When Blue Tongue closed its doors last year, Marketing Director Chris Wright lost the job he loved. But now, one year later, he's on a new mission to help rebuild what was lost. He has a plan, and that plan is Surprise Attack: the company bringing Australia's games to the world. Now Chris Wright provides guidance and marketing to countless indie developers — but if his plans come to full fruition, he'll be publishing them within a year.
You can imagine the chaos. A still, benign chaos.
A studio in Melbourne; overflowing with talent. The kind of studio that felt safe. A studio you might take for granted, working on important projects. Projects senior people cared about; projects senior people were passionate about. Projects with serious money behind them. Money already spent.
Blue Tongue was not the kind of studio you expected THQ to close.
At his desk by the window, Chris Wright sits in his chair, surrounded by concept art for a game that will never get made, by people who — a month from now — will be scrambling for jobs, scrambling for direction. By all rights he should be terrified: worried about his future, about his family. Worried about the difficult decisions he'll have to make. But he's not.
Chris Wright already has a plan.
The phone rings, he picks it up.
“What the hell are you going to do now?” asks the voice on the other end.
Chris is planning a Surprise Attack.
It was hardly the final nail in the coffin for the Australian industry, but it was more than a glancing blow. When THQ announced the closure of its two Australian studios the local landscape shifted tremendously. THQ Studio Australia – they had been working on a license THQ paid $16 million to acquire, but Blue Tongue? Blue Tongue was a studio with clout. A successful studio.
Recognisable. A source of national pride even. Before its closure, few would have predicted Blue Tongue’s demise.
But for Chris Wright, there had been warning signs. An early wave of redundancies came first, but Chris and others assumed that was the worst of it – a decision made to put Blue TOngue in the best position to finish current projects. Not long after, one of those projects was cancelled.
Then, it was all over. Finito.
“We knew something was up not long after E3,” says Chris.
“Danny Bilson offered me a job in LA, back in late 2010, so I was given the warning signs. But at the same time our projects had a lot of importance placed on them by the company. One was a transmedia push based on an existing license – the games were flagship products in a lot of ways.
“My feeling was they couldn't possibly be cut, because they were really important to some very senior people.”
Perhaps not important enough. In a statement dotted with double speak, THQ announced a new direction, “right-sizing” their “internal development capacities... making shifts to reduce movie-based and licensed kids’ video games.”
Just words. Words that perfectly described the projects THQ had assigned to its Australian studios. Words that sang a death knell for two of Australia’s biggest studios.
Before the closure, a small group of Blue Tongue's staff made moves in an attempt to save Blue Tongue or, at the very least, salvage something from the inevitable wreck.
“We started asking questions about what we could do — what does a new studio look like, what are the options?” Says Chris. “We spent a lot of time after the studio was closed still trying to find a way to get a 30, 40 or 50 person studio back up and running. That was our initial focus.”
“There was this terrible process of deciding who was going to get sacked if we kept one project,” remembers Chris. “We went through that process of choosing who got a job and who didn't.”
But the financial burden of keeping Blue Tongue open as a working studio was too great. Finding support, and that kind of cash, proved almost impossible.
“It costs roughly $10,000 per person at a AAA dev studio in Australia” explains Chris. “At minimum a 30 person dev studio in Australia is burning $300,000 a month.
“That is not easy money to come across.”
But Chris Wright had a plan. He needed one. Even if Blue Tongue was reformed as a small 40 person studio, He wasn’t 100% sure his own role would still exist. As a select group of ex-Blue Tongue staff debated which jobs would remain and which would be made redundant, it occurred to Chris that his spot at Blue Tongue was far from secure.
The solution was obvious, to Chris at least. He had to do follow the developers – go Indie. But unlike the artists, programmers, and developers that populated the halls of Blue Tongue, there wasn’t exactly a template for what Chris wanted to do. There was barely a case study. Chris wanted to become an independent marketer for independent Australian games. He saw the direction the Australian games industry was headed towards, and he believed he could help build that new future.
And, to begin with, he planned to do it for free.
It was an idea that sprang from Chris’ work at Film Victoria. While he was working at Blue Tongue, Chris helped assess video game applications for loans. It was his job to decide which proposals were up to scratch, and many of them – bluntly speaking – weren’t.
“My job at Film Vic was to assess the marketing essentially,” says Chris. “So many developers just didn't have a marketing plan. They had no idea why they were making their games, who it was for, how they were going to market it, or how many units they would have to sell to break even.
“That was staggering to me, and that was 95% of the applications.
“There was nothing as simple as 'we need to sell 100,000 units to break even' in most of these proposals, which is kind of important when you’re asking for a loan. So I knew there was a niche there. I also knew there wasn't a lot of marketing expertise in the market. So there had to be an opportunity there. How exactly was kind of unclear at that point.”
It was September. Chris Wright had an idea –- independent marketing for independent games — but really he had no idea, or at least no idea how to put his thinking into process. He printed out some roughshod business cards, headed to various events in Melbourne and babbled endlessly to anyone who would listen. Chris was running before he walked, but somehow stumbling in the correct direction. Within weeks, he had his first client.
