Talewind is a new, UK studio building a social sandbox RPG that’s exclusive to the Roblox platform . Founded by Mike Allender and Georgina Felce at the beginning of the year, the studio completed the Roblox Accelerator program and closed an Angel investment round of $800k to support their ambitions to build high quality, professional games for metaverse platforms. In this conversation, Mike & Georgina discuss why they’re building Roblox, the importance of social-first games, and how to build a strong company culture and community — enjoy!
On Personal Backgrounds & Life Before Talewind
Fawzi Itani: I'd love to start off with a little bit about your background - can you both tell me a bit about yourselves and how you ended up launching a Roblox-based gaming studio?
Mike Allender: I'm Mike, CEO of Talewind studios. I’ve really been a game designer my entire career. I started off at Jagex, working on RuneScape. I was briefly a community manager, and then went into QA. While I was in QA, I was working on an unannounced sci-fi MMO. There was a gap in the team for someone who was really into the numbers, stuff like systems, and spreadsheets, a real numbers nerd. That's what I really loved, and that role grew into a sort of game-design balancing role, and ultimately helped me make the jump from testing to game-design.
Then I really relished that over the next few years when I was at Jagex, and was brought in to work across all of their titles. I went from this sci-fi MMO to working on RuneScape and some of the mobile titles as well. After five years with Jagex,I went over to Spain to work for Socialpoint. What was really cool about that experience was being in the trenches while social Facebook gaming hitting its stride. After a while I realized people were starting to move from social to mobile, and I saw that as an opportunity.
I managed to work on some really good titles when I was at Jagex, but one of my key learnings was just how important it was to make a game for the player, not for yourself. We made this hack and slash game, like Diablo, for Facebook, not really realizing the naivety that maybe Facebook users weren't wanting to play yet another Diablo on their PCs in the first place.
After that, we made a game called Monster Legends, which is still doing really well today on the IOS and Android. When I was there, I saw the transition to mobile. Some companies missed that, they were slightly slow to do that, and they suffered for a few years, but they're doing really well now. Whereas some companies, like King, managed to hit that beat, and then really rocketed from that.
After Socialpoint, I moved to India to become head of monetization for a studio called Reliance Games, who were working with loads of big IP. I was there for a while, learning a lot more about the business side of things. Then back to London where I joined King, and just learned from people that were so much smarter than me in game design, product. I had some of the best people in the industry giving me a masterclass in all that stuff. I was there for four years, across some prototyping teams, and I was lead game designer at Farm Heroes for a few years as well.
After that, I started my own consultancy. It was a really good opportunity to work with loads of founders, big and small. It felt like I was really valued by the teams that I was working with, and almost able to give my best stuff. You're there for a week or two, or a few months sometimes, and you really give everything, and then you move on, and do the same somewhere else. That was really rewarding.
It was on one of those contracts, for a company called Super Social, that I fell in love with Roblox. The client was one of the first professional Roblox studios in the States and had a great founding team, but they lacked that gaming expert to come in and help navigate that side of things. I helped them set some of the processes up, working on the first game, and growing that to a certain point. When I moved at the end of my contract, I wasn't ready to walk away from Roblox. There was so much there that I wanted to get stuck into, that we ended up starting our own company in that space.
Georgina Felce: My background started in costume for TV, theatre, film and retail operations. Honestly, before I met Mike I didn't actually realize that the games industry was a thing that I could work in. I guess I thought games were just made by some magical elves or something. I've been playing games in my life, I just never realized that industry was an industry I could work in until I met Mike at King.
I was so amazed by how ingrained having a progessive culture is in gaming, especially in the UK at the time. Stuff like real culture and values had me thinking "I need to get in there. How do I get in there?"
Ultimately, I managed to get my first role in the industry, with Rodeo. I started building their London studio, and I came in as their office operations manager. I was working alongside their Helsinki team, to translate this amazing culture they've built in Finland to the London office. I worked alongside some great people.
