From indies to indies: James Niesewand from Illyriad
Would you quit your day job and work full-time on a single game project for a year before seeing any significant results? Well this is how it all started for Illyriad and after a lot of hard work it paid off! I had the pleasure to talk to CEO James Niesewand so here’s the 3rd post of From indies to indies.
James was very generous so I sure hope you’ll enjoy!
Tell us a bit about yourself
38 years-old, married.
My wife is American and I’m a Brit, and we tend to spend quite a lot of time in the air halfway across the Atlantic, usually crossing over each other’s paths!
As far as the kids question goes… well, it’s a weird answer but “We sometimes have kids!”
To explain, my wife and I were emergency foster parents for state social services – and so we’ve had many wonderful kids in our care; but now that we’re travelling so much, foster-parenting isn’t really practical or fair on the kids, so we’re childless atm.
What drove you to quit a secure day job to risk it all as a game developer?
My first career after university was as a Middle East specialist, which I swapped out 5 years later in favour of getting in on the ground floor of a successful (300-some staff, listed on AIM on the London Stock Exchange) dotcom-boom-era UK-based internet travel company that was very successful and ended up being bought out and in the ultimate ownership of the Sabre/Travelocity group in 2005. I continued to consult for the group for the expanded group for a few years beyond then, but always wanted to run my own company.
I guess it all started as part of an early-onset midlife crisis. I first released an album of ambient/dance music in 2009
(no really, look it up on iTunes XD) and I was then trying to work out what I wanted to do next. It was either buying a red Porsche or starting a games company
Although I’ve always been a keen gamer I had no previous experience of working in the games indusry, but I really thought it was something I could put together and run successfully – and, most importantly, would enjoy doing.
During a fairly late-night and fairly drunken conversation with a group of friends we were all moaning about the lack of anything (in our opinion) really epic and involving in the empire-building strategy genre of late. We discussed our favourite games of all time and what we felt each game did best – and ended up with a list along the lines of “Civ, Alpha Centauri, Dune 2, MOO, Elite, Eve Online, HoMM, Ultima, Asheron’s Call” etc.
So in a moment of drunken madness I resolved to write my own game from scratch, and began working on a proof of concept (version 0.1 of Illy), written entirely in HTML4, using classic ASP and MS SQL (the only few techs I was passingly familiar with!)
Once I had something that looked like it might actually work, I convinced Ben Adams to quit his full-time job and come on board as our CTO, largely to rewrite all the functional – but appallingly bad – code I had written myself and then move us forward into HTML5.
Tell us a bit about the team working on Illyriad
The core team is pretty much:
Me (CEO); Ben (CTO); Kevin (Production); Nathan (Art); Leala (Community and Comms). We’re bringing on board two more techies, Simon and Rik, to work on specific aspects of the Illyriad codebase as our plans for the future are very ambitious and we want to get it done faster. We’re also looking to get a more permanent marketing/press/PR/SEO/Advertising-type (a big ask, I know!) in place in the next couple of months.
We outsource 3D modelling (for our upcoming WebGL expansion) as well as our world map and unit graphics to the excellent Quantic Arts based in Romania, and we’ve got content writers (Nicole, Tim, plus Nis and his volunteer team) who flesh out the backstory, lore and histories.
Finally, but by no means least, there’s another James (who is dragging us into the audio realm), our Economist, Tibike, and Thomas who balances combat values and outcomes.
Pretty much all of us work on different aspects of “game design” in one form or another, and we all work remotely across 3 continents. There is no “Illyriad HQ”, and I don’t actually believe that any pair of us is even in the same city!
While telecommuting is gaining in popularity it seems a bit unusual to have the whole team spread around the world. What are the challenges you had to face and what were the solutions you came up with?
Well, I’m a firm believer in getting-in talent regardless of location – if the person’s right for the role then their location is of no consequence. As we expand, of course, this may need to change, but I’m not even 100% convinced of that. Communication is the key to making telecommuting work, and from my prior experience of working in pretty large corporations… we at Illyriad probably talk to each other *more* than we communicated with co-workers even when we shared the same office-space in previous jobs!
