This week I’m chatting with Ross Symons, CEO of Big Ant Studios, Australia’s most prolific maker of sports video games. Cricket, AFL, tennis, rugby league, and even lacrosse, Big Ant has got them all in its library. What unites designing sports games of so many stripes? How has Big Ant dealt with licensing? We explore these questions and many more.
Ross is a true veteran of the industry and shares so many great thoughts about games development since some of its earliest days and how to carve a path in the industry. So we start by heading all the way back to where it began for Ross to show just how deep his knowledge of the business goes.
Full transcript below.
Ross Symons: Yes. For me, it’s actually quite a long time and some gaps in the middle. I was first published in 1979, back when not many people had computers at home. I used to actually sneak down to a Tandy electronic shop, and used to-
Seamus Byrne: I used to love going in there.
Ross: -stay there. Well, I didn’t realize at the time, but obviously I was a bit of a kid. It’s 1979, I’m going down there and it didn’t have any storage mechanisms. Every week I’d have to rewrite whatever I wrote the week before or continue from that, but I didn’t realize though using me to actually sell the system, so was sort of saying, “If that kid can do it, anyone can.”
Ross: That’s how I kind of fell into it. It was a match. It was really a love of Pong and Space Invaders and stuff like that, that made me want to make the same things and the only way of doing that was to have a PC or Tandy TRS-80 or something like that back in the day. That’s how I fell into it, and then I guess, the magazines at the time in those early ’80s, they were really expensive. They were like $10 back then. In today’s Byte magazine and all those computer mags they were– there’s obviously no internet. Those things were $10 back then which has got to be hundreds of dollars in value now. They were so expensive that I actually took a paper round not to actually get paid for the paper and really want to deliver the papers, but to actually sit in the news agency and read all the magazines.
Ross: I could just sit down and read the mags for free while I’m waiting for the papers to be counted. Then I started selling my games in printed form to the newsagents. I’d go up and down the Melbourne peninsula with printed copies, and when I say printed they’re really- there’s this old machine that used to have methylated spirits that would be copying at your schools.
Ross: It’s like really old school. I’d sneak in the principal’s office and use his copier. Copy my printed listings, which I then deliver to newsagents who would sell it, and for each sale they made, I got 50% and they got 50%. That was my first publishing and then I wrote some books on programming. Stuff for the Commodore 64, the BBC Micro, and things like that back in the day.
Seamus: I think it’s also worth just touching on there for the uninitiated. What it means to have sold printed versions of your games, because I think some people might not be all that aware of that era when you really could just sometimes buy a game by essentially needing to take it home and type it in yourself.
Ross: Yes, that was the first distribution method. In fact, most people back then probably, given that there wasn’t storage, because you really didn’t have a– Private use of computers was really small and even if you did, you probably had a tape drive.
You’d use audio cassettes to store your stuff on, that’s if you’re wealthy enough to have one of those. What you had to do is– and a lot of magazines would have listings in the back of them.
What you had to do was actually type the code, literally type the code into the computer, so that you could actually run a game and those games would be very rudimentary. They’d be very simplistic and the computers back then too, everything from a VIC-20 that had 3.5 K. Yes, kind of think how many pixels that is, but it’s not enough for a GIF, I wouldn’t have thought or not even the smallest of JPEGs. You would actually get listings out of—
The first time I ever saw these things was in magazines, and you type them in and that’s what led me to think, “Okay, I could distribute by printing my own listings.” I use the word print too, and it’s really not printing because there was no such thing as a printer. We actually used to type it on a typewriter and then, after typing on a typewriter and hoping you hadn’t made any mistake, you’d then make copies, which back then was your Xerox type thing or the same.
Yes, I’d actually take those for people to type in and then we would have bug reports and things that happen by mail. People would actually send you letters and say, “There was a bug here or a bug there or whatever,” so you’d have this exchange of letters going back and forward as your support mechanism. That was interesting times.
Seamus: No, that’s brilliant. Then I imagine we hit the ’90s. Where did you go next?
