How Money Influences Which Games You Get to Play

Credit: Unknown

This story was originally published on 20/11/2019

The Kiwi games industry is both bigger and smaller than you think. It’s about 600 people strong and covers the main centres. Most people know of Grinding Gear Games (and especially the acquisition by Chinese company Tencent last year) or have played Dinosaur Polo Club’s massively successful Mini Metro on their mobile phone.

Still, these are by no means household names — especially in the way that people think about heavy-hitters Bethesda and Ubisoft or our local esports industry, like Let’s Play Live and The Breakers and Warriors esports teams — but that doesn’t mean it’s only bubbling away under the surface.

Ninja Kiwi and PikPok are two of New Zealand’s most successful games studios, exporting games out to the world through Steam, Apple Arcade and many others. But the road getting there hasn’t always been easy.

NinjaKiwi’s CEO and Co-Founder Chris Harris says for the first five years they had to figure everything out for themselves — there was no blueprint or long history of successful studios they could follow.

“I think for us in the early years at least, we had to learn a of stuff ourselves in relation to running a games business…It’s only in the last five years or so that people even began to understands what we do that it’s a viable business.”

You’d expect it would go without saying — that building a viable business is as much apart of the games industry as the passion and love for making games — but PikPok CEO Mario Wynands says that fans do struggle with that — especially when it comes to Triple A titles.

“I think there’s a bit of a misconception about mobile [games] in general, indie and Triple A [games].” Wynands says. “I made this point online somewhere in a forum that was discussing a Triple A developer that put app purchases into their game. The assumption was that it was the publisher or the owner that had forced that on the developer, because a console developer is all about the art and the business decision is coming from the cold-hearted suit — the publisher or the owning entity — because the developer can not be like that because they’re in it for the craft.”

Scale, for any business, demands capital and no company — not Bungie or Insomniac or PikPok — is immune to needing to make commercially viable games to keep the lights on.

“I think the reality of the situation,” Wynands continues, “is that when you get to a certain scale or you’re operating at a certain level, a lot of what you do is motivated by business decisions because you have a certain set of people you’re trying to support. You might have ownership or investors you need to provide returns to. To operate at particular scale, you need to be conscious of the business side of things and you need to be smart about what you build next.”

Harris agrees and says that part of Ninja Kiwi’s approach is that they’ve always worked within paid and free games and focus on new opportunities, like Apple Arcade.

“We were fortunate enough to be part of the initial launch of Apple Arcade. That was a really great experience for us. We’ve always had a foot in both the free to play and paid game camps so the idea of making a game free of ads and the like wasn’t new to us.”

One of the most exciting things about what’s happening in the New Zealand scene, is that the majority of studios are creating — and thriving from — their own IP, so there is very little contract work needed to keep things ticking over.

“From our perspective,” Wynands says, ”we are a commercial operation and business decisions factor in because we’re a business. We try to make it a lifestyle as much as we can but the reality is that this is a business and it’s how myself and the owners make money, how the employees make money. We can’t afford to have several games fail back to back because that would be problematic for the sustainability of the studio.”

While New Zealand doesn’t have any Triple A studios — and Wynands says it’s unlikely a Kiwi studio will earn a Triple A contract — our studios are carving out livings and continually working towards reaching a new maturity in the industry.

“I guess,” Wynands says, “to elevate it [the industry] to the next level, it’s just a matter of seeing more successes, growth of studios, growth of IP, people cycling out and starting their own thing. Pete and Rob [Curry] from Dinosaur Polo Club used to work for me. Dean Hall from Rocketwerkz used to work for me. Once we get that maturity and have people that know the industry in and out and have been doing it for a decade or two decades and have new teams forming and new games being created, the industry will grow.”

For Harris, this also comes down to making sure new (and existing) studios are pulling out all the stops when it comes to quality.

“I think the quality bar has continued to lift over the years so you need a quality product. But a lot of it is about relationships, so getting introduced to key people would certainly help. Making sure your company attended GDC San Francisco at the very least is critical to meeting people and building [and] maintaining relationships.”

One of the things that Harris says could help the most is funding rounds similar to recent investment in the Otago area that’s set to boost the games industry with a slew of new studios.

“I think investment of this kind into New Zealand’s smaller cities will pay great dividends for the industry and for New Zealand’s economy. One of the things about our business is our customers can access our digital content anywhere in the world. Our need to be physically located close to them is really pretty small to non-existent. So if you can set up in a regional city with the benefits of greatly reduced accommodation costs for staff, it’s brilliant. Auckland property is a killer!”

Both PikPok and Ninja Kiwi have spent almost a combined 30 years building dedicated audiences with both companies looking out towards North America and Europe as the most prominent markets for their games and Wynands and Harris say that isn’t going to change soon.

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