Nico King, Chaos Theory Games

This week Seamus talks with Nico King, co-founder and Executive Creative Director of Chaos Theory Games, an independent games studio based out of Sydney, Australia.

Chaos Theory is a great blend of pragmatism and idealism, creating games for brands to help them with marketing initiatives right through to games for good, helping charities, educators and environmental causes to deliver fun and engaging experiences.

They’ve worked with businesses as big as eBay, M&Ms and Samsung to create mobile games and even AR and VR experiences. And then they’ve helped Sydney University gamify dermatology education, and created the Bleached Az game tie-in for a viral animated cartoon series.

Catch the full transcript below.

Easy place to start. set the scene for us. Who you are, what you do, and the company that you run?

I’m Nico King, creative director of Chaos Theory games, I founded Chaos Theory with my two best friends when we were about 12 years old. We knew what we’re going to call it, knew what we wanted to do, and that was to solve big problems by creating inspirational games. And I think the name chaos theory really sums it up. It’s a drop in the bucket. It’s the ripple effect. We create some small inspirational game that has a profound impact on somebody’s life, and then they go on to enter science or do research in a particular field or start their own business, and that affects the world, and that’s kind of our mission.

I often ask people what made you dedicate yourself to games, the fact that you had this vision from so early on clearly seems like there’s something right there in the pity of the gut from back in the day that just makes you think ‘this is what I need to do with my life.’ Is that right?

Yeah, I think it’s probably genetic, I was born that way. My parents were very technophobic, neither of my brothers were really into video games, but I was just absolutely obsessed, and very interested in tycoon games and business, and how I could get into it and what I could do. I was born to do it, and nothing was gonna dissuade me, and I just made it happen. 

Do you feel like you learned some lessons from those tycoon games that when you came into the business world, or you know, were you totally lied to by those games?

No, I think it’s the goal setting, and it’s the persistence. It’s a general video game lesson that a lot of people learn, you keep trying and you try new things and failure isn’t failure and you can just find a new way around. I think that is essential for business. The amount of times we’ve pivoted, come up with a new strategy, tried it out, hasn’t worked exactly how we wanted it to, but it opens up new doorways, new pathways, and you jump on those opportunities when they arise. It’s hard to do like a one-to-one link, but I think the persistence of video games is definitely key for business.

What do you feel like is uniquely Chaos Theory? We’re catching up at GamesPlus here in Sydney, and there’s lots of other people who make games, what is it that you feel like you’ve carved out that has given Chaos Theory the opportunities to succeed?

I think we sit in a nice niche between the more educational games or serious games or applied games, and games for entertainment. We want to create games that appeal to the mass market, but push the envelope or give you something to do, give you something to learn, give you some way of having a real world impact on your life or the world.

Creating games that inspire people. Creating games that solve real world problems is really what we’re focused on and what we’re really passionate about.

Let’s dig into that a little bit. I’m a bit older and that first generation of educational games, it was like someone got given money to make a thing that was just as boring as doing a maths test on a piece of paper, but they put some graphics on it and call it a game. You know, we’ve come a long way since then there’s a much better conversation about gamification out there now. What do you feel like are the hallmarks of doing a good job on these sorts of serious game efforts to actually have someone have a great experience, but then turn that into something that they’re also learning from.

On the old EduTech games, there’s a really good metaphor which is chocolate covered broccoli. You got the learning which is broccoli, it’s nutritious. It’s a quiz, a tried and true format. And then you got the chocolate which is the fun game and is supposed to make it a bit more exciting. But what you end up having is something that’s like neither palatable nor nutritious. The game distracts from the learning and the learning keeps on interrupting the game. 

I’m going to have to try to make some chocolate covered broccoli.

I wouldn’t recommend it.

The way that the games are approaching it now and serious games are approaching it now, some of the best examples are of experiential learning. Providing an environment for people to do whatever they want, and having a model of real world systems. In Minecraft you’ve got how computers work, because it’s such a free environment that lets you experiment, try new things, form ideas about how the world works and then test them out, that’s how we have always learnt in the past before traditional schooling. When we’re in the real world, that’s how we learn. In business that’s how you learn. So I think the focus on experiential learning 

has created some of the more inspirational, exciting games that people get really invested in, and can get really passionate about. 

