Frogster has been one of the companies on the front line of the free-to-play revolution, with its flagship game Runes of Magic seeing huge success in Europe and North America. Now, the company has launched TERA, a subscription-model title, and is partnering with Chinese developer and publisher Shanda to release a 'major MMO' next year.
But there have been some difficult moments along the way. Last year, the company was bought out by GameForge, an acquisition which was swiftly followed by the departure of much of the senior management team. Then, at the beginning of 2011, a hacker allegedly stole the details of thousands of Runes of Magic accounts, and attempted to blackmail the company into various demands, claiming that poor customer service and community management has left him no other choice.
That case rumbles on, and with the departure of Andreas Weidenhaupt yesterday, the management problems are still a concern. However, Frogster is keen to move on and make the most of its bright prospects. Here, we speak to COO Dirk Weyel as part of the build-up to this year's Game Connection@GDC event about the past year, and what he sees in Frogster's future.
Q:First of all, let's talk about the changes at management level since the GameForge takeover - Is the team settled now?
Dirk Weyel:We had a management change last year, in summer. It wasn't actually connected to the GameForge acquisition, it just happened to come at the same time. Three of the managing directors of Frogster Online Gaming left the company, and some of the senior staff which belonged to them, a bunch of people.
So we had to restructure the management of Frogster Online Gaming and we now have a team in place which will continue to lead the operating arm. We've got one new person, which you've probably noticed, Seth Iorio - he used to work for GameForge before he came to Frogster. He's been a member of the board since the new year and is also the managing director of Frogster Online Gaming.
We still have a holding structure - which means that there is Frogster Interactive Pictures, the holding mother company, the publicly listed company, the executive board, then the management of Frogster Online Gaming. But Frogster Online Gaming is doing the operational work for the whole company.
Q:So there was no pressure from GameForge to change any of the management team?
Dirk Weyel:Definitely not, no. One of the reasons that GameForge was interested in buying the majority of Frogster was not only to buy the assets, the titles and the product pipeline, it was also because they saw that there was a successful team, including the management - so they didn't want to bring that down, or change that because they wanted a functioning Frogster unit after the transaction.
Q:The Frogster catalogue is aimed fairly squarely at a core market, so presumably that's something that GameForge wanted to stick with, too. Is that the direction you're sticking with, rather than changing tack to a more casual audience?
Dirk Weyel:That's right. Our strategy was to work in the core-based, client-based MMO area. To do less titles but try to make premium, high-quality MMOs. So we've done that, we've licensed Mythos and TERA for this year. Also, we have one major MMO coming next year. So this continues, and is our, shall we say, strategic fit in terms of GameForge and Frogster. GameForge was originally based around browser-based games, they added client-based games to their portfolio but they came from another corner of the online segment.
That means that our portfolio, combined with a more product and marketing-orientated approach was a good fit for them, because they have a more technical background. For us, we'll continue to focus on client-based, high quality MMOs.
Q:TERA is your only subscription model game. Is that because you see a distinction along the lines of quality there? Does it offer something that the free-to-play games don't that makes you more comfortable charging a monthly fee for it?
Dirk Weyel:Yeah. We generally believe that free-to-play system will be the model for most of the MMOs in the future, but we also believe that the subscription model does still work. There will be subscription models in the future, and also hybrid models. We believe that TERA is the most premium title of all the games we have at the moment. In terms of production budget and quality in-game it's certainly the premium product for this year.
That's why we're convinced that the subscription model can work for a title like TERA. I think free-to-play will be a model which will dominate the West, but I think there will also be a few subscription titles which can be successful.
Q:Obviously the big thing looming on the horizon for the subscription model is Star Wars: The Old Republic - that feels very much like it's going to be something of an acid test for the future of subs. Would a successful SWTOR be a good thing for Frogster and the industry in general, or would it just be another competitor taking your business?
Dirk Weyel:I would say that the good thing about it would be that it's a non-fantasy title. If it can prove that a non-fantasy title can regain a big consumer base and user base. I think if you ask industry people about their opinions about the chances of success though, they'll be very diverse.
I would say it would be a good sign. I think it would show that there are a lot of users out there willing to pay a certain amount of money each month for a good game - although I can't really judge yet whether it will be a good game! [laughs]
Basically, it's going to be interesting. There's Eve Online, but apart from that, the subscription-based model is dominated by fantasy role-playing games.
