Business

Treasure Valley game developers have modest success but seek a hit

There’s going to be blood when you shoot a zombie in the head. That’s a given.

But what level of splatter will trigger smiles on gamers’ faces? How much is too much? How much is too realistic?

These are the questions Markus Nigrin contemplates as he tinkers with settings for “Dead TrailZ,” a computer game he hopes to complete and release for sale this fall. He is altering the game from a realistic look to a more cartoonish feel, with brighter blood to match. And more blood.

“Over-the-top, bright blood splats are great cues for players,” Nigrin says. “In a fast-paced game, they provide instant feedback and gratification.”

The game combines first-person shooter visuals and the game-play style of many modern bestsellers, including the “Call of Duty” franchise, which cost game publishers tens of millions of dollars and are built by hundreds of employees and contractors.

DEVS, RISE

Blockbuster games drive sales for a video and computer game industry that raked in $15.4 billion in 2013 and again in 2014. But new game-building tools have opened doors for smaller-scale game developers like Nigrin’s two-man business, Galactic Bits, one of a growing number of small companies and individual developers in the Treasure Valley.

The 2012 release of the game-building software he’s using, Unity3D, was a game-changer, Nigrin says. A decade ago, software developers would have to pay thousands in royalties — and sometimes hundreds of thousands — to use game engines built by the big game publishers. Unity3D has a free version and a pro version costing just $75 per month.

“(Unity3D) creates unprecedented access to making games and quickly raised the bar for how games need to look like and what they need to offer to have any chance to find an audience,” Nigrin says.

Nigrin is a member of a meetup.com group, Idaho Game Developers, whose 108 members organize events and give updates on games in development.

Another member, known as “Choo” to many in the game world, is Matthew Burns, owner of Kuna-based Choo Parr Productions. Choo Parr has released its third mobile app game, “Choo Parr,” a simple, two-dimensional game selling for 99 cents in the Apple and Android app stores. Players tap their devices to guide a flying green monster as he collects power-ups for points and avoids falling threats.

CROWDED FIELD

Burns built the Choo Parr game with a team of five contractors.

The game development “democratization” made possible by affordable game-building tools still comes at a cost, Burns says. Independent developers flooded the market with games, making it harder for any to stand out. In most months of 2014, developers submitted more than 30,000 apps to theiTunes App Store, including more than 12,000 games, according to statistics website statistica.com. The iTunes app store now has more than 1.6 million apps, while the Android app store has 1.5 million.

Consumers have become picky gamers, often playing a mobile game for mere seconds before losing patience and deleting the app, Burns says.

He has yet to turn a profit on any of his three games.

“How do you make money in this market when you have thousands upon thousands of apps?” he says. “If you go to the app store, it’s amazing what’s put out every day.”

Nigrin took a different path with “Dead TrailZ.” The game will be released on Steam, an online game-distribution platform, where gamers can download it for $9.99. Nigrin’s company has released 15 games since 2009 that have a combined 2.2 million downloads.

Nigrin says his development career was funded when he sold his photo kiosk startup, Silverwire, to Hewlett-Packard in 2006. Nigrin also worked as a director of customer application engineering in the HP inkjet division before turning to game development full-time.

Game development has been profitable but hit-or-miss, he says. His worst-performing game, which took two years to make, made a return of about 3 cents per hour of development. His best game made $80 an hour. He hopes Dead Trailz returns $20,000 in sales, though he thinks $70,000 is plausible.

Nigrin says development pays about a quarter of the annual HP salary he left behind.

“I couldn’t have taken the risk of developing full-time without my first startup exiting successfully,” he says.

Previous Galactic Bits releases were mobile games, which were usually boom or bust in terms of downloads and sales, Nigrin says. Everybody’s shooting for the next “Angry Birds,” which was downloaded more than 2.5 billion times, spawning a sequel and “Angry Birds the Movie,” slated for 2016 release and starring Bill Hader, Peter Dinklage and Jason Sudeikis.

Large game studios throw money into advertising that Choo Parr and Galactic Bits don’t have. For example, the owners of the medieval strategy game “Game of War” spent $40 million on marketing, including a TV ad campaign featuring more of supermodel Kate Upton than in-game footage.

“(Game development) is one of the riskiest startups or ventures one can embark on now,” Nigrin says.

A STABLER GIG

Michael Wilson, CEO of Ponywolf, has built a business with a full-time flow of paid work.

Wilson has more than a decade of game development under his belt. He previously co-founded No. 2 Games, the Cincinnati-based developer that released “Tilt-a-Bowl,” which was downloaded more than 1 million times, and “Miniverse Minigolf,” which sold a half-million copies. The company rebranded as NO2 Games in 2011.

Tilt-a-Bowl didn’t cover its development costs, Wilson says, but it led to more game contracts for the company. Miniverse Minigolf was profitable, he says.

Ponywolf’s website describes the company’s specialties as entertainment, storytelling and technology rather than pure game development. Wilson is partners in Ponywolf with Drake Cooper CEO Jamie Cooper, works out of Drake Cooper’s Downtown building and borrows Drake Cooper employees for projects. Ponywolf uses free and open-source tools, including Corona, a specialty tool for 2-D games that recently released a free version.

Wilson says Ponywolf’s current project is contract work on a casual strategy game for a national client in professional sports. The project is in line with others done for companies making games intended to connect companies to young audiences and burnish their brands, he says.

“We don’t have to make our own games to make money,” Wilson says. “We can help other people get their content out there. We can have more of an advertising agency setup.”

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