In the past week we brought you the news that Flick Golf 3D is coming to the 3DS eShop, which will be an interesting test to see whether a hugely popular smartphone game can grab a sizeable audience on Nintendo's portable. To those unfamiliar with developer Full Fat Games there could be a perception that it's a smartphone developer dabbling with the eShop, though it's certainly not that simple.
The company started out as an art house - doing pixel work - for other studios and publishers in the '90s, developing strong relationships with a host of clients - Full Fat art can be found in a number of Codemasters and Blitz games from the mid- to late-'90s. It was in the year 2000 that the company decided to make the leap into producing its own games, starting with humble origins and progressing to work on substantial releases and brands such as The Sims, Harry Potter and more. The studio became a specialist on Nintendo's portable systems, in a cycle of contract work that brings to mind the licensed games from WayForward in more recent times.
Lee Adams, Managing Director of the company, gave us a run-down of that period for the company.
In 2000, we thought we could make full games; it can't be that difficult. So we got a couple of contracts to make some Colour Game Boy games, Tom & Jerry and Barbie Pet Rescue, and they were our first two proper development titles in terms of doing everything, art and code. That set us on the way really in our relationship with Nintendo. We got some good feedback from them. We got development kits from them. They were really helpful at the start, as they always are, to be fair.
Then GBA came soon after, we wanted more people so we moved offices into Coventry and started our GBA work, many laid out here on this able (image above). Thirty-five games in total on GBA, all for primarily North America. So we'd get people like Atari, Acclaim, coming to us and say "Could you make us a game based on this?" Some of them were Dual-SKU. Some of them, you know, at the time it was PS1, PS2, and they'd throw a Game Boy game in there, or a GBA game, just because they felt they had to at the time. But then GBA sort of got its own niche and a lot of games came out just on GBA.
That just led to bigger and better things, working with EA: Sims 2 Pets was the first game for EA. They came to us late in the day, wanted us to pick up where some other developer had started, which was December '05 if memory serves. We sort of took their design because they were making a PS2 Xbox game and they wanted another one to run alongside it which they thought would be the same design, and they give us this wonderful design which was like, you know, an island, massively modelled island with like all these different areas, and we're like "Oh, you can't really have that. Can we just downsize a little bit? We said an apartment's cool, because it's like one room, two rooms." So we made that game for them and they were really happy. Castaway came afterwards, which again was a multi-SKU title, and then several games after that as well for EA. So we'd quite a good relationship with them, but DS was our kind of mainstay, GB and DS, in total over 70 products through Nintendo. A great relationship, you know, and even to this day we've got good relations with them.
As gamers in that era no doubt recall, the casual market - which Full Fat acknowledges as its mainstay - was booming in the DS era, particularly. As Adams acknowledges the huge number of projects the company took on, he tells us that in those peak years the company also had to turn down a huge amount of work.
Back in the DS days there was so much work we couldn't do enough. You know we could have maybe done double what we did if the studio would have been twice as big; we're doing 18, 20 pitches a year for work and turning a lot of it down because we didn't have resource. That's not there, those pitches, those products just aren't there, it's moved entirely, and to self-fund a 3DS game now, I think any company now would have to think seriously about that and the investment that would take. It's different, it's different, but certainly if somebody approached us and said "Oh, you know, we've got this idea for a game. Would you look at doing it?" Absolutely. Why not?
As Adams acknowledges here, the market has transformed itself in the past 4-5 years. It's widely acknowledged that the casual gaming market, to use the commonly-utilised term, has fallen away dramatically. For studios such as Full Fat, the priority was following that market which, unsurprisingly, meant smartphones. As Creative Director Ashley Routledge explains, the space for mid-market casual retail games has shrunk a great deal.
I suppose the biggest problem for us as a developer working for publishers, we would have great relationships with publishers, but around 2010/2011 a lot of those publishers started to wind down their Nintendo production; we were starting to bear the brunt of that. You know we wanted to continue working on the DS and the Wii and we'd built up a lot of talent within the studio. You know we actually made our own engines for both platforms and so we had a lot of company technology for the DS and for the Wii, but at that time we needed to expand to other areas just to really support the company. We spotted the shift to mobile fairly early on and we made our first mobile game for iPhone in 2010.
...I think the biggest problem was the mid-section of the market, and I think companies like us and the former Blitz have suffered in that area that if you're not working on first party, the games that are really going to have huge sales, then publishers, you know, they have to make hard decisions. With the market shift from consoles, well, there's no doubt that the mobile market has taken a proportion of sales away from the traditional console and handheld market. So, yeah, I guess publishers have had to make decisions to not continue producing games that aren't making them money.
