For the past 11 years, London’s Preloaded has made award-winning games that focus on education, entertainment, and the arts. From online Flash games to casual titles on multiple platforms, Preloaded has worked with various broadcasters, educators and non-profit organizations such as Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Channel 4 Education, Wellcome Trust, Tate, and the Science Museum.
Their diverse body of work and unique approach to design encouraged us to speak with their Creative Director, Phil Stuart (@philstuart). Over email, he shared the core beliefs that drive their studio, how they creatively embed assessment tools into their games, their clever publishing strategies, and more.
The following in-depth interview covers a wide range of topics about the inner workings of a successful game design studio. Many of you will find this post informative and we hope that Phil’s responses will also been seen as a resource for you and your community.
1. On your website, you state that three core beliefs drive your
team’s work. I’d like to discuss them. First of which, is the belief
that “creative ideas combined with strategic understanding is the
simple equation for a great product.” Of course, it’s not that simple.
Can you explain how Preloaded approaches a project creatively and what
strategies do you keep in mind during the production process?
Everything we do comes out of an in-depth understanding of the brief. The ‘shape’ of the project is born out of this understanding, and to get there, we place a lot of emphasis on answering a project’s key questions upfront. For highly collaborative projects, sharing this process is vital in getting to the heart of what the project is really trying to achieve.
Broadly speaking we understand a project’s brief through three core questions:
1. Why? The reason behind the project. The communication or educational objective. We often bury deeper than the specific project, and look for broader objectives that span many projects. This is also about content, and making sure we capture these requirements early.
2. Who? Who are the target audience – their age, gender, and relationship to the comissioner. It’s the biggest question which informs the game genre and the end platform. For example, there is no point solely targeting iOS platforms when you are trying to reach 14 year olds.
3. How? How will people find this game, how can we drive more plays and why will they keep coming back. This is about engagement, marketing and ultimately publishing.
Answers to these questions provide the direction for the project and what we call the strategy. As production begins, the emphasis is always on reduction. Simplicity is key to good games, particularly when they are loaded with content.
The end result, it hopefully testament to the a highly collaborative process, an in-depth knowledge of the content, an understanding of the audience, and smart game design.
2. Second, all of your work is audience driven. What steps does
Preloaded take to make sure they deliver good metrics for their
clients while creating a fun and engaging game?
I touched on it briefly before, but understanding the target audience is THE most important ingredient in making a successful game. Knowing what they like and where they play games is what makes us good at our job – it’s the reason we’re commissioned in the first place.
During production we test regularly with the target audience, often in schools, showing early concept work and demos. It’s hard work, but this face-to-face time is hugely influential in the end product. The test groups often stick around throughout the production cycle and play the game as it evolves, steering it’s development to completion. We have even been known to give work-experience to the most enthused.
Recently, we’ve also started testing our games on games portals before release. Whilst many of our games are educational, it’s vital they have true game integrity and testing them with an impartial, casual games community is the best way to do this.
3. Many of your projects are commissioned works that focus on
pre-existing subject matter and intellectual property. In the case
studies for all your projects you detail the design process as well as
highlight some of the people who you contacted to collaborate on the
Why is collaborating outside your studio vital to creating robust,
We’re a small studio with a core team of 15 people. For most projects, the team gets bolstered with specialist skills, content experts or both.
Bringing in specialist skills allows us to configure the most appropriate team for the project. It’s usually informed by the project’s creative direction and includes ‘stylistic’ skill-sets such as music, copy-writing, and illustration.
Content forms the backbone of any educational project, and content experts, knowingly or not, provide the bones from which the game design hangs. These experts are sourced on a per project basis and range from neuroscientists to a medieval historians. The game design is improved by the integrity and validity of the content it contains, and these experts are vital in providing this. They also tend to make the working day a little more interesting.
4. On your blog, you touch upon many of the clever publishing and
distribution strategies of your games. What are some strategies that
our community should be implementing?
If we’re talking strictly about online games, the most important principle of our publishing strategy is portability. Quality games have the power to exist all over the web, and the natural ripping and embedding which occurs across games portals (what we merrily call ‘pirating’) is an organic and cheap way to distribute your games. A word of caution though – If you put your game out there, make sure you’ve implemented very granular tracking system. For many of our commissions, the success criteria is linked to regions and it’s important to be able to differentiate, for example UK plays from those in other places around the world.
The other point, which is less about traffic but more about quality engagement is being open to dialogue. Releasing a game is the start of the conversation, and it’s vital you stick around to have it.
For anyone interested in finding out more, I’d recommend reading my blog post here: http://preloaded.com/blog/2010/08/16/how-we-publish-an-online-game
5. Without revealing too much, can you give us a brief overview of
your purposed SXSW 2012 panel, “The Death of Commissioning Content”?
Oh, right, well it’s still a working title, but it’ll be a debate about the part organizations can play in the self-publishing revolution.
In a brave new world where anyone can publish content, there is just too much content to wade through. In this over-saturated climate, great quality alone no longer guarantees your product will rise to the top. To reach an audience that can pick and choose where they want to consume their content, you need make it as easy as possible for them to enjoy your content and not expect them to seek you out.
Our thesis is, if organizations are to thrive in this competitive self-publishing world, they must think long-term and strategically – build on-going relationships with audiences, and establish your footprint across multiple platforms. This will allow them to truly become publishers of content, not simply the commissioners of it.
6. Your new game, “The End” is a multifaceted game about mortality
that uses a handful of game play types, achievements, and information
to engage players. Can you talk a little bit about how you created the
entire package for “The End”?
The idea for a game about Death came from a bunch of UK research which highlighted the absence of religion in teens. One thing Religion does very well is provide a narrative to death, a support framework which gives answers and reason. The End sets out to level the playing field, presenting a variety of views about life and mortality from famous thinkers of our time. It’s not a non-religious game, just philosophical.
At the heart of the project is the death dial, a profiling system which plots the player’s opinion created from answering questions during gameplay. It also plots famous thinkers of our time relative to the player, allowing then to explore ‘like-minded souls’. It doesn’t have the answers but sets out to blur the polarity of religious and non-religious thinking and present lesser-known ideas which might help a teen deal with the advent of death in their lives, however spiritual (or not) they may be.
That’s the intention, the rest of the game just builds out of that. It’s a very different game to anything we’ve done previously, in that all we’re trying to do is make the player think more about Death.
7. What can we expect from Preloaded over the next few months and in
Over the next 6 months we’ll be working on a bunch of really interesting games for some truly amazing clients.
Next week we’re launching an interactive activity for the UK’s Houses of Parliament called MyUK, which lets the player take the role of Prime Minister and take decisions to shape their own version of Britain. There’s a trailer up here for those interested: http://www.createmyuk.org
We’re working with the London Science Museum on a suite of future-science inspired games developed strictly for games portals. May contain space debris, robotic lobsters, and nano-bots. It’s a brave commission and one we’re really excited about.
The Tate gallery and Wellcome Trust have teamed up with us to develop a gaming experience to examine how the young brain evolves. Embedded into the concept is the Art of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, easing a young audiences’ exploration into concepts like Plasticity and Spacial cognition. So far, it’s shaping up to be one of the most visually surprising games we’ve made this year.
We continue to work with the fine folk over at Channel 4 Education, and are currently deep in production of a socially-concious social game, set in a shoe shop and revolving around the social and economic decisions needed to build a successful business. It’s a big’un and due for launch end of 2011. We’re also about to start work on a new game for Channel 4 Education’s Super-Me project, which endevours to teach teens resilience strategies to ‘make them better at life’.
I’m also looking at three other briefs on my desk, so hopefully at least one of those too!
2012 will mark a big technological shift from using Flash as our principal tech to Unity. For the remainder of this year, this will mean a lot of R+D, new hires, and internal training. The ambition is by the middle of next year all our games will be multi-platform, authored from one single code-base. We are focussing on three core platforms; mobile, online, and DLC.
Finally, we’re also working more and more outside of the UK with a game in production for an UAE audience and discussions with a really interesting educational organisation in Brazil. Reaching new audiences is always a really compelling challenge that we relish, so working with a mix of cultures and nations is a fantastic forum for widening the fodder for brilliant new ideas.
To learn more about the work Phil and his team creates, visit the Preloaded website.