tured spine inspired a video game


FALL­ING DOWN AND break­ing his back has paid big div­i­dends for Welling­ton-based Mark Ma­jor – the latest win­ner of Ide­olog’s Pitch Cir­cus com­pe­ti­tion. A game based on his ex­pe­ri­ence went vi­ral, and now Ma­jor’s startup com­pany GameS­tarter is aim­ing to be the next big thing in mo­bile gam­ing.

Imag­ine break­ing your back in China and be­ing inspired to make a video game about the ex­pe­ri­ence of fall­ing nine me­tres down a build­ing shaft. Sound far-fetched?

Not if you’re Mark Ma­jor, who founded the Kiwi gam­ing com­pany GameS­tarter in Novem­ber 2014, on the back of an ac­ci­dent, where he tum­bled through a plank on his way to the lo­cal 7-Eleven store.

“I started de­sign­ing an iPhone game around a hor­ri­ble ex­pe­ri­ence I had seven years ear­lier in Bei­jing, where I fell down a hole a frac­tured my spine.

“I al­ways wanted to turn that ter­ri­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence into some­thing a lot more fun; ap­ply a new lens to it.”

Rather than spend thou­sands of dol­lars, and years of study, mas­ter­ing game de­sign, Ma­jor turned to a de­cid­edly more cost- ef­fec­tive – and cut­ting- edge – de­vel­op­ment method: crowd­sourc­ing.

And he used the plat­form not just for money, but for ideas, skills and mar­ket re­search too.

“I re­ally see crowd­sourc­ing as a fu­ture model for peo­ple who want to turn ideas into cre­ations,” he says.

“Crowd­source for ex­per­tise – there are armies of very tal­ented peo­ple out there.

“And crowd­fund to show [your prod­uct] is com­mer­cially vi­able. This also teaches you great skills in mar­ket­ing, pro­mot­ing your­self and copy­writ­ing.”

Ma­jor used three main crowd­sourc­ing plat­forms: 99de­signs (where you set up a brief and then launch it in the mar­ket as a com­pe­ti­tion with a prize), and so­cial media sites Red­dit and Face­book.

“I crowd­sourced by go­ing onto Red­dit and Face­book and post­ing a very sim­ple poll tar­get­ing iPhone game play­ers. I wanted to de­ter­mine the best game de­sign and get them to tell me their favourite game­play fea­tures in iPhone games,” Ma­jor says.

The out­come was the fin­ished game, Plum­met Free Fall, be­ing re­leased for iPhones

Crowd­source for ex­per­tise – there are armies of tal­ented peo­ple out there. And crowd­fund to show your prod­uct is com­mer­cially vi­able. This also teaches you great skills in mar­ket­ing, pro­mot­ing your­self

copy­writ­ing.” and

in early Jan­uary. World dom­i­na­tion – or at least vi­ral suc­cess – gar­nered in­ter­na­tional media at­ten­tion in publi­ca­tions such as China Daily.

“Plum­met Free Fall ended up get­ting 350,000 down­loads around the world and was num­ber one in four coun­tries [in terms of to­tal down­loads].”

Avail­able free from the Ap­ple App Store, rev­enue from the game is pri­mar­ily gen­er­ated through in-game ad­ver­tise­ments. Play­ers can per­ma­nently re­move ads, how­ever, for $1.29.

Based in Welling­ton, GameS­tarter’s eight-per­son team is cur­rently de­vel­op­ing its next mo­bile game, Plunge Free Dive. This one is based on New Zealan­der Wil­liam Trubridge, the cur­rent free­d­iv­ing world cham­pion and first per­son ever to dive down to 100 me­tres (and come back up again), with­out air or fins. Trubridge is now em­barked on a mis­sion to help the na­tive Hec­tor’s and Maui’s dol­phins.

Ma­jor says the team is work­ing hard with peo­ple who’ve al­ready ex­pressed in­ter­est in the game to de­ter­mine the best crowd­sourc­ing model to make the next pro­ject hap­pen.

“[We are still de­cid­ing] whether it is de­vel­oped through in­cen­tivised com­pe­ti­tions, or whether we treat it more like a so­cial de­vel­op­ment com­pany.”

GameS­tarter’s pri­mary workspace is the startup in­cu­ba­tor Cre­ative HQ, where Ma­jor says the sup­port has been a boon.

“[The] New Zealand games in­dus­try is the op­po­site of com­pet­i­tive. Other game de­vel­op­ment com­pa­nies are happy to sup­port us be­cause the mar­ket is so big.

“One of the great things about be­ing part of Cre­ative HQ is the high rate of col­li­sions [ac­ci­den­tal meet­ings] with very tal­ented peo­ple who are at­tracted to star­tups.”

Still, be­ing in­volved in a new ven­ture in­volves some sac­ri­fices. “The worst part is the low per­sonal cash flow early on,” Ma­jor says.

“You need to be as lean as pos­si­ble so you can sur­vive those early stages. Cer­tain lux­u­ries, like craft beer, have to go by the way­side.”

Win­ning Idea­log’s most re­cent Pitch Cir­cus com­pe­ti­tion has helped GameS­tarter take off. But rather than mov­ing up to the afore­men­tioned craft beer, the prize money, Ma­jor says, went to run­way costs.

Be­sides, another prize just so hap­pened to be a bot­tle of very good whisky.

“The bot­tle of John­nie Walker Gold has be­come our Mil­lion Dol­lar Bot­tle,” Ma­jor says.

“We have a list of Big Hairy Au­da­cious Goals (BHAGs) which we re­view each month. On com­ple­tion of each BHAG, a glass of whisky is poured for each team mem­ber, the goal is cel­e­brated and the bot­tle marked with the suc­cess­ful goal and date. The plan be­ing that when we fin­ish the bot­tle of whisky, we will be a mil­lion-dol­lar com­pany.”

On the rise: GameS­tarter’s team, from left to right.

Bot­tom: Alis­tair St Pierre, Nay Lin Htaik. Mid­dle on

chair: Mark Ma­jor. Top: Phyo Thu, Hamish Palmer, Joss Doggett.

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