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King of the Castle

Thu 25 Feb 2010 8:00am GMT / 3:00am EST / 12:00am PST

Gas Powered Games boss Chris Taylor sheds more light on 'developing in the public eye'

One of the interesting announcements made during DICE week was that of Gas Powered Games' latest title - Kings and Castles - most notably because development was only a month in...

Here, the founder of the studio - Chris Taylor - explains more about the thinking behind developing in full view of the public, why it's exciting rather than brave, and how the publishing model could be affected.

Q: The idea of developing in the public eye is an interesting one - is it brave or exciting?

Chris Taylor: It is exciting... the brave part? Not so much. I think it just makes sense - in a way, too much sense. One of the challenges we have in our business is the introduction of new properties. People are afraid of them because they don't have a business model that they can model out on Excel and show how they're going to make a good return on their investment.

Now, as a coincidence, I just had somebody email me last night who's working on an MMO. They've put all this money into it but they can't get the funding to take it to the next level in order to get the PR and marketing support to get the message out.

I thought: "Man, that's not a problem I'm having right now" - but that's because I've got 22 years of experience, I know a lot of people, and I've placed an incredibly high value on relationships, getting out there, and not hiding away somewhere.

So I've already got a leg up - but I also have a tremendous amount of respect for our customers and fans. I really respect them, so when I do my first videoblog, for example, I'm not jamming a product message down their throats - instead I'm having fun with them, because it is after all about entertaining.

So I'm in a bit of a unique position to do these kinds of experiments - when you're Evel Knievel and you're jumping 14 buses for the first time, but you've already jumped 12, it looks really scary to people in the audience. But to you it's only a few more buses than you normally jump.

Q: But it's still jumping buses - there's nothing that can take the risk out of it completely.

Chris Taylor: Exactly - so you really understand what I'm saying. So you can add a flaming hoop and throw a lot of things into the experience to make it more challenging, but at its core it's what I do - I make original IPs, figure out a way to get the world to learn about them, and I have to be increasingly clever and creative because the market is a changing place, there are more properties circulating, there's more noise.

There are a lot of things that make it more challenging today than the guys who dropped the first cassette tapes into zip-lock bags. They had an entirely different problem, but it wasn't noise... you walked into that little boutique software store in 1981 and there were only six bags hanging on the wall with games on them, and that was the entire state of the industry.

So it's really important that we evolve, and we evolve with the changes and challenges we're confronted with. That's all I'm doing right now.

Q: I guess the economics and the market has conspired to bring us a situation where the most solid bets are either sub-$500,000 or $15 million-plus projects, but everything in-between is risky... a bit like an inverse Bell curve...

Chris Taylor: Well, it's a bit of a Bell curve, but the question is, where is the floor on that, where the curve touches zero... because if we truly are at the bottom of the curve, but there are 3 million potential customers and no competitors in that space... that's a great spot to sit!

I gave a talk many years ago, before World of Warcraft shipped, and there were 100 hundred MMOs in development. They had this huge potential, but Blizzard went and realised it, so was that a good part of the Bell curve to sit in? Is the iPhone market, which is the other end of that market, a good part to sit in right now?

My spot on the curve is looking really good right now, so I'm quite happy [smiles]

Q: So videoblogging is one thing you'll be doing, and Deathbot9 is your Twitter feed - what else is in the plan for communicating with potential consumers?

Chris Taylor: Well, we put out a fun videoblog every week, and the goal is to take them behind the scenes. Videoblog number two will take them on a drive with me into the office, so we're establishing the location, and people will know where we're doing all this stuff in Redmond.

Then we go up the elevator, get a little deeper, start to introduce the team to our players. Then we go into the concept creation area, the brainstorming area, peeling the onion one layer at a time and truly take people on an adventure where they can tune in every week - and if they miss it, they can always catch up.

So not only is it hopefully going to be a great way to get exposure to the new game, but it's going to be educational and fun for those who are watching it - so it's a total win all the way around. And it's going to be darn interesting to look back on that two years from now to see how it went.

Q: And hopefully others in the industry will look back on it with envy...?

Chris Taylor: Yeah - every once in a while you want to be first, or among the first, to try a new idea - rather than always moving with the pack.

Q: Who are the people that are watching those videos at the moment - are they players of existing Gas Powered titles? What sense do you have of the community you've got already, and how will you grow it?

Chris Taylor: Well in the first three days we had 30,000 views, from just a single press release. But what I didn't do is spam people's email - I don't like that at all - this is a complete opt-in experience. It's word of mouth.

I think it's a lot of people in the industry, a lot of people who are fans of Dungeon Siege, Supreme Commander, Demigod - that community is taking a look, some in earnest and some with cynicism, wondering where we're going with this.

But I think everybody can just relax - it's going to be fun, and not anything for anyone to get worked up about, that's for sure. It's a passive form of brand-building.

Q: The standard model of business is a developer-publisher relationship - how will this form of brand-building affect that?

Chris Taylor: Well, what we're looking at is a different approach to the business, and we don't have all the answers right now - those will come together over the next couple of months. We hope we can shift it a few degrees to the left or right, which may include publishing the title with funding from a different source, or it may mean signing up with publishers in the traditional model but breaking it out over territories.

We don't really know yet, but we're open to any kind of partnership which is mutually beneficial, with people who share our excitement for trying new ideas. So if somebody traditional says "Oh, we don't like that," then we're probably not going to do a deal with them, and that's probably okay.

Q: So how democratised is the development process - will gamers get to choose the path you take?

Chris Taylor: I never asked people to vote on stuff, I said we'd be taking them on a great adventure, behind the scenes. But I want to hear from them, especially if they think I'm cracked out. The can send an email and share their ideas.

One email I got in the first 24 hours already had an impact in one of my design sessions - so they are doing it. But you can't listen to the voice of one single person - this person happened to make an impact - but if everybody says they want something and you read that email from a thousand independent minds, you're really going to give that a hard look. Maybe we do need that giant, hairy Cyclops that spits bodies...?

I am going to be listening, and they do affect me - I will be responding back to all the emails, and everybody who's ever written is going to get a response, even if it takes me two, three, six months to get a reply.

Q: That's going to take quite a lot of your personal time...

Chris Taylor: I'm very, very fast on email. Over the course of months and months there probably will be a backlog, but it's actually really fun to do. We will be taking a lot of suggestions, and people will hopefully get to see how it manifest itself - we're not signing our name on the bottom line to a democratised approach... that would be hard to do, and make anybody happy.

Q: And on consoles, rather than just PC?

Chris Taylor: Well, Supreme Commander 2 is playing beautifully on console - the controls work well, the frame rate is high - so we want to keep moving in that direction and delivering console RTS titles, no doubt.

Chris Taylor is founder of Gas Powered Games. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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