Over a year ago Acclaim Games announced a partnership with Shiny Entertainment's founder, David Perry, to create a racing MMO with a unique twist - it would be entirely user-generated. With 60,000 contributors and a game design settled on, Project: Top Secret's early ambitions look to have worked out well.
David Perry talks to GamesIndustry.biz about his outreach to the student gaming community, massively user-generated games and the potential of the free-to-play business model.
Q: You were recently gifted with an Honorary Doctorate from Queens University - how do you feel?
David Perry: You know, I was unsure because when you hear 'Honorary Doctorate' you're like "yeah it's not real it doesn't really matter". I didn't realise just how serious it was. Nelson Mandela, the last one he's accepting is from that college, Tony Blair got one, Johanna Lumley got one, and the guy that got the other one with me - they do two honorary degrees on the day - was the guy who made the Channel Tunnel and the next Olympic stadium for London. It was humbling... I'm way, way, way honoured by that.
Q: So do you think that reflects a change in perception towards the games industry?
David Perry: Without a question, there's no doubt... People that don't play videogames, I think they just file it away under some past-time that kids do, they just don't take it very seriously. When you say you're going to become a professional games maker it sounds like you're going to become a professional skateboarder to them... I really think that that attitude is changing now and you can see that in these colleges in all over the world teaching videogame courses.
I used to go into colleges to give speeches and I would take a console with me so I could demonstrate games. The teachers would sit there and they'd be absolutely fascinated... and you could see them sitting there thinking, "I wouldn't mind being in that business". Over time I think they've warmed to the idea and I think they'll continue to. There won't be a college in the world that won't teach a videogame course in ten years.
Q: There's been a question as to whether these videogame-specific courses are teaching what they need to, are you quite confident that they are?
David Perry: No, they're definitely not. It's just a case of giving it the time it needs to evolve. Initially they're going to be trying things and experimenting with which are the best engines to use. So they're going to end up going back and forth trying different things until they get something that works really well for the students.
I got given a Masters Degree as well from a college in the US that does a real videogame course. I go up there and give talks to the kids. I also go up there and judge competitions - I'm like the Simon Cowell of the competition world. They come up with all their design ideas and pitch us and sometimes they actually have to make a working game and pitch us.
Every time I go, the thing I enjoy is that I know some little student in that room who doesn't know it yet, but is really amazing - and he just has no idea. It's really fun, you'll get some guy that walks up and fires up his pitch, you just look at it and go, "Dude you're so in". You look at something he's made and it's photo-real.
Sometimes I meet old videogame veterans and their presentations for themselves are sometimes extremely weak. They assume they'll get another gig simply because they've been in the industry a long time. Then you'll get this student with this gorgeous presentation of their skills... It's just funny to see the difference, the passion, the energy - it's awesome, I thrive off that.
Q: Is that motivation to spot new talent part of the drive behind Project: Top Secret?
David Perry: The driving force behind that was to see if user-generated content could work in the game industry. We ended up with 60,000 people signed up and their goal is really just to see if they can work together. My challenge to them was really very simple: We're not going to continue this unless you come up with a game design that I've never seen before. That's not easy, you could imagine how many pitches I've sat through.
The only rule I laid on them was that I wanted it to be in the racing genre, the reason was because was I had secretly signed a development team in China to make their game. I wanted to be able to turn that game into a real game pretty swiftly. We let them do it and the game design they came up with was riding beasts - you actually trade beasts, grow them up and race and fight with them.
We learned so much, we learned about how to sign up the talent in there. We tried a reputation system... they were voting for each other so we could see who was the best. The top guy, I called him up, he was a guy working for the National Health Service in England and I offered him a full-time job and he now works for me. Then we ended up creating an advisory board - a very integral part to keeping the whole thing moving.
We ended up with a game design that I've never seen before and I think a game that we'd all like to play. So, I went back to that developer in China and they said, "We only have an engine for cars". So we said to the community, "Why don't you try to build the game yourself? Choose any engine in the world and go ahead and just make whatever you like". We had about 20 teams start making the game I think about five are going to make it.
I don't know if I did this all again I'd attach a competition to it. The problem is when you make things competitive like this then it makes everyone hold their cards to their chests... Making it competitive isn't always the best way. Wikipedia I don't think would work as well if you made it all competitive.
At the end of the day my analysis is that the whole thing without question works and the users have fantastic ideas, passion and an incredible amount of energy to get the work done. I would like to make the game at some point - maybe when I retire - with a million strong team. I think of game design like carpentry, the more tools you're given the more creative you can get with your carpentry. This is definitely a new tool.
Q: Don't you think that at some point that many people might become too unwieldy?
David Perry: No. For example the Spore game, you've got the Spore Creature Creator - imagine we haven't even launched yet and we have them creating our creatures for us and we hand them the Spore Creature Creator and now we have 100,000 creatures available on day one.
It's a design challenge, what would be the difference between having 50 people versus 100,000 people? What could you do with that?
Q: With that many contributors how do you police the content?
David Perry: The way you'd do it is you do automated peer reviews. Everything that gets uploaded gets mailed to five or six different people. If anyone flags it as bad then you send it to a larger group and if they flag it as bad then it goes to someone who is a moderator and the moderator will actually take the time to stop and look at it. Imagine if there were 60,000 images being uploaded a day, your community can absolutely handle that if you have a big enough one. Whereas you wouldn't want to hire the staff to sit there do that.
Q: Are you still planning to make it a free-to-play game?
David Perry: Oh yes, Acclaim is only free-to-play games. It just means that everyone in the community can play their game for free. And really for free, if they don't want to buy a single item - it will have micro-transactions built in because that's the business model - they don't have to.
Q: What do you think of Battlefield Heroes and what that's doing with the free-to-play model?
David Perry: EA is a retail-based company and that means they're dealing with retailers everyday, they have constant retail issues that they're dealing with, and the last thing in the world they want to do is announce that they're going to go free-to-play... that's not a good relationship builder with your retail sales teams. For them to actually make that announcement was huge, I thought that was one of the biggest statements that EA has made in years and it just went over people's heads.
They already have invested in Korea and The9 in China, they've been doing this for ages but they've been keeping it down. They built FIFA Online as a free MMO. Why would you make one of the most popular games in Asia and not release it in the US? The reason they don't is because they were not going to commit EA to free-to-play games - but finally they have. I think Battlefield Heroes is going to be a huge hit, it's going to be a bit of a phenomenon... I have incredible faith that EA is going to pull this off.
It's a whole different world you enter when you get into free-to-play, it's like the industry that we've all been missing and the second thing we've been missing is the idea of letting people pay what they want. I've made so many games and we never, ever had the idea that people would pay more than the price of the game for the game, no one would pay over USD 60 if it's a USD 60 game. On our 2Moons game you've got people that spend USD 3000 happily, and if we had more stuff for them to buy they would buy it.
Could you imagine if you were to take Halo and offer it free-to-play? How much money do you think some people would spend on Halo if they had a huge array of items that they could buy? I reckon there's a cap out at about USD 10,000. When you think about it, the most we ask for is USD 60 and when you get those people spending a lot of money it brings the average up. On Acclaim Games right now we average USD 75 per person.
David Perry is an executive videogame industry consultant. Interview by James Lee.