Philip Mayes is the founder and CEO of Mighty Kingdom, an Adelaide games studio closing in on its tenth anniversary. The studio was named Studio of the Year at the 2019 Australian Game Developer Awards, with a super successful focus on developing games for big brand licenses including the likes of Disney, Lego and Conan. Their games reach tens of millions around the world and they’re one of the biggest studios in the country in terms of both head count and output.
This is another fantastic conversation, exploring Philip’s big desire to see more studios really extending themselves toward bigger ambitions, wanting to see more small-to-medium studios pursue bigger and bigger ideas to chase the dream of becoming big studios in their own right.
It’s really great hearing Phil talk with a clear mission to create a big and successful business in the games industry, and the desire to develop positive competition and look to lift all ships along the way.
Philip Mayes: Yes, it’s an interesting journey because I came to game development quite late. It was sort of a late career switch for me. I was doing IT in New Zealand for a large IT company and I was on that career path when an opportunity came up to study game development. I was a postgraduate degree, I didn’t have a degree, so I had to pretend, what do we say, exaggerate or–?[laughter]
I’m not sure what the right terminology is. I think lying is probably a bit too strong, but no, I had to convince them that I was a great candidate for that course. That really set off my journey. I had made a lot of really good friends and a lot of really good contacts. One of our lecturers ended up working for Midway. He ended up being posted to Adelaide to look after the studio which used to be called Ratbag and then became Midway Studios-Australia after that. It was through him that I got my spot in the game industry.
I was relocated from New Zealand to Adelaide. It’s a bit of an eyeopener, I think, went from about a 17-degree day to 38 or something. [chuckles]It’s a welcome to Australia moment. For me, I was there for a short period of time before Midway, shut the studio in Adelaide. I think it was two weeks before Christmas, which was it was a great time. [chuckles]Every time Christmas rolls around, I’ve had bittersweet memory of all those, what that period was like and the uncertainty, but I was very lucky to land on my feet.
There were a few people who weren’t able to leave the state for whatever reason. Krome, based up in Brisbane, they recognized this and recognized the talent that was available and took upon them. They opened a studio in Adelaide and hired a bunch of us. My name was put forward, which was really, really great. I was one of the first three programmers at that studio. We grew from that initial team of 15 up to about 50, I think, or so. We’ve done a whole bunch of really cool stuff; Star Wars, Spyro, Happy Feet. A whole bunch of other things that either couldn’t go forward or can’t be named.[laughter]
A lot of really cool things, a lot of really cool brands, a lot of really cool experiences. It was towards the end of that, I think the GFC was starting to have an effect, and we were seeing the contract work drying up. I was looking for a bit of a change, I’d been in there for a while and my friend had come out. I had a friend of mine who was really into making apps and really wanted me to get on board with them because the designer needed a programmer.
We actually started the Mighty Kingdom together, just the two of us as a app development company looking at iPhones. That was quite successful. We did all right. He started another company on the side where we did it together, and that became a- took on a life of its own and started to run away as well. We put that through an incubator over in Sydney, and went over to the US, and raised some money, and that sort of stuff.
Mighty Kingdom was ticking along in the background while this other thing was really growing up, but it was a moment for me in my life where I was like, “Do I continue down this path of startup?” We were moving to San Francisco, the team was moving over. I had a six months old kid that were boy, Xavier, and I was not too keen to raise kids in the US.
Seamus Byrne: Yes, I understand that.[laughter]
Philip: Little bit start, I mean. Looking back. [laughs]Hindsight is 20/20 as they say. Looking at the situation there now, I think we definitely made the right choice. Anyway, for me, it wasn’t just a matter of not being in America it was like, “What do I want to do? What is it that drives me? Where’s my passion? If I’m going to be doing something for 10 years, if it’ll be something that I’m really into.” I looked at what Mighty Kingdom was doing. We were a team of about five or six at that stage and thought, “If I’m going to do anything, I want to make games.” That’s what my heart said, that’s where my passion is at.
We took that year to turn Mighty Kingdom around from being a studio to a game studio. I think of Mighty Kingdom, who’s just coming up to its 10th anniversary, by the way, as almost having two lives. One, where we’re trying to discover what we were, and then once we made that switch to games in 2013, 2014, that’s when we started to get that explosive growth. We started to go from strength to strength. Then we went from 5, to 15, to 30, to 40, to 50 and now we’re up to 70 odd staff units.
We had a very aggressive mindset early on as well. I looked around the industry as it was at that time and saw that there were a lot of studios that were in the 20, 25 people range, they’re topping at out around there. A lot of small studios, 5 and 10 men crews. I thought, “Why is no one at the other end? Why don’t we have these large studios? Surely there’s work there for those studios. It’s not like the talent that was working at those large enterprises had disappeared. It’s just being underutilized and it’s just being put somewhere else, and so I thought, “If I can grow a company large enough, I can attract that talent, and we can start attracting those sort of projects, and we can start bringing some of those large scale developments back to Australia.
Initially, I was looking– As a small studio, you looked at other studios to partner with to do that, but no one else really had that ambition. I thought, “You know what, let’s just do it. [crosstalk]Let’s just do it ourselves.”
Philip: It’s been a journey, like growth as a core driver for your business is very risky, because growth is risky, right?
Philip: That we’re an industry where the amount of product we can create is determined by how many people we have. People are the most expensive part of that process. We can’t automate away jobs in our industry. Scale means cost and being able to keep feeding that machine has always been a challenge. I don’t think that ever goes away, but it’s been very rewarding. We’ve hit a lot of our goals in terms of finding a lot of really talented individuals and giving them an opportunity to shine and giving them some interesting problems to solve.
Once we started to see that start to payoff, we started to think of it more broadly about the industry and what impact we could have on it and started to think about how we could help the next generation of talent to take a step and start to– I don’t think it’s any surprise or secret to anyone that this is a very male-dominated industry and we’re all faced in a situation where we were looking to hire talent, senior talent, or experienced talent, and they all predominantly look like me. [chuckles]They’re all the white guys. That’s just a sort of an echo of that industry of past, is that those people who had those opportunities back then, were invariably looking like me.
