‘You’re always rolling the dice’: two award-winning developers talk game development in New Zealand

The recipients of the Play By Play International Games Festival’s Te Maunga Kai Kapua Awards Mario Wynands and Niamh Fitzgerald, talk with Adam Goodall about Final Fantasy VII and the future of game development in New Zealand.

In 1997 – “20 years, 11 months and one week ago, but who’s counting” – Mario Wynands co-founded Sidhe Interactive with Tyrone McAuley and Stuart Middleton. The trio were inspired to chase the dream by Final Fantasy VII; their goal was to make something as big and ambitious as Square’s role-playing epic. Pretty good, for a game Wynands never actually played.

“I watched the two other founders of the company play through the whole game,” Wynands, now managing director of PikPok, tells me. “One played through the first half and the other played through the second half. I was a passive observer.” But Wynands fell hard for the spectacle, the expansive living world that Square had built – and when the trio found out about the Net Yaroze, a hobbyist development kit for the PlayStation, they took the plunge. “That was the catalyst for, ‘Hey, we should make something for this console,’” Wynands says. “‘And we should make something like Final Fantasy VII!’ Which was just the dumbest idea with three people.”

Niamh Fitzgerald has a Final Fantasy VII story, too. “It was the first game where I got lost in the story,” Fitzgerald, co-founder of up-and-coming Wellington development studio Little Lost Fox, tells me. “It’s a long game to watch two people play, and it’s a long game to play,” she says, “but it was one of those first games that I loved playing and had a very emotional response to playing.” She would talk about the story with her friends and her family, all of whom had played and loved the game. It was the kind of story that made her think, “Woah. Games can do this.”

Wynands has spent his nearly 21 years in the industry building the studio now called PikPok, one of the country’s largest independent development studios. Fitzgerald has been in the industry for half that time, initially interning with Dunedin developer Runaway in 2009 before pivoting into project management. She returned to game development in 2015, graduating from Media Design School last year and co-founding Little Lost Fox, the company working on upcoming mobile puzzler Valleys Between, straight after graduation. Both have also been heavily involved in industry organisation and advocacy: Fitzgerald has been a board member for the New Zealand Game Developers Association since late 2016 and was the convenor of last year’s New Zealand Game Developers Conference, and Wynands was NZGDA Chairperson between 2003 and 2011 and a board member until last year.

Their work was recognised at this year’s Play By Play International Games Festival: Wynands received the Te Maunga Kai Kapua (Tuakana) Industry Pillar award, Fitzgerald the Te Maunga Kai Kapua (Teina) Rising Star award. I sat down with the two of them to talk about the past and the future of New Zealand’s game dev community.

The Spinoff: Can you tell me a bit about the obstacles that you both encountered when you were starting out – Mario in the 1990s, Niamh quite recently?

Wynands: There were some fundamental barriers – we couldn’t even get a $1500 overdraft from our bank. This is in the late ‘90s, where IT companies and web companies in general were seen as a risky proposition – and then you throw being a video game company on top of that. I remember around then we approached Technology New Zealand for the first time and they told us video games were not technology. There was no real government support there… and there wasn’t really much of a community so that we could tap into local knowledge, either. There were some old school programmers like Mark Sibly and Simon Armstrong, who had success on the Amiga with things like Skidmarks and Blitz BASIC, but there wasn’t really a local community to tap into to learn how to do things.

So our progress was really slow in terms of actually forming relationships with publishers and trying to learn what it was we were supposed to be doing. Even though we started the company in May of ‘97, it actually wasn’t until January of 2000 that we got our first development contract. So there was a lot of developing at night, doing contracting jobs during the day, and just trying to build those relationships…

I guess if game developers are good at one thing, it’s perseverance in the face of everything telling you that you should stop. And sometimes that works out okay. And sometimes you dig yourself into a massive hole that you’ll never emerge from.

Fitzgerald: There are a lot of things in the business behind games that you don’t necessarily think about when you are playing a game or starting to make a game. I’ve found, even going into the process knowing a certain amount… it’s been a learning curve over the last couple of months. And, you know, my studio’s been really really lucky that we’ve had a lot of support from other studios, and mentorship from other people from other studios who’ve got different perspectives.

