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Party Animals – Aiming to be like Nintendo
Party Animals recently rose to #4 in the global ranking on Steam. It's a game made by a team of android engineers and new grads (who have not made games before). This is an interview with Pumel, the founder and producer of Party Animals. He was previously a design director at the phone company Smartisan.
Originally written by 梁子 and 菲斯喵 and published on Game Grape. It's currently only available in Chinese so I thought it might be interesting to translate and share!
Our target is Nintendo; we want to be a game company like them
Just a month ago, in October, “Party Animals” rose to fame. This game from China was ranked the fourth most popular in the world on Steam. They made their demo available on the Steam platform for a week, and they had 135,000 players online at their peak.
As the popularity of the game rose, the founder, producer, and the CEO of Recreate Games Pumel (Luo Zi Xiong) has also undergone tremendous changes. His schedule is overwhelmingly full, and countless people are requesting to meet with them, including both domestic and overseas game developers and publishers. Pumel told Grape that, “Almost all domestic and foreign publishers we can think of have visited us.”
Perhaps no one would have thought that this VR company, which spun out of Smartisan (a Chinese phone company), could be a blockbuster in the party games genre. In addition to companies offering to invest, seeking partnership, and requesting meetings, Pumel also received countless WeChat friend invitations overnight.
To meet with as many people as possible, Pumel constrained each of his meetings to half an hour. Even so, there are still too many people waiting to meet with him. As visitors await their meeting time with Pumel, they lined up at ReCreate Games’ office and starting chatting and exchanging business cards with each other. Suddenly, their office has become quite a noisy and crowded space.
Our interview with Pumel was scheduled for 8 pm on a Friday. When we met with him, he was exhausted from the week. He walked us through his sleeping situation of the past week: the average sleep time was 5.5hr.
“Sometimes when I wake up, I would ask myself three fundamental questions - ‘Who am I?’, ‘Where am I?’, and ‘What am I doing?’”
In this interview, Pumel shared with us more about the behind-the-scenes of “Party Animals”, the development process of this game product, and his personal game design philosophy, and the current and future state of technology.
Streamed by the Big Players
Game Grape: How many people have you met recently?
Pumel: We see a group of people every half an hour, starting at 10 am in the morning, and we typically wrap up at around 9 pm in the evening.
During the week where the game demo was live on Steam, it was really hard to squeeze out more time. Sometimes if a meeting goes a little longer, you will see two groups of people waiting outside, striking up a conversation, and exchanging business cards.
Game Grape: Have the meetings been fruitful?
Pumel: Almost everyone wants to be the publisher of “Party Animals”. Basically, all the game companies you can name have talked to us. But we want to do it ourselves, both domestically and abroad.
Their announcements online always include a little gif or video clip
Game Grape: How do you communicate with the game streamers?
Pumel: We haven’t really been deliberately reaching out to streamers and ask them to “come and play our game.” So far, after they’ve streamed “Party Animals”, we then chat a little with each other.
Game Grape: You didn’t hire streamers to market Party Animals?
Pumel: Do you know PewDiePie?
Game Grape: He’s one of the most popular streamers.
Pumel: He streamed our game. One day, we received an email from PewDiePie. He said that he likes our game, and there will be several streamers with tens of millions of fans playing Party Animals with him. But the email was very strange, the email address was a weird string of characters and numbers, which looked like spam to us, so we didn’t reply at the time.
A day later, he sent another email saying that he will be streaming our gram and asked if we have any requests. He also posted the streaming address. So we clicked on the link. The live stream was about to begin, and it was really PewDiePie. He actually streamed “Party Animals”, which had millions of viewers.
PewDiePie playing Party Animals
Game Grape: The power of a good product.
Pumel: So PewDiePie’s playing, Xiao Tuantuan (a Chinese streamer) is also playing. I don’t actually watch much live streams. Once, a friend told me that Xiao Tuantuan (@一条小团团) had streamed our game. I thought it was really cool and cute, so I took the initiative to contact her and said that you helped us promote our game, we’d like to pay you. Her manager said, here’s our rate… I then said we should wait until we have money later…-_-
Xiao Tuantuan (@一条小团团) playing Party Animals
Game Grape: Have you raised money now?
