Interview with Jake Birkett (Grey Alien), Big Fish Games Lead Programmer

11 02 2009

Jake Birkett is well known in the indie game developers community. He developed Holiday Bonus, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Fairway Solitaire. In the end of 2008 he made a transition to Big Fish Games and is no longer indie, but he still works on great games. If you want to learn more about Jake, find out what makes a best seller game and how indies can compete in todays market start reading now.

NOTE: In this interview Jake speaks for himself and not as BFG representative in any way.

Jake BirkettFairway Solitaire was published over 14 months ago. Isn’t it the time for a new release? When we can expect it?

You can expect it around the Weekend of Sat 21st Feb.  This is 100% certain now unless something crazy happens.  I’ve spent a long time on this game (about 11 months) but I’ve been pretty busy moving continent and other stuff…

Should we expect another hidden object game?

No.  BFG in Seattle makes those, we are tasked with making other games in Vancouver.  It will be fun to hear what people say about it – mixed opinions no doubt, but as long as the customer love it (and express their love with their credit cards) then I’m happy.

Ok, so how did you get started in game development?

In 2005 I went full-time Indie after making business software for 9 years in Delphi and SQL.  I’ve always made games as a hobby since the age of 8 (I’m 33 now) in BASIC, assembly, C, C++, Delphi, Blitz and probably a few other things along the way.  I reached a certain point where I realised that I enjoyed making games so much that I just *had* to do it for a living – so I stopped doing business software and started writing games professionally.  I made two downloadable match-3 games and was contracted by Injoy Games to make a 3rd, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which went well.

Match-3 as a jump start in game development career? That’s how you’ve met BFG?

The Wizard of OzEmmanuel from Big Fish Games Europe saw Oz and thought it was programmed well and asked if I would be interested in programming a game for them.  I had to think about this quite hard because I saw it as great opportunity to learn more about casual games from some of the most knowledgeable people in the industry, yet I also was keen on building up my own business and working for BFG would slow that down.  Also frankly at the time I needed the money because, as many Indies will know, it takes quite a long time to build your business up to the point where you are making a half-decent living.  In the end I said “yes” and signed a contract to program Fairway Solitaire.  However, before I started work on that game I quickly launched Holiday Bonus using an upgraded Oz engine, and it’s done really well for me over the last 2 years.

Fairway Solitaire was a great success for BFG. Why solitaire? Solitaires were not so popular at that time?

Fairway SolitaireSo Fairway Solitaire was a downloadable conversion of an existing on-line Java game.  Big Fish Games have an online community site with lots of casual games on it, many of which were designed by John Cutter.  Fairway was one of the most popular at the time.  I worked closely with John to make the download version and to add in lots of improvements and to give it a good level of polish.  It took a long time but when it launched it was BFG’s most successful card game ever.  It got to no.3 and stayed in the top 100 for over a year.  I also made French, Spanish and German versions and a Mac version too.

Why did you make the transition to BFG instead of working as a freelancer for them?

After the success of Fairway they offered me a contract to make two more games for them and I agreed and started on the first new game in late February 2008.  By this point I’d talked to Helen, my fiancée, about the idea of living abroad for a couple of months at a time whilst we worked (we both just need a PC and the Internet to work – she is a freelance Science writer), and we were going to try it out for fun.  Then in the summer I got a speculative email from BFG offering me a job in their new Vancouver studio.  Because we were open to the idea of moving abroad I said “tell me more” and then BFG flew us to Seattle to meet the team and to visit Vancouver to see if we liked it.  I got on really well with the people at BFG and knew that it would be a great learning experience to work with them but in a new studio (kind of like a start up company except you get paid!).  BFG have great designers, artists and QA on tap and will fund and market my games so it’s a really great opportunity.  So I said “yes” and we moved here in November 2008.  I figure that I’ll either stay working for them for a long time, or maybe after a couple of years I’ll use the experience and contacts to run my own business again – I’m flexible, I’ll see what happens.

What is your role at BFG?

I’m Lead Programmer/Designer.  At the moment this is a bit of a glorified title because I’m the *only* programmer/designer in Vancouver.  But soon we are hiring more programmers who’ll work with me on my next game.  Then we’ll expand to more teams and I’ll be overseeing them all.  That’s where the “Lead” bit comes in.  Basically I’ll be co-designing games with the designers at BFG in Seattle then programming one myself and assisting the other teams with theirs.  I’ll also be applying my polishing skills to all the games to make sure that they shine with quality.

A lot of people on the net asks you about perception of BlitzMax at BFG? Do they even care what you make your games with as long as they get what they ask for?

