Bigpoint's Nils-Holger Henning
The CCO on Brazil, Battlestar and stereoscopic 3D in browsers
The furore about a possible takeover of Bigpoint, which peaked in the middle of last year, has now died down - but the company has been as busy as ever. With expansion to new markets, new technologies, new platforms and new, key franchise title launches, the Hamburg-based online publisher continues to evolve.
Here, CCO Nils-Holger Henning updates us on the business landscape, details the South American push, discusses the open beta of Battlestar Galactica and explains why the company is dabbling in stereoscopic 3D browser games.
Q: So how's business? The traditional market has a strong emphasis around Christmas, but I guess that's not really the case for online games companies like Bigpoint?
Nils-Holger Henning: In general we see a spike - not around Christmas as such, but around the colder season of the year, probably because we're spending more time in front of the computer and not too much time outside in the park or garden. And that's one of the reasons why we're developing our games cross-platform right now, so you can take the game with you on your mobile phone.
Q: How are the numbers? Is the company still experiencing growth?
Nils-Holger Henning: Pretty much since the beginning of Bigpoint we've been nearly doubling our numbers each year, and the same happened in 2010 - so we're very happy with the results. That's in terms of penetration, reach and new markets.
In December we opened up a new office in Brazil, in Sao Paulo, and that's the next step in the company's expansion - following on from San Francisco. So everything's going ahead at full speed.
We have a time plan for Brazil, and we believe that we will have the market locked for us by the middle of 2012
Q: South America's a new frontier for the video games industry - it's a growing market, but how long will it take to mature?
Nils-Holger Henning: First of all we believe Brazil is one of the great countries - one of the fastest-emerging markets in the world. We were thinking for quite a long time about where the perfect location for an office in South America might be - we're very successful and active already in Mexico, but Brazil has a population that's close to 200 million people, and it's the only non-Spanish-speaking country in the whole of South America.
When you look at the size of the country, and how consumers open up to the internet - how much time they spend online, looking at social networks - it was definitely the choice for us to go to Brazil.
Q: In terms of consumer numbers there, where are you on the graph - near the beginning? Somewhere near the middle?
Nils-Holger Henning: We have a time plan for Brazil, and we believe that we will have the market locked for us by the middle of 2012.
Q: That's pretty quick.
Nils-Holger Henning: It's online. We've seen Brazil's already a successful country for us, but now we're working with a lot of media corporations on deals - it's quite difficult to handle those relationships out of Hamburg or San Francisco.
Therefore we decided, to finally lock down the market and penetrate in the way that we'd expect, we must have a local presence - we must have Brazilian people working for Bigpoint there.
Every market is a little bit different - what we see within Europe is that you can enter markets quite well if you're aware of media ad networks and Google SEM. But in Brazil you need a lot of attention below the line - you need presence at events, you need to have promoters handing out gaming cards and things like that. We didn't have that before, and we wanted to make sure we were getting experience in that space.
Q: You mentioned cross-platform and mobile - what sort of things have you been doing in that area?
Nils-Holger Henning: At the moment we're in the process of handing our products to Apple, to get approval for listing in iTunes. We understand that we need our existing portfolio of top games - Seafight, DarkOrbit, Farmerama, Zoomumba - on iPhone, Android devices and the iPad.
The next step is really that we'll develop new games cross-platform - they'll work on mobile from the beginning. For example, take a game like Toon Racers. That's a racing game that's a little similar in style to Mario Kart - it's going to launch simultaneously on PC, iPad, iPhone and Android.
Battlestar is a better start than we had with anything, ever
Q: One of the challenges for bringing core console or PC games across to mobile devices is that of suitability for the new environment - I guess that's less of an issue for more casual games?
Nils-Holger Henning: From the technology side, the issues are mainly that the games we develop in Flash won't work on Apple devices - so there we needed to find a way around. Once we developed in Unity, it's no problem to port.
But we find that the biggest issue is in fact the game mechanics. It's vital that if you're playing a game like DarkOrbit on PC and I'm playing on the iPad, I shouldn't have any advantage over you. It's a balancing issue between devices - you mustn't be able to attack or something within a game more quickly on a mobile device compared to somebody else playing with a mouse.
Q: So you're developing all new games in Unity, instead of Flash?
Nils-Holger Henning: Yes, that's right. We've defined, within Bigpoint, three divisions - one is called Triple-A, where we develop games like Battlestar Galactica and The Mummy, and we announced at GDC that we're going to make games based on monsters like Frankenstein, from NBC Universal licences.