Pumel: We were able to raise the money before the game test rolled out. After the game test, the top VC firms and game companies have all came to us.
But we feel that the core issue now is not about how much money we can raise. No matter how much we raise, it won’t make us very happy. Being profitable is key. But whether we can make money depends on whether we can make this product well.
A team that has never made a game
Game Grape: Do you think the popularity of “Party Animals” is unexpected? When we met in 2018, there were a lot of uncertainties about your game at the time.
Pumel: You can think of “Party Animals” as a game made by a group of Android engineers and a group of newly graduated students. Only three team members have made games before. One has made some serious games, and one has made slot machines.
We are a lucky indie game company. We chose this direction because I wanted to play games with my wife and my children, but there were no products on the market that could meet this desire, and so we made “Party Animals”.
In fact, when I was working on “Party Animals”, I didn’t think of a name at first, and I didn’t even have confidence in the genre of Party Games.
When we released the first demo in May 2018, something very strange happened. During that time, I searched and played games on Steam every day. And in my search result, a party game called “Pummel Party” appeared.
My English name is Pumel. This game is called Pummel Party. However, this was not the strangest of all. Our game studio is called Recreate Games, and the developer of “Pummel Party” is called Rebuilt Games.
Game Grape: How did you feel at that time?
Pumel: When we were in a lot of self-doubts, there was a game called “Pummel Party” that went online. The name of the developer was very close to our studio’s name. Both Recreate and Rebuilt meant re-creation. Maybe this is what the universe was trying to tell us something.
Game Grape: But if you claim that the success of Party Animals (so far) is only a matter of luck, it doesn’t sit right. Other teams may not be able to reach the popularity that “Party Animals” has gotten through luck. Plus, your team has never made a game before.
Pumel: I believe that on average we are all equally smart. All the non-cutting-edge knowledge we know can be learned through study. In our company, the last words I want to hear are “I can’t” and “I haven’t done it before.” How hard is it to learn something?
In our company, no one really does audio. So I taught myself FMOD, audio engineering. I made all the sounds of the game, including those sounds made by the little animals (and he acted out “quack, quack”). “Party Animals” started testing on October 5th, and we finished all the animal sound effects on October 3rd. I made all kinds of animal sound for two straight days and it finally felt right.
Game Grape: Anything else that are you somewhat satisfied with?
Pumel: We think our abilities to analyze products and to execute are not bad. We originally wanted to sell 1 or 2 million units, but we didn’t expect us to be the third most wish-listed game on Steam. That’s more than what we were expecting. On the other hand, we’ve told others before that we want to sell 1 or 2 million units, and no one believed us, no one.
Those people said that the most popular Chinese game has sold around 1 million units. Not a single Chinese game has exceeded more than 2 million units sold.
When we spoke with small or medium-sized game publishers. They agreed to help us publish the game, and their best record has been selling 150,000 units on Steam. Then I asked them they plan to divide up the profit. They said that the industry rule is they get 70% and we get 30%. I don’t even know where they got their courage from. I said I see, let’s talk later.
At that time, no one believed in the game we have made.
From nothing to ranking #4 on Steam
Grapes: When did you start having confidence in your product?
Pumel: Actually, we knew in 2018. We started officially developing “Party Animals” in March 2018, and in August of that year, we brought the game to the Dice Con. In the beginning, we were scared to go to the game zone, so we exhibited a board game area. Of course, we felt that board game players are more aligned with our target demographic.
At the Dice Con, “Party Animals” was the only project that had a waiting line longer than half an hour. We had originally prepared a questionnaire, but later realized it was unnecessary. I mean, just look at the faces of the players and how they laugh, and you would know that the game felt right.
A boy playing “Party Animals” at the Dice Con
Grapeman: When did you realize that the game is actually really popular?
Pumel: I knew it on the first day of the demo week on Steam. Because the server exploded on the first day, and on the second day, the server exploded every day during the demo week on Steam.
