The quiet village of Bicester may not be synonymous with the games industry’s most famous names, yet it is this British town that is home to the developer behind one of this year’s biggest successes on mobile.
A true indie sensation in a world where such descriptions are bandied around too much, New Star Soccer 5 has been downloaded more than one million times on iOS, and has garnered three million plus monthly plays on browsers via Flash.
New Star Soccer is a 2D football game where users start out as a 16-year-old athlete trying to become a sporting star.
Players can take part in matches, participate in interviews and sign sponsorship deals, whilst they can also take on the glamorous lifestyle of a modern footballer and buy cars, houses, gamble at the casino and even take bribes to throw matches.
Training up alone
The game’s creator, Simon Read, who operates under the developer brand of New Star Games, started off making the New Star Soccer series ten years ago, back before the resurgence of the indie scene, inspired by his passion for football and classics such as Football Manager, Kick Off and Sensible Soccer.
Armed with an English Literature degree from university and a love for programming, Read decided to teach himself the intricacies of coding by purchasing books under his own esteem and studying the art of games creation by himself, harkening back to his younger days learning BASIC on the ZX Spectrum.
“After leaving university I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I always loved programming,” he says.
“It had been a while since I had got into coding, so I got some books and started learning again, just C and C++. I started working on New Star Soccer on PC, and over the last ten years it’s been building on that, with me learning as I go."
He jokes: “I wouldn’t say I was a very good coder. I just get stuff to work and if it does then I’m okay, and I move on to the next challenge.”
Ten years later, having started out creating a little game called World Cup Manager before New Star Soccer, and after steady success on the PC for his leading series, Read is now comfortably well off.
Becoming a Galactico
Read jokes that he could afford a Ferrari from the money he has made from New Star Soccer on mobile – a lifestyle which so many indies dream of.
But his most immediate concerns are moving out of his two bedroom apartment in a multistorey building and into a new house with his wife, Lucy – who is also director of New Star Games – and four-month-old son, Matthew.
He says that had his circumstances been different, he’d have looked to perhaps invest in setting up a small studio, a plan which he may come back to in future.
But why didn’t Read go the traditional route of joining a studio with his new found development skills and make his way through the ranks to become the head of a studio?
“I guess I didn’t really have an ambition to do it,” he explains. “It was just fun to do as a hobby, but I don’t feel I have the qualifications.
"I actually went for different interviews over the years. One was with EA Sports after I launched New Star Soccer 3. They wanted to get me over to Vancouver to work on Total Club Manager. I had this interview with them and it went absolutely disastrously and I didn’t hear anything back from them.
“That was kind of a confidence-shattering experience, but I was happy working alone. I could control the whole project myself and include the features I wanted, and I prefer that.
"I’ve always just wanted to have complete control. I’ve never really had any desire to join a developer.”
For Read at least, it was luck that he didn’t get the Total Club Manager job, given development on the franchise ended in 2006, and changing into FIFA Manager.
And in true indie style, Read has made much of the New Star Soccer series on his own, expanding on the database he has steadily built over the years.
Although he admits that he has had to bring in other people to help work on the game’s database, translation into multiple languages and artwork, the coding itself is still handled by Read alone.
In fact, working alone is something Read recommends other aspiring developers to give a try, although it can often depend on the person whether that is the route for them.
“I would recommend people try it,” he says. “I guess other people need a team around them. If I could do everything I would, but there are certain elements I need to delegate. But yes, it depends on the person.
“I think developers should give it a go though. It’s so easy now to use languages like Unity or Monkey, and build for mobile or Flash or PC and Mac, so just try it.
"But it’s not easy, it takes time to learn what works and what doesn’t, and lots of people find it hard to finish a project.”
The big-money move to mobile
The game is free to download and play on iOS for up to ten matches, with the career mode unlockable for 69p.
It’s a technique which has seen the game downloaded 1,111,725 times, with 429,067 of those users purchasing the career mode. The title also uses other in-app purchases to help career development and can cost up to £9.99, which have been bought an impressive 147,508 times, approximately ten per cent of overall users.
The Android version meanwhile adopts a simple pay up-front model. As Read explains there was no ready-made plug-in available to easily introduce an in-app purchase module similar to the one used on iOS.
He says that rather than spending another month or so developing a solution, he decided to use the situation as an experiment to see what was more popular.
But this is a decision he says, in retrospect, was a big mistake, with the iOS release outselling its Android counterpart by ten-to-one.
“It’s doing well on Android. It’s been Top Five in the paid charts, but it’s still nothing compared to Top Ten on iOS,” he says.
“Whether that’s purely down to things like piracy and free-to-play or it’s more to do with the amount of people that are actually using iPhones compared to Android I’m not sure.
“But the fact is I think going free-to-play is definitely the future for my next project and future games.”
The problems Read mentions about Android, which many other developers have suffered from, including Football Manager studio Sports Interactive, have also plagued his own game, despite its affordable price and indie appeal.
“I think there’s a problem with piracy on Android, definitely,” he says. “I see so many links to the APK on different blogs and forums, which is just impossible to combat so I don’t really try. I think that’s a huge factor.”
Despite the negative experience of the smartphone platform, he says this hasn’t put him off releasing on Android in future. He plainly states: “it still makes money”.
Steam transfer saga
As for other platforms, Read is currently looking at the potential for the game to release on Vita some time in the next few months, given the Monkey engine’s recently released adaptation for the handheld.
Although, Read admits he’s yet to see how viable this would be. He says, however, that he is unlikely to release the game on console, as he feels iPhone “will completely burn away every other platform”.
Read is also attempting to expand the reach of the PC version of New Star Soccer, which can be downloaded for free and later upgraded with a paid-for premium package to unlock the full game.
However, Read explains that his attempts to bring the hit title to Steam have been less than fruitful, having received a surprise rejection after his initial submission.
He says, however, after some industry friends put in a word to Valve, the game has now been accepted, although it is still awaiting release on the Portal studio’s ubiquitous digital distribution platform as he works out a few of the game’s kinks and localisation issues.
“I resubmitted the game a few months after the initial submission and this time they were happy to accept it,” he says.
“I don’t know if there was any favour on my part there but they’ve accepted it. I tried to get it ready in time for the Euros but it didn’t happen, so now a friend of mine is updating the database and we will launch it quite soon.
“I’ve got to chase Steam a bit further to try and get something sorted because it wasn’t working on the Mac client, so as soon as that’s fixed we’re ready to go.”
Read is now looking at other potential games, and has ambitions to release a new title every six months.
Currently prototyping New Star Tennis and considering ideas for New Star Chairman, this is one indie who you will hear plenty more of in the years ahead.
Total downloads (free): 1,111,725 (64.5 per cent UK)
Career mode (69p): 429,067
Other in-app purchases (69p – £9.99): 147,508
Total downloads (£1.99): 38,571 (69.9 per cent UK)
Monthly plays: 3m+
Total registered players: 243,031
Monthly active players: ~5000