I arrive at Genius Factor Games at 2:05 in the afternoon, and am welcomed by Ryan Arndt, the Director of Digital and Emerging Media. He’s as friendly as his position requires, and I’m invited to wait in the lobby until their previous meeting concludes. The offices are lowly lit, and sparsely furnished, with ecru sofas and a single glass table with two trade magazines.. Gravity Well may be their biggest success so far, but the few pieces of art on the walls are solely devoted to their newest project, a card game tie-in to Riese: the Series. The door into their meeting is left ajar, allowing me to hear an intent discussion of the viability of video game franchises as cross-media entertainment; I find myself more eager than ever to speak to the two men inside. When I’m welcomed into the office, an introduction to Ted Nugent, CEO of Genius Factor Games, is immediate—as is an introduction to his Australian Shepherd, Jenny, who sits at his feet.
I begin by asking how he feels about the success of the company’s debut; and immediately, his gratitude and modesty take centre stage.
“Well, I didn’t expect Gravity Well to…I think there needs to be a little bit of context around the whole thing. When we started with Gravity Well, it was really to learn the publishing system. So I didn’t expect the game to do more than one sale–one sale would have been a bonus. We released it in April of last year, and since then it’s done a lot better than I expected, and amazing… The reactions from the customers and from the people who are playing have been equally amazing.”
Gravity Well has been downloaded over four hundred thousand times; while Nugent and Arndt do admit to noticing a direct correlation between review quality and price point (Watch for Arndt’s blog post on the subject), the success of the title is still undeniable.
“…As a gamer, you get tunnel vision and you’re looking at this one thing, and you think it’s good, and you don’t really know, and you get to the point where it’s ready to release but you’re wondering if people are going to like it, but the reaction was really positive: everything that’s come out of it has been nothing but positive… We didn’t expect any money on it. It was to learn what it’s like to work with Apple as a publisher. At the time, it was a young market. It’s both performed well and had its lull points, but it has performed well…It’s been a huge learning experience. And brand awareness has built as well.”
The office is small—the offices in total are not much larger. But the pride he takes in the growing stature of the company is obvious. Upon inquiry into the origins of his studio, he doesn’t hold back.
“I have wanted to operate my own studios for probably ten years. I worked at EA for twelve, around my fifth year, I said ‘Alright, I want to do this on my own’, and I made an attempt, but it didn’t work. So I went back to the drawing board, was thinking about it, left in 2007, did some other work after that, and formed the company in 2008. By that point, the iPhone came out, and it was a game changer. It was a totally new device—but from 2003 onwards, it was a joke at EA, and other studios, that if you had mobile in your business plan, it would never make money. The environment of the marketplace wasn’t good—there was a million handsets, and anyone who went in lost money, because they couldn’t unify it. And then there was the iPhone—people were already buying music and tv on iTunes, so it was the final piece for me. I had my business plan and all the material that I’d put together from 2005 on, so I was prepared. The job I was at after EA, I was laid off from—a lot of us were, because they had run out of funding. I was the only one smiling that day, because I was set free. I incorporated the company the following day…and hired the other employees who had been laid off with me. We went right into full production the following day. It’s been a really natural transition, and it’s been fun. It’s been hard, but it’s been fun.”
His belief in the eventual supremacy of mobile gaming is obvious from the studio’s catalogue alone; both the present and future titles of the company have been for the iPhone, and considering GFG’s success, it would be understandable if they didn’t deviate from the mean. But Nugent is firm that Genius Factor Games does plan to experiment with other consoles.
“We do. We’re actually not an iPhone company, and that’s an important point: we’re platform agnostic. The iPhone is what we’re focusing on right now because the economics of developing for the platform are better. We all come from console–traditional console–experience. As the company improves over time, we expect to be expanding onto the old sort of markets. Or, more likely, as the new console, whatever the PlayStation 4, or the Xbox 720 is that’s going to come out after that, we’re planning on launching on those platforms as well. There’s no point now for us trying to compete with other guys in Vancouver, because that’s a declining market. That’s not really where we see the future of games, as a general rule: it’s mobile…The way people are playing their games is changing as well. The Twitter generation is more about short bursts of gameplay rather than the traditional six hours a day, and the emerging consoles that are going to come out are going to follow the mobile mindset, and this experience here is going to help us be in a stronger position later. Not just iPhone; we’re looking at Android, Nokia, and other mobile type devices, the PSP and Nintendo DS… This is a great seed stage that we’re in now, and it allows us to try a lot of things. Even when we get to that point, which we hope to do later this year, we’ll still be looking at the iPhone platform as a place to innovate and try ideas, as you can get a game to market very quickly, and you can build a follow-up very quickly. It’s a low cost to try in the market, so it’s much easier to get some exposure, some feedback, and to move on to something bigger.”