Game Grape: How did you feel at that time?
Pumel: We were very nervous because bugs kept on showing up. At that time, friends told me that PDD was going to stream our game. I said who’s that. They said that’s the world champion is playing your game and they’ve got millions of fans.
“Party Animals” had quite a few problems with networking. I was very worried about streamers running into problems when streaming. Because live streams are advertisements for us, and advertisements running into problems can be somewhat serious. So we were very nervous throughout the week.
Game Grape: Until now, have you not had a moment of complete excitement?
Pumel: I knew that we would reach 100,000 concurrent Steam players at the same time, but no one believed us. We tested it once in June, and we reached 7000 concurrent players. I told the server vendor that the next time they must be prepared to host 100,000 people, but they thought I was bragging.
It’s understandable though. 100,000 concurrent players would put up in the top 10 Steam global ranking, and our first test only had 7,000 concurrent players. So no one would have believed us. But as a result, we (the game server) really exploded.
Grapeman: Did you ask for more servers after seeing the players’ response during the first demo day on Steam?
Pumel: Actually, there is another reason. “Fall Guys” reached 170,000 concurrent players on Steam. We felt that the quality of “Party Animals” was not worse than the “Fall Guys”, so why not prep for 100,000 concurrent players. In the end, we surpassed this number, we had 135,000 concurrent players.
In the last two days of the “Party Animals” demo week, we were ranked #4 on Steam globally, surpassing “Among Us”, “GTA” and “Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege”.
Game Grape: How long before the product is good enough to be published?
Pumel: To be honest, I don’t know. My ideal state is that the published version will be at least twice as good as the current one. I want others to think that this is not just an excellent game, but a revolutionary one in the industry.
Surpass the Ones You are Emulating From
Game Grape: Speaking of learning from others and emulating, I actually noticed a phenomenon. There are comments around how you copied “Gang Beasts”, but some players are also defending you and explaining the differences between the two games.
Pumel: We did study and learn from “Gang Beasts”, and there is no need to hide it. But we didn’t just study them, we also studied “Super Smash Bros.”, “Human Fall Flat”, “Stick Fight”, “Splash Fighters”, “Kirby Fighters”, “Duck Game”… We studied a lot of games. If we only claim to have studied “Gang Beasts”, it is unfair to other games. “Gang Beasts” is a game that doesn’t have many fighting tactics and depth. It is more like a prototype. We took the prototype one step further, added in more gameplay, more strategic design, some cute and funny elements, this is what we did.
We find it quite unfortunate that no one in China has claimed that we copied “Super Smash Bros.”. Many of our concepts came from studying that game. We have dodge, stand back, strength… Our countless playtests have shown that as long as the internet connection is stable, a beginner with 8 hours of game time will have almost no chance of winning against a 200-hour master.
On the last day where Lirik streamed Party Animals, he offered $15 to every player who could beat him. He only lost three games that night. The depth in which you can get into with strategizing over the maps and fight skills is not available something that’s available in Gang Beasts.
Game Grape: What are your boundaries for studying, borrowing, paying tribute, and plagiarism?
Pumel: I always think that all content creation related industries can be judged this way: can you do better a job than the previous ones.
If I had launched a modern version of Need for Speed with advanced graphics and dynamics system in the era of “Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit” (released in 1988), would you consider it plagiarism?
If this world does not allow cross-referencing, then we won’t have both “Mjolnir” and “Unreal Tournament”. They are both first-person-shooters games, but each game has its own attitude and ideas.
Game Grape: You mentioned that you all studied a lot of the classic game elements, including Nintendo’s quality of easy to learn, difficult to master. So in the process of combining these elements, do you follow certain design principles?
Pumel: There is no principle. Just keep trying and subverting. Our team’s programmers said that our boss always asks me to tweak things, which is very annoying. I said that your code is not written in one go with no changes. If you make tweaks, why can’t I make tweaks?
I will have a prediction, and my prediction is based on my existing experience. We haven’t made a game before, so many things, only after it is actually made, we will know if it is right.
