Made In Australia: SMG Studio

The first time I met Ash Ringrose was at the EB Games Expo in 2015. Not only was it the first gaming event we had attended as media, but it was also actually the first gaming event any of us attending had ever been to. Back in those formative days we hadn’t adopted a universal teal-coloured t-shirt, instead we had a range of coloured tee options and all four of us had a different colour on. Basically we looked like the Wiggles.

We were standing in line waiting to check out one of a number of upcoming AAA titles when a man wearing an Xbox shirt approached us.

“What’s with the different coloured t-shirts?”, he asked, noticing our media passes at the same time.

“We’re the Wiggles”, one of us quipped (I wish it was me). We shared a laugh and introduced ourselves, as did the man in green. His name was Ash Ringrose, founder of Aussie indie dev SMG Studio and creative agency Soap Creative – who were handling the social media accounts for Xbox ANZ at the time.

After a brief chat Ash turns to me and asks if we have a business card.

“Shit”, I thought to myself – I hadn’t even thought about getting some made. So I did what any normal person would do in this situation: I lied. After all, I didn’t want him to think I was a total nuff.

“I ordered some but they didn’t arrive in time sadly”, I replied.

“You need to have business cards”, Ringrose explained before our conversation wrapped up.

After that encounter I realised that even if we were just a drop in a large ocean, we were still in the ocean and needed people to remember us if we were going to make a larger splash. From that moment I have always made sure I have business cards on me at all times, I mean you never know who you’re going to run into.

Ash embracing his nerdiness (photo credit)

Anyway, I digress. Less about me and more about SMG.

Formally SMG Studio was founded on July 1, 2013. But like every other studio there are years of hard work that led to that moment.

For Ringrose, his journey began in 1998 when he started studying graphic design in North Sydney. During his studies between 1998 and 2000 he would work the graveyard shift at Kinkos on Friday and Saturday nights (10 pm to 7 am), it was during these barren hours that he learned the ins and outs of Flash – a program that would go on to be one of the reasons for SMG’s formation.

Although he studied graphic design, Ringrose says he was more of an ideas man than an artist. “I liked art, did art in high school, but realised in hindsight that I was more into ideas than fine art.”

“Lucky graphic design allowed me to flex that part of my brain more. I wasn’t the best at any one skill but I was able to think of interesting things.”

Flash creations would turn out to be Ringrose’s ticket out of Kinkos and into the world of design. His first job was with a company called Euro RSCG (now known as Havas Australia), where he made flash websites, banners and other stuff before moving onto Hyro to make more flash websites and games.

2002 would prove to be a landmark year for the Tasmanian-born/Gold Coast-raised Flash maestro, with Ringrose and Bradley Eldridge launching Soap Creative – a creative digital agency that would lay the foundations for SMG Studio.

“In 2002 I thought I just wanted to make Flash games full-time”, says Ringrose. “However, banner ads paid more than games did and were in much higher demand, so Soap became a production house for ad agencies and slowly built up a client base.”

Soap Creative would go on to become a household name in the marketing industry, winning the AdNews Digital Agency of the Year award four times and kickstarting the careers of many talented designers before merging with Isobar in 2018. While SMG Studio was well and truly hard at work in 2018, it was still a division of Soap Creative. So when the merger happened it was decided that Eldridge would move across to Isobar, and SMG Studio would become its own entity – with Ringrose as studio head.

Soap Creative merged with Isobar in 2018 (photo credit)

Before the merger, Soap Creative was no stranger to video games, with one of its high-profile clients being Xbox Australia and New Zealand, with Soap contracted to handle the gaming juggernaut’s social media accounts in the ANZ regions.

From the outside looking in you would think this would open some doors for the SMG team, however Ringrose reveals that Soap and SMG were kept pretty separate and that instead of helping only SMG prosper, he tried to create opportunities for other local devs as well.

The Mask of Kronjob

“Xbox in Australia is very supportive of indies – at PAX and EB Games Expo they really cared about showcasing indie talent”, states Ringrose.

Handling the account allowed Ringrose to rub shoulders with some big names when it comes to gaming journalism in Australia.

