We speak to Brett Seyler on why he left Unity to start dev-centric publisher Kerosene
Last time Develop caught up with Brett Seyler he was the general manager of Unity’s egalitarian Union publishing initiative.
When he left the popular engine outfit amicably last year he all but vanished, taking himself out of the spotlight to work on his next project.
For months he gathered resources and undertook research, expanding on years of study while readying something that remained a mystery to the rest of the industry.
And now, Develop can reveal, the former Garage Games man is ready to lift the lid on his newest venture; a developer-centric publishing infrastructure for mobile games studios by the name of Kerosene.
The origin of the concept of Kerosene came about as Seyler began to consider how he could do more to help a number of mobile developers in which he had personally invested capital.
Working with these companies, he found himself relishing the sector’s unstructured, unconsolidated nature, but was equally dismayed by the limitations imposed by existing publishing methods.
“As soon as I left Unity, I knew I’d want to help give some of these studios the luxuries and advantages of larger studios with great publishing technology and services, data science and design expertise,” Seyler tells Develop.
“So, in rolling all that up, and sharing it across multiple studios, I quickly realised that I should just back a publishing venture of my own, complete with its own social plumbing, analytics, user acquisition partnerships, and so on.”
And so it was that Kerosene was born, and Seyler’s vision to offer a mobile-focused game publisher with a ‘new school’ approach to helping developers was realised.
Presently focused on iOS and Android, Kerosene essentially offers studios a suite of tools and services that can be integrated at various stages of a games development in a variety of ways.
That on its own isn’t a unique proposition, but Seyler is confident he can offer enough to make Kerosene a distinct publishing model.
In conversation Seyler mentions certain core values over and over; he insists there is a devotion to developing IP and story, an emphasis on keeping customers interested through quality of gaming experience rather than ‘click addiction’ mechanics, and a respect for the developers that he believes larger publishers fail to prioritise. And then there’s the technology itself.
“The technology is what separates it from being a normal publisher,” Seyler asserts.
“I wanted to help with the same problems so many studios are facing; the ones in the App Store to do with managing their games and customer bases and deal with user acquisition.
“I spent a lot of time looking at publishing options for the studios I’ve worked with, and I just didn’t like what I saw. There just hasn’t been much sophistication around user acquisition for publishers willing to really work fairly with third party games.
“There’s not been the tech infrastructure that developers need right out of the gate to build truly social games, or at least to use truly social mechanics.”
Seyler is confident that numerous studios are capable of designing those kind of games. But he believes that a lack of quality social plumbing in the mobile space means it has been hard for them to learn from the most valuable lessons in the online space.
Kerosene can change this, he claims, and in doing so bring to being a new category of games for mobile – those illustrious ‘gamer’s games’ that he defines as “fun to play, hard to put down, with lots of passive progress and multiplayer engagement”.
Seyler repeatedly compares the current social mobile space to the early days of Facebook gaming, when studios were faced with a new realm in which to master their craft. And he believes his time at Unity can help turn that hostile frontier into fertile land.
“As a company we were trying to think of game-agnostic ways to help all that content we were seeing excel in the market,” says Seyler of Unity.
“We came up with some technical solutions and some service solutions, and I did a lot of research for Unity in the space, so it became pretty natural that when I left I knew what the best third party solutions were, the problems for which there were no third party solutions and roughly how much work it would take to build those.”
From then for Seyler it was a matter of building what he calls a ‘unified stack’ for the likes of analytics, user acquisitions, social plumbing and a game-agnostic back-end, mixing third party tech with an amount of proprietary tech.
Like many other digital publishers, Kerosene will deliver the game in the typical manner under its publisher’s App Store account.
Where it differs is in the distribution of the game, where it will help secure the title chart-boosting attention outside of the remit of the tools provided by the App Store.
“There are all sorts of crazy tactics involved in increasing visibility, and they change every three months, and developers have to work with so many different advertisers – which also have models that change frequently too,” Seyler says.
“Economies of scale matter so much when you work with those kinds of guys, and there are so many other things to consider.”
The Android space, for example, is one Seyler describes as very ‘Wild West’ in the way it allows devs to merchandise their games without them having to rely the rankings of the Android Market.
Then there are the numerous distribution services for different global regions, including networks like Papaya, and the carriers and OEMs with which direct deals can be negotiated for featured spots.
“There’s a lot you can do, and its getting harder to bottle a successful approach, even just for iOS, down into something simple, especially when things move so fast. It’s so tough,” admits Syeler.
“From what I’ve seen with the developers I’m working with, it’s just too much for them individually to make great games successful on their own budget, build cool IPs, manage their customer bases and then have to figure out the latest and greatest tactics to get noticed.”
Kerosene also hopes to serve as a counter to what Seyler describes as ‘consolidation’ in the mobile space; that being the process prevalent in the App Store – and further afield in Facebook – whereby giant organisations like Zynga dominate such large networks of users, the playing field is anything but level.
“Zynga can move existing users around so much less expensively to feed their new games,” explains the Kerosene boss of the process of consolidation in the social networking space.
“They can easily acquire a new critical threshold userbase for those games that means it is really hard to compete. It’s not impossible, but it became very difficult in that space.”
Seyler even subscribes to the school of thought that moves like Zynga’s acquisition of Words With Friends developer Newtoy for a reported $53.3 million in November 2010 are possibly primarily about the procurement of users to move between other games held by the purchasing company.
And he sees that the same process is starting to spread in the mobile space, where he predicts either a dominating rise by ambitious publisher-independent studios like Backflip or Halfbrick, or by the few existing publishers in the space.
He does, however, recognise that the space may grow at such a rate it will be hard for any entity to consolidate the space completely.
“Even so, I think we may have seen the last of the games that, like Tiny Wings, can succeed on the effort of one guy with no publisher and no infrastructure or userbase management to lean on.
"If and when he makes another game he’ll be starting from zero and hoping that the App Store treats him well again, but I think that will become rarer and rarer.”
In that context, Kerosene offers a more attractive ecosystem, in that it presents independent spirits like Tiny Wings room to get noticed without having to make huge investments or have to sign away IP or equity to a traditional publishing giant.
With Seyler at the helm, Kerosene has every chance of becoming a success.
And if you were in any doubt that the departure from Unity wasn’t amicable, consider this; the first Kerosene published game is one of the games currently cited as an key example of what Unity is capable of as an engine.
Announced at Unite 2011, Luma Arcade’s Bladeslinger will be arriving soon, fuelled by Kerosene.