Q:I wondered how much you can tell us, if anything, about the ongoing case with the hacker who was attempting to blackmail Frogster. It's obviously an ongoing legal case, so I don't expect the gory details, but have any lessons on how to interact with the community been learned from the experience?
Dirk Weyel:It's very frustrating for the team, in the first place. To see that a guy can hack accounts, claim things, influence public opinion and harm the users. Our team has to focus and work on making the system more secure, on managing the whole incident. It means that they can't work on their regular goals and targets, like making events for the game, or improving it in other ways.
Of course, we looked at what it means. Why is someone so angry? Why do they want to harm Frogster and the user base? Obviously, in any community you have people who complain. Some of them are reasonable, and some complain in a way that is unacceptable. What this guy did is definitely criminal, but is also unacceptable in terms of the way that the he communicated.
He was anonymous, hiding behind his CaptZero mask. [the hacker's username on the Runes of Magic forum] We've always had people who have been upset with community managers because they've deleted a thread in the forum or whatever, but that is something you probably have on every single MMO forum. We always try, if any criticism comes up openly, we try to work with that, we try to communicate. But if someone comes up with ten threats and demands, anonymously, saying that he's hacked our account system then we can only try to make our systems even more secure.
On the other hand we can also try to make sure we're communicating as openly as possible with the community - which is an ongoing process. I'm not saying that our community management is perfect, or that they always do the right thing, but we know that our community is our most important asset, so we always try to be as open and transparent as possible.
So we can try and keep continuously improving in that area, but we can't accept people hacking and threatening us.
Q:Your market is very much a growth area, which is obviously a good thing to be part of, but it also brings competition. What are you doing to help Frogster endure against companies like BigPoint?
Dirk Weyel:We believe that brand-building for our MMOs is a very important part of our marketing and long-term success. We try to build a brand and expand it within the community and within a larger crowd. I think if you look at Runes of Magic then you can say it's the first free-to-play MMO which has developed a brand awareness and a brand value within the MMO sphere.
So we try to build on that, to increase the stickiness of the community, and the credibility. We also have the specialist press behind it. It was difficult at the beginning because the opinion of many games journalists was that free-to-play means lower quality.
We tried to show them that it's just another business model. So we started to market the game with a premium branding approach. So we think that in order to be successful in the long run we need to build brands and have a clear positioning and a clear brand philosophy to build up the game.
Q:Can you tell us anything about the title that you're working on with Chanda?
Dirk Weyel:It's a bit too early, I think. There are still some decisions to be made. I can say that we'll publish and operate it in Europe and North America at the same time. So the same territotries as Runes of Magic. It's a very important project for us, and we've already had some very positive feedback from the Chinese community.
But I can't disclose further details right now, it will take a few more weeks.
Q:How important is it, do you think, for Western developers and publishers to form alliances and work with Asian studios and teams from developing markets?
Dirk Weyel:I think very much so, especially for the MMO market - because Korea is pretty much the mother country, but China has definitely picked up and there are definitely studios there that have the capacity to produce games of the same quality. It really makes sense to partner with the leading Chinese publisher and developer.
The right development partner is one of the key elements of the whole business. If you look at the new games you'll see that we always have a very detailed and intense look at the partner and developer and the relationship that we can build. These partnerships are intended to last for several years, so it's important to choose the right partner.
If we're working with such an ambitious and leading Chinese partner, that can only be a benefit for Frogster.
Q:As an MMO company, what are you're impressions of the Panasonic Jungle? Have you been approached to make anything for it? Does it have prospects?
Dirk Weyel:To be honest this is something I haven't really looked into, so I can't really give you an answer with any real depth. I've noticed it though, and it's on the list to have a look at it! [laughs]
Q:Do you see MMOs ever seeing much success outside the PC space? There hasn't ever really been a big success on any other platform, would you ever consider moving away from PC?
Dirk Weyel:We are looking at different opportunities to move to other platforms, yes. Which means that, firstly, I don't believe we should work on a handheld MMO, a standalone handheld MMO, but I definitely believe in the opportunities to go multiplatform in terms of adding applications for handhelds or mobiles which are directly connected to the MMO.
The core MMO is still played on the PC, but there are possibilities for the user to interact with the community or the item shop - certain features of the MMO, while in the road. I don't think we'd go for porting the whole MMO to handheld or tablet, or develop a standalone iPad MMO, but I think of we can expand the user experience to different platforms by giving him the chance to really get connected to the game and his friends and the community.
Dirk Weyel is chief operating officer of Frogster. Interview by Dan Pearson.