We're not a publisher, but from our perspective it seems as though once the Wii started coming to the end of its cycle, and with the lower sales of the Wii U, then the 3DS, and the onset of the fast success of mobile, it has affected that market quite severely. I think things are certainly looking up, though. I mean the 3DS has had a huge amount of success. I think clearly it's been tough for Nintendo, but they've not given up and they've made an enormous number of small good decisions over the years.
Full Fat has achieved significant success on mobile, with a reasonably-sized team now operating out of its HQ in Warwick, England. It's a bustling environment with multiple projects in development, and based on the size of the team there are clearly strong revenues from its portable business. Routledge suggests that part of the studio's success on mobile, especially early on, was certainly helped by experience with the DS platform; Flick Golf was an early triumph, in particular.
I think we've had some fairly good success. I think we had quite an advantage early on; because we'd worked on handheld games and Nintendo games, we'd produced a lot of games that would be considered casual. I mean we certainly have our fair share of hardcore gamers in the studio, but we also have a lot of casual gamers, probably more casual gamers than most developers would have. We've worked on games like Littlest Pet Shop, and Jambo! Safari which was a much more casual version of the original arcade on the Nintendo Wii. I mean, yeah, there's been many casual games on the DS through to 3DS, like some of the Sims games.
So we didn't really know it at the time, because no one really knew back in 2010 where the mobile market was going to go, but certainly having that edge in casual games has helped us. I mean I think that's where Flick Golf came from really. Well, we didn't want to make a game that would be going up against traditional golf games and we wanted to make a game that people could play with similar ethos with mobile as with the DS, quick bursts of gameplay, people on the move, and touchscreen controls. So we saw that there was a gap in the market for that and no one was going there. So we thought, yeah, let's try this, and after we'd made it people on the team were saying "This would be just perfect for Nintendo handhelds.
That theme of lessons from the DS and Wii era, in particular, is reinforced by Oli Brown, the studio's Lead Programmer.
Fortunately with touch screens there are certain tricks with making good gameplay mechanics on them and, yeah, working with a DS initially definitely helped that. One thing that I learned quite early on with the DS was that it's not all about exactly what you're doing with the stylus. You've got to have variants in there - so I've moved from here to here, but the game expects me to go from here to here. I don't want it to be exact. You know, I don't need to be on that exact angle of trajectory. I've got to have quite a bit of variance in there of speed, of the amount of time it takes you to get from A to B, things like that. Certainly, we learned a lot about that in terms of making what turned in to be our kind of Flick based games; starting life on the DS helped a lot with that kind of thing.
For a studio used to publishing many games on iOS and Android, in recent years, the processes and paperwork for the eShop have been a new experience. The studio's producer, Jim Clarke, has been running the gamut of the approval process - from him the message is mixed, as appreciation for Nintendo's diligence is tempered by some flaws in the procedure.
Nintendo have been really enthusiastic about us getting Flick Golf 3D onto the 3DS, so they're always willing to provide input on how we can improve it, things like marketing guidelines. It's been quite a pain free process, I'd say. Obviously, compared to mobile, we have to deal with things like ratings and translations which aren't requirements on sort of iPhones and Androids, but you know there's loads of documentation about the different terms that we have to use, such as the touchscreen specifically be called the touchscreen. But, yeah, there's been a lot of back and forth between me and NOE, who I think are based in Germany, and NOA, which obviously is Nintendo America, so they're sort of two separate entities that we're dealing with at the same time.
Obviously they've got contacts that are working in the different studios so they can always point you in the right direction of the person that you have to speak to, but things like co-ordinating release dates and actually the general lot check procedure, we have to submit the game twice, once to NOE, once to NOA. They come back if there are any problems, and they have got a few slight differences in some of the different check sheets/standards that we have to adhere to. Obviously it would be easier if it was just one submission.
Ultimately, the studio is going into its first eShop foray with little knowledge of what to expect. Despite producing over 70 retail games in the Game Boy and DS eras, the market has changed so dramatically that it's like starting over again. It's a curious loop for Flick Golf, too, a title with sensibilities that were partly influenced by the trail-blazing DS touch screen, now heading onto Nintendo's latest platform.
Future releases on the eShop are reliant on success for this first release, naturally, but this release has been on the cards for some time. There are, frankly, a lot of Nintendo fans in the studio, which bodes well for the future. We wrap up with Creative Direct Ashley Routledge once again.
You know we've got the dev kits, and we've got people, we've got a lot of Nintendo fans in the company. I'm just pleased to have a game on the 3DS.