A supportive mother and a natural curiosity about how computer games work, has taken Maru Nihoniho on a remarkable business journey. Now after 14 years she feels she’s in start-up mode again.
Maru Nihoniho has just moved her team into the spanking new GridAKL building in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter and she’s buzzing. Metia Interactive almost has a whole floor to themselves, but Maru knows that will change as other tech start-ups begin to move in.
The 44-year-old, of Te Whanau a Apanui, Ngati Porou and Ngai Tahu descent, is one of New Zealand’s few female tech entrepreneurs. Fourteen years ago when she first started out in the computer gaming industry, they were practically unheard of.
But there’s change happening on that front too.
Maru’s performance at school, initially in Christchurch, later at Wellington’s Taita College, categorised her as least likely to succeed at anything technical, because although she enjoyed science and tech drawing, her exam results didn’t reflect that interest.
She dropped out of school and worked at an op shop, with no idea what she would do long-term.
But unbeknown to her, Maru’s future was already being played out.
Her love for computers and gaming was undeniable. Drawing a bee on an ancient pre-Windows computer one day, using just commands, was where it all began.
“I also enjoyed playing ‘the spacies’ at the local takeaway shop on Friday nights,” she remembers, and she was an expert at it.
“Mum would give me a couple of dollars to buy fish ‘n chips and I’d always make sure I had change, even if that meant going without fish!”
Maru was curious to know how spacies games were built, and that curiosity stuck.
“Over the years, after getting my first Sega console [in 1990] and graduating to PlayStation, I kept wondering how those games were made.”
Her supportive mother encouraged that curiosity and creativity. Whenever there was a greeting card or birthday gift required, Maru was encouraged to make it herself, much to her embarrassment.
That DIY streak still exists today.
An idea is born
One day, not long after her first child was born, Maru was playing Tomb Raider with her niece – baby in one hand, controller in the other – when her niece casually remarked, “Wouldn’t it be cool if Lara Croft was a Ma¯ori character?”
The seed for a game idea had been sown. Maru announced to her Turkish-born husband Samim that she was going to build computer games.
The big overseas gaming fairs gathered the world’s developers and publishers under one roof, so Maru made those her first step – E3 in Los Angeles, GDC in San Francisco – feeling very much like a fish out of water.
“It was exciting, but scary,” she recalls. “I quickly learnt that nobody talks to you unless you have a game or at least a prototype.”
All she had was an idea – her female character Maia in an action adventure game called Guardian. “Maia means courageous, risk-taker, which was kind of like me at the time.”
She discovered character animation was expensive. Time to pivot – to scale back.
As luck would have it, Maru entered an Auckland Council ideas competition for the creative industry. While writing a business plan for her entry, she began doodling patterns of cubes and squares, with 3D characters, on her writing pad. Those doodles provided the genesis for her prototype game – a simple puzzle-game called Cube for the PSP platform.
She dipped heavily into her savings, plus her mum’s savings, and hired two programmers to build a first-level prototype.
Eight weeks later, mission accomplished. But what followed was further frustration: empty promises from publishers; the extremely difficult process of securing approval from Sony; and even after securing her Sony developers license, still finding the doors were shut.
The credit card was maxed out, Samim was working night-shifts, the children were missing their mum.
In 2005 Maru decided to make her next overseas trip her last throw of the dice.
But this time she went to the Melbourne Games Conference in Australia, with funding assistance from NZTE.
After two gruelling days, and no bites, it was the very last publisher visiting her booth who showed genuine interest. He was initially attracted by Maru’s Kiwi accent; her gender, connections and capability.
A contract arrived in her inbox. Maru couldn’t believe it. In a male-dominated industry, she finally had a breakthrough.
“I’ve never crunched numbers so fast in my life!”
In 2007 Cube was published worldwide. It didn’t make her much money, but it did make other publishers take notice.
Since Cube, the focus has been on fun, immersive games with a learning objective, such as Ma¯ori Pa Wars.
“Takaro, our latest game, aims to encourage rangitahi (young people) into the digital workforce,” explains Maru. It gives them a tool to use ‘code-block’ in the gaming environment to control what’s going on. If they can master that, they can open up career possibilities in the robotics industry.
Maru is serious about addressing the fact that only one percent of Ma¯ori tertiary students are studying technology – and just 2.5 percent of the total Maori workforce work in technology.
If she can get just one out of a hundred rangitahi interested through Takaro, she’ll be happy.
Encouraging young Ma¯ori into technology businesses will also directly benefit the Ma¯ori Economy, and New Zealand’s overall economy, she believes.
Today, Metia Interactive is producing Guardian – now in the form of an interactive fiction novel for mobile devices, and with support from the NZ Film Commission.
Maia and her friends are finally going global. The technology has finally caught up with the original idea.
Looking back, Maru’s glad she was somewhat naïve at the beginning of her journey. “If I knew how hard it would be [to be taken seriously by a publisher], maybe I wouldn’t have even tried.
“I just thought ‘I have this great idea, I can make it happen’.”
The fact that she never gave up on her dream is testimony to her dogged determination over all those years.
Ironically, Metia Interactive is again at the cross-roads – between developing meaningful games like Takaro, Ma¯ori-themed fun games such as Guardian, or a mixture of both.
And as if her life isn’t busy enough, Maru is studying for her Masters in Technology Futures at Unitec’s Tech Futures Lab – which will lead to a future of not just making games, but also analysing data.
Once again she finds herself looking for funding, and pondering her direction.
After 14 years it feels like start-up mode all over again.
“Only this time I have a bit of ‘oomph’ behind me!”
Maru’s tips for tech start-ups:
• Get to where the action is – such as trade shows and developer shows.
• Lean on your whanau or family for support.
• Be yourself and 100 percent confident of your idea/concept – and be prepared for the hard questions.
• Never give up until you absolutely have to.
• Be adaptable to change and prepared to pivot if necessary.