What have been some of the hard moments on the journey so far as a business? I was talking to someone earlier about that same idea of the difference between making some games, and then being a business that makes games. Have they been some hard points, some milestones along the way so far that have made you realize ‘this is the point where we’re really shifting to make this a real business.’?

Early on when it was just myself and two other founders we made we put a lot of our our time and effort and blood, sweat and tears into making games that didn’t have the radical success that we were expecting them to have. We were naively optimistic, and loved every minute of the development, loved the games that we produced. But that’s definitely a huge hurdle to overcome. The realization that it’s harder than you think, and it’s going to require a lot of work. But we overcame that. We didn’t see a space in the market where we could be getting paid to create these sort of games that we wanted to make. So we started solving other people’s problems with video games, working with universities doing education, working with some corporates doing staff training, so they had these problems that they wanted to solve, and we applied games to that. And through that, we’ve formed some really good business partnerships and, and recently, were able to work with some environmental charities to make a game about coral reef conservation. It’s about building that network. In terms of other challenges, every year has its own own hurdles. We’ve gone through a cyclical cycle of growth, and then you get growing pains. So then you have to consolidate. And then once you solve all those problems, you grow again, and new problems arise.

That initial realisation that it’s harder than you think is the hardest thing we’ve had to overcome. 

What do you feel is getting better or is getting harder in the time that you’ve been working in this space? There have been all sorts of changes in the industry, and they’re never all bad, they’re never all good, but what are some of the things that stand out for you in terms of how you’ve changed the approach, to try and succeed in this industry?

For us or for the industry? 

For you directly, but also, big picture thoughts if you do have them.

I’ll start big picture because that influences everything. The barrier to entry for video game development has come down a lot with tools like unity, unreal. Everything is online now, 20 years ago, would have been very hard to get into video game development, and there was probably a clear path towards it. But now, everybody’s jumping on tutorials, everybody’s making games, you can stick stuff on your phone. So there’s a lot more out there. There’s a lot more competition. It seems like there are like these golden windows where a platform or a new device comes out, the early adopters jump on it, they get the exposure and the publicity and they take off, they build big businesses off of it. I think we’re coming to the end or or maybe we’re already at the end of when you can be successful on mobile without having a publisher. There are hundreds of games being released every day and it’s very hard to cut through the noise. You got to have big budgets to buy users.

It’s hard to reflect on your own own journey. It always seems so normal. We just sorted it out one day at a time.

You’re a relatively young founder as well. There’s certainly people in the industry who lived through the crash just before the iOS stuff came along, and the timing 

ended up being pretty great for some of them to find that lifeboat of a whole new platform and new ideas and games. What is that next wave looking like? If it’s not so much a reflection then what do you feel like you’re trying to prepare for. We’re sitting here at the start of a fresh new decade, what are the things that are exciting you and what do you need to be ready for next?

People have been saying ‘it’s the year of VR’ for a few years now, but in 2020 it really seems like it’s having that mass market adoption. Lots of great hardware is coming out, with the inside out tracking and the all in one headsets it’s becoming a lot less clunky, a lot better for consumers. So I think now is probably the time to be jumping on that. I know quite a few companies started up when the Oculus first came up and ran out of funds because they lost people there, which is unfortunate. And I’m keeping an eye on what Apple’s up to, we do quite a bit of work with augmented reality on phones. The rumors are that they’re pushing AR so hard so that when they release their glasses or their headset, there is a library of content already there. I don’t think that mobile AR is at a point where you can create those really cool, unique experiences, or you kind of can, but they’re a bit clunky and not great. When headsets come out, if people start buying them, if it takes up mass market adoption, there’s gonna be some amazing opportunities for game developers and game design. I’m more excited about that than I am about VR, just because I think bringing it into the real world quite closely aligns with what we do as a company, solving real world problems. I think that that’s what I’m most excited about and keeping an eye on. So as soon as that comes out, I’m going to be buying one and booting it up and playing with it.