Ross: All the way through the ’80s, I was doing games. I dropped out of games for a while in the ’90s and formed a wireless company, which ended up floating on the Nasdaq and the guts of that actually ended up becoming sold to a company called Research In Motion, which then became the BlackBerry. The server-side for the BlackBerry and for a lot of the– In fact, it was so dominant. It was actually called CrackBerry in the States, the BlackBerry pagers.
The back end of that was all written in Melbourne but all the guys that are currently– Yes, but a lot of the guys are currently at Big Ant actually. We sold off that and that got folded into Research In Motion in Canada and became the BlackBerry pager, and then went back to games in around the ’99, 2000, 2001.
Seamus: What brought you back? Was it that’s where your heart always was or was it something else?
Ross: Yes, I was always making games anyway, but not releasing them, which is kind of crazy. It’s a hobby, and well, if something gets in your blood and if you love that creation, you just really do.
I got to say I do miss the time of the ’80s where– I’ve got no musical ability whatsoever or not much artistic ability, really but I could actually create the music, the art, the code and do everything for a game back in the ’80s. I do miss that. It never gets out of your blood.
Back in 2000-2001, we founded Bull Ant, because Big Ant was actually called Bull Ant at the start. It was getting mispronounced all around the world because they don’t have bull ants.
Ross: Of course, there’s no Rosses in the US. I go to GDC or I go to some other show and I’d be introduced as Russ Symons from Bullant. It couldn’t be more wrong, and I wasn’t going to change by name but I did end up changing the company name. The reason we did that was, there was fast becoming wireless devices in gaming and there were wireless controllers. There was a company called Bull Ant Wireless and if we stayed as Bull Ant Studios, we would have conflicted with their trademarks.
Ross: We decided, “Right. The Yanks can’t screw this up. I’ll just call it Big Ant. It’s nice and simple, can’t screw that up.” That’s how we changed to Big Ant to avoid conflict then to actually get it so that people could say our name in the US.
Ross: Actually Bull Ant, Bull Ant in the early days, we actually did maybe four years of doing our own IP. The guys would just come up with internal ideas. We’d generate code, go show it to publishers and get turned down for about four years.
We decided, “Oh, man, that’s a hard road.” It was back in the time when PS2 was becoming PS3, publishers would say, “We want something new and different,” and then when you’d show them something new and different, they would actually say, “Yes, but what’s it like?”
Ross: It was tough. We did work for hire. We decided, “Okay, look, four years of expending our money is probably long enough. We probably need to earn some money. We did some work for hire, and we did a lot of work with THQ and we worked at THQ for maybe eight or nine years, I think, in the end, before THQ fell over, which was really, really a big loss. It was unfortunate.
We’ve always had a view that we started with not doing work for hire and doing our own IP and we always had a view that you really can’t do work for hire and survive. We’ve always had our eye on becoming a distributor and publisher of our own stuff and set about that road of, “How do we own this? How do we control it and how do we get longevity? How do we get sequels?”
We did some stuff. Working with Chrome, we did Hellboy and Spyro, and it became very, very apparent that you might not be the studio who gets that gig next time, or there might not be a gig.
What we decided to do, because my passion is sport, outside of games, and so we thought, “Sport is renewable. There’s always a sequel. There’s always another season.”
Seamus: That’s a great point, that there’s always a sequel in sport. Really, really good point.
Ross: Yes, well, except for this year. [laughter]
Ross: This year has to be the one year. I’m telling you that there’s always a sequel and this year has to be the year where there’s actually not a sequel.
Seamus: The official exception to the rule, when a global pandemic decides to shut it down. [laughs]
Ross: That’s it. I’ve got to say, as an aside, we’ve never had more interest in esport than right now. There’s actually a press release coming out today from the Australian Open. Our stuff around the world from the ECB, the English Cricket Board, Cricket Australia, Tennis Australia, and so on, they’re all going to run virtual tournaments, and they’re looking quite good. They’ll get players to play against each other. The known professionals that are also gamers, they’re going to run tournaments, so there will be esports clashing with real sport type events happening.
Seamus: That’s brilliant. It’s been great to see the reception in some of the racing stuff that’s been going on. It’s one thing when esports are setting up the virtual versions of real sports with incredibly skilled people who just play the digital version.
