tsumea interview with Ingmar Lak, Director at The Binary Mill

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The Binary Mill is a Queensland based independent games company who caught our attention when they released the trailer for their upcoming top-down racer, Mini Motor Racing. It made a splash at the Games Developers Conference this year, and it's on our most-watch list for upcoming titles by local games developers.

The Binary Mill have been around for a few years with a variety of iPhone apps and games under their belts, but we felt it's high time we found out a little bit more about them by grabbing an interview with their company Director, Ingmar Lak.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background in games, and your role at The Binary Mill? What is it about games that has kept you involved with them for so long?

Ingmar: Sure. I'm currently the Director at The Binary Mill. I've always loved videogames since my first C64. I started working in videogames about 14 years ago running an import company called Extreme Imports. We'd import all manner of crazy game related products, many of which would never make it to Australian shores. Part of the service we offered was to create video promos of the games we'd import, since many people didn't know what the games were about. This is in the days when IGN wasn't around yet and Snowball were only just emerging. So since info was relatively scarce our videos became increasingly more popular and we transitioned into creating video content of games via NextGenVideos.com. During this time we started covering the major gaming expos such as E3 and TGS creating their official show DVDs to sell onto consumers hungry for the content of these industry-only shows. But slowly (or was it light speed?) the internet phenomenon raged through the videogame industry and DVD coverage of these shows went the way of the dodo.

Unfortunately being based in Australia, is was very difficult to capitalise on the headstart we had on most in terms of production value and contacts having made the DVDs. So it was either move to the US and transition into something like GameTrailers.com or stay in Oz and continue on the path of video post production and 3D animation, targeted at the videogame industry. We decided to stay put and continue on with the later, producing promotional videos, trailers & TV commercials for the likes of companies such as EA, Take 2, EB Games etc.

Fast forward 5 or so years from there, we saw the opportunity in the market to finally materialise our collective dream of actually making videogames.

Weapon showcase & excerpt from Combat Shotgun 3D

When was The Binary Mill established and how many do you have currently working on games there?

Ingmar: The Binary Mill was established in June of 2009. We currently have 10 employees, but we're growing at a fairly quick pace right now.

You've chosen the iPhone as your primary platform for development. Was the iPhone and the App Store an influential reason for you to move towards games development? Did you ever suspect that it would open up such a big market and opportunity for independent games developers?

Ingmar: The App Store was fundamental in our decision to finally move into game development. It was such an exciting prospect -- the wild wild west of development -- where anyone could come along and have a go. Gone was the need for publishers, bloated development budgets, physical media & distribution costs, development kits etc. Here was an opportunity for a good idea that was well executed to have great chance at success. No middle men, just developer to consumer with Apple faciliating at a reasonable cost. I'm not sure anyone actually realised the opportunity would become what it has for many. We had hopes, but saw it as being a little risky, albeit largely mitigated by the positive factors mentioned. But we certainly didn't think the App Store would turn the industry up on it's head and become such a revolutionary opportunity.

What are the challenges of running an indie games company like The Binary Mill?

Ingmar: I guess starting out is always the toughest. Untill you have at least one moderately successful title, it's hard. You're probably self-funding everything and working insane hours in the hopes that you're working on something that will become that success. Venture capital is an option for some, but while it can make the start less stressful, down the line can turn just as bad, if not worse.

Speaking from the perspective of where The Binary Mill is today, the challenge is really keeping the agile small team model while still expanding to capitalise on existing IP, create new brands and expand on to other platforms. The bigger we get, the greater the need for middle management and before you know it your visions can fast begin to dilute from where you intended things to go. Of course as the team grows, so do the overheads so more pressure is on to ensure that a successful product is consistently produced. So we're opting to grow at a steady, manageable rate so that we can adapt to maintain the core structure that's enabled the success we have today.

Assault Squadron, developed by The Binary Mill and published by Chillingo

How did you manage to hook up with legendary Leisure Suit Larry creator, Al Lowe, for the Cyberjoke 3000 app?

Ingmar: Leisure Suit Larry was one of my all time favorite Sierra point and click franchises and meeting the genius behind that lovable, leisure suit wearing 'looser' was on my bucket list. It just so happened that we had a project in mind that needed some sharp wit and comedic timing, so I went for gold. I reached out to him and being the wonderfully kind and friendly human being that he is, was keen to work together. The project that actually eventuated from the partnership was not actually the project that I set out to pitch. We both agreed that Al's Comedy Club would be a great way to see how we work together, and with Al having run Al Lowe's Cyberjoke 3000™ since the days of Larry, we weren't short on material! I highly recommend people sign up to that free email @ www.allowe.com by the way! /shameless plug

The Gun Club apps seems to have gained somewhat of a hardcore niche following with its comprehensive selection of weaponry, each containing detailed actions and sounds. What spurred on the creation of weaponry focussed apps?

Ingmar: Indeed they have. Who would have thought that Americans liked guns so much? Gun Club was one of our very first App Store projects and came about by seeing what was performing well on the App Store at the time, albeit at it's infancy. The simplest of apps were fascinating people - even soundboards were performing ridiculously well. So we thought why stop at just a soundboard? Why don't we take a popular subject, i.e. guns, and flesh out the interactivity of the subject, so it doesn't just go 'bang' when you tap the screen, but is now fully interactive with the actual mechanics of the weapon. The app was pretty much an instant success and we've grown the franchise over 5 million users across the brand.

You actually have quite a diverse range of games and apps under your belt. What has been most popular, sales wise? What strategies do you have in marketing and promoting your products?

