Interview with Chanon Sajjamanochai, Executive Game Producer of Viqua Games

23 02 2009

One of the greatest things about indie (and casual) games is that you don’t have to live in the USA, Canada or UK to make great games. You can leave in Poland, Croatia or… Thailand. Chanon Sajjamonachai, Executive Game Producer of Viqua Games is a great example of that. Shop-n-Spree, their latest release holds strong in Big Fish Games top 10 sales chart. If you want to know how Chanon makes those top selling games reading this interview will a be great start :)

How did you start your game development adventure? How big is your studio now?

I knew I wanted to make games since high school. Soon I began learning C++ on my own and made a minesweeper clone and a simple top-down shooter. It was extremely hard to find info on making games though here in Thailand. About the time when I got to college, the internet explosion was just beginning, so with my top-end (at the time) US Robotics 33.6K modem I tried to find and learn everything I could about making games.

Fast forward 5 years later, I got bored with my enterprise software development job after a year and decided to resign and start a software company, thus ViquaSoft was born. At that time J2ME games on cell phones was supposed to be the next big thing, so we did a few games for that, but then I discovered the Dexterity forums and decided that developing casual downloadable games on PC was more exciting and might be more lucrative. So we started developing Tommy and the Magical Words and have focused on downloadable casual games ever since.

Right now we have 8 full-time people at our office here in Bangkok. We started with 3 in the beginning about 4 years ago and have been expanding continuously. Right now we’re expanding again and are looking for some more good programmers.

I am impressed by execution of themes in your game. You surely get maximum fun out of it. Who designs your games?

Thanks :)

The answer to that question is all of us. All 8 of us are the designers of our games.

The process goes like this:

First when we need to come up with a new game idea, we have everyone go back and try to come up with some and we meet and have everyone pitch their concepts. Then we kind of vote to choose the best one. But I still have the final say of course :)

Then when it comes to the actual designing, we do a lot of brainstorming together. We try to gather everyone’s ideas for the game and choose the best ones. This period consists of lots of meetings where we iteratively refine the details of the game design.

You could call this design-by-committee which some say is bad. I’d rather call it design-by-passionate-team :) From our experience if it is managed well then it leads to a well thought out design pretty quickly. With this method everyone in the team gets to exercise their creativity and build their game design skills. Just by listening to the more experienced team members discuss about the design issues, the less experienced team members learn a lot. Also each team member has a lot more personal investment in the game’s design and the game’s outcome. In any case, the producer (me) has the final say though.

Everyone understands the reasons behind every design decision which helps a lot, otherwise you have team members arguing and complaining to each other (and me) on design decisions all the time which makes everything go slower.

I believe that if you have programmers and artists just developing according to a designer’s vision without being able to give any input, they will feel like machines. Additionally the team members wouldn’t really be growing as “game developers” as design is a big part of game development. So the aim for me is to build everyone’s skill in game design so that together we can create better and better games more effortlessly.

And it is tons of fun discussing the game designs together, bouncing ideas off each other. During the design phase it really makes work feel like play and I sometimes feel guilty that I have a job that is so fun.

So how do you create a best seller game?

I’m definitely not an expert about this as I’m never 100% sure that any of our games will do well before releasing it. It’s been good to see though that we’re seeming to do better with each release. So hopefully that is proof that my strategy of incrementally building everyone’s game design skills with each game works :)

BTW, for our latest game Shop-n-Spree a lot of credit goes to BFG as they helped tons in adjusting our original design to better fit their target market.

Back on topic, I gave a talk at a local game developer conference recently where I listed the main attributes of a “good game” as:

1. FUN
2. Good production values
3. Accessible
4. No bugs
5. Appeals to a viable target market

Compared to Jake’s 10 secrets it looks like I’m missing a few :) But I guess mine are just a little broader and maybe are just the basics. But these really are the basics that you need to begin with. Each of them is only a few words, but I could go into the details of what I learned about each for pages.

