Last week, UK developer Eutechnyx announced it had secured £6 million in funding to pump into its ambitious new free-to-play racing game, Auto Club Revolution.
Here, chief operating officer Darren Jobling discusses the project in detail, how micro-transactions can work for independent developers, why the option to self-publish is tempting, and why free-to-play is comparable to the early days of 8-bit development.
Q: Your new project is a free-to-play racing MMO – what was the thinking behind that, and when did you identify a gap in the market for the project?
Darren Jobling: I came up with the concept about three years ago, at GDC in San Francisco. Casual gaming in the West was yet to take off but £50 million per day was being staked in online poker games – the potential was definitely there and growing. I was thinking of ways that Eutechnyx’ products could be shaped to appeal to the online casual game market and came up with the concept that became Auto Club Revolution.
From our studios in China we saw the explosion of free-to-play micro-transaction games in Asia – as racing games are one of the most popular genres in the western marketplace the two seemed like a perfect fit.
Q: Will Eutechnyx be working with other partners on this project – a traditional publishing partner for example – or is it a self-publishing venture?
Darren Jobling: This is something we are evaluating at the present time. We are not married to either option - as a developer we are used to working with partners and understand the value that they can bring to a large project with many moving parts.
However, returning to the world of publishing after a 14 year break also has an appeal. Ultimately it’s about what will make for the best game experience.
Q: How many vehicle manufacturers are you looking to include in the initial game, and is part of the beauty of working in the online space the ability to update the game with more licenses/partners once the project has gone live?
Darren Jobling: By launch we are confident of having the majority of the world's major manufacturers included in Auto Club Revolution. We will also be releasing regular updates post launch with new cars and manufacturers being added to the game world.
Q: Part of the recent £6 million investment will go into this project, but are you also funding the project through partnership with car manufacturers?
Darren Jobling: Since we’re dealing with so many different manufacturers in Auto Club Revolution, it’s important that we respond to what the public cares about over any specific company agendas. Therefore we’re funding the project on our own entirely and dealing with the companies as genuine partners.
Q: Are venture capitalists and other avenues for funding more open to independent developers now rather than the traditional publisher-funded project?
Darren Jobling: We have had more calls from venture capitalists in the past 12 months than we have had in the previous 20 years! I genuinely believe the current climate is the best in my memory for independent developers. Technology is changing and VC’s are interested in developers as the online content providers of the future.
Prime Technology Ventures previously invested in Global Collect - the payment transaction providers for some of the world's leading online games. So they have seen first-hand the explosion of micro transactions and online gaming and wanted to get into something on the content side of the games business.
There is massive interest in the casual game market at the present time from the financial sector, so I do think that you are going to see more deals of this type with developers obtaining the valuations their businesses deserve.
Having said this, the traditional publisher-funded project is still a viable business model for the right games, and we have no intention of stopping this major part of our business – Auto Club Revolution is diversification rather than a totally new direction for Eutechnyx.
Q: What lessons have you learnt or observed so far from other players in the free-to-play market, and what have been the challenges of adapting Eutechnyx to work on a free-to-play model?
Darren Jobling: Traditionally console studios are pretty removed from the people who buy their product. The beauty of a project like Auto Club Revolution is that we will be communicating directly with our consumers and using their feedback to shape the game beyond launch. Community will be at the heart of Auto Club Revolution which is as exciting as it is challenging.
I remember when we developed one of our first online titles - we mapped every road in LA perfectly, only for the most popular track to be a straight two mile stretch of concrete freeway. Now we can use this type of information in Auto Club Revolution to develop an ever changing game to fit the players’ needs.
To me, the free-to-play market reminds me of the early days of 8-bit – straight forward fun games dominated by original IP. Just like in those early days, a few programmers in a bedroom are hitting gold and that is really exciting. However, the market is changing rapidly with console quality and big IPs eyeing up the casual online space with envy… It will be fun to see how it all shakes down.
Q: With the move to online and free-to-play, are you looking to recruit staff with alternative talents compared to the more traditional game design skills? And does the company need to think and act differently for connected, persistent gaming markets?
Darren Jobling: Auto Club Revolution will be our fifth game incorporating online play, and having run the beta tests for our previous titles, we do have some of the experience and skills required to support this kind of game in-house. However, we also recognise there are new skills required that we don’t currently have and we are actively recruiting in areas such as marketing, community management, customer support, etcetera. We are also looking at unique roles to the world of online casual gaming, such as game economists.
Eutechnyx has always been consumer focussed as a developer, with a definite emphasis on appealing to the mass market. However, as this project has been three years in the making, we are well aware of the additional commitments required for dealing with persistent online gaming markets.
Q: Free-to-play suggests you're looking to attract a more casual user to Auto Club Revolution – what are the challenges there in a genre that is considered a hardcore experience?
Darren Jobling: I personally feel that racing games need to appeal to a bigger audience. The big racing games have gradually become very cold and sterile, focussed on authenticity rather than providing an enjoyable fun experience.
We want Auto Club Revolution to appeal to a wide audience so we are adding features, such as the Intelligent Assist Mode, which will ensure people starting out in a racing game can easily complete a lap with a standard keyboard without bouncing off each and every barrier However, we have also ensured assists can be switched off so that the game is still a challenge to our hardcore fans with their steering wheels and custom set ups.
With Auto Club Revolution, we are aiming to provide a console quality game experience, accessed through your browser. The sheer depth of the game will also ensure that its appeal goes well beyond just racing fans.
Darren Jobling is COO of Eutechnyx. Interview by Matt Martin.