David and Jonas set up their first business with Co-Founder Anthony Barker the year they graduated from the University of Sussex. They may be back on campus but a lot has changed for the guys since then…
Jonas and Anthony have known each other since school but the pair met David when studying for their degrees in Computer Science. “We just didn’t want to work for anyone else. We wanted to be our own bosses,” says David as an explanation to why they set up their first business Bright AI, an app development company. With the release of the first iPhone in 2007 they were able to take advantage of the high demand for apps and the business did well as they built a solid network of contacts. It wasn’t until 2013 that Fat Fish Games was born. “Games have grown so big. We’d previously been doing part games part apps, [but] there’s so many big companies doing games we really had to focus on games,” David explains.
The first big success for Fat Fish was the release of their original Tiny Striker game. “We made it in a few weeks, that probably made more money relative to the development cycle [than any of our other games]…the latest game we made took over a year to make, you could argue that the smaller game was more profitable,” Jonas says. “The users that we got from those games stayed with us”. The game started and gave momentum to a whole Tiny Sports franchise, with their biggest success coming from another Tiny Striker game. Tiny Striker World Football has received a huge amount of acclaim. It has had over 2.5 million downloads to date, won the the Big Indie Developer Pitch Award and was spotted by the Spanish professional football league La Liga, who have approached Fat Fish Games to make an official version for them.
There have of course been lows as well as the highs. Degrees in computer science may have developed David and Jonas’ technical skills but it didn’t prepare them for running their own business. They both admit that the day to day management of the business, from hiring and managing staff, to dealing with payroll, was one of their biggest challenges. They moved into Sussex Innovation Centre in 2008 and David tells me that they made use of the Centre’s bookkeeping facilities from the get-go. Receiving money from Apple and Google was a complex process and Jonas laughs when he describes the 15 spreadsheets the Accounts Team had just to work out revenue and how much was going to clients as royalties. There is definitely a sense of relief that there were people on hand to help with the financial side of the business. Moving into the Centre gave the team “scope to grow” and Jonas explains: “[we] relaxed a little knowing we had this stable environment to go into”.
Business growth meant that it was necessary to expand the team. “Hiring in an area you don’t know, it’s harder than you think…I guess we found that we did hire people in the past that maybe we didn’t gauge that well in the interview,” David admits. However, they have learnt from bad experiences and now tap into talent through apprenticeship and placement schemes. Reese Wilkinson, who is currently studying for his PhD in Physics at Sussex, did a Summer placement with Fat Fish 2 years ago which was arranged through his department, and has been working part-time for the company ever since. Similarly, Michael Gilhespy recently completed an apprenticeship through Creative Process, a digital apprenticeship organisation operating across Greater Brighton and Sussex. Jonas says: “…[Michael] was great, he had all the skills in the area that we were looking for which was quality assurance and business admin, he even learnt to programme some games because that was [his] passion which was ideal for us.” The pairing worked out so well that Michael has also continued employment.
A lot has been learned about running a business in the last 14 years but David and Jonas have also learned a lot about game development too. They admit that their passion for games has occasionally clouded their judgement; in the past they’ve spent a lot of time and money developing games that they’re emotionally invested in without checking if it was worthwhile putting it them out there. “Fail quite fast, build something, get an MVP out there, learn and then build from there…” is David’s advice for anyone working in the industry. Jonas agrees: “If you want to stay in the games business for a long time then you’re going to have to be smart about it, use your money wisely and learn from your mistakes quickly.”
So what does the future hold for Fat Fish Games? Recently they have branched out, and under the umbrella of “Fat Fish Digital” have been designing apps for medical health and wellbeing. They’re currently working on an app to aid cognitive health and one for pet health using their combined experience and knowledge of gamification to engage users. The Tiny Sport franchise is also expanding and diversifying with games under development. Exploring new sectors and building on the existing franchise, there’s a lot to get excited about at Fat Fish Games.
Fat Fish is an independent games development studio creating applications for Apple iOS, Google Android and Facebook.