Then we've got the Core division, that historically made games all developed in Flash - like DarkOrbit and others - and then we've got the Casual Games division that makes Farmerama, Zoomumba and so on. They target a wider audience, and a more female one.
Q: Not long ago you went into open beta with one of your biggest projects to-date - Battlestar Galactica - so what's the response to the game been like?
Nils-Holger Henning: Well, to talk directly, it's the best start we've ever had with a game in Bigpoint's history - and not because we've been putting so much marketing behind it, but because the community has been driving it. They've been so interested in the brand and what's going to happen with the game.
We were talking about the Christmas season earlier, and for us - as a commercial company - we were also thinking about launching the game around then. But we saw some balancing issues within Battlestar, so we decided to postpone it to the beginning of March, for the open beta.
The feedback we've had, the activity inside of the game - from the user behaviour - shows us that we're building one of the next blockbusters in Bigpoint's portfolio.
Q: What's the potential for the game?
Nils-Holger Henning: We think it has a bigger potential than every other game in our portfolio, taken individually.
Q: What's the current biggest game Bigpoint has, in terms of numbers?
Nils-Holger Henning: They're balanced - it's quite interesting. It's between Seafight, Dark Orbit and Farmerama, they're the three blockbusters. The others are coming close but not hitting that level - but what we've seen with Battlestar is a better start than we had with anything, ever.
Q: But what does "blockbuster" mean in terms of numbers?
Nils-Holger Henning: A blockbuster is a game that has €1 million-plus monthly revenue potential.
Q: It's a strong brand, and there's clearly a latent desire for people to want to engage with the Battlstar universe. You mentioned marketing - who have you been targeting with that?
Nils-Holger Henning: I think everything that happens with Battlestar is different to anything we've done before, which is a challenge - but it's quite exciting. Compare it with Farmerama and we're talking to a totally different audience, because it's more like trying to attract everyone... we know how it all works.
With Battlestar it was really working out who's interested in sci-fi, who's interested in the bigger gaming experience? It's not like the kind of gameplay where you play for five minutes and everything is clear - and you're asking yourself where the next challenge is.
There's a guy sitting somewhere in Hollywood and they're just happy they've got their cash - and they don't care what happens to the game, because they've cashed out already
You really need a greater engagement of the players, and there are different ways to target them. So we've been working with games-related websites more, going for the hardcore gamers, and showing them what's now possible in the browser - asking whether they like it.
The feedback that we've had is quite nice, because people didn't know it was possible. They thought what was happening in the browser could only be something like Farmville or Cityville.
Q: There's that challenge; but there's also the challenge of persuading people that a game based on a license can also be good, as well.
Nils-Holger Henning: I believe one driver for this was definitely that we were working very closely with SyFy and Universal in the development of the game. I know how it normally works with gaming licenses - you just put some money on the table and you get the license.
There's a guy sitting somewhere in Hollywood and they're just happy they've got their cash - and they don't care what happens to the game, because they've cashed out already. Then the game is pushed into the market and sold via the brand.
Of course, we do have a challenge this time in that the game is free - we don't have a box - so if you're not convinced by the game, we'll never generate revenues.
But another thing that helped with this license - and it's the first big license that we're developing on - is that the editor of the TV series, Ronald Moore, wanted to give his personal approval on every starship and every sequence.
It took a bit of effort to get all of that happening, but it helped us to stay close to the series - and to create the kind of experience that a Battlestar fan is looking for.
Q: We're talking just ahead of the launch of the Nintendo 3DS in Europe and the US - what are your thoughts on 3D, and is it something that Bigpoint has looked at?
Nils-Holger Henning: Talking openly, we didn't think about 3D a lot. We saw some stuff at tech conferences, and that with TVs you have to have your stereoscopic glasses, and we questioned who'd really wear them.
But while we were developing a game that we recently launched, called Ruin, one of the developers asked why shouldn't we build it in 3D? We thought it might take months to do, but building it in Unity, he said it would just take a couple of weeks. So we thought, why not?
It's the first game that we've brought to the market that's also available in 3D - and you can switch from normal to stereoscopic mode. If you wear some 3D glasses you've got a great first-person shooter experience.
Q: So it's an experiment, basically?
Nils-Holger Henning: It's not crucial; we'll use it to see if there's demand in the market.
Nils-Holger Henning is CCO of Bigpoint. Interview by Phil Elliott.