ICO Partners Part 1
Thomas Bidaux discusses free-to-play on console and what makes the UK one of the toughest in Europe
The explosion in online gaming over the last ten years has meant that, whilst there have been many successful experiments, there aren't many old heads in the game - like any fledgling industry, there's something of a dearth of experience.
One man who has been there since nearly the beginning is ICO Partners' Thomas Bidaux, co-founder of the specialist online gaming consultancy. Here, in the first part of an extended interview, Bidaux and the head of the PR side of the business, Julien Wera, discuss the company's origins, plans and market insight.
Q: So ICO Partners specialises in consulting for the online gaming market - what made you choose that area?
Julien Wera: Well, that was our area of expertise. Thomas has been working in that arena for twelve years - which is pretty rare, considering the age of the online gaming industry - at GOA and NCsoft.
The other people on staff, we're a team of five, they've all worked in the online gaming space, all at NCsoft as well, except for me. I worked at Gala Networks Europe in Dublin for a long time, then I worked on some online projects at PopCap for their social games. I was on the PR marketing side.
It was really natural for us. Basically we had accumulated all that knowledge and all that experience, especially in free-to-play, microtransaction - new business models basically. Online game operation. We're not consulting in game development, we're consulting on the operations side, promotion. The service side of gaming. We're not game designers.
Basically we had a feeling that there is a need for that knowledge because that's where it's growing. There is a need for experience because it's a very young industry - maybe six or seven years old. It's very hard to find experienced people on that side of things. There's definitely a key need.
So that's what we wanted to do. When Thomas was at NCsoft and founded ICO it was really to help online games companies establish their business, to help their business thrive on Europe. We're really focused in Europe, we're working with Asians and Americans, studios and publishers, but we're helping them to establish their business in European territories.
Thomas Bidaux: The short answer would be that I don't know how to do anything else! I've never really done anything else other than work in online games. I was lucky enough to start very early in 1999. At that time it was very small, but it's been growing. I've been working in that space for 11 years and I've never seen it slow down. If anything it's the opposite.
It's fun, it's interesting and it's where a lot of innovation is taking place. Not all of it, but a lot of it. So we should be doing it. It's good for us, it's good for the industry. It's a good space.
Q: There's a definite marked difference between the European MMO market and those of Asia and the US - what special challenges to companies from those territories face when coming to Europe?
If you don't tweak it, make it specific to Europe, you're going to sound like a big, arrogant American company
Thomas Bidaux: It depends on whether you're looking at it from Asia or America. From the American perspective it's the fragmentation and the cultural differences. The gamers' tastes are going to be very similar - they generally like the same stuff. With western populations and cultures we tend to like the same things. There are some differences, say in France we tend to be a bit more Japanese friendly in terms of designs, in Germany they're a bit more rough and PvP centric. It's cliched but kind of true.
But in terms of business, even if it's culturally similar, it's actually very deceiving for American companies because they tend to think that if it's similar then it's the same. Actually it's the differences where they fail. They don't pay attention to the small things. They think cultural references will be the same, that the tone will be the same - actually that makes a big difference. If you don't tweak it, make it specific to Europe, you're going to sound like a big, arrogant American company and that's going to get a knee-jerk negative reaction from Europeans.
It's exactly the opposite the opposite of what they're trying to do. The other thing is fragmentation. America is 300 million people, all speaking the same language, all having the same distribution channel, all having the same media. Europe is 50 different countries, 20 different languages, lots of different cultural backgrounds, music, jokes... Humour is a fascinating thing to study in Europe - we all have a different sense of humour. We very rarely agree on whether something is funny or not. So it becomes very difficult.
We also have a different history in terms of online games. We come from clan-based, subscription MMOs - in the US there was Ultima Online, Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot, World of Warcraft. That's their basis. If you look at Europe, well, Ultima Online was never that big, Everquest was never that big. Dark Age did well, WoW did very well, but in between you have this things going on called Runescape, BigPoint, Ankama in France - we have a webgame culture that's totally different.
