UK studio NaturalMotion Games has had a whirlwind year since growing out of its middleware roots and into the development scene, with its flagship release MyHorse garnering more than ten million downloads on iOS.
The company recently acquired $11million in investment in Series B funding from Benchmark capital, the VC firm which has also back studios such as Riot Games and Journey developer thatgamecompany.
Develop spoke to NaturalMotions CEO Torsten Reil on his plans to expand the studio in the UK and US, why he thinks high-end free-to-play will be the biggest gaming market of all time, and his advice for other companies looking to successfully break into game development.
What do you plan to use this investment for?
We are spending this money on scaling up further our development resource. We believe there is this huge opportunity in mobile social gaming by combining high-end, console quality visuals and polish with mobile usage patterns so being able to play in short bursts and many times a day with an overall progression arc.
To us that’s a huge disruption in the market, because most games at the moment on mobile are 2D resource management games, farming games basically, that look quite similar.
We’ve released six games so far altogether and all six of them were top ten chart successes on the App Store and the most recent game, MyHorse, was our most successful game by far.
MyHorse combines really high-end production values and console quality graphics with gameplay that could be played in these short bursts, and to us this is a huge disruption and we feel that is where the market is going to go.
What we’re looking to do is scale this up across our internal development teams both here in Oxford, London and San Francisco.
In San Francisco in particular we are building up a bigger studio now, we are about to move into offices in South of Market, which is pretty much where it’s happening right now, and scale up our dev capacity there.
How much are you planning to scale up by?
Altogether we are at 130 people now, and we are looking to scale up through the summer to 160, and then beyond that as and when it happens.
So most of that would be in the US?
Yes that’s right. There is going to be a lot of growth there. Having said that we are still recruiting heavily in Oxford and London as well.
Why are you expanding your US office in particular?
First of all it is because the US office is still smaller than the UK office and the UK office is big. It’s not like that it is small and it’s not expanding, that’s also growing.
But In the US in particular one of the things you can hire there much more easily than in the UK and Europe in general are product managers.
People who understand how to structure a game that is F2P, how to balance a game, how to find a difficulty progression that works with as large an audience as possible, how to tune your game to make sure that as many people get through your tutorial as possible.
Those are all skills, in particular in the Bay area and San Francisco area that a lot of people have because a lot of big companies are there, and those skills are lacking in the UK.
So what we do is train people up, but we can only do that as fast as we can possibly do it. If we want to grow even faster we have to go where those people are, and that’s in San Francisco.
Can you not bring those people over to the UK?
It is doable in some cases but it is not necessarily the obviously thing. If people live in a particular place in general they tend to want to stay there.
Why do you think you got the investment?
I think it’s about sharing the same vision. The point at where we are right now in mobile gaming is extremely early on in the cycle, we are maybe at the equivalent of 8-bit computers.
There has been this assumption for a while in the market that this kind of mass market audience, several hundred million users, they don’t really care that much about graphics, and we think that’s fundamentally wrong and is based on a misunderstanding of what actually happened.
The reason why these large volume games don’t have amazing graphics so far is because of Facebook legacy.
Most of those games originated on Facebook and Facebook was Flash and 2D and that’s why a lot of games on iPhone are 2D-based because their Facebook forbearers inspired them.
But that doesn’t mean people don’t like to be wowed and they don’t want to see amazing graphics just as much as hardcore gamers do.
A really good example of this is look what happened to animated movies. That went from Snow White to Lion King, all 2D, then eventually in 1995 you had Toy Story going 3D and the market has never looked back.
That’s not because a small hardcore audience wanted 3D, high-end, animated movies, but because the mass market wanted it and we think we’ll see exactly the same thing in mobile social games.
You said before you thought high-end free-to-play would emerge as the biggest market of all time, and that the UK should take advantage of it, do you think this has happened?
I think the UK is still lagging behind very much. I’m seeing on some games that are coming up that I think look great and take a huge step forward in visual fidelity on these devices but they are not games that resonate that well necessarily on a large scale because of either the subject matter or more likely the play pattern.