Unfortunately, as is sometimes the way with the games industry, we got shut down a couple of months later. But that closing ended up opening a door for me at Big Pixel, who had just been acquired by WarnerMedia. Dave Burpitt reached out to me, and said, "We need an office manager. I'm not sure what one is, but we've been told we need an office manager. Can you please come and help us?" I grabbed the bull by the horns. It was a really great, exciting time.
Post-acquisition, they were tasked with building a new product for the Rick and Morty IP after the successful launch of a previous game called Pocket Mortys. It was really busy. I learned a lot. I covered most things, apart from making the game. We built an amazing culture there. We won several awards, and it was a really great experience. I sunk my teeth into a lot of areas, and really learned a lot about business development and people, culture, operations, all that great stuff.
It was a real shame when WarnerMedia decided to close the studio at the end of last year (as is sometimes the way). It was at that point where I was at a crossroads. I thought, "I'm either going to join a studio, o rjoin Mike working at Roblox." It really just felt like the right time to go for it, so at the beginning of this year Talewind was born.
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On Talewind & The Roblox Opportunity
Could you describe a little bit about what your game is to the audience? On your website it says "RuneScape meets Animal Crossing." GI.biz described you as the “Supercell of Roblox”. What are you building? Why? What's the long-term vision?
Mike: We're really excited about our first game. We feel like even if we weren’t building it for Roblox, and it was a standalone title, what we're trying to achieve would still be ambitious. Roblox really helps us to deliver on that in an efficient way. It gives us so many features and tools built in that allow us to achieve that ambition. What we're trying to build is what you said -- a game where players gather resources, craft items, and decorate their own island. It’s a cozy sandbox MMO, like Animal Crossing, but hyper social, because Roblox is all about interacting with other people in interesting ways and being able to have that online persona.
Georgina: The great thing about Roblox, and us bringing this title on, is, as Mike said, the social aspect of it. It makes playing with your friends so seamless and makes developing those kinds of larger social experiences a lot easier. For example, if you're playing with your friends, you can swim over to the island rather than waiting to dial in an island code or something more complex. It takes two seconds to instantly connect with someone.
Mike: Also, social games have interactions with others built into their core mechanics. For example, you can build toys to place on your island that other people can come and enjoy. There’s also a UGC element to it as well -- if you build lots of trampolines and turn your island into an obstacle course, people can come play on it. That’s the interesting thing about Roblox: the platform is filled with these sandbox games where everyone makes their own fun, rather than relying on predefined systems.
What have you accomplished so far? What's on your radar?
Mike: We've been working on the game for six months. For the first few months, there were only three of us working on it. But because of what Roblox can give us, we’ve managed to do a lot in that small team.
Gameplay-wise, we started with the islands themselves. Focusing on making sure everyone had their own, and that you could swim between them. That mechanic is the first thing we wanted to tackle because it defines that feeling of ownership and being in that shared space with other people.
Once we had that core mechanic down, we built from there. We recently finished another massive system -- the ability to build and place items on your island. Now everyone can log on, and they won't be greeted just by the same island. We're actually pretty close to going into alpha launch. We're going to start external play testing within the next few weeks.
We’re working on other fun concepts, too. One I’ll tease a bit is our reputation system, which is sort of inspired by our company’s focus on sustainability and a positive impact. The system makes it so that how you act in the game directly impacts your island. We've got these three deities: fire, earth, and water. Say, you fish too much today, so you grab as many fish as you can, and there's no fish left in the water around your island. The next day when you come in, there won't be as many fish anymore, because you've angered the water deity, and you've now moved slightly towards maybe a fire island. If you keep this up, and if you really go far on that path, then your island biome will shift. Maybe right now you have a massive volcano spawning in the middle of your island, and you actually don't get any trees spawning anymore. Now there's rocks and gemstones and everything all over the place. The way this gets really interesting is when you think that each player is at a different stage in this journey. So Gina's island may be a paradise of trees and nature. Whereas you might have a waterfall, all these lagoons, and some really cool fish on your island. I have to go and trade with you to get some of the things that aren't on my island. It's an elemental, interconnecting economy.
