Helen Twose 's Opinion

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Success: Game to make a career change

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A childhood love of playing spacies has turned into an adult business venture

Maru Nihoniho wants to develop her own projects as well as doing contract work. Photo / Richard Robinson
Maru Nihoniho wants to develop her own projects as well as doing contract work. Photo / Richard Robinson

As a kid, Maru Nihoniho wagged high school in favour of spacies machine classics Ghosts 'n Goblins, Defender and Space Invaders.

"I remember playing games and in the back of my mind I used to think: how did they make that game?"

Fast forward a decade or so and Nihoniho, by now the mother of small children, was looking for a career change from hospitality.

She'd always been creative and considered retraining as an architect, but her curiosity about game development won out.

A year studying the basics of video and sound editing, 2D and 3D animation and website design at Natcoll, now Yoobee School of Design, combined with business nous from running cafes saw Nihoniho, 40, establish Metia Interactive in 2003.

"I was confident enough to run a business; I just had to learn how to run a game development business."

The "Metia" branding is based on the Maori phrase for "I'm going to do it". "Doing it" meant spending several years getting her foot in the door of an international industry, which back then was dominated by game publishing giants supplying Nintendo, PlayStation and Xbox.

"After two years I was getting a little bit tired and money was running out pretty fast, but I believed in it."

The game she believed in was Cube, a 3D puzzle maze created for the PlayStation Portable.

Finally a publisher not only said "yes" it liked the game, but actually followed through with a contract. " . There was credibility there."

Those who got in touch included researchers from the University of Auckland interested in developing a game to help teenagers self-treat depression.

"I was a little bit nervous because it was touching on a serious topic of depression and my knowledge of depression is limited."

Based on cognitive behaviour therapies used by counsellors, the fantasy game Sparx which she helped create has research that backs its effectiveness in treating depression, and scooped several international awards to boot.

It has also been a game-changer for Nihoniho and her four permanent staff. She says the original business plan was to focus on creating her own commercial games, but since Sparx she has seen a different side to gaming in which video games have therapeutic or health benefits.

It's a direction she says games will take in the future, with more learning done through gaming or interactive engagement.

"I would like to be known for developing meaningful games."

Metia Interactive has since worked for supplements company Comvita to create an online game linked to a Fitbit pedometer, translated a board game into an iPad version, and pulled together a team of volunteers to build a demo game concept for a young leukaemia patient at the request of the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

She is now working on an online version of Sparx, which is only available on CD-ROM, a mobile iOS and Android version of Cube, as well as developing an original concept featuring a Maori warrior woman called The Guardian, and Rolling Red Knuckles based on tough girl characters created by the late comic artist Martin Emond.

"I don't want to fully rely just on making our own IP and I don't want to rely just on contract work. For the past few years it's been a fine balance between the both of them."

It's meant little time for the epic games she enjoys. Instead she's hooked on short, Facebook-based "pick up and play" games like Bejeweled Blitz and Candy Crush. It's pure research as Nihoniho looks for nifty ideas and business models that can bring an edge to her future games.

- NZ Herald

Helen Twose

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Helen Twose is a freelance business journalist who writes regularly about KiwiSaver and entrepreneurial companies. She has written for the Business Herald since 2006, covering the telecommunications sector, but has more recently focused on personal finance and profiling successful businesses.

Read more by Helen Twose

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