Plenty of new studios talk about creating "COD killer" titles, but not many of those studios are headed up by the man who helped to create the shooter franchise in the first place. Step forward Dusty Welch, founder and CEO of U4ia (pronounced "euphoria") a marketer with an impressive history as SVP and head of publishing at Activision, and as the driving force behind Call Of Duty and Guitar Hero.
Welch took time out of his Thanksgiving holiday to talk exclusively to GamesIndustry.biz about how along with his co-founder Chris Archer, U4iA intends to make the most out of his considerable experience, and the opportunities afforded to the company by the reactive nature of social platforms, to take down the very mega franchise he helped to create.
Q: Your background is with some of the industry's biggest franchises, why leave that behind?
Dusty Welch: You're right. My track record is pretty strong, and certainly in the core space building up some of the biggest franchises in gaming history, like Call Of Duty, but I think importantly I'm an entrepreneur, I'm a business builder, and I was really impacted and influenced by the book Blue Ocean Strategy.
I don't know if you've seen it or read it, but to me it was a game changing dynamic book, and to me it really crystallised the dynamics which are taking shape in our industry, which is disruptive technologies impacting the more traditional console model. And because my passion and my career is built around new franchises and business models, the book really spoke to me and gave me the insights that I was kind of living in a big company, big franchise world, but for the most part I'd been ignorant to the trends and the groundswell current that was taking shape with consumers that are looking for new distribution methodologies.
They want to play and have access to games anywhere, anytime regardless of distribution, regardless of platform and for many of these consumers they're looking to extend their playtime into new areas that don't have them plunking down $70 or $80 each time for a game, but rather paying as you go or experiencing the content as they would like. In many cases we learned and I learned that core gamers will happily pay double to triple the price of a console game if it's on their own terms, where they want to play it, when they want to play it.
It's still early days for non-console gaming and for the convergence and migration of active gamers to the new platforms
So those were "aha" moments for me, and I felt that I had built successful IP for other companies, but it was really time to bet on myself and shape where the gaming industry was going. And so that's why I decided to go and do it. And I really felt that was an undeserved genre for the shooter in social networks, or PC, Mac, mobile and tablet devices. Number one genre, and yet really, no one dedicated to making a AAA, quality gaming experience for those platforms and devices for consumers. And I felt like that was a unique opportunity that I could tackle.
Q: Why do you think there is that gap?
Dusty Welch: There's two avenues that you have to look at here. First, it's early days. It's still early days for non-console gaming and for the convergence and migration of active gamers to the new platforms. Core gamers are still on the consoles, but there's a convergence happening and a migrations, so I think it's still early days.
I look at what Riot Games has done for League Of Legends, making a core, PC, AAA proposition and disrupting the established players by offering free-to-play, microtrasanction content, and they've been wildly successful. So I think there's an example of core propositions extending themselves into the new area. And a first person shooter, I just think we haven't found the right team and the right proposition yet to engage in that. There are lower quality first person shooters that still exist in the marketplace today on the PC platform, but they're not AAA, and that's what U4iA is going to uniquely provide.
And I think secondarily, if you're talking social networks, really the team and the talent and the tech hasn't existed yet today to provide a AAA quality experience, for example in Facebook. Flash really can't take advantage until Flash 3D comes out, but Unity can.
And so we have a great talented group of individuals who now can develop a first person shooter dynamically, spawning on an Amazon cloud server, launching it in a browser. That's how we test our game every week, we test it through launching a browser, and we experience a AAA, first person shooter gaming experience. And so that I think is partly what's revolutionary about our proposition of what U4iA is, the really core connected AAA experience, but our ability to push it through the browser is a game changer.
I kind of liken it to when I created Call Of Duty to dethrone the established leaders back in the early 2000s, and you bet my goal at U4iA is to repeat that success again. And so providing a AAA, first person shooter experience in a browser is really what the end game is for us. And I think that's going to help lead the new dynamic and a transition of gamers into the social.
Q: Being the man who created COD and then beat it again with a whole new way of playing shooters?
Dusty Welch: I think you look at my track record of knocking off the established players and you can imagine that my goal for U4iA is to once again dethrone the established players, across the spectrum, across the space and allow gamers to again unite and experience the best consumer proposition that's available, and usher in a new genre experience. That's what U4iA is going to provide.
Q: Creating a free-to-play title is a very different financial set up because it needs constant maintenance, how are you planning to balance AAA production values and constant updates?
Dusty Welch: You're right, software as a service is a very different way of looking at the business and managing the business, but we think it's an opportunity and an advantage versus two years of development of fire-and-forget once it goes to market. We think software is a service, and how we're building a game at U4iA, how Riot builds games, Kabam ecetera, we think that's a huge market advantage and opportunity because it allows you to put out 80 per cent of the finished content to the market and consumers, and that's a great amount of content, especially in free-to-play, that level of content and quality and getting dynamic ongoing consumer feedback and the ability to adjust the gameplay experience on the fly, on an instant basis, and provide new content to consumers continuously, what an advantage that is over the traditional console model, to delight the consumers in unique ways.
You can be so hyper responsive to challenges, issues and opportunities from a consumer level as a marketer, my entire careers, Nestle, Dole, Activision, that's incredibly exciting for me to finally be able to have that sort of consumer access and to dynamically change the experience for them.
We're going to fish where the fish are, we're going to go after and target core and active gamers
That's a great advantage and so we look at it differently, it's not a challenge, it's a wonderful opportunity. Also we recognise that we are providing at U4iA a AAA, high budget, quality experience that is on scale and magnitude higher in scope that what you find on a traditional casual gamer. We're not making the low end propositions, we are making a very core AAA experience and so I do believe that our proposition can stack up and measure very well against console games.
