On the Radar

From gaming to game company entrepreneur: Matt Knights interview

Matt Knights: from gamer to game company entrepreneur | Where My Heart Leads

An entrepreneur’s journey

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  1. New video game degrees. Back at school as an older student
  2. Creative juices and lessons from the first launch
  3. Modus operandi: What’s in a game and scaling the business

Karen Tsui, Where My Heart Leads 

Thank you so much for coming on for this interview with Where My Heart Leads. I’m really excited to learn more about how you got into what you do. And to tell us more about some of the challenges and learnings and lessons that you’ve had. So can you tell us a little bit about you? Where are you from?

Matt Knights, game creator, co-founded Protostar Games

I’m from Australia. I’ve lived in Australia for most of my life, mostly from the country, small town Australia. In terms of the kind of video games, and how I ended up in that field. I guess I first saw a video game when I was about six years old, something like that. I think the first one I ever saw was Pong. It was just a really basic black and white kind of game that was kind of its own console. So you would have these two little controllers called paddles. They’re like little wheels that you turn. You kind of control the two little paddles. It was just a two player game. And that was all it did. That was all that console did, basically.

I remember going to my uncle’s when I was about a similar age, maybe like seven or eight and he had a Nintendo. And I played Super Mario Brothers for the first time and the Legend of Zelda as well. I think while the adults were upstairs catching up, and talking, I just played Nintendo all day with my brother. And yet that must have had quite an impact on me. After that, I just wanted to play games, and I got really interested in it.

Were you a good student in school? 

I was, yeah,

Despite playing video games?

Yeah, I was really good. I was kind of a goody two shoes. A bit of an overachiever. Especially in primary school. I was on top of my primary school. In high school, I kind of fell off a bit. I think it’s because I was in this little country town. So it didn’t take too much to become the dux and that the schools were really small. So if you’re a little bit smart, you know, you’re probably going to do okay in their schools. But yeah, when I went to high school, for my last few years of high school, I was in a big boarding school in Brisbane. And I still did well, but I wasn’t like the dux. You know what I mean? 

So did you go into uni thinking you want to become a game designer?

No, no, not at all. I mean, that wasn’t even really on the radar – I was pretty good at science, and I really liked it. I did chemistry and physics in high school and I think I just always wanted to do science. And so I applied to do a science degree at the University of Queensland. And I got in and that’s what I did. About one year into that degree, I sort of combined it with an arts degree because I wanted to study Japanese. So yeah, I ended up doing a four year kind of dual degree. It’s like science and arts with a major in Japanese. So yeah, nothing to do with games at all. Actually, in that part of my life, I was playing a lot of games still. Well, way too many,

I played this game called Counter Strike. Yeah, it’s still pretty popular now. Now, it’s called CS go. But yeah, I spent way too much time playing that game. Really. I mean, I passed. I got my science degree and everything, but I probably could have done better.

What was so addictive about gaming? What is the draw about gaming you feel?

There are some games out there that are just there’s so skill based. I guess it’s like a sport. And nowadays that is becoming much more of a thing, right? eSports. But even back then it was kind of like playing a sport, without unfortunately getting fit. But it had this real competitiveness to it. That draws some people in. And within the colleges at Uni, there were 10 colleges, each with about 100 to 300 people attending those residential colleges. And I think within every one of those colleges were at least 20 or 30 people that were playing Counter Strike for many hours a day.

Is there like a stereotypical type of person for the game?

Oh, yeah, I think so. I mean, especially for that game. It’s kind of like a pretty testosterone sort of fueled game. I think the word “toxic” gets used a lot now. Yeah, for that kind of thing. Sometimes, it depends. Some people who played the game, like most of the people, my friends who played the game, were really good guys. And I’m still friends with quite a few of them. Yeah, and then some guys who played it, not so much. 

So did you get into your Game Design job right out of college?

No, so when I finished college, I had my science degree. And I had a degree in arts with the Japanese major. And I thought at that point, well, you know, I’ll probably try get some sort of science job, research job, maybe at the university or with a private company or something like that. But my girlfriend at the time, Christina, she said, you know, why don’t we go to Japan? She’d also done six months of Japanese just as kind of an elective at university. And you know, that there were these programs, you could go over to Japan and teach English for a year or so just as kind of a break. So yeah, we decided to do that. We applied, and we both got in. 

We did that for 18 months. When we come back, that’s kind of where the video games thing happened.

