Gareth Edmondson, CEO, Thumbstar GamesSource
Gareth Edmondson made his name at the well-known Newcastle computer games company now called Ubisoft Reflections. But late last year he left to head an ambitious mobile games outfit called Thumbstar. John Hill finds out what he's got in store for small-screen gamers.
HERE’S a quick quiz: Name a few things former Ubisoft Reflections managing director Gareth Edmondson has helped to build over the years?
You get points for mentioning any of the studio’s popular Driver series and a few extra ticks for something like Stuntman. But no one ever thinks to mention his work on a sewage treatment works in Cleethorpes.
He has been involved in making things ever since he left university, but it hasn’t always been video games. In fact, he originally trained as a construction engineer.
Before he joined his brother Martin’s business as a project manager in 1998, he was a site engineer helping to construct the Lincolnshire sewage plant, and later managed mobile network roll-outs in places such as Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and the Netherlands.
“In a way, it was all very similar because I was managing projects,” he says. “The difference was that I went from managing physical buildings to digital, virtual building. But it’s still mainly about people really.”
Edmondson has built up a big reputation in the gaming industry. So a lot of ears pricked up late last year when he left Ubisoft Reflections after more than a decade to head up a Liverpool-based mobile games specialist.
Thumbstar Games has been around for four years, and operates in markets across the world. It’s also now got a base in Newcastle, located in the historic and unusual hallways of Milburn House. So what was it that attracted him to the delights of the smaller screen?
“I met the guys in Liverpool and realised what an amazing business they had, and what an opportunity it offered to link all our various skills together and create something. It was something that was successful, but could be really successful.
“I was thinking at the time about just starting a pure mobile development business here in Newcastle. They were needing product themselves, so it all just clicked.”
A lot of people are very excited about the mobile gaming market. Juniper Research recently estimated annual revenues from consumer mobile applications would near $52bn by 2016.
Fellow research firm Gartner thinks over 185 billion applications will have been downloaded from mobile app stores by 2014. Edmondson says the industry moves at a “rapid” pace, but he’s particularly attracted to the opportunities it provides to try new things.
“It’s amazing how quickly you can move with a small team working on handheld and tablet hardware. For example, we started programming on a Monday and we had our first prototype up and running by the end of Tuesday.
“It’s very exciting, and feels very much like the old days in a lot of ways. There’s more competition out there of course, but it feels more open to experimentation and innovation. You can make a game and try something that no one’s ever done before without too much commercial risk.”
Thumbstar’s business involves publishing and distributing mobile and tablet games.
It sometimes does this by building its own ideas, occasionally with the help of outside talent. However, it also uses its network to publish and market games developed by others, and can also help to bring decent ideas to life through its expertise, funding and knowledge of routes to market.
It currently represents more than 100 developers, and is pushing over 2,000 titles through distribution channels in places such as the UK, Asia, Europe, Australasia, America and the Middle East. His brother Martin was an original angel investor in Thumbstar, and is now on board as chief creative officer.
Edmondson says: “One of the key things we do is offer alternative routes to market. We’ve got 128 or so distribution channels worldwide. Many – although not all – developers believe there only two shops: the App Store and Google Marketplace. Our business model revolves around doing very sensible numbers in lots of channels.“
Every mobile developer has drooled over the story of Angry Birds, which has been downloaded more than 700 million times on mobile devices so far. However, it’s not easy getting noticed in Apple’s teeming shop window.
So while it still put games in the App Store, Thumbstar also gets games out in different ways.
He says: “We find we’re talking a lot of developers that have just done an iOS game. They’ve done a good job of it – it’s a good game – but it’s failed in the market and they think it’s because there’s something wrong with the game. Those guys have moved onto the next game because they think it wasn’t good enough.
“We’re talking to those guys and saying: ‘No, go back to your original game. Port it to Android, we’ll put it through our multiple distribution channels around the world, and we’ll all make some money out of it’.
“You’ll probably benefit from that in the App Store as well because it will be a known product as more people will have played it.”