We spend a lot of time on google chat and skype, and because each time we talk we actually have something specific to talk about, our communications with each other are (in my opinion) more structured and successful than the curse of the pointless corporate meeting – as well as being documented as we go!
The biggest challenge, however, is finding self-starters who are used to working (often entirely on their own) from home. People who only have experience of working in an office environment often have difficulties transitioning successfully to working from home. Our solution has been, largely, to only hire people who have previous experience of working remotely, or have strong self-discipline and motivation; it’s of little surprise to me that we have an unexpectedly high proportion of ex-military people on the Illy team.
How did you fund the initial development of Illyriad? Was it all from your pocket or you had the help of investors?
A bit of both in roughly equal proportions, but we are talking fairly small amounts of cash which was mostly spent on server hosting, and advertising to get the user numbers kicked off initially. Both Ben and I were in positions where we could take a risk – for about a year – of not having our own direct income.
I was extremely keen for Illyriad to be self-funding as quickly as possible and – given that I had no experience of running a gaming company – I think if we had access to more money up front we would probably have wasted a lot of it (especially on advertising) before we knew what we were really doing!
I truly believe that having a very limited budget made us much hungrier to succeed and to spend the money wisely than we might have been otherwise. This is especially true if it’s your own money and that of your friends and family – failure becomes a really unpalatable option in those circumstances, especially round about family Christmas-time
Was Illyriad carefully planned months before the beginning of development? How much time did it take to release something? Was there a lot of energy spent into creating some kind of “pre-release buzz”? If yes would you consider it a success? Any issue related to pre-release you’d like to share?
No real planning went on tbh. We just knew what we wanted to create, and we were really coding and releasing on the fly. This is something we still do – as an indie game developer I think your greatest advantage vs bigger budget competitors is your agility.
From my first prototype (around February 2009) to the formation of the company (July 2009) and then to the open beta release in February 2010, I guess we spent less than a year on putting it together. Though bear in mind that most of that first year was me, on my own as a pretty poor coder flailing around! We officially went live in May 2011.
We didn’t create any pre-release buzz, contact anyone pre-release for beta or even set up a pre-release website . We genuinely felt that people should see the game on its own merits and stick around if they liked it.
Having said that, we had a number of alpha testers and open beta testers who we had asked to contribute to the planning, game design and playtesting, who we had invited from other online Triple-A games that we played ourselves.
I think this is very important – as a game designer the experiences and advice that other players who you know personally is invaluable. They will tell you things you didn’t know, they’ll suggest things you should know and – best of all – if you listen to them and implement some of their good suggestions, they’ll a) love you for it, and b) tell all *their* friends about their role in your game and why they should enjoy its awesomeness too, because they had a hand it making it so awesome.
This ‘word-of-mouth’ carries on long after the game is released.
At which point you knew that Illyriad would indeed become your full-time job? Was there any specific event that helped or did the success build itself with time?
I was lucky enough to be in a situation where it was my fulltime job from Day 1. And also to convince Ben that he should make it his fulltime job. By the time we had run out of our own personal funds, it was earning enough to support us at a basic “livable” salary.
Our first year in beta was tough.
We were constantly developing and expanding our ambitions in the game; such as moving from a random world map to a fractally generated world map compete with biomes, introducing natural beasts and NPC factions into the world, building and writing Lore and backstories. There was also a lot of critical “plumbing” work – integrating with PayPal, Google Checkout, Fortumo Mobile, Facebook credits.
We didn’t pay ourselves anything but had a “build it right and they will come” philosophy, and it took a full year of beta with minimal income and quite a lot of outgoing for hosting costs and advertising.
We have 6 core philosophies of game design that we adhere to and that’s critical to understanding who we are, what we’re doing and where we’re going in the future: http://www.illyriad.co.uk/blog/index.php/2011/08/illyriad-guiding-principles/
The key moment, I believe, is when we launched UIv2 (HTML5) with our official launch in May 2011.
