David Smooke

@DavidSmooke

The Future of Indie Gaming is Multi-platform and Bright

Developer Relations Interview

Disclosure: PubNub, the global DSN and realtime IAAS company, has previously sponsored Hacker Noon.

Today we’re going to catch up with Jordan Schuetz, Developer Relations at PubNub. He started Ninja Pig Studios 7 years ago, and to date, they’ve developed and released over 15 products which have accumulated over a half a million downloads, such as IQ Test, Meme Run, and Tiny Birds. Today we discuss the direction of the indie gaming industry, the technology powering game performance, and the intricacies of developer relations.

In terms of making it easier to build a great game on your own or with a small team, what technologies are leading the way?

Indie game developers should always choose technologies that fit their skill level in development while also allowing them to target the platforms they want to release their content on. Developers with limited programming experience should go with engines where they feel more comfortable. I started off with Corona SDK since the programming language Lua was easy to pickup. However, when I needed to target additional platforms, Unity became my number one pick. Unity is killing the competition right now since it empowers developers to write one code base and publish to almost every platform. This is great for indies since they don’t have to worry about making sure their application works on the thousands of different devices out there; Unity does all the heavy lifting for them.

You recently gave talk: Standing Out in the Competitive, Crowded Indie Game Market. How does PubNub fit into gaming space? What is the PubNub’s current usage in the gaming industry? And what aspects of building games do you identify as a future high growth/usage for PubNub?

PubNub excels in two distinct areas of gaming. The first is powering the multiplayer functionality — in other words, making players move and syncing game state. We supply the infrastructure and APIs that with a few lines of code, you can get PubNub up and running in your game.

The other thing we’re great at is the social functionality of a multiplayer game — in simpler terms, making players talk. We make it easy to build and power in-game realtime chat, leaderboards, and notifications. In addition, PubNub can be used to update players positions, input in realtime and can show the current number of players connected.

We have a ton of large customers in the gaming space that use us for a wide variety of use cases. Pocket Gems, creator of the popular mobile game War Dragons, uses PubNub to power the realtime battles in their game, as well as Storage & Playback to allow players to join battles even if the player isn’t online for the very beginning of the battle. In addition, PubNub is globally replicated which allowed Pocket Gems to reach regions they normally didn’t have access too due to reliability constraints.

Gaming is a massive growth industry for us, since every game state change such as an input event, chat messages or a player movement is a message that needs to be sent through our network. Developers are needing ways to transmit this realtime information in a fast and reliable manner, and using the PubNub network we are able to provide that service to developers.

The Indie Game market is estimated to be over $1 billion just on Steam alone. Could you walk me through the evolution of indie game market?

Before the mid-1990’s, game distribution was controlled completely by publishers and retailers. As an indie developer, you would have to go out and pitch publishers to see if they were willing to distribute your title. Publishers would then offer their insight, request changes, and most of the times flat out deny your title from release. If your product wasn’t approved to be published, your only option as an indie would be to release your product as shareware and hope that you could receive enough donations to pay the bills. What changed the industry was in the 2000’s, Valve released their digital distribution platform called Steam which opened up the doors for indies to self-publish their titles. Indies now had the financial independence and independence of thought to create the games they wanted through their own budget constraints.

A lot of the challenge facing Indie Developers is distribution. The larger gaming companies have a lot of built-in distribution channels. As more developers are becoming Indie game developers, how have the distribution channels for the gaming industry evolved?

Companies that own digital distribution channels such as Steam really paved the way to how people consume and own digital content. Apple followed in Steam’s footsteps by creating the App Store, and then the Google Play store followed shortly after. XBOX, Playstation, the Nintendo Wii and 3DS all started coming out with their own digital distribution platforms after seeing the customer demand for purchasing content instantly. Consumers went from wanting to own hard disk copies of their games to wanting a digital library without needing to take up physical space in their house, or worry about their titles being stolen. This also improved the indie experience since now indies don’t have to worry about their games being resold in secondary markets.

Do you have any insight into how game usage is changing by platform/hardware? And what platform or hardware are especially excited about for future gamer adoption?

Gamers are caring more about multiplayer experiences where they can socially interact with other gamers and work together towards a common goal. The multiplayer sector is taking off, which makes it ever more important for game developers to implement multiplayer features in their titles. Devices such as the Oculus, HTC Vive, and Hololens are exciting new technologies that the gaming community is rapidly adopting due to the more immersive experience they offer. The VR/AR space is going to be rapidly improving over the next 5–10 years and will become the future of multiplayer gaming. As an indie, trying to be first to market on emerging platforms is a great monetization strategy and is where indies have the most room for growth.

How do you evaluate where/how/when a game should dedicate their marketing resources? What marketing trends do you see in the gaming industry for outlets like Facebook ads, Youtube Videos, Twitch Community Building, App Store Optimization, etc.?

