Top of the table: New Star Games, a studio profile
How New Star Soccer transformed one developer's life
"I was constantly on my phone. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, going to the App Store page, checking the Top Grossing charts and it was there, it was in the number one spot and I woke Lucy up and told her it was number one. I really couldn't believe it."
New Star Games' story is the fairy tale that all independent developers dream of.
For years studio founder Simon Read worked alone, developing New Star Soccer for PC, unsure whether the income could sustain him, before being thrust to the top thanks to a debut mobile release and some incredible word of mouth.
New Star Games has since been approached by numerous companies and offered "lottery money" to sell out. But with a few exceptions, it's still just Read, plugging away at improving and enhancing one of the most loved football games on touchscreen devices.
In our latest studio profile, we spoke to Read about that journey, the luck he's had along the way, and his hope to bring New Star Soccer to handhelds, home consoles and as many new players as possible.
"I was doing really crappy temporary jobs," says Read of life before New Star Games.
"Basically I came out of university and didn't really know what I was going to do with my life, so I came home and got an I.T support night shift job. Basically when it got past midnight the phone just stopped ringing. There were a lot of hours where I could pretty much do whatever I wanted.
"Most of the guys would play PlayStation, which I did myself from time to time. Or surf the net, whatever, read a book. But I would generally get the laptop out and just start coding. I basically started New Star Soccer in my free time during quiet periods."
The game, initially "just a hobby, just something I loved doing," is a football sim in which users take the role of a single player rising up through the leagues to earn superstar status.
"So I started New Star Soccer around about 2002 and launched it in 2003," says Read. "And it got quite a good reception, a few hundred people played it, I think.
"That kind of inspired me to carry on, so I did a sequel to that. And by the time I did the third version, which is where I brought in a 2D match engine, it kind of had quite a bit of success, I guess, in relative terms. And that's when I went full-time."
The timing was right. "The company I worked for had started to outsource all the I.T. jobs over to Asia and there were a lot of redundancies," says Read. "And I thought if I'm going to go for it and make my own games, now's the time to do it.
"I left the company with a redundancy package, had a little bit of breathing space to actually make a go of it and New Star Soccer 3 was selling really well, so it just gave me maybe 12 months to see how it went, and if it failed I would have ended up probably in an I.T job, I guess.
"It was exciting, I really wanted to go for it, but there were fears that in a few months time the money would dry up. My girlfriend Lucy, she was a bit concerned. And over the years there were lots and lots of times where money was tight. It's not been plain sailing that's for sure."
"I just always believed that the next game would do well," he says. "Or it would do well enough for us to survive, you know? I used to say to Lucy, the next game is going to be the one that solves all our problems… and it never was.
"Some games would start off quite well, we'd have a good first month, then it would always tail off and six months down the line we weren't making much money at all.
"At those points, Lucy was kind of - ‘You need to start thinking about getting a new job'. It's crazy actually, by the time the mobile version of the game was finished, I'd actually stopped saying that this is going to be the one.
"For the first time, I didn't actually think it was going to be big. And it turns out it was."
The reason for Read's low expectations? "I knew it was fun," he explains. "I knew it was a good game. But really it was about getting something out there and seeing what the App Store was all about. Like, how do you actually launch a game on it? It was completely like that.
"For one thing I didn't know that people would find the game addictive. It wasn't something that anyone said about games I had made in the past, previous versions of New Star Soccer. People were big fans of the game and the series, but it didn't have that addictive nature.
"I think switching to mobile, and changing the match engine and the way you play matches, that's where the addictiveness kicked in. You know you're only two minutes away from another result, another wage packet or whatever, and yeah that's where I kind of feel like I got lucky."
Another element of luck came in the form of the game's business model. While many companies invest heavily in researching the perfect approach to free-to-play and in-app purchases (IAP), Read chose to offer the basic game for free and the career mode for 69p. In-game currency packs were "thrown in" just to see what would happen.
"What I found out quickly was that the IAP actually generated about half the revenue," he says. "I was just trying things out and seeing if it worked and luckily a lot of it did."
While popular at launch, New Star Soccer didn't really take off until a PR rep stumbled across the game and decided to champion it.
"It was going on very nicely and it was doing much, much better than I thought," Rays read. "But at that point it hadn't gone number one, it hadn't gone stellar, so then a chap called Simon Byron [Premier PR director] got in touch with me because he loved the game so much.
"He decided he wanted to do a press release for me, completely free of charge. And I was like go for it.
"So we did that and within a few days I started seeing some reviews on some high profile sites, such as Pocket Gamer, Edge Magazine and things like that. Then the Sun reviewed it and they gave it App of the Week, it coincided with an update and I think the next day it flew up the charts."
Read then began obsessively tracking the game's performance, leading to the moment when he woke his girlfriend up in the middle of the night to tell her that New Star Soccer had become the Top Grossing game in the UK.
