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Stop treating it as a hobby; an indie dev offers a wake up call

After two and a half years of part-time development, Auckland indie dev Steven Wu has released his first game, Ink Wars, on the app store. Don Rowe speaks to Wu, by day a project manager at Spark, about the challenges and triumphs of building a mobile game while holding down a job, and why Kiwi devs need to take their projects a little more seriously. 

Like most artists, Steven Wu understands the age-old struggle of having a day job and creative aspirations at the same time. But unlike some paint-splattered, bohemian surrealist, Wu has a business plan and a background in finance, bridging that most perilous of gaps between art and income. Ink Wars, the first game Wu has released, recently went live on the app store, and was the only New Zealand-made mobile game featured at Armageddon. We spoke about the game’s inception, reception, and Wu’s dreams for the game’s future as the next Angry Birds, right down to the merch.

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Like anyone working on their art after hours, you’ve had to develop Ink Wars in your spare time. Tell me about your journey from concept to published game. 

Ink wars is my third large scale venture. I started my content creation journey back in March, 2004, so it’s been 12 and a half years and counting. As of this year I have a product on the market which is true to my vision. It still needs improvement, but it’s something that I’m proud of and different to the previous two concepts I developed and took to a trailer and initial funding round which were both anime series.

I come from an anime background prior to stepping foot into the IT realm. Before that I was in the largest animation company in New Zealand as a department head in the early 2000’s, then I resigned and started my own creative journey. For two years I worked in Japan and learned the art of anime from concept to product. Not just the production side, but also the business side. I came back to New Zealand in 2007 and really put something together and got some traction, won some awards, and by 2010 I had my second project. It was going to be the first rugby-themed anime in the world. At that time New Zealand was hosting the World Cup and I wanted to have it on air in 2011, but due to the Christchurch earthquake and the Japanese tsunami I wasn’t able to secure funding. 

I’ve never treated this as a hobby, I always treat it with utter professionalism, no less, if not more, than what I do for my paid employment. At the turn of the decade I was working in a bank and I wasn’t enjoying that very much, but I could see in the IT field I could draw some parallels, and my anime producer skills transferred quite nicely to the IT field as a project manager. I worked my way up and by 2014 I was a senior PM. Ink Wars started off as a concept the same year. I got the team together and we decided to go for it. Two years later it’s in the market and has been received very well.

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Why Ink Wars? What drove your design decisions?

When I was a teenager in the late 90’s video arcades were still very popular. You put your dollar in and play with the joysticks and buttons. I really enjoyed that and it left a mark on me. Especially competitive fighting games like Street Fighter and Tekken. With those games you get a rush and if you have a good match with someone who’s equally skilled then within a short span of two to three minutes you get a bundle of excitement, joy, a rush that, in my personal opinion, no other genre of game can beat. I wanted to provide this feeling for today’s gamers. Arcades are no longer in business and the main gaming device is now the smartphone, so how do you translate that competitive fighting game rush to a touch device? A lot of fighting games have tried to implement virtual joysticks on the iPhones and iPads, but it just doesn’t respond the same way as a physical joystick. A lot of them have to dumb it down, so it’s more or less about the graphics only. The gameplay is simplified and you don’t get that much of a true competitive kick out of it. I wanted to translate that feeling and really bring the competitive feeling of fighting games onto a touch device.

I knew a touch device wouldn’t tolerate complex controls. In an arcade you have two joysticks and six buttons, but on a touch device it’s impossible because the control devices would cover the graphics. I thought long and hard about what are the most popular and widely accepted genres in mobile gaming. I looked at Candy Crush, at Bubble Witch, and all these casual game titles which have sold millions of units. Because of the vibrant colours and bubbles it’s easily understood. It’s simple, but at the same time we use that as a base and think how do we break this down, add depth to it, but still retain the simplified controls? That’s really the driving motivation behind Ink Wars, and I think we’ve succeeded because in-game all you need to do is aim and shoot, plus operate the bubble switcher down the bottom. There are basically only two controls you need to worry about, but when you play against someone equally as skilled, it gets really intense. People get the same sort of rush and kick, joy, release, excitement as they do in an arcade. I succeeded in what I wanted to do.

Is that why you made a game and not anime, to convey these emotional experiences?

These days the monetisation model has changed because of the internet. Everybody has access to it, and it’s instant. Nobody watches TV. Previously anime would rely on the broadcaster to play your content. If you didn’t have a broadcaster, nobody would see it. Once you get a broadcaster they play one episode a week, for maybe 13, 15, or 20 weeks, and you break even by selling the DVD or blu-ray box set. Nowadays nobody buys DVDs or blu-rays, so this business model doesn’t stand.

I went into the IT field in 2010 and that was the first time I cared about smartphones. Once I saw how sophisticated they could be, and after playing Angry Birds, I realised the new monetisation model is all about free-to-play. You get a much wider exposure and you still build in monetisation through micro-purchases. So it was a commercial decision. Anime just isn’t as profitable. 

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Did you benefit from having a background in the banking sector, in that you knew about cash flow and that sort of thing?

Definitely. Even prior to becoming a banker I read a lot of investment books. I had my first investment property at the age of 21, because I always believed in having multiple income sources. That happened to be my saving grace when I had redundancy problems, and that funded me so I was able to live without having to go on the dole and be harassed to go do any old labour job. That really started off and helped me understand that you have to have your fingers in all sorts of different pies because that gives you more lifelines.