For example, a consumer might be put off from downloading from Google Marketplace because they don’t have a credit card.
Thumbstar is working with companies such as Australian telco Telstra to offer “carrier billing”, which allows the consumer to download games and pay the phone operator. Developers might set up websites, which mobile users can visit to buy and download titles.
Thumbstar is also bringing out its own range of pre-paid cards which can be bought over the counter, allowing users to download a collection of games by scanning a code with their phone. Edmondson believes mobile gaming is reviving the ethos of an earlier era, in which talented and motivated game- lovers could make their own titles in their bedrooms.
“The DIY ethos has been reborn because of mobile, and I think it’s brilliant. That’s where the next great ideas are coming from. That’s what you need; loads and loads of these people coming through.
“I spoke at this event in Newcastle called Mobile Mingle the other week and there were loads of small developers there.”
He’s in a good position to talk about that “DIY ethos” too. He was still at school when his parents first brought a BBC Micro into the house, and it wasn’t long before his brother and a friend started programming on it.
“They were just making games for themselves. They took one to a publisher, finished it off and that was the beginning of that. That game was called Ravenskull.”
His brother Martin set up Reflections Interactive in 1984, and scored a hit on the Amiga with Shadow of the Beast.
Edmondson says: “I was really interested in what Martin was doing and liked playing games, but at the time I was probably more interested in bikes and girls.”
The two brothers linked up at Reflections years later when Martin mentioned he was thinking of hiring a project manager. Gareth quipped that he’d have a go at that, and within six weeks he was part of the team. This was 1998; the year in which Reflections was acquired by GT Interactive.
A year later, the first of the Driver games was released on PlayStation. The series would become one of the studio’s best-known creations, inspired by movies such as Steve McQueen’s Bullitt. GT Interactive was absorbed into Infogrames/Atari later that year. Martin left Reflections and sued Atari in 2004 after the release of the tepidly-received Driv3r, and Gareth became managing director. But the two were back together at Reflections a few years ago, under new owners Ubisoft.
The project was Driver: San Francisco, which involved a painstaking re-creation of the city and the creation of innovative features such as the ability to “shift” between cars mid-game. It was widely-praised on release, but was to be the last major Reflections project for the Edmondsons.
“I’d been running Reflections for seven years”, says Gareth.
“I was very happy and enjoyed it there, but I felt like I’d done the big team thing and I wanted to go back to doing something smaller. We had 220 people in the studio at one point and I didn’t know everyone’s name. I wanted to have a go at something small again and build it up.”
A hint of Martin’s presence at Thumbstar is sitting out in the hall; an original Defender arcade machine that he received as a Christmas present. Gareth says he’s been asked on a number of occasions how the brothers work together, but finds it “difficult to describe”.
“Basically we just talk a lot”, he says. “When it comes to creative decisions, I completely leave it up to him because he’s far better at that than me.
“When it comes to management decisions and the day-to-day running, he leaves that up to me. When there’s big decisions about the company and investments, it’s board-level. But we’re both very interested in what we do anyway. It’s not a chore to talk about.”
Gareth knows you can market a game all you like, but you’ll only have a classic on your hands if it’s really playable. So has he picked up any tips on how to craft an addictive game?
“You have to make things comfortable. You can challenge the player, but you’ve got to make sure they don’t get frustrated because the controls feel awkward.
“Another thing is performance. If it’s jerky and sluggish, the game will start to feel awkward again. You’ve got to have some innovation there too.”
He stresses the importance of flexibility, and being able to “design and build, and then change and tweak”. But it’s also about somehow finding that something that gets the player coming back for just one more go.
“Psychologists spend years analysing this sort of thing, and I’m not going to pretend I’ve got a soundbite that will give you the answer to that. That’s the thing about games. You can write down what it’s going to be, but when you get it in your hands it’s nothing like that.”
Gareth has also spent several years as vice-chairman of games trade body TIGA. TIGA welcomed changes to R&D tax credits last year, but is still lobbying to get tax breaks for the UK industry. It received support from all major parties before the 2010 election, but plans were knocked back by Chancellor George Osborne in his emergency budget.