BFG has seen Fairway do really well and that was made with BlitzMax as were my previous two games (and yours are too right?).  In fact QA said they’d never tested such a stable bug-free game as mine.  BFG care about results and I was able to deliver the results with BlitzMax and they are happy with that.  Ideally the new teams in Vancouver will use it too so that they can get a head start by using my BlitzMax Game Framework, but if they end up using C++ or Flash then that’s OK too.  Blitzmax is easy to use yet powerful.  It’s an OOP feature-rich language built on C++ modules and has a great community.  People who don’t know any better may turn their nose up at it, but don’t forget that I’ve used over 30 languages including assembly, Delphi and C++ and I’ve chosen BlitzMax because I think that it’s the best for rapidly making games in – not because I’m a noob who can’t cope with anything else.

Can you tell us what are the differences between working on a game on your own and within a corporation?

For my own games I looked at the top 10 on various sites over time and what was selling and what I thought I could program easily and selected match-3. That turned out to be an OK decision but I sorta wished I’d made some Hidden Object Games a couple of years back (when they were simpler).  BFG has a huge wealth of data to analyze in order to choose a new title.  But to be honest I think that BFG are mainly interested in building up their existing brands, and developing new IP (that’s where I come in) – although they have many other plans too that I don’t know about.  Also Fairway Solitaire was a conversion of one of the online community games that was very popular.  So basically if I was still Indie I think I’d use similar methods to BFG – basically analyze data and use gut feeling based on industry experience and make a choice.  I think that a good method is stick to what is familiar but try to innovate in some way that makes it stand out from the crowd + add in buckets of quality + polish + marketing, which seems to work.

Technically you are not indie now, but I’ve got the feeling that you do still feel so…

Ha ha, yes good point – I’m now an employee but I do still feel like an entrepreneur.  My own games are still selling and generating royalties for my UK-based company (which I kept) and I still have a website and blog.  I’m also still interested in business ideas that don’t clash with my BFG job.  I see it as a two way thing working for BFG; I’m giving them my skills and they are giving me opportunities and experience.

How do you create a best seller?

Lol.  Well actually last Sunday at the Vancouver Game Design Expo I co-presented a presentation called “10 Secrets to Designing Instantly Enjoyable and Addictive Games” that was practically a manual for how to make best sellers. There are many things that help to create a best seller including: having a good idea that is original but not so far out that no one will try it, making the game addictive and fun with great player-feedback, making it accessible, making the game super-polished, getting the learning curve right, building in a meta-game (or three), testing it loads and loads, and tons of marketing :-)  I could talk for days about each of those points (and there’s more), but that will have to do for now.  Of course I’m not saying I have all the answers as games can still miss the target, even if they seem to have all the points, but I’m getting a better idea of how to apply those points as I make more games and study other games.

What comes first – meta game or game mechanic? What is more important for game success?

Both are important.  Game mechanic must be utterly solid and fun and can be found out in the prototyping stage (but hopefully you’ve thought up an interesting overall concept to fit the game mechanic in).  Then a meta game can be layered on top but only if it compliments the game mechanic and better still if it can feed back into the game mechanic somehow (this is a whole topic in itself).  A pure game mechanic these days would feel like a 4 year old game so a meta game is required to add depth, variation and longevity to a title – it will increase conversion rate too.

What would you consider prime indie sin in game development?

This is a good question as there are several answers of similar importance.  Um, perhaps the prime sin is not marketing your game enough, because without good marketing it’s pretty much bound to fail unless it’s amazing and the press hears about it via a 3rd party somehow.  Also I would say another sin is not testing your game on other people enough – so basically making what you want to play and ignoring all (sensible) advice.  Other sins include not polishing it enough (and not spending enough money developing it).

Basically sins are like failing to do the sensible things, or going in completely the opposite direction.  For example you need a good number of the “10 secrets” I mentioned earlier, and if you miss out too many or do the opposite of them, then you’ve “sinned” and your game will probably flop.

So the secret “good idea that is original but not so far out that no one will try it” sounds great, but I’ve not seen that many games that follow it. Why?

I don’t know, maybe the developers just haven’t figured this out yet.  People either seem to make straight clones that don’t stand out and thus fail, or they believe they have to make something totally original and then no one wants to play it (this is not always true in some rare cases).  However, I think there are quite a few games that pick something not new and innovate a bit both in casual and AAA games, and these games are actually often the successful ones.  My next game does exactly this so we shall see if it works again…

Do you have your dream game that you would like to develop?