Now, when we’re looking for talented and senior staff, we’re seeing those people come, those names come back up again. We took a very strong stance of growing talent, of deciding to, if you want someone with 10 years experience, you’ll either go out and find them or you could hire someone and wait 10 years. We started hiring a lot of junior staff and we put a lot of effort into our graduate program to make sure we’re unearthing this talent and finding different voices and different, like I say, like hidden talents, different talents around the country in giving them an opportunity as well.
That’s an ongoing journey for us and for the whole industry in general, I think. We’re seeing those demographics and the products that the industry is creating start to shift as new voices are being heard, so it’s exciting.
Seamus: It feels like there’s a lot of– Look, there’s a lot of great stories from that year where so many of those big studios closed around the whole GFC thing, then that mobile smartphone platforms were becoming a thing around that same time, and so there were lots of stories of people taking that opportunity to be on that leading wave of creativity on a whole new platform, but it does just seem like, a few of those early Australian studios have– Some of them, it’s like they just went into maintenance mode, or they went into things where it’s like, “Ah.” They stopped really striving to search for ongoing creativity and stuff. It seems like you’ve had a bit more of a, like I said, a growth mindset, so that ongoing urge to keep doing the best work you can every single year and not just leaning on other products that you did 10 years ago.
Philip: Yes. Look, I would love to have a stable of strong IP that we developed 10 years ago that we can keep leveraging.[laughter]
Philip: [crosstalk]That’s fantastic. Yes, I think the difference there is that I was a programmer for many, many years, and in the early days of the Mighty Kingdom, I was still a programmer. There was a moment last year where I had to hand my Unity license back to the license pool. Almost like giving my badge back. I think it all comes down to the reasons why people get into game development, and a lot of them are passion-driven. If you think about the talent that was left behind after the GFC, a lot of really senior talent, they were left. They all got jobs overseas. They left rather industries, so they went parallel.
The people who remained were ones who rejected that big studio culture or had a different vision of the industry that they wanted to create. That industry is driven by design, it’s driven by passion, and by creativity, and by creators. The iOS App Store and the Google Play afterwards really provided like a path to market that didn’t exist before. The console market had become dominated by the gatekeepers. The platforms had a very high bar that you had to clear before you were able to get in there. You usually had to partner with a publisher.
A lot of people in that time went looking for publishers. They wanted to find a different path. You’re correct in that, that the phones provided this avenue for these people to bring their products to market and to an audience in a way that they hadn’t had before. A lot of them saw success, there’s a lot of really great successes, and there still are within the game industry. That’s shifting now, that the market has changed again. There’s been enough changes and we’re going through a period of consolidation in that market, but I think, to get back to the original point, the skills that you need to grow a large studio are different to the skills that you need to make a successful game. It’s a different skill set altogether.
I’ve been conscious of that from the start and knowing what my limitations were and who I needed to surround myself with to offset that because I’ve had this view of I want to have a studio that we are able to do triple-A work that we can actually do these large scale. I can’t think of many studios probably outside of war gaming where you have a hundred people working on the same project. Projects like this don’t exist in Australia at the moment.
That’s a shame, because we spoke just before we started the recording about Gameloft and their decision, their tough decision to resize and to rescale, but that sort of decision takes on increased importance when there is nowhere else for those people to go. We’re in a market where people looking to work at that level have a limited number of choices. We know we’re conscious of that, that we can’t hire everyone and we can’t do everything, we have to choose the sort of projects that we’d make and the sort of company that we want to be. There’s a responsibility there, especially in Adelaide being the largest employer here.
If we say no, if we stop doing something, that cuts off a huge career path for a whole bunch of people. That carries the extra weight, so I can fully sympathize with the Gameloft crew and what they must have gone through. Because if you’re in a thriving market where you have a whole ecosystem of companies of all scales, from the 2 man up, to the 200, then if somebody loses a job somewhere that there’s options for them elsewhere. No, we don’t have that market here at the moment, we don’t have that ecosystem yet.
There’s a lot of opportunities for people starting out on their own and there’s a lot of support there. Now, Victoria’s been really fantastic at it and we’re increasingly seeing other states step up to recognize that as well, but once you outgrow that, once you want to take the next step in your career, like when you go in Australia at the moment, there’s very few places to go. Really, if you wanted to do big console stuff, you have to go overseas. That’s a shame, that’s a big challenge right now for our industry.
My vision for the industry is to be able to have all those companies, all those studios, everyone working at different scales so that we can have people have an entire career here in Adelaide or not in Adelaide. I mean ideally in Adelaide but-
Seamus: Yes. Hey, why not?
Philip: -in Australia in general. I think that’s the industry that I walked into when I came over here, and I don’t know how long it was. [chuckles]I don’t remember now. 2000 and something. That’s the industry I’d like to see return so that– When Ratbag shut down, as horrible as that was, we had five studios fly recruiters out to Adelaide to interview all the staff.
If we hear a story about a studio in Australia really closing down [unintelligible 00:13:18] are pretty good at rehiring people, but when you hear those stories now there isn’t that same infrastructure to support those people, it’s not a matter of being able to just go, “Well, shit that sucked, but there’s another job for me if I just go through the process.” There’s nowhere to go now or there’s very few places to go, and that’s really tough. I think that the mark of a healthy industry isn’t just with the amount of money that it earns, but it’s the opportunities that it provides to people working in it. I think we’re not quite there yet in Australia.
Seamus: In these past 10 years, that approach back at that early stage of mobile being able to go, “Yes, let’s give this space a crack.” It’s now a different space, it’s got maturity, it’s got a whole different business models going on. Do you feel like you could even walk that path again or do you have to search for other angles on the state of the market as it is now, if you were trying to start from square one?
Philip: Yes, it is very different. I always think it’s difficult as well when I talk to people and they try to understand the journey that we went on and take notes. There’s so many things that we’re just very lucky or very fluky. We’re just a product of the time that I can tell you what we did, but there’s zero chance [chuckles]you could replicate that now. This is where I say like, “The first part of any successful games company is making great games. You’ve got to have that part down. You’ve got to know how to do that and do that reliably, and measure that, and have the tools, and the people, and the stuff around you to know when you’re on the right path, but you also need to have a great business.”