That’s absolutely its own thing, but it’s been fascinating to see this embrace of watching the real athletes taking part in the virtual version of the same sport that they compete in when people are desperate to have something to watch anyway.
It almost feels like something that might have longevity even when sport returns to watch these people having fun in a digital mode as well.
Ross: I think you’re right. I think we’re going to learn a lot from this in terms of– Obviously, we’re all learning we probably don’t need to drive as much or fly as much. We’re all learning a whole lot around that.
I also think that some of these leagues and some of the players are learning about the connection they can actually directly have with their fans. All of a sudden, they are front-facing and dealing with their fans and it’s actually been a good experience for them from what I can see, where they just didn’t know there was this whole body of people that they could interact with.
I think it’s here to stay. If for nothing else, it’s to future proof the sport, so that if this happens again, or if they need something in the offseason, they’ve got a go-to. They can actually go, “Right, we’re going to grab these athletes and we’re going to sit them on controllers and sit them on consoles. They can play against the fans and play against each other and have fun.”
I think that’s one of the big things too, is there’s a lot of fun to be had. Some of the pros when they take the court, say particularly tennis players, when they take the court, they can be somewhat robotic. It’s a job to get done. Close this out, next, next, next. When you see them in this way, it’s not their element, where they’re not the best, it actually humanizes them. You can actually relate to them and all of a sudden, you can see rage. You can see them not like losing a point or this or that in the virtual world. It’s been fantastic.
Seamus: I think Mitch Robinson has been someone who’s already been well known in streaming circles, has been doing the Fortnite stuff for quite a while, so it’s actually been great to see how well he then shines, stepping into the AFL live arena because he already knows how to have that persona in that kind of streaming environment. I feel like people like him probably helping others to embrace that side of themselves through this environment as well.
Ross: Yes, certainly. I’ve got to say I love Mitch. He’s a fantastic guy and as a Carlton fan I was very sad. He left Carlton and went to Brisbane. In fact, he didn’t so much leave Carlton as Carlton asked him to leave, which was really– They should rue that.
Seamus: Interesting choice. [laughs]
Ross: He’s been absolutely fantastic for Brisbane, and he’s a fantastic bloke. Comes across really well, and just like his footie. In his footie, he’s head over the ball hard at it.
I saw him lose a game the other night and I swear it was like he’d lost an AFL game. He really does feel it and he gets it across. I think he’ll do really well.
He obviously comes down for the Australian Open Fortnite competition and I think he did all right last year or I guess it’s this year’s too. There’s going to be way more crossover and I think some of the NBA guys are leading some of that as well. They’ve got a lot of guys over there that are well into their gaming.
Seamus: It’s a great point that competitors are competitive in whatever it is they do. This lets them have a bit more of a smile on their face while they’re doing it, but there’s no question that they love to win, and therefore they’re chasing that every time, even if there’s a controller in their hands.
Ross: Yes, absolutely. Couldn’t agree more. You can tell. You can see it. Actually, we’ve got some of the Davis Cup team applying the Australian Open game against each other. There’s a press release going out today. I’m not sure when this will go live, the thing we’re talking about right now.
Seamus: This will be next week, I think.
Ross: In a week’s time, whenever you hear this, there will have been some Australian Open footage, which I’ve seen, of some Davis Cup guys playing against each other, and they absolutely have a ball.
They absolutely love it. It gives good insight too. They give each other stick, which is always good to see. Normally, what happens in an interview, you get that, “The other guy played really well. I just played that tiny bit better and all that sort of stuff.”
I think when it comes to games, they’re more likely to actually stick it to each other and go, “You need to practice. You need to do this.” [laughter]
Seamus: Let’s dig in a little bit about the fact that you have specialized in sports games in general, across quite a diverse set of sports. I guess at the surface, you think it’s sport, but of course, sport is a million different things. I know that comes up a lot when I talk about esports as well is, someone’s like, “I haven’t watched esports.”
Which one? Because of course, you don’t tell somebody, “Just watch sports.” I feel like that means, is there all that much in common apart from the fact that they’re sports in the way you’re making these games?
Cricket is a very different thing to League, which is very different to AFL, apart from they both have oval-shaped balls. There’s not all that many things that bind the idea of sports games, or is there something under the hood that does mean the lessons from one do cross over to others?
