NCsoft's Jeremy Gaffney
On subs versus free-to-play, managing the MMO lifecycle and the future for massively multiplayer
Jeremy Gaffney is one of granddaddies of the MMO industries, having helped found Turbine as it broke online ground with Asheron's Call, pitching in on the still-unreleased Ultima Online 2 at EA, and then bringing to bear the likes of City of Heroes and Richard Garriot's Tabula Rasa at NCsoft. Now, he heads up Carbine Studios, owned by NCsoft West, on a project which has remained publicly mysterious since Carbine's founding in 2007.
Here, GamesIndustry.biz chats to the executive producer about why games execs ideally need development experience, the ongoing debate between free-to-play and subscription-based MMOs, whether the genre can move to mobile and console, whether it's still possible to have a huge MMO launch in a post-Warcraft world, and why he could never have predicted the current face of the industry back when he was working on Asheron's Call in the early 1990s.
Q: What are your specific responsibilities now? Are you purely heading up Carbine or are you back calling shots at NCsoft too?
Jeremy Gaffney: Right now I'm purely Carbine, the executive producer for this studio, I basically run this whole development team. Historically I used to run product development for NCsoft in North America as a whole, so I've had the global responsibilities as well, but I took a year off and went to the team that I thought was coolest when I came back.
Q: Development's your preference, then? You've switched in and out of that and exec positions in the past, haven't you?
Jeremy Gaffney: Yeah, I was at Turbine for a while - founded that back in 1993, 1994, took a year off before going to EA Origin to work on Ultima Online 2, then worked on NCsoft for six or seven years before taking a year off then coming to my current gig. I highly recommend taking a year off every now and again, because if you stop playing games because you're too busy working you fall directly out of contact with things. Similarly, the longer it's been since you worked on one game the easier it is to become a dumb exec who doesn't know what's going on. It's good to get back into development every now and again.
Q: How much do you feel that's a problem across the industry - execs who don't really have too much game design knowledge?
Jeremy Gaffney: If you don't know if your own game is good you're going to be in trouble. It's very important if you're a dog food company to eat one's own dog food, and if you're a game company you'd better be a gamer.
Q: What kind of potential oversights were you able to correct when you were an exec, which you might not have been had you not also been a designer?
The longer it's been since you worked on one game the easier it is to become a dumb exec who doesn't know what's going on.
Jeremy Gaffney: The interesting part of being an exec in this space is being able to see so many games. Obviously NCsoft is a very powerful company globally, and so when game companies want to go into the Korean market or the other Asian territories, we're one of the first companies they come to. Similarly we have very strong presences in Europe and the US, and so you get to see a lot of your competitor products. When you want to hit those territories, we're a very good company to come to - we're obviously a very cash rich company, we're a great place to come to for funding, and so there's a really nice mix of being able to see very blue-sky projects and seeing established projects from other teams who want to hit new markets. You really get a good swathe of the industry that you get to check out all at once. So that's the real benefit of being that kind of global exec. As a gamer, especially if you're looking at blue-sky projects in particular, it's very easy to make a Powerpoint. Knowing how much of that Powerpoint is going to turn into an interesting game over time is an art, not a science. No amount of focus testing or market research is really going to get you there versus knowing what makes a good game and getting a sense from the people working on it that they have the right things it takes to make a great development team.
Q: Are you thinking purely with your dev hat on at Carbine?
Jeremy Gaffney: We have a more global mindset as we're not just thinking about development; we're also thinking about the business models, we're thinking about the interesting things we can do, not just as gamers but also in terms of hitting new markets, doing unusual business models. But the game comes first - 'good games sell' is not a bad way to run your business. So we concentrate first on foremost on it's got to be a great game, and the rest follows.
Q: Will your project continue the regular NCsoft philosophy of targeting the East initially and then adapting as considered necessary for Western audiences?
Jeremy Gaffney: We're strong believers at NCsoft that you really need to hit your local territory first, because you understand it the best. Then when there's opportunities to go global... Because we're all geeks, we're all gamers. You go to Korea and the heads of NCsoft there are also gamers, they play your game and they can tell you very rapidly 'hey, we think this is going to appeal, we think this other thing is not going to appeal.' Having that sort of network of gamers throughout our exec team really helps us to be able to make these sort of calls on a global basis. But as a gamer, worry about your own territory first and then the more global you can go the better.
Q: Do you have to make pretty sweeping changes to what your doing, in terms of both business model and design, based on how rapidly and dramatically the MMO industry is changing?
Jeremy Gaffney: We have a mix, I think, of really sticking to your guns and thinking "hey, we think this idea is great regardless of where the market goes - it's going to be worth doing this" and being flexible enough to say "hey...." When you have an MMO, and the fastest they ever come out is every three or four years, and on average that's maybe six years, seven years for most of the big titles. So if you need some flexibility, say as the market changes to adapt to it... The overall precepts are kind of timeless in that good games sell. A good thing now is that even if a competitor is doing something similar, if you're doing it well... There's so many moving parts in an MMO that you get your core straight and then a lot of the details can follow or adapt. That core has to be fixed, it has to stay put through a lone development cycle.