Game Grape: Where do your design ideas come from? Are they traceable?
Pumel: We can only say that when ideas hit, we need to verify whether the idea fits into our entire game’s ecosystem. You have to make an emotional design first, and then keep adjusting.
Game Grape: In “Party Animals”, which part of the design are you more satisfied with?
Pumel: I am more satisfied with the (constraining) mechanism in the submarine maps and aircraft maps. They are very intuitive: Water is leaking in, and everyone would naturally want to run toward the higher parts of the submarine; the airplane wings are frozen, and everyone would want to avoid the frozen part.
We don’t even need to tell the player much, the player will gradually realize the goal of each map. For example, the submarine map tests the player’s climbing ability; while the aircraft map tests the player’s stamina.
Game Grape: How long does it usually take to make a map?
Pumel: A long time. We’ve been at it for three years, and we have only made 8 maps so far. Ultimately, we want to make more than a dozen maps.
Game Grape: How long did the most time-consuming map take?
Pumel: One year. The candy factory map you see in the demo is not even the final version. It has been overthrown three times, and we may have to re-do it again on the art level.
Game Grape: Why does it take so long to make changes?
Pumel: It is a map with a lot of strategic thinking built into it. So when you make tweaks, you have to design obstacles of all kinds. If there are no obstacles, then everyone would be taking shortcuts and wrapping up the game quickly. Additionally, we also need to adjust the numerical value of each place to ensure that the players will not ignore the importance of those small candies while fighting over the big candies. This is a game about strategic planning.
Game Grape: So for you all, fine tweaking is the most difficult part.
Pumel: The most difficult part of this development is to go from 0 to 1. No one has made a capture-the-flag-like map like this. In this game, everyone can grab the candy and it’s a matter of who has the most strength. There are 9 candies on our map. Players can even hold on to a candy in each hand, just like holding a shopping bag. No one has ever done this before.
Game Grape: How long does it take to design a character?
Pumel: I really don’t know. If we are lucky, two weeks; if we are not lucky, half a year.
Game Grape: Which characters have taken half a year?
Pumel: We’ve been working on our penguin for more than half a year, and we still have changes to make. Nemo — our first character, a Corgi, also took 4 to 5 months. However, some characters take much less time, such as the crocodile, which took less than a month. In short, it is not so easy to quantify and measure, it depends on how things feel.
Game Grape: How did you design these characters?
Pumel: We look for a lot of references, then draw out various animals, and then reference more cute features and make adjustments.
Some have claimed that we plagiarized PsyDuck. But we really didn’t copy, no matter how I drew it, it ended up looking like PsyDuck. All of our characters have a fixed set of ratios. And as we drew a duck, and made its head round, it became PsyDuck!
Game Grape: So no matter what the animal looks like in the real world, they all share the same body shape.
Pumel: Yup, although I really want to make a giraffe.
"Taste" as a Core Competitive Advantage
Game Grape: How is your team structured? For example, how do you divide the work between planning and art?
Pumel: It’s all me because there are too few team members. I direct everything.
Game Grape: If you plan to add more content in the future, you won’t be able to make most things entirely by yourself, right?
Pumel: It might still be me. I think this is like making a movie, everyone is an extension of the director’s personal consciousness. It is difficult to have two directors for a movie where they separate the movie into the first-half and the second-half.
Someone asked me, what is the core competitive advantage of Recreate Games? Our answer is taste. You can’t expect a team that’s gaming the market to copy our work. In the process of copying, it will inevitably go wrong. With their taste, they wouldn’t know what players of this type of game need and want. Of course, on the other hand, we can’t make games that are purely leveraging and gaming the market.
In my opinion, there is no right or wrong in taste, only preferences, and choice. I think our unique taste is our core competitive advantage.
Game Grape: What kind of players do you think your taste corresponds to?
Pumel: Our game is for folks who desire to have fun and be emotional. I know how to guide their feelings.
In China, the majority of games on market make people anxious and angry. They even motivate people to vent with their money (in games). In a competitive game, you may not be happy even after winning a round because the other party would be cursing at you. Our game is different. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, even if someone is scolding you, it’d be a different kind of scolding.
