Breaking Free

Breaking Free
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

January 30th 2012 at 11:00AM

Develop talks to NaturalMotion about the opportunities of high-end free-to-play

Animation specialist NaturalMotion, most widely known for its middleware technologies Morpheme and Euphoria, revelealed to the world in 2007 that it was to start developing its own games, and has not looked back since.

The huge success of titles such as NFL Rivals and Backbreaker, the latter of which has surpassed more than five million downloads on iOS and Android, has given the studio a serious incentive to expand its game development business and look into new ways to bring in revenue.

“We felt there was a big opportunity to commercialise our technology, not just by licencing it to people but by using it ourselves,” says NaturalMotion CEO Torsten Reil.

“We did that initially with a game called Backbreaker on iPhone, which ended up being a huge success for us.”

GOING FREE

Having previously charged upfront for its titles, NaturalMotion Games took the decision to enter the free-to-play market with MyHorse, combining the monetisation model with easily accessible smartphone platforms capable of console quality visuals.

The game has proven to be a huge hit since release, with more than seven million downloads, and 500,000 daily active users still playing the game.

That considered, Reil is bullish about its success and the possibilities of high-end free-to-play for NaturalMotion in the future.

Such is its confidense in the space the studio already has six of these high-end titles in various stages of development.

“Really the biggest leap forward for us was a few months ago when we started to focus on free-to-play games,” he explains.

“Our paid games ended up doing really well. We had a return on investment of five times on each game which was great, but we thought there was an even bigger opportunity to go free-to-play.

“The first game we released on those lines was MyHorse, again using our technology to create a really believable horse. It ended up better than we expected and is definitely the most successful game we’ve done so far.”

So successful in fact, that Reil and product director Struan Robertson are convinced that their contemporaries in the UK industry should move in on the opportunity quickly to get ahead of the competition for what they say will be one of the biggest gaming markets ever.

“There is this huge heritage in the UK of people who know how to create really good 3D, which at the moment I think is completely under utilised and certainly on the console side,” says Reil.

“I think that the UK in general is ignoring the free-to-play high-end gaming model which is going to emerge as the biggest games market of all time.”

YOU’VE GOT A FRIEND IN FREE

Reil explains that free-to-play 3D gaming on smartphones can provide the emotional connectivity and ‘wow factor’ to mass audiences that animated movies have done over the years with Pixar’s Toy Story and Cars.

“If you have a 3D character that you can interact with and touch, it becomes oddly compelling,” he states.

“We think of it as like popping bubble wrap; it’s something that feels good to do as a mini-game. Sure some people are better than others because it is skill based, but even if you’re not very good you can still enjoy it.

"I think that goes beyond the typical social games that you would find in 2D on iPhone, where you basically build something but there isn’t really a skill element.”

Robertson echoes these sentiments and adds that by creating a tactile game like MyHorse, NaturalMotion Games has formed a userbase that is sticking with the game for the long term, which will also keep on paying.

“It’s a very dedicated userbase, the feedback through our customer support and reviews is pretty detailed and heart warming stuff,” he explains.

“People really do care about the horse, and I think that’s been due to putting it as a realistic horse, making it 3D and putting in the effort in making the animation has really helped sell the idea of owning and looking after a horse that you wouldn’t get in a 2D experience.”

Reil warns however: “I do think we’ll see deeper and deeper gameplay all the time anyway, but I would say is if that’s at the expense of accessibility then it won’t work, and that’s basically the big difference.”

A NEW DAWN

With the UK industry suffering in recent months, and many studios such as Realtime Worlds, Blackbox Studios, Bizarre Creations and EA Bright Light all falling by the wayside, Reil says NaturalMotion has taken it on as its responsibility to breathe new life into the country’s ailing game development sector with the high-end free-to-play concept.

But to do that he says developers in the country need to embrace the change, rather than debate the ethics of the pay model.

“The danger in the UK right now is that it is going to complain from the sidelines for quite some time, then realise in about 12-to-18 months that this isn’t going away and other people are making huge amounts of money. Those complaining will then try to join when it's too late.

“I think this is such a big opportunity and I would also say a there’s a responsibility to wake people up, because I am shocked at how conservative and cynical people are in this country about free-to-play.”

Robertson adds that he is also surprised about the lack of willingness to embrace free-to-play despite its potential for success.

He says MyHorse is the studio’s biggest money making game to date, ahead of their pay up front titles like Backbreaker, yet many other developers are ignoring it for the premium model.

