It’s quite possible to create a game and successfully bring it to market independently, but it’s a tough road to travel. More often than not, the projects that reach the top of the rankings are developed with the help of a publisher. The Inlingo team talked to James Schall, Director of Publishing at Secret Mode. We explored the fate of hard copies of games in a digital world, what trends to expect in the game industry in the near future, and how publishers choose the projects that will go on to rapidly dominate the market.
“Behind the scenes in the game shop, it’s a really messy, terrible place”
— You began as a sales assistant in a Virgin Games store, then went to Amazon, and then worked for a long time at Sega. When did you become interested in the games industry, and how did you end up in game dev?
— I remember the very early memory of playing Pong at home and having it on television. And then my dad got me a Spectrum 48k for Christmas with Atic Atac, which became a very dear game for me. Video games were my thing and it was kind of a hobby. I would often go into an arcade and just wander around looking at all the cabinets and the art, the noises. And game shops were really a thing for me where I’d go in and look at all the box art and logos, all that fascinated me.
I tried to program, but I wasn’t any good at programming. I could probably make my name go on the screen and rotate it a little bit, but that was about it. I had no idea that you could ever do anything with video games in terms of a career. So, I went off on a different path, which was at college doing a course in Marine Biology. And one of the jobs I wanted was to go and photograph whales in the Antarctic. That was super interesting for me but then I started talking to organizations about going ahead and doing that.It would have cost me thousands. It’s not a job that you earn money from, it’s a job you raise money to go and do. I thought, “well that doesn’t really work.” And there was nothing else I could really do at college so I had no idea what to do next!
— And then you got back into video games?
— I wandered through the streets of my hometown in Oxford,” I walked past a games shop, Virgin Games Center, and they had a piece of paper on the window advertising a “Saturday Job”. I went in and introduced myself and the guy was like, “Look, I just employed someone, but he hasn’t turned up. Do you want an interview now?” I hadn’t prepared a CV or anything, but I agreed.
It is one of those lucky things that just happen in life. I was at fist really surprised that behind the scenes a game shop is a really messy, chaotic place. We sat in his little office and spoke about “Kick Off 2” on the Amiga for about an hour and then about football because he was a big football fan; he was a big Arsenal fan, I am a big Oxford United fan. From there that was it: I was then earning money from video games.
My day would involve keeping the store clean but more importantly talking to customers.. Someone would come into the store and say “Hey I really like this game ‘Streets of Rage’ on the Megadrive, what else is there?” You’d be able to say, “Oh, there’s ‘Final Fight’ or ‘Double Dragon’ or have you tried this new ‘Street Fighter’ thing?”
It became very easy for me to convince people to buy video games, because I kind of knew about video games, this was my skill, this was my calling! And as I’ve worked through in my career, I began to understand how games sell, why people like them, why people don’t like them, why games fail, why companies fail, why things don’t work. Everywhere I’ve been, be it Amazon, be it Sega, I’ve always maintained this closeness with the consumer, and you have to. You can’t lose sight of the customer and the player. It is something that got me going from day one. And I still know the store manager to this day. He’s someone I’ve kept in touch with as my first manager in the games industry.
— What experience did you get working for major companies like Amazon and Sega?
— Amazon has kind of an efficiency about how you communicate. And spending a lot of time on actually finishing a task. So, it’s very important to finish a good idea, as opposed to constantly talking about things. Never being afraid of challenging the norm is something I found at Amazon as well. It’s always about challenging the norm. Whether people at Amazon found that a useful skill is for them to argue.
I was at Sega during the era when the company stopped positioning itself as a console-only platform. And we found a lot of success on various platforms there, but it wasn’t something that strategically we went out to do. Then Sega transformed itself from a physical publisher into a digital publisher. Digital sales were getting stronger, so the team I was building focused on those digital stores.
I’ve learned so much more about the games industry as a whole to make, I would say, better informed decisions. I’ve understood where my gut instinct comes from and was able to really factor in how one’s mind is making these decisions along with data and other people’s opinions.
— At Sega you were Vice President for Digital Distribution. How do you see the future for classic physical copies, bearing in mind that sales of digital products continue to gain momentum?
— It’s going to be down to the strength of the retailers, and discoverability, and how things are sold, and what the value of that is. Because you could do a deal that puts 50,000 games in a supermarket, but then how much do you have to spend to sell those 50,000 copies? How many copies are gonna potentially sit there at the supermarkets collecting dust? How easy is it to get a reproduction run if they sell out, you know?
