There are few parallels between the animated and highly-artistic computer game Vokabulantis and the hyper-commercial mobile games developed by Umami Games. But both game companies think that business and artistic ambitions can be united through video games.
The limbs attached to a young woman in a red raincoat are neatly and painstakingly moved with a steady hand. Arms. Feet. Even the pigtails. A picture is taken. And then the small process that makes the doll come alive through stop motion starts all over.
Karla, in the red raincoat, and her friend Kurt are the main characters in the video game Vokabulentis. An animated video game in the genre ‘puzzle platformer’ which uses stop motion to create the game’s animations.
“There are three of us participating in the project. From the get-go, we decided that it was stop-motion or nothing. The format itself was chosen from the beginning,” says Esben Kjær Ravn, CEO and founder of the studio Kong Orange.
It all began with an artistic idea back in 2015. Back then, talks between the game developer Esben Kjær Ravn, Johan Oettinger from the animation studio Wired Fly Animation and the artist Morten Søndergaard took place, with the discussion centring around creating a game that built on a poet’s linguistic treasure trove. Because the work of art took place in a fantasy realm and had to be both abstract, contain drama, and be accessible, a video game seemed like the obvious choice to make the vision a reality.
After two years, the project is really starting to come alive. The three partners have managed to get by on small stipends while they perfected the technology.
“We have created innovative technical solutions to integrate stop motion in the game. It is an existing technology, but it has not previously been used by other game developers. So we have the opportunity to create a dynamic game design, where the characters can move freely while maintaining proper stop-motion technique,” Ravn says.
Most recently, Vokabulantis has raised money through a campaign on Kickstarter, which received words of praise from the Lord of the Rings actor Elijah Wood and the comedian Patton Oswalt. The 2000 backers are a testimony to the fact that art also has commercial appeal. Ravn is acutely aware that they have to have an income if they want to reach the finish line.
“We learned the hard way with previous games that the excitement surrounding the game does not translate directly to dollars and cents. But it is great to know early on that we have that artistic expression and the ability to make people pay for it,” Ravn Says.
Holy shit, this is awesome! https://t.co/BydT6J6Oyi
— Elijah Wood (@elijahwood) March 31, 2021
Game developers are not common entrepreneurs
At first, many game developers are driven by a love for video games and artistic ambitions on behalf of their craft. Making money comes second after the ambitions have been fulfilled. According to Karl Magnus Troedsson, a Swedish game veteran-turned-investor through the fund Loot Spawn, this is one of the key differences between the gaming industry and other tech startups.
“Tech-startups try to solve a problem: We are a better bank for young people, we are last-mile delivery, whatever it is. They are trying to make our lives better, faster, and smarter. That’s not what game developers are doing. We entertain. We are much more attuned to Hollywood. And if you don’t know games, which is very hit-driven, how do you predict a hit?” Troedsson asks.
He does not view game developers as financially driven entrepreneurs but as artistic creators. That does not necessarily mean that the urge to create art cannot be translated into good business. In fact, as an investor, Troedsson sees a huge financial potential in the industry. Game developers are driven by something else — for better or worse.
“Maybe you wouldn’t find many tech startups that are truly passionate about solving a pizza delivery problem. It’s not their life goal. They do however see a business opportunity and they are financially driven. A lot of developers in the games industry are motivated by a creative passion, almost a need to get something off their chest, to actualize a vision which has been a mind bug of some kind,” Troedsson says.
Creativity meets millions of people
The Danish studio Umami Games is a good example of the fact that game development can originate from a commercial viewpoint. When the three founders opened the studio, which focuses on mobile games, two years ago, it was with the ambition of building a great business.
“It is really hard to make money from publishing mobile games. Because of this fact, it was important to me to find co-founders who were as passionate as myself about games — but they also had to agree to make the business commercial, and that we would have to grow bigger than King (the Swedish studio behind Candy Crush employing 200 people),” says Riley Andersen, CEO and co-founder of Umami Games.
Instead of creating innovative game mechanisms or animation techniques, Umami Games innovated the development pipeline. This means that in the last two years the studio has released 30 mobile games in the genre ‘hyper-casual.’ Of these 30 games, 10 were quickly discarded again. The rest have received a lukewarm response. But one game, ABC Runner, became a hit with more than six million downloads.
It is all about speed. Fast development and fast testing quickly decide if a game has commercial potential. Today, Umami Games develops a prototype and tests it on an audience within a few days. The game will only be optimised and fully developed if the users show enough interest.
“We get an idea that we turn into a prototype. Then we test it via paid marketing with the right users on Facebook. After two weeks we know if we will scale the game or not,” Andersen says.
When the business model is built on ad-based games, it is not enough to have millions of users – the users also have to be profitable after spending money on marketing. This means that if it costs one DKK to get the user to download and play the game via paid ads, then it has to be good enough for the player to hang around and watch enough ads, to earn back 2-3 DKK.
“Working this way is great because there is so much creativity and concept development that we quickly get to test the game on the right players. This way we also get to be more experimental because we quickly figure out if it is something the market wants,” Andersen says.
She does not think that a commercial focus and creativity are necessarily at odds with one another. Yet when the earning-per-player is measured in a few Danish kroner, it is necessary to have millions of players before the game is a success.
“We try seriously to combine creativity and data, seeking to embrace both parts to prove that we can create really fun and creative games and earn money at the same time,” Andersen says.
Business and art hand-in-hand
Umami Games and Vokabulantis are on opposite spectrums of the gaming industry. However, both companies believe that business and art should go hand-in-hand.
The funds, stipends, and state aid available in Denmark are not enough to cover an ambitious project. But for Ravn from Vokabulantis, which was largely launched with softfunding, he sees no contradiction between art and financial focus.
“Unlike all of our competing arts, we are forced to justify the business potential in what we do. But it is also not the antithesis of art that there should be an audience. The balancing act is to make something you are happy with as a work of art, but which is also profitable. It is basically a condition that if you want to develop a game, you have to outline the business potential first,” Ravn says.
Even though Vokabulantis’ starting point is artistic, the developers also have to incorporate retention, price, playing time, and other such business-driven parameters into their work of art. Likewise, Umami Games incorporates artistic aspects and creativity into their fast and innovative pipeline.
“Why should one exclude the other? Why can you not be creative if you are commercial? It is exciting to be creative when you have to work around obstacles. We also see it as a creative challenge to make something that can entertain a lot of players,” Andersen says.
Even though the gaming industry is young, it has already proven that abstract and crazy universes – which never stood a chance in Hollywood – can easily break through commercially.
“Think of Super Mario: A plumber jumping on turtles to save a princess. Nintendo is basically one long acid trip,” Ravn says and adds:
“In the gaming industry, it’s possible to have free reign creatively while aiming for a large audience. It’s a challenge to combine the two, but it has proven possible again and again. And there are still many unexplored territories and unused potential. It is a young genre full of cowboys and cowgirls who are constantly balancing on the edge of what’s technologically possible.”
This article is part of the theme “Games as a Business 2021”. You find the next part of the series right here: