SB Interview: Freeverse’s Colin Lynch Smith

November 11, 2008

Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the closed doors of a game developer? In an effort to get some answers and a little more clarity into this competitive industry, we interviewed Colin Lynch Smith, VP of NYC-based game developer Freeverse.

Snackbar Games: Can you tell us about how Freeverse started?
Colin Lynch Smith: My brother Ian graduated from Vassar with a degree in Cognitive Science, and spent the year after graduation sharing a house in East L.A. with a bunch of other recent grads who were writing screenplays and trying to break into the movie business. Ian didn’t really share their career goals, so he did a bit of temp work and started coding a Hearts card game on his old Apple Powerbook. It was revolutionary for its time, making use of a faux-3D perspective, talking characters, voice recognition and other cool stuff. He released it as shareware on AOL and started getting checks for $15 in the mail. He immediately became the wealthiest of his Dorito-eating slacker friends in the house…not a huge accomplishment, but it was better than temping, and Freeverse was born.

SB: Something most people may not realize is that you publish your own games as well as developing them. Can you tell us a little about how that process works and why you do it yourselves?
CLS: Need and rejection are the mothers of invention. As a Mac-focused developer, there was a very limited pool of publishing options, and after they all turned us down, we had to create our ownopportunities. So that meant building our own online store…and eventually learning how to design and print boxes and forging the relationships with distributors to get our titles onto shelves. We got very lucky on the retail side. When Bungie wasacquiredby Microsoft, they didn’t need a channel sales manager anymore. So he eventually became our channel sales manager and helped us navigate the verytreacherousshoals of shelf-space.

SB: Your company has been around for a long time while others have come and gone. To what do you attribute your success given how volatile this industry can be?
CLS: We develop as cost effectively and as quickly as we can. If we spot a hole in the market or an opportunity, we try to get there first. And we’re very diversified. We publish utilities as well as games, we have games on XBLA, titles for Mac, PC, and for iPhone. We have development income, publishing income, and we even do contract dev work if it makes sense. We hustle. The studio models where they risk the whole company on a single game is just not something we’re comfortable with. It can produce an awesome game and make a fortune, but its just as likely to kill the company.

SB: How do you prioritize which game titles you develop next?
CLS: We go where the opportunity is. We knew iPhone would be big, so we made sure we had a great title for the platform at launch.

SB: Where do you draw inspiration for the games you design?
CLS: We were casual before casual was cool, with our card and board games, so we’ve always had a soft spot for those classics. Big Bang Board Games is a good example of how we enjoy taking a well known game like Chess and integrating character, humor, and technology to add to the experience. But we also work with a lot of outside developers, and if they’ve got an idea for a good game, we’re happy to support their passion so long as we feel the market will sustain it.

SB: As your company grows, do you feel as if the games you create get progressively more complicated and bigger over the years? Are there any big lessons you’ve learned?
CLS: Not to make the games progressivelymore complicatedorbigger. The bar has been raised in terms of production values, but a fun mechanic is a fun mechanic. We have a term we tend to use a lot: “Elven Archer.” As in “don’t Elven Archer the game” or “you’ve got too many Elven Archers in this design”. The genesis of the term is the truism that adding an elven archer to any game would be kind of cool. On a surface level, you can’t go wrong by throwing in some elven archers in a title; be it a Space Sim, Bowling or Backgammon game… elven archers are always awesome. But just because something is awesome, and you can do it, doesn’t mean you should. So we keep an eye out for spending resources appropriately, and staying true to the core of the game. But the occasional Elf still gets through. Tricky devils.

SB: Most of the games you develop are more on the casual side, but do you have any plans to create games that appeal to the core gamer?
CLS: We’ve done some fun arcade-type games like Wingnuts…and publish the Mac versions of titles likeHeroesof Might & Magic V, and some great historical titles like Legion Arena, and Commander: Europe at War. We’re open to any genre, and certainly enjoy playing the more hardcore titles, but creating those titles are often very big undertakings. If we grow to a point where we can tackle something of that scale withoutjeopardizingour diversity, or our aversion to risking the company on a single project, itsdefinitelysomething we’d like to do.

SB: How have your experiences been with developing for the iPhone? Can we expect to see more games on that platform in the future?
CLS: Yes, we’ve got a great slate of titles for the iPhone coming out in the next few months. The iPhone is a terrific platform, and we’ve already seen a great deal of success. At one point we had the #1 and #2 top selling Apps on the iTunes App Store. Its amazing how quickly the “gold rush” of the App Store has gone from boom to bust. At this point its been open a little over three months and there are already over 1,500 games listed. A lot of developers with unreasonable expectations have beendisappointedwith the results, but I think we had the right strategy, the right titles, and in the Apple pond we’re a fairly large fish. So we hope to be making iPhone games for a long time to come.

SB: The global economy is in terrible shape these days. How do you think this will affect the gaming industry?
CLS: That’s a big unknown. A lot of our fellow game developers,especiallyin New York City, are heavily dependent on the advertising landscape. And that could mean trouble. Certainly iPhone sales, console sales, any big-ticket item, will take some kind of hit. But I’m hopeful that people will still want to play games and we’ll all be able to ride it out. We may have to cancel the big AIG-style corporate spa retreat we were planning, but the office will still have a fridge full of Mountain Dew and our pinball machine is still set on free-play.

SB: If you could collaborate with any major developer, who would it be and why?
CLS: I thought Bioshock was brilliantly written, I’d love to work with that team. I’d love to work with Sid Meier on a new Civil War series. I thought he got a near-perfect blend of history, strategy, and action in his old Gettysburg! game.

SB: What games do you like to play when you’re not busy making them?
CLS: I mostly enjoy turn-based strategy games. I’m too old and too slow for twitch games. I’ve found the DS to be great device for these, since I can take it with me or play in bed, and it has enough battery-life for good long sessions. So I’m all over any Advance Wars title, and I’m eagerly awaiting the release of Fire Emblem DS. I’m also a fan of historical wargames, so long as playability takes precedence over micromanagement.