Vancouver’s East Side Games launched themselves from the arguably inauspicious beginnings of Pot Farm to become a stable, successful, and growing indie shop currently approaching the ripe old age of two. Their success is owed partially to an experienced management team, partially to the company culture that empowers decisions at all levels of the organization, and (I think you’ll agree) more than a little to the moxie from passionate game developers like Josh Nilson, COO of East Side Games and the person providing the answers to our questions.
Isaac Calon: Where did East Side Games come from?
Josh Nilson: Being from East Vancouver, obviously our first game was Pot Farm. We made it at our old studio and brought it over when East Side Games was born. Pot Farm has been around for three years and is still going strong with over 400,000 monthly players. It's a sticky and organic base of players (heh). Our biggest claim to fame is that we grew Pot Farm with virtually no marketing since we couldn't buy ads that contained pot-related content. But with the support of our fans the game became a viral success. Because of this we believe community is everything. We built Pot Farm with our fans, for our fans, and we believe we have the best fans out there on social games. We have a few mottos here at ESG. One of them is "we build games that don't suck" and the second one is that "we build what our fans want."
Isaac: East Side Games hasn’t been around for very long, but you’ve grown to become one of the largest indie shops in Vancouver, maybe anywhere. How’d you do it?
Josh: Culture is king. We're fiercely independent and we believe the process of how we make games is important. We only build games that come out of our Swill'n'Spill pitches. SnS is a monthly game pitch session where team members can pitch game ideas and receive support from the entire studio to develop prototypes. All of East Side Games' future titles are selected this way.
To ensure we keep our culture strong, we hire a ton of indie developers. When people work here, East Side Games is their day job, but at night, they are free to work on their own games. Also, we have a big sign on the wall that says "Fail Faster." We try to prove out a lot of different game mechanics/concepts and if that doesn't work we try out something else. As I mentioned before, we also believe in the community-is-everything approach. It's woven into our culture and in our games. We've even seen players with Pot Farm tattoos. Less than a week into Dragon Up's launch, we received fan art that we've incorporated into the game. A fan even crocheted the green "Billy" dragon and sent it to us!
Isaac: What's coming out now/next? Why will people want to play it? What's it cost? How/Where can they find it? In short, where are you now?
Josh: We just launched Dragon Up on iOS. In it, players send a hilarious assortment of dragons on whimsical adventures to gather fabulous treasures. Kotaku reviewed the game saying that the game "sets itself apart from the dozens of other dragon breeding games on iOS with its Cartoon Network style, its silly sensibilities and the fact that it's not really a dragon breeding game." They even created a new category, "dragon vomit harvesting," just for the game.
The best part is that every dragon is completely unique and no two dragons are the same. For example, a jelly dragon looks very different from a gargoyle dragon. We think it's a great game because there's endless room for creativity. We've seen support from fans sending in art for their own creations: Dracula dragons and clockwork dragons. Dragon Up is free on iOS and people who are interested can download it at the App Store (http://bit.ly/XZbRO4).
Isaac: What are your plans for the future?
Josh: Dragon Up is East Side Games' first big step into mobile. It's a game that we'd categorize under an indie freemium genre: where developers are more generous in giving out premium currency to players, not gating them left and right with pay walls or share walls, and reinforcing the belief of community-is-everything. Our plan for the future is to continue making indie freemium games. This is a new genre where leaders in the space like Tiny Tower, Happy Street, and Pixel People are doing great things. We want to make games that don't suck in the freemium space and indie freemium is the way to go.
The Indie Touch
Isaac: What's the best thing about being an indie shop and/or what's the best thing about working in an indie shop?
Josh: The best thing about being an indie shop is that the lifestyle works with our culture. Having this fierce independence, we get to do things our own way, be brave, take risks, and try new things out that other studios can't. For example, last year we launched a game on Google+. We're not at the throats of big-time publishers or in meetings forcing us to make our games appeal to a number, rather than a person.
Our smaller team sizes also contribute to the definition of our culture and style of making games that don't suck. Another big benefit to being indie is that we get to be transparent with our fans. We're up front for what it takes to grow an app so we loop in our fans on what we're going to do. It should be a game made by the players, for the players.
Isaac: Where do you see indie gaming going? Is it the new big thing? Alternatively, where do you see triple-A gaming going?
Josh: There's a huge opportunity for indie gaming to take advantage of the indie freemium genre. There's always room to improve the mobile experience for your players. For example, in Dragon Up, we're seeing people who've played the game every day for two weeks without hitting payment walls and lots of players who were more than happy to buy the elusive 8-bit dragon. We've been getting comments from fans who were very happy with their purchases because, unlike several games we've seen, the value of the purchases in Dragon Up feels very rewarding. It also doesn't impede the progress of other players or break the game balance—spending in the game enhances the experience but in no way lets players skip the line or give them an edge over others.
To answer your second question, with the traditional triple-A game, you can't move fast enough. The industry is changing rapidly and companies need to stay agile. As an indie studio we are able to work directly with our fans and improve our games very quickly.
In Vancouver especially, the gaming scene is moving very quickly. There are lots of new mobile companies moving here that wouldn't have been here years ago like Gree, DeNA, and TinyCo. It's a good opportunity for triple-A studios to redefine themselves. For the whole industry, I think you're going to see less of a line in the sand between triple-A and casual gaming. In the future, you won't be able to be just mobile, just social, or just console. There will be a blend.
For example, SEGA and Activision are already on all platforms—why can't you have a studio that touches all types of gamers? I think the advantage indies have over these big studios is communication. If triple-A studios want to make a comeback, they're going to have to start sharing more, both internally and with the public.
Isaac: What was your scariest moment as an indie developer?
Josh: It was definitely Pot Farm. When we launched Pot Farm, we slept with one eye open for six months straight. Luckily Facebook has been awesome to work with and it's a great platform to work on. Facebook has and still is opening new genres of games for people. Funnily enough, we did develop Pot Farm for other platforms and got rejected. If you want me to name names, you'll have to buy me a couple of beers (or whiskey).
Isaac: What was your most rewarding moment as an indie developer?
Josh: When we decided to only make games that our team members pitched. It can be both scary and really rewarding rather than just making what management wants. Only a few studios do this.
Another thing that's pretty rewarding is that we reached out to the indie community and want to be a voice and a force in the grassroots indie movement. We sponsor all the local events and open our studio up to show people what we can do. We provide mentorship to other studios and had people leave our studio to start their own studios. We're there for them. We're happy to have our team look at others starting out and have a coffee talk on how to make their games better. We didn't pioneer this grassroots thinking of helping each other out. We want to help younger studios the way studios helped us when we first launched. It's exciting because it's an industry that's only been in North America for five years (and we've been here for the majority of that) so it's always a state of constant learning.
Isaac: What do you look for in employees? Is there a marked difference between the sorts of people you'd look for in an indie shop than a more traditional studio?
Josh: Culture is king at East Side Games. We value culture above all else. I suppose it's a different place to work. Often there are babies in the office; people have lives. Even though we've grown, we still operate more like a scrappy start-up. People get a say in what we make and what we do. We want people who can get work done in crunch time but know that if there's a big dump of snow on the hill they’re allowed to go snowboarding. It's a new business. This isn't the type of industry where you grind for two years on a single project then go on vacation. It's where you launch a game and the real work starts. We're always looking for people who are one part hacker, one part start-up entrepreneurs, and one part fiercely independent.
Talk is cheap. It's BS. Stop by sometime and see what we're really about.