In 2011, Codemasters co-founder David Darling resurfaced at the head of a new studio, Kwalee. After a handful of mobile games, the firm went largely quiet – and is now active once more with the recent launch of its newest title PlayPhoto.
The app is based around the concept of ‘gamifying’ the many photos most smartphone users have crammed into their device’s memory. Players will be able to take a picture and transform it into a quiz or puzzle that can be shared with friends – and Kwalee has more game formats planned for the coming weeks.
It might surprise readers to know PlayPhoto has actually been in the works for three years as the team honed the technology and ensured it would be able to support a large community. As the studio grew, Kwalee even had to shift the game’s entire codebase from Cocos to Unity.
We caught up with David Darling (pictured) to find out why PlayPhoto was worth three years of hard work and technical challenges, as well as how the studio is encouraging users to continue generating content for the game.
Kwallee was set up five years ago, but has remained largely under the radar. Why was this important, and why is now the time to emerge?
We launched Flip the Cats and Farm Fighters, which were great games but then we wanted to work on a much more ambitious project. We knew this would take time and wanted to concentrate on development rather than marketing, until we were happy with the quality of PlayPhoto.
We’ve also been working hard to put in the right infrastructure around the game. The success of mobile games is very much linked to the analytics and marketing tools that support the game and we wanted the flexibility that in-house tools provide.
I’ve never done anything with such advanced server technology – that’s really exciting – and it’s been an interesting experience learning about it all.
Why did it take three years to develop PlayPhoto? What technology is running behind it?
We started off with a very small team for the first year or so. Then ramped it up, and enlarged the team. We were working on three games at the same time and it was taking too long so we decided to put everyone into one team as it was such a big project.
The technology is pretty complex – we have client code and server code, and systems in three clusters around the world to ensure we give a good service in terms of response times. We’ve also built a dynamic messaging system which allows us to manage our player communications with segmentation alongside a full analytics solution that gives us incredibly granular data on all our players.
You’re a veteran of the games industry. How has your years of experience helped with this title?
I’ve always loved making games, that are addictive and fun, especially multiplayer games so this experience has helped. At Codemasters and here I’ve always encouraged innovation and utilisation of taking the state of the art one step further by using new technologies and combinations of technologies.
What makes PlayPhoto different to anything you’ve done before? Was it important to you to challenge yourself?
I’ve never done anything with such advanced server technology – that’s really exciting – and it’s been an interesting experience learning about it all. PlayPhoto is also a platform that mixes user-generated content with social play which makes it stand out against the other projects I’ve been involved in.
The changes in the gaming landscape have been seismic over the last five or so years – none more so than with mobile – and the challenge to make a game that resonates with such a large potential audience has been a great motivator.
People were using those cameras to take billions of photos and sharing them with their friends. But we thought it was a shame all this sharing was “passive”, there wasn’t a lot “interactive”.
Where did the concept of ‘gamifying’ photos come from? Were there limits to how this concept could work – such as the type of games players can create – and how did you tackle this challenge?
Well, we saw how popular smartphones were obviously and they had cameras built in. People were using those cameras to take billions of photos and sharing them with their friends. But we thought it was a shame all this sharing was “passive”, there wasn’t a lot “interactive”. We just thought if we can make a game where people can take photos and make photo games out them, it would be popular.
We want to do for photo games what YouTube has done for videos. In terms of limits, we don’t really see any at the moment – there’s such a backlog of ideas that we’ve already got a full calendar of updates. The innovation that comes from the first parties, Apple and Google, also helps us develop and expand on the concept.
What was the biggest technical challenge in making this concept a reality?
Really just the size and complexity of the project. Connecting players from all over the world and letting them make photo games, share them privately with the friends or publish to the community. There’s a lot of work getting the servers to talk to to all those players. And the client side has to talk to the servers and be elegant and user friendly for the player to make it fun to play and easy to make photo games.
Why did it become necessary to migrate the codebase from Cocos to Unity, and how easy was this to do?
We started in Cocos, which is great at some things and fast, but when we put more and more people on the team then we felt Unity was better for us to get the whole team working together. Unity allows us to be more agile — artists, programmers and designers can all contribute and the project flows and changes can be made quickly. We knew that the change to Unity was going to mean a delay in releasing but it was a decision made with the long term in mind.
If we did it again, we would have used Unity from the start.
The challenge of any game that is reliant on user-generated content is to encourage users to do so. How have you achieved this?
Really, ease of use. We just wanted to make it super easy to make a fun photo game out of your own photos. We had lots of ideas for great features – photo effects, predator vision, blur, pixelate, swirl – and a good variety of question types – hangman, multiple choice, two answers, three and four answers, touch the picture, with two to four pictures.
In the coming weeks, we going to add many more types of photo game and effects. We tried to keep the graphic design very elegant and not over complicated, so it was key to not only add features and also delete the ones that weren’t really needed or working. The PlayPhoto iMessage Shuffle Puzzle is a great example of a simple but engaging user-generated photo game – simply choose a photo and sending it to a friend who receives it as a fun sliding puzzle.
How are you ensuring PlayPhoto is safe to use for gamers of all ages, and not open to abuse? (I.e. What’s to stop people filling it with pictures of penises?)
We operate the same as most other social media platforms. We have strict terms of what players can do, what photo games they can publish and we have reporting systems like Facebook and YouTube.
How difficult is it for developers to balance creating a UGC-based game where players have the freedom to create what they want, while still ensuring this doesn’t get abused? Is these even possible to do?
Well, we just tried to develop the best tools we could for the players and we’ve been delighted with creativity and high quality work the players are putting into the photo games that they’re making. Our procedures and reporting systems ensure that the content is appropriate and our game algorithm rewards quality content – similar to how Facebook and YouTube deal with their feeds. We’ve had a lot of fun in the office playing all the new quizzes and seeing what people are capable of creatively.
What’s the biggest lesson learned from the three years it took to make PlayPhoto?
If we did it again, we would have used Unity from the start.