Meet a Game Developer: Christopher Natsuume on Rappler

From the vaults… this is an interview I gave with Gabby Dizon about Boomzap. Lots of great info about how the company started, where its going, and what we’ve done. As a fun fact, Gabby was once a ‘Zapper himself, and has recently started the Philippine studio, Altitude Games, with a few other young Filipino devs, and it has quickly grown into one of the top indie game studios in the region. Was fun to chat again about old times.

Check out the article HERE

Meet game developer: Christopher Natsuume, Boomzap Entertainment
‘Making games is a craft, and like any craft, you’ll improve with experience’
By Gabby Dizon

In our “Meet a Game Developer” series, we will be interviewing different game developers from around Southeast Asia to see how they got into the game industry, what kind of games they make, and what their favorite games are.

Previously, we interviewed Chester Ocampo, the art director of Altitude Games; and Bari Silvestre, the indie developer behind Keybol Games.

Now, let’s get to know Christopher Natsuume, Creative Director and co-founder of Boomzap Entertainment, one of the top independent casual game development studios in the world.

Christopher has been making games since 1994, including titles on PC, console, and mobile. He holds a BA from the University of Texas at Austin and an MBA from the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the proud employer of the best damn game developers in Southeast Asia.

Q: How did you get started in the game industry?

Like the best designers, I got in through blatant nepotism.

In the mid-90s, when I was finishing college, I was the dungeon master for a gaming group that was made up largely of some of the core members of the Privateer team at Origin in Austin. Every Wednesday night, I would go to Origin and play D&D in their conference room. I applied over and over at Origin, but they never hired me. Instead, when a bunch of those guys finally started their own game studio, they brought me over as a designer. Largely, I think this is because they all wanted to keep our D&D campaign going and knew it would be kind of weird if they didn’t hire me, since we’d be playing at their company now.

Q: What are the favorite games you played growing up?

I was a much more avid board and paper and pen gamer than I was a computer gamer. When I was a kid, we would have epic weekend-long parties at my friends’ houses, where we would play Axis and Allies, Diplomacy, Car Wars, Traveller, and of course, D&D. We’d start gaming on Friday night and play until Sunday with very little sleep. In the summer, some of these gaming sessions could go on for 4 to 5 days. Our parents were slightly horrified, I think.

My first serious computer gaming was on a C64 and the most formative games were the Ultima series. I played those until my fingers hurt. When I was older, most of my gaming was on a PC – and again, mostly strategy. Civilization. Diplomacy. SimCity. Anything where I could build stuff. I’ve never been a huge fan of twitch-reaction games, mainly because I suck at them. In fact, I didn’t really own a game console (other than an Atari) until after I had worked in the game industry for years. I still very rarely find myself playing console games.

Q: What was the first game that you made, and how did it do in the marketplace?

Interestingly, my first job in the industry was like Boomzap – a work-from-home job. I built levels for a very early FPS (first-person shooter) called “The Fortress of Dr. Radiaki.” I can remember how in shock I was that people were paying me to do this. I was still working as a theater technician at the time to make ends meet, so I would go work at the concert hall all night, and then come home, crack a beer, and start building games.

It was hard being a virtual company back then – there was still no real Internet to speak of. Two or 3 times a week, I would copy all my files onto a pile of floppy disks and drive out to the hill country where the programmer lived, then we’d compile a build. Most of the time it wouldn’t work, so I’d have to stay there until we fixed them. We had about 5 PCs in his house lined up on a table along the side of his bed and we’d all sit in a row on his bed and work. It was pretty darn indie.

The game was a financial flop – it was one of a couple dozen early clones of Doom and was either as fun or pretty as most of the other clones at the time. But it wasn’t bad for a first game and taught me a lot about making games – also about being a small indie company. The company, sadly, didn’t survive long after the release, but it was Austin in the 90s – there were other game companies, and we all moved on to bigger and better things.

Q: What’s the lowest point that you encountered as a company, and how did you get through it?

Starting Boomzap was rough. We made a few games that simply didn’t do well and we had a hard time making ends meet. Actually, Allan Simonsen (Boomzap co-founder) and I started the company while I was still in graduate school and we’ve never had any investment, so we were really bootstrapping.

At one point, when we were really low on money, I actually went down to Tacoma and enrolled in an experimental drug study where I had to live in a research facility for a month and test some kind of anti-cancer drug. I think it paid like $3000 or something like that, but they had wireless Internet there so I could still work. I actually built a bunch of the levels for Jewels of Cleopatra there, working at a laboratory table on my laptop with an IV hooked up to my arm-taking blood. I still have scars on the back of my neck where they cut 3 big hunks of flesh out of me to see how much of the drug was left in my skin tissue. We used the money to pay our first artist, who is still with us. When he complains about how hard we work him, I show him the scars.
But even then, we weren’t out of the woods. Jewels of Cleo was our first success, but it wasn’t enough to really continue the company profitably. In the end, I had to move my family from Seattle back to Japan so we could live in my in-laws’ home to cut down on expenses. That, plus a short-term loan from my father, helped get us through the hardest times.