Are there any good examples that you’ve sampled so far? In the serious game space it does feel like AR could do some great work in education. I’m not sure if there are great examples out there yet. Or are there other VR experiences that have made you feel like ‘this is really gonna work once more people have it’?

Yeah, there’s some really good learning examples where you’ve got your traditional textbook, learning materials or flashcards, and then use augmented reality to visualize what the flashcards represent. And then you can have interaction between the different flashcards. So one example is a chemistry flashcard. You’ve got the different elements, you can combine them, and you see how the different elements combine. And you can experiment and learn things that way.

In terms of games, there are a few cool ‘buried treasure’ augmented reality games where one person goes and burries some treasure somewhere, and the other person has to go and find it. That sort of interaction with the mobile device is really cool and it’s using the technology in a new novel way, and it just doesn’t seem clunky.

In terms of VR, I really enjoy Tilt Brush. When I use VR, I like to create things. I’m a lot more of a strategy game player, or a creator, or tycoon game player. A lot of the best titles in VR are action oriented. I’ve seen a few like grand strategy VR games which I just haven’t had the time to try yet.

There’s something about the kinds of engagement that really do make you want to keep playing in that sort of environment. We have a Vive set up at home, and kids, and you’re right that Tilt Brush and that kind of creative insertion is something that they’ll then just happily do for 40 minutes. Versus other things that almost the act of gameplay is reminding them how long they’ve had the headset on. So there is something about just losing yourself in a creative experience that is quite different to the action type experience.

Yeah, definitely. I think it’s about getting in flow, and it’s less intense and there’s less moments to break and you set your own objectives. ‘I’m gonna create this!’ and then you discover along the way ‘Oh, I can just tweak this a little bit over here’ and ‘Oh, this is looking good. I might try that out.’ Time runs away from you and it’s a nice relaxing experience. Which is what I go to more and more these days, things that relax me, and I can kind of be a bit bit Zen.

So in terms of working with others, building out a team, what are some of the things that you’ve found that have been hard about hiring the right people? What are the things you look for in people when you’re looking to bring someone else on board and get them to help bring your vision to life?

Yeah, I think everybody’s everybody’s different. And it’s very hard to find somebody that fits a mold. One thing that we’ve discovered is that we need a certain role, but you’re never really going to find the perfect person for it. So it’s about finding people with complementary skill sets and then filling in the gaps or directly training people up to be able to cover the middle ground.

When we hire, we’re very interested in personality, whether or not we’re all going to get along, whether or not we all share the same vision and are going to be happy and passionate working on the same projects. And we think that’s more important than pure skills.

We’re quite a young team. The three founders are 26, and everybody’s a similar age. So it’s a good atmosphere, and we’re all similar life stages and have similar hobbies and everything. It’s been good. It’s been fun.

You operate out of GamePlus in Sydney, do you find your new people through network events within a place like this, or do you still actively reach out to create a hiring window?

Having the gameplay space has been really beneficial for us. Because we are quite young, having the kind of socialization and day to day interaction with other senior developers, asking them quick questions, seeing how they operate has been really beneficial just for us heading in the right direction.

In terms of how we hire, it’s a combination. Quite often it’s the network effect, it’s ‘Who do you know? We’re looking for somebody’, and that’s just symptomatic of the fact that we’ll get a contract and need somebody to start ASAP. But for more senior roles, it’s usually traditional hiring channels. So they’re posting online and usually most applicants are coming from overseas or interstate.

People get in a good role and seem to be pretty happy in that, and suddenly when people are changing cities, they’re like looking. 

Coming up here and realizing it’s directly across the street from AIE, I wonder if there is this gravitational effect of people drifting across the street and landing in a seat over here?

No, not yet. But Ultimo seems to be a pretty central space in the games industry in Sydney. Wargaming is also just across the road, a stone’s throw away. AIT is really close, and a few other studios. It’s nice, it’s building a bit of an atmosphere and a community.

With some of these sort of serious games work and some of the charity work, how do you open the door to finding clients and finding people to work with in that space. It’s one thing when people go ‘we’ve got a great idea for a game and we’re just gonna make a thing and then see what happens at the other end of the process.’ It’s another thing when you are actively seeking to work with and collaborate with people who are trying to actually really achieve something through a game.

