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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Interview: Dawn Patrol Games: Making games in Sri Lanka (Part 1)

Interview by David W.

India and Sri Lanka have long been considered the out-sourcer’s paradise, offering a huge, highly skilled enterprise software workforce. As out-sourced business applications typically rely on the skills of those adept in meeting specification, a gap in the market has opened for entertainment software innovators. It’s no surprise then that Sri Lankan-based developer Dawn Patrol Games describes itself on its website as “dedicated to disseminating original IP through digital distribution”.

That a developer would want to highlight a passion for creating new intellectual property (IP) might at first seem strange. Taken at face value, it seems too obvious a statement to make for the creative force behind a game. However its significance speaks to the rarity of original games software creation in the region. Conversely in Western mainstream gaming industries, there is an inherent expectation of original IP as much as there is demand for the recodification of culturally enduring franchises. It seems Sri Lanka could be soon undergoing a radical creative change. Games developers like Dawn Patrol Games can hope to make or break an emerging gaming industry in the region, depending on how it defines itself against a tidal force of competitors who simply 'make to measure'.

It's difficult not to believe in the innovation of an incredibly bright team of gaming enthusiasts who raised their own capital, left their jobs and relocated back to the sun and surf of Sri Lanka’s capital. From the safety of a creative base of operations in Colombo, the team plumbed the depths of war-driven, tower defence, level design to create a new game for tablets. It is called Nitropia: War Commanders. The real time strategy (RTS) element of Nitropia pits players against waves of marauding enemies, allowing them to control offensive and defensive towers, hero mechs and land/air based tactical units.

I spoke with Dawn Patrol Games’ Studio Head Prithvi Virasinghe. I wanted to talk to him about Sri Lanka as a potential developers’ nirvana, the purgatory of Free-to-Play games development and how Nitropia has become Dawn Patrol Games’ own particular salvation.

Dawn Patrol Games's founders

Digitally Downloaded (DD): Sri Lanka as a country is seen as a low priority for major gaming manufacturers. You used to live in New York City. Why did you decide to localise development of the game in Sri Lanka?
Prithvi Virasinghe (PV): Enterprise software development is established here but the game development scene is limited to hobbyists or media companies adding 'game design' as a line item on their website. I don't think there are any studios doing full time game IP development other than us. There was another studio at one point, but it closed. Living in NYC is amazing in two ways; when you're young and when you're incredibly wealthy and I was the former. I love that it's a constant hustle and you need to be on top of your game (figuratively) all the time but I felt I reached a point of stasis in my career, where I could almost predict its trajectory. I had a great job as creative director of a gaming division at MTV Networks but I wanted more control of my own destiny. I came home with the hope of sparking the industry here. So far there have been no massive breakthroughs, but I think our story is getting out and I hope it makes more people ask themselves, 'well why not Sri Lanka?'

DD: I mentioned earlier that India and Sri Lanka have sometimes been criticised as providing much less creativity in the way of original Intellectual Property. Why do you think this is?
PV: It’s funny you mention that - we (Sri Lankans) have an internal bias against India, arguing that we are scrappier and more creative than India's ability to throw 20 hammers at one nail. India has over a billion people, and can churn out a doctor, professor and computer scientists faster than it takes me to complete this sentence. Sri Lanka's 20 million in comparison means we don't have the benefit of scale, so we have to be more creative. At least that's how we see it. For example, part of the technology that powers the London Stock Exchange was developed by a Sri Lankan software company. I'd argue it's not merely due to lower development cost, but that the team was the best for that solution.

It's different with games where you want to make things that surprise and delight the user. In software development you want to eliminate those very things. You don't want your trading platform to give you a 'surprise'. You want it to do exactly what you think it’s going to do. So while there is probably a lot of innovation happening, enterprise development is not a good showcase for 'creative' IP development. But I think that will change as creative industries like gaming and app development start to take root here.

DD: Nitropia is not a free game, yet has elements of the free to play model. Why have you decided to mix Free-to-Play (F2P) and pay to play?
PV: It's more necessity than intent. Premium games are just very hard to sell on mobile. Most players expect things to be free and will cry bloody murder for having to spend $1. We see Nitropia as a $4.99 premium game, but it would be very hard to rise up the charts on that model. So we introduced F2P mechanics so it can get into more peoples’ hands but not compromise on things like narrative, character development and the sense of accomplishment you get from finishing a game.

DD: Why are richly developed narratives a challenge in the FTP model?
PV: They [F2P games] bleed players for anything [that is] worth owning in a game. F2P games are built to monetise over time. The key to success here are two metrics; retention (how many players you can keep coming back to the game) and conversion (how many of those users you can get to buy items). Given that you are only monetising about 5 per cent of your users in most cases, you need to design games with lots and lots of things to grind/earn/level up/build/purchase. That results in progression being drawn out really slowly e.g. don't give them [the player] that super power up too early, let them grind for a month to earn it; or give it to them for a day and then take it away to make them crave it; or... make... them.... pay with this ONE time limited time offer!!!