Ross: There’s certainly crossover. From a technical point of view, we look at it and we break it down internally, where we’ll say, “Every sport needs crowd tech.” You need some crowd, so you build a crowd. Every sport needs to have stadium tech, so we have stadium tech. Grass tech, all the like things, so you actually do have a lot of crossover and a lot of tech that can be reused.
The big difference between sports is actually the artificial intelligence. That’s what it’s all about. Nearly every sport has a ball unless you’re having darts or something like that, but mostly, there’s a ball. That’s the object of every game is this ball doing a thing. It comes down to artificial intelligence, it comes down to saying, how does a ball behave in cricket and what do people want to do with it? What does this ball behave like in League? Which is a little bit– Rugby league, rugby union, AFL and to some extent even soccer, things like that.
There’s a lot of similarity in the size of the ball and what it does. It can be kicked and so on and generally there’s a goal to try and get the ball in. There’s a lot of similarity between the sports. I think if you look at rugby league in particular and AFL and also American football too because it also started as rugby, a lot of them go back to rugby and they’re derivatives of rugby union.
Ross: Yes, because they derive from one place it’s a little bit easier to construct them from almost the one place.
Seamus: Which was the first of those sports games that you hit on? I guess that meant getting, was there a license the first time you had a sport game or was it something that you were able to do just as its own beast? How did that first game come about?
Ross: Well, the first one we did was actually … and I’ve just been saying that there’s normally a ball. Of course, the first one we did didn’t have a ball. It was called Sprint Cars. Basically, it’s racing winged vehicles on dirt. You’re basically constantly sideways. You’re always sideways. If you’re not sideways, you’re going to hit a wall. You’re constantly drifting pretty much around the track. That was with THQ, it was really interesting because we actually happened to have a number one game in the USA with that.
Ross: It was really crazy because it’s not that everyone in the USA loves sprint cars because that’s not the case. It’s a sport for the Midwest, it’s all the way down the middle of the USA, but what happened was Madden was so big that everyone avoids Madden. Nobody brings a game out at the same time as Madden. Our publisher THQ says, “Hey, great news, we got a release date for you.” They give me the release date and of course, it’s exactly the same day as Madden. We’re like, “Oh my God.” Sprint Cars and Madden on the same day. Great. We think this is going to bomb like crazy. You can’t compete with Madden. It’s like if you came up with GTA these days, Madden was so big back in the day. It’s still big now, but it was absolutely huge then. About two or three weeks prior to release, Madden slipped. We were literally and I mean literally because everyone avoided before and after Madden. We were literally the only game for three weeks that got released.
Seamus: You Bradbury’ed it? [laughs]
Ross: That’s it. We Bradbury’ed it. Totally. It was a great Bradbury experience, I’ve got to say. The headlines were just classic. What the hell is a Sprint Car and what the hell’s it doing in the PS2 chart? [laughter] The San Fran ones were a bit more explicit than that. They were like, “What the–?” People bought it to find out what it was because it was the only game for sale.
Seamus: I used to watch sprint cars out of Parramatta Speedway sometimes when I was a kid and I can imagine that in a gameplay scene there’d be a clarity to it that could make it really fun.
Ross: It was one of the best games we’ve made. I loved it. It taught us a lot about taking sports seriously too.
We’d made three sprint car games and on the third one, we decided what are we going to do to give people depth? It is literally a left turn, left turn, left turn, drift and what can we add? We thought let’s go crazy. Let’s add arenas where it’s bomb tag and demolition and this and that.
We added all these extra things and people absolutely hated it because they thought we were taking the piss out of the sport. We got hate mail from them saying, “You guys, our sport is serious, you can’t be doing that.” We thought, “Oh well, we’re going to them fun, bomb tag in a sprint car.” [laughter] Apparently, that’s not funny.
Ross: We did learn about that and we’ve held that– That’s held with us for a long time in terms of making sure we’re true to sport and we don’t do flippant things unless it is a totally flippant game. Unless it is like Bobbleheads because it belongs in BBL or something like that.
After that, we ended up doing Rugby League Live with True Blue in Sydney and then we did an AFL game with them as well which is the best selling AFL game today. I’m glad still to know that that title still holds. We did some more league games and so on.
