From Crackdown 2 DLC to iPhone accountancy, meet Spilt Milk

Start-Up Spotlight: Spilt Milk Studios

Accountancy and games usually only meet on the sales sheet, but Spilt Milk add up fun with their premier iPhone game.

Based in Hertfordshire, Spilt Milk was founded by managing director Andrew Smith, whose background includes design work on Crackdown 2 DLC, Flock! and Final Fight: Double Impact.

Currently going it alone, we contacted the multi-talented designer to find out why an accountancy firm wanted a numerical puzzle game and what’s next for Spilt Milk.

How did you start your company?
It was in February 2010 that I decided I’d had enough of traditional games development. After a wonderful four years at Proper Games Ltd (we did so much good stuff there, winning a Scottish BAFTA, working closely with Capcom and just generally being brilliant people), I wanted to step out from the shadow of a company I wasn’t personally invested in. Combined with a longing for home (I was based in Dundee, was brought up in Essex) and the temptation of being able to do whatever I wanted – within reason – the lure of going it alone proved to be too strong.

I was lucky enough to land a contract with my former employers straight out of the gate to help them finish off the Crackdown 2 premium DLC, then used that to launch into contracting, consultation and creating my own studio’s games.

How many people work at your company?
I’m currently the only full-time employee, although I am lucky enough to have a small and very skilled network of friends and ex-colleagues that I contract in to do whatever I can’t at the time. This mostly takes the form of code and audio, but when the project warrants it I also hire in better artists than myself.

What’s your company culture like?
Having spent my career thus far at various very different companies, I have developed a very specific view on how a games company should be run.

Making games is a creative endeavour first and foremost – anything else leads to problems. I like to think I am open, easy-going and creative first, business minded second. I am aware of commercial realities and the value of things like PR, marketing and planning, but they always service the game’s creative core. Nothing else will do.

I also have little time for um-ing and ah-ing over ideas and concerns. The best way to figure out if something is worth developing further is to prototype it or implement it in some form. You can only do so much work outside of the context of play, so the sooner you get your game into a playable state, the sooner you can make accurate and relevant decisions about the direction in which it needs to be nudged.

Tell us a little-known fact or anecdote about your company.
Well, slightly embarrassingly ‘spilt’ is not a recognised word (in the UK at least). Not many people realise that. I don’t mind though because the name seems to roll off the tongue and everyone remembers it, so job done.

What could you, and/or your team members, not do without on a daily basis?
This one’s a tough call. Of course, there is the empire-building drink of champions that is the cup of tea. Or alternatively the view out of my office window – trees, fields and lovely sky make a wonderful antidote to laptop screens and plasma TVs.

Ultimately, though, it has to be Twitter. It may seem an odd choice, but frankly working on your own can get pretty lonely and quiet. It’s a combination of the simple back-and-forth banter, fun links, interesting articles and up-to-the-minute news that replicate the joys of working in a team environment – without all the extra washing up.

Why did you decide to enter the casual gaming market?
This one is simple: barrier to entry. As a start-up it is very important to find a valid, thriving market (or a totally underserved one, admittedly) that allows you to get product to market with the minimum of cost. The iOS market ticks a few of those boxes and means I can concentrate on creating high quality games rather than worrying about building up a war chest beforehand.

That combined with the opportunity to make games that don’t take years to make, to be honest. Shipping games more regularly means I’ll become a better designer, and the casual market is very open to giving plenty of feedback which is just brilliant. Working at bigger companies in the past, we were so shut off from the audience we were trying to entertain. This way makes a lot more sense.

What games/tools/services have you made since forming, and how have they been received?
Well we’ve just launched our first full game, called Crunch – The Game. It’s available on iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. It’s an addictively simple little number puzzle game, where you have to clear blocks off the screen by matching a target number. It’s doing great so far, the feedback has been really good.

That project was for a client called Crunch Accounting, who, as I understood it, wanted to get their brand out there into the wild in a slightly more interesting and engaging way than the usual magazine advert or the like. By creating a fun little game – and credit to their own team for having such a game-friendly brand in the first place – they’ll reach out to a much bigger audience than the niches they’d otherwise be forced to approach.

Other than original game development, Spilt Milk Studios also offer a pretty broad range of game design consultation. So far we’ve worked with Proper Games Ltd, Beefy Media and several more including Skillset.

Skillset were kind enough to ask me to get involved in assessing and developing their criteria for Games Design-focused post-graduate courses in the UK. It’s been really satisfying knowing that I’m giving something back; helping in some small way to shape graduates. These students are the future of our industry, so I’m honoured to be contributing to this very valuable work.

What are you working on right now, and what stage is the project at?
Currently I’m hard at work on a second iOS project, which is more of a modern re-imagining of a retro classic. I’ve been heavily inspired by the likes of Pac-Man CE and DX, as well as Geometry Wars 2 in terms of presentation and the broader features they implement. The idea of taking a well-loved arcade game from the days of yore and bringing it kicking and screaming into the hands of modern gamers has a huge appeal for me.

I’m very excited about this project because we’re definitely on to something – my coder and I have trouble because we’re competing on the game’s high-scores instead of developing the game. It’s about halfway done I’d say, and we’re looking to release sometime in April barring any catastrophes.

I’m also overseeing a third game, a character-based action game, and in the planning stages for a fourth, a slightly more ambitious project, so things are looking good moving forward.

What are your aspirations for the company?
Ideally, I’d like to branch out of just doing iOS games and into some PC-focused, browser/online casual games. They take a lot of planning and backend support, but also allow us to release a lot sooner, which in turn means we can get the community involved to a whole new level. It’s the future, I tell you.

Spilt Milk Studios itself was founded to become more than just me and a team of outsourcers, though I’d never want to go much further beyond 10 full-time employees without a really good reason.

Looking even further ahead I see the key to creating a valued, and valuable, company is to build rich, original and high quality character-driven IP, so that’s the grand plan right there.

Who do you admire in the games industry and/or beyond?
In the games industry I admire a ton of people and companies. Valve for their single-minded attitude to high quality games as well as their wonderfully open and respectful relationship with their customers. Nintendo and Shigeru Miyamoto in particular need a shout-out for their consistent innovations and the wonderful, magical games they release.

Tetsuya Mizuguchi has had a massive influence on my gaming life, from Sega Rally Championship on the Saturn (first and only ‘real’ racing game I’ve ever enjoyed) all the way up to Rez, this man has made some of the most important games we’ve seen.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your company?
Besides the game-making and consultation, people might be interested to know we do some work in comics/graphic novels too, and are hoping very much to bring something interesting to iOS soon regarding this.

Other than that I just want to say thank you to anyone taking the time to read this, to anyone who plays our games, and also to all the people that have supported me through this venture so far. They know who they are.

Finally, watch out for us in the future, and fingers crossed you all enjoy our games.

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