Rebel Entertainment: Disney veterans look to capitalize on Diablo III hype
A new social game company, part of net giant IAC, reveals its plans
Rebel Entertainment is a new game company building social games as part of the InterActiveCorp (IAC) family of companies. IAC, which had revenues of over $2 billion in FY 2011, has been operating since 1986 under various names, owning an eclectic collection of websites ranging from CollegeHumor.com to Vimeo.com to Retrogamer.com. Rebel Entertainment has been operating in stealth mode since it was formed back in 2010, but decided to reveal itself to GamesIndustry International as it prepares to launch its first game in the near future.
Rebel is led by General Manager Mike Goslin, who was VP Virtual World Design and Development at Disney Online before leaving to form a startup, and then joining IAC to form Rebel. We spoke with Mike Goslin about how Rebel was formed, what it's working on, and why they feel they can succeed in an ever-more-crowded social gaming market.
Q: When you founded Rebel, how did that come about, and why?
Mike Goslin: We were doing our startup company [Hangout Industries] and met some of the IAC people, and they got interested in working with us. We joined IAC and formed Rebel. If we do something great, we want to make sure we can capitalize on it and get behind it in a big way, and get to scale. We're small and nimble like a startup, but when we need big-company resources to go out and leverage something we've created, we've got it, it's ready to go. In a way it's the best of both worlds.
There's a core group of us that were at Disney for a long time together; we've also picked up along the way other people from other prominent game companies. EA, Atari, Zynga, Insomniac are some examples. When we were together at Disney we built Toontown Online and Pirates of the Caribbean Online, to name a couple, and now we're trying to do it again under the auspices of Rebel Entertainment. We're targeting building games for Facebook and online and ultimately other platforms as well.
Q: Does it complicate things to build a massively multiplayer game for a platform like Facebook rather than creating your own client?
Mike Goslin: Yes and no. There are a couple of things that are easier in fact. On Facebook there's no anonymity, so people generally in my experience behave better, so it's not as tough to police as a straight-up web property is. Also, it makes it a tremendously easier proposition because your friends list already exists and we can just tap into it to allow you to play with your real friends. In some of the MMOs we had to create special systems to match people with their real friends; if two people were playing we wanted to make sure they could play together, be on the same server and so on. On Facebook a lot of that connection is already done for you.
"To me the best and longest-lasting content is community."
Q: The social gaming space has gotten very crowded. What are you bringing to the party that makes you think you're going to break through the noise level out there?
Mike Goslin: I think the big differentiator is really playing with real people in real time, not just playing a single player game that has sort of social features that allow you to communicate asynchronously. I think playing with real people gives you two things. It's a novelty - those are real people that I'm playing with - but I believe what's happening on Facebook right now is as the platform has matured the game is shifting from one of acquiring players to now retaining players. The only way to retain players is to give them more to do, give them more content. To me the best and longest-lasting content is community. If you're playing it against other real people, meeting other real people, building relationships, the experience keeps changing, because the dynamics of interacting with other real people are what's interesting. To build a single-player game that lasts as long as these multiplayer games do you'd have to create a tremendous amount of content. I think it's prohibitively expensive to do that.
Q: The issue with synchronous vs. asynchronous game play is: are my friends necessarily available when I want to play? How do you solve that?
Mike Goslin: One of the great contributions of social games is the asynchronous play; we could have used that back in the day. The problem is what percent of the time you are going to be there synchronously with your friends. Having that rare time where you actually play with your friends just elevates the experience fantastically. You can use asynchronous really effectively to keep people engaged until those moments where they can play together. The other thing we do is match you up with people that aren't your friends, too, so you can always play with real people. That's not as good as playing with your friends, sometimes, but it's more interesting than playing against AI players.
Q: And you can make friends that share an interest with you.
Mike Goslin: Absolutely, it's a great way to meet people. That's something that Facebook doesn't make particularly easy; that's something that you have to write yourself. Part of the platform that we're building up is this idea of a "game friend" that's somewhat separate from a Facebook real-world friend
Q: How long have you been working on this?
Mike Goslin: We've been working on it for about a year now, and we're hoping to talk about in the very near future. We're not going to start talking about our game until we're confident that it's completely ready. We're very close. It puts into play a lot of the things that we were just discussing. It supports real-time multiplayer with either players that we match you with that are of equivalent abilities or your own friends if they happen to be online.
Q: Who's your target demographic? One of the great things about social gaming is it's opened up the entire demographic.
"The truth is it's sitting on a platform that's a full-on MMO platform, so we could scale it up."
Mike Goslin: We wanted to make a game that we really wanted to play on the platform, so we're focusing on males of all ages. Our sweet spot will be teenager up through adult, fairly broad. It harkens back to some arcade-style games that have been around for a while. It's a Dungeon Diver style of game.
Q: A synchronous game can be reflex-based, or stat-based, or somewhere in between. Where does your game fall in terms of game mechanics?
Mike Goslin: It's an action game, so being skilled does give you an advantage. Right now we're focusing on cooperative multiplayer, so you're not going head-to-head against other players directly, the way it's designed currently. We may add that later because I think it's fun, but the focus is more on teaming up to go out and adventure. You can do better if you're skilled, but it also has an RPG leveling system in it as well, so you can improve. In addition we're selling premium weapons to give you a boost. You can get there from either skill, or leveling up RPG style, or you can buy your way into a degree, or some combination of those three.