The conversation turns briefly to Gravity Well; an update for iPad is in the works, but Nugent is eager to speak instead of the upcoming tie-in to Riese: The Series, a locally produced steam-punk web series with definite mainstream potential. Nugent tells of their partnership.
“In the summer last year, we learned that it was hard to build a following without a brand. Gravity Well was a concept we tried; I had it ready to go when we started. When we started thinking about what was going to be after Gravity Well, we wanted to find a property that we could build a larger product on, and that was film…I got connected through some of my colleagues while they were still shooting the trailer, and they were trying to do the same thing we were doing—being independent producers. We started talking, and what they were building was amazing. Since they’ve been doing that, they’ve been on their trajectory, and we’re building a game with them; the trick was to build the game where they hadn’t been writing. We’ve been asking the bigger questions they hadn’t come across—that’s changed since, of course. It’s been great working with them. We hope to do more projects with their team in particular, because it’s been great.”
The story of Riese, with its solitary wanderer set against a vast government conspiracy, offers myriad options to a game designer—the decision to build a card game as the first title for the franchise is not obvious to those not in the know. The decision was actually that of Riese‘s production staff.
“They had a card game they wanted to build, and they had a concept in place already. That was what they wanted for their first game. And it was good for us, in that there are lot of other opportunities that that brings into the gaming space. People will understand it, like Magic, and the world that they’ve built—it plugs in well. Our first conversation with them was “We have a card game we want to develop.” We went through discussions and designs—what we talked about then and what we have today has quite a divergence.”
Divergence may exist between the theoretical and the practical notions of the Riese game, but it also exists in the very nature of the GFG portfolio. There’s very little in common between the casual puzzling of Gravity Well and the formal card system of the Riese title. To Nugent, that lack of trademarks is the trademark of Genius Factor Games.
“Like with the platforms…agnosticism. We are from a game-branding standpoint, well, we want variety. So we don’t just want games like Gravity Well. Certainly the casual, puzzle space is worthy to be active in. But as producers, we want variety. We have a connection in that they’re both science fiction, Riese being steam-punk science fiction, but whatever we build for that story, we build really well. The aesthetic is quality, continuity. We want the quality of the product to stand on its own regardless if you know of Gravity Well. Whether we’re doing a sports game, or something else, we want to be proud of it. We’ll hold off if it’s not ready, we take the Blizzard approach. Riese is in the same mindset, and what we have to date is something will hit very well with their fanbase. The steam-punk, science fiction both play into our longterm plan.”
When asked where they saw themselves within five years with said plan, the optimism of the company shines through.
“We’re trying to execute a good long term plan, and I hope to have 2/3 of that accomplished within the next five years. We’re trying to do things that are socially relevant, and do some good in the world at the same time. We’re working on things that I think are exciting, and have a lot of promise going into the future. I’d like to be close to three times our current size—we’re seven people right now. The economics of the environment are stabilizing; the changes from when I formed the company to today—fortuitous now, though it sucked at the time. It opened up talent, it forced the changes that are occurring in the industry, towards mobile and away from the business model of the music industry. It led us to be ahead of the curve, and aware of where we spend our resources. Great studios? Those are great to have, but that mindset is a leftover from the last part of the last decade.”
“Sometimes I bring in my espresso machine,” Ryan quipped, leading me to ask where he saw his department going through the next five years.
“Many more Facebook fans, and more interaction. I’m still learning, everyone’s still learning, so to get that growing, and comments, and have people interested, because they like the brand, and what it represents. On Facebook, we’re at 163 right now. I know that number every day.”
And with their constant volunteerism, that number is sure to grow. Once the recording stopped, the conversation turned to the different causes that Genius Factor Games supports. Gravity Well’s opening screen shows their devotion to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Canadian Cancer Society, and the BCSPCA. Genius Factor Games gives each employee three paid days to give back to the community. Both men are quick to point out how instrumental volunteerism was in bringing Arndt to Genius Factor Games—his work with the Ghoulash Bash in particular helped him garner attention, if not notoriety. Ryan laughs, but his point remains insistant.
“If successful in life, help others!” Ted speaks up, one last time.
“I believe in paying it forward, things come back in ways never expected. I want people here to be proud of where they work.”
The interview ends; I shake their hands.