The most effective way to get marketing exposure is to get other influencers in the community excited about your title. I never spent a penny on marketing my titles, however I did spend a large amount of time developing relationships with YouTubers and offering them free download codes so they could try out my titles. Twitch and YouTube are the two largest platforms right now for game discovery, so they need to be your focus, rather than just spending money on blanket advertisements.

Could you walk us through a week in your work life? What are your core metrics? How do you measure progress?

Half of the week I’m in the office writing content and the other half I’m either at local technology meetup groups or working at a conference. My goal for working in DevRel at PubNub is to get developers excited about our product and show them how PubNub saves them time which allows them to focus more on marketing their title rather than developing it. I’m measured on overall engagement on my content I produce and how many people I can get in front of at meetups and conferences. DevRel can be a hard role to quantify since many times your marketing efforts and impact on the community can’t be measured to a tee. However, creating fun and engaging demos that developers are searching for online is the most measurable way to evaluate performance.

What makes a good developer relations professional? What are the biggest mistakes developer relations professionals are currently making?

Working in the DevRel role requires the individual to have charisma and passion. You should always be thinking about how you can improve the developer experience and make content that makes developers excited to try out and play with your product. I think the biggest challenge developer relations professionals face is they can become disconnected from what it’s like to be a developer in the first place. DevRel professionals need to give developers what they didn’t even know they wanted. Working in this position takes a lot of creativity and brainstorming, but is rewarding when you pull it off right.

At an early age, what was your favorite computer game? And why/how did it blow your mind?

My favorite game at an Early age was a game called Dark Reign: The Future of War. It was a real-time strategy game that I used to play on my dad’s Windows 98 computer. I loved the idea of controlling troops in a futuristic world. I used to play Dark Reign for hours, and my parents actually had to take the computer away since they realized I was a little too addicted to it.

What makes a game addicting? What are your favorite games of all time?

I think competitive realtime games are the most addicting since it facilitates competition with your peers and incentives improvement in the game. I think my favorite game of all time has to be League of Legends since it’s very challenging and always changing depending on the difficulty of players you are paired against.

When Meme Run really started to take off (a Wii U game you made as a 20 year old), it received a fair amount of negative press.

How did the negative press increase/decrease usage of the game? And on a personal level, how did you handle/channel this internet negativity?

My core audience who were younger kids absolutely loved Meme Run and thought the humor was outrageous and funny. However, most of the negative press came from older gamers who thought the game was a “disgrace” to the Nintendo Wii U platform. All the negative press is what made the game so controversial, and actually allowed the game to be picked up by Twitch Streamers and YouTubers who literally only wanted to criticize it. This drew millions of combined views on different channels which overall increased the sales. People wanted to buy the game just to show their friends how crazy, outrageous and controversial the game was. I even had pizzas ordered to my house and was DOXXed by internet trolls who disliked the game. What kept me going through all the hate was the knowledge that my core audience loved the game. I even instigated the negativity by shilling the game on 4chan by creating negative posts about Meme Run on /v/. I understood why so many people disliked the game since me and my brother created it as a joke, however I gave people something they didn’t know they wanted. What made it all worth it was seeing how many people did enjoy the game, seeing fans comments on Miiverse, and watching YouTubers react to the outrageous humor.

A lot of digital games that are hits lack longevity. Like viral hits often have a novelty and a shelf life. What digital games do you as having longevity? I.e. like what game is to the industry as Craiglist is to the internet?

I believe all games have a limited half life. Competitive games with eSports teams seem to have the most longevity. In addition, games that are constantly updated with new patches and support from the developers seem to be the most successful. Games such as Counter Strike, League of Legends and Overwatch seem to be doing well due since every game the player joins presents a new challenge which keeps bringing them back.

Why should a developer consider using PubNub for multi-player gaming versus building a solution themselves or building atop some open source software?

As an indie developer, PubNub allowed me to make my multiplayer game quickly which allowed me more time to handle marketing my title. Developers usually get too caught up with developing their game and trying to make it perfect rather than releasing it to see how it goes. PubNub allows you to rapidly develop a multiplayer game and release it globally without any hiccups. As an indie, you simply don’t have the time to build out a globally distributed network. You should be focused on creating a fun game rather than worrying about the backend infrastructure.

To the game developer who is working for a larger company, but has their own game idea and is considering going out on their own, what advice would you give him or her?

Indie game development is an extremely competitive space and that only provides short term revenue. It is possible to hit it rich, however in most cases you have to constantly be putting out new games in order to make a living. You should go into indie game dev with the mindset that you are creating something that you are passionate about, and if you do it right the money will follow. I think the best strategy is to go at it when you have free time since I’ve seen many give up years of their life to making games but ultimately failing. Most developers spend too much time on development, and not enough time on marketing which is what leads to their failure. Knowing your audience is the key to being successful in the indie game space. Try to remember back to when you were a kid and the things you thought were funny back then, and emulating that through a game will resonate with your players.

I want to meet anyone interested in game dev, big studios to indie developers. Tweet me at @ninjapigstudios.

I also built a comprehensive guide to building your first multiplayer game in JavaScript. Check it out!

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