Firemint: The 20% Company

It's a narrative that sells itself -- smart person starts company, company becomes rapidly successful as a result of innovation and business smarts. Company develops strong brand identity.

Big corporation wants a piece of said brand identity, opens giant wallet in order to purchase successful small company. Company loses integrity, and its soul, in the process.

Sad story. Endlessly retold. Often completely false.

When EA wrote a cheque and brought Australian studio Firemint into the fold, the temptation to read the situation through this well worn narrative was overwhelming -- but according to Rob Murray, the Managing Director of Firemint, EA's acquisition of his company hardly fits the strict template of good company selling out.

"We're definitely part of a new breed of acquisitions that are about trying to get that magic and explore new digital platforms," he says. "We were bought for what we can do rather than what EA can do with us.

"There's a lot of internal changes of course, we have a different corporate structure, but EA is very careful not to touch anything that's part of the magic, so in terms of the product everything is along the same lines."

Rob Murray is soft spoken -- almost disarmingly so. You simply don't expect such a successful person to sound so... humble. Almost shy. After EA purchased Firemint earlier in the year Murray declined most interviews -- only now, as Firemint's latest project SPY Mouse has been released, is he opening up about the whole situation.

For Rob, and Firemint in general, the focus is the product -- all other business is extraneous.

"Well obviously I've been pretty busy preparing for SPY mouse launch," says Rob. "That's most of what's been happening. That's what's been keeping us most busy -- just getting the polish before putting it out there."

Firemint is committed to polishing their products. Playing SPY Mouse earlier this year in March, it felt like a finished game -- personally I was a little surprised it took so long for the game to finally be released.

"We've relied on the 'it's done when it's done' approach when it comes to SPY Mouse," claims Rob. "You would have seen when you saw the game earlier this year that it looked like a finished game -- but there was still a massive amount of effort from there to get it right. Firemint definitely sees itself as a 20 per cent company."

I have no idea what that means.

"Well, there's all sorts of 80/20 rules," he laughs, "but the idea is that the last 20 per cent of quality takes 80 per cent of the effort. You can get to 80 per cent really easily, but getting that last 20 per cent is excruciating, and that's where all the effort goes in terms of resources and creative input.

"It's useful little rule for us."

Polish is important, particularly for a company like Firemint, a company with high aspirations for itself. Firemint are already one of the biggest development studios in Australia, but Rob Murray has set his sights higher.

"We were definitely modelling ourselves to some degree on PopCap when we started, but we really want to be the Pixar of the game's industry," claims Rob. "And that means being as strong as companies like PopCap and Blizzard -- companies who can just keep on doing it.

"And we think we're about to prove that with SPY Mouse. We've tried to create something really engaging, really wonderful -- and just get it to that 95 per cent level, not just 80 per cent. We pumped so much into it and what we have is a simple looking accessible game that has incredible depth. That's where all the effort has gone."

Firemint, despite EA's acquisition, are still in possession of its own IPs, and that instils a real sense of pride in all products the company releases.

"We have our IPs, we've developed our own IPs and we're continuing to do so," begins Rob. "All of that is the same."

"The way we fit into EA is that we're bringing in this new IP -- from a business perspective that's good and from a creative perspective that's good as well. We'll continue to manage them and bring success through our own IPs. It's not that dissimilar to Iron Monkey when they were acquired -- they continued doing the same thing. And looking around at various other acquisitions, such as PopCap, that's the way it seems to be going at the moment."

According to Rob, it's business as usual.

"We're just continuing to work on SPY mouse and then more SPY mouse," begins Rob, "because it doesn't stop once the game is released -- it's about supporting that community. So that's our plan there.

"Then there is Real Racing 2, we announced we'd be supporting air play for the iPad when that comes out, so we're working hard on that. You can expect some exciting updates when the time comes."

"And, of course, we've always got new stuff in development."

At a time when it almost feels dangerous for an Australian game developer to be in the grips of a large overseas publisher, Firemint are in the unique position of feeling completely secure -- and that's positive.

It's a direct result of Firemint's ability to create engaging, accessible products. That's what EA want a part of, obviously, but their new situation hasn't changed Firemint's objectives as a developer.

"We were a very successful company before acquisition and we're a very successful company now," says Rob. "As I said, there would be more risk of me having wind the company down than EA doing it."

"We're a long way from any risk here."


Comments

    'almost disarming so' should be 'almost disarmingly so'?

    Yeah I'm sure Bullfrog, Origin, Westwood, etc. all felt safe and secure at the start too. The day will eventually come when EA discards their withered husk, just as it has done with every other acquisition it has made.

      Oh Westwood, how I weep for thee!

        This.

        C+C was what hooked me into gaming. And X-wing. And TIE Fighter. Any chance lucasarts will make another space sim since X-wing:Alliance?

    I like the sound of this - and certainly, their games are excellent with great polish. I love that quality to them. However, EA have shown countless times that they can take an excellent company and change them to become less than what they once were. Just look at Bullfrog, Origin, Westwood, Bioware and others for examples. Im not saying that this will happen with Firemint (by the way, why no lip service for Infinite Interactive?) but they should be cautious of "corporate restructuring".

    I do hope that this is a turnaround for EA - in the end successful businesses provide what people want and you don't get that unless you work to keep the idea or culture you bought alive.

    HA! "No change", then I read about "corporate restructuring"...your days are numbered Firemint. I hope the money was worth it!

    Poor Maxis

      Oh, maxis! How I weep for SimCity... :(

    Rainbow dash approves of this article's title.

    I suggest this rob fellow reads a book called the Black Swan. It has a lot to say in regards to os so called 80/20 rule, and even more to say on being 'a long way from risk'

    That is a laughable comment, especially in the Extrimastan business of game making.

    No company seems to satisfy EA's hunger, maybe if they tried buying Snickers?

      This. I lol'd

    How's Pandemic Brisbane doing these days?

    Sarcasm aside, I hope that EA truly do mean what they say and will leave them alone. Australia's games industry has taken a large battering over the past few years (I myself am ex-Auran) and although there are numerous indie developers out there, it still feels a bit like those little, vulnerable embers you hope will catch and bring the fire back to life.

    The legend will never die.

    Am I to believe that my comment was deleted?

    Ie my comment was:

    The 80/20 rule is bollocks for the most part

    Read a book called the Black Swan.

    And

    Saying you are free from risk is risky business.

    Check out all of these armchair expert commentators. What a joke, you guys have absolutely no idea.

    I'm an indie developer and have met Rob once, he seemed like an incredibly switched on bloke. Considering how crazily successful Firemint currently are they won't be going the way of Westwood/Maxis/Pandemic any time soon. Hell, with Spy Mouse they've knocked Angry Birds off the top of the charts. Angry.Fu*king.Birds.

    Studios are only shut down when they aren't profitable. Firemint will be around for a long time.

    I'm looking at the it as a skeptic. Let's be honest; the hardest fall Is when you least expect it.

    It's just ludicrous to say that you are risk free. Fact.

    Which is to say, I'm not doubting current success, and good on them for eir hard work.

    But the last sentence just sets off alarm bells.

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