Along the way, we were always working towards doing our own IP from start to finish. Actually owning the– getting the license ourselves, doing the development ourselves, doing the publishing ourselves and doing the distribution, which a lot of studios do in a digital sense, but being able to do it at physical retail is something that takes a long time.
It took us six or seven years of banging on Microsoft’s door to get the ability to have a license to print discs. It was a long, long, long road. Along that road, we did Don Bradman Cricket which was interesting from the point of view that we lacked license.
We actually made the world’s first cross-platform sharing server, so you could create content on a PC or an Xbox or a Playstation and share the content effortlessly in-game with other people and everyone would vote on it. That enabled us to have Don Bradman Cricket, which had one licensed player in it, Don Bradman, that was it.
Then we had a button that you could press that was called Get Best and what it would do is, you push that button and we’ll get the world’s best players curated by users. The key that we didn’t do anything. The user experience was that you pushed a button and all of a sudden you had every Australian cricket side from Bodyline onwards, you had every English side since the early 1900s.
There were local sides, all the shield sides, the BBL sides, and most of the Indian sides as well, but they’re all made by users. It kind of circumvented the license in a sense. That’s obviously what we’re doing is we’re operating as a service provider in that sense, we don’t do any of the content or any of the voting, it’s all third party.
Seamus: How does the community in that context decide which version of some player is going to be the canonical version for– Was there a voting system or something so that the community would decide whose set of stats and whose created version of a character was going to be the best version?
Ross: Yes, they definitely did. There were two methods for us to systematically decide which were the best and it was done via a voting system out of five, so you could get votes, but also the number of downloads.
If someone was getting downloaded like crazy, you figured or the system figured that that would be the best version. If it subsequently was found that it wasn’t the greatest version, then people would downvote it. Essentially it had this flux.
The interesting thing is, you could constantly do it, so you could go get best every day or week, whatever you wanted to do and you’d get the best at that time. It evolved and we generally would put out on Steam, all of the editing tools a month earlier than the game release so that the content was there on the day.
Seamus: Yes, that’s a good way to do it.
Ross: The game comes out and there’s already a load of content from users. Also, users, we’d also give them a little demo so, if it was cricket, you’d be able to play in the nets and things like that. You could become quite skilled at the game before the game arrived.
As a thank you for the guys who are creating it as well so that they could see their creations actually in use, and how they batted and bowled, and so on. That actually led us to the ability to get the licenses. I think it was Cricket Australia and English Cricket Board came to a point of, well, we may as well get something for our licenses if people are going to play with our stuff anyway.
Seamus: [laughs] Yes, that’s a good point. Look, I mean, these are all sort of largely Australian sports that haven’t- clearly, there’s not much interest outside of Australia in some of these sports, but which of the sports have you found has been most successful? Which games have stood out as the ones that have built the biggest fan bases? Or do they almost correlate to the scale of fandom around any given sport so that it does translate to a similar ratio to the people who get into the videogame?
Ross: Yes, there definitely is a correlation, but there are some sports that break that. For example, we often look at netball, and I think, by participation in Australia and through the Commonwealth, netball is huge and a little bit like hockey. It’s just interesting that the constituents, the people that like netball and the people that like hockey are not going to buy console games. They’re just a different audience no matter how big that audience is.
Then you take an audience like NRL or AFL, they’re quite frankly rabid. We’re rabid AFL fans, so we know what it’s like. There’s a stickiness of those sports. You have to look at a sport and look at its constituency to see are they the sort of guys or girls that are going to play games?
Certainly, that’s the case for AFL, that’s the case for NRL, for rugby union, and for tennis as well. Tennis is probably our broadest game in terms of constituency. Tennis gives us fans from everywhere. Small places that I never knew existed that come up on an IP chart where you just go, “Oh, wow, there’s a country called that. Oh, okay.”
Ross: It’s crazy. Especially, you see when all of a sudden you’ve sold three units into some country in the middle of Africa or somewhere, and you just go, “Wow.”
