PlaySide won Studio of the Year at the Australian Game Developer Awards last month, an achievement capping off more than a decade of game development.
The Melbourne-based studio started in 2011 as a pioneer in the free-to-play mobile gaming space and has grown to become the largest independent game developer in Australia with over 300 employees, going public in 2020.
“We have worked with Disney, Warner Bros, Paramount, SkyDance, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network,” lists Ryan McMahon, General Manager PC and Console at PlaySide Studios. “If there’s a movie studio, we’ve probably worked with them!
“It really started with our CEO Gerry (Sakkas) and a few others bringing a game to market called Catch the Ark, which was an endless runner style game, one of the first on iOS at the time. That opened the doors to contract work, and it actually became a bit of an ecosystem that we have within PlaySide.
The studio has now struck a balance between work-for-hire and original intellectual property, in a win-win situation where work-for-hire allows the studio to take more risks on the original intellectual property front. But in the future, the studio will mainly focus on original intellectual property.
When asked if PlaySide envisions a future in which work-for-hire isn’t part of the equation at all, McMahon actually says that’s “the future he’s working toward.”
“Original intellectual property is what we love and what we want to do,” he says. “That’s the goal. That’s where Ben (Kelly, general manager of Dumb Ways to Die) and I come in; with Ben running Dumb Ways to Die, which is our own IP, and myself on the PC side /console, running the original IP. there, like Age of Darkness, World Boss, which really works on how we build these portfolios and make that the sole focus of the studio.”
PlaySide Studios acquired the hit IP Dumb Ways to Die for A$2.25 million in 2021 from Metro (Melbourne’s metropolitan rail network, which created the IP as an advertising campaign in 2012). That’s when Kelly joined PlaySide to manage the IP; the studio had been working with Metro on the Dumb Ways to Die mobile games since 2017.
“When COVID hit and all their services were shut down, they wanted to divest and it was a very natural decision for us. So we started talking to them about acquiring the license and we managed to doing it, which is great,” Kelly tells us. “We’re looking at a lot of different ways to really expand the license now. We have a little bit of freedom to do some really fun things over the next few months.
“One of the first things we did was just look at the current roster of players and how to bring in new ones and expand the brand footprint. We saw a really good way to doing it through TikTok, so we started our TikTok account using just normal methods. TikTok Strategies – audio trends, dances and all that, having fun with the “beans”, which really grew our awareness well. We We’ve seen a big influx of users. We’re now the #4 (most) followed account on TikTok “We just passed Pokémon, which has 4.8 million followers. We have 5.8 million. We try to put a lot of content out there and have a lot of fun with it.”
Kelly claims that PlaySide has had over a billion views with its content on TikTok and over six billion in user-generated content this year alone.
He continues: “The brand footprint continues to expand, we’re looking to expand it into different entertainment mediums, to continue to really grow the brand and see where we can take it.”
And where it took it was into web3, with PlaySide launching into NFTs, less than a year after acquiring the Dumb Ways to Die IP, to mixed reception. When asked about this, Kelly simply says that PlaySide likes to “stay on the cutting edge of technology.”
“As a company, we’re always exploring what’s going on and diving into it a little bit to still be in the spaces if we have opportunities and things blow up,” he continues.
When asked if that has been the case here, he simply says that it’s a strategy that has proven successful for the company in the past with virtual reality. “It’s not something we’re going to neglect,” he adds of NFTs, before McMahon steps in to say it’s not a “big priority” for PlaySide.
We move on to discussing other game projects at the studio. PlaySide has signed a deal with Netflix for a new title Dumb Ways to Die, as well as a deal with Meta to bring the IP to VR. He’s also still working on Age of Darkness, which has been in early access for two years, among many other projects. And the studio is exploring new ways of working to bring new ideas to the forefront.
“One thing (is) Team Phoenix, which is an initiative that I’m leading on PC/console where some of our most experienced developers are working on a self-managed game project within the studio,” McMahon said. “It’s almost an independent team within the company that does its own thing. I basically act as an editor in that regard and work with them on their stages and what the game is. They have the initiative to be quite exploratory in what they’re doing., in terms of new game mechanics and new genres, and basically bringing things to market that maybe haven’t been seen before. Also try to find opportunities for our biggest games.
“It’s really about encouraging that bottom-up creative approach rather than it being a top-down direction that says ‘do this’. The team comes to us and says ‘this is what we want to do’. to fuel enthusiasm around the game. development process.”
Looking ahead, Kelly says the most important thing for PlaySide is to want to “compete on a global stage” when it comes to gaming.
“We have Studio of the Year (at AGDA), now it’s about getting Game of the Year,” added McMahon.
Discussing the AGDA victory brings us to talking about the industry in Australia more generally, and for PlaySide it’s a bit of a ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ situation.
“As the largest games developer in Australia and now a Studio of the Year award winner, I think it’s part of our mission to try and drive the games industry forward in the region,” Kelly said . “We love doing panels and things like that on all types of topics, and we encourage all of our staff to do that because we find a lot of value in it and we’re putting that out there from an industry perspective. And Ryan does it a lot with schools and grassroots (initiatives).”
McMahon works with the IGEA on education-related projects, with PlaySide also partnering with Melbourne schools such as the Academy of Interactive Entertainment, SAE, JMC and RMIT. The studio regularly lectures to students, attends university showcases to provide feedback, and hires new graduates.
PlaySide also now has its own publishing division, which signed its first title in May. So he attended VicScreen’s pitch event during Melbourne International Games Week, Play Now.
“We had a team there giving feedback on a lot of pitches,” McMahon says. “Even though it’s not something we’re interested in, we still give our opinion on how they can move things forward. The introduction of tax compensation for digital games only does incredible things for the Australia and allows us to continue to do great things.
“Over the last couple of years, some really cool games have come out of this country, especially in the indie space, like Cult of the Lamb, Unpacking, Untitled Goose Game. This year there’s obviously Stray Gods, which is really cool. having things like tax offset for digital games, it just allows more of that and makes game creation more accessible.
On the challenges side, McMahon mentions that Australia being “on the other side of the world” makes it quite isolated, making it more difficult to share knowledge (and a talent pool) with others. other markets. As mentioned by other members of the Australian games industry we spoke tomany Australian studios are facing a shortage of senior talent.
But that doesn’t stop the country from having a very successful indie games scene.
“Melbourne in particular is known for its arts and creativity – that fuels a lot of games development,” McMahon continues. “(Australia) tends to be a lot more successful in the indie space because we have that artistic element of more fluid creativity in what we do that feeds into the indie space.
“Plus, a lot of Australians are very laid back. Being self-employed comes naturally to a lot of businesses,” he concludes.
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