I’ll talk a bit about FUN and addictiveness. I consider addictiveness as part of FUN in my list above. On this topic Jake mentioned meta-games .. for me I like to think of it as something – anything that keeps the player going. You have to have a reason for the player to continue playing beyond the current level at all times. They have to always have a reason in their head during the current level and at the end of the level as to why they want to keep playing beyond it. This is about setting short-term and long-term goals and spacing out the “rewards” in a game.

I read about WOW and MMORPG games and about the reason why they were addictive is that players always have something they are about to get if they play just a bit more. It could be a bit more experience to get the next level, or enough money for the new sword, or something else. There’s always something that feels like it is just a few minutes away.

You really have to apply this to your game. The spacing is the important thing. You don’t want to have players have to play too long before seeing the next new thing or even without knowing when or if they will get it. This has been discussed in the Indiegamer forums before but people still don’t do it properly. You really have to make it clear why they should keep on playing, what is waiting for them. Additionally it has to be something significant in the player’s mind. Many times you think you’re giving the player something new, but to them it is just ‘more of the same’.

One of the ways is by increasing and keeping high the frequency of introducing “new gameplay elements”. This way you keep the player interested because they know that by playing just a bit more they will see something new to play with in the game. Look at how World of Goo does it. Early on you notice how every few levels (or actually every level) there is something new .. new mechanics, elements and especially the new types of Goo balls. Each of the new types of Goo balls adds significant gameplay value. So it is not just cosmetic stuff. This is the true genius of the game. If an “amateur” (non-experienced game developer) came up with the idea of World of Goo, they’d believe that the core mechanic was fun enough and have only the standard type of Goo ball and invest a lot of time into making about 50 levels with maybe 5 different “background themes” hoping that would provide enough variety. People would get bored quickly since they’d feel they’ve seen everything .. “it’s just more levels” and the game wouldn’t sell anywhere nearly as well and people who didn’t know better would even say the idea sucked.

I could write pages more about these 5 topics, but I’ll stop here :)

OK, great news is that you don’t have to be an expert to create top selling games. Lets talk more about FUN. How do you find out what is fun for your audience? I consider this as a one of most challenging task for developers. They just seem to like different games than casual audience.

I guess this corresponds to my no.5 above “Appeals to a viable target market” which I think is the first thing you need to get right before you do anything else because if you make a game that “doesn’t appeal to a viable target market” then pretty much by definition, it won’t sell. No amount of polish will help it.

To make a game that appeals to your target market or in other words a game that is FUN for your target market, the key is to remember that just knowing who your target market is isn’t enough, you have to UNDERSTAND them. Only by understanding them can you make a game that is fun for them. The better you understand them, the more successful your game will be.

It is the same as in any business.

How do you understand your target market? The answer is to not be lazy about doing your market research :)

Do you prototype your ideas?

Yes, we start with prototypes. We don’t really think of them as prototypes, more like the first (internal) builds of the game.

We really follow the iterative/agile approach to development. If the game is not fun, we refine it. We try to get to the point of why it isn’t fun – I usually believe there is a reason that can be found and described in this case – and fix that and continue with this iterative approach for the whole game’s development.

The big thing that helps for us is everyone in the team is required to come up with ways to improve the game. So it’s not just me trying to come up with ideas to make the game more fun, it is all of us. This way it is very easy to improve the game as with all 8 of us, we’re always overflowing with ideas to improve the game and the only thing needed is to just pick the best ones which we do through brainstorming sessions.

This kinds of fits with my “everyone is a game designer” principle above in that during the development, everyone still does game design work.

That sounds very interesting. How much of development time you put into design sessions? Do you add new game play elements until very last moments?

For the first month of the project, it is half a day meetings everyday for about a week, then maybe a day or two a week as the prototype progresses. Then when we get into real production period, after each “iteration” which is usually about a month we have a period of maybe 2-3 days up to a week of evaluating the result of the last iteration and designing for the next iteration.

