When a developer leaves a big studio to go independent, no one even bats an eyelid anymore. But when a marketing director of two of Australia’s biggest game development studios goes indie... well, no one’s really done it before. At least, not the way that Chris Wright is doing it.
Until a few months ago Chris Wright was the marketing director at THQ’s Australian studios. He looked after the marketing campaigns for two of the largest studios in the country, Blue Tongue and Studio Oz, had years of experience marketing some of THQ’s biggest titles, and worked on more than 100 campaigns that led to some huge successes for the publisher. But when the axe fell on THQ’s Australian studios back in August, game designers, programmers, producers, and artists weren’t the only ones who found themselves out of a job. Wright, who had spent seven years at THQ, was also affected by the closures.
Sometimes A Jolt Is What You Need... “You kind of get pushed out the door and it feels really shocking at first,” says Wright, who still speaks of the company with great affection.
“It’s a bit like a divorce — I’d been with the company for seven years and it was quite emotional as well. But then you look at it and it’s like, wow, now I’ve got freedom and you get out of the status quo that you’ve gotten used to. Sometimes getting jolted out of that makes you really think about what you want to do and gives you the motivation to do it. So in a way it was kind of a good thing to have that shock to force me to go and do this.”
The thing that Wright decided he wanted to do is not so different to what many developers decide to do when they leave large publishers. While he was working for Blue Tongue and Studio Oz, Wright also served on Film Victoria’s funding board where he was privy to many of the exciting indie projects that were applying for funding. When the two studios finally closed, he could have easily found a job at another publisher, but he didn’t. Inspired by the work of emerging Australian developers, Wright also decided to take a leaf out of their book. He went indie.
“I guess when anyone leaves a big studio like that a lot of teams are going off and forming their own thing, doing what they used to do but doing it for themselves. I don’t develop games, I market games, so I thought ‘Well, can I do this? Can I do what I’m passionate about on a small indie scale?”
The Road To Indie... The short answer is: we’ll soon find out. The longer, more interesting answer is that Wright decided it was worth a shot and recently launched Surprise Attack, an independent (and, for the moment, one-man) marketing company that does the marketing for independent game developers. But it doesn’t end there. To truly understand the kind of marketing that works best for indie developers, Surprise Attack is in beta from now until December. During this period, Wright is helping launch marketing campaigns for indie devs like The Voxel Agents, Bane Games, and Pixel Elephants – free of charge – so that he can better understand the needs of indies and formulate the best strategies for a market that works so differently to what he’s used to.
“One of the reasons I’m running a beta trial at the moment is to test some of my assumptions and see what works best so that when I do start charging money I have three months of experience and I’ll have run at least ten campaigns,” he says.
“The way I’m looking at structuring fees is to make it as flexible as possible, so if you’ve got some cash-flow you can pay me whatever the rate is but if you don’t we can agree on a revenue share model, which means I’m taking the risk and maybe I won’t get paid at all, but I will share in the reward if we exceed the forecast of money earned by the game.”
“That gives the guys who are maybe doing it on their own, who are developing games in their own time while doing another job access to my services without having to put money down in advance, so it becomes a low-risk way for them to access this and hopefully for me that balances out, so the projects that don’t quite succeed are balanced out by the ones that do and I am able to pay my bills at the end of the day.”
Rethinking Marketing: From AAA To Independence One of the assumptions that Wright is testing during the beta phase is relating to timing and distribution channels. In his experience working with AAA console titles, a lot of the marketing has already kicked into full-swing 12-18 months before a game is released; momentum needs to be built, fan groups need to be formed, and enough people need to be made aware of the game so that when it hits retail that are people who ready to buy the game on release. Wright believes that this may work very differently for indies.
“In the independent scene, the access to the product is so much quicker you really want to start making your buys right on your launch,” he says.
“So the moment you read about a game you can say ‘Oh that sounds interesting’, click through the to app store and purchase all in one go. I think that’s the primary difference.” Wright also believes that the consumer purchase process is completely different, and this will also require a different marketing strategy.
“If I’m going to spend $100 on a game, I need to have spoken to some friends about it, I need to have watched some trailers, read some preview articles, and feel really confident that my $100 is going to be worthwhile. If I’m spending $1 on a downloadable game, I don’t have those same hurdles to jump over; it’s more about that instant ‘Oh that looks interesting, I’ll buy that and play it right then and there’.”
It Won't Be Easy, But It'll Be Worth It But while independent development can remove a lot of hurdles for devs, Wright’s approach to indie marketing faces its own hurdles. The sustainability of the company is still to be tested, and as few precedents have been set before, Wright is venturing into little-known territory. We asked if he would be tempted to move back into a big publishing company if the opportunity were to arise, but Wright is determined to grow Surprise Attack and make something that he can call his own.
“When you work for a big publisher you’re working on a lot of projects and there’s a lot of people involved, so you play a small part of that process. It’s a really exciting place to be and I loved all my time at THQ in the console space, but I played a small part in a lot of people who are required to bring that product to market,” he says.
“I think the exciting thing working with marketing with small teams is that you have to take the responsibility and you also have a really big impact on what happens to the product rather than just being a part of a really big machine.”
“So essentially I think it’s the same thing: the developers who used to be one of several environment artists now become the artist for the game, I think part of the appeal is that they can really put their stamp on it rather than being one person who is working on one part of the game. “