I first talked to Chris Bulman, the studio director of Custard Square, last year for a story about careers in gaming. At the time Bulman's Auckland-based game studio had around seven staff, that number's grown in the subsequent months to 13 artists, animators and programmers.
Custard Square caters to casual gamers and kids gaming. Dinosawus, a massive multiplayer online (MMO) game based around cute dinosaur characters has around 150,000 unique players. The team also builds games for other companies, right now Custard Square is working on a steam-punk MMORPG for a Christian lifestyle organisation in The States.
The studio's biggest financial success to date is Runaway Circus, a simple yet beautiful hidden-object puzzle game targetted at women in their mid-thirties. Looking to draw on the success of this game and its audience, Custard Square is in the middle of a year-long development on Runaway Circus' spiritual successor, Runaway Geisha. Bulman talks to Idealog about the New Zealand game industry, developing niche games, and how soccer mums keep his business afloat.
(Chris Bulman, studio director at Custard Square)
Is developing video games commercially sustainable in New Zealand? Is Custard Square profitable?
The company has been in business for three years. The first couple of years had to be funded, but over the last 12 months we've really hit our stride and become very commercial. Some of that's evidenced in paying the salaries for 13 people and the overheads and peripherals associated.
Hidden object puzzle isn't exactly the sexiest genre of gaming. What keeps you creating games like Runaway Geisha?
Our players are essentially mothers, aged 35, who have a small window of time in between looking after the kids and taking care of the home to relax. This game fits into that time slot, giving them a relatable character and a great of story with depth. We are really focused on games with deep engaging stories, if it doesn't have that we won't work on it. For our players it's not quite voyeurism, it's like escapism, sort of like watching a short film.
The market also has a lot of potential. It's not exactly untapped, there are games coming out everyday catering to it.
How far have you progressed with Runaway Geisha?
We're on the third rendition of the game. The problem we came across quite early is we hadn't upped the ante as much as we would've liked. Our competitors were using full animations and we weren't on the same level. So we scrapped everything and started from scratch.
How does it feel to chuck out six months worth of work?
Really good actually, it's a huge relief. We made a decision that quality was the most important thing for us, and our current work really shows the fruits of that decision.
We were outsourcing a lot of our art to Canada and the Philippines because it was cheaper. We didn't have full control of our art pipeline, so mid-last year we started bringing all that in house. We now have six in-house artists working on environment, character and animation.
In the general technology sector there's a widely reported skills shortage. Is it difficult to find talented game designers and developers?
It's always a catch 22 because the people that are available, coming out of uni or tech don't have any experience. We try to hire a couple of them each year and train them up, but you need to have experience to do things quickly and well at the same time. It's hard to find these people and of course all the studios do what ever they can to keep a hold of these people.
How do you coax someone to work for you instead of the next studio?
For a lot of people it'll be as simple as what type of games the studio produces. For the technical guys it's about how to make their technical knowledge stretch, how do you ask questions of their technical abilities to keep them interested. From an artistic point of view, it's about making sure not to do the same thing every day and adding variation to keep things interesting.
Are there any particular platforms that you're hinging Custard Square's success on, or do you want to develop for everything?
Definitely not. Our own [intellectual property] is developed just for PC, Mac and iOS. The virtual worlds we create for clients are online browser-based and iOS.
We don't look at Facebook or Android, you have to stop and concentrate on your knitting. Every build we tackle is additional risk , so we concentrate on what we are best at.
How much help does Custard Square get from other agencies, studios, or the government?
The New Zealand game industry is quite close. I can pick up the phone and call just about any of the studio heads in the country and just chat and share ideas. There's no competition amongst us because it's still about making the New Zealand game industry as a whole better.
There's no real support from the government. Gaming is still a small fledgling creative service industry that's been trying to get a sliver of what the film and television industries have gotten. On the other hand this is like any other business, we shouldn't rely on the government. I rely on myself and my team to accomplish what we need to.
What can be done to help further develop New Zealand's gaming industry?
Just more co-operation between the gaming studios to understand where the markets are. It's already something that's being done, I just hope it continues because it's a major help. There's a lot of overlap in what the different studios are working on, but there are also areas one is more of an expert than others – sharing this knowledge does amazing things for the industry.
'Inside:' is a new series on Idealog Tech putting a spotlight on small New Zealand technology companies doing amazing things. If you'd like to get in touch with Sim, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or send him a tweet at @simantics.