Sadly, in our industry of video games there is no real long term strength in physical retail anymore. It’s really moving away from shops and retailers to platforms, be it Steam, be it Humble Bundle, be it EGS, Xbox, Playstation, Nintendo, Google, or Amazon. These are now the sales platforms where you’re looking at different ways for your opportunities and your content.
Within Secret Mode, the publishing group that I’m running now, I don’t think we’ll have physical versions of many games. We’ll have collector’s editions, and I think that’s interesting. It’s like the music industry, right? Your twelve inch records have come back into fashion because they’re collectable and people like them. In games we have Limited Run and ideas such as The Evercade, which is a really nice little console which has got a physical view existence, but it’s more of a retro limited run for people who want to see and play in that way.
— Would you say that physical copies are just for collectors now?
— There’s still an audience out there globally who want access to video games, and want to be able to get them either cheaply or in a more efficient way than they can get a hold of them digitally. And that loop has to be connected up.
In the big markets like France, the UK, Germany, and the US there are still physical versions out there, but they’re predominantly for consoles that still have strength in physical, like the Switch. Some of the bigger publishers are not removing themselves from physical, it’s far too early to stop that yet.
“When we dictate to players that they’ve got to go to your store to buy your game, we’ve lost.”
— If everything is moving towards the predominance of digital distribution, could you explain some of the cons of that format for developers?
— There are cons, and I would say the big one is discoverability. Back in, let’s say, the mid-90s, games wouldn’t stay on shelves very long. They would probably have four to six weeks’ life cycle before they would be returned. And each game store could only carry about 600 games. So, the choice for the customer wasn’t so big, but they could certainly spend an hour in the game store finding the game that they wanted.
There are probably more games released daily on Steam now than there were released in one week with all formats back in the 90s. So, there’s a lot more noise that gets in the way of making your game visible. You constantly think about tools that would help the game to get noticed.
— What about the pros?
— Although there’s so much choice, the game you brought out in 2014 might make more money now than in 2014. Because it’s not old. It’s still there, it’s relevant, people are playing it. We generally don’t have the big popularity spikes although some games still have the eagerness around a release date. There’s still players who are going to wait because they want to see what the reviews are like or may want to see some DLCs, or what the content is like long-term.
So, people make different choices and it’s down to different resources. Money isn’t the only resource that’s important, there’s also time. How much time do our customers and players have for playing all these games? Do we need to look at that when constantly throwing 80-90 plus hour games onto people? I don’t have that time as a gamer anymore.
I certainly have this sense of oh, I really wanna play this but should I because I can’t complete it. And there are a lot of players who like playing expansive RPGs over hundreds and hundreds of hours. I myself have sunk thousands of hours into things like Football Manager, and PUBG, and Total War across the years. You don’t really realize the time you’ve spent in them because it’s not a specific story. But the time resource is just as important as money on that front.
— How true is it that when you buy a digital copy of a game on Steam or another store, you don’t become the owner of the game, you just get the right to use it?
— So the whole ownership and digital rights thing, I get it, the fact that I’ve got a box in my hand which I own, right? I’ve got many games upstairs in my kind of little shrine that I’ve got and I own. However, I don’t know if they work. Does my Commodore still work? [A home computer launched in 1982 — Ed.]
It’s the same thing with movies. We’re moving from, “Do I want to have access to the 400 DVDs I used to own?” Or do I just want to look at the maybe 30 films that are on Netflix? Or a hundred films that are on Amazon? Or whatever my local TV provider’s showing? But they might not be the particular film that I might want to watch at that particular moment in time.
As industries move forward we need to get much better in terms of content. And this is the point around digital rights. You’ve purchased the rights for that piece of content and it’s going to take something very weird for that to be removed from you. I can’t think of a single instance of a game being removed from Steam or any of the platforms where someone has actively owned it.
— I’m not sure if this is a good example, and I’m not sure if it still holds, but I was trying to find Need for Speed: ProStreet in digital format, and it wasn’t anywhere. Does that mean the only way to buy it legally is to find a physical copy?