Q: Is there a sense that you guys, or anyone else, can still pull off a really big MMO launch in this day and age? Or is it all about the niches now?
Jeremy Gaffney: I think there's two strong models when you're doing MMOs. Number one is aim big, go for a mega-launch and then try to drive your game thereafter. The other one is hit a niche market, but then each time you do an expansion you try and grow that user-base, through expansion after expansion after expansion. There are successes through both models - World of Warcraft obviously came out with all guns blazing, or Aion's a good example. They came out to a huge market, they expanded that success, and they've grown as they've done other packs. Lineage came out as being a very small game, in the order of 150,000 subs, but every single expansion drove that user base up to the mega-game that it is today. So I really think that both of those models still apply. It's harder to do a mega launch than it is a smaller game that you try to grow, but the rewards are bigger too.
Q: You've worked on a few of the mega-launches, including some where the initial surge seems to die down and you hear about servers being merged and all manner of horror stories. Is that something you factor in when you make an MMO, or is it always surprising and shocking?
The money is really rewarding the people who make the best games in the long haul, and that's not always the case in boxed games.
Jeremy Gaffney: I would really argue that when you have a mega-launch... There's been a pattern in the US and the Western markets for games to launch really big then tail off rapidly. There's two things to aim for - one of which is how many boxes are you going to move coming out the gate. Are you going to sell a million boxes? It's great to drive that number high, but more important for the lifetime of your game is are you slowly gaining users or are you slowly losing users, or plummeting users? That's about quality of game as much as anything else, tailored for a market. If your game is slowly going up, it kind of doesn't matter if you launch small because over time, if you map that over five or ten years, and you're slow-growing, you have a ton of users. Conversely if you sell two million boxes out the gate, if everything plummets after three weeks probably you've made some bad choices.
The market has seen both of those happen, so both are certainly possible, but if you had to pick one of those pick a slope that rises over time, because you're getting more users. One of the best things about our industry, makes it really the best to be in from a developer standpoint, is all the things that as a game developer you're supposed to be doing pay off in our industry. If you have a boxed game and you made a game that is not all that pretty but man it's really addictive, and you're going to play it forever and there's tons of replayability, if you sold a box for $50 and now the guy's going to play your game for the next three years - like a Sid Meier game, for example - in a way it's bad because there are people out who aren't buying other $50 boxes from your company. The MMO industry rewards that, because if you make a great game that's really sticky, really sticky, great game design, crapload of content, hundreds of hours of content, you make money month after month after month because people stay only in the good games. It doesn't matter how pretty your box was, how great your graphics were - all that ephemeral quality doesn't keep people in the game for the long haul. The money is really rewarding the people who make the best games in the long haul, and that's not always the case in boxed games.
Q: Valve have done particularly well, on the quiet, at adding microtransactions to Team Fortress 2, a game which everyone bought three years ago and would otherwise not be making more money over that time...
Jeremy Gaffney: Those microtransactions and downloadable content has helped make the boxed games make more sense as a business model, but it's also helped keep games alive as well in the MMO space. Especially because the wonderful thing about them from a player perspective is if you don't like you don't have to get 'em, if you like it you can double down as much as you like on them. It's great for the business and it's great for the people.
Q: Given you're wearing both developer and exec hats, where do you stand on the creative issues around free-to-play and microtransactions? How much can the business model be reconciled with not compromising the game design?
Jeremy Gaffney: My take on it is that there are certain games for which it's very appropriate, and others for which it's really not. The kind of games which really benefit from it as those where there's a low barrier of entry, you can get in quickly, but on the other there's benefits to sustaining. We've seen some really big successes recently - League of Legends and similar games like that, where it's really easy entry but you can double down on the microtransactions. As we're doing it with more of our projects, I think what we're finding is it's a really great way to sustain a user base that's very passionate about a game. It gives a way to invest in it. In Korea you would see for a long a time that people on the Korean version of eBay would spend something like four times as much money as they would actually pay to NCsoft. What's interesting about that is it means in a way you're not serving your customers' needs, because they care enough that they want to spend this money. You're not giving them an outlet to do it. It's a very interesting situation.
Q: How much is NCsoft still experimenting? Are you anywhere near to a unified, de facto business model for the time being?
Jeremy Gaffney: We're a developer-friendly company all around, so our developers chase different business models that they find interesting. We don't have a boiler plate that we stick on all our games. Guild Wars 2 has been in development obviously for a bit; Guild Wars 1 really defined, I think, the 'free' MMO in terms of having a different business model than anything else. So we're agnostic - I don't think there's a company philosophy on that so much as developers know what's best for their games, so let the developer dictate that.
Q: You're not feeling that the subscription age is over then?
Jeremy Gaffney: No, there's still a lot of money being made in subscriptions right now. Worldwide there's a lot of money being made in transactions, but there's probably a bit more money really being made in subscriptions worldwide.