The charity work that we do and the games for change are quite often co development so it will be another team that’s got a complementary skill set, maybe they’re in digital media or in advertising, and they want to achieve something similar. So we collaborate, and both fund ourselves. It’s very difficult to find a charity that has the money to pay for anything.

They’re volunteer rich, and money poor. But they’re able to contribute a lot to the project, a lot of research, and give that legitimacy to the project which is always good.

It’s about being consistent, being there, being in the right circles, meeting the right teams to collaborate with. Everybody’s usually pretty keen to help out and collaborate as long as there’s a strong vision and a drive. 

Let’s T-in on that example of the coral reef work. Where did that begin, and then what’s that process? ‘Here’s an idea, we’re now arriving at that point where we’re working on and now releasing a product.’ 

Do you remember ‘Beached Az’? The old viral internet video, there was a kiwi whale ‘Oh no. I’m beached az’. We met the original creators of that, through a mutual connection discussing a game project, and they were creating season three at the time, which was about ocean sustainability. So they had 10 different episodes that were about various issues that our oceans are facing. We hit it off and said ‘it’d be really cool to make an interactive project here.’, and brainstormed a few ideas and pitched it to them. They loved it. They did all of the voice acting and came up with a little bit of the creative juices behind it all, the magic, and we did all the builds and did all the art, put it all together. And they introduced us to a few environmental charities and we pulled in quite a few different environmental facts, and it just made it a little bit more educational. We launched it at the same time that they launched the season. That’s how it all came together.

How does that then get supported in some way? Does someone sponsor, or is that really a side project that that you’re doing while you’re then working on other things that actually pays the bills?

More of a side project. We believe in the power of games and sometimes you need to be the one that backs it to showcase to everybody how to do it, how to do it right. Eventually we would love for charities or organizations that are looking to do a bit of good to collaborate with us and put some money behind it, because I’m sure we could speak with a much louder voice and achieve a lot more. For now, it’s where we’re funding this sort of stuff off our own back

So then what are the kinds of work that pays? Just to help paint the picture for those people listening, is it your own IP? Is it work for hire? What kinds of other sorts of Game Dev are you producing?

It’s almost entirely work for hire. We work with a few brands to do marketing or experiential activations. We work with universities to do research projects, and educational apps. We work for some corporates doing staff training, and then we’ve got a few entertainment clients. So those are companies or individuals that want to make a game or need some additional resourcing on their game. We help them out with that. The combination of those, those three fields or industries is really great for us. The educational work teaches us how to change people’s behavior and teach them about things. The marketing work, we’re working with a lot of great brands, and working with their marketing departments. And I think that’s where a lot of money can come from for doing games for change or social impact projects. And then the entertainment projects are how we make it fun and engaging. So it’s really perfect for how we want to go about solving big problems.

What does a modern corporate training game experience look like? The last time I had to – and it’s not that long ago – sit through a corporate training module, it was still these videos that look like they’re made in the 90s. How is this still being used?

There’s still a bit of that going on. The budget for those projects usually gets diverted elsewhere in terms of focusing on the learning and development or creating additional content. So they can look a bit primitive, and that’s getting back to the lowering the barrier to entry. These sorts of experiences may be lacking in visual fidelity, but if you’re doing a staff training program, the alternative is to hit the textbooks. So yeah, I’m all in.

One of the projects that we’ve worked on in the past was a role playing mixed reality experience where you’re doing a series of challenges to roleplay as somebody that’s suffering from a crippling disease. So ‘run to the bathroom’, or ‘you’ve got to go home now for half an hour, and then come back’ and they gave it to all of their staff to help build empathy with sufferers of crippling disease. After they interviewed their staff and asked ‘what do you think now about it?’. ‘Well it interrupts my life’, ‘it’s really inconvenient’, ‘these are things I care a lot more about now.’ 

So there are cool ways to approach the problem. It’s just about having the right problems to solve.