Game Grape: Do you think this is how you are expressing, or are you trying to empathize with those players?
Pumel: I think all your expressions come from what you take in. The kinds of novels you can write depend on the kinds of novels you have read and your life experience.
My unique life experience makes me who I am, so that makes me able to produce a game like this. For example, I decided that the animals would fight in a ring, and chose Trump as the narrator’s voice, etc. These series of choices are all guided by my personal experience. I don’t think this is something that a strategist who has played a lot of games can come up with; they may not be equipped with the same sense of humor.
Only 5 people have quit since the company was founded 5 years ago
Game Grape: How many people are there now?
Pumel: About 30 people. For a long while, we couldn’t successfully recruit people.
Game Grape: Is it because your recruitment standards are relatively high?
Pumel: It’s because no one applied. But now that the game has become popular, it is much better. There are even folks who are willing to take a pay cut and join us.
Game Grape: You are currently hiring. What are some of the important positions you are hiring for?
Pumel: We are short of people in all positions. I am currently an accountant, recruiter, and business operator.
Game Grape: You may be the busiest boss in the gaming circle.
Pumel: Start-up companies are all equally busy, but other bosses may not need to be the accountant. I also need to manage finance and fundraising. But we really need to recruit art directors, engineering directors, and the like. I am currently also serving as the art director.
Game Grape: What’s your ideal size of the team?
Pumel: Maybe around 60 people. I still prefer smaller teams. We might need to outsource some of the work to Europe, North America, and Australia.
Game Grape: What do you value most when hiring?
Pumel: We value freedom, fairness, and kindness, and we as a team share these values.
Game Grape: How do you judge if someone is kind?
Pumel: It might be hard to find that out from just chatting. But if they keep trying to talk about salary, or average revenue per user with me, I would feel that we are not the same kind of people.
Second, I think the ability to learn is also very important. We are a group of people who have never made games before, yet the first game we made became a hit. We didn’t know anything. Before starting this company, most of us have never opened Unity before.
The third one is what we call the pursuit of excellence. The pursuit of excellence is an attitude. We don’t consider ourselves as people who are better or more superior than others. We are always comparing us with ourselves
Game Grape: Are there times where you misjudge a candidate?
Pumel: Very rarely. It has been almost 5 years since we founded the company, and only 5 people have left. Our team’s retention rate is very high. As long as folks stay here for more than two years, they basically won’t leave.
This is because our company’s atmosphere, values, and pursuits aren’t necessarily available at other companies.
A Desire to Change the Status Quo in the Industry
Game Grape: Do you think you are happier making games than making VR tools?
Pumel: Actually, I’ve been pretty happy with both directions. Things are a little happier than before because there is quite a lot of player feedback. To be honest, other than the fact that we haven’t started making money yet, everything else is pretty fine.
Game Grape: Are you worried about monetization?
Pumel: We only care about whether we can make the world’s best products. As long as we can make the best products, making money is something that will follow.
Game Grape: Do you use a timetable to plan some of the next steps?
Pumel: To be honest, there is no timetable. I think “Party Animals” has conveyed the first layer of my ideals: winning or losing is not important. Everyone can have a great time as they play the game. This part is already pretty OK.
At the same time, as a company, we also have obligations and responsibilities to make the world a better place.
Game Grape: I don’t think this is something a company at your stage needs to consider.
Pumel: We are a really lucky company. We became popular because streamers streamed our game, and as a result, we don’t need to worry about publicity.
During this year’s game festival on Steam, we were ranked number one for downloads, concurrent players, and wishlist numbers. As a result, Steam gave us a big banner on the page. When I saw it, I sent an email asking them to remove the banner.
Game Grape: Why? That’s counter-intuitive.
Pumel: Because we no longer need it. There are all kinds of small to medium-sized indie game companies attending Steam’s game festival. It’s a struggle for everyone and it’s painful to try and gain traction. We are the last game that needs traction during the festival.
