TECHCITYINSIDER100: Henrique Olifiers is the founder of Shoreditch-based social gaming company Bossa Studios. He just scooped a Bafta award when its first project Monstermind. Interview by Clive Whittingham
After 25 years in the game programming business you wouldn’t think there is much left that keeps Henrique Olifiers awake at night, but you’d be wrong. The 39-year-old Brazilian is basking in the Bafta-award winning glory of Monstermind, a smash hit from the fledgling company Bossa Studios he launched with business partners Ric Moore, Imre Jele and Roberta Lucca a year ago.
But he says the gaming industry has never been through a period like the one it’s experiencing now and disruptive technology means an uncertain future for all involved.
“There are a lot of new things popping up all the time,” he says. “Platforms change a lot, what Facebook is today was not what it was six months ago and that was different from two years ago. I don’t have a hint of an idea what it will become six months down the line and that’s our biggest risk.
“People might flock to Facebook in huge numbers or get tired of it. We don’t know. MySpace used to by king of the hill.
“Then we have the disruptive technology as gadgets themselves. What will happen when critical mass is reached on tablets? There will be a tipping point where everybody has tablets, the people who don’t have them yet may play in a different way to those who already adopted them. What games will they like? We have to discover that.
“There hasn’t been a time quite as exciting, challenging and dangerous as this.”
Bossa is protected in this dangerous and challenging time not only by the experience of its founders, but also by television production company Shine which invested in a stake in the company last September.
Elisabeth Murdoch’s News Corp-backed company has since opened up its IP to the Bossa team for them to pick and choose themes for social gaming projects – a huge competitive advantage.
Olifiers is keen to state that the investment from Shine has not come at the expense of Bossa’s independence, and they thought carefully about the arrangement before agreeing to it – turning down other companies who wanted to put money their way.
“For every business there is the right investor and completely the wrong investor,” he says. “Some people think money is money but the right investor can make you fly and the wrong investor can kill you just like that.”
Bossa is currently working on three separate projects, including one based on a major IP from the Shine catalogue which Olifiers says his company knew it wanted to work with immediately.
Olifiers is certainly no stranger to the television business. Previously he and fellow Bossa founder Roberta Lucca worked on the digital side at Brazil’s TV Globo.
He says broadcasters are, by and large, embracing the opportunities in the social and gaming space and constantly looking for “360″ opportunities with their programmes. Rather than television being threatened by this new world he says it is the games consoles manufacturers that need to watch their back. Bossa doesn’t work in the console space and Olifiers is confused by manufacturers’ policies of keeping players segregated online based on the console they have.
“I don’t understand why the big console manufacturers are not taking advantage of what’s going on online in a way they should,” he says. “If you like a particular game you want to play with a friend. The problem is, chances are he doesn’t have the console to run it or he doesn’t have the game.
“So what the industry has created in that respect is a barrier between interaction that you as a consumer and another player want to have and can’t have because of a technical restriction.
“There is no fundamental reason why a game could not work across platforms, that’s down to policy. That I cannot subscribe to in a world where open formats are flourishing. Why create artificial barriers to keep people apart and force them to buy stuff? That doesn’t have longevity.
“What they are creating, in my view, is a perfect storm through which someone like Apple could just show up with something new and take it from them. The iPhone completely destroyed the business model for portable consoles and it’s only going to get worse. It can happen with consoles.”
After Globo Olifiers spent almost four years with Cambridge-based game developer Jagex and then, in 2009, joined Playfish as it was acquired by Electronic Arts.
However he became frustrated, seeing a new and yet stagnant market with a lot of players watching and copying each other. Bossa was born out of that frustration, to do things differently to everybody else, and by winning a Bafta with the first game to emerge from the new venture his team have shown that are clearly onto something.
Monstermind was, Olifiers says, “an excuse to build a company” and they put together a team of 35 from scratch, including four new hires from last year’s Silicon Roundabout event at which the quality of applicants hunting jobs was “outstanding” and “a real surprise.”
That game skewed older, starting with 16-year-olds but aiming for people aged 25 to 35 who remembered the classic monster movies of the 1980s. The game is free at the point of entry but progress can be achieved faster and the experience broadened by paying for add ons.
The new projects will target younger people for which Olifiers says a subscription model is more appropriate.
“It’s much tougher to work for a younger audience because they’re not sitting there with a credit card,” he says. “For the specific kids audience subscription is still the way to go. They can go to their parents and say ‘I want to play this game for three months’ and the parents will give them some money to sign up and know that it’s paid for. There are no surprises.
“For teens and kids subscription is the way to go.”
So what is his advice for people starting out in the business? Well, don’t get carried away with tales of success from people who developed games in their bedrooms.
“It was easier two or three years ago but the game has changed, the market for social games is saturated with developers,” Olifiers says.
“The whole dynamic of social network like Facebook has changed as well because originally you could publish a game and players would socialise and spam each other about the game. That’s not possible any more, there are controls in place, so new entrants to this market will have a very hard time.
“To make money in this market now you have to know what you’re doing. It’s not a gold rush any more, it’s a very mature market that has matured very fast. Novices won’t survive in this market.”
He advises newbies look instead at social mobile where the market is developing and controls are less stringent, and “make mistakes with other people’s money” to begin with.
Bossa is based in the back streets of Shoreditch, “the place to be” according to the company founders who relish the chance to bump into companies like Plan B, Blast Fm and Moshi Monsters in the local bars and restaurants.
Olifiers would like to see the government embrace pioneers like games designers Peter Molyneux and David Braben and take on board their thoughts for building creative industries in Tech City and beyond.
He says: “What Britain has is talent, I don’t think the British recognise that as well as they should. In the 1980s the games industry in Britain was the best in the world but there has been a lot of talent drain to other countries.
“This games industry has never been taken seriously by the British in general. They see it as games for kids, they don’t understand it’s an industry bigger than cinema, bigger than music. But it is.”