— But then there’ll be a reason why that game’s not available. They’ve not just made it not available because they want to be mean. It’s probably not available because, for example, there may be some licensing within the game for music. So, one of the things you would get as a publisher is we published this game ten years ago and the rights for the music have expired. Do we want to keep this game available for sale? Because if we do, we need to pay a thousand dollars to the artist. And if you look at the sales, we haven’t sold more than ten copies of this game in two years. So we can’t do that, the game is going to have to be removed.
And there may be other things like the game may have been coded in Windows Vista, and it’s got a technical issue which means it now doesn’t launch on modern PCs. So, we can’t keep it up for sale, because there’s going to be a bunch of people who will buy it and not be able to use it. I think every publisher is allowing their games to be made available where it’s possible. There’s a whole load of work that needs to be done to take an old game—even a game that’s ten years old—and put it on Steam, or GoG, or whatever.
It’s not like going, “Here’s the game code, off you go and buy it.” There’s a whole bunch of work that needs to be done, so not only does it take time for these developers to work on that, but also to figure out who owns the rights to this game, who’s the IP holder—there’s all these questions that make up the viability of just making games exist. Now, the copy of Need for Speed that you found physically was made five years ago. So, it was paid for, the money was done, it exists, it is out there. Whereas, what you’re looking at now with the digital version is something that’s pretty much up-to-date.
— What’s your opinion on region locks? For example, someone buys a game in Russia and then can’t launch it in America, because the game’s cheaper for Russian users. Is that fair?
— Region locks is a conversation that needs to go on. As we’re working in a global marketplace, you have to kind of understand, why should Russian customers buy cheaper than someone in Czechia, Slovakia, or Poland? Why should Turkey be priced differently? And you certainly can’t charge different prices within Europe. So should there be one price for everybody, or should we try and adjust it?
But then there have to be restrictions because the businesses around the edges utilize some of those currency exchanges. It’s like if you didn’t have a region key, for Russia for example, I would imagine the Russian price would be much higher. You could have a global key, a global price, say it’s $10 everywhere. And then what happens in two days’ time when the Argentine Peso jumps up, and it’s now $20 in Argentina? And then let’s say the Swiss Franc tumbles, and it’s now only $5 in Switzerland. It can be a really confusing, complicated mess.
And I do understand that there are individuals who want to buy a game in their country and get on a plane and play it when they arrive at the other end. Those individuals kind of fall outside of the norm and what digital rights were made for. I know a lot of people want to play with VPNs and use VPNs when it comes to Netflix, because they want a different range of content. But it doesn’t go to the reason why Netflix has had to do a region lock. It’s not because they don’t want somebody to get the content. It’s because there’s a financial and legal reason why they can’t. I’m absolutely convinced that content providers want to give users as much content as they possibly can. But the point about the rights issue is it can be seen as negative, and you can get a lot of negative sentiment around it.
— More and more companies are trying to open their own stores. In recent years we’ve had Origin, then Uplay [Ubisoft Connect since October 2020 — Ed.], and finally Epic Games Store. What’s the reason for this trend? And how will it affect players and developers in the future?
— If you look at how cinema transitioned to television, then transitioned to video rental, then transitioned to buy-to-own, then DVD, then download, all of these transitions have been done because we’ve made the journey for the user, the player, the viewer more efficient and better.
Why are stores appearing and why is everybody trying to get their own piece? It’s because they’re not getting great discoverability, or they want a bigger share than everybody else. Game developers and publishers don’t feel their games are getting as much exposure as everybody else. So, you go ahead and create your own store. But why does the player need to come to you?
I don’t think players will choose to buy a game from one retailer over another because they think the developer is making more money from it. While these stores are all good for their individual owners and good for the games, they should be good for the players as well. Steam, the Playstation store, Switch, Games Pass—these are now really good, efficient, and popular stores. I’ve seen over the last fifteen years, people say to me, “Yeah we’re setting up a new company, and we’re going to be the new Steam.” Great, what makes you different?
Steam is huge. They’ve got amazing customers, amazing technology. I’m sure lots of people think Steam could do things better or differently, but that’s not a reason to choose. It’s those companies that have tried to do something for the benefit of the players who usually succeed. There is a drive to do all these things: you want to control your market, you want to talk to the customers directly. But what does the player want? We want to make more money, so please come buy it from here, or do we want this journey to be different?
