It’s difficult to find success in game development, and once found, it’s rare for a team to sustain it for a decade. But that’s exactly the case for developer Hothead Games, which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2016.
Today, Hothead is best known as the developer responsible for the popular mobile sniper game Kill Shot Bravo, which the studio recently updated and released in China. It is in the top-100 highest-grossing app on iOS and Android in the United States, and the company used its success in the $36.9 billion mobile gaming industry to open new offices in Halifax in late 2015. But to get to this point, the company has had to stumble along the way before figuring out what the hell a “live ops” is and settling lawsuits with competitors.
Hothead started in 2006 with the goal of making smaller downloadable games for consoles. Director of development Vlad Ceraldi and director of technology Joel Deyoung founded the company in Vancouver after working at The Simpsons: Hit & Run studio Radical Entertainment together.
“We saw an opportunity in the market to become a new kind of publisher — direct to consumer, based on new IP,” Ceraldi told GamesBeat. “We thought that opportunity would exist in downloadable PC and console. Facebook wasn’t really a thing yet. There weren’t the social channels yet. That’s when we founded the company to be that publisher of independent original titles.”
The company worked on the Penny Arcade game On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One and Deathspank with beloved adventure game director Ron Gilbert. But working as an indie developer in the days of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 was a lot more challenging than it is today.
“It got harder and harder to deliver content to these channels because they were more closed than we anticipated,” said Ceraldi. “In some cases, we couldn’t even get a publisher license on a couple of platforms. They wouldn’t let us directly publish, only as a third party. The approval process for our original ideas wasn’t exactly what we had hoped for. And the market didn’t develop the way we expected. We knew that things would eventually go pure digital and downloadable, but it wasn’t happening fast enough.”
Then, in 2009, mobile gaming started taking off. Everyone at Hothead noticed it was happening, and they were keeping an eye on it while working on their digital console releases. In the following years, Hothead deliberately charged into this new space with the idea of applying its development know how in an all-digital ecosystem, and I caught up with the team to chat with them about that history and how it ended up where it is today.
Check out my interview with Hothead’s executives about their history right here:
GamesBeat: Tell me about the transition from console to mobile. What were you thinking at the time?
Vlad Ceraldi, Hothead director of development: It looked like a gold rush. We were neck-deep in our downloadable titles at the time, but we kept our eyes on it. And then we saw the opportunity to transition in late 2010. We made our plans to burn all our bridges and focus everything on mobile. We knew that was where we could be what we wanted to be — be that publisher and create the original IP we wanted. Be in charge of our own destiny with both business and creativity.
We transitioned fully during the 2011 year. We started with some inexpensive paid games to learn a bit. Ian set the strategy to fail quickly, and we certainly did. Failed a lot actually, and quickly. But we saw the emergence of free-to-play, and we were early movers with free-to-play in mobile. Our first hit series was the Big Win Sports franchise we created.
Arguably, we were a leader in sports on mobile for quite a while. We saw a similar trend in the shooter market, recognizing there was another opportunity there we could take advantage of. We focus all our energy now on that opportunity because we think it’s huge. That’s pretty much what we’ve been doing for the last while, and we’ll continue to do that going forward.
GamesBeat: What was it like to “burn all your bridges” and dive into this new thing? Did you have any moments of regret while doing that?
Ceraldi: It was just so clear to us that was where the market was going. Reaching a worldwide audience with platforms that were relatively open, that have decent revenue sharing, and the growth was astronomical. It felt like we could play in a console market that wasn’t predicted to grow that quickly, or we could reach a worldwide audience and hit gamers in a way we never had before with mobile all over the world. It was a huge growing opportunity. It just made so much sense.
Ian Wilkinson, Hothead CEO: We believe in focus. We don’t like to leave back doors. We wanted no retreat, no surrender, no opportunity to rethink our decision. That’s part of my philosophy, to force ourselves to get it right and keep working at it. I think it’s fair to say we never reconsidered and never regretted it. As [Ceraldi] alluded to, our original strategy was to fail quick and fail cheap. We were quite effective at that. Then we got into free-to-play, and we had a big success almost immediately with our first Big Win Soccer game.
Oliver Birch, Hothead director of marketing: And nobody had any mobile experience in 2011.
Ceraldi: That has been a struggle in the past. You weren’t hiring people who had been in mobile for years. It was new. There were some people who’d done mobile for handsets and other things, but it’s a different business model. We were trying to transition as PC and console makers. At Radical, before we transitioned to Hothead, we were making triple-A titles as far as licensed product. Then going to smaller console, which we were doing with our own product, it was a different scale. And then suddenly we were doing these very small, small screen, small executable, smaller experiences.