Tennis has a fantastic global reach. Cricket has a pretty much global reach. Amazingly enough, it’s actually quite big even in Europe. There’s a lot of expat Indians that work around the world and that helps that. Our sales in the US for one of our cricket titles were actually bigger than our sales in Australia.
Seamus: Wow. [laughs]
Ross: It is crazy, it is nuts, but that gives you some idea of the number of expat Indian guys that are around. We did a mobile game actually just for promotion in the BBL, the Big Bash League in Australia and it had 15 million downloads.
You just go, okay, we’re in a population of around 28 million or 30 million, whatever it might be. To get 15 million downloads is fantastic, but then you dissect the numbers and we got 1.5 million downloads in Australia. 12 million downloads in India and around the 1.5 or so for the rest of the world.
Seamus: That’s amazing. It’s funny, isn’t it? Because, again, I guess, on the business side of this, that quite often, I feel like there’s a lot of underestimating, just the sort of the export opportunities attached to these things. It’s interesting that I guess when again, we think of cricket in almost a very domestic sense mentally, but there is this massive overseas audience out there who loves that game so much that they want to consume everything related to it.
Ross: Oh, yes. It’s a religion in India, it really is. India’s one of my favorite places. I’ve traveled there quite a bit and it’s amazing to see kids that are six and seven years old, they’ll take any rudimentary thing and make it a bat, they’ll get twine and make it a ball.
They’ll play on some of the oldest monuments that we have on this planet. The most holy of places, they will be seen there having a game of cricket and chalking up stumps on something that is like 4000 years old. You sit there thinking, “Oh, my God.” Cricket is above the religious things that they have in terms of they’ll chalk stumps up on the side of something 4000 years old that’s a deity.
Seamus: [chuckles] That’s amazing. I want us to talk about the tennis game a little bit more as well because I feel like there was a while there, a decade or so ago when there were a bunch of great tennis games around. Is there much competition in that space at the moment? Apart from the AO tennis games that you guys are making. There’s not many other games leap to mind in that same way that in the sort of Xbox 360 era. I remember there being some really fun, a whole bunch of tennis games all at once.
Ross: Yes, it’s interesting. I am friends with the guy that started back then the stuff with 2K and with Top Spin. There was Top Spin and Virtua and they went head to head all the time and they were fantastic games and very different, same sport, different game, different style.
It shows you can have that divergence even though it’s about the same sport. I guess it’s an artist impression, the difference between these different types of fighting games we have, I guess, as well, but yes, we’ve Virtua and Top Spin.
Essentially the backstory as to why we didn’t see a game for so long is the players wanted too much money and it was just a standoff. Essentially, it was a bluff that was called only to find out that it wasn’t a bluff. Essentially they went with the players, the players said, “We need more money.”
Because people think videogames and they just think billions of dollars. They think everything’s a GTA and everyone’s rolling in money, because of the nature I guess that it’s close to Hollywood, but the reality is, some of these things are a grind and some of them just make money.
The business itself is fantastic as a whole, but you’ve got a few horses that win really, really well and you got the rest of that are making a living. There’s nothing wrong with that, but they had a meeting about tennis and the top tennis players, or let’s say their managers because it’s not really the players.
The managers asked for amounts of money that would make the game not supportable or sustainable. They were told that. They didn’t believe it, and they said, “Take it or leave it, you need to pay us, so you don’t get to make a game.” That’s what happened. No one made a game.
There’s some interesting things in sport where that’s happened. It’s that thing where I actually when I sit with whether it be cricket boards or other sports organizations, the first thing I need to get across to them is that this is a marketing opportunity for your sport and if you don’t have a videogame, you’re going to lose in the long run.
You need to get the hearts and minds of the young because for all the money the AFL, for example, could spend on GWS and expanding their market. I would say they’d get far more bang for buck if they made a very good videogame and gave it away.
Seamus: [chuckles] Good point. I see on your Big Ant credit list there is quite a mix of things as well. You’ve made a lacrosse games and things like that. Do all those different games or I guess the organizations behind them treat those likeness rights in different ways and things or is it partly that you’ve been able to find the right people to talk to about how that value exchange really works in the end?
Ross: Yes, if we’ve got a license, it means that we’ve been able to get our message across. That it’s about marketing first.