Georgina: We really want the players to be able to draw parallels from what's happening in the game, to see what their actions could do in the real world as well. That's something that's important to us.
You illustrated why you decided to build on the Roblox platform and why it makes sense to build on it. How do you think about the economics of building games on Roblox? What are the disadvantages and advantages? How does it compare to building games for more traditional platforms? It seems like time to development is pretty rapid. Are there any other factors that you've identified?
Mike: The barrier to entry is certainly lower. It's really satisfying jumping in a scene. When you're making a game in Roblox, you use this tool called Roblox Studio. It's like Unity Lite. It’s so well supported, and every single week they're adding so many cool features that we didn't even think they would add. It's very powerful. We never feel like we're lacking in that department.
The most satisfying thing is jumping into Team Create together and working on a scene, and when you hit Publish, suddenly everyone can play your game across the platform. Whereas if you're making something Unity, you need to get the build running, then put it on test flight, and send it out. We get so much just naturally there built into Roblox.
Georgina: It really democratizes game development. I'm probably not as tech savvy as the rest of our team, but I've been able to jump into sessions, which has been especially rewarding during remote work. The platform has let us have these connective, team-building experiences throughout development.
Mike: The other thing I’ve noticed is how close you are to the community all the time when you're building Roblox games. It almost feels like, when you're not making a game on Roblox, you're in your silo -- you're making your game, and you're ramping up to soft launch. Meanwhile on the platform, it feels like the players are there with you, They’re jumping into your Discord. It's so much easier to get people involved.
Georgina: It's really social. The games are social, and the development process is incredibly social, too. You feel like the community is so excited about anything new coming on to the platform. We've got a great growing community in our Discord, who are super hyped about the game, write us feedback, and it's great to be able to have that untapped access to players right from the get-go.
I really like the point you about Roblox’s development being social. There are a lot of games on Roblox (and some that are not so good among the many that are). How do you imagine cutting through all that noise with the game you’re releasing?
Mike: That's a good question. There's UA within Roblox. It's different from if you were doing UA in mobile. You can buy banner ads, spend Robux to get your game on the front page -- there’s still the “spending money” way to get new people. That said, that isn’t the best way to grow a Roblox game.
What really matters is what you do in the community -- how you engage players with your game, and also how you work with influencers as well. A lot of the discovery on the platform is by partnering up with people who have communities and getting them excited about your game to bring them on the journey. I definitely feel that the barrier to entry to get your game discovered on Roblox is a lot lower than on normal mobile platforms.
If we were making the exact same game, tools and tech aside, and we launched it on mobile, I would be terrified of the marketing budget I'd have to spend on it. Whereas I know that on Roblox we can get people really hyped about our game without spending a cent. That's where we're starting to build towards. We’re literally being as transparent as possible and oversharing. A couple days ago I actually released our entire two week development schedule just to see what people thought!
Georgina: Community sentiment is really important. That's how we’ve approached coming onto the platform. Participating in the Roblox Accelerator was a really important move for us to make sure that we're seen as developers rather than outsiders coming in with different agendas. We really wanted to integrate ourselves with the community, because as much as we hope that they learn from us, it’s a two-way relationship -- we're also learning a lot from them.
Mike: The people we've met along the way on the program have been amazing. Some of the other development teams, some of those people in those teams were so talented and so hard-working. We still keep in touch with those connections and those friendships that we've built,
On The Evolution of Roblox
How do you see Roblox evolving over time? How might that affect your approach to building games and business on the platform? Now that you've graduated from the Roblox Accelerator program, you have a little bit more autonomy in that way. What is that going to look like for you?