I’d say it is impossible to add new gameplay elements until the very last moments as we’d probably need another pretty large iteration to develop/test/tune/polish it. Gameplay elements are usually locked down earlier so that the final iterations can really be about polish. The final iterations’ lengths will be shorter such as 2 weeks and then 1 week per iteration then maybe 1 day (if you can call those iterations .. more like just “builds”). During those last iterations of a project there are definitely lots of significant improvements (other than bug-fixing) that we do, most of the time related to the UI, gfx, accessibility. Improvements that definitely make the game better so don’t really need too much further testing/balancing.

How do you plan to adjust to lowering average game prices?

Basically our plan is to branch out into new types of games in new markets and business models. We will continue to invest into developing higher quality downloadable casual games, but also invest into new/different markets.

I think in the current climate (and any climate actually) it is best to spread your risk and increase the variety of your revenue sources.

For us, the good thing is I think our experience in designing games for the demanding casual market will help us do better in other markets.

You sell a lot of affiliate games on your site? Doesn’t it hurt your own games sales?

Since most of our games are casual, the direct sales are just a fraction of portal sales so it doesn’t really affect us.

On the other hand affiliate income has been a nice bonus and it is always steady and increasing so I think it is worth it.

What do you do to promote your site?

The best thing you can do is release games on your site before you release it anywhere else. Send it over to review sites such as Gamezebo (if it is a casual game) and they will kindly link back to your site. This results in lots of traffic which you can hopefully turn some of them into repeat visitors / newsletter subscribers.

I don’t really have much knowledge when it comes to promotion for direct sales. Heck, you’re direct sales are tons better than mine!

Do you plan to become more portal independent?

As I said above, we are trying to branch out into different markets, so the answer is yes. It is only the smart thing to do. On the other hand, portals have been extremely good for us so we aren’t going to just stop using them either.

Any last words?

It’s like I’m some kind of expert to be giving this kind of interview, but actually I believe me and my team are still pretty new and still have tons to learn about all aspects of game development. The methods I described above are just what we found to work for us through trial and error and noticing what works and what doesn’t after developing 6 casual titles.

Finally I would like to use this opportunity to again thank all the good folks at the Indiegamer forums who have helped us during the years both directly and also indirectly by just creating so many damn interesting discussions :) And I have to give extra special thanks to svero (Steve Verrault) who has helped me a lot all these years. And last, BIG thanks to my team for doing such great work!

Thanks for your time.

Thank you too!

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4 responses to “Interview with Chanon Sajjamanochai, Executive Game Producer of Viqua Games”

23 02 2009
Jake Birkett (23:13:04) :

Really great interview again, thanks Roman and Chanon! By the way I loved First Class Flurry (it got so many things right) and will play Shop n Spree today hopefully (haven’t been able to due to finishing my last game). I’ve heard great things about it and in fact we’ll be competing for the same top 10 space soon along with Farm Frenzy Pizza Party…

re: “design-by-passionate-team”, I love that point, well made. Even though I didn’t originate the design for my last two games I was heavily involved in the design process as the game was developed – it made the game better for sure having more than one passionate designer.

Regarding my 10 points, they were just for how to make a game addictive and enjoyable, they didn’t even talk about the whole marketing side of things which could add another 10 at least. For example you’ve added “no bugs” and “appeals to target market” which I didn’t have listed. Without those you could follow my 10 points and make a very addictive but bug-ridden niche title (like about train spotting or something) that totally failed to sell, lol :-)

Oh one more thing, I’m pretty sure your first game came out a similar time to mine and was on Indiepath’s little casual portal along with Xmas Bonus and Easter Bonus, then he shut the site down, is that right?

25 02 2009
chanon (17:27:51) :

Glad you liked the interview Jake!

Yes, I remember that portal :)
Our first game was released near the end of 2005.

25 02 2009
Jake Birkett (22:05:54) :

Same here, Xmas Bonus in December 2005.

7 09 2009
Grey Alien Games » Blog Archive » My Interview on Sell More Games Blog (09:13:40) :

[…] Chanon Sajjamanochai (creator of First Class Flurry and Shop n Spree) […]