Mike Amerson is president of WET Production and one of the pioneers of indie game development. He is the creator of the successful game series My Virtual Girlfriend and My Virtual Boyfriend.
When and how did you start your career in mobile gaming industry?
I’ve been a game developer since 2001. I got my start at Westwood Studios (makers of the Command & Conquer series).
I continued to work for the next 9 years at various studios, working on several titles including AAA Franchises like Star Wars and Call of Duty.
It has long been an ambition of mine to design and create my own game, so in 2002 I met a programmer online who needed some help with art for a Tetris like game he was making. This started a friendship and in 2003, we formed WET Productions.
My goal was to create an all-female fighting game something like Tekken but for a 17+ audience. So in our spare time, and over the course of a few years, we created our own game engine, and a demo of the game, pitch material, budget, and design doc, basically everything needed so we could pitch it to publishers to get funding.
The Indie movement wasn’t a thing back in 2004-2007, so this was our best option. We failed to get funding, the mild nudity and comedic violence was a bit too risky for traditional publishers, but we learned a lot through the process.
When 2008 rolled around and the iPhone came out, we saw an opportunity to self publish, and to bring our game over to iPhone, but shortly after we started working on it, Apple went through a purge and removed 5000 or so objectionable apps from the app store.
So here we were, we had created some assets, (female characters) and loved the idea of self publishing, so I put my thinking cap on and thought, what about a dating sim? I already had some character work done and I didn’t lose what little momentum we had. So I drew up some design docs over the course of a couple weeks, and we began working on what was to become My Virtual Girlfriend.
How did MVGF make such a great success? It seems that people like to flirt with virtual people. How many times has it been downloaded till now?
My Virtual Girlfriend was released in May 2010, but didn’t get much traction until December of 2010. The main reason for this was because it wasn’t being marketed heavily enough. We were both still working full time for other developers, but in November of 2010, the company I was working for shut down without notice.
I had two choices: 1. I could beef up my art portfolio and submit my resume to various companies to look for work in another studio, or I could put my eggs into the Indie basket, and really push to get MVG some exposure. I felt that if it had some exposure, it would do good as there was nothing like it on the app store.
So I pushed my partner (who was still employed at the time) if we could do a big update, adding a ton of new levels and outfits, dialog, etc. He agreed and we got the update out just before Christmas 2010. I then pushed really hard with trying to get exposure for it, and wrote a press release about the update.
It was then that it started to gain some traction, and began to bring in revenues that were equal to what I was doing when working for someone else. I just needed to plan to continue to reinvest back into marketing and update it every few months, to keep up the momentum. Currently, My Virtual Girlfriend has over 3 million downloads across both IOS and Android platforms.
Which one of your games has more active players? Do women like to play MVBF?
Interestingly enough, we have an equal amount of players for My Virtual Boyfriend. It’s a slightly younger, and more vocal demographic, with girls from 12-17 being the majority of players.
We get a lot of feedback from these players, they love the humor in the game- and we love that they are enjoying it so much.
Your latest game is developed for gay population. What are the reactions? Do they like the game?
We’ve recently released: My Virtual Gay Boyfriend. This was in response to the gay community complaining that our current game “My Virtual Boyfriend” wasn’t addressing the player how they wanted to be addressed.
We received a lot of feedback from the community and we decided it was best to just create a game that directly caters to them. So far it’s been very well received. It made the cover story on Huffington Post – Queer Voices, and also OUT magazine, the leading LGBT publication for the UK. We believe in equality for all, and support the LGBT community and this game caters to them.
What do you think about VR and how will virtual reality affect mobile industry? It will be really interesting to play your games using Oculus or Samsung Gear. Do you have plans to expand your games in that field?
It is one of my goals to bring our games over to VR. I have both an oculus and Samsung VR Gear, and I hope to start working with them soon on this project, but it is still up in the air if this will happen. My partner has started another company with some friends of his where he lives in the UK, and his attention is currently split between our games and his current project.
What happened with Dark Breakers? Why do some games fail and other make success?
Dark Breakers failure was devastating for me. It left me depressed for a bit. I was very vested in it after working a year and a half on it. When it was taken down, it wasn’t even version 1.0. It died before it even got started.
The original game concept was to be a 3 faction game: humans vs. vampires vs. lycans (werewolves), each with their own strengths and weaknesses. It was to have heroes with special abilities and a storyline for a single player campaign that would span through various points in history, tying in with real life events.
I had no coder to continue on with it. The game is still intact, and available for sale if another developer wants to pick it up and run with it. We are still partners, because our My Virtual Series is still strong, but now neither of us are full time working on WET projects, and now we are discussing selling the company.
You are almost six years’ Indie developer. Right? How has app entrepreneurship affected your life?
5 years, and it’s had its share of up’s and downs. Throughout the process I’ve learned a lot. I don’t make as much as I did when I was working as a lead artist in studios, nor do I get to collaborate with a large team on a big project anymore, and I miss that.
However, being an Indie allows me full creative freedoms, and my stress levels are down because I make my own deadlines. I take breaks when I want and I work from the comfort of my own home. If I crunch, I’m crunching for myself, because I want to, not because I have to – so it has some nice perks.
It’s all about what you prioritize in your life. I am enjoying this lifestyle for the time being, as I’m an entrepreneur at heart. There is certain freedom you feel when you’re in business for yourself. Mike Amerson
Despite the fact that some of your games were covered by MSNBC, Discover, Lopez Tonight and Huffington post, is it hard to get noticed by the media?
It depends. The media are looking for stories that interest their viewing audience. When I created My Virtual Girlfriend,
I knew this type of game would carry some shock value along with it, and I intended to leverage that. If I had created a mediocre puzzle game, it wouldn’t’ have garnered nearly as much attention, (if any) and I wouldn’t be where I am today. Not to say that people shouldn’t do puzzle games, platformers, etc.
I just think that expectations need to be tempered when it comes to thinking that having a good idea, is all that’s needed for success. That’s only the beginning, there are a lot of other things that come into play to make a successful game.
Do you have in mind to develop some new games or will you be focused on improving the existing ones?
I’m currently working in both spaces. I’m working on a couple of new projects with new partners, as well as working on updating our current (my virtual) games with my existing partner at WET, but that’s very slowly moving – for the reasons mentioned above. I have a lot of ideas, but only this single lifetime to try them all, so I have to prioritize what’s most important.
Most of Indie app developers dream about creating a next hit app. Do you have advice for them how to reach this goal?
Yes, strategize with this plan.
1. Build an early prototype (MVP) and market test it. Get real, honest feedback from friends and strangers. Don’t even tell them it’s “your” game- tell them your cousin made it. Just let them play it, and gauge their reaction. Afterwards, ask them what they liked about it, and what they didn’t like.
2. If it fails to gain interest, revise it, or start a new game altogether.
3. Integrate analytics and social sharing mechanisms into the app. I can’t understate how important this is for when you launch.
4. Preparation: I wrote up an app launch best practices doc, you can access it here.
Good luck and I hope that you reach your goals. Keep in mind that nobody gets it right the first time, or even the first dozen times. It takes a lot of practice to get good at something.