Thomas Bidaux: So you have different expectations of business models, service quality, all this stuff. So when you look at it, it looks similar but when you look more closely there's lots of things you can fine tune and improve. That's where we come in.
From Asia, Asian companies come with a very different expectation. Because they come from a fragmented market as well: China is different from Japan which is different from Korea which is different from Vietnam, so they think "we need to do the same thing in Europe that we did in Asia, which is licence to different people in every single country". Actually, if you try to do that you'll lose out, because the critical mass you reach in Korea, because player density is so high, you'll never reach with just one partner in France.
So it's fragmented like in Asia, but not that fragmented. There's still a lot of things that can overlap. So you need to think about the cultural differences, but also the cultural similarities which you should leverage. But the challenge is more in operations.
For instance, it's not as pronounced as it was two years ago, or even last year, but browsers. For Asian companies Internet Explorer is the one true browser. And they come here and say, oh, my website isn't optimised for Firefox. So you're losing 50 per cent of your potential audience.
So you need to educate them on that, you need to make sure they understand it.
They also come with very data heavy stuff because they're used to very good connections, especially in Japan and Korea. They have optic fibre everywhere. Direct fibre optic lines to you building, to your apartment, which are one gigabyte. So for them it's "push the button, have the experience".
Julien Wera: They have very "heavy" games, very fast downloads. They don't have the problem of optimisation for the bandwidth.
For Asian companies Internet Explorer is the one true browser. And they come here and say, oh, my website isn't optimised for Firefox.
Thomas Bidaux: There's also the history. They don't have the history of browser-based games like we do in Europe. But then you have to also explain the expectations of how a beta is being run, because the notion of a beta being secret, with an NDA, is totally alien to them. They think, "it's online, you should be able to talk about it".
If they go like a bull into a china shop, they try to do things in the way they imagine it should be done in Europe, rather than how it's being done. We tell them best practices, stuff that's obvious for us but not for them. Having worked on so many projects now we've got experience of working with Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese companies. They need this kind of stuff, not because otherwise they'll fail, but because they'll waste money and energy. Maybe so much that they'll lose faith in the market.
My job is to make sure that the European market grows. I want all of my clients to be so successful that the market becomes bigger, until we become comparable to Asia in the online games space. Lot's of things to be done.
But we have two businesses. We have the consultancy, and the PR side, which Julien runs, which is also very specific.
Julien Wera: The way we deal with PR is to help with the marketing for the companies we're dealing with, for example League of Legends, and Hi-Res studios with Global Agenda in Europe, that kind of thing. We're not traditional PR people. We've all worked in house at publishers before. A large part of our staff comes from a community management background rather than PR. So we have a different approach. We know all the games very well, we play the games a lot.
We don't take many clients, we have between three and five clients so we can really focus on the quality. We work on a pan-European level. We communicate just as much with journalists in the UK as Poland, Italy, Scandanavia... Depending on the client, we'll receive a message, with an announcement and screenshots or whatever, but we don't just relay it. We try to adapt it to the European audience. Not necessarily for the editors or journalists, because they're used to dealing with international publishers, but rather for the readers so that they really understand.
Especially with American clients, there's a particular American style to the way they do PR, the way they communicate their stuff. That may not be quite so well received in Europe. So we don't change the message ourselves but we advise them on how to communicate.
It's been quite successful for us. Having an in-house point of view, having operated games ourselves, we know the implications of everything.
Thomas Bidaux: It was never a strategy to do PR, it just happened. There was a need to do PR differently for one of clients, we looked around for solutions and couldn't find them. After talking with the client they asked "can you do it?" So we said we'd try. I think we've been so successful, so happy with the results, that we've been able to develop it in parallel with the consulting. We also look at it as a long-term thing, rather than a burst of news for the launch. It's an online game, so you have to have a different way to communicate.
For me, the whole business is changing. It's evolving. The way we're doing PR is to try and contribute to that, to make it online friendly.
Q: We've talked a lot about the fragmentation of Europe - where does the UK fit into that? Are we closer to the US?
Julien Wera: I would say that the UK is the closest country to the US in Europe, but I still wouldn't say it's similar. It's an island in so many ways [laughs].
