In an Edina office complex, a small team of dedicated game makers is building an international audience where Big John Games president Ken Patterson has been developing games since 1991. He began by making PC games, but jumped to the Game Boy Advance when asked to create a version of the 1987 NES classic Shadowgate for the handheld system. This meant that he was now a Nintendo developer–a distinction that lasts a lifetime.
Formerly Digital Content LLC, Ken renamed the company in honor of his father, Big John Patterson. The two had worked together since the mid 1990s, but when Big John suffered a heart attack in 2003, they made the name change.
For 27 years, Big John Games focused on design and development for large entertainment companies. They put out games like Nightmare Ned for Disney and City Builder 3D for train giant Lionel. They have evolved over time, focusing now on creating and publishing their own projects.
Patterson points out the risks and rewards of developing for others versus self publishing. “Development for others would have its own profit margins built into the work. Publishing your own project means you are expending capital with no revenue coming in until the product reaches the market.”
The developer points out the importance of watching game genres cycle. “Platforming games were dead 10 years ago, but now they’ve come back strong. Adventure games were dead and they’re starting to come back this year.” His team keeps a careful watch on industry history to spot consumer trends before the competition.
Their first big hit came in 2008 with Thorium Wars for the Nintendo DS. Big John Games gathered data from the success of the shooter only to find that their assumptions about the marketplace were wrong. Consumer tastes are always changing, so they now create a wide variety of experiences for their customers.
Because they’re a Nintendo developer, they can’t share specific sales figures. However, Patterson did share that they’ve sold more than one million units over the past 8 years, half of which occurred since 2015. Their sales curve is looking strong as the games industry continues to evolve.
Patterson’s latest project is Cube Creator DX, a major update to Cube Creator 3D. They gathered data from review sites, Miiverse, and customer contacts to plan new features. The game has a following in the US, but it’s made a bigger splash in Japan. Cube Creator 3D is currently Japan’s 6th most downloaded 3DS game of all time. The open-world adventure game has surpassed first-party competitors like Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS. Players build worlds with millions of cubes, battle monsters, and share their creations with friends.
When asked what Big John’s biggest success is, Patterson points to Disney’s Print Studio. After designing and developing studios for The Lion King, Mickey and Crew, and 101 Dalmatians, Disney purchased the rights, continuing the line and selling millions of units. He names OhNo Odyssey as the company’s biggest failure. Despite favorable reviews, the 2013 puzzle game never quite found its audience.
The Big John Games president sees potential in the Minnesota game scene. “There are some really talented industry people here in Minnesota. They are doing great things without much support.” He points to schools that produce great artists and coders. His fear is that, without a more robust investment in games, they’ll look elsewhere to launch their careers.
One of Ken Patterson’s biggest goals is to be a Minnesota game company that contributes to the state economy. For that reason, the team listens to what players want. “We’ll have kids actually call the studio. There’s one kid that’ll call maybe once or twice a month,” says producer Tony Williams.
After 27 years in the industry, Ken Patterson sees himself making games until he can no longer do it.
“Creating games is a creative outlet I really enjoy and get a lot of satisfaction from.”