Bigpoint's Heiko Hubertz
The CEO on Panasonic's Jungle, IPTV, acquisitions and the future of free-to-play
Bigpoint has made a number of moves to step up its business in 2010, including establishing a studio in the US, securing a number of licenses to attach to its MMO development teams and refining its DevLounge self-publishing business.
All these moves have been in preparation for 2011, a year in which the company aims to prove it can be a global leader in the browser market, as the games business expands online with high quality free-to-play MMOs. Here, in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz, CEO Heiko Hubertz discusses the short-term plans for next year, and looks further forward to the possible evolution of online gaming in a rapidly expanding tech environment.
Q: What are Bigpoint's plans for the rest of the year?
Heiko Hubertz: What we're doing in the English speaking territories is we've announced our first game for those territories - Ruined Online. It's one of the games we're developing in Unity 3D, a first-person shooter with a comic book style, and we want to launch it next year. We've also just announced the closed beta for Battlestar Galactica which is really important for us. We're obviously aware of the time plan because we always said by the end of the year we want to launch this game.
Q: What was the reaction to Ruined Online, because that's the first title from your new US studio, and aimed specifically at a US audience?
Heiko Hubertz: Feedback has been very positive about the quality of the game but we've only shown off two levels. In December we'll launch a demo version of the game for the public and we hope to receive broader feedback.
Q: Do you find people are surprised by the high quality bar you're aiming for in a browser-based game?
Heiko Hubertz: Many people have tried to compare it to Quake Online because we're the first company trying to launch a browser-based shooter game. With Quake you have to install the Quake client. I think it surprised even Unity because we didn't tell them about the game we were working on, they were pleased enough to announce it on their site and say 'look what Bigpoint is doing with our engine'. Of course it's not just important that people are impressed with the quality, they have to pay for the game, so we'll see [smiles].
Q: Do you think it can attract that dedicated, core audience already playing Quake Online?
Heiko Hubertz: We don't know. We're not only aiming at the small audience playing shooter games, we're aiming for users who are playing other browser-based games to show them what is possible, the kind of quality and the kind of gameplay we can offer. We want to target a broad and massive user base with these games. That's part of the reason why we chose a comic book style as well.
Q: So what are the main objectives going in to 2011?
Heiko Hubertz: 2011 will be a big year for us in the UK and America, the English speaking territories are very important to us. So far, we are successful in Europe and Eastern Europe but in the UK we are not that big at the moment. With Battlestar Galactica, Ruined Online and also The Mummy Online we want to focus on this market because the UK is one of biggest gaming markets in Europe and the US is the biggest in the world, so to be a global leader and a global company we have to be successful and one of the top players in these markets. That's our focus for next year. We've prepared everything, a new office in San Francisco, we've licensed the IP with Battlestar and The Mummy, and we've hired teams to develop the games. So next year hopefully we'll be successful. That's one of the goals.
The other thing we're doing it concentrating on casual gaming. We've seen the big successes around and the big Facebook games but we have a different approach. We've said we'll launch games outside of Facebook for our media partners. So we have a game called Farmarama which if you compare on Google Trends to FarmVille, you'll see that Farmarama is already bigger than FarmVille. That's because we're using our distribution network, all the media partners we have, the ISPs, the gaming portals, the TV stations - they all use this games as a white label solution to drive traffic. This game is so successful outside of Facebook. So next year we want to increase our distribution network and launch more casual games through those partners. So with the English speaking territories it's triple A quality and casual games, that's our two big things for 2011.
Q: Is there still a good market to take advantage of in the casual sector, because it seems very crowded, very busy? And maybe users aren't loyal to particular destinations so long as they're playing the games they want.
Heiko Hubertz: I agree, loyalty is not very high because there are so many casual games. But there is still a lot of money in this market. Farmarama cost us to develop around 50,000 euros and it's generated this year two-digit million in revenues. So why not go after this space if it's so profitable? It's profitable so we don't want to rely on one game genre.
Q: The last time we spoke big point had just announced the revenue split and changes for DevLounge. Now you've had time for that to filter through, how has it changed the self-publishing business for independent development partners?
Heiko Hubertz: One of the reasons why we changed the business model for DevLounge was that we saw many people were interested, but the idea of only getting the minority of the revenue share, it's not worth it for them. Since the change we've launched 30 games, so ten games per month, and that's really interesting. It's not the biggest revenue driver for us but it's important for our users that we have all the content on the website, so they know if they go to Bigpoint.com they can find a game they like. The developers get 70 per cent and we only take 30 per cent, so the developers have huge user numbers that they can get through our media partners, and we have more users, so everybody's happy.
