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Hunting the Prey

Thu 13 Dec 2007 8:00am GMT / 3:00am EST / 12:00am PST

Al King tells us why Kwari can succeed where others have failed.

As we wind up our mini-series of interviews on the subject of competitive gaming, we take a look at the online skill-based sub-sector, which is going through some transition at the moment.

Kwari is currently in its beta phase, with a launch imminent, and we spoke to marketing manager Al King to find out how it's going to be successful when others, such as Tournament.com, have fallen by the wayside.

Q: When does Kwari launch?

We're going live in Europe at the end of this year. The precise date remains a secret, because we're actually running a competition in our forums for people to guess the exact date. It'll be in time for Christmas.

Q: And what will success look like to you?

Well, we're all feeling quite bullish at Kwari. One of the first things I did when I got on board - because the majority of my experience at EA was with packaged goods - was to make sure I had a complete up-to-date briefing on the state of online.

So I bought a very, very comprehensive presage report from DFC, to basically understand what's going on - market sizes by territory, key trends, and all that sort of thing.

And when you distil all that down, whether it's to do with downloading for free, or micro-transactional payments, or moving away from packaged goods to online, it's pretty hard not to be bullish about Kwari's chances in the market place.

Then we noticed people like Tournament.com and Skillground come into the market place and they were doing two things which we thought were interesting.

One was allowing players to play online for free in games of skill, but also they were monetising that and allowing people to win cash based on a successful bet on the outcome of the game.

So we thought all the signs were there, and people were pioneering in the space, and therefore that was endorsing the way our thoughts were going. I think success would pay off all the hard work, investment and strategic thinking that's been put in.

Q: What makes you confident about your business model?

Well, Eddie Gill, the game's designer, was keen to build in a number of key criteria to both the game and the business model. First and foremost it was a free game to play, secondly it had to be free to download, and thirdly it had to have a sustainable long term revenue stream.

Plus it had to be piracy-proof, and also it had to have the ability to be distributed very rapidly at low cost. So essentially with Kwari all you need is a reasonably-spec'd PC and broadband, and then you download the game for free.

But because it's a first-person shooter, you need ammo to play the game effectively. Therefore we'll sell you the ammunition, and we'll charge USD 5 for 5000 rounds. And that's the only way that Kwari makes its money - exclusively from that transaction.

You can then go into the game and play, and our real twist is that the players can make money off each other in real time at a pre-agreed stake level. And that's basically the business model, with a hook for us and a hook for the punter.

Q: Tournament.com closed a few weeks ago, what are your thoughts on that?

Well, any business closing down is always disappointing. Most people go into business with a vision, objectives and a lot of enthusiasm, and if you've ever been through that process it's always tough to deal with when stuff like that happens.

So we empathise with that event, but we're looking at it to see what that's saying about the sector we're in. Are we in exactly the same sector? You could say yes or no, depending on how widely you define it.

I think I'd probably need to know more about their business model and their financing, the amount of money they spent on marketing and quite how they did that before I could really give an informed comment.

But we've not been made overly nervous by them closing down, and we don't see that as a thumbs-down to the skill-based gaming sector, or indeed games involving money. We just think there are probably factors which we don't have insight to which were probably behind that, and we hope they bounce back.

One of the things that's working to our advantage is that the IP we're working with is wholly and exclusively ours - we're not using somebody else's IP, and we're in complete control of that. And that's an advantage that we'll definitely exploit.

Q: What are you doing about security and anti-cheat measures?

Security is of paramount importance, and it was security that really drove the decision to work with the BigWorld MMO engine, because almost everything is held on the server side, so basically the server has to ratify all of the transactions.

Also, the number of transactions we physically monitor means that we will very quickly have one of the biggest transactional databases in the world, bigger than most high street banks, because we'll record every single shot fired, and where the bullet lands, so that we can answer queries with complete accuracy.

And you have to have a credit card to play our game - because ultimately most things are hackable, but you'd need a new credit card number every time you tried a hack, so I think we're almost hack-proof from that point of view.

And then last but not least we have a team of very experience IT professionals and games masters who come from both a gaming and accounting background. They'll have both automated reports and we can also manually look into the games, to very quickly track unusual behaviour.

Q: So where's the funding for Kwari coming from?

A group of fabulous gentlemen who I guess you would call business angels - as opposed to venture capitalists - and they sit on the board. I meet with them monthly to update them on the campaign, and they're very supportive of the work that the team is doing.

Q: And what's the timeframe been between inception and the release?

I'd say about two years. The idea was knocking about for some time before that, but two years ago Eddie put a demo together with his brother, and then approached somebody he knew, who was then able over the ensuing months to bring together the investors that we have.

That took about six months, and then about 18 months ago Kwari effectively kicked off and development began in Australia. The business plan and the hardware partners all began to take form.

Then about nine months ago, when the game was shaping up nicely and approaching its alpha milestone, they realised they needed a marketing professional. They got me insteadā¦but it seems to be working out [laughs].

Q: With MMOs you look at the number of subscriptions as an indicator of success - what will you use?

I think concurrent players is something of an industry standard, and that's as important to us as it is to anybody. And then from that comes ammunition sales. Given that that's the only way that Kwari makes any money, the number of bullets we're selling is key.

So one of the things we're finding interesting at the moment as we go through beta, is that while the bulk of our maps are 15-player maps, we're finding that the amount of ammunition fired varies based on player numbers - so that gives us an optimum number of players in-game as far as ammunition sales is concerned.

So that's useful data, and we can monitor that to make sure that the business is going to stay alive. We have precisely quantified targets in both concurrent users and ammo revenue.

Q: You're not going to tell me what those are, are you?

[laughs] No, I'm not. But what I will say is that if I told how many concurrents we'd need to break even, you'd be surprised at how low it was, and you'd also be surprised at how many concurrents we'd need to be very, very, profitable, very very quickly.

Q: First person shooters are obviously a pretty important genre, any plans to expand that in the future?

Yes, again I'm not at liberty to divulge what they are, but if you think about what the popular categories are on the PC platform, and then if you think about what Kwari's proposition is in terms of allowing players to make money off each other at pre-agreed stake levelsā¦put those together and the list almost writes itself.

However, having said that there are probably a number of innovations that we can make with the existing Kwari concept to make it better as we get player feedback, bigger games, and we see how the jackpots work over a long-term period.

Q: How regularly are you planning on releasing new maps and additional content?

We go live with four or five maps, and there are about another six or seven ready to roll out over the first few months depending on number of concurrents and demand.

And then we have an ongoing relationship with Micro Forte, our developer, and we'll be banging out more maps on an ongoing basis.

Al King is the marketing manager for Kwari. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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