Last time I interviewed Ben Cousins, we were sat at a Battlefield press event at GDC, talking about his stewardship of Battlefield Play4Free. We talked about his belief in free-to-play and the bright new dawn he thought it could offer, about how big publishers, like EA, were finally taking note and turning the oil tanker.
Nonetheless, chatting away in a corner of the room dedicated to the Easy Studios title - a room where the main stage was dominated by the roaring blockbuster glamour of Battlefield 3 - he didn't really seem like his heart was in it. Play4Free was very much the understudy in that production, and Cousins has never given me the impression that he likes to play second fiddle.
Before the month was up, he'd left - an arrangement which had presumably already been in place when we spoke. In June, 2011, he announced that he would be heading up a new Stockholm studio for the DeNA-owned ngmoco, moving fully into the realm of mobile and tablet production.
"I believe freemium games on new devices like smartphones and tablets represent the future of gaming," he said to press when he joined - a message he has reiterated via both the media and his Twitter account ever since. His first game for the DeNA, as head of internal studio Scattered Entertainment, will be The Drowning - drawing upon both his knowledge of FPS and his clear passion for the platform and business model. GamesIndustry International sat down with him at GDC last week to get some thoughts on his role, his home and his new direction.
A:Your conversion from a core Battlefield developer to a mobile and free-to-play evangelist has been pretty full on. Do you still see any value in the old models?
"I never felt that real ultra-hardcore are all going to end up playing mobile games. We're not really targeting that consumer"
Ben Cousins:Yeah, as a gamer I'm part of that hardcore that are always going to be seeking out very high end experiences. I never felt that real ultra-hardcore are all going to end up playing mobile games. We're not really targeting that consumer. We're targeting that big chunk of the console audience who buy five games a year: the Tomb Raider, FIFA, Call Of Duty buyer - who I 'm not sure bought a console because of the big screen experience or because of the high end nature of it, more just because for many years console has been the most convenient way of getting hold of a good game.
We kind of feel that particularly tablets are becoming, will become, a solution for that problem or for that need. Soon it will be like actually, I'm getting everything I need here, do I really need to buy a console? These are the sort of guys who buy a console halfway through the cycle rather than right at the start.
I think the problem with the console model and certainly with the previous generation was that it needed the ultra-hardcore, the kids, and those kind of mid-core or whatever you it call it, mainstream gamers, to a buy a console in order to make a profit because it just needed massive volume.
It was interesting to see PS4 clearly go for what looks like cheaper hardware than last time around, so maybe that's a kind of defensive move against their expectation that they're not going to have the same install base, or maybe they just want to hit profitability quicker because of Sony's less stable financial state at the moment.
A:They've certainly got shallower pockets this time around...
Ben Cousins:Exactly, so that was interesting. That feels like they're kind of acknowledging the threat and they're kind of doing the best they can to kind of defend against it. But I do still feel like...and maybe it's a selection bias, but most of the people I talk to and whose work I read are kind of in agreement...that this time around console install bases will be smaller. And probably will be focused more on that core audience. It's certainly not going to be kids and casual gamers buying consoles anymore I don't think, they're going to be all on mobile.
Q:What worries me about that is it will cause a dearth of innovation on consoles, XBLA and PSN type stuff seems likely to be on tablet instead. Will we see games like Bastion, Limbo etc coming to tablet first in future?
Ben Cousins:I think so. I think PC and mobile are kind of attracting different indie developers... it's just kind of personal choice really, they're both equally valid - whether it's a Steam or a browser based game on PC or on mobile for really innovative indie games.
I think that what you see on consoles is the platform holders are basically trying to court developers and giving them money too, which feels a bit strange. These are exactly the sort of developers that make games in their spare time through passion or whatever and they're having to be courted and have their games basically paid for by the console platform holders, which kind of defeats the point. It would be easier for them to just open up the platform and allow you to plug your PS4 into your PC and just develop directly onto the platform and submit to an open app store. That would be much better, I think, than courting Jonathan Blow to produce a game for the platform.
"I think that what you see on consoles is the platform holders are basically trying to court developers and giving them money too, which feels a bit strange"
Q:You have to wonder what kind of cheque changed hands...