Q: Are you able to keep that momentum going, and do you want to continue to releases ten games per month, or does that develop into a quality issue with regards to the games you're releasing?
Heiko Hubertz: There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of browser-based games and many of them, to be honest, are crap. We don't want them. So from that point of view, yes there's enough content. But from a technical point of view we could continue to release that amount of games, it's just an API. But from a user point of view it doesn't make sense to have a catalogue of thousands of games if the player can't find the right games for them. So the next step for that is to look more at the quality of content, to get different genres, to be more picky in the future over these games.
Q: If the big revenues aren't in DevLounge, do you expect the big licensed MMOs you're developing to be the serious revenue drivers?
Heiko Hubertz: Yes, especially with the third-party IP. The big Hollywood licenses help us introduce the micro-transaction business model to users. At the moment it's easy for a user to make a registration for free but if they don't like what they see they will stop playing. With IP the user already knows the story to some extent, the basic goals of the game and they trust certain products, so they take more time to play the game, play it for longer and hopefully pay more. That's the reason why we think it's so important to use third-party IPs combined with high-quality games, because in the future the user will decide by the quality of the game if he pays or not. It's no longer a case of going into a store, buying a boxed product, playing it at home and if you don't want to buy it, well shit, you've already paid for it. With our games its free at the beginning and the user decides if he pays or not. Quality is the key from a monetisation stand point.
Q: Battlestar Galactica is going to be a launch title for the Panasonic Jungle handheld. What attracted you to working with a hardware manufacturer on that project?
Heiko Hubertz: We do it already with hardware manufacturers, so you can play Bigpoint titles on HP devices, just find the games channel there. It's something we've been doing for some time. With Panasonic it's a different deal where they're introducing a completely new device and we decided that it could work. We've been so close since the beginning of the development of this device and we both chose Battlestar Galactica as the right game for it. Next year we'll see how successful it can be. It's also a new way to attract people to our games, with them pre-installed on other devices.
Q: Was it important to be there for launch with new hardware? It's not very often a manufacturer launches new hardware for games, and it's a specific type of game as well, aiming directly at the MMO market. It seems very niche, what are you thoughts on that?
Heiko Hubertz: Well, that's a question Panasonic has to answer. Panasonic made a call to say, "Hey, we want to develop a device for this target group." And that's exactly the same audience we're targeting at Bigpoint so why not do something together? To be honest it's quite hard to develop a game during the creation of a device that's in development, you always have to change things. But as a new business it's interesting.
Q: You've said before that you're not interested in working on consoles, but here you are supporting the launch of a new handheld...
Heiko Hubertz: Ah, okay [laughs]. It's not a console as such, if I'm talking about consoles I mean something like the Xbox 360. This is a mobile device and mobile is very interesting for us.
Q: We also spoke last time about the mergers and acquisitions market, and that's seen significant movement on a weekly basis. It was only two months since we last discussed it, but again, it seems the right time to ask what your thoughts are there, and has there been interest in buying Bigpoint? Would you sell?
Heiko Hubertz: We see interest all the time, for the last year. I get contacted by so many media companies and pro-equity funds, but I personally am not interested to sell. I believe in what we're doing here. We have the finest investors like GMT Communications fund here in London, or NBC Universal and of course they want to have an exit in whatever time period, and they're interested to talk to these people. But from my point of view I'm not interested in selling. If someone wants to talk to us, that's not problem, they can do that, but I'm taking care of business.
Q: I wanted to look towards the future, and how the browser is moving to the TV screen with IPTV. Bigpoint games are playable within the browser - and I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this - do you see the TV as the end game, ultimately? Have you had any contact with TV manufacturers and seen any interest there, because TVs need content, and games can be massive revenue drivers when it comes to content.
Heiko Hubertz: It's very, very interesting for us, especially for the casual games market. We have a partnership with Logitech and they just recently introduced the Logitech device for TV for the US market. You can play our games on the device, our casual games, through Google TV. It's a completely new market. Going from the PC and the office to now going to the living room and the TV screen. I think it's too early to talk about hardcore games in the area because the devices are too weak in terms of CPU power. For real 3D, for Unity games we need a little more power to handle that. But in the long-term that's an interesting market because it makes browser games playable in the living room and you won't need consoles. That's the big future for browser-based games.
Heiko Hubertz is CEO of Bigpoint. Interview by Matt Martin..