But what finally turned the corner for us was shipping Awakening: The Dreamless Castle. But that’s what it takes to bootstrap a company –credit card debt, help from friends and family, and in my case, real live blood and flesh. Even then, we needed the lucky break we got with Big Fish Games and the Awakening franchise to turn that struggle into success.

Q: Boomzap is famously known for its 100% remote work environment. How do you make it work?

Honestly, the same way any successful studio works: by hiring people who are genuinely interested in making games, giving them the tools they need, giving them the authority to make decisions about their own projects, and then getting the hell out of the way and letting them work.

Honestly, if you go into any large studio, most of the communication is done the same way we do it – instant messaging, emails, and a company database. In our case, that’s HipChat, Gmail, and Basecamp. Every now and then, when a traditional studio would have a sit-down meeting in a conference room, we’ll have a quick Skype call. We lose a little bit in not being face-to-face as often, but we gain a great deal in not having endless useless meetings – and in having a studio where we can hire the best people from around the world, and not have to move them all to one location.

Q: You’ve been in the game industry a long time, and weathered several shifts in the industry. What do you think is in store for game developers in the next 3 years?

Right now, I’m really hot and bothered about the mobile industry in the developing world.…Now, you can buy a pretty good Android smartphone for around 25 bucks in places like India, Indonesia, and rural China. There are a lot of people in these places and for many of them, this is their first introduction to a serious computing device or game console. Companies that figure out how to monetize them are going to be very, very successful. I think that’s going to take a shift in understanding what people want to play, and how they will be willing and able to pay.

Developers who understand the developing world are going to be at a serious advantage in these markets.

Q: Boomzap is known primarily for making hidden object puzzle adventure games. Will this continue in the future?

Not really. We’re in the process of diversifying a great deal – our lineup for release in the next 6 months includes a number of different genres, including HOPAs, some mobile puzzle games, hardcore strategy games, and mid-core strategy games.

Q: What are you working on now? Can you tell us more about your current games in progress?

The next 3 games we’ll release include Rescue Quest, a mobile matching puzzle arcade game; Pillage People, a mid-core strategy game for tablets; and Super Awesome Quest, a really innovative turn-based fighting game for handphones. All of these should be out by the end of the summer and we’re very excited about all of them as new directions for the studio.

As for games shipping later, we’re also working on a very original hardcore trading strategy game set in colonial Southeast Asia, and a mobile sim where you design and run your own MMA fighting gym. We’re also working on two new HOPAs for Big Fish Games, set in two of our most beloved franchises.

But a lot of the work, honestly, is going to be supporting the new games we have released and will be releasing over the summer with new updates and content.

Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of running a game development studio with staff based mainly in Southeast Asia?

Well, the major disadvantage is pretty obvious: infrastructure. Countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines have some of the worst infrastructure in the developed world. Every time it rains, some of our people lose Internet and/or power—and it rains a lot down there. The Internet speeds are pretty awful in some places even on a good day. We’ve had to make a lot of modifications to our process to survive in this environment.

Luckily for us, our work-from-home environment allows us to overcome the crippling traffic and congestion that people in cities like Jakarta and Manila face. Before they joined us, many of our staff were commuting 3 or more hours a day, often in open vehicles like jeepneys to get to and from work. That’s like a part-time job level of time commitment, just to move around.

As for advantages, we have access to some of the brightest, hardest-working game developers I have ever had the pleasure of working with.

Our virtual environment has allowed us to find some of the best people in the region—not just in Manila, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore, but in places like Solo, Yogyakarta, Ipoh, and Medan. Additionally, the cost of living in these regions has allowed us to pay salaries that are extremely competitive in the local market, which not only gives us the ability to hire the best, but a great ability to retain people. This retention means that we get huge long-term advantage from training, which has allowed us to hire young artists and designers, and invest in training them from a very early part of their careers.

Q: What’s your advice for game developers who want to enter the industry?

Find a good company and put in a couple years before you try to start your own thing.

I know being an indie developer is all the rage right now, but I see a lot of wasted talent out there in young college graduates who really should have gone through the process of building and shipping a game a few times before they tried to start their own company or build their own game. Making games is a craft, and like any craft, you’ll improve with experience. Go have someone pay you for a couple years while you work through your formative, learning years.

Then, when you know what you’re doing, you’ll achieve a lot more with a lot less time and effort and personal cost when you go out on your own. –