It’s for the player to choose. We have to give them a choice. When we dictate to players that they’ve got to go to your store to buy your game, we’ve lost. Because you’re removing choice, and players want choice. There will be a transition within the games industry to new technologies, but one driven by efficiency and making the player happy.
— You’ve said that there’s the potential for new technologies. Do you think game streaming can be such a technology? Can games be more like Netflix, or is it just a dream?
— Well, from a technology point of view, nothing is impossible. I’ve said my first experience was Pong. But nowadays technology has advanced so much that we don’t know what the limits are. So, with streaming, If you can fix latency and if you can improve a lot of the bandwidth, then yeah. Let’s look at it from the PC point of view. And I’m developing my game, and I’ve worked my game on 10 different PCs in my QA department, but 10% of my player base still can’t play the game. If you’re streaming, it’s just off one piece of hardware, and that hardware can be optimized for that code. So everybody’s going to get the best experience, the best graphics, the latest patch—no one’s waiting. I can access the latest builds instantly. I don’t have any limitations on my RAM, I’ve got nothing stored locally, so there are no issues with that.
But how do you monetize streaming when it comes to AAA games? I don’t think you can. A movie will go through a number of iterations: it’ll have a cinematic release, you’d get TV deals, you’d get your Netflix deal. Some movies will be so successful that they will pay for their production at the cinema, others may become profitable when they go onto TV. They get repeat viewings and repeat fees. With games we don’t have that. If we went for streaming straight away, that’s in a subscription service. So you as a user would be paying ten dollars, say. Is that going to pay enough for a AAA game such as GTA or Call of Duty? It’s probably not.
The core creation of that world is going to be so expensive, I need to make sure that it gets physically paid for and banked. Is that going to happen in the streaming world? I think it’s going to be a collection of things. I think we’ll still have download-to-own for many years to come, but alongside some sort of streaming technologies. So, you will see your Xbox Game Passes, PS Now, maybe Steam. There’ll be a technology that you or I haven’t thought of that’s going to be invented in the next five years. It will change the world and the way everything is consumed. That’s what we have to think. So you have to be ready to kind of transition.
— Steam appeared almost 20 years ago, and changed the world of PC gaming as far as I can tell. While with consoles, we’ve only seen no-disc versions this generation, with PS5 and Xbox Series. What’s the reason behind this delay?
— Video game retailers in the late 2000s removed PCs from their stores. They stopped stocking it. They gave up on PC far too early, so the transition to digital copies happened really quickly. And consoles seem to have been taking longer, but it’s both of them taking what the natural progression is. So, if the video game stores had backed PC for longer, you would now see a lot more physical copies for PCs.
It’s also because of things like gifting. Switch is a really good example of parents continuing to buy physical copies of games. Do you want to buy someone a digital code or do you want to go into a store and buy a nice little box that you can wrap up and give a little boy or girl for Christmas? Right, so the transition is happening. Gifting is one area that we as a digital world need to get better at, because at the moment there’s not really a solution other than sending an email or handing over a card. Which is fine, and gifts are huge parts of those businesses, but it’s still not that joyous physical experience like opening a box and seeing a shiny cartridge, manual and poster
“We want to look at games that were already released and give them a bump up”
— You recently took charge of the new publishing studio Secret Mode. What are you planning to start with in a broad sense?
— Well, we formed Secret Mode in the middle of the pandemic, which really was not easy. We had to think of the name, think of the logo, think of the core values, and hire a bunch of staff, and then come up with a plan on what we were going to do. And I’m really proud of the team that we’ve been able to do that. We’ve been able to focus on what our core values are, which is looking for really strong gameplay elements, quality, things that are a little bit different from the norm— games that we would all like to play.
We’ve got a core group of individuals and we look at the inbound games that we get, and whether we like the opportunities. It’s got to be something that we all like. And it’s very much harking back to some of the ways publishers were run in the mid-80s and mid-90s. It’s all about what is the vision of this publisher, mixed with the new nimbleness of the digital world. What can we unlearn in the way publishing has been done in order to be a successful publisher in the modern world? What are the things we can challenge and change to make sure we’re not only treating our players fairly, but also our developer partners fairly? We want everybody to really enjoy their experience of working or buying a game from us.
— What would be those things you need to unlearn to remain a successful publisher?