For us, this was a watershed – the game looked and behaved better for the players, it was integrated further with social media (Facebook and Google OpenID logins) and, all-in-all, it moved from being a “bedroom” project to being a professional project. Even if it was never a “bedroom” project before, users and players can smell “amateur” a mile away, especially on the presentation layer; and the more professional it is perceived to be from their first engagement onwards, the more the confidence in the game will build.
Indie developers can have a hard time to get in the spotlight. What was your experience with gaming media? Did you run ad campaigns? How did you handle marketing in the first few months of Illyriad?
Our first year in beta was entirely fuelled by ad campaigns. Pretty much every penny that came in that wasn’t required to support the server went on advertising. After UIv2 (see above) we continued advertising but have subsequently largely stopped it for the last 3 months or so. Word of mouth, our referral programme and our press coverage has been so good that we haven’t needed the advertising to top-up with new players, especially as we’ve been re-working the technology and server platforms to cope with our new concurrent traffic.
After releasing Illyriad was there a moment you thought it would never get anywhere? Any sleepless nights or did it went way better than you expected? From the moment you decided to work on Illyriad to the moment it became a success what was the biggest issue/challenge you had to face? (not necessarily a technical challenge)
Yes, yes and thrice yes. The whole first year was pretty much a “it’s ticking along but when will the snowball start to gather the moss?” moment for us (at the risk of a horribly mixed-metaphor!). I think the (both mental and financial) ability to stick it out and be almost oblivious to the horrible realities of being an indie game developer is a critical factor, so long as you’re still ploughing on, enhancing and creating new content and features for the game.
Many sleepless nights were had. The long-and-short is that, however long you estimate your game will need to become successful (with continuous and never-ending effort spent on player relationship building as well as gameplay and content enhancements), you need to take that estimate and add a minimum of one year. Or thricefold. Or whatever… The simple fact is that it will take an awful lot longer than you thought, before your game is profitable. It’s a huge risk, and it has absolutely no guarantee of paying off.
The greatest challenge we faced was, actually, a technical one of marrying our “play on any device therefore pure HTML, no plugins” philosophy with the ambition we had for how the game would work. Until HTML5 became a reality we were spending most of our time fighting the reality of HTML4 DOM rubbish – rather than making the gameplay and content better.
Breaking open HTML5 created all the press/PR/marketing buzz we needed – because people were seeing something different to what they were accustomed to seeing in the free-to-play genre: a F2P with thousands of people online, simultaneously, on a custom/fractal world map that was properly scrollable and zoomable (like a google map), with a huge depth of gameplay and a mature community who had been there and done that (via the beta phase) for a full year.
And what was the highlight of this experience so far? Any particular event that you told yourself “okay tonight I’m taking a break to celebrate” or something similar?
Yeah – a good number, now!
1. Our first article in the free press (massively.com) which was super-complimentary.
2. Getting our 100,000th player <– Quite a milestone
3. Google putting us on the homepage of the Chrome Web Store, next to “Angry Birds”, for a fortnight!
4. Realising that WebGL (3D) wasn’t just a pipe-dream, and that it’s really happening and that we can be at the forefront of it all: http://www.illyriad.co.uk/blog/index.php/2011/11/webgl-experiments-illyriads-3d-town/
5. The “couldn’t come sooner, thank the lord” imminent death of Flash (I apologise in advance to all the Flash afficionados… but really… the final stake has hopefully gone through the heart of the proprietary plugin, may it never rise again /me makes cross signs over heart)
6. Getting onto the W3C HTML5 Gaming Committee
7. Getting voted (by the public) as the Top Indie-developed MMO of 2011
8. Realising that our playerbase and community were actually:
a) A greater marketing asset for us than ad spend was,
b) A greater prioritisation, tech resource scheduling and QA asset than our internal procedures ever were,
c) A greater tutorial and new player help resource than we could ever write, and
d) A greater content provider that anything our best quest writers could ever come up with.
Of all of these highlights, the last one is the key one: an MMO is nothing without its players, and if you listen to them and show them you’re listening, you’ll be rewarded a hundredfold. Your players are, far and away, your most important asset: they’re the ones who market you for free, they’re the ones who will report bugs and exploits, they’re the ones (in an MMO at least) who will help new players when you’re not around… and they’re the ones who pay you their hard-earned money for your hard-earned efforts.
