Innovation & Design

Game Maker Profile: Preloaded


Its founders have backgrounds in art, graphic design, and film. This London-based design firm thinks its breadth will help it create a host of innovative titles

Something surprising happened at the South by Southwest Interactive conference held Mar. 7 to 11 in Austin, Tex. Launchball, a game about physics—a game that invites players to "slide, bounce, or spring your way through 30 obstacle-filled levels"—won the award for Best in Show, beating out not just the other game entrants but all of the hundreds of Web sites submitted. Launchball is the first game to win the Best of Show award, and its creator, Preloaded, is the first interactive studio to win the festival's top award twice. For sure, Launchball is no Twitter, the social communications tool that took off at last year's SXSW, but the win does reflect the growing significance of gaming—and the growing interest in the industry from nontraditional quarters.

Strictly speaking, Preloaded—a 20-person outfit based in London—isn't a game-design studio; its portfolio is broader than games and its three founders aren't from the gaming industry. Rather, it's a studio obsessed with pushing the edges of digital storytelling, be it in an online physics game such as Launchball or a brand-building Web presence like Tongsville, the site created for video and film producers Hammer and Tongs that earned Preloaded its first SXSW Best in Show award in 2002. With backgrounds in fine art, graphic design, film, and motion picture graphics, its founders draw on a deep knowledge of the layers that go into multimedia and of the role each medium can play in telling a story. So while the work is creatively edgy, the bells and whistles never interrupt the message.

Launchball is a good example of a Preloaded product. The Flash-based game was commissioned by the Science Museum in Britain as an online counterpart to its hands-on galleries. The game doesn't attempt to bring existing exhibits online. Rather, it uses some basic scientific facts—copper conducts electricity, for example—to create a puzzle game in which the player must figure out how to move a ball into a goal box using various properties, such as gravity, magnetism, wind power, and so on.

Poised to Capitalize on Branded Games

A traditional game designer might have gotten caught up in building a fancy physics engine or creating photo-realistic effects. Instead, Preloaded used an open-source engine as its base so as not to waste time (and money) reinventing the wheel, and focused on designing a simple, almost old-fashioned interface that emphasized game play. Copper (a conductor), batteries (a source of power), and fans (which blow things if they've been charged up by the battery) become colored blocks that players must place into the existing setup in order to solve the engineering puzzle. So far, 1.75 million people have played the game at least once, and there are myriad Launchball Web sites offering walkthroughs of the game as well a host of additional, user-generated levels.

Most chief executive officers and chief marketing officers know they need an online presence today. They just don't always know what that presence should be. If a company doesn't sell a product or service that can be ordered online, its digital strategy isn't necessarily obvious. That's why companies are turning to branded casual games as a way to engage their audience. And a company like Preloaded—with experience in both branding and multimedia storytelling—is poised to capitalize on the trend.

It would be easy to cast Preloaded as a rising star in the indie gaming industry, but that misses the point. Now that gamers are an established and growing market segment, more companies are borrowing from the industry in their attempts to connect with consumers online. Some game companies are recognizing this larger market and building branding divisions. But it's also happening in reverse. From Launchball to the BBC-commissioned mystery Death in Sakkara to the viral game Sink Ya Drink, Preloaded offers a model of the new kind of studio—one that embeds branded or educational messages in a product designed to be fun.

Jessie Scanlon is the senior writer for Innovation Design on BusinessWeek.com.

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