— Video game releases around the world tend to happen just before the weekend. And they tend to happen just before the weekend because we needed to get all the video game boxes into the shop for a Saturday, because that’s when everybody went shopping. And we have to charge $39.99 because everyone else charges $39.99, and that’s the way it’s always done. So the price is $39.99 whether it’s 8 or 50 hours of gameplay.
These are the kinds of things that we need to challenge and unlearn. Is there an opportunity to publish a game for a couple of dollars, which has an hour of gameplay? Is that a thing? It might not be. But if it’s a really good experience, what’s your asking price? Could we launch games at different times of the week and different times of the weekend, to maybe reach out when all of our players are online? Maybe that’s something that’s best. So it’s kind of asking the questions about what’s best for our players, and trying to figure that out.
I’m not afraid of publishing games that people don’t like. What I will be frustrated with is if we publish games where there’s an excuse not to like them, like the UI doesn’t work or the game doesn’t have Vsync or Ultrawide, or the controllers are a bit off, or the physics of the character don’t feel right. You know, there’s no excuse. Video game development is hard, but the player doesn’t know the terrible journey you had, and they’re just going to give you their honest opinion. And don’t be so upset about someone telling you you’ve done a bad job. Listen to them saying you’ve done a bad job and see if you can fix it.
— What kind of projects are always welcome at Secret Mode?
— It’s one of those things with a bit of secret sauce and a bit of a wink. I don’t want to see games that continue to plagiarize and copy other things. And I’d say there’s two things that I’m really interested in. First is games that were released a long time ago but did nothing. There’s so much content on Steam that something fantastic can be released yet players haven’t discovered it. So we want to look at games that were already released and give those games a bump up. Maybe we can sort out some new content or patch fixes to make the project popular. Things that could be perceived as being cool or that could be perceived as being really family-orientated, so really spread out.
Something else I’m really interested in as a kind of genre is culturally proud content. What I mean by that is games that are developed with a location in mind that are not afraid of that location. Culture is one of the few things we can get very passionate about without it being seen as negative in the grand scheme of globalization and us wanting to live and cooperate with each other. There is so much divisiveness around right now, but through art, music, films and video games, we can still share our culture with each other. I really love and welcome such things.
A game that’s a platformer or a shooter, but we’ve changed the location because we feel that’ll be better for Western audiences—no. I want to see a game that has come from that region and drips with the cultural pride of that region. And if it’s not done in an insulting way, that can be a unique highlight of the project. There are so many amazing examples of developers around the world, who’ve created these experiences from their heart.
— What if a project doesn’t interest you?
— We opened our doors on the 11th of March, and we’ve received over 320 pitches now. It’s been amazing getting involved with these pitches, just taking our time to go through them. We want to respect every single pitch, to give it time. Even if it looks like the most basic student effort, is there something in here that we might miss?
And then, it’s important for us to have the right dialogue with the developers, to be able to call the developer up, which is something we are really trying to do. And I’m really pushing myself that, when we reject a game, we talk to everyone in-person. We want to look them in the eye and say, “We aren’t going to progress with your game, but thank you very much for thinking of us.” Not just because we want to deal with them in the future, but because it’s going to help their journey. We’ll be able to give them some feedback on why we didn’t like their game.
And at times that could be heartbreaking, because for someone it might be: “This is my future. This is the thing that’s gonna get me paid to allow me to buy a house, and this was my vision that I’ve worked on for two years, but you’ve rejected me.” But being decent enough is to stand up to that person and say, “Yeah, we’re not gonna work on your game, but this is why.” And then that might give them an idea that will help them make a change in their project, or just stand tall anyway and go ahead.
And I want to see every single game that has been pitched to us released. But I haven’t got the resources to do every single one, so we have to pass on them. There are thousands of movie ideas that don’t get made and, sadly, there are a lot of game ideas that don’t get made.
— What’s most important for Secret Mode: gameplay or the developer’s artistic vision?
— Gameplay. It has to be gameplay. It’s like there are so many different genres of music and you think about the way music has matured: back in the 50s there was rock’n’roll, and then in the 60s it was a bit more hippy, then it turned into prog rock, then we had disco, then we had punk. However, now there’s just music. You can get hip-hop, you can get rock, you can get punk rock, all of these things exist. They’re not done by age.
Video Game technology was our limiter: 8-bit, 16-bit, 32-bit. But we’re going to get to the point where it’s just games, and a pixel game is just as engrossing as super high-res 4K. The story just needs to be immersive. The gameplay and all of these things add to the element.