Ingmar: Gun Club is our big earner, but we've done very well with games like Assault Squadron, Bloody Fun Day and Fruit Boom. We've learnt so much about marketing on the App Store. It's a different beast than traditional marketing, and that's about as understated as a statement can be. We've developed many ways to promote our titles; coverage on iPhone websites & blogs, cross promotion in social networks such as Open Feint, targeted paid advertising via various non-traditional channels and of course promoting to our existing fan base. The key is convergence of your promotion. You need for everything to hit hard at once, preferably on your launch date.

Currently in production, Mini Motor Racing

You've worked with other companies on some of your past iPhone titles. Can you explain the relationship and benefits you have from partnering up with publishers like Chillingo over self publishing yourselves?

Ingmar: Partnering with a publisher can be very beneficial to a developer that's starting up and trying to make a name for themselves. It gives some security that all of the hard work that's been put into development will have a legitimate chance to garner some exposure thanks to the publisher's existing network & marketing dollars. It can also act as a badge of honour for future negotiations as most publishers such as Chillingo won't just take anything on. It needs to be a quality title and the industry recognises that. It's also a great opportunity to build relationships with press, as they're far more willing to give coverage to a published title (i.e. a title of perceived quality) over say the 10,000 daily requests they get from unknown developers looking for coverage of their game. The down side to that of course is that the publisher will want a cut, and there are usually a few terms and conditions in the contract that you'd prefer were absent.

Self-publishing is obviously the ideal scenario if you can get away with it, but it can be a huge gamble for a start-up as many of the keys to marketing the product are restricted when you a) have no exiting user base and b) no reputation for quality or service. If your marketing efforts are poor, and your release doesn't take hold (i.e. chart your baby into the top100 somewhere) you're pretty much done. I'm certainly not saying it can't be done this way, but it's harder & riskier when you're not established.

We're eagerly anticipating the release of the recently announced Mini Motor Racing game. The visuals look quite spectacular, and the game looks to be the most ambitious title so far from The Binary Mill. Can you give us a rundown on some of the features it will be offering? What are you most excited about Mini Motor Racing?

Ingmar: Thanks! At the risk of sounding like a broken record for those that do know about the game, Mini Motor Racing is a 3D isometric top down racer made for iPhone and iPad. The game spans a variety of richly detailed locations, offers players upgrade paths for each vehicle and rewards the player for every nitro-fuelled race they complete. We're also incorporating 4 player local multiplayer so there will be plenty to keep coming back to.

We're still really coming to grips with the iOS platform and see so much potential. It's frustrating in a way as we have so many (what we think are) great ideas, but with limited development bandwidth we need to pick and choose what projects we take on. MMR was developed with the inspiration of a personal favourite racing game of mine - Super Offroad. I'm most excited that I think we've captured a lot of what made that game so amazing back then, while really giving it a coat of 2011 graphical polish.

What kind of response did you receive from showing Mini Motor Racing at the GDC this year?

Ingmar: To be honest, we were blown away with the response. We hadn't shown this game to anyone and nobody even had a clue that we were working on it. The press where happy to meet with us due to the quality of Assault Squadron but they didn't know what we were going to show. The build we had to show was early too, so we were nervous and were expecting to receive quite a bit of criticism on the game since it was still so incomplete. But the press loved it and the response was better than we could have ever hoped for. We're now getting harassed a lot for the preview builds we promised!

You have a forum for fans of your games on The Binary Mill website, and you're quite active in responding to enquiries and comments concerning your titles at various other games forums. How important do you think it is it to communicate and reach out to gamers this way?

Ingmar: I think this is key. I cannot stress how much the community appreciate it when you join in and let them know that you're not a faceless giant corporate douche (which is an uphill battle for someone like me ) and that you value the input that the community have. At the end of the day, these are the people that are supporting your venture, so you'd be crazy not to listen and interact with them. There's nothing more valuable than a fan of your products and let me tell you, treating them with the respect they deserve will convert them into fans for life.

As an entrepreneur and business owner, what tips and advice do you have for anyone considering starting up their own indie games studio, particularly graduates coming straight out of uni or game courses?

Ingmar: Well hopefully some of the points I've touched on here will help guide fresh start-ups on their path to global domination, but I can't stress enough how important passion for what you do is. You're not going to get very far if you're expecting to work a 9 to 5 when starting out. Pick what it is you'd like to do, what your strengths are, and build on them. Finding a job in the industry is a good idea to help learn the ropes but it can be tough to find work. While looking for work, keep honing your craft and build up that port folio. Ultimately studios are looking for people that are excellent at what they do. Repetition is the mother of skill as they say so stick with it. And if you think you can jump right in and launch a start up, go for it!

Speaking as an entrepreneur I have two philosophies. 1) Never give up and 2) when you fail, and you will (and I'm speaking generally here), learn from your mistakes and come at it from a new angle with your new found experience. Success is but a series of failures.

I have the Playstation, Xbox, and Nintendo DVD's from the NextGenVideo E3 2003 collection on my shelf which I thoroughly enjoyed viewing. The covers share the same title: "The Future of Videogames". What do you see as the future of video games now?

Ingmar: Boy, if you had asked me this question 5 years ago I would have gotten it SO wrong. I dare say I'm in the same position now. I think we're seeing a shift from epically huge big budget titles to more mobile oriented / social experiences but will that continue? Will there be another shift when the next generation of hardware hits? I can't really say but I'm super excited to be a part of it!

Huge thanks to Ingmar for his time with the interview. Keep an eye out on The Binary Mill and Mini Motor Racing by following the social links below!

The Binary Mill - http://www.thebinarymill.com
Twitter - https://twitter.com/TheBinaryMill
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Binary-Mill/107165549317008
Youtube - http://www.youtube.com/binarymill