I think that’s where it gets tough because the days of being able to create– If you think about the early days of App Store, when there wasn’t as much content as it was now, it’s easy for good content to filter out. That’s not the case now, you need to partner with somebody to help market your product to get them in front of the right eyeballs. I would say, in a sense, Steam and the PC platform [unintelligible 00:15:25] to get easier in that regard because they’ve changed the way that their tools have worked from when I started to provide people with that head-start, you get a guaranteed number of views and stuff.
The market will always shift, you always have to adapt your business to see what the market is doing. We’ve been conscious of that as well as try not to tie yourself to one platform, one product, one genre because otherwise, the market will shift and then you get left behind, and so you’ll just constantly be evaluating your processes, your tools, your techniques, your platforms, your partners, everything all the time and make sure that it’s still relevant to what the industry is today and where it’s going.
That’s, like I said, it’s a whole different skill set to just making games, which is what most people want to do, we want to do the fun stuff, but there’s all the hard stuff around it. The good thing I find is that these sort of problems aren’t unique to games. There are other industries that face this sort of challenge all the time and they have overcome them, and so we could look to them, and learn from them, and understand how they manage this sort of workspace.
In Adelaide here we have a lot of visual effects studios, and seeing how they manage the staff up and staff down on projects and how they actually go out and find work, like we’re based here in Adelaide, how do they go and win Hollywood contracts? There’s a whole process around that which we can learn from and apply to the sort of things that we want to do. I think part of it is just recognizing what problems are ours and ours alone, but also looking at what we can learn from other industries that are basically very close at solving very similar problems to us.
Seamus: Look, you talk about those kinds of companies getting these Hollywood contracts, you guys have license deals with some of the biggest companies around, you have Lego, Disney all these sorts of companies.
Seamus: When did you feel like that was an angle that you’re going to pursue you? How do you even pursue it and prove yourself worthy of landing that kind of a relationship?
Philip: This gets back to when we said before about how much of your journey is impossible to replicate.[laughter]
There was a lot of luck involved in some of those early moments of Mighty Kingdom’s journey, particularly when it came to Disney and the other doors that unlocked. We just happened to be, in a sense, in the right place at the right time. I think a lot of people are in those places at the right time, it’s about what you do from that moment on, how you capitalize on that. We were in a position to be able to recognize what that opportunity was and to maximize the return from it. You’re correct, we turned that Disney deal into Shopkins and then turned that into Lego, and that’s opened the doors to some other things that we’ve got in the pipeline as well.
It’s funny to look at the portfolio and think, “Wow, there’s a lot of kids products in there.” It’s not something that you wake up one day and go, “Kids’ games. [laughs]Let’s go make kids’ game,” but it’s about following those opportunities where they arise. The goal for us is to tell interesting stories with complex characters, and worlds, and things like that. We look at the audience that we’ve grown with and how we can build on top of that.
One of the products we put out, Wild Life, was sort of built on this engine that we developed for one of our kids’ games, for Shopkins game, but we noticed that there was a cohort of players playing very late at night, and so we’re thinking, “It’s probably not the kids, it’s probably the parents. Let’s have a look at how they perform and what they do,” and so we were able to create and tag our product around that market. That showed what our storytelling capabilities were and started taking steps in that market.
A lot of the things that we’re working on right now is building on the lessons and things that we learned from there and growing with that audience. We talked a little bit about parts of the development community that are underrepresented. I think in terms of content for some demographics within just generally, there’s not a lot of content developed for them. I think if you can find those markets and you can give them content that they really enjoy that you get rewarded for it.
We’re always looking for ways that we can compete with the big guys. We don’t have the budget of the big people, so we pick our battles and we’re clever about where we invest and who we partner with to offset some of those risks.
Seamus: It sounds like a really great lesson though in I guess using your analytics well or even knowing what you’re trying to look for, because that idea of actually spotting a cohort of players that are clearly outside the norm, some people might not necessarily, I guess, dig into their own statistics in that kind of way. Is that something you actively do across or was it that happened something or someone going, “What’s this bump at the weird time of night or–?”[laughter]
Philip: That’s certainly how it started. I guess it’s like the data doesn’t tell you what to do, the data is just data. It was the insight of one of our product managers who actually saw this and looked into it, and researched it, and came up with a product and ultimately became Wild Life as a way of addressing this or capitalizing on this opportunity that she’d identified. The data helps you make decisions, it doesn’t make them for you. It’s just information. It’s all about marrying that up with the human component.
I know that there’s a contingent of developers out there that rejects that sort of approach towards using data to tune or they’re a lot more about the vision. What we think about, we’re much more about the players. We’re very, what we call, customer focused. We want to make sure, like if you’re in a free-to-play space, in other words, you’re giving your game away for nothing and you’re just hoping that people like it enough to watch an ad or buy a thing. No one ever bought something in a game that they didn’t love, so that you have to get them to fall in love with your game and you have to make– This would mean you have to make great games, you have to make great content.
You can’t trick people into giving you money. Or at least, even if you do it once, if only once, [laughs]they’re not going to come back again and you’re going to get a reputation for it. The secret of free-to-play isn’t some, there’s one weird trick, we’ll unlock–
Seamus: Wait, let me write it down. One weird trick?
Seamus: Please tell me.
Philip: It’s understanding your audience and giving them content that they value. To do that blindly is really tough. You have to have conversations with your audience. If you have, like in the case of Shopkins when we had made many millions of people playing it every month, you can’t talk to a million people. That’s impossible, but you did get some course grade and feedback through surveys and stuff, but really the data, the way people play tells you a lot about what they value.
If we’ve got 10 mini games in one of our products and everyone’s playing two of them, well, I think that gives you a pretty clear indication of where your investments should be. I think to ignore data is a mistake, but to rely solely on data is also a mistake. You got to make sure that you’ve got the human intuition in there because that’s where the ultimate value is.
Seamus: Yes. Look, I think you’ve mentioned lucky a couple of times and I think when we talk about people, a little later, I want to talk about graduates and the ways in which they need to prepare themselves for opportunities, but that so many people, I guess, they use the word lucky, but as you said when you’re in the right place at the right time, you need to take that opportunity, and that’s then when you make your luck.
