By the time you read this, Team Cooper will be dead.
Well, not dead, that’s a bit dark. Re-generated perhaps? Or re-skinned. Yeah, that’s probably the best word for it. Because, as you can see, we’ve got a new website and a new name!
“But why!?” I hear you cry, “Why on earth do these digital companies insist on changing their names?”
Well, I can’t speak for others, but for us the answer is… Well, it’s complicated. Let me try to explain with some backstory…
In the beginning
Back in 2006, when Team Cooper first came to be, there wasn’t really a plan for what the company was or what it would do. I was a freelance Flash developer at the time and needed to form a limited company to work though. All I really knew was that (one day) I’d like to be making games on a full-time basis. My lovely wife Emma was also considering going freelance back then and so when it came to thinking of a company name, “Team Cooper” seemed like a suitable description for a company that would probably just be Emma and I.
I must confess, I was never really comfortable with that name. I figured I’d change it once we thought of something better, but it never quite felt like the right time. Then we grew, got some regular clients, started to gain a bit of a reputation and it began to feel like madness to change it.
Ups and downs
Over the following seven years the business slowly grew. I hired my first employee in 2008 and Emma began working with us full time in 2009 after our daughter was born. Team Cooper transformed from being just me making Flash banners for agencies, to a team of eight (plus freelancers) building bespoke Flash games for direct clients like the BBC, Nickelodeon and Sky. We even got a BAFTA nomination for one of our games, and projects we worked on for other agencies got nominated for (or won) BAFTAs too. We were doing work we enjoyed with clients we liked working with and most of the time; it was a lot of fun.
But while on the outside it might have looked like we were an up-and-coming interactive agency, the reality was we didn’t really know what we were doing. Sure, we knew how to make browser games, but did we have a long term business plan? No. Did we have a proper marketing strategy? Not really. Were we even making a healthy profit? No, we were not.
We carried on though, happy to let people believe what they wanted to about how “successful” we were. Right up until the market shifted, delivering a proverbial kick in the balls to the business.
The rise of mobile and social media combined with the demise of Flash, meant that many of our clients had less budget to devote to games in their marketing. And those that did needed to ensure they worked on mobile devices as well as desktop. This was no small feat in the early days of HTML5, so many of them decided to hold off on browser games altogether until the technology improved.
So, like many other interactive agencies at the time, we simply couldn’t continue as we were. We’d run out of chances to figure things out and in March 2014, Team Cooper Ltd went into administration.
It was the most emotional, painful, soul crushing and embarrassing experience of my career. The worst part being that I had to make the whole team redundant knowing it was all my own stupid fault. Em and I found ourselves with two kids to feed and a mortgage to pay with no business, no jobs and a huge pile of debt. It was shit.
Thankfully, Emma and the rest of the team found work pretty quickly but I wasn’t really sure what to do with myself. As it happened there was still work for clients to be done, and as tough as it had been for us, I didn’t want to let them down as well. So we came to an arrangement with the administrators to keep trading under the Team Cooper name and a few of us continued on.
Over the next year or two, I spent a lot of time thinking about what went wrong. Could we have avoided it? Perhaps. Should we have built a business around more than just building games? Maybe. Am I just a business twit? Probably.
I also read a lot of books. Some to help deal with my head, some to help understand where we went wrong, but largely I spent time researching and reading about marketing best practice. Specifically I was interested in how and where games can fit in with a marketing strategy.
Some life lessons
So why am I telling you all this? Well, partly I think because I wanted to get it off my chest. But also because this whole experience has lead me to accept a few truths about games and marketing that have helped shape what we’ve become and where we’re headed in future.
Making games is hard. Providing value is harder.
One of the toughest things about making games is you can throw your heart and soul into a project only to realise that nobody gets it. Do you go back to the drawing board and build it again? Or do you just have to ship it because you’re out of budget and need to move onto the next project?
Brands want games, and they can’t spend the earth. But it’s a big ask trying to build something bespoke, that’s actually good, on a limited budget. This is partly why advergames sometimes have a bad rep. I don’t believe any game developer worth their salt intends to make a bad game, they just ran out of budget on the way to a good one.
This always frustrated me. Having to balance the quality of the games with ensuring our business made enough profit to be sustainable. As Team Cooper, we always tried to make the games as good as they could be (budgets be damned!), which was fine so long as we kept winning new work. Ultimately we didn’t though, so it wasn’t.
Post reboot it got me thinking, is it even possible to make good games for clients when they have tight budgets? Providing value without compromising on quality and remaining a viable business in the process?
Marketing is important. So are marketing budgets.