Ben Cousins:I met Jenova Chen at SXSW, I was on a panel with him, and it's interesting that those guys who've had indie hits are now kind of on the next level of looking for investment. I think Jenova has gone to the VC route. It feels like it's more of a limited exclusivity deal for Jonathan Blow and Minecraft is obviously self-funding, but I think we're going to start to see sort of super indies over the next few years who are producing sort of $2-7 million indie games that are funded through different means, so that's going to be an interesting wave I think.
Like anything else they'll start up all small and I mean a lot of these indie companies will end up being massive. Naughty Dog use to be an indie developer in a way right, and now they're making these huge cinematic games.
Q:I'm sure the AAA studios of tomorrow already exist somewhere.
Ben Cousins:And it's the ones who have the ambition I think and the drive that will end up there, but there's always going to be guys who just want to make something cool and underground who probably won't kind of climb up there.
Q:There's also a self-limiting attitude in some studios - they want to stay small.
Ben Cousins:Which is fine I think. it's good that you've got the freedom to do that.
Q:Your conversion to tablet and mobile is something we've seen reflect in the Nordic and Scandinavian scene. Why has the area adapted so much more quickly to mobile than the US or UK?
Ben Cousins:I think in Finland it's really clear why that's happened. I went to Helsinki in 2005 to do an adult education course for a bunch of small mobile developers and I'm sure some of those guys are now working at Supercell or Rovio.
That was basically Nokia. It was either ex-Nokia employees that had set up studios to do games for Nokia devices or it was just guys who had good contacts at Nokia who knew that they could get their games on Nokia devices. And there were just a bunch or 20 or 30 very unsexy kind of J2ME developers in Helsinki about 8 years ago and those guys have just gradually worked their way up and now they've got these enormous games.
"It's like Apple right? They were just two guys in a garage. These guys in Finland are the equivalent of those kind of small disruptive companies"
So it's typical disruptive innovation, these little companies that no one takes seriously or really pays attention to kind of crawl up market and then become the big guys. It's like Apple right? They were just two guys in a garage. These guys in Finland are the equivalent of those kind of small disruptive companies. So I think that's why Finland changed fast in particular.
I think if you look at Sweden and the other Nordics they never really had an established big console bunch of studios. If you think about the UK there's all these big console studios right, whether they're first party of they're like the Rares, or Eurocom, or Probe - all these kind of guys that have been around for 20 years. They're console, N64 and PlayStation, and I think that because that was the industry in the UK, it kind of stifled innovation. If you wanted a job in the games industry you just went and worked for one of those big companies. Whereas in Finland there wasn't that, you had to set up a company.
And in Stockholm it's been a bit like that. If you don't want to work for Avalanche or DICE you had to start something else up. Notch used to work at Avalanche. He worked at Avalanche for a while and decided he didn't want to do console games and started doing casual games and then made Minecraft. So it's almost like that gap and that lack of opportunity actually fostered innovation.
And Sweden is funny. You can just take time off work and work on stuff and it's fine to have side projects - to take time off or work half-time to work on some little thing on the side. There's just much more of a flexible work environment. And the state, the benefits and the kind of cushion that you have because you don't have to pay medical or education, is really cheap. It just means it's easier for people, even with kids, to say 'I'm just going to take some time off and do something on the side'. So I think that's why the Nordics have been so good at small things - whether it's mobile or PC.
Q:All of the countries in the region seem to score very highly on quality of life tests...
Ben Cousins:One of the things they measure is work flexibility, whether you can take time off and get educated while you're employed and stuff like that so, it makes sense... It's funny, you think of big government as kind crushing innovations; whereas in actual fact we see in the Nordics that big government is actually kind of fostering it in a way. And in Finland there's a lot of state sponsored investment in these companies and structures in place.
"It just means it's easier for people, even with kids, to say 'I'm just going to take some time off and do something on the side'"
Q:The Nordic game programme is a great example.
Ben Cousins:Exactly, yeah.
Q:Do you think that will be reflected in the UK with our big studios collapsing? With the return of bedroom coders, will we get a rush of innovation?
Ben Cousins:I see a big pattern. I'm starting to be reached out to and also I'm aware of lots of ex-console developers setting up mobile studios. A lot of them are putting out a $1 premium game and failing but there's also, without naming any names, there's lots of people who have been laid off from console developers who are now banding together. With their six-month pay off they're sort of thinking of putting something together; maybe looking for work for hire or they're trying to get something published, or they're doing a little self-funded project - I'm seeing that a lot.
