Case Study: Startup Lessons from Nnooo
Start small, make something well polished and fun and then think bigger. Build a foundation. Find a niche. Do you really want to be the Nth million developer on a particular platform or would you rather do something exciting and unique on a platform starved of great content?
[In this case study Nic Watt, Creative Director at Nnooo, shares lessons learned on the road from zero to indie. Case Studies at Indie Bits are looking for bright spots, patterns of success, developers who are building sustainable businesses and creating great content.]
Why did you decide to go indie?
I started working in games in 1998 and had worked for a number of developers in the UK, most recently as a lead designer at EA in London. For a long time I had been frustrated with some of the ways games are treated by publishers.
In 2006 my partner Bruce and I moved to Australia, I had the opportunity to put my money where my mouth was and start a company. I had recently sold a property in the UK and had enough savings to bank roll development of a small indie game.
The objective with Nnooo was, and still is, to develop games that are doing something new, exciting or different (not just a clone of a popular genre). To do so in a way where we have creative and financial control of the project. My previous experiences was that working for a publisher you are at the decision making whim of external forces which don’t always lead to a good end result.
In essence I wanted to create a company where I could make games how I wanted to make them, for the platforms I wanted to make them, and sink or swim based on my decisions.
What do you dream of being able to do?
My dream was and still is to build a really successful franchise and maintain creative control of it across a number of media including games, TV, film and toys. Too often I look at amazing brands which break out of their core market and are not treated with enough respect when moving to other markets. This leads quickly to over-saturation and a cheapening of the brand.
Tell us about your first projects, what did you learn?
Our first project Blast was never released. It was an XNA project we were hoping to ship on Xbox Live Arcade. When we got approval for WiiWare we decided to move onto something simpler as there were a lot of hard lessons we’d learnt trying to make Blast. My observations at the time were:
- Our programmer was a recent University graduate with little games experience
- He was finding it difficult to put a front end into the XNA project and had started to code himself into corners
- Things like collisions and rendering were not well optimised and making the project slow
I decided that we needed to get something to market quickly and needed to ensure the project was something our programmer could achieve. When we got the Wii development kits and I started playing about with the hardware, as well as thinking what we could make, I started to focus on games like Lumines, Tetris and Electroplankton. These types of games seemed achievable and I thought if we could find an interesting way to tie in the Wii Remote we may be onto something enjoyable. It was from these roots that Pop sprung to mind.
Despite Pop being a simpler idea, we encountered a number of issues which taught us some valuable lessons as we developed the game:
We wanted to support the main European (English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Dutch) languages in the game. Supporting multiple languages was a lot more work than we anticipated
- Our translators were not familiar with the Wii’s standard terms which meant Nintendo’s certification process failed us a few times
We wanted to add Connect 24 support (an email type of messaging system built into the Wii)
- This was not a trivial addition and added significant extra testing time
We wanted to include online leaderboards
- This was even bigger than the Connect 24 addition
- There are a series of error checks, connection tests and notifications we needed to display
- This lead to a lot more testing and issues due to not understanding the complexity or the scale of the task and not accommodating this initially into the plan
- We also had issues where our programmer assumed that no one would hit the U32 limit (over 2 billion) for a high score and so didn’t put in a fail safe. This lead to high-scores wrapping around from a positive number to a negative one…
We wanted the game to support drop in/out multiplayer
- This was not an easy task as we had to support 4 players where any combination of controllers could be connected and disconnected during gameplay
We wanted to release the game in Japan (in Japanese)
- None of us spoke Japanese so we had to rely on EA (who were publishing it in Japan) to test and check the translation
- We had to work with an external publisher to release in Japan as Nintendo Japan require you to have an office and be able to communicate in Japanese to release products there
Tell us about the “turning point” project, why do you feel it contributed to your success?
We were really lucky that Pop was chosen as a launch title for WiiWare in the US and was a pretty good success for us. It has more than doubled our investment and covered production costs from Blast. Pop is ultimately what allowed us to go on to develop Pop+ Solo and the myLifeCollected franchise.
However our biggest success to date and the project which has been bank rolling the company since release has been our myNotebook range of virtual notebooks for Nintendo DSiWare. These super simple notebooks sell in three colours for US$2 and an another three colours (with extra features) for US$5. They have vastly out performed our expectations and have returned well over 20 times our investment! In this way myNotebook was the real turning point and has been what allowed us to develop: myPostcards, myDiary, Spirit Hunters Inc and escapeVektor!
I think a large part of our success is that we identified a niche in the market with Nintendo DSi users. I had decided that a large majority of these users would not only not have a PDA or smartphone but also find it desirable to be able to jot down their thoughts, notes or doodles on the move. We also entered the application side of Nintendo DSiWare as an experiment to see if users were interested in these kinds of experiences. Fortunately it was an experiment that paid off!
How did you fund development prior to cash-flow?
I used all of my savings.
How did you get your 1st customer? Your 10th? Your 100th?
We were really lucky in that all three of those happened on day one when we launched on WiiWare! Nintendo America invited us to a press event in San Francisco where we, and several other WiiWare developers, demoed our game to a large number of journalists. This really helped us get our first marketing list and things just grew from there.
What is your next step?
We want to keep making exciting new games which find interesting uses for the host platforms’ features and would really like to build solid franchises around Vektor (from escapeVektor) and Spirit Hunters Inc.
What advice do you have for indies just starting out?
Start small, make something well polished and fun and then think bigger. The simplest project will have more than enough challenges for you to overcome and will help you build a foundation. Each project after that one can be a little bigger or do something slightly different and from that your foundation and technology grows.
Also try to find a niche. Do you really want to be the Nth million developer on a particular platform or would you rather do something exciting and unique on a platform starved of great content?
Nnooo is an independent game developer based in Sydney specialising in making games and apps for the console and handheld market. After focusing predominantly on Nintendo platforms, they recently became one of only four Australian developers to be approved to develop for the new PlayStation Vita. They are best known for their WiiWare games Pop and escapeVektor: Chapter 1, and Pop+ Solo and the myLifeCollected series of apps for Nintendo DSiWare. They are currently working on escapeVektor for the Nintendo 3DS/PlayStation Vita and Spirit Hunters Inc, an augmented reality spirit hunting RPG, for Nintendo DSiWare. Follow them on Twitter, like them on Facebook and support their games!
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