Q: Back when you started up Turbine all those years ago, did your vision of what the MMO industry was like at all reflect as it is today?
Jeremy Gaffney: No, not at all! Actually, when we were working on Asheron's Call in 1994, MMOs were all new - there was going to be this game that was all about these gods who were stalking the Earth, and there was a massive multiplayer element, and you were going to play this Thor-like guy with a big hammer and you'd smash people. And the name of that game was Quake. It changed a lot by the time it launched...
That's what we thought our competition was, that was all about dialling in on modems and the days of charging by the hour on Compuserve and all that stuff. Very different business. And we thought we were massively successful with 100,000 users, whereas now it's millions. I never expected it to go as broad market as it does; I always thought it would be very profitable, but a niche market among hardcore gamers, but it's really broadened out. Now you see South Park episodes based on MMOs, and I never expected to live in that world.
Q: The Everquest model at the root of so many of these games; did even that being the basis of the genre seem like a foregone conclusion then?
Jeremy Gaffney: I think you saw the games really all built on each other, from that early model of Ultima Online. Everquest carved its own niche for itself, Warcraft built on that niche, and then the Korean market similarly - it started on 2D, tile-based games and then grew up into some of the most attractive 3D games overall. It's been very hard to predict what's going to be expanding in that market, in part because it takes so long to make each generation of games that there's a lot more time to evolve within each segment of that. When there's a gap of five years between each generation of games and they take so long, and so few of them succeed, it's really difficult to predict what it going to dominate the next segment of that market. It has not always been consistent, falling down one path - you've seen branches off it that are really quite unusual.
Q: So you're expecting a new epoch still to come, rather than ongoing iteration?
Jeremy Gaffney: I think you're going to see two tracks. Smaller games which evolve more frequently, take more chances, and you're going to see the big market games which are the ones that cost tens of millions of dollars and that market's going to evolve more slowly because there's fewer of them and you're scared when you're spending $60 million, $90 million. There's even rumours of games which cost hundreds of millions of dollars...
Q: *Cough* Titan... *cough*
Jeremy Gaffney: Yeah, for instance. [Laughs]. Nobody wants to take a risk with $150 million, and so you're going to see a lot more conservatism but on the other hand very high quality bars. The big barrier to having lots and lots of really small games is you need to have lots of content. You talk about the games where they sold a bunch of boxes but then trailed off - making hundreds of hours of content is really, really hard. It's what driving up the costs of these games, it makes a higher barrier for the little guys to come in, and so getting creative around that is going to be something we see a lot of in our industry. Trying to have more content, more content like PvP where because you're playing against PvP the content doesn't matter so much as cycling in new strategies, new players to keep the game interesting. People are going to get all the more clever, I think, in trying to break out the mould of "we have to have a team of 100 people sit there and generate content solidly."
Q: How much do you think the trend of big launches from the last few years switching to free-to-play will continue?
Jeremy Gaffney: I'm not sure free-to-play is really the kiss of death, or even a resurrection method, because the games that moved over to it have made a bunch of money from it. There's been more interest from the big publishers in moving over to it early in the life cycle. You'll probably see more games from big publishers which launch with free-to-play from the outset. But because that perception exists, I think it also makes publishers leery to move over to it because they don't want the perception of "oh, hey, we're shifting over because there are fewer players now." Players in many ways demand it, you know. Anecdotally in our industry there are lot of games that have resurrected themselves by moving over to that model, players flocking in, lot more money to be made off it. In a lot of ways it's better for players because you get to opt-in only to as much as you want to. If a game's that important to you, you're probably willing to put that much more money into it - or want to even, because they experience more and more of the content.
An iPhone MMO is going to hit at some point, and once it does all the big boys who are so conservative with all their money are going to come in and play hard in that space.
Q: Or because they don't have the time to get to it via the traditional route of progression.
Jeremy Gaffney: Yeah. You're seeing market segmentation too among the players who are playing largely based on skill and those who don't but maybe they have time or maybe they have money. Those are all three axises players plot themselves along. It's a rare person who has skill and time and money.
Q: Is the PC going to remain the de facto MMO platform for the foreseeable future?
Jeremy Gaffney: I think we'll see a big hit in the tablet and iPhone space, I think we'll see a big hit in the console space. Things make that difficult; if you have a five-year development cycle, trying to hit a console is very hard, because the hardware may change in that time. So all of a sudden the console you're working on went away, or it's "hey let's sign up for the PlayStation 7 six years in advance", and who knows where the market is by the time you come out. Because of that it's very difficult to go to console.
It's similarly difficult in iPhone and tablets because generations of that come out faster than your development cycle. Having said that, you'll see the potential to get that especially in the smaller games. There are some pretty good games experimenting with that on iPhone and tablet - one of those is going to hit at some point, and once it does all the big boys who are so conservative with all their money are going to come in too and play hard in that space.
Jeremy Gaffney is executive producer at NCsoft West's Carbine Studios. Interview by Alec Meer.