While Funcom's Age of Conan was one of the biggest MMO launches to-date, the struggle to maintain a strong subscriber base has been a challenge it has shared with other members of the industry. But today the company is announcing the first title to be published under its new Sweet Robot label, Pets vs Monsters - an online game aimed at a much younger, more casual audience.
Here, Funcom's CEO Trond Arne Aas and Pets vs Monsters producer Jon Wright talk to GamesIndustry.biz about the thinking behind the company's expanded direction, what their hopes are for the new market and what it can bring to the business overall.
Q: Tell us about the new game.
Jon Wright: Basically what we wanted to do with Pets vs Monsters was build upon Funcom's traditions for good RPG systems and RPG mechanics - levelling, grinding monsters, completing quests and character development, and bring that to a much younger audience than anybody's really brought it before.
So taking kids from a Club Penguin age and giving them a nice, gradual introduction to what people call a sort of Diablo-style mechanic and gameplay.
Throughout the game you're really transitioning the player from chasing experience points (XP), levelling and that kind of thing and turning it into an item-centric game - so they start chasing items, collecting gear, wanting the right armour and that kind of thing.
Those are really the goals for the game's design - on top of that is the setting, and what we wanted to do there was really create a great relationship between the avatar - the character that the player associates with - and the pets that they collect throughout the game.
The relationship is basically that the avatar wears armour and great-looking gear, and rides through the game on a giant beast - whether it's a dog, or a wolf, or a cat, or a bear. Together, in that partnership, you have to complete quests, defeat bad guys, beat bosses and generally achieve great things.
So it's a little bit of collecting pets and equipment, and also levelling and developing your character. It's an isometric game that uses a new Java engine that we've developed - it's a fast download, so you're into the game quickly, and it's very casual-friendly.
We're planning on starting the beta for the game this month.
Q: It sounds, when you're describing it, that you've hit upon a lot of compelling ideas and the younger children demographic is arguably an under-served audience. What exactly is the age range you're targeting?
Jon Wright: We've done a lot of focus and usability testing throughout the entire development of the game, and we've had successful play tests down to kids at four years old. Now, at that age, they're really not getting some of the more complicated mechanics, but in terms of running through levels, killing monsters, collecting XP - that works all the way down to four.
At around six years old you start to see them understand what the gear does, and at around eight years old you start to see them equipping the right sort of gear for the right sort of thing - so the demographic is really as young as we can make it, and holding through to... I mean, we enjoy it in the office, and we're in our thirties...
Q: There's a trick behind some of the most successful ideas - the can appeal to kids, but if they're good games at heart they've a chance of appealing to all ages.
Jon Wright: Yes - it's mostly about the user interface, and making sure that's accessible. That's an ongoing battle, but one that I feel we're winning.
Q: And how will this work in terms of business model? Age of Conan is traditional subscription, but what are your feelings on the more casual market?
Trond Arne Aas: We still have a relatively open mind on the exact business model. It will be a combination of premium subscriptions and micro-transactions. It depends a bit on the target audience we see that the game appeals to the strongest - with a very young target demographic, let's say six-to-eight, then it's definitely the parents doing all the payments, so it's important they have control over what they're paying. There a subscription model or very predictable model will be used.
For an older demographic you come to an increasing use of micro-transactions - but I think our starting point is a model that's very similar to that used by Wizard 101 for example, with a premium subscription and some micro-transactions on the side.
Q: Marketing for the younger demographic can be tough - I remember when I spoke to the founders of Club Penguin they really only made an environment for their own kids, and didn't really expect the sort of success they eventually enjoyed. It uncovers one of the traditional problems of getting that 'playground buzz', or communicating with the parents that this is something their kids will want to play. What are your plans in that area?
Trond Arne Aas: It starts and ends in many ways with the product, I would say. The first phase we have now, of limited beta testing, goes to the heart of the fun factor and enjoyment that the kids will find with this product. It's relatively limited - we start testing it with a few thousand kids.
If we find that they enjoy themselves for a long time with this product, there will be ways for us to capitalise on that - you have a product that you can then market profitably.
If you look to Club Penguin I think the key thing for them was that they created a product that the kids actually enjoyed spending a lot of time in - and because of that it was possible for them to capitalise, and then move into the marketing phase.
That's very much the approach that we're taking - testing the product, testing longevity, testing the fun factor and then moving into the marketing phase.
There are several ways you can market this game - I think partner marketing will be a key factor for us, so basically linking up with the games portals where this target demographic are playing games, and then either doing marketing deals or revenue share deals with those partners.
And of course word of mouth is central to these games - getting the snowball effect.
Q: What about non-endemics - is there interest on your part to try and hook with clothing or confectionery manufacturers?
Trond Arne Aas: Absolutely - that depends in the end on the market potential, and I think the expansion opportunities for the IP are huge. But we start with the product itself, and we have to test that it has the affinity with the kids - then you can create cards, collectibles, you can hook up with different toy manufacturers, and build the IP to a much broader thing if you're successful.
Q: Merchandising is probably the Holy Grail - although very few people have managed to take it that far... if you can, it's great for the business.
