A still from ThatGameCompany's Sky, which New Zealand's own Tim Nixon is working on.

From Dunedin to LA: The NZ game developer joining one of the world’s best games companies

Tim Nixon, the founder and creative director of Runaway Play – creators of successful mobile games Flutter and Splash – is heading to LA to join ThatGameCompany, one of the most critically lauded game developers in the world. He talks to Baz Macdonald about his career in games, and the upcoming NZ launch of ThatGameCompany’s latest release, Sky.

ThatGameCompany are on the cutting edge of creating games as art – with their games Flower and Journey often being described as interactive poetry. Their latest game Sky looks to be another work of art, but this time you will be able to carry it around in your pocket.

Sky is a mobile game which looks to recreate the same beautiful, elegant and adventurous spirit of their previous games – but this time with an emphasis on social interaction, allowing you to team up with friends and family in order to overcome challenges and experience the world of Sky.

The best news of all? New Zealand gamers are going to be among the first in the world to play it. ThatGameCompany are using NZ as a test market for the game, releasing an invite-only beta to the country this Saturday. (To get an invite to said open beta, you can head over to this link and register).

Tim Nixon has just made the leap from Dunedin to Santa Monica in order to join the team at ThatGameCompany. He has been working on Sky as a consultant since May, and will now join the team full-time to continue to develop the game, and support it post-launch.

Congratulations on your new position at ThatGameCompany, Tim. What will you be doing there?

My role is the director of online experience. It is taking many of the things that I have learnt at Runaway Play over the past five years working in free-to-play game design and live operation. Figuring out how we make Sky not just a linear game experience that people might play through for an hour or two, like they may have played Flower or Journey. I am working to make Sky an evolving online community, which people will come back to for years to come, and hopefully will become their hobby, their passion, and something that they could potentially spend hundreds of hours in.

What will people be doing in this game that will keep them coming back for years to come and engage them for ‘hundreds of hours’?

Sky does share many elements in common with Flower and Journey, in terms of its aesthetic and in the company’s desire to make games that could be considered pieces of art. Really what we are doing here, is emphasising a small component of Journey that was so special, the multiplayer component – the idea that you are really sharing the adventure with other people. We are blowing that idea up, like many, many times, and seeing where we can take that. So, instead of just being a linear experience that you just play through once, we are looking to see how we can keep people around in an experience like that and really rest on the social dynamics to drive that.

Sky, from developer ThatGameCompany.

What was it that lured you to working at ThatGameCompany? 

I have always been a massive fan of their work. They started two years before Runaway Play started. They released Flower just as we were starting the company and working on the first version of Flutter. It was a massive piece of inspiration to us, we thought ‘Wow! We want to create games that can be seen as works of art too.” In the same way, we wanted to make an interactive poem that doesn’t rest on violence or warfare, but that takes its inspiration from nature.

Then when Journey came out, it was another really inspirational game. I sat all the developers down one by one in the conference room and had them play it start to finish, then we all sat down and talked about it because we were all so affected by it.

ThatGameCompany’s games have really just had such a huge impact on me as a designer and a businessperson.

So, how did this role at ThatGameCompany come about?

I knew a few of the developers there and we would occasionally catch up. They were moving towards the mobile side of things, so we started catching up more regularly and talking about the game and the ambition they had. That naturally evolved to the point where started talking about working together.

ThatGameCompany’s Flower was released to widespread acclaim in 2008.

What does it mean to you to work there?

It is a huge deal. Not just working at TGC, which is a pinch yourself sort of moment, but also working in Santa Monica in that community of developers – being in proximity of Naughty Dog (Uncharted, The Last of Us), Riot (League of Legends) and Blizzard (Warcraft, Diablo, Overwatch). It is really incredible. I have had a few words back to my fifteen-year-old self, and he is pretty thrilled. 

So, how did you first get into the games industry?

The opportunity first presented itself after making games on my own and with friends throughout high school and University. I got the chance to build a company with a group of friends that had been making games together throughout University. We built that company in the spare bedroom of our flat in North East Valley, in Dunedin. We started taking commissions and gently built that company through the upstart business incubator in Dunedin and the Centre for Innovation. We built up to a team of around 20, and were mostly working on contract development, but with some of our own original IP.