Mike: Ultimately, what's happening is the games are getting better and better. The high quality of experiences on the platform are directly tied to the tools and the expertise on the platform. Whenever a game starts to do well -- someone introduces a new mechanic, or takes something from somewhere else, or makes something completely fresh -- everyone else obviously takes note of that, and then the whole development community levels up at that time. There's a lot of respect between developers on the platform. They're all talking to and learning from each other.
Over the next few years I see the games continuing to get better and better. In terms of the ecosystem of studios that are making these games on the platform, a lot of them have grown up just making Roblox games. Actually, some of the most successful studios on Roblox right now have come from within Roblox, not from outside at all. Studios have come in and achieved success on the platform as well. It's going to be a hybrid model of both of these sides working together to continue to make the best games.
When you went out and pitched investors how they thought about that, what does it mean to scale, and potentially figure out an exit scenario, or expand beyond or within Roblox?
Mike: We had that a couple of times. We've been talking to VCs over the last few weeks. There are some very big numbers rumored for the games at the top of the platform at the moment, and there's a great supporting tier of games beneath that are also doing really well. I'll quote the official stats from Roblox, which has at least three studios on their platform that made in excess of ten million last year. The numbers I'm hearing are a lot higher than that ten million, but the official source is it was ten million at least. I believe last year in total there was about 200 million paid out to developers on the platform, split amongst everyone. Those are decent numbers.
When you talk to a VC, they're like, "Yeah, but you're not going to get a billion-dollar franchise game out of that, because that’s split amongst everyone. Yes, it's growing, but what if it doesn't grow as much?" For us, it's about our portfolio strategy of hitting multiple titles, so we're not saying there's a cap right now of maybe 30-40 million for a single game. We definitely want to have multiple titles on the platform doing really well. You're right that to make a billion-dollar business you might want to look to other platforms and not just position yourself as a game studio for Roblox. We absolutely love Roblox, so that's where we're starting. It gives us the chance to reach hundreds of millions of players, grow our team, and create some great IP that we own. That's a great place where the players are, but there are other players in other places as well. We can take our learnings and also make great content for those people as well. At that point, the business opportunities start to look really exciting.
How do you view those emerging competitors, like Manticore? It sounds like you're looking at them as growth opportunities, but right now you want to be fully focused on the Roblox platform. When does it make sense to consider building on other platforms?
Mike: For the first few months, we were all about Roblox because we thought there wasn't much of a point going to other platforms. However, what we're already seeing is that these other platforms have now raised a lot of money, and while their tech is good, they also realize that they have to get the developers and the players in. We’re seeing that these other platforms are willing to invest some of that money into developers to then make content for the platform.
Some of these platform holders we've actually been in discussions with, and they're willing to fund games to come to their platform. That's an interesting opportunity for us: while the players aren’t there, capital is there to allow us to make content. And if you get in early, you have first-mover advantage. We're definitely exploring that side of things. One platform in particular, which is really exciting, are the folks from Unit 2 Games, who make Crayta. They were acquired by Facebook. They were the most amazing founding team and delightful to talk to.
That's really interesting, because they've got incredible tech and now they've got the Facebook connection, which is the players. So, that one could explode really quickly. As soon as they want the players, they're there. That's one we're definitely keeping a close eye on.
On Team Building @ Talewind
Gina, one question that I had for you is around hiring. Building a team in Roblox is very different, but I'd also imagine that studios are looking to hire game designers from mobile game studios and the big companies out there. What does hiring look like for Talewind at the moment?
Georgina: Our founding team isn’t Roblox-native. It was definitely something that we realized pretty early on, that having that Roblox-native knowledge would be something that would be beneficial within the team. As we've been hiring, we've been able to include that. We managed to hire a great Roblox developer, he's 18 years old. He's got so much energy and knowledge. He's already been developing on Roblox for five years, and has really skilled us up incredibly in the last two months that he's been with us.