“I was talking on a panel at a mobile event recently and I was surprised at the support of premium games from the attendees there.

"My surprise wasn’t at the point of view on the ethics of free, but because it’s clear to see that freemium games make so much more commercial sense right now,” he explains.

“It seems especially surprising that people who are mobile games developers are still pushing the premium side.”

Reil admits that the model is not without its risks, as developing a console quality game for mobile is not cheap.

With millions of apps vying for the consumer’s attention, spending big on a game and hoping it will resonate with users enough for them to spend money on it repeatedly when they can play for free could make or break lesser studios.

“It is becoming risky for a small company to put all their eggs into one basket for a high-end free-to-play game, but those are going to be the games that will ultimately be successful,” he says.

“If you have enough, learning by either having a game published or by actually doing it as part of a bigger company, as we’re doing right now, you can de-risk those games quite significantly.”

He adds that those who successfully move into the field now, will gain ‘critical mass’ advantages down the line, where studios can send users of games to other titles they have developed.

He highlights that the half a million daily users of MyHorse could be advertised to to kick-start a new title quickly, alleviating some of the potential pitfalls of a free-to-play game.

“The situation that we are in right now in the UK is it’s still so early that we can create these really massive companies that can make a difference and play a big role in this,” he says.

Robertson adds: “There’s so much dev talent in the UK already that it would seem a shame to lose it abroad.”

A CULTURE OF CYNICISM

Reil says that to do this, the UK needs to pull away from its cynical ways and embrace ambition, which he believes is sorely lacking in the country’s culture.

But if it can get over this, he believes that the poor condition of the industry will actually act as the perfect platform for developers, who are not constrained by creating big franchises, and largely have great experience and skills in creating console quality games.

“The reason why the country is in this position is because of that skill. Ironically, because of the weakness of the market right now and since so much development has gone to other countries such as Canada, we should have greater freedom to experiment with new stuff as we don’t actually have to deal with these huge games at the moment,” he explains.

“We have all the ability and all the skills, the problem is that we also, certainly in the UK, have a mindset that works against that.

"I think even the idea of being ambitious and building a world leading company doesn’t actually necessarily resonate with everyone the way it needs to.”

He also claims that as well as embracing change, the UK is behind when it comes to combining creativity with analytics, believing the country is still lacking in that discipline whilst other regions such as the San Francisco entertainment hub have already moved ahead in that area.

“It’s not about creating the kind of game we’ve been creating before. It’s about combining your creativity with pretty systematic analytics,” he says.

“The truth is if you don’t do that, you are going to get your arse kicked by everyone else whose doing it, and the UK is still lacking that kind of discipline at the moment. This is going to cause huge issues in the market if people don’t wake up to it.”

CREATING A WORLD LEADER

Reil adds that the technology ecosystem that has cropped up in San Francisco can appear in the UK if the work is put in now to get in early on the latest industry trends, and this will gradually spawn further spin-offs, creating a once again healthy industry.

“It’s basically founders setting up another company and another company. There’s a whole network of people now who know how to do this and to improve the quality of a studio and a game every time,” he says.

“And that’s basically what we need to have in the UK as well. I think that requires a few bigger companies, but around that you have a whole cluster of smaller companies, some of which will grow really big themselves.

“That’s really the opportunity right now that the UK has. At the moment we are having our lunch eaten by Germany for example, which has more of these companies at a much bigger scale.

"Now it’s time for people to really use the skills that are here in this country and build ambitious companies.”

But so confident is Reil in the UK’s abilities if these problems and the engrained collective cynicism in UK culture can be overcome, that he says the opportunity is not just about the survival of the UK industry, but that “it’s about turning this around and becoming one of the world leaders again”.

If NaturalMotion Games’ growth is any indicator of what the genre could bring to the rest of the country, the future certainly looks bright for any takers.

Having only officially formed in October 2010, NaturalMotion’s games division now stands at 110 employees.

Reil and Robertson say most of this has come in the last six months, coinciding with the company’s move into high-end free-to-play development, and plans to hire plenty more staff as it expands.

The studio’s rapid growth and large success with its debut high-end free-to-play title should provide food for thought for developers around the world as the industry continues to evolve at an electric pace.

Will this new genre of console quality free gaming become the biggest gaming market of all time as Reil predicts, and perhaps overtake traditional triple-A titles? Watch this space, or take Reil’s advice and act on it.

www.naturalmotion.com