Is there something about the year when you’ve spotted that right place at the right time? What is it about kicking that door in and saying, “This is mine now, I’m going to take this thing here.”
Seamus: Is it a mindset thing or is it even just almost like what’s the difference between the people who walk past that door and just not quite noticed that that opportunity was even there?
Philip: It’s interesting as well, because I think when you look back, like if you asked everyone at Mighty Kingdom back in 2000-and x or whatever it was before we started working on Shopkins, whether they wanted to make kids’ games, I don’t think anyone would have said yes. But once you’re into it, and you understand the market, and you see the opportunities there, and you can build the bridge to where you want to get to, everyone gets really excited by that opportunity, because they can see where it leads.
I think your first brush reaction to some things is to be like, “No, that’s not for me.” We try and temper that. We try not to make a decision in the room. Try and take information, have the meeting, and then go away, and then we’ll talk about it. I think I’ve spoken [unintelligible 00:24:21] about having an idea of where you want to be by where you’re going, because then you can start to look at an opportunity and map it against your goals. For two reasons. One, you can either find parts of that will help you get closer to where you want to go, or it might make you think, “Oh, and is as our goal incorrect? Do we need to start thinking elsewhere? If everyone’s telling us that you can’t get there, maybe we need to go somewhere else. It’s not fight against all the tides.
I think just giving yourself the time and space to look at an opportunity through multiple lenses, they often can come up with a way that it can help you. That doesn’t mean like convincing yourself a bad deal is a good deal, but it means that if you look at it through in a different way, you might say, “Kids’ games allows us to build this technology and to have this revenue, which allows us to invest in this and allows us to do that,” and so you can start to get to where you want to go.
If you sit around waiting for the perfect deal or for the perfect opportunity, you’ll often find that it’s passed you by and often, like we’ve experienced this as well, that the product that you thought was fantastic in the market, the market moves on. What was good a year ago isn’t relevant anymore, and you need to let that go and face up to that reality.
I think it is a little bit mindset, but you have to be looking for opportunity obviously. One of the things we said, Brian, in the early days of Mighty Kingdom is like, “You ought to be in the room. No one signs a deal if you’re not in the conversation,” and so we made it a big key to turn up to events, like GCAP was the first one we did, which was fantastic. Then, we went into GDC and then to Gamescom, and to other conferences around the world, catch or connect. You try all sorts of different ones. Sometimes the ones that you have think will have no value are the ones that turn up.
The product we were working on with Funcom, the kind of product, was signed out of a Paris game show, which every single person I spoke to said, “Don’t go there. Nothing ever happens there.”
Philip: We sent one person there. [laughs]Lo and behold. He ended up coming back with a deal. You just got to be in the room sometimes. You got to do the hard work. I hate traveling. I hate the distances that we have to travel, but that’s just the nature of it. You just got to be there, and be in the room, and just talk to people and be yourself. We found, it took us about three, maybe four GDCs before we started to consistently get an essence of deals flowing from there. We didn’t necessarily sign everything that came our way, but you start having those conversations, it’s like, “I remember you from last year. I remember you from that party. I remember you from that thing.”
If you can keep turning off and showing progress. I think that’s the other thing is show progress. It’s one thing to just be there. If every time you turn up, you’ve got something new and you’ve got something that you’re talking about, that you’re excited about, that you’re showing off, people see your progress and they remember it. Then they go, “Oh, those guys deliver. They say they’re going to do a thing and then they do the thing.” That’s the other part of it, right, is actually backing up what you say and doing what you say.
You’ll get found out pretty quick in this industry. It’s pretty small, the number of faces and voices that you see are very limited. Once you get a bad reputation, it can be tough to shake. Just make sure that you’re actually being honest, being– If you make a mistake, no one’s going to ban you for it. As long as you own up for it and say, “Look, that was wrong and we’ve moved on,” you’ll be fine.
Seamus: It’s probably a good place then to just touch once more on the whole license thing because of course, again, winning the license, as you say, you still have to make a really good game. How do you approach trying to marry the right idea to the license? Is that part of the initial pitch or is it almost that, once you’ve got the license, you are then trying to play with it a little bit to think of what the right game is to make after that?
Philip: License [unintelligible 00:28:15] through the ones that we’ve worked with, they’re a bit different to the normal process because when you’re working with a brand, there’s a lot that you already know about it. You already know a lot about the audience that you’re working for, and you already know a lot about games that they’re playing. Particularly if it’s a good brand, like Lego, you’ve really seen what they’ve done before and you can leverage what has worked and what hasn’t worked. Quite often you go into that with a lot of information already.
For those licenses that we’ve worked with that have been announced, [chuckles]we walked into those meetings with a pitch, with an idea of the sort of product that we would create. It doesn’t mean that we always ends up building exactly that product, but it was the starting point for those discussions. Like if you looked at– What’s the brand? Let’s look at Star Wars. There’s a whole bunch of RPGs and shooters in that space. If you walked into a meeting with Star Wars and said, “We’re going to do an RPG,” They’d be like, “We’ve already got a bunch of those.”
Do a little bit of your research to find out where the gaps are in that audience, and then you could turn up and say, “Hey, you guys got a bunch of these, but I can see that there’s this underserved part of your audience and that would love a product like this.” Then they’d be like, “Yes, cool. Let’s do that.”
Seamus: Star Wars moisture farming simulator.
Philip: [chuckles]Don’t get me started.[laughter]
Just [unintelligible 00:29:38] I think Star Wars would be a real difficult brand to pick off as a small developer because it’s so competitive. There are so many Star Wars games, how do you stand out in that market? I think that would be a challenging one [unintelligible 00:29:49] My kids are going through it at the moment. We did a modified machete or whatever, where we’re watching the climb wallsat the moment because–
Seamus: Nice, yes.
Philip: We’ve stopped after the second one, the second prequel and started doing it climb walls but– [crosstalk]
Seamus: Yes, to insert the climb walls into that part of the story. Yes, cool.