A lot of it goes back to the very strong message of FIFA. Where FIFA in the first place, no one knew what a FIFA was in 1994. The World Cup was going to be held in the USA, the World Cup of soccer, and no one knew what a FIFA was unless you were really into football, you wouldn’t need soccer.
You wouldn’t know what FIFA was back then. They actually gave their game rights for free. FIFA did not charge EA in the early days because they saw it as a marketing opportunity and they needed to get the hearts and minds of the young.
You fast forward 20 odd years and you’re sitting there going, “It worked a treat.” To the point where people don’t know what FIFA is anymore, they think it’s a videogame.
Ross: It’s a sports organization that operates all the football for the world but people think it’s– When you say FIFA, people think it’s a videogame. They went through the highs of actually “Oh, now everyone knows what FIFA is” to “Now no one knows what FIFA is,” because it’s actually a disk.
That’s what they did. They had the foresight to actually say, “You know what? Let’s plant the seed and let it grow and we’ll make the money later,” and boy, do they make money now from that game.
They really do have a lot of kids that probably have never kicked a football in their life, but they know who these guys are. They know who Messi is. They know Ronaldo, but they don’t know anything about footy.
Seamus: Like in so many parts of the world, being able to even watch this stuff live or a lot of it is behind pay-TV type sort of things that there’d be plenty of people who just love playing the game and wouldn’t necessarily get to catch many games in a year. Well, potentially any games when they’re actually happening.
Ross: Yes, absolutely. I’ve got to say we actually only make sports that we have expertise in. Lacrosse was an interesting one because it is something that we’d only watch on TV. None of us had played it. None of us in the office had played lacrosse. We’d seen it on TV, but that was it.
Actually, Carlo Sunseri of Crosse Studios in the US had been at me for five or six years, “Make a lacrosse game. Make a lacrosse game.” I would say to him, “I don’t have the expertise and I’m not going to make a game that I don’t have expertise in because I don’t want to do that defense where they buy a game and it’s made by someone that doesn’t know the sport.”
Carlo does know the sport, and so after him hounding me for those years, I finally relented as long as he was going to be key on it. In every sport we do, we actually make sure that there is someone that has an extraordinary passion about that sport and make sure that it’s right because we do have people now globally playing sports that they’d never get to play.
I’m sure that’s for AFL too. There’s no other country that plays AFL not even New Zealand. I’m sure there’s a lot of people that see AFL for the first time across TV, or across the videogame itself.
Seamus: Before we wrap up, I just wanted to touch on the big questions around the publishing distribution stuff because as you say, it was a hard road and you finally carved that side of things out, but what is it about that whole system? Are there thoughts on what could change or is there a need for things to be different? Why is it so hard, I guess, for someone to control that end to end for themselves in order to really be able to test limits of what’s possible for a game they’re making?
Ross: I guess the biggest issue is it’s all about finance. Essentially, as soon as you start making disks, you’ve got to have financial backing because you’ve developed the game, which will cost millions of dollars, then you’ve got to get it on disk, which is millions of dollars, then you got to hope that people buy it. It’s about distribution as well.
There’s a lot that could go wrong. Before any of those platform holders will let you print discs, they want to make sure it’s going to work out. That you’re there for the long haul and that you can survive it not working out. They don’t want to spend their time and resource on you either but they’re also are quite good.
The games community is a very small one when it comes down to it. Most people are contactable and findable and most people are very, very human, and have got a reasonably liberal way of thinking. I don’t mean liberal in the Liberal Party sense, but a liberal way of thinking. They’re approachable and they also don’t want to see other people lose.
A lot of the time, it’s actually about them deciding whether they think you can be successful or not successful. They don’t leave it to the market. You just can’t roll up with a bag of money and say, “I’d like to print disks,” because they want to have a long-term relationship and they want to see it work and they want to see you work and it all work out and everybody’s happy.
Quite often, while you need to have the finance to do it, you also have to have reputation and background and you have to be able to survive the loss if it occurs on a title or two. That’s where it becomes tough.
The real upside of retail today has been marketing. We actually don’t make a great deal of money from retail. It’s actually very small compared to our digital but what we do find, and this will be interesting I’m sure for other developers that might be listening, is when we sell at retail, we sell triple at digital.