All in all, I think the biggest difference between myself and other indie developers is that while they might have the same passion, they approach it as a hobby, and they fire and miss and think that if it works out it, it works out. For me, my first big venture, which was an animated series about a band of New Zealand heroes touring the world, defeating evil and eventually ending up in Japan to save the world, I was able to put a full business plan together. Not just pretty pictures but sales projections, stage one, stage two, how much we’re asking for, what the returns will be, where we want to head, how a potential merchandising franchise might work, and because of that at the age of 25 I was able to secure $100,000 funding, which in 2007 was quite a lot of money for the backers to put into me.

The definition of a professional is trading goods and services for money. You always have to think about commercial realities, how you make money or how your investor makes money. Because we do need money. We need it to build a robust product, because even if you’re willing to work for free, these days a decent product never comes from one man alone, and everybody else on your team needs to get paid. For example for Ink Wars I had to pay some people cash, other people shares, and some people a mixture of the two, but everybody deserves to get paid for what they’re good at. It’s up to the planner to go in there with the top priority to break even and turn a profit, otherwise it’s just a hobby and will likely be much less robust. There are a lot of games out there of this kind of nature that have taken the creator a few years to build but just don’t have a chance of turning a profit.

With that professionalism in mind – and I agree with your definition, you don’t want to do things as a hobby if your goal is to make money – would your end goal be to have your own development firm?

That’s definitely on the road map. Even back in the anime days I wanted to eventually have an anime-style animation course. I went to the one based on Queen Street and they do a very broad style that’s not focused on anything in particular. I had to go to Japan to learn anime, because I knew that anime is by far the number one popular style of animation in the world, and most of them come from Japan. But things like Avatar: The Last Airbender definitely has an anime influence. A globally successful anime style product doesn’t always have to come out of Japan.

I think Ink Wars will have an anime once the game turns profit. With a big franchise, whether you start off as an anime or manga or game or even as a merchandiser, they all interlink in the end. That’s definitely on the road map, providing some sort of training – but at the same time provide job opportunities. For myself and many others who have graduated from what is supposedly the number one animation and education centre in New Zealand, when you come out they’re not that concerned about your employment. It’s not fair for people to take on these student loans, coming out with a whole heap of debt and having to work at a supermarket or fast food chain. It’s wrong.

I’ve gone a little bit on a tangent, but I do want to use this opportunity to mention that New Zealand does have a lot of talent in the creative fields, but we’re not turning a lot of profit because all of our base talent gets headhunted to go overseas. Even Weta is just working on Hollywood productions. They don’t own the IP. You need to own the IP, and when that grows big like Angry Birds …

It was really inspiring to see a small country in the Northern Hemisphere create the number one most profitable game, which is now a huge franchise worth more than $7 billion. That showed me that after 2010 you no longer have to be in Japan to do anime or the US if you want to do film. Anywhere in the world, if you put your mind to it, and stay disciplined, you have the opportunity to come up with the next billion dollar franchise. In contrast, in the anime and film world, not so much. Mainly we’re still working for offshore productions. But you can publish games onto the app store these days without a middleman, so if you’re able to create a world-class product, the platform is there, reachable by anyone.

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To take that further, the difference between your game and something like Path of Exile is that there are these opportunities for franchising, moving into anime and so on. That’s a lot more difficult with something like Path of Exile.

If they do really well I could see a live action movie like Blizzard’s Warcraft movie, those type of internet MMORPG’s, their media expansion will more likely be CGI and live action film. But with Ink Wars I played to my animation and anime background. We’ve got 26 playable characters, Angry Birds debuted with two, and the latest has seven. We have 26 off the bat, fully animated, not library stock animation but fully hand drawn, HD sprites, so I’ve played to my strengths. That plants the seed in our younger fans that an anime adaption would be very natural. Coming off that would be figurines, plush toys, stationary, you name it. If you identify that as your strategy, an anime style character design is very fitting to play that long term game with.

It definitely fits with what you’re saying about doing this as a pro and not a hobbyist. Having that business model in mind is definitely superior to tacking merchandise and so on down the track.

It’s definitely a business venture. I believe that if you provide value – and it’s not just me, entrepreneurs across many industries say the same – if you provide value to people, then you will naturally get money. Money will come to you. And we can see our product is providing value, it’s bringing family and friends together, they laugh and share their excitement and push and shove like the good old days, and the game itself can be picked up in fifteen seconds or less. But if they do want to dig deeper, spend more time and find layers of depth, once they realise that’s what’s happening, and that’s what will win them the game. We do have tournaments, with prizes and cash prizes, we want to foster this sort of competitive environment on top of a family friendly game.

Something like Street Fighter, the number one Esport game in the world, last year the Capcom Cup gave away US$500,000, so it’s definitely possible to follow that sort of strategy. The good thing about Ink wars is that we’re going to corner the casual market, Angry Birds and Bubble Witch and Candy Crush, but we can also turn to the more hardcore space and play the other side of the coin. I think from the beginning that was my vision, because Street Fighter, as popular as it is, 95% of the players are young males. The winner of our first Ink Wars tournament was a female, and she said she doesn’t play fighting games at all, but she does play bubble games, and she naturally applied what she’s good at. The entry level is very low, even a 10 year old kid made it to the final 4, so it’s something with depth but it’s open to the public.

So we’re creating value for everyone, people from 6 to 60, surely that opens up a wider user base which leads to a wider potential for profit.


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