There are so many of these great opportunities to create games with positive outcomes. But it seems like the opportunity to win some kind of funding to help more of that happen, in a way that could reach more people, that’s still a struggle, at least here in Australia. Are you aware if other countries doing a better job of supporting those kinds of initiatives? Is it just something that is still a bit out on a limb in most places that we hear about it?

Those sorts of initiatives do exist. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, so there’s not that many. They’re few and far between.

A lot of the time it’s private industry, or a charity like UNICEF or some of the other big ones will put some money behind the project, but that’s not as common.

There’s a lot of untapped potential there, but again it always attaches to the will of some organization or some body to actually say this is probably the next thing we should support instead of just making another video or whatever it might be.

I think that’s just kind of where we are in society at the moment, how the more traditional politicians and business owners still view games. That’s another thing we would love to change and are working to change. We’re creating these example experiences to say ‘look, this is how you can do it. This is how to do it right’. We can do it for you, too.

As society shifts more towards seeing games as a legitimate art form and embracing them more in staff training, more in corporate environments, that will shift public sentiment, and then we’ll see more of those games of social change blossoming.

Do you feel like streamers and some of those influencer environments can have a role to play in showing off some of this stuff in interesting ways? You do have these variety streamers who will jump on random fun things to show off to people and it almost feels like that’d be an interesting avenue to expand its reach within that audience of people who already care about games too.

Yeah, definitely. It isn’t something that I’ve really thought about, but every single bit helps. And they have a huge audience and a huge platform, they can amplify the message, definitely. I’d say that a lot of those games for social change probably aren’t the best thing to be streaming just from an entertainment perspective. A lot of them are trying to do a lot with a very limited budget. It’s hard to compete in the entertainment industry when you’re working on a game change budget. I definitely think some games are suited to it. The coral reef conservation game, we made ‘Bleached Az’. Heaps of voice acting, it’s all about the narrative between the characters. Something like that would be good to stream. A few of the other ones I’ve seen around like simulation stuff, maybe not so good.

What are the kind of things that really excite you most about the future of making games?

It’s a hard question to answer because I think games can do essentially anything. They’re simulated worlds, simulated environments, where we can do whatever we want. 

You can make magic real. You can remove the laws of physics. You can tweak things, and it’s all possible. So that’s the thing that excites me most.

In the short term or in the immediate future it’s having the world change their perception of games and take them more seriously, and start having these discussions. How we analyze film at the moment, we should be having those discussions about games. If you look at a game review or game analysis, usually it’s very surface level, ‘it has these mechanics, it has these story plot points’. It doesn’t dive down into the ‘what did they mean? What were they trying to achieve here?’

Some game reviewers are starting to delve into that, and academia is starting to delve into that. The faster we can advance that, the quicker the public is going to realize, ‘oh, there’s more being said here.’ Then they’re going to start looking for it in games, because until people start looking for it in games, nobody’s gonna find it. That really excites me because it means we can have more complex discussions, we can tackle more complex subject matter. It’s gonna be awesome.

It’s a good point that it’s a rare thing to read a movie review that just says “the camera did this, and the lighting person did this,” here’s the factual list of how it looked.

“The costume design was really good.”

“The actors in scene 4 went to the beach, and they went for a swim, and I really enjoyed them swimming.”

“The swimming looked realistic.”

Have I missed anything else interesting about what you guys are doing that you feel like we haven’t touched on? Whether it’s the Sydney scene or the GamePlus environment, any other elements that you think of worth bringing up?

I’m not very good at talking about myself. We’re working on another coral conservation game, which is a bit bigger in scope and has more mass market appeal. It’s a space that we’re really interested in. It’s primed for that mass market gamification. Games for change, but kind of undercover. People don’t know that it’s a game for change that’s trying to change your behaviour, but it has an appeal and people want to play and want to get involved. By them loving the game and being really inspired by it, it might change their behaviour.

And with the bushfires, and floods, and the world blowing up… I’m very excited about that future project.

About Author

Seamus runs Byteside. You may also have spotted his words at the Australian Financial Review, the ABC, Junkee, Gamespot, The Esports Observer, CNET, Gizmodo and a few other spots over the years. He's very happy that he gets to nerd out for a living.

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