There are a lot of “experts” when it comes to game development but reaching success is not so simple. Is there anything that you hear about indie game development that you wish would stop? Maybe some false assumptions or some advice you think might be misleading?
Gosh. Difficult question there. Um.
I’m no expert, this being our first game and all… but maybe that’s why it’s worked for Illyriad?
ie, We haven’t come in with any pre-conceived notions about how things should be done (from a production standpoint), we’ve simply come in and said “This is the game that we, as gamers, want to play”. I don’t know whether that’s complete bollocks, btw. We’re batting 1000, but we may have just been lucky!
I do think that (and again, this would depend very much on the kind of game; standalone iPhone app vs full-on MMORTS or whatever you’re trying to develop) devs need to tweak, change, grow, enhance and otherwise improve their game, continuously. We live in a continuous, social-media-fueled world nowadays, and static equals dead.
I’d get something out there as soon as you can, and then listen/canvas the players as to what’s wrong or could be better as fast as possible. And then, it the idea is good, implement it – don’t be precious about where it came from; analyze it on its own merits.
If you’re writing a game with download distribution then you need to spend *a lot more* time up front with playtesting and listening to your players to get it right before you release. If you run a server-based MMO you can listen *and* change as necessary without issue, but it’ll be a while before you hit the sweet spot.
Different strategies will work for different games, but the key thing is “listen and change”.
And on the other hand what advice would you like to give to indie devs that we might not hear that often? Anything that really helped you at some point that is barely mentioned anywhere?
Wow, now I’m on the spot…
Firstly, being an indie game dev you’re not just writing a game from a technical perspective (“does the code actually work”) but you are also responsible for everything else from community management to support, from marketing to PR, from book-keeping your accounts to processing chargebacks, from advertising spend to server hosting management.
It’s a big ask for anyone, and I *know* I would have gone even more insane than I am, if I had been doing this on my own.
Get good people who you trust around you to share the burden. Do this now, as trying to do it on your own is likely to result in burnout. If you can, get people who have complementary skillsets involved in the game (commercial, gfx, code, audio, marketing etc). Can’t pay them? Doesn’t matter. Form a company for the couple of hundred dollars it’ll cost you to do, and share the equity with them – incentivise people to make it a success.
Secondly, plan on how you’re going to monetize your game before you write a single line of code.
The game concept will dictate the best way forward, but the gameplay itself will look very different if you go down a F2P model vs a subscription model vs a download model vs an ad-funded model (or whatever). Know what your model is now, it’s not something you can add or alter later without a huge number of upset players.
Thirdly, Metrics are your friend. Identify what your key metrics are and who is responsible for them. It doesn’t matter if it’s CPA or ARPU or ARPPU or whatever – everyone needs to know what the critical metrics are to your business and which ones they are responsible for. Measure them continuously and hold everyone to account when then
Fourthly, from a coding perspective, writing a game is really, really easy.
I’m sorry, but it is. Anyone who has ever lived in the commercial world and has written corporate critical software from scratch (you know the kind of software where a misplaced decimal point loses the company a gazillion dollars)… then games are a piece of the proverbial piss to write, technically.
Games can be very compelling and yet very simple – and even the ones that are more technically complex (like MMOs) can be written quickly and easily in native languages without buying-in third-party tools.
It’s the gameplay differentiator that’s important: Why should someone play your F2PMMORTS vs someone else’s? Why should someone play your tower defense game vs someone else’s?
Writing the game isn’t the problem – making it compelling and monetised is the harder task.
And it seems to me that if you get the “compulsion” right (with a sensible, non-fleecing monetisation strategy), then the game will market itself via the legions of happy and satisfied players.
In short: build a quality game with a sensible monetisation strategy, with other people around you to share the good times and the bad times, listen to your players and continually improve the game (if you can), and then… if it doesn’t work, and you’ve stuck with it over a good period of time… well that’s just bad luck rather than anything you failed to do yourself.
Play Illyriad here: http://www.illyriad.co.uk/
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