That makes all the difference in the world. Because for digital, you’re making 70% and when you sell at retail, you’re making maybe 20%.
Seamus: Wow. I was going to ask exactly that, that what’s the place of disks in the coming decade, I guess? There’s always talk of the next console, they’re not going to have a disk drive in it. I feel that well, there’s an awful lot of reasons why there’s plenty of parts of the world where we still need disks. What’s your perspective on that role? It sounds like that the marketing side of things is really important but any other sort of thoughts on the place of that box on the shelf?
Ross: Yes, I guess I’m old school and I like boxes on the shelf and I like the physical product. The next-gen, I’m not so attached to that and so I don’t think it’s a matter of if, I think it’s a matter of when.
It was really close with the last consoles. Talking to the platform holders before the PS4 and Xbox One, they were very, very close to not having disks. Retail to them is where the consoles get shipped.
At the moment, it’s whoever blinks. If Sony or Microsoft– This is just my opinion. If either of them were to say or both of them were to say, “We’re not going to retail,” then whoever doesn’t is going to clean up for a while because they’ll be the only console sold.
Being at retail is huge right now. We don’t have a population that’s willing to buy their console online. It’s the reason why EB are still doing well, is because they’re a specialist game store because not everybody knows everything about games or knows enough that satisfies themselves and they actually need direction.
There’s a place for someone to walk into a store and say, “I want to buy this gift for someone else who’s a gamer. I don’t know what to buy.” I think there’s a place for that for a very, very long time.
Seamus: Any other last thoughts for the budding developers or the other companies out there on the road ahead? Is it the classic runaway don’t do this thing or– [laughter]
Ross: Well, the worst thing that happens to me whenever– Sometimes I’ll speak at packs or something like that. The worst thing that happens to me particularly around education is I’ll have a parent come to me and say, “Would you like your children to get into this industry?” That’s probably the worst thing you can ask.
You really then have to think about it hard and say, “Well, would I take one of my family members or my children and put them into this industry?”
The thing is, it’s the greatest industry that I’ve worked in. I’ve worked in a number because when I took my time out of games, I worked all around the world in different forms of IT and certainly through listing companies and things like that. I saw a lot of the rest of the world and commerce and there’s nothing like the games industry. It is just fantastic.
If you love it and you have it in your blood you should pursue it. I’m guessing that me saying that would I put my children in there? If they were passionate about it, then they should do it. If you’re passionate about it and you’re starting out right now, then you should definitely do it. You absolutely should do it. You should follow it.
I guess it’s like if someone said to me they’re going to be an actor, I might be dismissive because the number of actors that are out there, but it’s not for me to tell someone that they can’t live their dream because if they do make it, if they do get in there, it is a fantastic life. It really is.
Being able to make things and enjoy making things and be paid for it is just amazing. Obviously, now I’ve done it for about 30 years, give or take the 30 years. Yes, 30 years. Give or take the break in the middle. Actually, it’s near 40 years, so it’s 30 years actual. Because I start to think 1979, we’re in 2020 now, aren’t we?
Ross: I first invoiced in 1979 so it was 41 years ago minus my break. I loved it, all of it, and still love it and still love going to work when I’m allowed to. I couldn’t recommend it more highly and if you don’t make it in your own company, if you’ve got that want and passion for it, you’ll get a job. There are jobs in this industry all the time that are available for those that are passionate.
Seamus: What do you think is the right way for someone to show that passion? Because I sometimes see it on the journalism side as well where it’s people can just say they’re passionate but it’s a whole different thing when sometimes you can really see it in somebody when you kind of almost see that there’s an unstoppable force attached to them and you know they’re just going to make it one way or the other?
Ross: Yes. We hire on gut-feel. We do verify that people are doing the things they say they can do, but gut feel is everything. It’s about knowing that the person is passionate, that they really want to do it. The way that they can show that is to show you work that they’ve done that they haven’t been required to do. If you’re at a university or even coming out of high school, show us work that you did that was beyond the work that everyone else did because that’s the new zero. When all the kids come out of uni, they’ve all got portfoliosand that’s the zero point. You need to show what you did do beyond your university degree or beyond high school.