The Sports Desk – Big Ant Delivers What EA Sports Can't

We’re all familiar with the normal slate of sports video games each year covering the usual suspects of football, baseball, basketball, soccer, and hockey. But there are other video game sports out there, and companies and fans eager to dive in. Melbourne, Australia’s Big Ant Studios has been making rugby, cricket, and racing titles for years, and this spring it put out its first lacrosse title – Casey Powell Lacrosse 16 (available digitally on PS4, Xbox One, PC). With a non-yearly release structure and titles that eschew lots of licenses, Big Ant has attempted to not only deliver niche sports titles, but do it in a way that lets fans participate and bring their zeal to the products.

I talked to Big Ant CEO Ross Symons about the company, it’s outlook and process, how it deals with sports licenses, as well as what sport it’s going to dive into next.

Additionally, this week The Sports Desk is also happy to host an adapted preview of Big Ant’s Don Bradman Cricket 17 (out in December) by Game Informer Australia editor David Milner. Thanks to David for his contribution!

What’s your marketing plan of attack, so to speak, in getting these game in front of people?
We pretty much do fan-based marketing. So it’s forums, bringing the fans fans along for the ride. We can’t do what EA does. We can’t spend the crazy amounts of money on marketing that they do, so we’ve got to be more fan-based, more organic. We try and get our users to actually feel like it’s their game, so they’ve helped create it. For example, right now in [Don Bradman Cricket 17], there’s actually betas on Steam so people can tell us what they like, what they don’t like. It’s almost like we did Early Access sort of approach five or six years ago to try and get the community with us. [When] we bring the community along the dev path, it’s more likely they’re going to like the product in the end. There are some downsides, when you’re talking about two years of dev – they lose interest, and it’s a long time.

We do a lot of forums. We do a lot of posts. We actually get people in the game. We’ll get people to make teams, and we’ll put those teams, fan teams on the disc. So community involvement is our main push.

How do you manage gamers’ expectations for a triple-A product given these sports’ niche appeal and a limited budget?
We can’t deliver an EA product – it’s not possible because of the budgets. And the sports that we do don’t make that return. The idea that you could make FIFA, but it be lacrosse – that’s someone who would want to lose a lot of money. It’s almost like when you buy something that’s custom. If you happen to like rugby, lacrosse, or cricket, you’re going to get something built for you, and because it’s specifically built for you, you are going to pay more. You pay more in that you get less for what you pay. You’re not going to get Madden.

But, our endeavor is that we try and make it better every time. We’re always a bit behind because of the money they spend on innovation. If we design something and it doesn’t work out, it affects us a lot more. So we have to be more cautious about what we do.

Do you guys have good budgeting? Are you disciplined during development?
Yeah, we are, but we still do stuff as every developer does that’s not fun and you’ve got to cut it. It’s unfortunate. An idea you have, and you think, “Oh this will be awesome,” you code it for month, you put in as much as you can, and you find out it’s not fun. You had to drop it. There’s some fantastic stuff in games for outtakes. It’s like movie outtakes, but more costly. The bloopers in games unfortunately cost you hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars.

Have you considered different funding approaches or distribution approaches like selling features of your game a la carte?
We try as many different things as we can. What you’d really like to do is lower the price and spread the [sales] numbers. You want more people paying less. There’s a certain thing with niche games where the numbers just aren’t there. So, you lower the price or allow people to pay less, then economically it doesn’t make sense. You need a bare minimum of numbers at full retail price to make it work, unfortunately. We’ve done kickstarters for sprint cars, and that didn’t get us enough. It just happens that the demographic for those racing games likes physical roots. Then lacrosse, though, had an Indiegogo that was incredibly successful, and so its game got made.

Talk about your decision to move into lacrosse.
There was a guy named Carlo from Crosse Studios. It was his dream to make a console game, so we spent the first two or three years of me basically saying he won’t be able to find a publisher like EA or whatever that was going to make a lacrosse game. But we went through it with him because this guy was so passionate about lacrosse that I really wanted to help him with the dream. I was like, “You can’t do it. It’s just not going to happen. There won’t be a lacrosse game on major consoles unless we do it ourselves. Unless we pay for it ourselves.” We did two or three years of being close to getting a game through EA or THQ before they went under. But it was never going to be a good deal, either. Because these lower budget games have a really, really bad backend for the developers. The way it works is, if you think about the music industry and how it’s said that artists have been treated through the years, that’s how developers get treated by publishers generally speaking.

It’s incredibly difficult to do work for hire. Having indies being able to publish directly [Symons mentions Steam, ID@Xbox, and Sony’s indie outreach – Ed.], it’s kind of solved half the problem. The other half of the problem is the funding in the first place, which Kickstarter helps. But, it’s been an interesting time. Certainly the changes in allowing self-publishing have allowed us to have half work for hire and half of our own stuff, which makes us way more stable.

How do you guys handle sports licensing in your games?
We’ve avoided licenses for our own games that we do. We actually were the first guys to make cross-platform player creation. We will put out a game like Cricket or Lacrosse that has no licensed players in it, maybe one or two. But mostly no licenses. Then our community will make players and share them. The next step is with uniforms and stadiums. We’ve almost been making sports tool boxes. All [other] games, licensed or not will have it going forward.