I would bet that most people (except marketeers) don’t realise how important marketing really is (I certainly didn’t). They’d probably describe it as a necessary evil, which is really unfair in my opinion. Without it, companies can’t grow so they can’t hire people. Less people have jobs which, of course, means less money moving through the economy.
Really, marketing is about making people’s lives easier, better or more fun. It’s about figuring out who your audience are, creating something of value for them, then building a positive relationship with them until they choose to buy from you. This is doubly relevant to us because it means we need to make great games for our clients so they can build positive relationships with their audience. If we can do that in a cost-effective way, that’s incredibly valuable to them.
Games don’t suit everybody. Honesty is essential.
It perhaps goes without saying that a game isn’t right for every brand, but sometimes a brand (or the culture of that brand) might not be right for us.
Too many times in the past we chased after projects which I knew were a bad idea from the start. Either the project in question sounded like a terrible idea, or the people we were pitching to were arseholes. We carried on anyway, because we needed to keep that revenue coming in. Ultimately they never ended up being projects I was proud to say I was involved in.
I’ve realised it’s quite important (for me at least) to feel proud of what we produce and the service we offer. Saying no to a project or budget that doesn’t work for us was hard to do to begin with, but actually it’s been quite liberating. Sure it’s meant we lost out on some projects we might otherwise have won, but it’s meant we’ve delivered work that we were proud of and was right for the client, which has only resulted in smiling faces all round.
The business we’ve become
For the past few years we’ve been changing how we operate. Instead of building bespoke games for clients, we’ve transitioned to providing a white label game service.
It’s meant that we can provide games to clients at a budget that suits them, while making sense business-wise for us. It also means we’ve been able to continuously refine and improve the games that we have, making them better to play but also making them work harder as a marketing tool. They’re games we’re proud of.
Each of those games have been specifically designed for re-branding with marketing campaigns in mind. They each represent 100s of hours’ worth of design and development time and through our new off-the-shelf Piknik service can be delivered for under £1,000. I don’t feel I’m exaggerating when I say that’s incredible value for money.
We haven’t completely ruled out doing bespoke games again, but generally if we can’t make use of one of our existing game engines, we know the project probably isn’t going to work for us, or the client for that matter.
I’m really proud of the service we’ve built to date, but there’s still a long way to go. Refining existing games will only go so far, so we’re building new engines to entertain audiences and new technical functionality to benefit the brands themselves. We’re looking at our production processes to see what can be streamlined and we’re always thinking about marketing. Not just our own, but how our games fit in to the marketing efforts of our clients.
Before the reboot, I felt like we sat in-between two industries. We made games, but we weren’t really a games company; we delivered digital marketing for clients, but we weren’t really a digital marketing agency.
I’ve realised recently, that isn’t true. Or at least, it’s not true anymore. I’ve realised that we’re both those things. We are a games studio and we are a digital marketing agency.
Though we’re not aiming to compete with the best games companies, nor are we aiming to out-manoeuvre the best digital agencies. We’re aiming to provide the best value, results-focussed branded games to our clients.
So, today the company is a very different beast to what it was five years ago. We have a different team and a different business model and it feels like we’ve left behind what was the old Team Cooper. For the past few years, still referring to ourselves as Team Cooper just hasn’t sat well with me, a bit like outgrowing an old jacket. I still have fond memories of what once was, but given the changes we’ve been through, it feels like the right time for that new name.
Yeah but, why “Peek & Poke”?
I’m glad you asked. Any fellow nerdlings reading this may have already figured out where the name comes from, but for the benefit of you normos, let’s jump further back in time shall we?
Like many of my peers, my first introduction to programming was back in the 80s on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. I first started playing around with a 48K machine, but I got a +2 for my birthday and spent many hours on it playing (and making) games.
It’s a little known fact that some of the games on the Spectrum were hard. In fact, some were punishingly difficult, if not impossible, to complete. There were no “casual” games back then. Because of this, games magazines from time to time would publish cheat codes. Sometimes these were hidden key combos or passwords to unlock infinite lives or something. But other times it required literally rewriting the game’s code, changing the memory values directly to make the games easier. There were two commands for doing this, PEEK for reading the values and POKE for writing them.
So given the influence that the Spectrum ultimately had on my life and career, it felt like a good candidate as a name for the company.
Secondly, I feel the name has a double meaning, in that it’s a sort of metaphor for what we do. With our games being visual, branded experiences, we peek at them. And with those games generally being delivered on mobile or for touch screens, we poke at them.
Finally, it sounds a bit cheeky doesn’t it? Maybe even a bit naughty? And who doesn’t like a bit of innuendo, eh? Weirdos, that’s who!
I’ll get my coat.