So you take Grand Theft Auto: can Grand Theft Auto be remade in a 16-bit homage? Well, it kind of was. That’s how it started, and the technology has progressed. The visual style can add, and it can be a point of difference, but it can’t just be, “Oh, we’ve got this game which looks this way” if there is nothing substantive behind it.
— What should developers focus on during a pitch to interest Secret Mode?
— Make sure your core game loop is fully explained. I’ve seen quite a few pitches that, even after you’ve read them and had the developer talk to you about them, you still can’t really figure out what the game is. So, storyboard, pre-production, make things up to show the game. Rather than leaving it to people’s imaginations. Because sometimes your concept is so wacky, people don’t get it.
Really helpful game pitches have little gifs in, which show the core game loop. It’s not giving us the full playable, because obviously it’s not there, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. But those things to really make your game idea come out on the page are super important.
— Developers now, even individuals, can go on Kickstarter or another crowdfunding platform to launch their project. Do we really need publishers?
— I’ve had many conversations with developers who’ve said exactly that, and this is in the last ten years. So there are a few developers who have had success in their game, and they don’t need publishers. They put their game up on Steam and everything lined up: the game lined up, the launch lined up, the community lined up, the marketing lined up. They’ve had fantastic success, and that’s great, but they may struggle with game two. I’ve seen that a lot, that the second game doesn’t do anything. And then they’ll try with the third game, and then by the fourth game, all of the profits made from game one have run out. It’s very difficult to get that kind of continuation.
You need to maximize your opportunity and that’s what a publisher will bring. Not only on the commercial side, but also on the marketing side, the development side, and generally from the strategic side. All this experience and wealth of knowledge and understanding. You’re more likely to have success if you have backing. Not just from dev funding, but also from being part of a bigger family.
In this world where lots of people make games, it’s very difficult to make yourself stand out efficiently and cost-effectively. So, the percentage that people would pass on to a publisher, they’re probably spending on a service somewhere else. It’s about maximizing your opportunity. And anybody who wants to go off and self-publish—I mean good luck, go for it! I absolutely think they could well be the next big success, but it’s hard, it’s super hard. Many of the folks I speak to who’ve done that—they do want to come join forces and speak to publishers.
— If a developer has created a game and burned out, what can a publisher do to help them?
— First, there’s creative input. We can turn new eyes on your project bringing you a new spark of creativity. We can take your game, and partner up with another developer who’s got a massive passion for it and has spent hours playing it. So you may be creatively dry, but there’s a developer over here who’s got a ton of ideas. There’s that kind of alignment.
And we can then build a team that goes and continues to work on the game and reports in to you, while you go and do other things. There’s lots of opportunities for publishers to help with that kind of dev support, commercial support. If you’re a publisher who’s got five million players you can talk to, that’s five million players it’s cost-effective for you to put your game in front of. So there are lots of different reasons for working with publishers.
— So, how do you see Secret Mode in 5–10 years?
— We’re creating a fun, inclusive, and joyous place to work. I want that to be for all of my leadership team and all of the people that work for them. All of us are gamers, but we all come from different backgrounds. It’s really important to have diversity within the organization. We like to challenge each other as to why you like this game and why you like that game. And our core values will remain at the top. It’s all about that really cool, smart, different thing, and that’s what we’re going to be.
Now in terms of where the growth is, we’ve got our plans. We see ourselves working on maybe 50% games from within Sumo Group, 50% of games coming externally. We’re also not going to push ourselves. There’s no point signing 100 games when you can’t give those games the kind of focus they need. It’s really important to manage those expectations. So, we’ll continue to drive for growth, but in a really measured and projected way.
“We are starting to remember things from the past, and this brings people huge profits.”
— Do you think the industry will move more towards multiplayer or single-player games?
— I think Jedi: Fallen Order was a great example that a single-player game could thrive. And, you know, Fall Guys comes out as a multiplayer and thrives. We get too focused on genre, when we need to make games that people like. Our team usually tries to think about the future of a certain game or about the presence of modern elements of the gameplay in it.
Secret Mode is going to launch whatever feels right for the game. If there is a great single-player experience, is there a way of making a multiplayer experience that’s respectful to the story and to the game world? If there isn’t, then it stays single-player. Do we create a multiplayer experience without a single-player addon? It feels like you need to bring people into the game in the single-player mode, be it a tutorial or however. Gaming trends have come and gone. And people who chase them are always behind the curve. It’s the people that come up with trends that have the biggest success.