We've been able to find that balance, because the opportunity for us has always been "Let's bring the knowledge that we've got in the industry from mobile, from all the different consoles, into this platform, and let's try and collaborate with these developers that obviously know that platform really well." With our development team, we think it's really useful to bring in people that have multiplayer experience, for example, and with our designers, mobile free-to-play because a lot of those mechanics really work. Our artists (I mean this in the best sense possible because I love Roblox) bring a more sophisticated-looking experience, which a lot of players are looking for.
Already we've seen some of the stuff we've been leaking, and players have been like, "Wow, this looks amazing. No way this is Roblox." It's been incredible to marry these different skillsets. That being said, we're a UK company, and at the moment we're focused on hiring in the UK. So hiring Roblox talent in the UK has been pretty hard. It's something that we're continuing to try and build relationships with UK developers. So if you're out there, please let yourself be known.
The first thing that we did when we founded the company was to build our set of values and what the vision for the company is, not the vision for the product. Talewind is a company and a business. It's not built around the game. We feel like that was the best thing we've ever done, because it's been the backbone and the pillar for how we make all our decisions and who we hire. It’s also attracted the people that we want to work with. I think that's been probably the best lesson that I’ve learned so far from building a team.
And you have the advantage of operating in a community that already technically exists. I find that story of the developer you recently hired really inspiring, because it's an opportunity for someone to take their passions into a professional setting.
Georgina: Absolutely. I think that's the beauty of Roblox, and these other platforms are looking to make development more accessible: it really lowers the barrier to entry for the industry, which has predominantly been quite hard to access. That's something we're really hoping to promote and play on in the future, so that we can bring in those amazing people who can't get access to the industry.
On Roblox as a Development Platform
What's the most important thing to get right when building on Roblox? What's the biggest challenge about developing a game on Roblox?
Mike: That's the doozy right there. I would say you got to think about the audience. You can't go in and just see something that works on another platform, try and import that in. I'm saying this from my perspective of someone who was starting out making games for the first time on Roblox last year. Just making sure that you really get to know Roblox players first, and respect what's already there and what's working. There's a reason why the games that are on there are successful. The ones at the top of the list aren't different games.
I think that if you didn't go in and take the time to understand how games work / what people like, then you would really struggle to succeed on the platform. It's also not as simple as just trying to clone that game. We’re almost seeing that as the hypercasual Roblox right now. It hasn't got too many deep game mechanics in it. As Roblox is trying to age up, their massive initiative that comes across in everything that they're trying to do at the moment. We're now positioning ourselves for how to make a game for the player that isn't necessarily there yet. We need to make a game that the current community will also really enjoy. We understand that the market is there for that game, but also are trying to layer in deeper mechanics and systems that can cater for a longer tail, and appeal to an older user. What has also been a challenge for us is someone hopping between multiple games. When they jump into our game, I don't want them to have to do a 15-minute handheld tutorial where they don't get access to anything and can't play with their friend. It's that balance of traditional game and openness.
Are you seeing that people in the Roblox platform are spending a lot of time in games? Or they have that behavior where they're just hopping in and out, depending on where their friends are going? What's your framework for thinking about this type of user versus when you were at King and that type of user?
Mike: On average, the play sessions are a decent length. It's pretty normal for 13-15 minute play sessions. People do have long sessions in your game. One thing is day one retention is lower than you would see for a top performing title on mobile. Fewer people will come back to our game straight away, because it's not for them. But once you get someone staying for day 3, day 5, day 7, you've also got them for day 30, day 60, day 90. That's one thing that we've noticed. I also think that the organic retention is that you have these friends that also exist outside of all of your games. Say, I've got 100 people on my friends list, and 99 of them are playing Ghostopia. Then I log in and I'm going to jump into Ghostopia because everyone's playing that game. There's definitely that, which is an interesting situation as well.
And people aren't just playing. They're alsi creating YouTube videos. It really is the new virtual playground. It’s interesting when we’re trying to develop for different types of people. Even small things like making sure we build a to turn off the UI is so important for a better content creation experience.
