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NZGDC12: 15 years, 9 lessons

Sidhe MD Mario Wynands, one of the longest-serving members of the local games industry, presented a session on the wisdom acquired, not always easily, over a decade and a half in the business.

Wynands covered territory applicable to plenty of other businesses along the way, always with a view to achieving long-term sustainability. The first lesson he offered, Build A Business Not A Game, was also the subject of a later session presented by Google’s Tuyen Nguyen and Victoria Mackinlay.

Working from the premise that a successful game does not equal successful company, Wynands noted the importance of having someone in the team responsible for the business, and preferably someone who liked doing it not someone taking it on as a necessary evil.

Which led neatly to lesson 2: People Are Your Most Import Asset. As a game studio’s biggest cost, they could make or break a company, a point echoed later by CerebralFix’s Ben Dellaca who shared that he’d started CF with “three people who knew business and one who said he’d made games before … then we had to find someone who knew how to make a game.”

Wynands recommended investing in staff, finding opportunities to develop them and to provide “self-directed learning opportunities”, and also Jim Collins’ Good to Great.

Lesson 3 was the business lesson that all startups need to learn above all others: Cashflow is King. He recommended taking practical steps, such as actually bothering to make and update a cashflow projection spreadsheet and organising a credit facility before you need it.

Spread the Risk was lesson 4, in all directions: across projects/products, publishers, platforms and currency; by creating resources and technical plans for moving to multiple projects and/or platforms; and, since much of the early years income for NZ studios has traditionally come from service work for international studios, learn about FOREX accounts and hedging.

Putting time and resources into Reflecting and Improving was Wynands fifth recommendation, to monitor a team’s efficiency, quality and creativity. Having monitored and understood it, he recommended effort be put into growing staff satisfaction and managing their expectations alongside growing profit.

Lesson 6, Publishers Are Not Evil, was a possibly generous assessment, although Wynands suggested “Evil” was just habit for publishers, a product of their processes and being perpetually busy.

The key to mitigating the effects of that, he recommended (again a point noted in other sessions) was to get a specialist game lawyer. They’re few and far between in NZ although David McLaughlin, who does a lot of entertainment industries business, was present and duly namechecked.

Understanding Royalties was lesson 7, not the numbers but the terminology. Without a clear understanding of royalties percentages, net receipts definitions and the recoupment mechanism, one would be throwing away dollars.

Brand Awareness is Important was the penultimate lesson, with Wynands recommending studios and independents should develop awareness of the particular types of relationships between themselves and consumers, publishers and licensors; then position themselves to feed the beast – be it by issuing media releases, positioning their URL within games, doing interviews and publishing opinion pieces or blogs.

Finally, building off those relationships was the final lesson: – Community Can Provide Significant Leverage. Noting that a community was easy to create, slow to build and quick to anger, Wynands noted the benefits of consumers sharing information and acting as ambassadors. (In another session, the statistic was provided that last year in NZ, 95% of internet users had accounts on at least one social network site and 37% of all online purchases made came as a result of recommendations from those networks.)

Engaging with a community around one’s product was becoming increasingly necessary. And, though it might seem time-consuming, keeping a community informed and up to date provided opportunities to cross promote products between channels, encourage a community to spread the word, and increase the customer base for all forms of merchandising.

Rovio (the guys who made Angry Birds) respond to over 90% of tweets, so engagement can pay dividends.

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