Five years into that company the financial crisis hit, and all of that contract work dried up. So, we were left in a pretty precarious situation and had to wind down the company.

But, the spark of the company endured and one of our clients was the filmmaking company Natural History NZ, who brought me in once we had wrapped everything and asked me whether there would be a way for them to get into games – because it was something that they had been talking about for a long time.

That was the start of Runaway Play, which was the game development firm that was built on the premise of making games inspired by the natural world, in the same way that NHNZ make film inspired by the natural world.

That was at the start of 2009, and was the beginning of an eight-year journey for me.

Flutter is a nature-based mobile game released by New Zealand developer Runaway.

What kind of work did you do at Runaway Play?

We started off doing contract work for National Geographic, but it was partnering with a San Francisco based publisher to release Flutter that really turned Runaway around. That was in 2012.

From there, Runaway has just gone from strength to strength. Releasing more games in the same vein as Flutter, with Splash and then Starlight – free-to-download games with micro transaction models, and based on the natural world.

Now they are a team of 26 developers based out of Dunedin, and just released a VR project for Daydream by Google. They are in a really great spot.

What were the highlights of working at Runaway Play?

The highlight that first comes to mind was the day that we launched our first event in Flutter. When we launched Flutter, the game did really well and started to generate some decent money from day one. It was a massive breakthrough for us, because our previous titles had been creatively successful, but hadn’t found commercial success. But we knew that the future of the game, and the future of the studio, really rested on our ability retain those players and give them new events and content that was going to keep them engaged beyond the initial download.

I remember I was actually at Coachella when the first results from the first event went live. They totally beat our expectations and we had the biggest day of revenue ever on the opening day of that event. What that showed us was that we didn’t just have something that was going to be a quick flash in the pan, but that it was going to be something that could sustain audience’s attention over a long period of time and that they were interested in supporting us, both with their playtime and their money.

In the last year, there has been a huge discussion around the role of micro transactions in the gaming industry. Did you and your team worry about using micro transactions and the effect it might have on your players?

Definitely. We were very conscious of it the whole time. In our games, many of the monetisation mechanics have been inspired by the same strain of mechanics used by loot boxes and other micro transaction techniques that have come under a lot of scrutiny recently. But, we knew that we were making this game for a more casual audience and we actually made refinements to those mechanics in a few ways – such as showing the players what the chances were of getting a particular reward, being more transparent.

One of the problem with loot boxes is the loop is so addicting, you know, you just keeping trying to roll the dice trying to get what you want. So, what we did was smooth out the chances a lot so that it feels fairer.

Also, we provided ways for players to spend a very specific amount of money on a specific set of features or upgrades- starter packs were 10 or 20 dollars. With these packs there wasn’t as much of a randomness about what players were going to get.

Taking that approach actually led to our biggest days of revenue – our most successful products were those that made the value proposition to the player very clear and were not trying to obfuscate the true value of a particular item or achievement.

One of the obstacles to the growth of the NZ game development industry right now is the lack of senior talent. As one of NZ’s most senior developers, did you feel conflicted about leaving? Or do you see this an opportunity to spread the word about the merits of the NZ development industry and bolster it in other ways? 

I am leaving, but only after having spent 12 years working here. I think that is a pretty good endorsement for the industry. And I am definitely not writing off coming back at some point either. I mean, there are so many great things coming out of NZ, we punch so far above our weight – like the growth of RocketWerkz in Dunedin, the critical success of the Dinosaur Polo Club and Grinding Gear Games growing to over 100 developers and creating one of the most highly regarded action-RPG’s of all time – there is just so much to be proud about.

So yeah, I did have some conflict about leaving. But looking around I could see how well everyone was doing. I just feel so proud to have been part of this community, and I absolutely will continue to be part of it. But I also feel certain that it is time to go and experience something different.

Are you looking to convince senior talent over there to come to NZ?

Yeah, absolutely. I really hope to play an active role in the local development community over there. I always have by getting involved in conferences, meet-ups and game jams. So, I will work hard to spread the good word about NZ as a location for game development.


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