Q: Can you give us a brief history of Outsmart?
Gustav Seymore: I joined a year and a half ago to work on Bloodgate – I was previously at Gameloft. I don’t know the details of the history before I joined, but they made Smallworlds, which was a big success with millions of players, and it’s still going strong. Then they started trying to develop new projects – a few mobile games which were cute and more experimental than anything. Then they hired me as head of design and production from Gameloft. The Bloodgate team was eight people for most of its production, and we spent a year making the game.
Q: Did Bloodgate begin life as a mobile or PC title?
Gustav Seymore: Just before I joined, the studio put together about 20 pitches. Everyone in the studio pitched ideas for a new project, and they were platform agnostic. The one they liked the most was this genre-bending matching fighting game. It sounded cool, it sounded a bit different, and the art style was gothic and kinds of Diablo-esque – everything about it was a little bit unique, so that’s the one the studio picked to make. Then they went around looking for publishers while they developed the prototype. The prototype was fun immediately, we immediately knew we were on to something. The matching felt really good, the feedback was really great, and we knew we could build a game around it. One of the publishers that was interested was DeNA, they felt it was a really good match for their portfolio. They do similar mid-core slightly hardcore edgy mobile games. Business decisions were made and contracts put together, and that’s around the time that I joined to develop the game further from the prototype.
Q: So you were brought on specifically for Bloodgate?
Gustav Seymore: Yes. I moved here from Pretoria, South Africa five years ago to work at Gameloft, where I was principal producer, I have a background in design, and I was a creative director before that. The team didn’t have a designer, and the studio didn’t have a dedicated producer, so I filled that gap for the studio as a whole.
Q: And eight of you were sectioned off from the rest of the studio immediately to work on Bloodgate?
Gustav Seymore: Yeah that was the head count we needed for the timeline we envisioned. There was a music guy that was outsourced, the writer of the game is Edwin MacRae, who is also the writer of Path of Exile. There were a few external people.
Q: You initially designed for mobile?
Gustav Seymore: Yeah. The studio has some hesitations about that – I think they wanted to make a PC game from the get-go. There was not a lot of freemium experience in-house, but they felt with DeNA’s background it could work, and that was certainly attempted.
Q: That’s interesting that there was resistance to going down the mobile freemium path – until recently, a lot of developers have been abandoning PC for mobile.
Gustav Seymore: Yeah, it’s currently going the other way again. The bubble kinda burst on mobile I think, and it took some people a little while to make the turnaround. So yeah, the prototype was ready, and it was built in Unity, so it was easy to have to running on PC and mobile and whatever. And like I said, it was fun from the outset. That’s one of the reasons I joined the team – I felt like there was something really good there, and something different. With DeNA’s help, we designed the meta-game and poured that on top. We did really well: a team of eight in about 10 months built a game.
Q: How was the reception?
Gustav Seymore: It was received really well. Apple and Google really loved it, and when it was presented to them they wanted to feature it. We got featured in 512 places – pretty much across the board everywhere – and we had 4.5 to five stars across both platforms. So, people really loved it. But the freemium component never really sat too well.
Q: Were you ever privy to a discussion about creating a mobile game that wasn’t freemium?
Gustav Seymore: Going the DeNA that wasn’t really an option, and nobody thought about doing premium mobile at the time – it was suicide, basically. You don’t discuss that sort of thing, that’s a very risky move. And it still is: even Apple and Google representatives would tell us that freemium was the way to go.
Q: So the game was well-received but didn’t bring in the revenues you were hoping for?
Gustav Seymore: Yeah, so that’s the tricky thing. The margins are so slim on freemium, and the cost of user acquisition skyrocketed during the time we developed the game. Before we started production, CPI (cost per install) was around three or four dollars. By the time we launched, it had gone up to six to eight dollars, something like that. It became really, really expensive. We weren’t exceptionally greedy in our monetisation model, it was pretty generous. Which, in hindsight… we’ve learned some things. So the margin didn’t really make sense. Being in a publishing deal with someone, you’re also splitting your revenue. So Google takes its cut, Apple takes its cut, then the publisher. And being in New Zealand, it’s obviously an expensive development environment – we’re not in a cheap third-world country where you could get away with less income. So after everything, we looked at the numbers and a decision was made to close the servers on it.
Q: So you decided to bring the game to PC.