Philip: Yes, because Annikin’s ark makes no sense in the movies, and the climb walls actually fills it out a bit better. [laughs][unintelligible 00:30:17] Star Wars, so there’s a lot of that going around. I think that’s another lesson though as well is that you need to pick the brands that you go for– The ones that we’ve worked with have been within our capacity to deliver. This is a whole different kind of thing, it’s all business, these sort of things, but there’s a lot of costs to being able to acquire a license and to service it, and a whole bunch of other things. You need to be aware of those going in. The bigger the brand, the bigger those costs, and it can be a lot tougher.
Anyway, the expectations are a lot higher as well, so you got to make sure that you’re okay meeting those costs and delivering. The toughest thing about it all is that at the end of the day, if the client is not happy, they can just not release the product. A lot of that work you put in can just be for nothing in the end, and that’s really tough. You got to make sure that your systems, your processes, everything are designed to be able to mitigate that risk as much as possible. We do it through just communication, at the end of the day. A lot of it is communication, just making sure that you’re in touch with your clients all the time and let them know what’s going on. Keeping them informed and part of the process. Like I said, we could talk for hours about business stuff.[laughter]
Seamus: Look, let’s talk a bit about Adelaide. As you said, you arrived there because there was an existing studio. I guess over the last decade, how has the scene evolved there? Is there local community chapters alongside to the having studios like yourselves or are you basically, you’re the one scale studio?
Philip: Yes, I would say in general, there’s a lot of successful studios here but they keep it on the down-low. I think it’s the secret of Adelaide is they keep everything pretty quiet. If you look back at the Game Developer Awards, we had Matt Trobbiani out there with Hacknet early on, and then again with Labyrinths, and we’ve seen the Hollow Knight from Team Cherry, that’s picked up a couple of awards. The last two studios of the year winners were from Adelaide. Like I say, there’s a lot of really good, sneaky good stuff happening here.
I think the next dark horse will be Foxie Games. They’ve been just quietly out there achieving, growing, go from strength on strength and I think they’ve got eyes on our office space at the moment in terms of their growth strategy. We were lucky– I wouldn’t say we’re lucky actually. We went out and courted Game Plus to set up a facility here, and so we’ve got a co-working space dedicated to the game industry. That’s a really good focal point for a lot of these conversations.
I think that’s the core of the gaming scene in Adelaide, but for every person that’s in Game Plus, there’s probably two or three people working outside it. When we were liaising with the government on some of the things we’ve been working with, they do a lot of surveys of how many game developers there are. I’m always quite surprised at the numbers that come back. There’s a lot, and it’s been really good.
One of the good things about being in Adelaide is you’re out of the limelight a little bit. That means that you don’t get a lot of the glare [laughs]and the attention that other regions get. On the flip side, being smaller and a bit more tight-knit, we don’t have a lot of those who have been fighting. This is going to sound like a backhanded compliment, but we haven’t had the support from the government until recently. That has put us in a position where we’re competing against each other for attention, and so that’s created an environment where everyone’s very helpful and they’re looking out for each other.
That’s not to say that the government hasn’t supported us. They’ve recently come to the table with some grants to help people sort of switching into the industry and getting established, and that’s been fantastic. Because of the influence that we’ve had in the state as well, we’ve had a very strong focus on building your business as well as building your game, and trying to help people with that as much as we can. We try to encourage everyone who works in Mighty Kingdom to give back to their community as well, and to be a voice and be an advocate for the group, and to talk about the issues of diversity, issues of culture, and a whole bunch of other things that we try and talk about.
These are things that become problems for studios when they grow past a certain size, but if you can get those systems and processes in place now and think about the problems now, then they don’t become problems. You can solve a lot of things now just by making some easy decisions. We try to pass along that information to the locals. For the longest time, we were the biggest game in town, but that’s changing very rapidly, and that’s very exciting for us.
Seamus: It seems like from all the conversations I’ve had in other cities that aren’t Melbourne this year, there’s always that sense of wanting to build the local ecosystem because it does then- it helps you as well if there’s other places someone can get work in that city, that that commitment to coming just for your studio can be hard if it’s like, “Oh, and if it doesn’t work out then I’m probably moving interstate once again.”
Philip: That’s super tricky for us here in Adelaide as well. Convincing people to move here [laughs]is like, yes, that’s a challenge.
Seamus: It’s like the tree change theory.
Philip: [chuckles]Particularly when you’re looking for diversity in your talent, you get it like a double whammy, because not only are they had to find that there’s so few of them, but none of them want to move to Adelaide.[laughter]
Mainly because you’re not moving a person, you’re moving their family, and their support, and everything, stuff like that. While we may be able to offer them a job, it’s what about their husband or their wife? What about their kids, where are they going to go to school? What about all the other parts of their life, their partners, what if they’re working? How do we replicate that here? That’s really hard and makes those decisions a lot harder for people.
We’ve recently started branching out into other cities. We have a couple of staff working in Melbourne. That’s hot off the press, I guess. We’re looking at way,s particularly, what this pandemic has shown us is that we’re able to maintain productivity quite effectively by working remotely. I think a lot of the fears that producers had around productivity and output when you’re working from home or not all in the same office, have been put to rest for a little bit.
Data is the greatest, it’s a leveler, right? Where you come along and say, “Well look, didn’t have anywhere near the impact you thought it would, so let’s–” Now, that opens the door to us to start thinking about, “Well, we don’t need people to be here. They can be where they want to be.” That’s exciting as well, so that’ll open up a whole bunch of new opportunities.
Seamus: I think as some people have said as well, it’s that we need to remember we’re not just working from home, we’re working from home in the middle of a crisis and therefore, even what is possible now is probably not even as much as will be possible when people have a genuinely balanced life outside of work. [chuckles]
Philip: It hasn’t been without challenges, right? Some people really have enjoyed it and loved it. I see my kids more now than I have in a very long time, and that’s going to be hard to give up if we want to get back to the office, but other people– We’ve had people who, like I said, moved into state to come work for us, and don’t have that support network here, outside of the studio, and they’re living alone. Now, when the lockdown comes in, their social network just shrunk very, very small, and that can be really, really challenging in confronting that.
