Interviewed by: Ahmed Siddiqui
Aaron Cammarata is a Game Designer with 16+ years of industry experience and a passion for innovation. He specializes in console game design, with emphasis on action games.
In advance of MEGA Startup Weekend, Aaron answered some questions about his experience, and predictions for the gaming industry:
What did you build at MEGA Startup Weekend September 2011?
We built a prototype for Frennzy, a new kind of video game for smart phones. (During the weekend it had the working title Gablinga, and has since been re-launched under its final name.)
How were you able to get customer feedback about your game over the weekend?
I had put thought into the concept for some time before the weekend, so once I had a team to help, we were lucky enough to see early development progress on Saturday morning. About mid-way through the day, we decided that we were going to wrap up the prototype by dinnertime, and take it out to the party that Microsoft was throwing for everyone. Since the whole concept of the game is for people to play while hanging out (at bars, restaurants, each others’ houses, etc.), I felt that the most valuable thing I could get out of the weekend was a live user test in that kind of environment.
We went out to the party and started offering people our drink tickets if they would help us play test our product, then give us their feedback.
It was incredible. Not only did most people enjoy the game, but even those who didn’t said they could see a use for it in their field. For example, one woman was a conference organizer, and wanted it immediately to use as an ice breaker on the first day of her conferences. It really got me thinking about uses for the product that I hadn’t considered before, and we got tons of practical feedback as well – for example, how do you pass the phone when you have a drink in your hand? So we were able to take that back to the design table and refine our concept the very next day.
Where is the company now?
While none of the team from Startup Weekend is still around, we now have three partners, and the product is still in development. The corporation is formed, and much of the groundwork is laid for hiring. We have had to dial back our development effort because we are on the verge of landing a development deal that will let us grow the company over the next few years. We’re definitely still going, and enjoying the ride!
What part of Startup Weekend did you love the most?
Tough question – the whole thing was a blur. Certainly it was an honor to win the gaming vertical, especially among such tough competition. There were people who built whole iPad apps in a weekend, or launched an entire website! Personally, the most valuable thing I got from the weekend was the feedback that my idea is something people want to use, that it makes people smile – that’s what my game is all about, and it was incredible seeing it actually come to life in people’s hands. When we came back on Sunday and looked at the server logs, we saw that someone (who was not on the team!) had played the game at 6:40 on Sunday morning! Better yet, of all the games that were played during the party, more than half of them were played on *other people’s* phones. People who we showed the game to installed it on their phone, and played more than we did – and we were out there playing as often as we could to show it off! I think that moment of real, visceral user enjoyment was the highlight for me.
What is your opinion of the current gaming world? Why do you think this is a good time to be a gaming entrepreneur?
It’s tough out there – there are a lot of companies that had some early successes, and are finding it’s not so easy to repeat them. There’s going to be a period of transition where some companies will rise above the analytics and return to solid gameplay, while others will fail to follow through and disappear.
So that’s the risk for a gaming entrepreneur – losing sight of what makes a great game. There are lots of exciting reasons to be an entrepreneur in this space right now, though – I’ve wanted to start a gaming company for most of my 15 years in the industry, and this is the best time I’ve ever seen to get started.
For one, the mobile App Stores have brought cost-of-entry back down to PC / Indie budget levels. That means that with an innovative idea, even a small company can move the needle and influence an entire industry. The old script of going hat-in-hand-to-publisher is dying.
Also, a smart developer can bootstrap off a services company, and leverage powerful technologies that are just laying around. You can get started with Unity for free. You can get an iOS developer license for $100. Node.JS servers for $10/month. Jira and Confluence for another $10. For $1000 you can reach out and cherry-pick all these mature, usable technologies.
I’m hopeful we’re entering the age of the Designer. The technical challenges are no longer the bottleneck – it’s now time for the people who know how to USE the technology to build something cool to step forward. The gap between idea and execution is narrowing.
All of which is fantastic news for gamers – I am hopeful we’ll see a real explosion of innovative games over the next few years as a result. It will be, as it has always been, survival of the fittest, and I think we’re going to see more novelty than we have historically.
What are your favorite games, and why?
My favorite game is currently Portal. It’s an unbelievable design, with great humor throughout. Rather than bludgeoning you over the head with story, it sets the scene and lets you figure out what happened through gameplay. It’s just this incredible meshing of story, set, and mechanics that reinforce one another. Midway through it shifts your perspective, but in such a way that it makes perfect sense, and the entire thing takes on a new dimension, before culminating in this satisfying end boss and closing cut scene that you actually watch – you actually WANT to watch it – and you laugh out loud at the absurdity. I felt like smoking a cigarette – and I don’t smoke.