— Many companies, especially the big ones, are trying to make successful game-services for players, rather than creating complete projects. They create this huge build up, that they’re going to fill with content later. Do you think it’s worth investing in projects like this?
— It’s about the potential, so you should always build your game to the first successful version or whatever that is. If the game can exist as it is, then great. Don’t build the game, and say, “This is the new E-sport,” right? It’ll become an E-sport if it’s good enough and if players like it. It’s the same kind of thing with the service stuff: you need to take advantage of the opportunity and ensure the flow of finance, but at the same time be respectful to the player. I would be challenged to create a $50 download-to-own game that has a season pass where people have to pay $20 every six months. That doesn’t feel right to me.
However, a game that costs $10 or $15 and has a $10 or $15 season pass might work. But everything depends on the game itself. Get to that kind of thing that you would be happy with your players experiencing and playing, and then learn from your players. I’ve worked on a lot of games, and users play them quite differently. People love modding stuff, sometimes they do things you as a developer weren’t even imagining. I’m a really big supporter of Steam Workshop, and I love the creativity that it brings.
One piece of advice I give folks is to come up with maybe two or three gameplay styles, and then also have this sandbox area, where you let the players evolve it. Maybe there’s something in there you haven’t even thought of that we can come back to. Now, in terms of what’s the best plan, it’s probably to have your game, and maybe two pieces of additional content, be that paid DLC or F2P. After that, do not plan a thing. Have it in your mind, but see what your players do first of all.
— So at the development stage it’s not worth looking too far into the future, is that right?
— I remember a conversation I had many years ago with a really well-known game developer, and he’d just turned on some achievements. I think it was either on Xbox or Playstation, or maybe even Steam. Anyway, this data enabled him to see that less than one percent of the players who bought his game, and it was a very successful game, ever got to the final boss in the final level. That final boss cost him months and months of dev time, and honing time, and value, but no one ever saw it—the game was too hard, people didn’t get to it.
And that then opens up this big question: if we were spending $300 million on a movie, would we be expecting people to not see the last ten minutes? Would you still spend that kind of money on filming? Is there a way of doing things that we can give people smaller experiences at a lower price that don’t cost the developers years of their time?
Game creation and game development is going to become easier with loads of tools and with assets and things like that. The opportunity for us to port stuff is going to become less reliant on proprietary engines, so we may be able to get really interesting short game experiences for a lower price. If a game like that did sell a couple of million copies, and you’ve got loads of really excited fans, you could say, “OK, let’s bring more content.” That’s respectful to the player base.
— What trends in terms of game mechanics may appear in the industry in the next couple of years?
— I don’t think you can name a particular gameplay style, because there’s so many different gameplay styles that have got great audiences. I think you’ll see two things happening though. One is a streaming technology that allows audiences to interact with games as they’re being streamed. I think that is going to be much more to the fore.
And then I think retro is very important. I’ve done a lot of research on retro going right back, and in the ’80’s the 1950’s were very retro—everybody was looking at Flash Gordon and rock’n’roll. Then you saw video games becoming retro, and the first was Pong coming back. And we had little collections within television, then we had Spectrum collections, then we had Commodore, Amiga, ST and 16-bit Mega Drive.
We are starting to remember things from the past, and this brings people huge profits. Right now we’re starting to see a return to ugly, jagged polygons. Things we saw when we were younger, the original Wipe Out, the original Ridge Racer, Tomb Raider, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, those styles of games. Because when you’re hitting your thirties, you want that thing of calling back to when you were a kid. And that will continue: right now it’s the end of the 80s, and soon the 2000s will be retro. I’ve got employees who’ll say, “I remember playing this game with my dad on his Xbox 360.” And that’s nuts to think that that was their childhood experience.
— So, if you’re a 30-year-old developer, you should be looking back to your childhood?
— What did you like? Homage it, you know? Can you tell the story you want to tell by using chunky, jagged polygons? We’ve had the 16-bit era, and we’ve got pixels all over the place, and they’re beautiful. But there is something sad about a return to those, because those of us who were too old for that to be retro just saw it as a progression in graphics. Whereas that was someone’s first experience of video games. They’ve got a very different opinion of it than the rest of us.