Will the license holders get mad that fans have more or less included their licenses in your games?
I suspect they will. However, we’re operating like an ISP. We’ve given you an empty canvas, and if a rights holder complains to us, we remove it. We’ve never had a rights holder complain. It’s an interesting balance because for us these niche sports need a video game for marketing. Without a video game, there’s a whole in their plan, because kids aren’t playing their stuff, right? So, we have this problem in Australia. FIFA is one of the best-selling games in Australia, and a lot of our indigenous sports don’t have games. It’s a huge problem because all the kids are playing FIFA. They know the European player names, but they don’t know the local guys. So, it’s a big issue. As EA and 2K limit to just being basketball, baseball, and football there will be a lot of new sports in America that kids aren’t going to know.

Are there other directions or sports you want to get into?
Sport is it. It makes economic sense. It makes sense for us, because that’s what we love to do. We are wired in it. The other thing is, in terms of longevity of business, if I make movie tie-ins, I don’t know if there’s going to be another movie, I don’t know if the movie is going to be a flop, I don’t even know if I’m going to get the job. Whereas if I do sport, I can own it. Own it in the sense of own that real estate. I look at the sports that EA won’t do, they’re the sports I do.

We’re going to do tennis, and we’re going to do tennis because no one else is doing tennis. And the thing is, we can own it if we do it well enough. We pretty much own cricket. No one else in their right mind would do cricket now. So, it would be extremely difficult, even for EA. Because, we planted that flag and we own that space.

Tennis is our next target. We actually did five console games last year. This year we have four console games. It’s amazing the output – it’s a lot of games. You don’t see a lot of them Stateside because it is cricket, rugby, things like that. But you’ll certainly see tennis. They’re be another lacrosse in March next year, and tennis toward the middle of the year.

Tell me a little bit about the Melbourne development scene and your place in it.
The interesting thing is Melbourne is a really traditional the center of development for Australia. We have a history that goes back forever, and there are some really big games that come from Australia. When the global financial crisis hit, and the Australian dollar – it used to be about 60 cents on the U.S. dollar – went to parity, all of a sudden development in Australia imploded. There was just nothing. So we’ve come through that. We’re the last remaining console developer. The last remaining dinosaur, right? But, the indie scene in terms of mobile is fantastic. There’s the Fruit Ninjas, the Jet Pack Joyrides, Crossy Road – here’s all these sorts of things. These guys are all ex-console guys that have splintered off. So, what we’ve done to help consolidate that is that in Melbourne, where Big Ant is, we’ve actually got the entire building, and we sublet all of the space except the space we use down at the bottom. We sublet that at cost to indies, so we don’t make any money from it. So there’s 40 independent studios in the building above us (The Arcade), and there just making loads of stuff.

Seriously, there’s Armello…Crossy Road was made upstairs…It’s a really vibrant scene. In fact, it’s big enough in Melbourne that the only PAX outside of the U.S. is in Melbourne. So, we have a PAX now because we have a big enough scene that can sell out a PAX. It’s a really nice develop scene.

The other thing about our dev is it’s extremely collaborative. For example, guys that would normally be in competition with each other and stuff like that, it’s not like that in Oz. If someone upstairs says, “Does anyone know how to do this multiplayer code?” or whatever, there will be five people who go over and help him from opposition companies because we don’t actually see it as opposition. Pretty much any success for any of us is a success for all of us.

Note: The original text contained an error in the transcription: “Paolo from Cross Studios.” Thanks to Ross Symons from Big Ant for the correction. The text has been changed appropriately. Sorry!

DON BRADMAN CRICKET 17 – Packing The Kit Bag With New Features

Rather than charging down the wicket and swinging for the rope, Don Bradman Cricket 17 is carefully building on the solid innings of its predecessor. Big Ant has listened to the community – largely comprised of gamers in Australia, the U.K. and a staggering number of people playing pirated copies in India – and added brand-new features and tweaks in response to feedback.

  • The Cricket Academy is the creation hub that allows players to upload and download fan-made players, teams, cricket grounds, and more (thereby skirting the game’s lack of licenses). This includes personalized logos, which can be put on shirts, banners, bats, players’ skin – basically any flat surface.
  • The stadium creator lets you place everything from the stands and background environment to the toilets. Though the tool was still early in its development, the U.I. seemed intuitive, allowing players to rotate, resize, and bend stands, and drop pieces around the ground where desired.
  • Women’s cricket is included in the series for the first time. “We’re doing the whole thing,” says Big Ant CEO Ross Symons. “We’re getting Women’s Big Bash League players, first-class cricketers, to do the mo-cap. We’re doing all the animation skeletons, player creation, style stats, A.I. – all of that is totally separate code and art. There’s no ad hoc taking a guy’s game and turning it into a girl’s game. It’s a separate game. “I’ve got three daughters and two stepdaughters, and so far in my games they aren’t able to play as themselves. They have to make funky looking men that look like women in the men’s player creator… It happens to be the right time for me personally and we as a company can afford to do it. But more than anything, it’s just the right thing to do.”
  • Gameplay wise, while the bowling mechanic is largely the same, the timing windows are more forgiving; it’s now easier to land a “perfect” or “good” delivery. Fielding, and more specifically, catching, is being overhauled entirely. Taking a reaction catch in the slips cordon now sees the game move into slow motion; during this bullet-time-esque moment you have to move your fielder’s hands into the path of the ball, fighting resistance using the analog stick.
  • The career mode now starts out at the club level, spanning a 20-year career with other players retiring and new ones coming in. Custom cricketers can be now assigned roles, with batting all-rounders developing differently than bowling all-rounders, for example, and mentality is now separate for both batting and bowling.

– David Milner

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