I might have to be a bit Gemini about this and choose two games.  One would be to resurrect my Iron Fist game that I started in late 2004.  It’s a Kung Fu platform/adventure game.  At the time I realised that there was not really a decent market for it, so I made a Bejewelled clone instead and thus my career in casual games began.  However, now with the success of XBLA, it could be viable again.  I’d like to make that game just for pure fun factor – I’d also like to make a shoot ’em up.  However, my second type of dream game would be an awesome casual game that defines a new genre and that everyone loves and that of course makes me loads of money.  Money isn’t evil, contrary to what some people seem to believe, it can be very liberating.  I see nothing wrong in wanting to earn lots as long as you do so ethically, and are generous with it, and realise that money can’t make you happy, only your inner-self can – although money certainly helps! ;-).

What do you think will be a next big thing in casual games?

The classic question.  The next big thing in casual games will be my next game :-) (after the one I’m just finishing now.)  At the moment Hidden Object games still rule but many people are getting into hidden object games with adventure game elements, which is great because I love adventure games.  Also the success of the Build-a-Lot franchise shows that the casual market is ready for strategy/sim games if they are done right, so we may well see an explosion there (it’s already beginning).  Oh and Farm games have been pretty popular this last year (but they won’t become a big thing).  There may be a brand new genre someone is working on right now…

Of course this is just downloadable games I’m talking about.  We’ve also got on-line community based casual games, and they are very popular, and MMO games (soon one is coming out that heavily focuses on Coop games, which I love), and social games, and mobile games, and console games etc.  So there are many things that could be the next big thing but I don’t have a crystal ball so I’m just as excited as you are to find out what happens.

Your best match-3 game, Wizard of Oz is based on a book for kids. Do you think that childish theme hurt sales? A lot of developers says that while casual games should be kids safe it hurts sales when they look like games for kids.

The guy that thought up the idea, Alex Ahlund, realized that a lot of adults in America are very fond of this story and they are probably smack bang in the target market, plus the game was “family friendly”.  It is listed on the BFG match-3 page AND the kids page and got mentioned in some family magazines/radio shows.  The game did pretty well but could have done better.  Perhaps more levels, more features, more polish and a meta-game would have turned it into a mega hit, but it was just taking ages to develop and so we had to release it.  I could probably improve it tons now.

Holiday BonuesAlso, I think my best match-3 is actually Holiday Bonus, it’s more polished in a number of ways.  Both games have sold similar numbers but Oz is ahead by about 1000 units.  This is largely due to Holiday Bonus being a seasonal game, which is generally thought of as a bad idea (limited window for sales) – although I’ve made money from it three Christmases running and the last Christmas was the best (note to self: seriously consider a Gold version or sequel again for 2009).

How do you think the market will look like in 2010? Will indies survive clone and pricing wars?

Yeah good question.  2010 is only 1 year away so I think it will probably look largely the same.  We’ll have even more top quality games being produced in-house by portals and by third-parties that they hire (maybe more Indies like me will have ended up working for portals, especially if I hire them!)  Portal pricing may well alter again as a reaction to Amazon’s entry into the market place, but I hope not.  Indies will need to decide if they should keep their prices higher because they believe that they represent better value (although I don’t think this is true in many cases), or drop them to fall in line with the price-warring portals.  If they do that then they’ll have to work even harder at their marketing strategies.  Certainly we’ll see lots of Indies who’ve never made decent money just give in, sad, but that’s just business – the strongest survive.   Oh and I predict that a new genre will have taken over (or nearly taken over) from Hidden Object games (that’s bold prediction that could land flat on it’s face).

One complete wildcard is the global economy.  Perhaps the US dollar will go crazy, and seeing as most of the casual game business is done in the US at the moment, this could cause massive disruption.  Although, apart from Nexon, the casual game industry seems to be weathering the storm better than mainstream game companies who are laying off staff on a daily basis it seems like.  It could mean that some portals get bought by the stronger ones or even that non-US portals (European or Asian for example) start to grow in stature.

Meanwhile we’ve got the whole online gaming, mobile gaming and console casual gaming stuff going on which I’m a bit more removed from.  But we’ll see growth in many existing and new areas, and some things becoming less popular (like maybe ad driven revenue as people stop spending money advertising due to the economy).  It’s actually a very exciting time to be making games in.  Lots of uncertainty.  I wonder how we’ll all look back on it in say 2011 :-)

If indie team was to hire just one person to improve their newest game, who should that be?

Me, but I’m unavailable, sorry.  Actually the answer is the Indie team needs to hire the person that they are missing!  So if your team is just a programmer and a musician, get an artist.  A good artist can make such a difference to the game and basically eye-candy sells when it’s slapped on a good solid base.  If your team doesn’t have a marketing expert on-board, get one or get a publisher otherwise your game will sink even if it’s great.  If you can program like a master but your game designs stink, get a decent designer!  You could even hire QA staff but hopefully you can get people to beta test it for free.  Also don’t scrimp on sounds and music, these are key elements to giving your game the correct atmosphere.