I likened it to going from — at Radical we were running marathons. Then, at the beginning of our company, we were running 10Ks. Now we’re doing 100 meter sprints in the beginning on mobile. It was tough to transition. Our designers had to become marketers as well as game designers. A variety of different skill sets they’d never exercised. Understanding economies and promotions. A variety of skills across every discipline. Luckily our technology internally was one we were able to move. It’s the same engine that created our console games running on mobile. That allowed us to adapt our technology over to mobile. That was a nice piece from a transition point of view that worked out in our favor. But everything else, every other process we had, had to shift and adjust.
GamesBeat: For Big Win Soccer, that shift to free-to-play on mobile where you guys were learning all these things, you said that was a success out of the gate. But what were the growing pains there?
Wilkinson: We launched the game and we had a significant number of downloads, for us at that point. The servers fell over. They fell over every day. It was really frustrating, because people loved the game, but they couldn’t play it. We just persevered.
I don’t recall how long it took us to stabilize the game. It seemed like forever. I’m sure it was probably weeks, maybe a month. But that was a massive learning experience, how critical people can be. Especially if they like your game and they can’t play it. That was incredible. After that we were able to create four more Big Win games in the next 15 months. In a 15 month period we had five Big Win games up.
In all honesty, we were probably lucky with Big Win. We had a particular market we were going after we thought was untapped, but honestly we didn’t know how to monetize those customers. But we had some success with it.
Ceraldi: The other thing, as far as soccer, even when we shipped it to mobile, we were thinking products, games, like we always had. We had no plans to update them. You can update PC and console like never before now, but they’re still pretty much—they’re not being changed on a daily or weekly basis. There’s not a constant road map of changes going on forever in many cases.
In mobile, understanding that we were running these game services, that they were up 24/7, that they had to have support 24/7, have to operate on every device around the world at all times — it wasn’t just something you packaged up and shipped off and you were done. It was a huge transition in our thinking and the processes we had to develop to support that new thinking, or really the new form of business that we were in. That was a bit of a startling thing for all of us.
Soccer was a watershed moment in understanding that, that we run this service just like any other service, paid for or otherwise. It has to be up. People expect that. It’s going to change and develop. So that was a key moment in our history.
Birch: It’s fair to say we were surprised by the scale of the market, in a way, the potential.
Ceraldi: Yeah. We knew the market scale was there. That was what we were hoping for. But when it actually hit us, it hit us in the face pretty hard.
GamesBeat: You clearly figured it out and released a bunch more Big Win games. Is there anything you look back and laugh at, maybe, something you did then that you would never do now?
Wilkinson: That’s a whole book on its own. [Laughs] The first thing — it was really a land grab. We thought nobody was addressing the sports market with the style of game we were offering.
Ceraldi: We were all sports fans, and we’d made sports games before.
Wilkinson: So rather than update the games, we just cranked out five of them and had five games out in 15 months. Then we moved on to other games. We really never spent any significant time creating updates. We had no cadence, whereas with later games, we were releasing a new client every three to four weeks consistently. We’ve done that with Killshot as well.
We weren’t data-driven at that time. Most of it was intuition. I’d say our marketing was possibly unsophisticated. We’ve just come so far in so many areas. It’s incredible.
Ceraldi: It was definitely more pay-to-win. Our understanding of free-to-play was not sophisticated. Understanding how ads could be used to enhance the experience. UI clarity. We could go on and on. As Ian said, write a book. It’s surprising.
Sometimes I think, what have I learned in the last five years in mobile? And then people start asking questions, and I start telling stories and I can go on and on. Especially if there’s beers involved. It’s fun talking about because there’s so much to look back on and laugh at as far as what we did wrong.
Birch: We’re having our 10 year anniversary this year. We’ve gone back and updated the Big Win games to get them up to snuff, if you like. Those games are maintained for the core that still loves them.
We always laugh about that. It was in beta, and we thought it was going to go great because it’s such a beautiful, colorful game with cool characters and plenty of charm. And that game always seems to come up in the meetings, especially recently. We always laugh about that.
Ceraldi: When I go back and play that game I laugh because — the complexity, the lack of clarity in a variety of ways — we were learning so much. We still learn every day now. But back then we were learning so much so quickly that each version was building on new learning. We were learning as we went so rapidly that it actually shows in the product, and in a bad way.