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Why Hutch obsesses about metrics, not chart position

Why Hutch obsesses about metrics, not chart position

"We play games together and drink beers on a Friday afternoon – there's all kinds of variety," shouts Hutch's CEO and co-founder, Shaun Rutland, over the noise of a builder ferociously sawing a slab of MDF in half.

"It can be lager, it can be stout, it can be ale, all the different kinds of beer," jokes another of Hutch's quartet of founders and CCO, Will Whitaker, as the builder begins vigorously hammering nails into the wall behind us.

Of course, Rutland was referring to the variety of lessons that developers can learn from playing other people's games regardless of the platform.

But the duo are remarkable relaxed as their Shoreditch office is stripped bare in preparation for the construction of a new boardroom.

Founded in 2011, Hutch Games is entering a new stage as it launches a new multiplayer mode for its MMX Racing franchise, and pulls the wrapper off a fresh-out-the-box London office.

So what can we expect from a developer consisting of ex-Lionhead, Zynga, Sony and Playfish creative minds and which boasts over 50 million downloads of its games?

We gave Hutch the studio profile treatment to find out.

From triple-A console to indie

Both Whitaker and Rutland met while working at Sony in 2006. A producer and art director respectively, after five years they decided to leave the console industry and carve a path in the brave new world of mobile gaming.

"It was great, super exciting and very quickly humbling to realise mobile had been breaking a lot of ground that we needed to catch up with," remembers Rutland.

Hutch's board members: Ben Holmes, Will Whitaker, Shaun Rutland and Ken Lamb

"When we first did it we thought we were going to miss all the bells and whistles of working on consoles: the budgets, the capture shoots and working with actors, but actually it was better," adds Whitaker.

"With mobile, we could get the game done, we could finish it, we could make it our own to a high quality and be in control of everything the whole way, and it was a really satisfying experience."

We don't obsess about where we are in the charts, we obsess about the metrics of our games.
Shaun Rutland

It's this sense of ownership and direct interaction with players that keeps Hutch innovating. Having developed four games in nearly as many years (Smash Cops, Smash Cops Heat, Smash Bandits and MMX Racing), open communication both among the company's team members and the players themselves is key.

"When MMX came out we dealt with 2,000 support emails in the first two weeks, but a lot of it was requests and ideas for new features in the game," says Rutland.

Whitaker agrees pointing to when Smash Bandits and Smash Cops were released, app store reviews hung around the 3.5 stars mark. When Hutch listened to consumers and put in everything they wanted, the score rose to an average of 4.5 stars.

It's a recipe that saw Smash Cops smash its way to the top of the App Store on its first weekend. Across its entire portfolio Hutch now enjoys 50 million installs.

"And we haven't even done Super Bowl ads yet," says Rutland wryly.

Flexible working

An atmosphere of collaboration extends through the entire team, creating a unique office environment at the Shoreditch HQ.

A high proportion of Hutch's workforce lives outside London, and since the founders were hiring talent from behemoths like Microsoft and Skype, a perk was introduced meaning that employees have the option to work from home two days a week.

MMX Racing has just scored a new multiplayer mode

"We treat people like adults basically," says Whitaker.

"You have to make sure that people are working, and that when they come home they collaborate, and we agree goals at the beginning of each two-week sprint, but as long as everyone collaborates and delivers by the end, it works."

Still, Rutland admits that trusting a team is a lot harder than it seems.

"You have to hire carefully, but also if you break that trust promise, it all goes to shit basically," he ponders.

Most people I talk to recently have been very negative about F2P.
Shaun Rutland

"I've spent a few nights worrying about it, but you find out that some people have to stop working from home because they can't switch off. It's ruining their home life. So that's the 25 percent of the team that choose come in every day."

Digging the data

The spirit of this collaborative work environment is encapsulated in the company's weekly analytics session.

Led by Tim Mannveille, Hutch's business intelligence manager who holds a Ph.D in quantum algorithms, Pocket Gamer.biz watched as the whole company was called to order by the sound of Sesame Street's seminal Pinball Number Count blasting from speakers.

"He plays a different song each week," explains Rutland helpfully, as the company assemble on various coloured beanbags in front of a set of graphs outlining player interaction with MMX Racing's new multiplayer feature.

Each week the team gathers on beanbags for an analytics presentation

The analytics session provides transparency in the company, allowing honest feedback and the resolution of communication issues as the teams work on their sprints – two week periods of intense activity working towards manageable short-term goals that play into a wider quarterly target.

Getting to the top of the charts is very expensive and it's not even been on our radar for a long time.
Shaun Rutland

"We're really big on analytics because the consumers don't lie to you," says Whitaker. "They're telling you about their behaviour.

"When you do a focus group, sometimes people inadvertently give you the wrong message, because either they don't know the answer themselves, they'll tell you what they think you want to hear, or they'll make something up," he adds.

"That's what makes analytics so great, it's so honest."

Analytics are key to Hutch's business model that centres on free-to-play games. Rutland explains that as a company, "We don't obsess about where we are in the charts, we obsess about the metrics of our games. The charts are very important if you're trying to get players through the charts – we're not.

"Getting to the top of the charts is very expensive and it's not even been on our radar for a long time. With free you organically get so many users, and the ability to market the product is so much easier, I think we're in a lot more control from a business perspective," he argues.

Free-to-play, not to win

Despite this attitude, suspicion of free-to-play as a legitimate business model is one of Hutch's greatest frustrations with the mobile games industry as it stands.

"I'm disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm with the opportunities of F2P," says Rutland.

"I think of it as a design problem, because as a business model it works. It's a shame that most people I talk to recently have been very negative about F2P and haven't seen it as an opportunity to try and fix something."

 

Hutch employees have the option to work from home or come into the office

It's a problem that he attributes to the 'South Park thing'; the idea that companies use dark psychology to trick people into spending money they don't want to.

Will disagrees with the notion, arguing that "none of the best games that are making money do that because once the consumers get wind of it, they stop playing. You have to treat people well so they keep coming back, and the idea that it's dark or evil is irritating."

At Hutch, they've struggled with this misunderstanding in the recruitment process where "there have been people we just can't hire because we can see that they just don't get F2P," says Rutland sadly.

"It's a shame, they think we have a second agenda."

Bean counting years

Still, the two founders are still excited to be part of the indie games scene, even if it is "quite an expensive thing to do."

As Whitaker says "it's kind of a question of 'how long are you prepared to live off baked beans?' We lived off baked beans for a year, didn't we?"

"Two years," says Rutland. "It was an amazing process to go through –"

"Your body, processing the beans," Whitaker interjects.

"...as a business," finishes Rutland.

Though with MMX Racing currently in the top 100 grossing charts and top 5 in the racing category grossing charts, it looks like Rutland and Whitaker can stow away their can openers.

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