Back in 2011, when EA's Visceral Melbourne studio shut down, Gerry Sakkas chose to take a gamble and found an independent studio - bringing four ex-EA colleagues with him. This new studio, PlaySide, quickly made a name for itself as a creator of accessible and fun mobile games - Catch the Ark, Icy Ropes, and Monkey Ropes all hit the top spot in the App Store.
Today, with over 40 full-time staff, PlaySide is one of the first Australian game studios to focus on Augmented Reality. We spoke with Sakkas about the move from AAA to Indie, and the huge impact of Pokemon Go on Augmented Reality development.
"Our time at Visceral ended during the massive closure of the big console players in Melbourne, such as Krome, Blue Tongue etc, so there was not much work locally," Sakkas told Gizmodo.
"A few of us were offered positions over in the states within EA, I'd say half the team ended up going overseas. The rest of us remained here and joined either PlaySide or the EA Firemonkeys."
Sakkas says the decision to start his own studio was probably the hardest he's made in his life.
"I was almost broke at the time and knew that in order to really make this happen I'd have to go unpaid for at least a year," Sakkas explains. "Looking back now, the risk vs reward has definitely been worth it, because the personal sacrifices I made early on have allowed us to build an amazing company."
Sakkas knew he'd made the right move "pretty much immediately".
"In a way, Visceral shutting down was the best thing to ever happen to me. From the very beginning of making our first game we all had full control of our own fate, we could finally come up with important decisions and only have ourselves to blame."
The differences between for a AAA studio, and being an Independent developer - especially culturally, can be huge. For Sakkas, the main difference was not having a massive hierarchy above you on every project.
"We have a very flat management at PlaySide for this exact reason," Sakkas reveals. "At most AAA studios every big decision needs to go through multiple people to get approved, it causes a massive bottleneck to development and does nothing in the way of encouraging creativity."
"There are many awesome examples of AAA studios that don’t have this issue, but the majority do."
PlaySide's core philosophy has always been to create family friendly AAA quality games. Sakkas says this has allowed the team work with some of the largest IPs in the world - like Cars: Lightning League and The LEGO Batman Movie Game.
"More recently our mission has started to evolve," Sakkas says. "One of our key goals now is to be working on new and emerging technologies (such as AR and VR) to really show off what we're capable of creatively."
Playside had one of the first titles to launch with the Oculus touch controllers (Zombie Riot), and AR Dragon was a launch title for Apple's ARKit.
I was curious - did the success of Pokemon Go made AR games an easier sell?
"Definitely!" Sakkas confimred.
"I think as limited as the AR component of Pokemon GO was, it definitely got the word out in a positive way and allowed for casual gamers to really understand the concept of AR."
Sakkas also believes another key player in this space is Snapchat.
"I really love what they are doing with AR and their Bitmoji characters. I actually see them becoming a major player in the AR space in the future, to the point where AR may end up being their core differentiation from Instagram and other social media apps."
Looking back at the achievements of Playside thus far - it's safe to say the venture from AAA to Indie has been a successful one for Sakkas. But his idea of success? It has evolved multiple times throughout his career - "and will continue to evolve year on year".
"Currently I'd say success is having the freedom to work on games that we really want to make, and the ability to say no," Sakkas says. "Personally, success to me means that I now have time to help people with their own life goals instead of focusing on myself. In saying that, I am entirely driven and know that we still have years of growth left for PlaySide."
"It's so exciting coming into work each day and working with a group of some of the most talented and genuine people I've ever met."