Sorry I couldn’t name just one person, because it really depends on who is in the team already.  But let’s say for example that most Indie teams are in reality only a single a designer/programmer – then HIRE AN ARTIST.  It makes such a big difference.

We can see a lot of indie games with crap art, but great art alone doesn’t sell the game (unless you’re EA). The bar for casual games has risen a lot. Where is the end?

At the current market size (and low price points) the limit is defined by how much profit you can make after paying for great art, sound and programming.  So maybe the games will not rise above a certain peak of quality and depth until the market grows bigger and companies can afford to invest more money in the hope of greater returns.  Possibly though, if the work can be outsourced to cheaper countries, then you can cram in more quality for the same price, and we might start seeing lots more of that (there’s already a lot happening now).

Also right now some games I’ve seen (like the recent Call of Atlantis (match-3) and Return to Ravenhearst (hidden object/adventure)) seem to have reached a peak of quality.  How do you improve upon that level of visual quality anyway?  It’s already better than many AAA games.  There must also be a point of diminishing returns where you spend more time and money on tiny details that yields basically no extra return.  Many games probably hit that level, and it’s more cost effective just to start a new game.

How indies that don’t have budgets to compete can compete with those games?

By getting out loans or getting investment from venture capitalists, or by teaming up with people who are prepared to work for royalties because their living situation is not pressurised (no mortgage or kids for example).  OR working for a portal as an external developer.  Then the portal spends the money and owns the IP, but you get paid to make it  + royalties – this can make good money (I can say this from first-hand experience of course).  I’m only talking about high gloss casual games here.  If you are making more niche indie games then you can still get away without that top level of polish and make good sales.  But I still feel it’s important to invest good money to see a good return – but make sure you know what you are doing and don’t just end up losing loads of money.  Oh one more thing, you could always make a game with some kind of minimalist graphics style that doesn’t require loads of money, just programming skills, and that might work (until it gets cloned better).

Wow OK so I typed way too much in this interview – I should have been programming!  Thanks for interviewing me, it was fun and I hope that people can take away something useful from it.  Oh and keep an eye out for my next game.  Good luck in 2009 everyone!

Thanks Jake!

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8 responses to “Interview with Jake Birkett (Grey Alien), Big Fish Games Lead Programmer”

11 02 2009
Juuso (17:16:55) :

Awesome interview, thanks Roman & Jake

11 02 2009
Mathews, Montreal (19:22:22) :

Thank you Roman and Jake great interview.
Could you tell us more about portal ?
I guess that Big Fish Game is like a portal ?

12 02 2009
Darren (07:38:28) :

Nice guy, but his orginal games are just “ok”. Any programmer can code a game when you have professional “game designers” telling you what to code. Fairway was “coded” by Jake, not designed by. Same with the sequel coming out. Let’s please keep this in mind.

12 02 2009
Roman Budzowski (10:14:01) :

It seems to bother people that Jake didn’t design Fairway. It’s funny, because when Emmanuel Marty made his games most people were amazed by execution of others ideas and not moaning that he didn’t introduced his own.

Casual games are too small to say “he just coded” it. That’s why programmer with a sense of design is very important to game success.

And last but not least, even if “he just coded it”, then you get the answer to the question: “If indie team was to hire just one person…” – hire a DESIGNER!

12 02 2009
Jake Birkett (10:42:13) :

Absolutely Roman, coding a game from start to end requires a ton of design work covering every element (gameplay, mechanics, particles, sound+music, UI, graphics, minor decisions, meta game etc.), even if the overall design is done by someone else. Many of the ideas in Fairway and especially my new game were mine or co-designed with me (this is actually the best way imho). It’s fun coming up with additional ideas for an already solid design by a pro.

12 02 2009
Jake Birkett (10:43:49) :

One more thing, most people’s first few games are only OK until they get into the swing of things around the 5th or 6th game, this was true of Emmanuel for example.

12 02 2009
Don’t tell me I lack vision | Sell More Games (11:34:18) :

[…] Interview with Jake Birkett was very well received. Thanks. Jake is the black belt in Aikido and hippocoder from the Indie Gamer Forums asked Jake: …as a black belt, how do you feel fitness or other activities contribute to your success? […]

28 02 2009
Grey Alien Games » Blog Archive » My Interview on Sell More Games Blog (09:26:19) :

[…] interviewed me a couple of weeks ago and you can read the results of my rather lengthy interview here. I wrote so much stuff – I’m sure I could have turned it into a ton of blog posts! Anyway, […]