Experienced veterans from MMORPG giants Blizzard and Sony Online Entertainment are striking out on their own with the help of a one-time rival. San Diego-based Molten Games emerged from its stealth mode today, announcing that it is working on a free-to-play AAA online PC game with a multimillion dollar investment from NCsoft.
The key names at Molton include chief product officer Paul Della Bitta and VP of creative development Blaine Smith. Della Bitta was formerly Blizzard's senior director of global community development and eSports, while Smith was lead designer on Pox Nora for SOE, and lead designer on Company of Heroes Online at Relic Entertainment.
Phrases like "free-to-play" and "AAA game" have different connotations for different people, but Della Bitta told GamesIndustry International what it means for Molten.
"We're just trying to take advantage of the free-to-play model, but we want people to have the same expectation of quality they would if they went and bought a $60 console game at the store."
Paul Della Bitta
"AAA to us is really an identifier for quality," Della Bitta said. "With the advent of mobile and social games, some gamers are starting to associate free-to-play with games that don't have the depth or overall quality level that was expected of a PC or console title of the past. This is a game that you would have happily paid $60 for at retail. We're just trying to take advantage of the free-to-play model, but we want people to have the same expectation of quality they would if they went and bought a $60 console game at the store."
That's not the only way Molten is harkening back to the days when physical distribution was the only business model. Della Bitta said the studio was set up to emulate the core cultural tenets of previous developers who grew from start-ups to industry-shaping titans.
"We remember the games and the dev studios back in the day," Della Bitta said. "We played a lot of Valve and Blizzard games before I worked there. These were studios that were made up of gamers just making great games they enjoyed playing. And we're trying to follow in those footsteps."
That focus has made the process of building out the staff easier than it might have been, Della Bitta said.
"There have been a lot of startups around mobile and social, but a lot of people around the industry, especially people who'd been working on more core games, were looking for an opportunity to join a startup and be part of a small team," Della Bitta said. "Especially with the structure that we have, where we own 100 percent of our IP. We're not dependent on a publisher to fund a particular project, so we have a real sense of ownership. But we're still working on core games, so we found the talent was very receptive."
That has allowed Molten to be very deliberate in how it has built up staff, targeting experienced talent that has successfully concepted, developed, and shipped products. Since forming earlier this year, Molten has built itself up to a staff of about 30. Della Bitta expects to grow to 60 by the end of 2014, with a total headcount (including support staff for customer service, global publishing and the like) well over 100 by the time the game launches.
"[Getting funded] was actually one of the easier processes of starting the company."
Paul Della Bitta
Finding funding can be difficult for any startup, but Della Bitta said the process was fairly smooth for Molten. He particularly dismissed the idea that the VC market was laser-focused on smartphones and tablets.
"It wasn't as difficult as what you hear about as far as the mobile space goes," Della Bitta said. "Honestly, the PC online space is huge, much bigger even than mobile. We were trying to talk to people who really understood the space and had a similar strategic vision as to where the industry was going. So we were much more selective in the fundraising process."
Della Bitta said NCsoft CEO Taek Jin Kim liked the team that Molten had assembled, and recognized the potential of the project right off the bat.
"That was actually one of the easier processes of starting the company," Della Bitta said. "And honestly, we know we're lucky in that regard, because we know it is difficult to raise money."
It's been smooth sailing to this point, but now it's time to tackle the hard part.
"The challenge is execution," Della Bitta said. "But we feel like we built the right team to where we can execute on product."