“I was lucky to work with Alanah Pearce (aka Charalanahzard) in some of her first Xbox gigs”, he states.

He namedrops other well-known industry journos and content creators such as Jackson Ryan (now at CNET) and YouTuber Domestic Mango – although I am sure when Ringrose looks back on this interview he’ll consider it another highlight.

“I think my gamedev knowledge and general love for gaming helped on that account a lot”, divulges Ringrose.

“I probably could have used the Xbox account to raise my own profile a bit more but I thought it was better to keep Kronjob as a mysterious figure.”

My role is weird; I wouldn’t describe it as glue, more like grease – I try to make everything smoother

When it comes to Ringrose’s role as studio head I ask him what that actually involves – is he on the frontline developing the titles? The glue that holds everything together? Or the guy that plays golf while everyone else is in the office?

“My role is weird; I wouldn’t describe it as glue, more like grease – I try to make everything smoother”, explains Ringrose.

“I do all the boring stuff – like plan ahead, thinking about what’s happening next week as well as next year. I also do the marketing and social stuff because I enjoy those elements.”

When it comes to games, Ringrose shares some childhood memories that he remembers fondly. “I remember borrowing a friend’s Game Boy once and getting excited to play it in bed with the lights off only to discover that it wasn’t backlit.”

He also recalls riding his pushbike to Video Ezy on Saturday mornings to rent the latest games knowing that he would have all Saturday and Sunday to play it before having to return it. Something that a lot of us older folk who remember the joys of renting video games can relate to.

Another one of Ringrose’s traditions growing up was to religiously read popular gaming magazines such as Hyper and Gamestar. He reveals that he used to enter the competitions in Gamestar and win something every issue.

“It got to the point that I would enter under fake names so I could enter twice”, Ringrose laughs. “I once won $15 for my review for Dune Battle of Arakis using a fake name. I had to explain at the bank why the name on the cheque didn’t match my own so they’d let me cash it.”

Although Ringrose was like most other kids and enjoyed playing and reading about games, he admits that he never thought developing games was a career you could have. It was one of those pipedreams that were considered farfetched by many, like being a rockstar or an astronaut.

SMG’s Sydney team enjoying a few team-bonding cones in January 2019

Fast-forward to the present day, and the 39-year old considers his greatest achievement the ability to make and talk about games all day, and one can hardly begrudge him given his first job was a ciggie butt collector at a caravan park earning one ice-cream for every paper bag he filled.

SMG Studio’s first release was OTTTD, an acronym for Over The Top Tower Defence, which is an isometric action-packed callout to Starship Troopers. It launched on iOS and Android on May 22, 2014, followed by Steam in August 2014, and then Switch earlier this year.

Since then SMG has launched a handful of mobile game experiences, such as One More Line, Super One More Jump and Thumb Drift, and while SMG’s roots are in mobile development, console and PC games may be the studio’s calling. Although Ringrose declares that he prefers having feet in both businesses.

“Right now I think we’re a better mobile developer than console – our ideas and team suit the smaller scope. But let’s see how Moving Out goes.”

Mobile gaming, much like gaming in general, isn’t without its stigmas, and one of those stigmas is microtransactions. The gamer rhetoric will have you believe that microtransactions are nothing more than a way for investors to shake a few extra dollars profits from the player.

Microtransactions have – for better or worse – become an accepted practice in modern gaming. But it’s the extent and the design of the systems around them that really draws the ire of gamers and critics. SMG is no different from any other developer, implementing microtransactions as a means to generate extra funds for the studio’s other projects and long-term future.

The SMG team circa 2015, courtsey of their Daily Telegraph spread

When asked about the contentious practice, Ringrose concedes that there is no one model that will make everyone happy. Instead the key is to ensure they’re not egregious enough to take the focus away from the game itself – a belief that SMG tries to preach.

“When it comes to microtransactions I will say that we’re not aggressive or evil enough to do REALLY well in that space”, proclaims the SMG studio head.

Despite not holding players to a king’s ransom and cashing in, the studio now has three separate arms: Sydney, Melbourne and Los Angeles.

However, Ringrose admits that having three offices was never part of some larger grand plan, instead it became more of a recruitment apparatus.