Someone said something to me recently, and it’s kind of stuck in my brain. He was saying that everything you do towards the release of your game – marketing, production and testing and promotion – is like trying to load your dice, but at the end of the day you’re still rolling dice and sometimes it just doesn’t work out. And that’s something that was really good for me to keep in mind, because we can do everything right but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll be a successful game. You just do what you can and hope!

How has the industry and community landscape changed since you started pursuing careers as game-makers?

Mario Wynands. Image: supplied.

Wynands: Almost every facet of the industry has changed locally, and I guess internationally as well. From an educational standpoint, there are multiple credible game courses throughout the country. There are a healthy number of students going through those courses and, from what I can tell, there is support from the families of those students. We see a lot of parents interested in bringing their 10-year-olds and 11-year-olds through the studio.

On the government side, we’ve gone from Technology New Zealand not thinking video games were technology to Callaghan Innovation having given millions and millions of dollars to game development companies. We’ve seen smaller funds popping up – New Zealand On Air’s Interactive Media Fund going to the occasional game, the Film Commission having their game fund. We’re not quite at the point where we have comprehensive support for the industry from the government, but I think we’re on the cusp of achieving something there.

And then the industry itself; well, we’ve gone from the ‘90s, when there were a couple of companies scattered around and struggling, to 550-600 people [employed in the industry] now, generating over $100mil a year in export revenue. And what’s great to see is there’s huge diversity of games and content and people are creating all these different things and a lot of these games are being quite successful internationally. When you add up all the hits we’ve had, New Zealand is punching well above its weight.

Fitzgerald: When I started organising the New Zealand Game Developers’ Conference last year, for me that was a really good opportunity to see where we were across the board. We all see stats and surveys coming through and, y’know, the figures are impressive, but I got to do a bit of a deep dive into the data and look at who our studios were and what they were creating and I think it’s very very fair to say that as a country we are punching above our weight.

As people very actively involved in the New Zealand game development community, what’s your view of where the community is at now? Where do you think it should be heading towards – and what do you think the obstacles are to it getting there?

Wynands: I think the challenges now are different. There is so much more choice and so much more competition that it’s hard for a New Zealand company to know what to build and what platform to build it for and who to target and how to monetise it. So I think where we’re at is we’re in a place where we’re building really good content and people are getting really good at building great games, but we’re not quite at the point where we have depth in our business development and the marketing side of the industry.

What does that depth look like to you?

Wynands: The one thing that I see that would really help the New Zealand industry help ourselves is that we’re really good at creating great things but we’re not so great about telling the world about how great it is. Part of that is cultural, in that New Zealanders are so humble and it’s difficult to take an American-style approach and say ‘we made this thing, and it is the best thing you’ve ever seen, and it is better than all of these other similar things’… but, on top of that, we don’t really have the experience, the personnel, the bandwidth in place to really push our games.

Fitzgerald: That is something that, with the NZGDA this year – so, we run a fund called the Kiwi Game Starter Fund. The idea is that it’s a business start-up fund. Teams submit games and there are cash prizes but there are also services, like support with marketing and legal and accounting. And one of the things that we want to do with it this year is put more of a focus on the business side of things.

The goal with that is to make sure that teams are looking at what their plan is for release as part of the submission process – y’know, what is their business platform, what is their marketing strategy – so that we can provide the tools they need. I think a tonne of people make amazing games but as Mario said, there’s this whole other side to it – you need to run the business and marketing and… From running a studio for the last couple of months there’s so much to that ahd that takes a lot of time.

One of the hopes I have is that, even if some teams decide to apply, look at the templates we provide and… even if they might decide they’re not at that point yet, that’s a good thing to recognise, you know? And then they have those materials and are able to say, ‘I want to release a game, what are the other things I should be looking at?’

You do a lot of work as an advocate for diversity in the New Zealand game development community. Where do you think the community is at right now and what do you think the obstacles are to building diversity in our community?