It’s not the great cure-all for everyone but I think it provides another option now that wasn’t really on the table before. Well, it’s one that everyone talks about, but no one was ready to pull the trigger on. I think it’s given us a lot of really good information about how to handle that situation from the practical stuff, but also down to mental health and other things as well.
Seamus: When it comes to things, like, you mentioned that the state government there has started to do some things that help to support the industry, what do you feel is the right path here? In the sense that, as you’ve said, you’ve had a strong business model attached to making sure that you actually operate well. I think sometimes it can sound like people are like, “Oh, well just give us some free money so we can do stuff.” Of course, it feels like almost every other business industry that is still an entirely legitimate business industry has its own set of subsidies or opportunities to make sure they’re globally competitive, all those kinds of things. Somehow that always gets dismissed when it comes to this sort of thing, whether it’s in entertainment or in games in particular.
Philip: Yes, I think it’s not an either-or equation here. That it can be either grants or rebates. It’s a combination and it’s got to be a whole of industry approach. I think that if we have grants that are in place that allow people to try new ideas, try out things that may or may not work, I think as long as we’re measuring success not in terms of products but in terms of knowledge outcomes, and I think that’s fine because knowing what not to do is just as valuable as knowing what to do.
I think we need those grants and that sort of stuff in place for people to be taking those risks, to find the next breakout. To find the thing that comes out of nowhere and redefines the market and puts Australia at the forefront of it.
That needs to happen. Even also just for people looking to enter this industry, right? To giving them a boost about to get started, and get some foundations under them so they can actually start producing and getting to market. That’s necessary. I think we need something at the other end as well. We need something that encourages ambition. You look at the visual effects and rebates that they get around eligible expenditure. It’s tied around projects over a certain scale and to maximize the benefit of that, you have to be- the larger the production, the better the benefits are. Having that system in place encourages companies to grow and look at taking larger steps and making larger products.
It gives you that ladder to build up as you grow your company and you take the next step. I think that’s what I’d like to see. The sad reality is that when we’re out there pitching for work, we’re not being compared– It’s not a matter of Adelaide versus Melbourne versus Sydney versus Britain. It’s Australia versus Poland versus Canada versus the UK. They will have very strong rebates and incentives in place. The talent argument goes to a certain extent, and we’ve got some favorable exchange rates although that’s shifting. Anyway, it’s exciting when you watch 10% of your revenue get wiped out in a week. Anyway, when you’re trying to set stuff up against those, it makes it really hard.
Now, obviously, we can use the quality of our work and our track record to offset some of that but when at some level, an exec is looking at the bottom line and saying, “Well, I can get twice as much work for half the price if I do it in Canada.” It’s like, yes. It’s a tough one to argue against right? I think we can’t get to that as an industry without support from government. That’s just the reality of it, much as the visual effects on film industry is important in that way, because they’re competing in the same market. They are competing against rebates around the world and stuff as well.
The difficulty there is that we’re competing with them for talent in other ways as well. Technical artist, animators, 3D artists, the same person can work to embody the same job at a studio on the same street as me but the cost of that studio is 30% less than it is to me. That’s tough, right? That’s a tough one to bear. I think there’s a model there, there is lots of models out there that we’ve seen work well internationally, and I’d love to see them replicated here. I feel that we’re starting to be able to have that conversation now in a way that we haven’t been able to before. One thing I think as well is the industry itself has to put forward a very ambitious vision of what it wants to be. Because if you say, if you look at our export revenue, which is hovering around 100 to 150 mil a year, and you say our goal is to grow that to 250 million a year. They’re going to be like, yes, that’s chicken feed. He’s like, we want to 10 X that. We want to go from 150 to 1.5 billion. Okay. People start to pay attention to that, right?
Philip: If we go from 1500 jobs to 15,000 jobs, all right. Now people, that’s when they sit up on their seat and take notice. I think the economic conditions are working in our favor a little bit, and that the products that we create export revenue that’s delivered digitally has never been on a boat or anything. Okay, that’s fantastic. They’ll be loving that. Being able to use that momentum to be able to articulate these points and get these systems in place would be fantastic. I think it’s a rare opportunity to get that done. I know there’s a lot of people working very hard behind the scenes to have those conversations and to put forward that vision but we need the whole industry back in the market. We can’t just have one or two people out there waving the flags. Even if your vision for your company and for yourself is to run that five man team or that two man team, you should recognize the benefit of having that full ecosystem in place and having those large corporates in place and having those big CEOs back here in Australia.
That will ultimately benefit you. These things that we’re talking about, these incentives and stuff will benefit everybody, not just the big guys. Yes, like I said, it’s about keeping that talent within Australia. If a big, [unintelligible 00:44:30] and sets up a Montreal style studio with 3000 people, okay, that’s probably a bit much but if we set up a nice big 500 person studio, a lot of people who go and work there, they’re going to reach a point in their career where they’ve earned enough and they’ve [unintelligible 00:44:45] enough that they’re going to want to start their own products. They’re going to get to that point for like, where [unintelligible 00:44:50] in my life [unintelligible 00:44:51]? How many games have I got left? What am I going to, what’s the mark I am going to leave? That’ll be that next wave of studio, the next wave of opportunity.
Plus what was obviously in, if you talk to people internationally, they’ll bear it out as when the big guys turn up, they can’t do everything from the start, right? They look for local studios to partner with them. That helps everyone in the ecosystem, right? Because now there’s more work for you, more work for everyone else. Even if you don’t get that work, you benefit from the talent uplift in there. The excitement around it, more graduates start to turn up and want to be part of that process and be part of that journey and that means that there’s more talent around for everybody.
I think it’s always a net positive everywhere I look at it. Yes, I think, like I say, if we’re very close to be able to get some of those workplace things, those systems and programs in place, and I think what you’ll find is that once they- once it starts, there will be a bit of a rush of investment and of growth within this industry. We are excited.
Seamus: Yes. What I guess, are your current thoughts on the education side of things of I guess helping people go from graduate to someone who has genuine experience so they’re delivering value into that? It seems like sometimes that mid tier of experience is that tricky spot to feel in some ways.
