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After five months of development, culminating in a six day marathon session held at the 2012 Gadget Show Live, Commando Kiwi walked away as winners of Epic Games and Train2Game’s Make Something Unreal competition. The four finalists, picked from last November’s Epic Game Jam, were tasked with building an original iOS game based on the Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks. For their efforts, Commando Kiwi won a full source Unreal Engine 3 license for iOS to be used for a future project.
Industry heavyweights such as Peter Molyneaux, Jon Hare, and Cliff Bleszinski offered advice, mentoring and constructive criticism to all four teams with the final judging performed by Fighting Fantasy creators Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. The four games ranged from third person action adventures to tower offence to first person combat puzzlers, with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain: Lost Chapters from Commando Kiwi chosen as the game that showed the most commercial potential and best adhered to the Fighting Fantasy gamebook upon which it was based. All four games will be made available on the App Store within the next few months, with a portion of proceeds going to The Prince’s Trust.
G4 spoke to Epic Games European Territory Manager and Make Something Unreal Live mentor Mike Gamble via phone and to Kiwi Commando Producer and Team Captain Jonny Robinson via email about the competition.
Mike Gamble, Epic Games European Territory Manager
All of the games for the Make Something Unreal competition had to be based on the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. How did that decision come about?
Mike: Initially when were working out how we would get this competition to work, we had a fixed date, ie the gadget show [The Gadget Show Live 2012], so we knew we had to have content done by then. Thinking it through, we thought the best way to speed the development process is to provide the student teams with an existing IP, because they could have spun their wheels for a very long time designing a brand new IP. You know, that’s tough, even for a group of talented guys. So we started thinking about what IPs we might be able to use and Ian is a great supporter of new games and also a very great supporter of education within the game sector or to prepare students for the game sector so he was the natural person to talk to. It was kind of like the planets aligning because it just so happens it’s the thirtieth anniversary of Fighting Fantasy this year so it was like, yeah, let’s do it.
What most impressed you with the four teams chosen as finalists for Make Something Unreal and the games they created?
Mike: The thing that really impressed us was their dedication. Obviously, this is a great opportunity for them so it’s their leg up into the games industry but even so, most of them have full time jobs while they were developing these games and in a short period of time, since November, they’ve delivered very credible content. Their dedication was very, very impressive. But also then, the quickness with which they mastered the technology, and in the last six days that we held live at the show the games went from strength to strength. They were all playable and OK games at the beginning of the show. By the end of the show, they were all very playable and good to very good games.
Did that surprise you, how quickly over the space of six days the games shaped up?
Mike: It did, actually, to be fair. At the beginning of the show, there was a fairly clear leading team. By the end of the show it was very, very close. They all really pulled the stops out. And they learned. They really, really took in what they were being told by the judges, the icons, Peter Molyneaux, Jon Hare and all of the team we assembled to help them. They really soaked that all up like sponges.
Commercial potential was one of the criteria Steve and Ian were given for judging. Given that the resulting games will be available on the App store, where a lower price point and the larger pool extends the commercial potential to a wider audience, how would you have applied commercial potential to the games that were created?
Mike: One of the things we did with the teams from day one was have regular, face to face meetings with them, with the entire group and we scored them on the commercial aspects of their game development. We got them to research and we talked to them about the different models that their games could be created to fill in terms of commerciality, is it a premium download between two and five dollars, a freemium model where they sell in game items and I think, if you look at the games, there’s one that fits most of these characteristics.
So for instance, the winners, Warlock, they had always intended and built their game with the idea of a premium price in mind, between three and five dollars. Whereas if you look at the guys who did the tower offence, Digital Mage, they very much have a freemium and then a unit buying game that encourages you to spend money in game to solve a particular issue, so if you’re finding that you’re getting beaten you have the opportunity to make a microtransaction for a spell-type smart bomb that would dig you out of a hole very quickly. From that point of view, the teams built their titles with a particular business model in mind and with Ian and Steve looking at it, they had to look at it in a couple of different ways.
Were the titles of sufficient value, had they done a good enough job to not degenerate the IP, were they going to support the IP rather than not. Of course, Ian and Steve have the right to refuse any title from being released on the app store, as the IP holder. So they were viewing the titles for commercial potential based on paying service to their license as well as the different models that the teams came up with.
After watching these teams create their games for five months, what advice would you give to people looking to get into the games industry or looking to create their own games?
MIke: I would say you’ve got to work really hard on it , you’ve got to be dedicated and you’ve got to get a great bunch of similarly like-minded people around you. It’s not something you can do on your own. You’ve got to form a team, virtually is possible, these guys all worked virtually and I think one of the reasons they worked so well is that they had a great support network among themselves.
Jonny Robinson, Producer for Commando Kiwi.
What kind of a leg up does winning an iOS license for Unreal Engine 3 give your studio?
Jonny: With the new Unreal Engine 3 license, we’re not bound to UDK builds, meaning we have native code access and can modify systems like any other full source UE3 licensee. We can take the engine in any direction we wish to for our future project. For example, we can completely reconfigure it to be more suited for combat games, like what Mortal Kombat did for PS Vita. Plus, as an independent studio, we don’t have to pay advance royalties to Epic, so it makes us more attractive to potential publishers who might want us to make a game for them.
What aspects of development proved to be easier than you thought? What proved to be more difficult?
Jonny: We thought optimization would be our biggest challenge as we were making a game for the iOS platform, but it turns out there are a lot of easy features which are already built into the engine. We also thought that working as an online team would be incredibly hard, but we used methods, such as agile scrum development and free pieces of software, which were available to us to aid us in our development stages.
I personally thought the presentations at Make Something Unreal Live would have been a lot easier. Turns out, they weren’t. To stand in front of industry professionals and watch as they critique all your work was grueling when we realized there is so much to learn. It was also challenging to change features upon judges’ request in such a short timeframe.
After spending months working at a distance with your team members, did getting everyone together in the same physical space spark any extra creativity or was it business as usual?
Jonny: It was business as usual but there were a lot of advantages of being in one room, such as working closely with the art department and giving them instant feedback. There were a lot of professionals that gave a lot of amazing feedback so that helped a lot, too. We were the same as usual but things got done much quicker and we were more productive together.
What’s next for your studio? Are you going to be taking a break for a bit or are you jumping right into the next project?
Jonny: We are currently implementing features that Cliff Bleszinski and Peter Molyneux recommended for our game, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain: Lost Chapters. We are also working closely with Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson to make sure that as IP holders they are happy with our game.
We’re still negotiating our future plans at the moment but I intend to continue working hard alongside the Kiwis, so you haven’t heard the last of us...
Are you interested in staying within the same fantasy setting as Warlock or are you planning on using the Unreal Engine in an entirely different setting?
Jonny: When the team first met in November last year we made a 2D shoot ‘em up tower defence game, and with the Unreal Engine the gaming industry is our oyster. We want to be as creative as possible and with a toolset like UE3 we have the chance to do that.
Finally, what advice would you give people looking to break into the games industry or anyone interested in creating their own games?
Jonny: There are multitudes of ways you can do this. You can either take courses in game design, programming or art at university or with the Train2Game course. Build a portfolio of all your work to sell yourself. Really get involved in the industry by attending game jams and any other game industry networking events. After all the game industry is such a niche business it’s really easy to meet people. Finally and most importantly, be passionate about making games.