How Daniel Visser built $4 million video game company Wicked Witch Studios off the back of two mobile phone gaming booms

Wicked Witch

In 2001, Daniel Visser, sick of working for large video game studios, set out on his own to start what is now one of Australia’s best-known video game producers, Wicked Witch Software.

Despite some rough early days and a number of office moves, two separate mobile phone gaming booms are responsible for boosting Wicked Witch into its position as a $4 million company with 30 employees that has developed a number of classic Aussie titles, including numerous AFL and NRL games.

Visser spoke with SmartCompany about the difficulty of managing contract work, and how the company was sheltered from the global financial crisis through a “blessing in disguise”.

I worked with other game studios for about 6-8 years before starting Wicked Witch, and at the larger studios, I often felt like the work I was doing was very compartmentalised. I wanted to see how I would go on my own, and I wanted some independence.

I had this opportunity to work from home and build an entire game by myself – on the Nintendo Gameboy – and I wanted to see how the change of lifestyle would go.

Soon after, this company in the UK I was outsourcing with needed an artist, so I reached out to a high school friend of mine and convinced him to quit his job in advertising and come work at home with me. I gave him an old 486 computer, taught him how to pixel push, and we made three Gameboy games together over two years.

I did all the design and programming, and he did all the artwork and music.

Eventually, my wife got sick of us as we’d usually start at 4.00PM and work late into the night. She convinced me to work out of another location, so we rented a small two-bedroom unit.

It was at that point, around 2003, that I jumped online and started posting in various forums. We got some contracts doing software for companies in the US, which was great because the exchange rate at the time meant we could undercut other companies and still get paid double.

We did seven or eight titles for a few years on PC, and then we decided to start building our own tech. I contacted a bunch of my mates who came and joined us at the unit.

Everyone was welcome, and we weren’t making much money. It was just an organic centre of nine or so nerdy game developers in a tiny two bedroom unit – we had to take the doors off closets just so we could squeeze another desk in.

We started doing games on the old colour Nokia phones, and that lead to a real boom in business for us. We did about 100 games in the span of four years, and we really turned into a legitimate business at this point.

That’s when we moved into a real office and started to get more professional. That’s when we also started to do NRL and AFL games on the [Nintendo] DS and other handhelds, along with games ports for some other companies.

In 2012 we outgrew our office again, and that’s also when our app store boom started. We released our first original smartphone app Catapult King which was very successful, and that’s where we’ve been for the last few years, some original iPhone games and some more AFL and rugby contract games.

We’ve come a long way from the rough 2001 days.

Starting Wicked Witch was definitely organic, but I have had delusions of grandeur all my life. I didn’t have any formal business training, but I liked the idea of doing my own thing and making some money.

Early on there would be times when things were going well and we’d move office, but every time we’d move we’d end up a smaller team than before.

When we moved out of the unit into a ‘real’ office, the work dried up and we had no contracts. I remember sitting in the new office – we hadn’t even moved the furniture yet – thinking ‘why the hell did we do this?’.

Lining up another project after you finish a big one has been the bane of our existence. It’s so hard to line one up perfectly – either you overlap horribly and have to hire an additional 20 people, or there’s a big gap between.

We’ve got about 30 people working here full time, and at our peak, we’ve had nearly 70. After our first big project we decided to scale up to 25 people, but then the GFC hit.

Video game companies were extraordinarily going bust all over the country, and that’s why there are no large video game companies in Australia anymore. When Warner Brothers and the like went from making 100 to 40 films in a year, only a handful of them would have spinoff games, meaning less work for companies like ours.

I was lamenting the fact we didn’t have any huge contract work then, but we had the AFL and NFL work which was a blessing in disguise. It sheltered us from the GFC, and made us pull up our pants and stop spending.

I’ve never stopped learning, thanks in part to my lack of formal business training. It did take me a long time to learn I couldn’t make games for arts’ sake.

It took me a long time to work out you need to build a business case and make something commercially viable, and look at a whole bunch of factors like cashflow, funding the project, and how to make your money back.

I didn’t do any of that for a long time.

A few years ago we made a game which had a business case and was all okay, but we failed to identify the target audience. We should have gone to market and looked at the gaps and made it for the hungry audience, instead of making it for ourselves.

Don’t just make a product and put it next to the other 20 on the shelf. Make sure there’s demand.

Also, triple your estimates because everything always runs over.

Now we’re a mature business with our own tech, we’re looking to investment and investment vehicles to accelerate our growth. There are heaps of opportunities out there with apps and microtransactions, so we need to explore that and make some good commercial partnerships.

Now look! I sound much more like a businessman compared to all those years ago.

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