Simon Read, founder of New Star Games and developer of the phenomenally successful New Star Soccer 5 and Mobile, is the computer games industry’s equivalent of the Disney fairy tale: an indie developer with an unwavering vision that made it big through the avenues of iTunes. But to do so would be to diminish the magnitude of the achievement and the dedication it took. Khai Trung Le spoke with Read on what the success meant to him and what comes after the celebration.
There is a strong undercurrent of humility throughout our discussion. Simon Read is undoubtedly experiencing the greatest commercial success and the most widespread critical acclaim of his career thus far, garnering accolades from Edge to the Sun, Eurogamer to the Telegraph. But humility can still make a fool of a man.
“Number two in the iPhone top grossing chart is just beyond my wildest dreams. But I’m being greedy now; I want the number one spot! Which is ridiculous really because I never thought I’d get this high…”
New Star Soccer Mobile peaked the top grossing iPhone app chart in the UK on 7 June, within nine hours of making the above statement, and is by significant distance his best-selling title. With the addition of the arrival of a baby son, Read has been juggling celebration on all fronts.
“It’s been tricky, I must say, working from home, not getting much sleep and having a game everyone wants to have a piece of. But I’m absolutely loving it at the moment.”
The rise may have been meteoric, but New Star Games stalwarts will know that it is thoroughly deserved. Read is a veteran indie developer of 10 years in the business, and was able to take it up full-time with New Star Soccer 3, back in 2005, and stalwarts again will almost certainly recognise some of the fundamentals that made NSS5 and Mobile such a hit.
“I just wanted to get back to the feel of NSS3. It was by far the most popular version until now. The feedback was always positive; there were some elements that I felt were quite clunky but people just seemed to love it.
“Whereas with [NSS4], I tried too much. I bit off more than I could chew, and between fixing bugs, the 3D engine and everything else, it just became really stressful. So I thought ‘forget it, let’s go back to the fun 2D style’. Not to try and make it a simulation but more of a sort of arcade game.”
Despite the mass adulation from its current audience, Read is also not one to rest on his laurels and in his own words the current success is “very much a UK thing”, and it may take more work to reach a fuller international audience.
“There are a lot of football fans in America, but quite how I reach them I’m not so sure. My game is trundling along, top 50 in the sport section in the States and it doesn’t seem to be moving up the charts much.
“If I did manage to break America, it’d be a huge financial success for me but, as it stands, 90 percent of sales are in the UK. If I could reach other countries, it’d be a bonus.
“There are a few more languages in the pipeline and hopefully that’ll help it reach other countries as well. I don’t have a Chinese version planned but I think it’d be quite beneficial if I did so that’s something to consider.”
Regardless, NSS5 has been a resounding success, and unsurprisingly Read has been the recipient of a cavalcade of attention.
“My inbox is crazy at the moment. Lots of publishers are contacting me and it’s kinda weird, kinda scary. I’ve never been that keen to go down that path so I’m fighting them off at the moment.”
The obvious question: EA?
“No, not recently anyway! Back when I launched NSS3, they got in touch. More on getting me to work on one of their EA Sports titles, I think it was LMA Manager at the time. I had an interview, did a coding test that I failed miserably at and didn’t really hear again from them. So that was a bit of a disaster…
“But as much as I’d have liked to have gone out to Vancouver and worked on EA Sports titles, I’m not sure that would have been the best thing because I’ve been so happy working on my own titles and that’s why I don’t have much interest in working with other publishers. I’m just happy doing what I’ve been doing.”
With his popularity, and available resources, soaring and the penchant for indie developers to collaborate, it might not be irrational to expect Read to think about a shift in direction and methodology. Although his fondness for his one-man-and-his-laptop development style is well documented.
“I’ve never worked with anyone else, other than friends from forums who might give me some help with coding and things like that. It’s purely just me on my laptop and so I’ve never worked in a team.
“I love having full control over a project. It would be weird letting someone else make decisions about the game or how it’s coded and things […] If I could do the graphics nicer, I’d do all that myself as well.