Advice, The Future of Games, & Looking Ahead
What advice do you have for people who are considering building on Roblox, who might want to get involved, or who maybe even want to re-create content for Roblox outside of the Roblox platform?
Mike: The first piece of advice I give is the obvious one, which is to do it: jump in the tools, get something out there, and publish it within two days. Just get it out there. Don't get stuck in a cycle of making a big production roadmap, and spend six months before you get your game out. Just get something playable and run around. Get your core loop in as soon as possible.
Georgina: The thing that we did when we were first starting out is reach out to the developers that are doing well. We learned so much, and they're so willing to give their time to answer questions because they love that platform. They're also protective about that platform, they want to make sure that anyone who’s coming on to the platform has its best interest at heart as well. Just reach out to them, get a call in, and pick their brains. They're the experts and we're their humble students. Community, community, community.
What’s it like building a company with your significant other?
Georgina: We'd be lying if we said we weren't apprehensive going into it about how it would affect our relationship outside of work, and how others would perceive it. We have actually worked together before. At Big Pixel we worked together, and a lot of people didn’t even realize that we were together. We see our relationship now as a major win, because it's not often that you get to build a company with someone that you trust, and are able to have those really difficult conversations, especially when times are really turbulent, and you're able to be really frank with the other person. We know at the end of the day that it comes from a place of kindness and wanting to better that other person.
I know that I don’t have that relationship even with my best friend to be able to be like, "Actually, what you said there wasn't cool,” and I mean that because obviously we care about each other. Being able to create a physical space between work and life has been really helpful.
And lastly, having clarity between our roles. CEO and COO, sometimes the responsibilities can get quite muddled, so being able to create that clarity and establish responsibilities and a hierarchy from the get-go. Even having one-to-ones, we thought, "We don't need to have one-to-ones with each other. We know what's going on.” But actually having professional one-to-ones is really important, to be able to treat each other like colleagues with professional goals rather than a couple trying to build a business.
Mike: I feel like it's next level communication. There's infinite trust. I know that I'm going to mess sometime. Gina's got my back. We can just make all those mistakes around each other, and just constantly communicate and talk about that. Say, we come out of a difficult meeting. We just go for a walk and we debrief because we enjoy spending time with each other, and we can just bash through those ideas. We’re still getting a lot done and working, but we spend that time together professionally, but also personally.
The other thing is about sharing the journey and the wins. There's something there that makes it extra sweet when you're really going after that same objective so hard together.
Onto our final two closing questions: What's the best advice you've ever received about building in the games industry?
Georgina: Always take the call. Even if you think you're too busy, make time for that call, because this industry is so well connected, you're always two steps removed from someone who you want to talk to. You never know what relationship you're going to build. Nine times out of ten that's led to another introduction, a really cool IP to talk to. I think it even led to us getting on to the Accelerator program at some point.
What's a bold prediction that you both may have about the games industry?
Georgina: It's a hope as well as a prediction. I believe that companies built around vision and values are far more likely to succeed than those built around a single game idea. We're on the cusp of welcoming a new generation into the workforce, and their ideals and values for the workplace are completely different. Those companies that don't invest in the time for well-being, diversity, inclusion, they're going to fall behind, and new companies are going to rise. That's what I predict is going to happen.
Mike: Mine came out from conversations recently about the Metaverse, and concepts of 2D user-generated content versus 3D UGC. It's really increased my awareness of how exciting the world can be in five or ten years' time, when these decentralized platforms that are potentially "metaverses" start to connect. Roblox and Crayta and more: as they connect together somehow, and also go beyond gaming. Everyone's going to have their own 3D presence as much as they have a 2D social media presence today. Companies currently have websites, but they're going to have a 3D expression of that in this metaverse space as well. That's my prediction for the next 10 years.
I so appreciate this conversation. Thank for coming on this show, Mike and Gina.