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Danny Armstrong of PlaySide on the key aspects of working with established IPs

GM of Australian PlaySide Studios: "we are not scared of taking calculated risks"
Danny Armstrong of PlaySide on the key aspects of working with established IPs

PlaySide Studiosis a AAA developer based in Melbourne, Australia, and known for its game adaptions of big name IPs, including The Godfather franchise, Jumanji and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

We spoke to Danny Armstrong, General Manager, about the Australian games industry, PlaySide's company culture and the challenges of working with household name IPs. Can you start by telling us a little bit about the gaming industry in Australia?

The games industry in Australia has been going from strength to strength in the last few years. PlaySide Studios, like the industry at large, has been expanding recently due to increased investment in the space, better government support especially here in Victoria, and some globally successful titles. We have a staggering depth of talent locally and as Australia’s largest independent publisher, we are delighted to be playing our part in bringing that to the fore.

What are the most popular trends in mobile gaming over there right now?

Broadly speaking, Australia is in line with other English speaking countries in terms of evolving tastes – that is part of what makes it an ideal place to make games. We, for example, work very closely with large IPs like The Godfather and Legally Blonde that resonate across these markets and continue to invest in reimagining these franchises for mobile gamers around the world. Additionally, we are well situated to capitalise on emerging mobile technologies like VR/AR and Web3 thanks to the breadth of skills and experience we have in house.

How would you describe the company culture at Playside and how do you think this affects or influences the games and their success?

Culture has a vast effect on the overall output of the studio. We have a commitment to attracting and retaining the best talent and we’ve dramatically expanded our offering in this space in order to facilitate this. We are extremely close as a group, are passionate about creating quality games and becoming a market leader, and most importantly – we are not scared of taking calculated risks.

One of the things we’ve just implemented are “Play Days” – rostered days off every quarter – that give our staff a chance to catch up on life admin or just relax. It’s certainly paying dividends.

How much of this would you put down to a local cultural influence, and how much of it is unique to the company?

Melbourne is one of the most livable cities in the world, and that certainly contributes to it. At PlaySide, we are trying to kick that into overdrive. As an expat from England, Australians are extremely open and friendly people, and not scared to speak their minds which works perfectly for making games. As something unique to the company, we ensure that culture is our #1 criteria for hiring and is the first gate in our hiring process.

How daunting is it to work with big established IPs?

It’s something we take very seriously, and from my experience working with some of the largest IPs and movie studios at PlaySide over the last 10 years, it can be daunting if you are not ready for what’s involved. In the case of something like The Godfather, we’re working with one of the most storied and revered franchises in cinematic history. Our team did vast amounts of research in order to authentically weave a story in between the films and I think we did the source material justice.

What are the things you have to be conscious of when adapting a big name IP?

Firstly, it’s about living and breathing the IP, ensuring that the IP fits to the game that you are trying to make, and lastly ensuring that your IP partners are along for the ride. Our experience working with Walking Dead, Disney Cars, Jumanji, Lego Batman, Legally Blonde, Godfather, Turtles and a bunch more have allowed us to refine our processes.

The synergy and trust must be built early in the pre-production phases of development as rights holders are naturally quite protective of their global brands. Furthermore, the development process without effective planning can slow down due to brand approval requirements, so a strong production team is necessary. During live ops and soft launching, this must be accounted for, especially if final builds need to be reviewed. Any delays can significantly impact your production time.

Even on the User Acquisition front, we all know how key it is to ensure there is a huge pipeline of UA videos for testing. Ensuring that the backlog and approval delays are factored into the process is really important and it can take a few iterations to get into the rhythm needed.

How do you allow for different audiences - those familiar with the IP and those new to it - when thinking about a UA strategy, for example?

The fundamental thing is that the game prior to an IP being attached needs to be fun, and it’s important that it can stand on its own two feet. One of the main purposes of acquiring an IP for a developer is to effectively reduce the cost of marketing to lower eCPI via improved marketing metrics, and organic downloads. An IP isn’t going to improve ARPU, retention, or your onboarding dropoff percentage, and that means that the game itself is still held to the same standards of our original IP without any IP attached.

The key is understanding what aspects of the title appeal to which audiences through early market testing via early playable prototypes and market research. This allows us some insights into the viability of UA early. Of course, this is not a blanket “this game will succeed” but it gives us a possible signal towards the right decision.

It’s extremely important to ensure the team is aligned on the key pillars of the title and audience to ensure all decisions made during development align to the original vision and audience. And of course taking our IP partners along with the journey on these decisions.

Our approach involves feeding this information back into the development process to ensure we have those key demos in mind from the outset. In practice, hardcore fans, people with some knowledge of the brand, and newbies will all have something to love – and maybe some of those people who are less familiar will find themselves engaging more with the franchise.

Can you tell us about any new projects in the pipeline?

I can’t say much outside of the fact that PlaySide continues to grow, create new titles, improve our workflows and processes, and further invest in the ones with great metrics. We’re looking forward to making some announcements in the not-too-distant future.