Philip: Yes, there’s a lot of like job ads looking for two, three years experience and it’s like, who is out there, giving interns- whatever. Yes, we got a graduate program every year where we look to find talent. This year, we’ve had to postpone the start of our program, which has been really frustrating thanks to the pandemic but we’ve got five very awesome candidates on this year. We’ve had eight last year and eight the year before. There’s no lack of talent around, there’s a lot of really amazing, talented people out there. We did a bit of a review with one of our cohorts, one of our graduate cohorts to look at industry preparedness. How well was the education system preparing them for realities of working the industry.
Overwhelmingly, they were like, “This is pretty much exactly what we thought it would be.” Whoever is out there educating people this thing is doing a fantastic job. Yes, we find the quality of candidates to be extremely high. Last year, obviously we took five. I think it was a between 250 and 300 applicants for those positions. Yes, we are picking from the best of the best but I could look at 50 of those people and say, “You could have a job in this industry.” There’s a lot of talent out there. I think what we’re seeing, particularly, we see that here locally that a lot of people who are educating the students these days are people who were working in those big studios [unintelligible 00:47:40]
They have a lot of insight in a way that lecturers and educators don’t normally have. That’s just lifting the quality bar in terms of the graduates that are coming out. The difficulty is that we just can’t hire all of them. That’s the thing. There’s just not enough jobs out there. This is where I think there’s some– If we can find ways to, I hesitate to say that we should replicate the internship model that they have overseas because that can be exploited in [unintelligible 00:48:09] as well. You need to find ways of replicating the experience and making sure that there’s value being fed back to the students.
It’s a lot, but we’ve managed to do it in the past through universities, because they can get course credits and stuff like that. There’s actually tangible benefits for doing that stuff. Oftentimes, it’s very difficult to negotiate and put together. We often found it was easier just to hire people that wants to actually try and go through the paperwork sometimes.
Yes, I think that– Yes.
The other thing that we’re noticing with the graduate talent is that it’s far more diverse than any other. The age bracket that we look at or [unintelligible 00:48:52]. I don’t know how you’d like. I often think that the term seniors and juniors are just the measurement of tenure, not necessarily measurement of skills. We’ve had graduates who come out and within– One of them within six months was the lead environment artist on wildlife on every product. He’s just amazing. That’s the quality of talent.
Seamus: They are growing up with these tools sometimes now from so early. I keep [unintelligible 00:49:19] my own kids, “start playing with the tools of these things if you want to do that, because you can.”
Philip: Well, as we think about it, there’s a lot of really cool stuff around the products people are playing Roblox and Minecraft and even like Terrain and others. There is much about creativity as our about play, right? They’re all content creators in their own way, whether it’s just for themselves or for the siblings or whatever. They’ve been trained to be content creators. This is ingrained in the brain, right? Like creating a nice house in Minecraft is as much about level design as it is about aesthetic design, right?
Philip: It’s pretty crazy to think about how people who grew up on this stuff bring a different perspective, a different skill set into the studio. Yes, there’s a lot of really exciting stuff. My last active programming in the studio was writing shaders. I was one of those people who would understand shader language, but then, the graduate who did the environment for wildlife, he came in and rewrote one of my shaders and made it so much better that I’m like, “Oh, man, I’ve got nothing. I have no value anymore.”
Seamus: Was that the day you handed in your license?[laughter]
Philip: I hung on to it for a little bit longer, like, pry it from my cold dead hands [chuckles]. No, it was a recognition of the fact that I’d been holding it for so long and doing nothing with it. It would be much more useful for someone else. I find the universities have been fantastic. The courses are great. They’re listening to the industry, and they’re setting up the coursework to really match what it is that we do. The engines that they pick whatever, that’s what’s- that’s irrelevant.
With any studio, any job you walk into, you’re going to have to train someone up on your tools and your system, anyway, so that’s the fundamentals that we are more interested in, how to interact with people, how to talk, how to take feedback, how to deliver criticism, how to receive criticism, those sort of things, which we don’t normally see on graduates, but we’re getting now. I think that’s to do with the quality of the education that they’re getting. They’re coming to us very well-rounded, and that’s fantastic. Yes, it’s just that we want to make sure that there’s a strong thriving industry for them to move into.
Yes, like I say, it’s hard to figure out what the one [inaudible 00:51:32] one weird trick, they give everyone that two to three years experience. We often encourage people, so people who don’t quite make the cut for a grad program, we try and keep in touch with them via discord, I think and other systems to try and help them keep upping their skills. In fact, this year, one of our programmers that we took on as a graduate, he was unsuccessful last year, but took on a lot of the feedback and applied himself for a year and he was successful again. That’s why that has happened to us with someone from the first graduate in tech who came through in the second, and that shows as much about the character of that person more than anything else.
To keep pushing and striving, to improve and be the best, whatever it is, artist or programmer or animator that you can be and to look for opportunities to get feedback and act on it and not brush it off and say, “You just don’t get it.” That’s how we like students to be doing. Like I said, with students with other platforms each io and others is passed to market that they weren’t, that are even easier than getting on iOS and on Google Play. You don’t even need a phone, you probably already got a computer that you write your CV. I think they- working on product and shipping it– Shipping is the other thing, like it’s just getting things out the door. As terrible as it could be, I’m never one to be interested in–
We look at the quality of the work, obviously, but more interesting to me is a conversation like, if you’re putting it up something that’s terrible and telling me that it’s great, that’s something we need to work on, but if you’re putting out something that’s terrible, and you’re telling me it’s terrible and you tell me why, and tell me the reasons, the things that you change if you don’t get what you learn, or the lessons that you learn, okay, that’s a really good conversation to have. I like the conversation.
I often tell artists, don’t be afraid to show your early work and show the progression that you’ve made because that’s what excites us. Look where they were a year ago, look at where they are today, what are they going to be like in five years time? They’re just going to be shooting the lights out. That’s what we look for. We look for potential. That’s what we hire for mostly. I guess those are the three things we look at. We look at your current skill level because that’s a marker of where you are in the journey.