In that vein, having no story or no character arcs make sense because no one wants to be invested in a story without an ending or characters that go nowhere. Never mind the development resources required to keep churning out these narrative elements. In a TV show you get a season finale and break before the next season - good luck doing that in games! There is a line somewhere here where you cross over into MMO [Massive Multiplayer Online] territory and that is probably the scale at which you can start to layer in narrative and characters. But MMO games are at an entirely different scale in terms of development resources and player commitment. When your business model is to keep players forever, so you can slowly sell them stuff, making an ending to the game is defeatist. Things like narrative and character development are non-starters. If you look at any F2P game, ask yourself some basic questions:

1) Who is the main character? Do I even know the characters’ name?
2) Why am I fighting/playing other than to win resources?
3) What happens in the end?

Chances are there are no substantive answers to any of these questions.

It's sad that we see less of the traditional types of games and more Clash of Clans clones dominating the charts. As an indie it's very tough to swim against this tide. So we have to think about ways we can utilise popular pricing methods and still make something original. Being free, drives installs. There is a pay gate at Level 4 [in the game] but hopefully by then you've played enough of the game to think it's worth the $1.99 price point. It's perfectly possible to play the entire game at that level and we give you a ton of currency (called Nitrus) for playing the game well, which you can then use to upgrade.

DD: That brings me onto microtransactions in the game (in app purchases). This model of design could be criticised as polluting games with code that maximises profit margins at the expense of a more creative and absorbing gaming experience. How would you respond to criticisms of microtransactions as being harmful to the integrity of game design in this way?
PV: I do think the model is flawed and we see a lot of games run by metrics rather than design. Critics argue that there is no soul in this type of gaming, and by and large they have a point. As mentioned earlier, you don't need story, characters or completion in free to play games. But I think players share part of the blame too. Ultimately it is they that vote with their choice to buy or not to buy. I think a game like Monument Valley deserves to be in the top 50 grossing games, but it will never make it there because it cannot produce content fast enough to maintain retention. Premium games peak quickly and when promotion stops they fall into a really long tail. It's worse when the game can be completed quickly, because you lose a majority of your players for ever very fast. Normally this is how games work, but when promotion on the store is such a premium it gets very difficult to sustain this model at an indie level.

In this way, games without endings [with retention and conversion metrics], are a better model for survival. If you are business savvy (and indies are usually not) then you make what sells best. This is why publishers rarely want to look at your game concept unless it's F2P.

DD: If the F2P market can enable small developers to produce games not bound by the creative restrictions of larger publishing companies, why do you believe there has not been more original breakthrough successes?
PV: I will argue that small developers are constricted by prevailing market conditions and that originality exists but it's incredibly difficult to break through with that approach. First off it is not easy to make a successful F2P game. While the features can be pulled off a wiki page, the economic and analytic aspect is quite complex and it takes a lot of time to tune. Publishers may push a developer to get an F2P game done in six months, but if you are small team it will take as long just to balance all the game loops you need. If you have a background in social games, like [developers] Supercell or King did then you've already spent quite a bit of time developing these models and re-skinning it can be easier.

King first launched Candy Crush Saga (CCS) on its web portal in March 2011, then a year later on Facebook and six months later on mobile where it eventually went gangbusters. But CCS went through constant evolution (and still does) before it hit its zenith. King started making games in 2003 - and essentially it had been evolving the same game system for years before hitting the right variation. Before we signed with our publisher Bulkypix, I took Nitropia to many other publishers and was rejected at every turn. Not many publishers are interested in premium games because they say the cost of acquiring users is too high for it to be worth their trouble. The argument being that they know how to find and convert users in F2P games so they'd rather spin that wheel. The irony is that in a majority of free to play games, you only monetise about 5 per cent of your user base - meaning 95 per cent of your users would rather spend their money somewhere else. So when publishers are hesitant to back premium titles, promotion is extremely hard to come by and revenue is dominated by one form of game style - what are your options? You either make the games pubs are willing to pay for, or you struggle against an overwhelming tide (and potentially die trying). So I don't think there is a lack of great titles, I think a lot of them get swallowed up in the F2P avalanche and can't surface.

I love games like Banner Saga, Sword & Sworcery, Silent Age, Badlands, Threes!, Monument Valley, Osmos, the original Plants vs. Zombies, and I can go on, but unfortunately only a handful of these titles have reached critical recognition because there is a lack of coverage of these in the mainstream press, and no way for them to compete against games algorithmically engineered to take advantage of rankings. Look at the top grossing games on iOS and the only premium title on the top 50 is Minecraft. If that is what it takes for a premium title to breakthrough, you have to seriously wonder if it's even worth competing against.

For Dawn Patrol, we're going to die trying, but we're attempting to evolve the premium experience by utilising success metrics from F2P. That said, we are working on a F2P game design that is not a Clash of Clans clone but let’s see how far we can take it before getting shot down.

DD: Thank you very much Prithvi. It’s disheartening sometimes to consider the barriers around creativity in this way; barriers that are directly caused by the international success of the market. Perhaps this is why emerging regional game development in areas like Sri Lanka needs to be economically supported as well as artistically championed.

In the second part of the interview, coming tomorrow, we will talk more about the mechanics of Nitropia, its place in the mid-core gaming market, and the challenges involved in developing for touch screen tablets.

- David W. 
Interview: Dawn Patrol Games: Making games in Sri Lanka (Part 1)
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