“Our first was Bane Games. They had this great little game called Battle Group,” says Chris. “It was sort of like Missile Command meets 1942. It was just awesome, working on a good product with good people.
“It just rolled from there. We had six clients and launched a number of games before Christmas.”
The Battle Group launch was successful, and the game broke even. But as someone used to launching AAA titles with all the financial might of a major publisher behind him, Chris is happy admit he was, essentially, making shit up as he went.
“I had no clue how to do it, really,” he laughs.
“I had no idea if Indie developers would really want this kind of marketing — if they would value it. So the easiest thing to do was say, well I'll work for free for a few months, worst case at the end of it you tell me it isn't working. How we've worked, how we do our work, has essentially formed from just doing things."
And the process has evolved dramatically.
“What we do now is very different from what we did 9 months ago. But the only way to figure it out was to work things out as we went.”
Before the closures, Chris was the Director of Marketing for both Blue Tongue and THQ Studios Australia, but he began his career in Public Relations. With Surprise Attack, in the beginning, he stuck with what he knew. Chris felt that selling press on a game was critical, and one of the most effective things he could do for fledgling indies.
Now, he admits, he was completely wrong.
“Quite soon I realised that PR was going to help, but it wasn't going to be the main driver,” says Chris. “These guys needed more help working out how to go to market, and who their game was for.”
Nowadays, Chris wants in at the ground level. In the ultra competitive world of mobile and free-to-play, PR is the end point, a mere facet. Chris’ expertise has moved beyond towards something far more cohesive and structured. From day one he provides workshops to help local developers shape their game concept into something worth selling, worth buying. His motto? If a game isn’t well positioned, if it doesn’t have the right messaging attached to the right price point, or the correct market, it will quickly disappear into the abyss.
“Our work has evolved into that,” says Chris.
And Chris plans to evolve his operations further; into uncharted territory. If he has his way, Surprise Attack will eventually grow itself into publishing. A new kind of publisher; tailored specifically to Australia, to help rebuild what was lost, to support the talent that resides here. That’s the dream at least.
“The long term plan has always been publishing,” says Chris.
“For me I always thought there has to be a better way of being a publisher than the way we do it now. There has to be a new type of publisher.”
———— The scale of talent in this country is almost unmanageable, terrifying – because a vast majority of it is directionless and there are only so many hours in the day. On a week-by-week basis Chris turns away countless potential clients — because Chris believes it's important to focus on the select few Surprise Attack can help in a meaningful way.
“It's been awesome discovering just how much talent we have here,” says Chris. “Unfortunately a lot of them come to us when they're four weeks away from launch, and there's not much we can do.
"Developers will come to us and they've been working on a game for a year. You work out how much it would have cost to make the game in dev time and it's tens of thousands of dollars. Then you ask, how much have you put aside for promotion? They say, 'nothing'. How much have you thought about it? 'Not at all'.
"And that's heartbreaking; when someone's put a year of effort into making the game, and they've cut off any possibility of success.
"I think the industry has to get over the idea of winning the Apple lottery. That mentality is dangerous, because there is an extremely small chance of that happening. We have to start approaching things more realistically. The industry needs investment, it needs business structures."
And this is why, for Surprise Attack, the ultimate goal is publishing.
An Australian publisher — a small scale Chillingo helping Australia take its talent to the world in a pragmatic, profitable fashion. That's the dream. But for Chris Wright it's more than a dream: it's a goal he believes is fully achievable.
"Australia needs an Australian publisher," he says. "We have all this amazing content, but we're miles away from anywhere.
"We've helped games get in touch with the bigger publishers when we think it's in their best interests, but it's not the same as having a local publisher that exists to drive the Australian industry. That is one of our end goals. We want to be doing this a year from now, and have it be our primary business in two or three years."
Is it achievable? Maybe.
Just over a year ago Chris sat at his desk, in the corner of a studio in a state of collapse. In the midst of chaos and uncertainty he had a plan. Now Surprise Attack is a nine man operation on a one way mission.
On that day, as he watched Blue Tongue crumble, Chris took a phone call.
“What the hell are you going to do now?” asked the voice.
A voice that belonged to Travis Plane, then Vice President of Global Brand Management at THQ. And that was the start of another story.
Nowadays Travis is Chris' business partner, heading up a Sydney AAA division, building the base clientele that will eventually help fund Chris' publishing dreams. It's Travis Plane's job to help accumulate the necessary dollars to help Surprise attack to achieve it's ultimate goal of helping rebuild the Australian games industry into something lean and profitable. Something worth investing in; believing in.
It's Travis' job to bring the world's games to Australia. It's Chris' job to bring Australia's games to the world.
But the end game has not changed. The plan is still in action.
"I think Australian gamers want to see a publisher in this country," says Chris. "And I think the devs need it. It's our goal to be in this position.
"We want to leave the Australian independent scene better off than it was when we found it."