"I was constant checking stats, checking sales figures, checking Twitter," he says. "There were comments every minute from people saying they were addicted.
"It was a magical time and really exciting to think that I had created the game. It was hard to wrap my head around. It was bizarre to think that all these people were talking about it and playing it. But that's what I had always wanted to achieve, so it felt right. It was kind of like I had my head in the clouds."
Suddenly, New Star Games was a huge success, but Read says it wasn't like winning the lottery.
"It wasn't life-changing immediately," he explains. "It had led to us buying a nice house and a nice car, but it's not like you've just suddenly got a million pounds sitting there, it's more mundane than that. But it was crazy seeing the numbers coming in, each month.
"At its peak it was doing something ridiculous like £7,000 a day and it was just like… you almost become blasé after a while because you're thinking ‘Oh I only made £4,000 today,' or whatever.
"It's crazy. I still can't quite believe it and I still can't believe that it's doing great numbers now."
Despite the title's popularity, New Star Games has had relatively little support from Apple, something that many games need to flourish on the App Store. Read hopes that situation will change in the future.
"We had absolutely no promotion from Apple at first," he says.
"It has now been in quite a few features, like the retro section and the football section, which didn't happen for a long, long time. I was badgering them, asking can we at least get in football, but it wasn't in there and I couldn't understand. This was a number one app in the UK.
"It was pretty much like a brick wall at the time, but there's definitely more communication now and hopefully it will be easier to get in some of those features going forward.
Perhaps the biggest change to come from New Star Games' success, which included a BAFTA for Best Sports/Fitness Game ahead the mighty FIFA 13, was the attention it attracted from big publishers, one of whom offered to buy Read out for a substantial amount of money.
"There have been a few enquiries, well quite a few actually," says Read. "One of which went quite far.
"I can't tell you the company name, but they're huge basically. And it pretty much got to the 11th hour and for whoever reason it fell apart. We're talking about a lot of money here and that's kind of what turned my head. That would be lottery winning type amounts. You would never have to worry about working again.
"That's what turned my head. Lucy and I had a baby boy around the game's launch, so you start thinking well that's his future secure, family life's going to be secure forever after this.
"And it was a situation where I would have still been involved with the game and have final say over its development and everything. It didn't happen in the end and I'm glad it didn't.
"It feels right to be working as an independent developer, having full control over the game and what I'm going to do with it, and having the freedom to work on whatever feature I'm trying to work on, or whatever I'm trying to do. I couldn't be happier, actually, I'm glad I didn't go down that route.
Read's freedom to continue working on the game has been secured by New Star Games' acquisition of a number of key staff. No longer just a one man band, the studio is now a company with global aspirations.
"I was contacted by Martyn Brown of Team 17," says Read. "He's sort of acting as consultant and helping me take New Star Soccer to another level.
"Martyn works with Paul Kilburn, who's also ex-Team 17 and he's a producer. So Paul has been handling a lot of the outsourced stuff, some technical things are being done by Four Door Lemon, Marsk Baldwin is working on the social, community side of the game, handling support and he's also kind of handling PR stuff as well.
"There's all this baggage that comes along with the success, you have to deal with a million support emails, constant requests from companies that are trying to get you to use their advertising and things like that, whatever it might be.
"But now we can say Martyn deals with that, or Paul deals with this, it's such a weight off my shoulders and it allows me to focus on gameplay, essentially."
One product of allowing Read to concentrate of the game's development launched last week, in the form of a new update with fresh gameplay and IAP.
It has seen New Star Soccer leap from around the top 100 to the top 40 on the App Store, with revenue quadrupling. But the update also includes some features that are key to the game's continued success.
"We've put in Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages in the latest update," says Read. "Obviously there's huge potential there, so that's one area that we're trying to reach. But generally nowhere outside the UK has been as successful as it could have been, I don't think.
"European countries obviously love their football; Italy has taken to it really well, Turkey is probably one of the highest countries in terms of downloads and revenue, but then there are other countries like Germany, Holland, these kind of places where it really hasn't picked up at all."
As for the future, New Star Games has home consoles and handhelds in sight, ensuring that the push to new territories is accompanied by expansion to new platforms.
"Maybe we'll do a sequel that's on console or… we're just trying to meet the markets around the world that we haven't really touched upon yet. It's hard to say right now. It's just something we're thinking about. We definitely want to do a full sequel, probably something that will span all consoles, handheld devices and touch screen devices.
"Thats the plan, that's the idea. And slowly but surely we're putting it all together so hopefully that's the future.
"At the moment though, I'm more than happy just making one of the best football games on mobile, so if it ends up just begin a strictly mobile game that's fine. I just want to make the best football game I can, really."
And can Read imagine ever not making football games? "Nah, not really," he says. "Not at all."
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