1. New video game degrees. Back to school as an older student.

So what was the first job you applied for? 

So I actually didn’t really apply for any video game job. But I kind of fell into it. What happened was when I got back, suddenly there were these video game degrees that didn’t exist when I started my science degree. And I just heard about, ah you can do these video game degrees now. You know, to get into video games. And there are a few big companies in Brisbane at the time that were growing. And Brisbane was becoming a kind of a bit of a hub for video game development in Australia. So I decided to do a video games course.

I thought, I want to try and do this. I love games. I’ve always been really interested in it. And I want to try and do this, this video games course. And so I use the savings that I had from my time in Japan and I did this video games course. It was a two year course. They kind of fast track a three degree over two years. 

What do you learn? What do they teach you?

It was really broad, like all kinds of stuff. The specialisation that I was doing was animation. But they would teach you all kinds of things like writing, storyboarding, things more to do with film than games even. We did some sound design, graphic design. Yeah. Lots of creative things like that.

Were you creative as a kid?

A little. Yeah. Yeah, I was. I wasn’t super artistic. Like, I’m still not really that great at drawing. I can animate. Drawing is not really my specialty. So that was always kind of a bit of a struggle. Because if you can draw well, that’s a pretty big deal if you’re going to be a video game artist.

So after that course, that got you into the first job?

Yeah, so I was lucky enough. By the time I finished, getting near the end of that course, and I think it was maybe because I was older. A lot of the guys and girls who I was doing that course with, they were just straight out of school. And they didn’t have quite as much of, maybe, investment. I guess their parents were paying for a lot of them to go through that course, they didn’t care as much or something. But, you know, since I was paying, I cared a lot about getting the most out of it. So towards the end of that course, I got an internship with a small, smallish games development company and I did a kind of two month internship with them. And that was like part of the degree, kind of at the end you would do like an internship.

And then after that I just stayed on at that company. They hired me. I was lucky enough to get a job with them right away and just carried on.

So that’s the job you stayed for for seven years. Prior to starting Protostar

Yes.

I remember you mentioned that you learned quite a lot at this job. What were the things that you learned and was able to kind of help you launch your own?

I can remember the first day I started at that company. And one of the tasks that they had us doing, there was me and a couple of other interns there. And we were doing backgrounds for a game. Just like drawing up in Photoshop, which is the 2D software package that we use. We’re just drawing up these kind of backgrounds. And they was supposed to be like, cartoonish, but these, like, creepy kind of cemetery spooky looking backgrounds. And I was terrible, like, I was so out of my league. That, yeah, when we had the meeting, to sort of present our work and what we’ve done, there was this other guy who he’d been there for a few years, and he was really good. And just seeing my work put up next to his work was just so horrible. Yeah. I didn’t think I’d make it.

How did you get better?

Ah, I just kind of stuck at it. And yeah, I learned a lot on the job. I think that was kind of the key, right, was to just keep going. I knew that that illustration wasn’t my strong point. And I hoped that I would, you know, if I just stuck at whatever work was given to me and tried to kind of try to move towards work that I thought I would be better suited to.

So as time went on, at that company, I kind of moved from doing just illustration type work into more like, design, and visual effects, and sort of a bit more technical stuff. And I was just sort of naturally better at that kind of thing. So I guess I kind of stuck it out through those difficult times there. And I was lucky enough not to get fired, I guess. I mean, I was hard working. But yeah, the results were not really there. I don’t think.


2. Creative juices and lessons from the first launch.

It takes a lot of guts to be like, “Okay, I’m going to start my own.” What do you feel gave you the confidence to start your own?

So after being at that place for about seven years, I think what happened was, while we were there, we would often do kind of prototyping and we would split up into little teams. We used to do this on every second Friday, or maybe like one day a month or something like that. We would take a break from our normal project, whatever we were working on at the time. (That’s kind of really cool to you know, get the creative juices going.) Yeah, yeah, it was a really, really good kind of break. And you could just see the energy of the place light up on those days. You know, everyone was excited. Yeah, it was great. So much energy. 

And I usually did pretty well with those little projects. Like, I would pitch an idea and get a small team together, like maybe three or four people. So we pitch our ideas in front of the whole company, you know, and then if people liked your idea, they would join with you and make your game over a few days. Or at least your prototype, you know. And I was pretty good at doing that. I was good at kind of getting a team together and kind of directing where I wanted the game to go.