Thomas Bidaux: It's one of the most difficult territories in Europe for online games. In many ways it's more difficult to do business in the UK than it is in the US. The UK is very focused on console - I'm not talking about the industry, I'm talking about the audience. Online is actually bigger in the US, strangely enough.
I think that there's lots to be done, but I think the only people who've cracked it are Jagex and Moshi Monsters, people who are local. All our clients have found that the UK has been one of their most challenging territories. One of the reasons is that there are very few media which are UK specific - you know that better than I do. Because of that it's very difficult to target the UK.
But also because of that it has one of the biggest potentials.
Julien Wera: I think also what we hear a lot is a misconception about the UK, from American or Asian clients who want to get into Europe with an English version. Traditionally the UK is not going to represent the majority of players on English speaking servers. That's going to be Scandanavian, Dutch, Eastern European, places where there's no localised version. The UK's going to be a significant part, but not the majority. Many clients who don't know the market that well think that having an office in the UK and launching a game in English in Europe means 60 per cent UK players. But as online, and especially browser-based aren't that big in the UK yet, it's usually not the case.
There's a lot of education to do there. I'm very curious to see the evolution of the UK consumer market, where there's going to be more MMOs and free-to-play games on console, because the UK market is very focused on console.
Q: Do you think that free-to-play will ever happen on console?
Thomas Bidaux: I think I heard that Microsoft are actually pushing for free-to-play on XBLA next year or something like that. For me that would be a miracle, that would be awesome. Free-to-play can happen on the console more than the MMO. MMO RPG's require too much communication - you need to chat. Voice chat doesn't work for them. Session based games, smaller online experiences, with RPG elements - free-to-play to make it accessible for everybody - that's obvious. It could work pretty well on the consoles.
Back when I was at NCsoft, my team and I signed an exclusive deal with Sony. The reason we signed with Sony was that it was impossible to sign with Microsoft. We couldn't have done what we wanted to do. We wanted a free-to-play game, we wanted to run our own servers. We wanted to run our own games. Sony was like, okay, whatever - you're NCsoft, you know your online stuff, you can do it. Microsoft was blocking at every possible stage. Not because they didn't want it - I had the best meetings with Microsoft people. They were saying "it could be awesome if you could do this, this and this, but it doesn't fit into the form, we have to tick the boxes."
I think I heard that Microsoft are actually pushing for free-to-play on XBLA next year. For me that would be a miracle
They were very disappointed with themselves. So we did an exclusive with Sony and got all the perks that go along with that. So I would expect it to happen on Sony. My experience with Microsoft was that it will never happen there. Maybe free-to-play will just skip consoles and just stay with PC.
Julien Wera: Online is a very big selling point for Xbox. Microsoft has always pushed XBL, for quality, for multiplayer, for exclusive DLC for Call of Duty. So if they had that flexibility they'd need for MMOs and purely online games, that would be great. Back when Nexon announced the free-to-play version of Dungeon Fighter, the next day Microsoft said that the Xbox version wouldn't be free-to-play.
Dungeon Fighter would be perfect for Xbox, but it didn't happen in the end - well, it did, but not free-to-play. It's a big barrier to entry, even if it's selling for £5, that's still going to drive away more than half the userbase.
They're launching free-to-play PC games now, so maybe they'll get involved.
Q: It does seem like a very natural fit...
Thomas Bidaux: It's going to be extremely disruptive. I think maybe they're scared of the disruption. If you think about it, if you have a device that's purely for games, and you have a game that's free on that device, I think it'd be such a success that it would drive a lot of activity to those games. So what do you do with all your other partners? I think it'd be scary. I think it's going to kill some business, but not Microsoft's business, it's going to drive it.
Back at NCsoft, the project we had, I was excited. I think the game was going to be good, but even if it's just a good game, not the best game, just good, because it's free we're going to get amazing penetration. We wouldn't need to do any marketing because people would just give it a try because it's free.
It's a shame NCsoft canned it. They had good reasons to can it, back in 2008, but in 2011 I think things would have looked very different.