We look at where you’ve come from, we look at, particularly for graduates, [unintelligible 00:53:55] start your course, we talk to your lecturer, we talk to your references and say, “What did you come in with it?” If you came in and you’re A+ and you left as A+, well, that’s not much of an improvement curve. If you came in as a C, and now you’re an A+, or you came in as a C, and now you’re a B, if you’ve got this curve, and we’re looking at them, we’re going, “Okay, shit, if they keep doing this, this year, they’re going to end up here.”
When we look at talent, we will evaluate talent, it’s not about how they represent today, it’s how they will represent in five years time and not just at the skill level, but also in what they’re like emotionally, it’s what your soft skill’s like, what are they like as a person. When we throw interview process, they submitted a piece of work, it gets criticized and some directions given and then they resubmit it again, how do they handle that? Did they argue? Did they fight it? These little indicators and we also try and mix up the Seamuss, make sure it’s technical and non-technical people and different genders in there and just a whole bunch of different environments to try and tease out as much as we can [unintelligible 00:55:00] candidates and how they can be like.
Yes, like they’re all sort of– We feel very strongly that a diverse studio is a powerful studio, that every piece of research you read says that a diverse workplace outperforms a homogenous one. When you look at the wholeness of your candidate, not just their work, but who they are, where they come from, what’s the story? What’s the voice, and what perspective are they bringing into studio that you don’t have, whether that’s ethnic or gender or socio-economic or whatever, there’s a lot of different angles you can approach to that, but trying to understand who this person is and what voice that they’re bringing in to your studio and how their lived experience can improve your studio, marry that up with their talents and their capacity to learn and the potential, and that’s how you find the best candidate. Yes. That always work for us anyway.
Philip: It takes time. It takes time, but it’s worth it.
Seamus: Yes, just as a wrapping up point, let’s finish on a positive note. What do you feel like the exciting opportunities in the, I guess the potential of the Australian industry in the coming shiny new decade? We will pretend a pandemic didn’t just happen and we’ll just– We’ve got a whole shiny new decade ahead of us.
Philip: Yes. No, there’s a lot of stuff to be excited about. There’s a few ways that we can approach this question. One is looking at the global position of the Australian gaming industry. We’re noticing that a lot of markets are being saturated in terms of talent, it’s becoming harder and harder for companies to find a cost-effective, should we say, talent in different areas. You talk to a big studio in China now, there’s no cost advantage to being in China. There’s so many studios, that the competition for talent is so high that if you are looking at places like Australia now and saying, “Mm-hmm, there’s a lot of talent here. Not a lot of studios, if we can get in here first, we’re going to be able to attract a lot of stuff.”
Those conversations are happening and we’ve talked to few people about that. We’re very, very close, there’ll be a tipping point coming soon around getting the right incentives in place, and suddenly, you’ll find that there’ll be a rush of studios. That’s exciting on one level.
One of the flaws that I think was inherent in the previous incarnation of the game industry in Australia, [unintelligible 00:57:37] was that it was built on being a cheap outsourcing for [unintelligible 00:58:42]. What we’re seeing now is that the industry as it stands today is built on the back of creativity and original content and original IP, and that’s fantastic. That’s a much stronger and much more robust industry to build on.
I think we’ll see [inaudible 00:57:58] the closest [unintelligible 00:58:00] broken out in a big way as well. I think the thing that interests me is once you’ve had success, why do you follow that up with like once as a fluke, twice as a skill. Not to say that that [unintelligible 00:58:11] wasn’t skill, those guys are amazing, but I want to see how they can turn that from being a nice game into a fantastic brand, and how we sort of build these things when we look at what Blizzard does and how they’ve managed to take Warcraft from way back in the day and turned it into this humongous Meteor Empire. I’m not saying we all need to go on that path, but I’d like to see Australian studios take steps down that way.
More sort of relevant, I guess would be like Rovio with Angry Birds, turning that from a physics-based buzzer to now this entertainment [unintelligible 00:58:46], movies, soft toys everything. I think there are some companies that are on the cusp of doing that in Australia, and I’d like to see in the next decade someone make that step. We have this robust stable of original IP. I think it’s why we’re seeing on the more technical level, there’s a blurring of lines between platforms. If you look at what Fortnite does, you have [unintelligible 00:59:06]experience on a phone, on a tablet, on a Switch or on a PC or on a console, so people are increasingly–
We noticed in the kids market, they don’t judge your brand by just one single expression of it. They look at the entire brand, and they expect to see it everywhere. They will look for you on YouTube, they’ll look for you on the App Store, they’ll look for you on Netflix, and so it’s about we’re seeing those boundaries sort of start to blur. I think the talent that we have in Australia, which has come from console and then moved to mobile and is increasingly going back to console again, we’re uniquely positioned to understand the needs of both systems and to build that cross platform bridge. I think, technically, there’s a lot of very, very smart and savvy people in Australia, shout out to Mighty Games who have a great name. [chuckles]They’ve got a set of really interesting and clever tools that help– We use it to test a lot of our console games and our mobile games. It’s amazing to see how they can just blend between the two. I think we’re uniquely positioned to be able to deliver that content across multiple platforms. I think that’ll be an increasing advantage over the next 10 years. I think there’s a lot of stuff to be positive about. We’re going to see a bit of a– I can say we’re going to see a shift coming. We’re going to see studios return but whether it’s this year, next year or five years, it’ll happen and then that’s going to be a big shakeup for this industry. It’s going to be exciting to see how that all goes. My goal is to have not just an Ubisoft studio or a Blizzard studio but to have an Australian studio that’s held up to the same regard with the same- working on titles of the same size and having hundreds of employees and churning out amazing original IP. That would be the true success I think. That’s what I’m building towards and that’s what I’m going to make happen one way or another [laughs].
[01:01:12] [END OF AUDIO]
Do you like what you're reading on Byteside? We're building a diverse, remotely distributed team of Australians to cover the digital world we love so much. And we need your support to thrive.
Whether a one-off donation or becoming a monthly supporter, every little helps pay the writers who are working here.
We're not in line for any free money from Facebook or Google. And we're not paywalling any content because we want everyone to be able to access what we do whether they can afford to pay or not. If you're one who can, a few dollars really does help us grow the pool and support writers to do great original work about tech, games and digital culture. Support Byteside now.