Trond Arne Aas: I totally agree, but for now we're focusing on making sure that the game works - that's the game-starter.
Q: It sounds like an eyes-open approach in bringing the game to market - are there lessons that you've learned there from running Age of Conan as a service, as opposed to traditional fire-and-forget boxed products... the emphasis is on being agile?
Trond Arne Aas: Absolutely. I think the interesting thing is looking at how some of the Facebook developers do things - they actually put some products out at a very early phase, and see if they catch on. Then they invest and adjust those products which seem to have the most potential.
Now, it's not that easy with a full-blown game, but there is definitely stuff there that we'll learn from and try to incorporate into what we do in this space.
One of the whole reasons that we started this initiative was that we saw some of the successful concepts in this space - like RuneScape, DOFUS, Habbo Hotel - those kinds of products grew organically year-by-year over quite an extended period.
The attraction of this model is that you don't have one big global launch where you spend x million Dollars and then see how successful the game was - here we will test, we'll adjust, and when we see that the average customer brings in more money that it costs to attract, that's when we'll ramp up marketing.
That's one thing - the second is that we're very open to everyone, but we do believe that in this space where we're making relatively small, focused bets on game concepts, we will need to develop several. Some of them will be successful, and some of them might not be hitting that nerve that you need in order to make them a success.
That's why it's also important for us that we're building a portfolio based on this engine that we have, that the engine is very modular and that it represents a low-cost opportunity for us to develop new concepts.
Q: That sounds like a direct reaction to being a company that effectively runs a single, large service in Age of Conan - that you rely on to bring in the money. In a changing market, with strong competitors, spreading bets seems like a much more prudent approach.
Trond Arne Aas: Yes - you might say that, although we're still convinced there's a high-end MMO market. I think what we've seen on the high-end MMO market is two things: One, it's turned out to be more challenging to keep those big subscriber bases for many years; but on the positive side the sales of new MMOs in the initial launch period are much higher than previously.
So I think what's important is that you really think through that, and that you develop your high-end MMOs with a very open mind. I also think that on the high-end side there are definitely opportunities to test the gameplay mechanics and concepts in a very early phase, before you move into the full production cycle.
I think you'll see that both from Funcom and from other companies in the future, because there aren't that many people that can put down... I don't know how much they're spending on the Star Wars game for example, but it's many tens of millions of Dollars in those big bets. People will be seeking the same kind of risk reduction in the high end space as we've seen in the casual space.
Q: How did the team on Pets vs Monsters work internally with the Conan or Secret World teams? How did you plunder that experience?
Jon Wright: The team has been blessed with some core competence right from the start. It's a mixture of expertise and veterans from Funcom and some new, fresh, very excited young people forming the team.
One of our lead coders for example spent a great deal of time working and learning on Anarchy Online, and gained a great deal of experience on how to deliver a client-server architecture in that environment. Our art director was also the art director on Age of Conan, and brought to the project - which is a small budget, casual project - about 14 years of Funcom experience, and a triple-A art production background, and I can't thank him enough for that.
So really it's a mixture - the other good thing that we have at Funcom are open doors in terms of being able to go and talk to the render coders that are currently working on Conan or The Secret World, and tap their really triple-A, DirectX10, bleeding edge render tech knowledge and not make so many mistakes in the casual space.
It's a real asset having a large skill base to learn from, even though the team itself is relatively small.
Q: Something we've observed on what were previously considered more casual, entry-level platforms like Xbox Live Arcade is a steady ramping up of quality - games like Shadow Complex or Alien Breed have extremely high production values, and it's arguable that the same thing is happening in the wider casual space with attention to detail. Having the experience you talk about to draw from must give the game a big advantage?
Jon Wright: Very much so, but it's not just that - it's also all the ancillary systems, like having a good quality QA department, having a great ops team that can give us a good server architecture and experience of how to handle a huge launch like Conan. These are advantages that smaller developers in the casual space probably don't have at their disposal, and I'm lucky enough to have that available on the project.
Q: One of the things you'll no doubt be watching carefully is scalability for this project - if some of the portfolio bets don't come off you don't want ongoing legacy costs, but at the same time you'll want to be able to grow quickly those games which to hit that nerve. What sort of measures do you have in place to ensure that on one hand you can be responsible on the cost base, but on the other agile enough to act in the face of high demand?
Jon Wright: It's a good question - it was a big focus right from the start that we knew theoretically right from the start that if everything goes well, we get the conversion rates and see the business model working well, it's no-holds-barred on the marketing front... and we need to be able to respond to that.
That's something we were aware of right from the start - just because it's a low development cost game doesn't mean that it won't potentially have millions of people playing it. At a server architecture level, it's ensuring we can bring the servers online rapidly and expand that - which we've done.
To add a new server to our pool is to just flick a switch - it comes on, it finds itself among the other servers and starts sharing its load, and that's without any configuration of anything. So again, some key learnings from Anarchy Online and Conan - Funcom's been doing this a long time, and knows how to deal with it, and we've taken a lot of that into account.
Trond Arne Aas is CEO of Funcom and Jon Wright is producer on Pets vs Monsters. Interview by Phil Elliott.