Q: Are you finding game balance to be an issue?
Mike Goslin: It's a microtransaction/virtual goods business model, so you want to be able to sell things that are functional, in addition to giving you status, making your character look cool, customizing your character, and so on. The balance really is you don't want to give people an unfair advantage. What we've found is when you build a game that's for a pretty wide audience like we have there are different people that have different time/money tradeoffs, and it seems to work out OK. If I play a lot and I'm really skilled I'm going to do probably better than someone who's bought their way in. You really have to make sure that buying your way in doesn't give you an unfair advantage. On the other hand, you do want to sell items, and you want to allow people that don't have the time to level up all the way, to play with their friends and to really contribute. We've been really careful about the loot everybody gets; it's not a zero-sum game on the loot so you don't have loot hogs and those kinds of problems. We tried to give everyone an incentive to have more people in their party and work together.
Q: It sounds like an MMO in a Facebook platform.
Mike Goslin: I don't think it's going to be necessarily perceived that way. One of the nice things about Facebook is you just get right into it, there's not a lot of setup, you don't have to create accounts or anything, you just allow the game and boom! You're in there and playing with other people. Then we reveal these other elements. The truth is it's sitting on a platform that's a full-on MMO platform, so we could scale it up. Right now it's for small numbers of people playing in a dungeon together, but we could scale it up to MMO scale very easily - we have the foundation to do that. I think that's one of the big differentiators, the ability to be a full-on MMO even though we're kind of doing this in stages, because we think that the best experience is the more simple one. It's really hard for people to do this, it requires a significant background in building scalable multiplayer architectures. We've got this nice starting place that's pretty powerful, and we can ramp that up as the product evolves. It's a platform, so we're building other products that will take advantage of these capabilities also.
"Diablo III is a classic game that will get people excited about this genre of games, so I think it can bring a lot of attention to us"
Q: Is it fair to say you're going to see where the audience takes you?
Mike Goslin: Of course. We're really focused on making the game great and fun and allowing you to play with other people. If people want to start spending more time in the world and exploring it, we have the technological capability to do it already. Part of the longevity of these games is their ability to evolve, so we're making the minimum viable product. We're coming out with what we think is the nucleus of a very fun, deep, long experience. We'll let the audience guide us and build it out as we go based on what's working with people.
Q: As a new company without other games to feed users into this one, there's a big marketing challenge to find players. What sort of marketing plan do you have to build an audience? Is it just viral?
Mike Goslin: We've been doing some test marketing, and the good news is because our game is pretty novel in the space we're having pretty good success acquiring people on Facebook through paid advertising. It's also quite viral, and I think part of it is because we don't have a lot of typical friend-gating systems built into the game - we're very soft on that - but because it's just so much more compelling playing with your friends it causes people to reach out organically. We have very strong viral. So far it hasn't been a problem acquiring people at test levels of marketing; we'll find out more when we start scaling up. Obviously it'd be great if we just had a bunch of games that we could route traffic from, but the good news is we're monetizing well enough that we can market without really burning any money.
Q: With the kind of game you're doing and the market you're targeting, I assume your monetization is better than a standard social game.
Mike Goslin: I'm not going to share numbers but we're very encouraged by it, and I think you're right that the audience for this kind of game behaves a little differently; it's a more engaged audience and they are willing to spend money in something they're engaged in. Our focus right now is making sure that the game is fun and sticky and that people are coming back and playing for a long time. I would say that our early monetization is very encouraging and I absolutely think this is a viable thing to make a game for.
Q: One of the big shadows on the horizon for you has to be Diablo III, which is in the same genre and targeted at the same users, and it has huge name recognition and massive marketing. Are you concerned about how Diablo III might impact your rollout?
Mike Goslin: I'm not too concerned; in fact I think it can help us. Diablo III is a classic game that will get people excited about this genre of games, so I think it can bring a lot of attention to us in a positive way, and get people back online playing, and that will benefit us. Our audience definitely overlaps with the core Diablo players, but I think it's also broader. Our game is built in Flash and can be played in a browser, and I think we're going to benefit from the halo effect of people liking Diablo III and being excited about having this kind of experience online.
Q: You said you're looking at other platforms; which ones are in your sights right now?
Mike Goslin: We're launching a web version of the game. Even though so many people are playing Facebook games now, there's still a certain crowd that doesn't consider Facebook to be a viable gaming platform, so we want to be able to reach them. Our game might appeal younger than the age cut-off for Facebook, so it'd be an opportunity for kids if they wanted to play. It's a different and broader audience to go online. I'm also very interested in mobile. I think it's harder to do a multiplayer game like this there, but I would be interested in trying it on tablets and seeing if we could make it work.
Q: Any last thoughts?
Mike Goslin: I think it's a really exciting time in the game industry. I'm totally blown away with how quickly things have changed, and I think it's gonna be great for the industry. It's certainly good for players to have more choice. There's a lot of creativity and innovation going on because of the changes in the way business is working and the platforms.