Sandy Duncan Interview: How YoYo Games Really Started & PSP
March 2, 2011
In this section: Founding YoYo Games Ltd, Mark Overmars and Game Maker, Writing runners for different hardware and PSP.
Sandy Duncan: I’ll go back to how YoYo Games really started, there were a bunch of us paid by a Venture Capital firm to come up with some ideas for them. There was me, James North-Hearn (now CEO of Foundation 9 – the worlds’ largest independent games developer) and Spencer Hyman (COO at Last.fm). We were soon joined by Michel Cassius.
We came up with several ideas, one of which we called Ministry Of Games, which is what YoYo would have been called had the domain name been available. We liked the idea so much that we decided to form a company around it, the idea was to be a games talent incubator.
Spencer went off to Last.fm and got into the whole social networking thing and said to us “you’ve got to do this YouTube thing” but for games. The phrase helps people get their head around what we do, but it is not what we are about – we are a talent incubator.
Michel was my marketing director when I ran xBox in Europe and we had both seen the emergence of the casual games sector where companies like Popcap were rapidly emerging and it looked pretty interesting. They were producing games for £50,000-£60,000 and as they were downloaded there weren’t all the problems you get with a packaged product and retail distribution. The numbers weren’t stacking up for us to become a regular publisher 5-6 years ago and you can see now that games publishers everywhere are struggling to survive.
Casual content, Downloadable content and Talent were the three things we wanted to do. We then bumped into Mark Overmars shortly after he had agreed to sell Game Maker to somebody else, quite a big company, but he hadn’t signed anything. Somehow we pursuaded Mark to join us, it was the last peice of our jigsaw and meant we wouldn’t have to write our own product from scratch which we had considered to be too expensive.
We hired a few people and got an office but we did it all in such a rush that we didn’t ask Mark Overmars if he would continue writing Game Maker for us! He didn’t have the time to do it which was the reason he was selling it – it had become too big for him to manage alongside a full time job. For a long time we didn’t fill that gap, it was problematic to find someone who knows Delphi [the language Game Maker is written in], let alone game design and hardware.
We were looking at the DS which had no store, PS2 and PSP which both had some level of connectivity and we knew about xBox 360 and PS3 through our connections so we weren’t looking at phones at all. When iPhone came out it helped us get even more excited about what we were doing, from the minute it came out we were thinking “how can we get in there”.
Then we found Mike and Russell and everything just fell together. Those guys are amazing. Their history is great but means nothing if you can’t do anything with it, they could. What we needed were software engineers who understood games and hardware. When they wrote Lemmings you didn’t have Direct X to write for Amiga, Atari etc so they had the unique combination of talents that we utterly needed. They had the ability to take a games focused product and adapt it.
We had done some work in the interim by outsourcing a C++ runner because we had always known that this would be the basis of taking Game Maker elsewhere. It wasn’t very well written initially but the groundwork probably saved us six months to a year so that once we’d found Mike and Russell the basics of getting Delphi into C had been done.
The rate at which they’ve worked has been amazing. When Mark and I first met them he said “they’re really nice guys but I’m going to have to sit with them for weeks explaining how Game Maker works”. They just said, “give us the sources and we’ll see what we can do”. We did that and then six weeks later they presented me with a modified PSP which was running Skydiver. It blew me away.
Naively we were quite excited when Sony announced that they were going to support mini games. You have to develop to a minimum spec, for a PSP 1000, that’s 233MHz processor and 32MB of memory. To get a game approved by Sony it has to run on that.
There are problems with Sony, they are still living in the console age! They split the world into 3 regions: EMEA, US and Japan which are all managed separately. This is why you only see GreenTech in 4 countries in Europe, we have to have completely separate agreements and go through different approval processes to get on the other stores.
Costwise the only thing that makes publishing for PSP more expensive than elsewhere is the cost of having to talk to so many people. Their technical requirements change daily and even people inside Sony can’t keep up! It’s not massively more expensive but in return they do lots of game testing for you – it’s a bit silly to do this for minis. The reason we haven’t published more with Sony is the issue with access to their markets. On iPhone you press a button and the app goes worldwide, on Android it goes worldwide even if you don’t want it to – there are pirate .apks all over the net!
There are very definitely a bunch of Game Maker games that will never run on a PSP but on the otherhand it meant that the guys had to target a very small footprint for the C++ runner.
The direction that Sony is taking with PSP2 is not terrible exciting to us. On PSP we had struggled to get Skydiver up to 40 frames a second. Choosing a really low tech bar was great for us though. We moved over to iPhone and Skydiver was so fast it was unplayable, we were getting 400 frames per second!
In practice we can pretty much move the C++ runner onto any device with a screen and some kind of input, right now we have no plans to add any more hardware platforms in the short term. The good news though is that it only takes Mike and Russell about a month from start to finish to get a runner that’s not bug free but working in a shippable state.
This is an edited transcript and is not word-for-word account of the interview but it accurately reflects portions of the conversation that took place.