The tend to be more ‘gamers games’ that have reasonably long sessions, are very highly skill based and those games don’t tend to break out as much as other games, and take a slightly more inclusive route in terms of the overall demographic.
The third area is fee-to-play, I think free-to-play is not properly understood in most of the UK, and I think that is a huge issue, but it is something that will change.
We are training up a lot of people coming in and product managers in free-to-play, we have a cookbook at NaturalMotion about things that we’ve learnt with F2P that have worked, and how we make F2P games that really resonate with audiences, and these are all things that I think the UK will catch up on.
It’s just a question if whether it happens fast enough for several big companies to emerge. We’re going to end up worldwide with probably three-to-four really big players worldwide in this market and we want to be the leader.
You are having huge success now building up the game side of your business, how has that been going from a middleware outfit to a development studio?
It’s been good. It hasn’t actually been a problem as such in terms of switching and thinking about content. I should also say that our technology business is growing too, we’ve just had the best two quarters we’ve ever had.
But on the games side, which is growing even faster, it is all about knowing how to use technology in a way that creates an experience for people that they haven’t seen before and that’s what we are focusing on. Because we have a technology background and having that kind of technology in-house makes a big difference for us.
What advice would you give to similar companies looking to move into games development?
The biggest advice I would give is definitely that quality matters, massively. It’s kind of a cliché, but it matters massively for selling directly to large audiences because people see polish throughout the game and they appreciate it, even if they can’t necessarily put their finger on why they like a game so much, it tends to come down to polish, both on the graphical, gameplay and balancing side.
We spend a huge amount of time on polish, when a game looks ready we tend to then spend weeks and months then polishing little things here and there.
That to me would be the biggest thing. The other thing would be to take a systematic approach to addressing the market. I wouldn’t try making a game and hoping it sticks to the app store.
I would test, I would think very carefully about my demographic and think carefully about things that could be a hook in the game that really make it stand out because the market is super-competitive, there are about 600,000 apps out there right now.
Creating something that sticks out and is visible in the app store is very important. I’ve said it before that the UK has a great talent base to do that.
In terms of visuals the UK has some of the best people around and some of the best engineers to create really high quality graphics, so I think we have a really good position there.
What else now for the future of NaturalMotion? Will you be expanding even further?
Who knows, we’ve definitely realised over the last two or three years that the market is changing very quickly. As you know every week there is new information in the market as to what works, what doesn’t work, what different business models are currently working well, and these might change in a week or two.
Because of that we’re keeping our minds open. The capital will allow us to be quite adaptive and at the same time we’re not trying to grow to an organisation where we can’t move quickly anymore.
We obviously want to grow to a pretty decent size but at the same time still be agile, and I think that’s probably the most important thing right now, its about learning what is going on in the market and find out where its going.
So you don’t want to be a studio with hundreds and hundreds of people?
We probably do to be honest. I think we’re on our best way to doing that at the moment. There is no limit to the number of people necessarily at the company as long as it makes sense.
If we find, for example, that to be the leading publisher in mobile it requires a large number of people and a lot of games and teams, and that’s one way of doing it, and I think there are some indications that may be the case.
But if we at the same time differently find that its actually about the smaller number of titles, and supporting those with more sizeable teams then that is the route we follow.
I think the reality will be a combination of both, and what the staff will be as a result of that we’ll see but it will follow from the market rather than the other way round.
You said about being a publisher, does that mean your long-term goal would you publish other developer’s games?
We are publishing as much as we are a publisher on the app store. We obviously develop or let other teams develop, but then we publish it, we fund everything and put it onto market etcetera.
But that’s all in-house publishing so far, our own games that we develop ourselves. Would we also be looking at third-party publishing? It’s too early to tell and too early to say at the moment but we’re quite open-minded about this right now, although at the moment we’re still focused on scaling up our dev capacity.
But in the future that’s definitely an option you’ve been thinking about?
It’s definitely not something we’re ruling out.