And a lot of these guys are really experienced late 30s, early 40s guys who really know their stuff. And I think that with these devices getting more powerful it's going to be easier for them to use their chops on these platforms; whereas on J2ME games in the old days they would have had to go back to moving pixels around. With tools like Unity and Unreal they're able to get 3D assets into their game really quickly.
So I think we hopefully will start to see a bit of that...CSR was the first example of that right? They're all ex-console developers...
Q:They were. We saw a lot of talent come out of the Black Rock closure.
Ben Cousins:So I think we'll start to see more of that in the UK hopefully. It's less about the gap... like in Sweden there was no console development apart from Avalanche and DICE and people just created their own thing. In the UK it's more like there's been a deconstruction and then maybe a reconstruction of the ecosystem.
Q:Is there a future in companion apps and the second screen? It all seems a bit desperate at the moment...
Ben Cousins:I think it's just a way of them sort of saying 'we're doing mobile, but we're also doing console.' For me this iPad is like a TV replacement; this isn't a companion to the TV. And when I say replacement I mean having one of these is going to delay me buying a new TV - probably by five years. In terms of revenue there are going to be a lot of people who are like 'do you know what, I'm spending so much of my time on my tablet while the TV is on in the background that I don't need a new TV. That isn't my main centre of attention.'
"I'm spending so much of my time on my tablet while the TV is on in the background that I don't need a new TV. That isn't my main centre of attention"
I'm really interested to see if there's going to be a disruption of TV, if Apple move into that space or whatever; but I really believe that this is kind of a replacement for the TV. Certainly in my life I just spend most of my time looking at my tablet, the TV is on in the background. So I feel like that's probably also the case for gaming. For a lot of consumers this screen close to them is as good as or good enough compared to the TV and it's just going to take their attention completely away from the TV rather than be something that they experience with it.
I'm sure some of the horse-drawn carriage companies had a hybrid horse-drawn carriage motor car in the early days because they wanted to hedge their bets, and it just feels a little bit like that. I would much prefer to see EAs and Activisions just say “let's make a franchise”. Real Racing is a good example - “we're going to have a franchise which is just on mobile and we're going to absolutely go for it and it's not going to be about taking our other IPs onto mobile and it's not about creating companion apps or dual screen experiences, let's just put our energy and investment behind mobile.”
Public companies often have this kind of compromised attitude because they're scared of what investors will think if they start to pump too much money into something unproven.
Q:It's like Microsoft using Windows 8 on every platform: I'm not sure anyone actually wants that...
Ben Cousins:That's hedging your bets. At any point in the history of the games industry there's been one platform that's been dominant in terms of eyeballs and people say: this is like a new era of multiple channels and there's lots of options. I just don't think that's true. I think there will be one big winner.
I'm assuming that's going to be tablet types of devices, but it could be another type of device. But consoles have been absolutely totally dominant for the last probably seven or eight years, right? There's were lots of other options: you could have been playing on PC, you could have been playing browser games, you could have been playing handheld games, but console - by revenues and by eyeballs - was absolutely the dominant one.
So I just feel like we're in a period of uncertainty where we don't know what the next thing is going to be; but that doesn't mean it's going to be everything equally and there's going to be millions of screens. I just don't believe in taking your experience from device to device and screen to screen - I think it's going to be the device that is with you most of the time. I think phone and tablet together works, tablet and phone and PC and console...I just can't see that really... there's only a very small subset of consumers that are going to be transferring those experiences between every device.
Q:It's interesting you mention Real Racing. Eurogamer's review mentioned aggressive monetisation and we've had a lot of stories recently about kids running up bills with in app purchases. Is there a responsibility for limitation and education by publishers and device makers?
Ben Cousins:There's a bunch of different angles. From a regulation point of view I don't know, and that data isn't public, how many kids were stealing their parents' credit cards and buying Xboxes and a bunch of games, I don't know to which degree credit card fraud is used to buy Steam games and whether kids are running up big bills. I do think we have a responsibility to make it clear that you're spending cash, we do that, and iOS and Android are pretty good at doing that, so I think you have to be very clear - 'you're spending money now'.
There are just people whose main hobby is Real Racing, or their main hobby is League Of Legends - in the same way that my main hobby is buying bicycles and riding bicycles, and if you looked at the money that I spend on bicycles compared to normal people there would probably be a Daily Mail article about it, right? Everyone's got a passion, everyone has something that they do to an unusual degree and these free-to-play games just enable those gamers who do something to an unusual degree to also spend in proportion with that. Whereas normally they would just buy a $60 game and play it for thousands of hours, what we do is we get a proportional amount of revenue from them. Those people that just play it for half an hour - they don't have to pay $60, they can play it for free.