So when it came time for us to decide, or when it came time when we decided to leave, there was one other guy who I’d done a few prototypes with. He was a really good coder. That was one thing that I at that time, I couldn’t do, I couldn’t code. So, yeah, he was keen to leave. And I was keen to leave. And I guess we’ve proven to each other in the past that we were capable of making a game together. So we felt fairly confident actually, in starting your own thing.

Has it been pretty smooth since starting your own company?

I wouldn’t say that. You know, we’ve had a pretty good run. But our first game didn’t do that well. 

The idea for that game was to kind of create something as quickly as we could, and put it out just as like, a kind of a test or just kind of to get something out there as quickly as possible. We didn’t want to try and make some, you know, masterpiece or something, with our first game. You hear that story so often – people try and do their own thing. And they want to make the most, the greatest thing ever, on their first attempt, you know, happens to game developers a lot. So it’s a classic thing. We didn’t want to do that. So we thought, okay, we’ll give ourselves three months to make this first game. It took four, so not too bad. The game was pretty good. It was hard. It did okay. Like it was critically well received. But financially, yeah, it pretty much bombed. 

We got a really good feature on the App Store. Basically, the best feature you could possibly get right? Back in those days was a big banner up the top of the store worldwide, right? There’s nothing you can get that’s better than that. And so, that translated to about a million downloads in that week where it was being featured. So in that respect, it sounds quite successful (promising.) Right?

But the game monetised so badly. I mean, it was a free game. And the way that the game was monetised was with at the time just in-app purchases, but it just, it just did so badly. You know, like, no one spent anything on the game. So yeah, so we learned a lot of lessons from that. And I’m really glad that we sort of made a game that we’re proud of, but at the same time, we didn’t spend a year or two years making that game.

Now, that’s a great lesson – to not be so gung-ho about, or stuck about launching the perfect product and just kind of get it out there. And, to test and learn from that experience and move on to a better one.

Yeah, definitely. Definitely. I remember there’s this story of like, a pot maker. I don’t know if you’ve heard that story. Think it’s like a proverb or something. Basically, it goes like, you know, imagine two guys, right, and they’re both trying to create, like, the perfect piece of pottery, the perfect pot, right. And one of them spends his entire career, trying to make the perfect pot. This one pot that he’s working on right, meticulously, yeah. The other person makes like 1000 pots, right. So the person that makes 1000 pots, you know, for his 1000 pot, he makes it in say, you know, 10 minutes, but it’s better than the single pot that the other guy’s been working on for his whole career.

I think about that sometimes. And yeah, I kind of think that there definitely is something to that story.

Dean and Matt. The founders of Protostar Games based out of Brisbane.

3. Modus Operandi: What’s in a game and scaling the business

We got that game wrapped up, and then we moved on. And we started doing some more prototypes after that. And, yeah, that’s when we came up with Sling Kong, which was our second game. So it was a bit of a modest hit. It wasn’t like, crazy sensation, like some games do become. But for a small two man team. I guess, for us, it was definitely a hit. And we’re still doing updates for it today. So it’s still got a lot of people playing that game. 

So why is that game so popular? Do you have a very good sense of what the market likes? How did you come up with a game?

So yeah, we knew that our first game was too hard. And we wanted to make something that’s more broadly appealing, but more fun for casual players. So that was one requirement. And then, at the time that we made that game, there are a few other games that kind of inspired us in terms of how to make money with a game like that, and how to be appealing with a game like that. So that the actual game mechanic of playing Kong is fairly unique. I mean, the game itself is not like a clone of any other game. That mechanic of the game is quite unique. 

But in terms of how the game monetizes, we took inspiration from other games that have come before us. And that helps a lot. Because those kinds of decisions about how to make your game make money are not the kinds of things that were that good at or that interested in. So it really helps that someone’s already kind of shown, this is how you can make a casual game make money, basically. And keep your business going.

As far as coming up with the idea and that kind of thing. We do like a little, a couple of weeks of prototypes usually where we try and make a prototype, basically every day. (wow) So the prototypes are really rough, right. But after a couple of weeks, we’ll kind of maybe pick one that looks promising and develop it a little bit more. If we still like it after spending maybe say a week working on that one idea. And we feel like yeah, there’s something here, this could be good, then we’ll go into production. And yeah, that we’ll just start working on it.

So prototyping for games is kind of like coming up with the mechanisms. And what happens next, kind of like a storyboard? 