Gareth argues the UK is being “undercut” by countries like Canada which offer tempting tax breaks, and there is now a “clear imbalance between the supported and non-supported”. TIGA recently said the UK’s games workforce shrank by over 10% between 2008 and 2011. Of the staff that were lost between 2009 and 2011, 41% relocated overseas.
He says: “It would be a huge shame if that continued.
“But having said that, if the tax breaks never happen, one of things about the UK is that people like living here and working here, and as a nation we’re always good at finding ways around things and finding solutions.
“That will keep us competitive, but we won’t be competitive on a global scale as we were, and should and could be, because clearly these superstudios being set up in places like Montreal are very unlikely in the UK.
“We’ll have a strong development community in the UK but it will be on a smaller scale.”
Gaming is an international business, and Edmondson clocks up the miles. He was in Germany last week, and will shortly be off to the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona before heading to San Francisco for events such as Game Connection America.
He’ll also be speaking at GameHorizon, which will take place on June 27 and 28 this year at The Sage in Gateshead. He replaced Darren Jobling as chairman of the business network of the same name late last year.
Edmondson believes there‘s currently a sense of “optimism” in the region’s games industry, due to the birth of several mobile development companies. He also anticipates the growth of an “eco-system” of service providers supporting these mobile firms.
“I think you’ll see writers, audio people, and localisation people; there’ll be small companies providing art-contracting and programming-contracting services. That will be a great help. If people need to solve a problem and don’t have the internal capacity, they‘ll just buy it in for a few weeks.”
When he does get time off, he indulges his children’s passion for Lego, and cycles “to try and get a few of the business development beers off”.
His father also got him interested in sailing as a young boy, and he used to sail on the Tyne or in North Shields and Sunderland. Later in life, he owned racing boats which he took around Europe.
He tells himself he’ll make a bit of time for that when things calm down a bit. But at the moment he says he genuinely finds his work enjoyable; innovating at breakneck pace in the mobile games industry.
“We’ve got a plan in place for what we’re doing now, but the industry moves fast so we need to be flexible.
“As long as we anticipate any changes by a week or two we’ll be alright. OK, that may be an exaggeration, but it certainly feels that way.”
What car do you drive?
A BMW Dadmobile (ie. an estate).
What’s your favourite restaurant?
In Newcastle, Cafe 21 or Vujon. In the world, too many, but the Rasoi in London was an amazing place I went to a couple of weeks ago.
Who or what makes you laugh?
Children. Unless they are jumping on me at 6am.
What’s your favourite book?
Any Douglas Coupland.
What was the last album you bought?
Foy Vance – Hope.
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Something else that involves creativity and technology. Making movies maybe.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
To be quiet. Not particularly fond of parrots!
What’s your greatest fear?
Anything bigger than me.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
It’s all about people.
And the worst?
Invest in this, it’s about to take off!
What’s your poison?
Pretty much anything. Red wine is top of the list though.
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
I don’t really read newspapers. Maybe the BBC website.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£25. Working on the Gateshead Garden Festival on the renovation of Dunston Staithes as a labourer one summer
How do you keep fit?
Cycling … when I can.
What’s your most irritating habit?
When I have had a few beers I think I know everything, apparently. And I repeat myself. Oh, and... and... and...
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Dick Dastardly. Although I have seen Bill Clinton speak at a few events, and to be as good at that at public speaking would be useful.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Scarlett Johansson, Stephen Fry (to tell him off for disappearing ... we were at that exact performance of his play Cell Mates when he left for Belgium), Steve Jobs, Peter Ustinov.
How would you like to be remembered?
As an all-round decent bloke. That would do just fine.
1992-98: Alan Dick and Company, structures proposals engineer to senior project manager
1998-2011: Reflections Interactive (now Ubisoft Reflections), production manager to managing director
2011-present: Thumbstar Games, CEO
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