“People are contacting me, and publishers are offering me help with development and stuff. That’s only happened because of the success of NSS Mobile. Nobody was offering this six months ago so it’s flattering but it’s also a bit ‘where were you when I was nobody?’ So I’d definitely be open to it, I just don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon.”
But Read is no hermit coder, and speaks fondly of his collaborations, extolling everyone who has helped with coding and databasing on past and present titles. Lead artist on NSS5 and Mobile was Chico Spencer and, being based in Brazil during development, the partnership was conducted entirely online.
“He’s a great artist. He’d done some great mobile work before, he had a great portfolio. Mine was just a small part of that. Last I heard, he was working for Rovio drawing angry birds, and every time I email him, it takes him about a month to get back to me. So I think he’s quite busy and I’m looking for a new artist now.”
The success of NSS has roused ample professional curiosity, and it would not be an understatement to say that the smartphone market is subject to some questionable practises and companies. Fans are already calling for more, and it may not necessarily come from New Star Games as ‘tributes’ becomes increasingly prolific.
“It’s a slight worry. I can see people doing different sports but following the same elements [as NSS] but it would be difficult to do for football, unless you’re Sports Interactive or EA: to actually create the database and the competition system that NSS has, that’s taken me years to do, going back to NSS4, improved in NSS5 and then refined for Mobile.
“So unless they throw lots of money into that, it’d be quite difficult to get that much depth. So I’m kinda hoping that’s the case. The football version is my property, if you like. Other sports though, like golf or ice hockey, that could possibly come along and no doubt with much better graphics and flashy intro. And lots of IAPs, I’m sure.”
Read has recently revealed that Valve will soon be distributing NSS5 on Steam. Although despite the presence of Super Laser Racer on the service, Valve has not always been receptive to the idea of New Star Soccer and has previously declined distributing the game on Steam.
“They never really gave an explanation. They keep it very vague, but they do say ‘don’t hesitate to contact us again with a new project’. After the success of the mobile version, I could throw some good numbers and views at them and, without any explanation as to why they changed their mind, they were like ‘yeah, we’d love to have it on Steam!’
“So it’s great for me. It couldn’t be better timing. Hopefully it’s going to be out on Steam soon. I’m desperately trying to get it out for the midpoint of the Euros so that’s the main focus.”
As though a timely tonic to a lacklustre Vita showing at the Sony E3 conference, Read also reiterated that a Vita version remains on the cards.
“There’s a chance I could create New Star Soccer to work on [the Vita] so I picked one up and I’m very impressed with it, I quite like it.
“I haven’t attempted to build it for that yet, but it’s on my to-do list. Hopefully it shouldn’t be too difficult if everything goes to plan – I’ve no idea how soon that would actually become available on the PS Store but hopefully in the next few months, I would imagine.”
Although Read still has a number of forthcoming updates for the mobile game, he looks to draw a line under NSS5 and Mobile soon and has long been considering his next title. With remakes, reboots and HD updates currently in vogue, New Star Games has an extensive back catalogue that might provide potential inspiration but Read is keen to allay these thoughts.
“Lots of people have asked for New Star GP on mobile. I’m not sure; as much as I love that game and I’m very proud of it, I just don’t find that there’s been a successful answer to touch screen, top-down driving games. I find the whole virtual controls thing really annoying.
“[Mr Qwak’s] Retro Racing is fantastic, but unless I could do it some real justice or find some method of making it really fun to play, I’m not sure I’d try to port that across or do a new version.
“At the moment, I’m still focused on football and possibly a new sport, but I’m not looking at the back catalogue too much.”
Read has already provided hints on his next title, with requests for an artist specialising in isometric graphics on forums. But unfortunately let slip a vital piece of information that reveals all.
“It’s a project I’ve been thinking about for a while. Basically I need some artwork where you can see the stadium… and that’s about as much info as I’m going to give on that, I’m afraid.
“I’m already worried about clones for my current project, I don’t want people doing that to my next one!”
I’m calling it: New Star Bowls.
You can harass Simon Read on the difference between a Jackfinder and a Henselite on Twitter at @newstargames.
This interview can also be found at Daily Gaming Network.