Yeah, you could say that it is, it is similar to that. It’s like the kind of rough ideas we would build. Like in the case of Sling Kong, where, in the final game, you’re kind of sling-shooting a monkey or these other animals up this level of obstacles. In the prototype there’s nothing in the level except other little circles, and red circles are bad, and black circles are good. It’s, that’s the kind of level that we make it to.

So you launched Sling Kong in 2015. And then three years later, you launched Super Starfish.

 Yes, yeah. So for the few years there between those two games, I mean, the first two years of 2015 and 2016, we were just doing updates for Sling Kong, and just adding characters, and adding different themes to the game and just kind of extra stuff because, we had all these players, all these people were playing the game. And we started a Facebook page and people were requesting. “We want more characters, we want more characters.” So we just kept making them.

A behind the scenes pic and gamer’s feedback.

What was your marketing strategy?

I don’t know. Yeah, we tried to do like these little videos when we first started on YouTube, you know, kind of a little bit about … insight into what it’s like to be a poor indie games developer. 

 Yeah, we should really take them down. Those videos they just took too long to make. And, you know, we’re trying to make games primarily. So we had to stop doing them. And I don’t think enough people are watching them anyway. There’s hardly any, hardly anyone watch them. So yeah, we just focused on the games after that. But after a while, we thought, Oh, if we just keep updating Sling Kong we’re never going to make our next game. We’re just going to spend forever – updating – Sling Kong. And yeah, so we got sick of that. That’s when we first hired a couple of people to help us out.

Like a natural transition to have someone help you manage Sling Kong, and then you focus on your next creation?

That’s right. Yep. Yeah. Yeah. So we always wanted to stay really small. Because neither Dean, my business partner, or I wanted to, we don’t want to have a big company. We’re not managers. You know, we don’t want to manage people. We just want to make games. We tried to keep really small, so we don’t have to do any of that managing type stuff. But yeah, we did. We did need to hire some people, if we ever wanted to sensibly move on. That allowed us to start our next game, which was Super Starfish. And that one, that one was a little bit different.The idea for that game was kind of rattling around in my head in some form for a pretty long time.

But the thing that took a really long time to work out was like, What is the game? Like, how does the player control it? And how does the game kind of work? I knew I wanted to have fish in space. For some reason I like space. And I like marine animals. So I wanted to combine them and have this cool, trippy, space fish. Yeah, so that idea was there for a long time. And also, we had this visual effect that we knew how to do. And we wanted to use it. 

It looks really beautiful. The game. The colours.

Thank you.

Yeah. So a very early part of the game was starting almost with that effect and developing that effect, and getting it to work on a mobile phone and optimised enough so that it basically could work on a phone. Then we built the game almost around that effect, we thought let’s just use this for everything – the fish should make these colours swirl around and obstacles should make these colours and put these cool swirly colours onto the screen.

So are you more proud of one game over another? Do you have a favourite?

Yeah, that’s a tough question! I think I do like Super Starfish out of the games we’ve made. I think I would say that’s probably my favourite. That it’s the most complex, and it’s the most, kind of, challenging to play. I get the most fun out of playing that game out of the ones that we’ve made. And yeah, I think we did a good job with that game. I’m really proud of that one. Yeah, I was happy with how it turned out with Sling Kong as well. I mean, we wouldn’t have been able to make Super Starfish if we didn’t make Sling Kong. So you know, it’s very, very hard to say.

I was actually very, very surprised to hear that potentially, the next game that you want to develop is something that’s a departure from the previous games that you’ve designed. Is that something that we can discuss? 

Yeah. we can, we can discuss that. We’re not very secretive. Yeah, we like to talk about what we’re doing. So, basically, it’s like, a mowing game. Where you’re, you’re essentially going lawn by lawn through kind of a small country town, and just mowing lawns. And that’s it.

What was the inspiration for this game?

This one came about a little differently. And it’s evolved since we first started making it. I remember someone describing once making games is kind of like, imagine you have a whole heap of jigsaw puzzle pieces, right? And you throw them up in the air. And for some reason you’re on like, some low gravity place, like on the moon or something like that. So the pieces fall really slowly. And if, before they hit the ground, you’ve got to kind of put together the best picture that you can. By the time these puzzle pieces hit the ground, that’s kind of the game that you’ve got. 