“The three offices came about because there are some really great people we want to hire but they are located outside of Sydney, so we can either not hire them or set up an office.”

“The LA office is a weird story in that the team there was part of my previous company’s LA office. Chris and David worked with me in Sydney back in 2006 and headed over there to be part of that team. That team helps out with the Sydney office projects while also getting their own pitches and prototypes together.”

As a founder I’ve learned that even my actions have implications. For example, I’ll either badly plan my own time or bite off too much and people see me staying back and think it’s expected

Los Angeles – the home of Kobe Bryant and one third of SMG Studios

Ringrose reveals that the team in Melbourne is focusing all of its energy on Moving Out. Which is no surprise given that it’s the biggest project the studio has worked on. I was lucky enough to head to the SMG Melbourne office a couple of months back to check out Moving Out with WellPlayed’s Assistant Editor Kieron Verbrugge, and I’ve got to say it’s shaping up to be a super fun co-op title.

As pointed out above, Moving Out isn’t the only project SMG has in the works, with the studio currently working on No Way Home for Apple Arcade and a RISK board game video game adaptation titled RISK: Global Domination.

Despite SMG’s ever-increasing success, including recently getting into bed with Team17, one thing that Ringrose has learnt since becoming a developer/studio head is that that he’s happy to keep creating smaller, indie projects.

“I never want to make a game the scale of a AAA blockbuster as my brain hurts just thinking about it”, he jokes.

“One of the other most important things I’ve learnt is that you can’t make everyone happy. Whether that is your team, fans or even yourself, you have to make the best decision you can make and stick with it.”

While they might be two of the biggest lessons Ringrose has learnt when it comes to running a studio, he says that keeping everyone updated and on the same page can be a challenge at times. Furthermore, ensuring that those who work at SMG are progressing in their careers. But perhaps the most important facet of all is, as Ringrose puts it, “Staying profitable.”

Ringrose even admits that there’s been a number of times where he thought the end might be nigh for SMG.

“It’s a hit-driven business. We have been lucky with a few of our titles – nothing big enough to coast on for years without stress though.”

Previously, like most indie devs in Australia, SMG has secured funding from various grants to keep the lights on, but thanks to a number of successful mobile titles and 2017’s console debut Death Squared, SMG is now fully self-sufficient financially. Although Ringrose acknowledges that any funding received helps them hire more talent.

“Games are tough, as you spend a lot of money to make money later. Without a war chest of savings or someone funding you that doesn’t last long.”

Which is why the Team17 partnership for Moving Out is a huge deal for SMG and Ringrose. Not only does it eliminate some of those financial worries, but it reinforces that the team is onto a good thing given that experienced publishers want to get behind it. Ringrose reveals that it was the game’s appearance on the Kinda Funny Showcase that caught the attention of Team17, and judging by the reception on social media, Team17 weren’t the only ones enthralled with the co-op removalist party game.

“It gave us confidence that people who helped Overcooked become a franchise also wanted to help us”, states Ringrose.

“We had some success with Death Squared and learned more about what we didn’t know than what we did. I want Moving Out to be the game that SMG is known for and Team17 felt like the best partner to help us do that.”

In regards to funding, Ringrose believes the Australian government should be allowing for better tax offsets or ways that studios can continue to prosper, as well as pay talent and hire juniors so they can grow.

“From an output standpoint Australia makes some really varied and great games”, says Ringrose.

“I think we all want to see larger studios that can foster more local talent. League of Geeks, Mighty Kingdom, and Playside all seem to be doing in that 30-60 people size, and it’s that size that allows different roles than in a five-person studio.”

Some of the faces that have graced SMG’s Melbourne office

Our conversation moves to industry practice, and it’s here I question Ringrose about crunch. Surprisingly the SMG studio head is candid about the contentious issue and doesn’t shy away from the fact that SMG isn’t immune to crunch.

“We are guilty of crunch like most studios, but when I read about some studios working 7 days and 10+ hours a day I don’t think we are ever that bad”, explains Ringrose.

“We’re better now and can still be better. Crunch is a failure on many levels from bad planning, bad time estimation to unexpected problems. We’ve asked people to stay back or work on a weekend occasionally and paid time in lieu.

