Magic Notion: The virtual drag queen's studio that wants to make death meaningful

Magic Notion: The virtual drag queen's studio that wants to make death meaningful
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

July 22nd 2014 at 2:46PM

We speak to ex-Criterion creative director Richard Franke about his new Guildford studio

Richard Franke has an impressive CV.

Starting as an artist at Scavenger in 1996, he has held similar positions at developers such as Mucky Foot, EA Tiburon and Burnout creator Criterion Games. At Criterion, he rose through the ranks to become associate art director, senior designer and finally creative director.

Then, in January 2013, he broke away from the world of publisher-owned studios to set up his own development house as founder, creative director... and virtual drag queen.

Magic Notion, Franke's Guildford-based studio, is currently in the final weeks of development on its first game Kitty Powers' Matchmaker: a humourous take on dating sims. Relishing the creative freedom the now-independent Franke had, he has thrown himself wholeheartedly into this title, even starring as the dating agency's drag queen boss, the aforementioned Miss Powers.

We caught up with Franke (pictured right, above his alter-ego) to find out more about his new studio, his hopes for Kitty Powers and the other creative experiences he would like to work on.

Why did you set up this new studio?
I set up this new studio to give myself the opportunity to make some games without the pressure of corporate or creative interference. I needed a new challenge. Purely selfish!

Why set up in Guildford?
Guildford is where I feel at home, plus I do contract work for other developers to pay my own contractors, so it's convenient to be around here with so many companies around. Plus it's inspiring to have so many talented developers nearby.

What other developers have you taken inspiration from?
An ex-colleague of mine Mike Othen – who set up his own company, DigiCub – really gave me the spark to do this. His business model blew my mind two years ago. Creatively, I'd have to say Media Molecule, Fireproof Games, Hello Games and Nintendo spring to mind.

What mistakes have others made that you hope not to repeat?
I don't want to mention names but I've seen studios jump on bandwagons and focus perhaps a little too much on a specific business model, and perhaps let business drive creativity, and it hasn't gone well. I'd prefer to focus on making a great experience that people will want to pay for.

What are your goals as a studio?
We want to explore the possibilities of interactive software. We don't believe that snazzy graphics make a good game. The graphic, audio and so on should serve the experience you're trying to create.

We also want to avoid meaningless destruction. There's just too much of it around. I'm not saying nothing will ever die in a game we make, but if we include death and destruction we want it to be meaningful. Sounds terribly idealistic, I know.

And we want to make games that are inclusive of everyone, as much as we can. We're not going to make rainbow-flag-waving gay games like Atari just announced. That's a mistake, I think – and condescending. We just want games that treat everyone fairly, more like BioWare.

And finally we want to stay small and personal, but top quality. Like Fireproof, Hello Games and Media Molecule.

We want to avoid meaningless destruction. There's just too much of it around. I'm not saying nothing will ever die in a game we make, but if we include death and destruction we want it to be meaningful.

What experience do you have on the team?
I have a ton of experience, from start-ups (admittedly a long time ago) through to large corporate projects. I also have a lot of contacts, who are invaluable when running a project the way I have been. Other than myself, the only long-term team member is Kieran, a software engineer, who graduated shortly before joining me.

The rest of the people I have contracted vary in experience. It all depends what I need and how much it costs! As far as I'm concerned anyone can be on the team. We're looking at more of a movie industry model, with a small core team and talented contractors who can come on board when necessary.

We're not going to make rainbow-flag-waving gay games like Atari. That's a mistake, I think – and condescending. We want games that treat everyone fairly.

Are you expanding/recruiting at all?
It all depends how this first project does financially. We will know fairly soon I suspect. But two people is not an ideal size: it's unsustainable and purely transitional. Hopefully it won't have to continue for too long.

If things go well, I can see the studio having just a handful of permanent staff. Ten or less, but that will happen over time. I think one of my first hires will probably be a producer with business skills to manage things so that I can spend more time being creative!

I also want a community manager. Community and customers are very important to us. We will of course want other creatives also, but as permanent hires they will need to be willing to learn, and multi-talented with exceptional potential. And diverse preferably. Staffing a small studio is very hard!

What are you working on?
Our current project  – Kitty Powers' Matchmaker – is launching in the next six weeks. We're aiming for early September on iOS, and Android as soon as possible after that. 

It's a tongue-in-cheek dating sim for mobile. You run a dating agency where you have to matchmake clients and guide them through dates. It doesn't take itself very seriously – your boss is a drag queen, played by me – though mechanically it is actually pretty deep. It's like a combination of Monty Python and RuPaul's Drag Race. You should get a fair few hours of gameplay out of it.

We haven't ruled out free-to-play but we certainly are wary of it. I've only seen it done once where I thought it was acceptable.

What platforms or business models are your priorities at the moment?
Mobile is our focus, though we are using Unity so we have plenty of options. We haven't ruled out free-to-play but we certainly are wary of it. I've only seen it done once where I thought it was acceptable, and that was Hearthstone. We don't believe in selling consumables.

How will you stay competitive given the vast number of new studios out there at the moment?
By making interesting, thought-provoking, fun and high quality products that bring something new that you won't see anywhere else. This market is a guessing game, and as a good friend of mine said, if you make a good game, people will buy it.

What was the biggest lesson you learned in previous jobs that has helped you shape this studio and what you hope it will become?
Opinions are like a-holes. Everyone has one. You can read every single post on every games and business website that you find, but at the end of the day you have to do what is right for you, and don't wait for permission. If you put in the effort, heart and soul, and there are customers for your product, they will come. If you want it enough, you can make it happen. Sounds clichéd but it’s true.

Is there anything we should know about you, your team or your goals?
We just want people to have fun, and feel like they didn't waste their money. If we can make people smile we've done our job.

You can find out more about Franke's studio at www.magicnotion.com