On the third day to the last day of the demo week, we placed a banner on our game. Once you click the banner, you’d be redirected to Steam’s game festival.
Each year, there are about 8-9,000 games launched on Steam, but only 100 of those games get exposure on Steam’s homepage. That leaves the remaining 8,900 games in a painful position, and there is no effective channel for acquiring players for PC games. Even if you are interested in doing targeted advertisements, that’s not an option either.
Game Grape: So that’s why you asked Steam to remove Party Animal’s banner?
Pumel: Of course, we should help them. In the future, whenever we can, we hope to help change the status quo in the industry and help small-to-medium-sized game companies out.
Aiming at Nintendo
Game Grape: Do you feel the increase in responsibility as your game become more and more popular?
Pumel: I always have a sense of responsibility. The first layer of responsibility for us is to be responsible for the players who buy our game. We can’t let them down. It’s like, if I’ve bought a bottle of water. I know it is safe and clean. I drink it to quench my thirst. But if the water has radiation or harmful substances, then it’s being irresponsible to the customers.
Second, we must be responsible to our employees and provide them with a stable environment so that they will not be in a state of anxiety. You know the saying, the middle class is only one serious illness away from bankruptcy.
I have never been short of money since I was young, and I have always been in a state of not caring about money very much. But not all families are like this. So I need to provide a stable environment for my employees. This is the second layer of the company’s responsibility.
The company’s third layer of responsibility is to be responsible for shareholders.
They invested in us, and so we should bring in the profit for them. Behind our shareholders are their LPs (Limited Partners), who need to make money too. If our shareholders have invested in 100 projects, and 98 projects have lost their money, and only 2 projects make money, then our project must make money.
The last layer of responsibility is the company’s responsibility to society. We have an obligation to change the world (for the better) and make it less cruel.
The biggest difference between humans and animals is not intelligence. It’s that people will invent tools that make us free from some of the animality.
Animality means that the strong eat the weak, and the fist has the right to speak. But humans have invented various things in history to make us break away from that.
The shareholding system is a good example. If I went out to fish and came back with 100 fish. We would distribute it with everyone according to what we had previously agreed upon. After the joint-stock system was invented, it avoided the cruel side. It allowed everyone to eat a portion of the fish, and it also avoided allowing one person to swallow all the fish.
I think “Party Animals” has made the world a little better. In the process of playing this game, everyone gets to decompress a little, and they won’t be abusing each other over losing.
Can we take this another step further? I want to try it. When we are more capable in the future, we should find more ways to make the world less cruel. These are the four major responsibilities that I think companies should bear.
Game Grape: What’s your hope for the growth of the company?
Pumel: We hope we can be a company like Nintendo. Our target is Nintendo, and we want to be a company as great as them.
I think China’s game industry is very similar to the (Chinese) mobile phone industry. A very important reason for the rise of Xiaomi, OPPO, and Vivo is that companies such as Motorola, Samsung, LG, and Apple have built the foundation for China’s mobile phone manufacturing industry. As a result, we are no longer starting from scratch. You can make a decent Android phone with good design and market operation.
The same goes for the game industry. You will find that China now has more and more gaming talents. One of the reasons is that the early game companies in China took on overseas contracts and as a result raised many excellent strategists and engineers. There are also large companies like EA and Ubisoft that have also trained many talents in China. Couple that with the existence of Unity and Unreal Engine, the entire engineering level has been flattened.
At this time, you will find that we do have the opportunity to compete with companies like Nintendo. The reason being you can now compete at the creativity and the entire production pipeline level.
We can give it a try and fight against game companies that we thought of as legends when we were young. It’s like, if you grew up watching Michael Jordan playing basketball. Then one day, you got sent to the court and your opponent is Michael Jordan. This is what it feels like; it’s no longer about winning or losing, you would want to give it your best shot anyway. It’s necessary to have dreams. Hey, what if dreams do come true?
PS: ReCreate Games is currently recruiting people. Engineers, art, planning, and administration are recruiting. Every position is short of people. The work location is Shanghai. Welcome to send your resume to the mailbox: firstname.lastname@example.org