“As a founder I’ve learned that even my actions have implications. For example, I’ll either badly plan my own time or bite off too much and people see me staying back and think it’s expected.

“For titles like RISK and our own IP we have more control over scope and releases. We have many times pushed back or descoped to relieve pressure.”

Ringrose admits that’s a double-edged sword at times, with decisions to crunch often coming down to simply not wanting to fall behind.

“It’s hard to tell people ‘that’s good enough move on’ and make them realise that it’s not because you don’t have artistic credibility.”

“I’m looking forward to Moving Out being a huge success so we can take as much time as we want for updates and sequels. Many problems are removed if you take away the financial pressures.”

SMG’s Thumb Drift team

I want Moving Out to be the game that SMG is known for and Team17 felt like the best partner to help us do that

One area that SMG hasn’t had any troubles succeeding is on social media. Perhaps it’s Ringrose’s marketing background, but SMG easily has one of the more active studio accounts on social media (Twitter especially), with the account always sharing sales data and tidbits of information. SMG will often reward people who have bought their games after a sale has finished, and it’s these gestures of goodwill that help the studio stand out in an oversaturated social media crowd.

“I treat that account (for better or worse) as my personal one”, explains Ringrose when discussing the studio’s Twitter account.

“The success we have had from Twitter would be that we’ve connected and collaborated with a bunch of people we would not have met any other way. I keep seeing amazing stuff and thinking ‘how can we collab with this person?’”

While Ringrose doesn’t believe that their Twitter or social media presence has helped boost sales in a meaningful way, he does acknowledge that its power comes from its ability to connect the studio with people.

Along the way there has been plenty of laughs and good times, and Ringrose shares a couple of the more memorable moments.

“We were in Indianapolis in 2018 for GenCon (showing RISK), and while we were at a restaurant out of town wearing Thumb Drift shirts a guy came over to say ‘I love that game’. That and seeing people play your own game on public transport is a trip!”

This next story is perhaps the most amazing, hilarious and epic anecdote I have ever been told. The only way to do it justice is to quote it verbatim.

“At my very first PAX, I attended (PAX West) when we had OTTTD in the Intel Level Up Showcase. I went to the Far Cry booth and they had an animal wrestling cage. I got dressed up like an eagle and wrestled some kid who was 19 but was doing clapping pushups in the ring. I ended up tearing a muscle in my shoulder and had to be wheeled out in a wheelchair. Six months of physio and it was back in shape.”

So when Ringrose isn’t wrestling 19-year olds dressed as an eagle he’s spending time with his two kids and wife, usually taking long walks on the beach… Although he admits that finding time to game is hard with a random YouTube video addiction, let alone two kids, he does acknowledge that mobile gaming allows him to pick and play in a way that console/PC gaming does not. Although the Nintendo Switch has alleviated this issue somewhat.

“Some games like Metal Gear V have over an hour-long intro, or feels like it, and that’s all the time I have in a day (or days) to play. I look back at the 100 hours I sank into Call of Duty: World at War and wonder how that was even possible.”

I’m guessing a similar face was made when Ringrose tore a muscle in his shoulder (photo credit)

I ask what games have made the biggest impression on the former paperboy (another one Ringrose’s previous gigs), like anyone there’s a number of big-name titles listed. Final Fantasy VII, Red Dead Redemption, Gears of War 2, Far Cry 3 and Trials HD are just some that are mentioned. More recently, games like What the Golf, Untitled Goose Game – a game which Ringrose’s kids love watching, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild have all been big hits in the Ringrose household.

“My eldest son would play ‘spotter’ for me, pointing out things for us to explore together. It was a magical gamer parent experience”, Ringrose beams.

“Breath of the Wild ruined other open-world games for me. I stopped playing Horizon Zero Dawn as playing BOTW felt like it respected my intelligence, whereas HZD told me the exact steps to go everywhere.”

Ringrose shares that he’d love to work on the Strike IP at some point in the future, conceding however that he’s probably on a long list of people who do.

But what lies ahead for SMG and Ringrose?

“2020 will either be our best year or not that great”, proclaims Ringrose.

“However it pans out I’m excited to see how fans react to No Way Home and Moving Out, and where those games will lead us.”