"If you looked at the money that I spend on bicycles compared to normal people there would probably be a Daily Mail article about it, right? Everyone's got a passion"
So it's just like good free-to-play game design is matching engagement with revenue and these people that spend a lot of money are just passionate, and they're not stupid. The people that spend a lot of money on Rage of Bahamut, the DeNA games, they're like retired wealthy people in Florida who just like to play games. They're not like addicted or weak minded, it isn't children, it's not like alcoholics or something like that, they're just wealthy people who are passionate.
I didn't feel like Real Racing was particularly aggressive in the main game loop, but what I did find was that when I bought a car, having to wait for that car to be delivered after I'd spent money kind of felt a little bit mean. But that's stuff that can be tuned. And EA aren't stupid, they will have a team of guys that are just tuning everything to make sure that they don't annoy people.
That's what you try to do in free-to-play games, you put monetisation in there, you put entertainment in there, and you just try and balance the two and to fit the goals of the product. You want as many people playing the game as possible, but you also want to be making a profit. And you tune the game to balance that. So whenever there seems something - like you're running out of energy all the time or something seems expensive or there's a barrier to you playing the game and you just don't want to spend money...that's a badly tuned game probably, rather than a badly designed game.
Most of the issues I have with free-to-play, or that I had with Real Racing's free-to-play monetisation, could have been tuned out with just a few changes on the server.
Q:Will we see a move away from the funnel model of whales and big spenders and see a more continual revenue curve with everyone spending?
Ben Cousins:It's interesting, I think a lot of developers want that to happen and I think that's kind of an ideal. Lots of developers feel much more comfortable with everyone paying five bucks rather than one guy paying 50,000 bucks who's just paying for tens of thousands of other people. the market will bear that out, I don't know whether that will happen, I honestly don't know. We're seeing lifetime value, we're seeing revenue per users increasing. I don't know what's driving that, I don't think it's higher conversion rate or more people spending, I think it's that the spenders are spending more or that final tail is much higher, and what I've seen in previous games and examinations is that as the production values increase, particularly on the items themselves, you feel better about spending money.
So if a car looks shiny and unbelievably realistic and beautiful you're more likely to spend ten bucks on it than you are if it's just a pixel. The holy grail is a $60 lifetime value for a free-to-play game, because then you're basically getting the same as you would for a packaged goods game - and we're seeing ourselves kind of tracking towards that. If you look at the money ngmoco make per-user on a game like Eliminate and you look at what they do on Blood Brothers, it's like 20 or 30 times more or something. So we're tracking towards that sort of a lifetime value, but it's bigger spends per user rather than conversion-rate increases I think. And longer player lifetimes as well.
"So if a car looks shiny and unbelievably realistic and beautiful you're more likely to spend ten bucks on it than you are if it's just a pixel"
So I don't know. I would like us to get to a point where more people are spending, but the market will bear that out. Maybe there's some sort of design trick that just needs to be discovered by someone that does that but at the moment we just see the same kind of curve, just with that curve kind of moving up by spend per user rather than by conversion rate.
Q:You've patented the controls for the Drowning - what lead you to that decision?
Ben Cousins:DeNA is a Japanese company, and its very common for Japanese technology companies to patent inventions. I worked at Sony for several years and experienced the same process, filing a patent for a game we created called 'Beats'.
Q:Surely if it's successful and no-one else can use it, it's thereby limiting the ecosystem for Core FPS on tablet?
Ben Cousins:It's DeNA's policy and decision and I'm not in a position to comment on the strategy.
Q:Multiplayer, particularly for shooters, is a huge console draw. Do you think that's necessary on mobile and tablet? Is it possible?
Ben Cousins:We have an asynchronous co-op multiplayer mode based around time-limited events. The mode is called 'Boss Hunt' and it's based on a really popular mode in DeNA's Japanese games.
Regarding synchronous multiplayer, we researched this subject very early on in the project. We discovered that consumers assumed that connectivity on mobile wasn't high quality enough, therefore adding real-time multiplayer didn't really add any appeal to the game. I imagine that in years to come we'll see synchronous multiplayer becoming more important, but it's unlikely to be a game changer over the next couple of years.