Whispering Gibbon, Microsoft Ventures and 3D-Printed Bonsai Trees

At the end of last year, five fresh start-up companies graduated from the new Microsoft Ventures accelerator program after pitching to a room crammed full of investors and industry leaders. One of these companies was Whispering Gibbon, and I caught up with founder Joe Stevens to learn about his company and the game they worked on for the accelerator.

Who are Whispering Gibbon?

I set the company up in December 2011 and my background is in AAA console game development, having worked for Ubisoft Montreal and Reflections in the past. I started my own development studio because I was excited by the changing demographics of players being driven by the mobile market along with the crossover with interesting new technology, and it was a great time to do so as there are so many tools that allow small teams like ours to make something quite quickly. It was a bit of a conflict of interests actually, because I was an engine programmer before and I was dying a little bit inside seeing my job being taken over by tools like Unity!

What is the game you’re currently working on?

Tiny Trees invites players to grow their own cartoon bonsai tree, using their creative talents to shape the tree into a unique pet. Each tree has its own character and the idea is that you grow a collection of these characters, each with its own personality. The key part is that everyone’s collection is different; no two trees would ever grow the same or have the same personality. We're currently developing it for iOS, Android and Windows Phone.

Who’s in the team, and what do you do?

I'm the Technical/Managing Director, which these days means I'm responsible for sending all of the emails! Kyle Whitelaw is responsible for the day to day management of the code base, including all of the system software. Gareth Slack is our Art Lead and is responsible for the concept art, 2D art, 3D animation and even the much loved Panda-sensei! We have a couple of exciting new starters too but I can’t tell you too much just yet. We've also like to work with the local universities and involve students in the project, as we know how valuable working experience can be when entering the industry.

How did the team come together?

After setting the company up and raising £25,000 from the University of Abertay, I begun searching for new members for the team. I was put in touch with Kyle by a mutual friend (shout out to Nosebleed Interactive!) and after a chat and hearing his enthusiasm for the idea he joined the team.

Do you think your AAA background has helped?

While there’s nothing wrong with jumping straight into developing mobile games, having a background in AAA game development has definitely been helpful. Because most mobile games tend to stick to 2D graphics and gameplay, using 3D can be eye-catching and it increases engagement. Tablets are more than capable of rendering in 3D, so it allows us to do something a little bit different…like first-person gardening games!

How did you come up with the idea for Tiny Trees?

As strange as the idea was, I think it was probably a subconscious idea. While I was working at Reflections we were having chilli growing contests. I managed to win, and all that seed planting probably got my creative gears turning. I also wanted to do something interesting programming-wise, and procedurally-growing trees has got to be up there.

The subject matter is also a perfect fit with the free-to-play model. I don’t have a problem with that model myself, having grown up around the time of the arcades where you were killed off as soon as possible to encourage you to pay another 20p to continue your game. But we’ll see it develop, because games aren't always about trying to make the most money, and we’re not just throwing free-to-play at our game and hoping it sticks.

Do you feel using in-app purchases is going to be an issue?

During development we actually went to see a bonsai master who lives in the middle of nowhere, who taught us a lot about the art of keeping bonsai trees. His own business model is quite similar to how ours is in the game. You’d buy a tree from the master, and if you enjoyed taking care of it you might perhaps upgrade to a bigger, better tree, or buy specialist tools to make the job easier. There’s so many avenues we can explore in order to monetise Tiny Trees, and we’re confident we can do so without it being intrusive.

What do you think was the most important thing you've learnt while at the accelerator?

The best thing about it was learning how we should tackle the business side, the boring things like forecasts and business plans. This might sound like a frustrating distraction from making the game but in reality gives us tangible goals and a method to reach them. It would have taken us years of fumbling around to figure out how to actual survive as a business, instead of just making cool stuff and working out what to do with it later.

Most importantly, I think gaining connections is the most important factor in getting your game off the ground. We've had the opportunity to meet the people at Lionhead and Lift London, including the incredibly helpful Dlala Studios, and get them on board with our idea. Instead of three or four of us looking at the game, we have about 40 or 50 giving us helpful feedback that we wouldn't have without great contacts. Accelerator or not, you need to get out there and introduce yourself and your game to whoever is willing to listen.

What language are you coding in, and what software are you using?

We’re using Unity3D and C# just because you can’t compete with that. It’s like having a team of twenty-five top quality engine programmers who have been working already for three years, which is pretty incredible! It would be nice to use pure C++ as that’s the background we come from, but we’ll take what we can get. However, Unity can get less experienced coders into the habit of writing bad code, and if you don’t keep a close eye on what how the project is developing it can be easy to get yourself tied up in knots.

Expanding the team is a very exciting time, but it also brings extra financial pressures. I would say our biggest expense other than wages is software licencing. Being able to license any piece of Microsoft software for free via the BizSpark program makes an incredible difference, and it means that making decisions about expanding our team size are much easier to make.

Are you using cloud-based services in Tiny Trees?

It’s not implemented in the demo yet, but we’re experimenting with Windows Azure. We’re actually writing some plugins for it right now that’ll allow players to download new levels and trees, plus we have a lot of tools and help from the guys at the accelerator. We’d also like to use it to keep all game data and user profiles in the cloud, so that players can use their accounts between devices and can share their creations easily.

What is the unique selling point of Tiny Trees?

This would have to be the ability to 3D print your creations! 3D printing is an interesting technique that people are naturally curious about, and people are interested in owning real-world replicas of their own creations. We’re still experimenting with it, but we think it’ll be a driving factor for people wanting to experience our game.

What has been your biggest challenge during development?

I think our biggest challenge will be ongoing financing. Balancing work for hire with the costs of your own game is very hard, and it’s hard to jump between the two. The procedural tree code is very complex, and if you spend time away from it you almost have to relearn it. The times we really progressed were when we were lucky enough to secure lumps of funding, as it allowed us to get people on board to help us knuckle down.

Any words of advice for other developers?

We've learned to take everyone’s advice, and take it in context, rather than feeling you have to follow it letter for letter as you’ll just end up going around in circles. Also, we make sure we talk to as many people as we can – even if it’s just talking about the game, what we’re doing and being honest. 

From the team at Microsoft UK Developers.

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