Gustav Seymore: Yeah. DeNA… it didn’t make sense to them to continue supporting it either. We still had several thousand daily users, our leagues were running, and everyone that was playing was enjoying the game, but we just weren’t making enough money to make it sustainable for both companies. So we had a sit-down, and they decided they were going to give the game back to us so then we could do with it whatever we decided was best. We had long conversations about continuing to support it on mobile but owning it ourselves and doing more risky things that the publisher couldn’t do, or bringing it to PC as a freemium game, or scrapping the things we didn’t like – the freemium stuff the studio wasn’t always for – and doing a premium version for PC. And ultimately I think that’s the best decision we could make. It’s proving to be really fun. It’s nice to take out all those frustration mechanics and all those mechanics inherent to freemium used to… not trick, but to encourage payment inside the game. And being able to design just for the game to be as fun as possible.
Q: Let’s talk about the game itself!
Gustav Seymore: I think what’s really cool about it is it’s a genre-bender with really fast-paced matching mechanics, but at the same time it’s a dungeon fighter, an RPG dungeon crawler that’s more of a fighting game in that you just smash one opponent at a time. So it’s got a bunch of different genres, which I think makes it very interesting. It’s definitely hard – we don’t pull punches on it. It’s got a really interesting story of hardcore fantasy lineage, it’s a really interesting world, beset by a plague. Also the story is portrayed in a really cool graphic novel style. We’re launching with five chapters (five different regions in the world) which is over 100 dungeons, and we’re planning the Karachi content which is the additional campaign during Early Access. That will mean more items, more dungeons, more enemies to fight, lots of cool stuff. The campaign is over five hours long, and there’s a really robust PvP with arenas and leaderboards, and it’s highly skill-based. It’s an interesting combination between matching and fighting and choosing your skills at the right time and building up your spells and levelling up and all that jazz. It’s a bad-ass game.
Q: What was behind the decision to go Early Access?
Gustav Seymore: Obviously for the mobile version we have months of data and thousands of players of data, and we spent a lot of time tweaking and balancing and getting it feeling really good, but now that it’s a premium game, we have to rebalance a lot of stuff. With freemium games there’s a lot of frustration balancing put it in. So we’ve taken all that stuff out, but we wanna use Early Access to ensure the balancing is as fair and as good as possible. The game always had PvP, and PvP is a really big part of the PC game as well. So we wanna take the time to balance the PvP as well – balance the items, balance the spells, get that feeling really good before full release.
Q: For those who played the mobile version, what is different on PC?
Gustav Seymore: We’ve upgraded the lighting engine, we’ve gone to the new Unity, and we’ve up-rezzed all the textures, so it looks much better. Mechanically there’s also a right-click match component, there’s more tooltips – there’s lots of things you can’t do in mobile because you’ve only got button/finger. The user interface is a lot nicer. The whole things has been redesigned to fit different screen resolutions as well, so the whole thing looks a lot crisper. The screen flow is a lot nicer, more elegant.
Q: How long are you hoping it will be in Early Access before it sees a full release?
Gustav Seymore: We were thinking about two months – that’s more than enough to get the balancing right. It does depend a little bit on how involved the community is going to get with us. We would like to hear them out, and hear their ideas about different content they’d like to see. You never know how long that could end up taking, but we envision two months.
Q: Is there any particular advantage or disadvantage to developing a game here in New Zealand? You mentioned costs were higher.
Gustav Seymore: There’s not a lot of government funding here in New Zealand, but the biggest benefit is there’s a lot of talented people here, coming through the education system or from other studios, like artists coming from Weta, or students coming from Media Design School. The industry here is pretty healthy, and getting foreign talent in is relatively easy ‘cos it’s New Zealand – who doesn’t wanna come here? In my experience it’s relatively easy to hire people from overseas and find local talent. That’s why it’s pretty attractive to make games here.
Q: Do you know how people have generally fared after the Gameloft closure?
Gustav Seymore: Yeah, the people I have spoken to have found their feet again. Most have been placed in the industry – been picked up by other studios. A few have gone overseas to bigger better studios. Overall the industry here hasn’t been affected that much. One or two studios have actually emerged out of it – new ones, which is always nice – and they’re independent and building their own IPs, so that’s a lot healthier than a foreign studio with foreign IP. So in a way, Gameloft did a lot of good, training up a lot of people and bringing a lot of talent to the country. And a big portion of those people have stayed.
Q: Were you aware that when you Google Bloodgate you get the rugby union scandal?
Gustav Seymore: Haha yeah that’s a bit unfortunate really. But hey it’s also bloody and gory so…
◆ BloodGate is scheduled to launch on Steam Early Access on June 3.