Again, we're free-to-play, so you can expect some differences between the properties, but I think people are going to be very surprised by the level of quality that can be achieved with new technologies, the Unity engine ecetera, and how you make a development like this. You have to look at it a little bit differently, and I think most importantly you have to set up your company with the right level of talent and the mindset to continually providing new content and software as a service to consumers after the launch in perpetuity.
And you have to building from day one, and we've built this company, day one, we staffed it knowing we're constantly going to be delighting consumers throughout the experience and innovating to them. So it's a bit of your viewpoint, resetting the bar in terms of the budget which is much higher in scope and scale than traditional casual and social games and third, you have to have the right mindset and the structure of the team to be able to provide this content going forward.
Q: When you were recruiting for the team did you find developers were excited about making a move to social?
Dusty Welch: I think we've been pleasantly surprised by the amount of people with backgrounds such as myself and my co-founder Chris Archer, we have deep, 13-plus years experience from myself, plus for Chris, we were pleasantly surprised that so many people with our similar backgrounds have been yearning to get in to this more social casual space.
They see the ability to iterate and delight consumers rather than fire-and-forget. I think, and I'm not a game developer, but what I see from teams in my past and currently is that the development team often has to sit for two-plus years to make something in a vacuum before they ever get any consumer insight or feedback or reward on what they've created and what they've made. Now I'm not a game developer, but I would find that very challenging, to sit in a dark room for two-plus years and not know what the perception was on what I'd made. I think as a human being you'd also get pretty burned out.
So the ability in under a year to create a game, launch it in the marketplace, and every few weeks, depending on your discipline, be updating your content, getting new consumer feedback or monestising that content, that's got to be extraordinarily rewarding. We're finding that people are very interested in working for us because they like that new disciple and opportunity, and I think two, that you're seeing that the console market is proving itself to be a very challenging and difficult place for new IP to get established and for monetisation. The very talented developers see the new world opportunities, and they believe and see that tablets, mobile phones, PCs, the connected opportunity that is provided by those platforms is far greater that what the consoles can perform and provide, and the top talent traditional game makers are really encouraged by what companies like U4iA can provide to them in terms of a creative outlet.
Q: Do you think consoles need to adapt to survive, or do you think there'll always be a market for boxed products?
Dusty Welch: Well I do believe that the console market is not going away anytime soon, maybe even in my lifetime. I don't see the consoles going away, the consoles provide a wonderful gaming opportunity, a unique opportunity, I do see companies such as Microsoft really innovating over time, the approach and philosophy to connected gaming. Who among us thought that Live many years ago was going to lead to this and these metrics? Probably not many of us outside of Microsoft.
So I think that you can't discount the ability of bright companies and tech-lead companies to continually innovate the experience for consumers, and Microsoft has done that here with the Xbox 360 on multiple levels, and I think it would be too soon to count out any future console relevancy. So I think that still has a wonderful place but I do see, as you do, that consumers, just like in the music industry and just like in movies, consumers know when they want, how they want, and where they want to get it, and overtime they want to pay what they want to pay for it, and I think that that's a difficult challenge for traditional consoles to overcome. But I wouldn't write them off. Their ability to adapt has been pretty strong if you think about owning, as I have, an Atari 2600 back in the late seventies, gaming is still as strong as ever today, and will be. So I think they'll find some way to morph and transition and be very relevant in the future.
Q: Going back to the gamers, when people think social gaming they think Farmville, so from a marketing point of view how are you going to make sure you're attracting the core gamer?
Dusty Welch: It's a bit too early for us to disclose and discuss our distribution and marketing plan for the product, but I think it's important that when we're ready consumers will understand that we are developing a free-to-play, AAA game in a web browser for active and core gamers. That's the central theme around what we are doing as a company and what our first product will be. When we're ready the right messaging and imagery will be available for consumers.
We're going to fish where the fish are, we're going to go after and target core and active gamers. I think secondarily for us as a target is more of that social and casual consumer, and over time we'll flex and grow our business into encapsulating that and capturing that consumer as well Because quite frankly that consumer base is what will tip us from 5 million users to 15 to 20 million users when we capture that casual, social type of consumer. But we'll do it in two different phases.
But primarily we are making a great AAA game for active and core gamers that happens to be available on the more social platforms, PC, Mac, tablets, iPhone, if you acquire a product through Valve today and Steam, you can think about that platform for us, if you were playing games through Facebook, you can think that that would be a platform for us, but primarily, if you want the best free-to-play AAA shooter experience, agnostic to distribution methodology, we will provide that experience.
Q: I don't think it's outside the realm to believe that you can build a user base that can rival what Riot has built, perhaps in a shorter time frame
I don't think it's outside the realm to believe that you can build a user base that can rival what Riot has built, perhaps in a shorter time frame
Dusty Welch: I would say that for U4iA and for our first game we have very high aspirations for the product, and if you look back at the franchises that I have been apart of or co-founded, from Call Of Duty to Doom to Quake to Wolfenstein with the id properties that we helped to launch and build expectations are very high both internally and externally for our first person shooter.
We believe that given the magnitude of the genre being double the size of the traditional RPG market, that expectations should be very high for our product, and I don't think it's outside the realm to believe that you can build a user base that can rival what Riot has built, perhaps in a shorter time frame.
I think a year from now we'll have our first product in the marketplace, mid of 2012, and we'll be continuing to innovate that experience for our consumers, and I imagine that we will begin to start talking about high quality, AAA genres that we can provide to consumers in the marketplace as well.
To answer your original question I think that yeah, U4iA can match or exceed the user base that Riot is experiencing today. Much bigger genre, sticky proposition, e-sport competitive first person shooters are the hallmark of why so many gamers are playing on Xboxes and PlayStation 3s today, and we're going to provide a whole unique way to experience that in a AAA free-to-play package.