SMG is my biggest achievement – but then I think Soap was too. I’m just glad I can say I made a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of people through these companies over the last 17 years

Although Ringrose is a key cog in the SMG machine, he admits that SMG wouldn’t be where it is without the help and drive of a number of people, some of whom he considers some of his closest mates.

“I’m very lucky to have worked with some of the SMG team for over 10 years. Including two from LA, there’s 7 people at SMG I have worked with for over 10 years.  Which sounds weird as SMG is only 6 years old”, says Ringrose.

Pat Cook, Mark Fennell, Lee Richards, Robbie Spriggs and Brett Peacock all started at Soap Creative and are now an integral part of SMG’s operation. In fact Ringrose credits Pat Cook and Mark Fennell as the reason SMG even exists.

“We just wanted to make more games”, says Ringrose of SMG’s formative days.

“The projects Pat and Mark worked on while we were juggling Soap/client work were fun but took way too long as they were always secondary. We made so many games for Marvel Kids, Nat Geo, 20th Century Fox that we wanted to keep doing it. Without them SMG would not be here.”

Ringrose shares a story about when he and Lee Richards (SMG’s executive producer) travelled to America to pitch to Hasbro for the RISK licence – a huge moment for the studio (if you’ve ever seen SMG’s social feed you’ll know how big a RISK fan Ringrose is). The pair arrived in Boston at roughly 2 am, had a one-hour taxi ride to their hotel and minimal sleep before meeting with Hasbro at 10 am.

“Working with people that long allows you to build a trust and understanding how you work. But also lets them call you out on any BS too”, Ringrose explains.

But how easy it to be the boss when your mates are work colleagues?

“It’s definitely a weird feeling and it blurs the line of boss/friend/colleague”, Ringrose answers.

“It is good and bad but I couldn’t imagine working any other way though. I personally only just came to terms with the word ‘boss’ in the last few years.”

Attending board game night at the Ringrose’s is always a risk

While the studio may be in good hands, Ringrose confesses that there is no real plan for what happens next with SMG, due to an ever-changing market.

“We didn’t know about Apple Arcade two years ago and now bam, it’s a big part of 2019 and 2020 for us.”

Moving Out is clearly the studio’s focus, and while all the signs point to it being a hit with players, Ringrose admits that the studio needs to plan for it not being a success because anything can happen.

As far as what the long-term goals for SMG, Ringrose says it would be to “not try and get bigger” and to keep making fun titles the team enjoys working on and that they can be proud of.

“We’re not a studio that does 3+ years development well, so try to have a variety of projects and to take opportunities as they arise while being strategic about them.”

If there was one thing Ringrose wishes he’d done differently it’s capitalising on the success of One More Line and other hyper-casual games when they were fresh.

“That and have made Crossy Road”, laughs Ringrose.

Promo key art for SMG’s upcoming Apple Arcade game No Way Home

As we wrap up our chat, Ringrose circles back to an earlier question: what does he consider his biggest achievement?

“It’s a tough question to answer”, he says.

“SMG is my biggest achievement – but then I think Soap was too. I’m just glad I can say I made a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of people through these companies over the last 17 years.”

With Ringrose well and truly loosened up, it’s my chance to ask one question that has burned away inside of me for a number of years: what exactly does SMG stand for? I press Ringrose for an answer, but he refuses to indulge me – even off the record.

“We have a generator for what SMG means on our website”, he laughs. “Something like Six Million Gorillas is a favourite of mine. I prefer it to be ambiguous so it can adapt. Silly Mobile Games or Serious Monster Gatherings. It’s up to you, both work for us”. For what it’s worth, the name I generated was Sticky Misused Grandpas.

It’s this sort of creativity that has set SMG apart from a number of other studios in the industry, and it’s the type of creative talent that will continue to see SMG as one of Australia’s premier indie studios.

Co-Founder & Managing Editor of WellPlayed. Sometimes a musician, lover of bad video games and living proof that Australians drink Foster's. Coach of Supercoach powerhouse the BarnesStreet Bois. Carlton, Burnley FC & SJ Sharks fan Get around him on Twitter @xackclaret