WarDucks | Interview with Nikki Lannen
Tucked away at the top of an office block in Dublin, the offices of WarDucks hum with a quiet intensity as a team of 10 programmers, artists and developers lead the way for the Irish VR gaming industry. WarDucks specialises in developing casual VR games, having previously had two best-selling titles on Samsung Galaxy VR and recently releasing their first fully featured VR game, Sneaky Bears.
WarDucks CEO and founder Nikki Lannen joined Facebook in 2008, one of five people working with the company’s European sales team. It was one of her first clients, the Israeli company Playtika, who encouraged Lannen to get involved with game development. “I got very immersed in what they were doing, and then subsequently took on just gaming clients from there and kind of built that vertical.”
“I was always interested in games, but I suppose that actually seeing the business model of how games work, the analytical side and all of the different elements that come into play to make a game successful was really what interested me.” An idea was planted, one that remained at the back of her mind for years.
Finally, Lannen saw an opportunity when Glass Robot Studios, a group of developers she was mentoring, were slowing down production. This inspired her to “take the leap”, getting the team on board when she launched WarDucks in 2014. Lannen initially bootstrapped the company with her own money. Her investment was matched by Enterprise Ireland, due to WarDucks receiving their ‘High Potential Start-up’ classification.
For developing her start-up, Lannen cited her experience with Facebook as essential for giving her connections in the industry.“I have learnt a lot from working with them just with regards [to] how games work and what the best way to structure a team is to build a game.”
WarDucks released their first game, Global Agents, in 2015. A hidden-object puzzle game, Global Agents was released on Facebook and iOS, eventually acquiring over 600,000 downloads. However, a one-hour brainstorming session in 2016 set WarDucks on the path of becoming one of Ireland’s only VR focused gaming companies.
The result was a prototype for what would become the company’s flagship Intellectual Property, Sneaky Bears. After less than two weeks of development, WarDucks showcased their virtual-reality arcade shooter at an Irish VR Meet Up, a series of networking events hosted by Lannen herself. “We brought the prototype to the meet-up and there were a queue of people who wanted to play it” according to Lannen.
Sneaky Bears VR was released for Android in 2016, and a re-vamped version was released last August for the more powerful VR-platforms of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR. The game pits you against an army of evil teddy bears led in revolution by their wisecracking overlord Frank. The player is tasked with foiling their plans of world-domination by freeing a group of pandas imprisoned for their teddy-producing wool.
Through four different stages, Sneaky Bears harkens back to arcade games of the 80s, with a dual-wielding control scheme that offers impressive levels of feedback and precision. Starting off deceptively simply, the game gradually adjusts you to multi-tasking between shooting down waves of attacking bears and disabling environmental hazards, such as putting out fires with a super soaker.
Before long, you find yourself spinning around like an action star, desperately trying to keep track of the overwhelming amount of activity on the screen. Aimed at casual and more experienced gamers alike, Sneaky Bears offers an exciting and engaging experience, with levels of mechanical intricacy and skill available to those willing to give it the time and energy.
Despite the risks of launching a new IP in the early stages of the company’s life, Lannen insists that the team built the game as something they themselves would enjoy as well as a global product that any demographic can enjoy. “I suppose it is a bit riskier in a way [than using a known IP], but in another way it’s very rewarding to see how well it’s done and it is, overall, our concept.”
The Future of WarDucks and VR
With WarDucks focusing primarily on casual gaming, Lannen saw the burgeoning VR industry as a way for WarDucks to make a name for themselves and a more profitable alternative to mobile gaming, which is dependent on acquiring new users through advertisements. The VR industry is expected to be worth €29.1 billion by 2022.
“I feel we’re definitely at the top of our game in that field, so it would be very difficult to do that on mobile.”
Currently, VR has a relatively small consumer base, consisting primarily of early adopters willing to shoulder high hardware costs. However, the release of Oculus Go in February 2018, with a projected initial retail price of $200 in America, will be the first step towards democratising virtual reality according to Lannen, whose team will begin work on preparing a version of Sneaky Bears to launch with Oculus Go in the next month.
Lannen also expressed confidence that the Irish VR game development scene, which is currently extremely small, will grow as hardware becomes cheaper and more accessible, leading to more companies taking advantage of the opportunities provided by VR. “It’s not that everyone’s gonna be doing everything in VR, that it’s gonna take over from any other technology, I think it’s gonna become part of our technology routine.”
WarDucks recently secured €1.3 million in a seed funding investment round. Backing came primarily from Suir Valley Ventures, with additional funding coming again from Enterprise Ireland and private investors. The funding was the result of years of ongoing discussions and will fund the development of future projects and hiring new employees, according to Lannen.
Going forward, WarDucks will continue to focus primarily on developing both games and “experiences”, such as a meditation app. With an unannounced project scheduled to release this Christmas, WarDucks continue to march onward with a vision firmly rooted in virtual reality.
[The Oculus Rift version of Sneaky Bears was tested.]