Naimh Fitzgerald. Image: supplied

Fitzgerald: I think we’re better than we were but we’ve still got a long way to go. We’re starting to do the right things to encourage more diversity. When I was doing my Computer Science degree, by second year I was one of two girls and then by third year, fourth year, I was the only woman in the class. And you see a lot more women in the creative – the art and the design – side of things, but I think gaming fits really well into the whole STEM approach, to try and get more girls into STEM careers and into games.

Some of the initiatives that I’ve personally been involved in are more around outreach. There’s an organisation, She#, up in Auckland that runs an amazing number of workshops that are all STEM-focussed. I was lucky enough to get to go to one of the Girls in Games workshops and give a talk. They said at the time, ‘oh there’ll be maybe thirty girls at the workshop,’ but then I walked in and there were sixty. And I was like, “This is amazing!” And I realise that there are a lot of reasons why people choose the careers they do, but I think, the more we can do to encourage more girls to recognise that games and computer science are viable career options for them…

So there’s the ‘getting the more women into the industry’ approach, and then there are a number of initiatives… I think we need to be doing more to keep women in the industry. And so the NZGDA, this year one of our strategy goals is around diversity initiatives. Zoe Hobson and Lisa Blaikie from Runaway have been advocating for a number of initiatives in that area, and that’s been really great to see and I think that’s an exciting first step as something that we’re actively trying to encourage.

Mario: We have a Diversity Working Group within the studio now that’s made up of volunteers who represent various different viewpoints. We’re still very early in that work but we are looking at issues around diversity and representation within our staff, within the content that we build and then also within our audience.

I met with a local gaming group [the Acko Gamers Club] and a representative from the Pacific Business Trust, a Māori and Pacific Islander entrepreneurship and development advocacy group that’s based out of Porirua, in the last month. They’re very interested in working out how to make those communities more aware that these careers exist… They see that there’s a lot of interest in gaming in general and they’re very interested in working out [how they can] take this interest and turn that into an educational opportunity.

What did you come into the games industry wanting to make? And how has that changed in the time since you started?

Mario: Final Fantasy 8. Obviously.

At the time it was fairly common that if you were starting a games company, the first thing you’d want to make is an RPG, because why wouldn’t you choose something that’s well beyond your capabilities? And ten years later, people upped the ante again – ‘Oh, I love World of Warcraft, I’m going to start a company and make an MMORPG’. But that’s where we started – we started in a place where we wanted to make the kinds of games that we were enjoying playing, and those were action-adventure games like Tomb Raider or Final Fantasy VII, things like that.

But I guess where we’ve ended up is working out what we are good at making, and just making that. And a lot of the time, that doesn’t necessarily even align with the games we might choose to play in our free time. We have a diverse range, across the studio, of the types of games that people play and enjoy and would like to be making. We do an annual survey to try and crystallise those preferences and use that to influence what we want to do. Ultimately, though, I don’t think when we started the company 21 years ago-ish, that we thought we’d be making games on mobile phones around sports and action shooters. For example. We’ve gravitated to where it just feels right.

Fitzgerald: I think, when I was starting in the games industry, going back to study and doing those things, I don’t know that I actually ever was like – I mean, I knew what I wanted to make in my own time, but from a professional perspective I was actually quite excited to be working in a large studio. You know, the small fish in a big pond, just sort of sponging, absorbing as much knowledge as I could.

In the last couple of years, though, I found myself gravitating toward more short-form games on PC, or mobile games that I can pick up and enjoy for a small period of time. And I think part of that’s just the nature of the things I’m involved with. But I think a lot of people can kind of relate to that? And I don’t know if I ever went into it with the idea to create one of those, but when we came up with the concept for Valleys Between, the goal was to create something on mobile that would be relaxing and enjoyable and satisfying. And I can see our studio gravitating towards shorter, more concise games – which, you know, fit both with the small team and relatively small budget and timeframe. But also, the fact that the team’s got quite a variety of games that we all enjoy as well, but games that people can pick up and play and immediately enjoy is something that we’re all behind.

But it’ll be interesting to see in just shy of 21 years what I’m making, I guess. Maybe it’ll be an MMO VR game.


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