Ask the Developer: East Side Games on making counterculture games and licensing an IP
AppLovin is a global brand and platform, which means we have the opportunity to work with developers from different markets all around the world. In our Ask the Developer series, we speak with developers to learn their strategies, best practices, and expert insights.
For this installment, we sat down with Josh Nilson, CEO of East Side Games, to talk about how the company found success by building counterculture games and the ins and outs of licensing and IP. You may know East Side Games from its popular titles such as Pot Farm, which started out as a Facebook game, and Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money. The Vancouver-based studio is proudly independent and has never taken a round of funding.
After speaking with Nilson, the thing that stuck out the most is how much thought and care East Side Games puts into creating and maintaining their customer-first culture. “We’re not just making games to make a quick buck,” said Nilson. “Our games are made for fans by fans,” he continued. This value is also published prominently on the East Side Games site and reads, “Our community made us—we never forget this. Our players inspire us daily as we strive to give them a fun experience.”
In fact, East Side Games takes its player feedback extremely seriously, allowing the community to directly affect what goes into the game. “One of the reasons why we’ve survived for the past seven years, which is an eternity for a games studio, is because our fans have stood by us through thick and thin,” said Nilson. “Mainly through the thin,” he joked.
By fostering community and a sense of ownership of the game, East Side Games has developed a passionate fan base. Nilson recalls one player that has stuck with them from the very beginning, who mentioned that he played all the way through their game, Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money.
“I’m not a gamer, but I finished your game,” said the player to Nilson. When Nilson told him there was an updated version of the game, the player went back and beat the entire game again. “What I thought was most amazing about that [story] is the fact that we want to bring on new players without [them] being intimidated by the game,” said Nilson.
And it’s not just players that have ownership, but also every employee within the company. “One thing that we’ve always said is that everyone on the community team absolutely has the power to do whatever it takes to make the player feel right,” said Nilson. East Side Games has a dedicated community team that constantly interacts with fans on Facebook, Twitter, and Twitch. The company hopes to double its two-and-a-half-hour-per-week Twitch streaming schedule this year to allow fans to interact with its staff even more.
Learning how to license an IP
Fans aren’t the only ones to gravitate toward East Side Games’ culture. In fact, someone from Trailer Park Boys reached out to the studio to make its mobile game. “We said no at first because we didn’t want to fuck it up,” said Nilson, as the studio had never worked with a third-party IP before. The Trailer Park Boys team were insistent and wanted East Side Games to create their mobile game because they wanted a “counterculture” feel for the IP, which the studio achieved with their Facebook game, Pot Farm.
After two months of going back and forth, East Side Games agreed to take on the project and quickly learned how licensed IPs would work. One of the biggest things Nilson learned is that communication is key when licensing an IP. “You have to have someone dedicated to communication with the IP,” said Nilson. “A lot of the time, the IP doesn’t come from the games world, so they don’t understand exactly you’re saying and vice versa.”
Another thing Nilson learned from working on the Trailer Park Boys IP is that you have to be very specific about what you agree on. This includes details like when you plan to launch or when press goes out to promote the game. “The reason why IPs reach out to third-party game studios is because they have to focus on their main business,” said Nilson. This means studios working with an IP need to be extremely organized and specific about what’s needed and next steps to ensure everything gets done in a timely manner.
In licensing an IP, there needs to be realistic expectations. Not every IP will commit to sharing your game on their social media, so mobile developers should never treat that as a given and must negotiate it as part of their contract. “You don’t rely on anyone other than yourself, and the IP isn’t going to solve all your problems,” said Nilson.
But what worked for East Side Games may not work for your studio. “There’s no playbook for this,” clarified Nilson. “We tried doing static ads and normal things that people did, but they just weren’t getting much engagement.” At the end of the day, you have to understand why the IP you’re licensing is unique. For Trailer Park Boys, the secret to their success is how funny the show is, thanks to its actors improvising lines. East Side Games worked humor into their ads, allowing their mobile game to become part of the show’s canon. You can see how effortlessly Trailer Park Boys integrated Greasy Money into the show’s Halloween plotline in the video below (NSFW language).
There may also be a time when your studio simply can’t do everything and will require outsourcing tasks that aren’t crucial to do in-house. East Side Games learned quickly that they would have to reach out to other indie studios for help. “I think studios need to think like a startup,” said Nilson. “What I mean is that you have different teams for different phases of the game. You need a different skill set for launch and post launch. And for licensed IP games, the majority of the work comes after launch.” This is where outsourcing work to freelancers can be really valuable, provided you give them clear direction.
As for what’s next for East Side Games, “We’re going to continue making interesting and weird counterculture games, just because you can see that we’re having fun making it and that shines through.”