So sometimes you think in your head, I know exactly what I want this game to be. But, as you’re making it, you discover things that are fun, and you discover things that are not fun. And you’ve got to adjust. Okay, right. Yeah, yeah. Something that was fun in your head before, maybe when you actually make it, you go, “Oh, actually, yeah, this isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be.” And then other things that you had no idea would be fun suddenly, like, hey, this part of the game is great. Maybe we should emphasise this part of the game more.

So that happened a little bit with this game. Originally, the inspiration or the idea was to create a really small game. That was kind of, let’s say, hyper casual. It’s a hyper casual game, which means like, basically, anyone can play this game.

Is that like an official term? Hyper casual? 

Yes, it is.

A lot of people are making hyper casual games. It’s like, maybe we can make a hyper casual game and we could make it in like a month or something like that. Usually, these games are really small in scope, and pretty quick to make. So we kind of came up with this idea of something that just felt satisfying to do. Something that feels satisfying to you is like – cleaning things feels satisfying. And also, we felt that mowing lawns feels satisfying. It feels good to start with something messy and when you leave it, it’s nice. So yeah, we started creating this game. We’ve been kind of supporting Sling Kong and Super Starfish this whole time. So it’s kind of taken a lot longer than we hoped originally. So I think now it’s been in development for about a year. 

And it’s beta testing soon, though. 

Yeah, really soon.

So what happens after the beta testing? How do you decide when it is ready for actual launch?

That’s a great question. So I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do. After we do the beta test, we’ll have a look at it. And we’ll have some idea of whether or not it’s gonna do badly or well. Hopefully, it looks good. And people like it. 

If it looks bad, we may have a bit of an attempt to fix some of the problems that we find. If people think that it’s, I don’t know, it could, it could be anything, it could be so many different things that people like or don’t like about it. But we will probably try and fix some of the things that are hopefully easy to fix. And then try and launch it. Maybe about a month after that we’ll spend like a month trying to improve it. Or if it looks good, then we’ll just release it and see how it goes.

Cool. I looking forward to seeing how this anybody can play game works out.

Yeah, me too. Very curious about this one.

Was there any significance for picking your company name – Protostar?

Yeah, yeah, kind of we did. You know, when we started the company, it was we weren’t, we didn’t want to spend too long setting it up, right? Because we wanted to just like, let’s just start making games. But we spent one week filling out all the forms you need to fill out to start a business with the government and everything like that. And at the same time, we needed to come up with a name before we could register a business. So we had to come up with the name Protostar. And that logo and everything. The name. Yeah, so Protostar is like a celestial thing. So basically, as a protostar it’s kind of like before a star becomes a star. It’s a protostar. 

We like the word proto, because of prototype, and we like making prototypes and kind of doing something different and trying things out. We really like trying things out and seeing how it goes. We thought we’re starting something new. Like, yeah, a star. protostar is kind of a new star. That’s just forming. It just felt right.

Yeah it feels very kind of, like kind of positive and, and like there’s like, a big unknown, but it’s very optimistic.

Yes, yeah. To be discovered. Yeah, that’s right.

So we’re kind of coming towards the end of our chat. What has been the most rewarding taking a somewhat different path from probably what you might have imagined yourself to have taken as a student.

Yeah, that’s a, that’s a tough question. I’ve always felt kind of lucky, being able to work a job where I’m doing what I love. I’ve always been really happy about that. And sometimes there’s kind of a lot of pressure. Especially, I think that you put on yourself when you’re doing something that you love, and that you want to be, you know, as good as it can be. So sometimes it can be really stressful, but it’s on those days where I’m doing something, like making a new prototype, or like, sort of like, really in that creative zone. Those days go so fast. Like I blink, and they’re over.

But, you know, if I’m working on a project, and we’re near the end of the project, and we’re just trying to get everything wrapped up, like cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s, those days can take a long time. 

Do you let your kids play your games? Do they like playing your games?

Yeah, yeah, they play them. Yeah. They like them. They have iPads. They had to get them for school, actually, as schoolwork requires that they have iPads. Which I’m not sure if that’s a good idea or not, but that’s how it is. They get a little bit of screen time, each day. And sometimes it’s really nice if they do choose to play one of the games that I’ve made, usually they don’t. Usually, they’ll do something else. But sometimes they do choose it. And when I do see them do that. Yeah, it feels nice. Cool.

Cake celebrating launch of Just Mowing. Protostar’s first hyper casual game.

All photos from Protostar Games website or social media pages.
Date of chat: 10 December, 2019 over video conferencing.

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