This week on GamesIndustry.biz we'll be taking an in-depth look at the MMO genre, and to kick off the week-long series of interviews and editorials is NCsoft's COO, Sebastian Vidal.
Here he gives his views on the way that the genre has changed, the effectiveness of the portfolio strategy, and what the company still needs to do. Plus he talks about the ongoing development of Tabula Rasa, and gives us his verdict on the importance of consoles to the MMO market in the future.
Q: The MMO industry has changed a lot over time - how has NCsoft reflected that change?
Sebastian Vidal: In 2007, NCsoft celebrated its tenth anniversary. For a relatively young company, we have already had a number of global successes that we are proud of. Lineage II has reached over 19 million gamers worldwide, a staggering achievement.
In fact the Lineage brand - both games - has exceeded over 72 million sales and is the only MMO title to appear in global top twenty best-selling videogame franchise charts.
The Guild Wars franchise has exceeded sales of 5 million copies and in its brief three-year lifespan - last week it celebrated its anniversary - and has attracted one of the strongest and most loyal communities we have ever seen.
Our success here in Europe as a business should not be missed of course. From humble beginnings at the end of 2004, we have grown to over 130 members of staff, providing, sales, marketing, PR, customer service, community, localisation, billing and product development to over 50 countries.
Our publishing and development strategy has always been to provide a wide range of titles from subscription based to free to play, from fantasy to science fiction. And there is even more diversity to come in the next few years, both on the business model and genre sides.
Also, our deal with Sony means we’ll be present on several platforms in the future. Overall, our goal is to continue working on innovative projects, both internally and externally, and expand our portfolio
Q: How is your portfolio strategy working out?
Sebastian Vidal: It's working really well for us. Unlike some publishers who focus on one or two MMO titles, typically within the fantasy setting, our strategy is to provide players with a portfolio of online gaming options, catering for all tastes and payment options, for both hardcore gamers and the casual audience.
Within our portfolio, we can provide many styles of theme, such as fantasy, sci-fi, comic book, warrior robots and so on, as well as a variety of style of play, whether it's PvE, PvP, or PvEvP.
Plus we have varied payment options, including monthly subscription, one off retail payment, free to play and micro transactions, so really our portfolio strategy is how we differentiate ourselves from the competition - and ultimately our diversity is our strength.
In addition, having players come to one place for a variety of games definitely has its advantages. From a marketing and communication standpoint, it makes the process of interacting with players much smoother - from informing them on new titles, providing game trial opportunities and eventually providing a seamless switch from one game to another.
But initially it was a real challenge for the company. An account system along with its reporting and CRM tools is complex, and when you have to deal with multiple titles, their specificities and the amount of data that links those games, it quickly becomes a daunting task.
Having this vision from the beginning clearly helped a lot, though. Looking back, the experience and the technology we have developed as a business over the past ten years now provides us with a very strong competitive advantage.
Our next step is to take that formula of online gaming and bring it to the console audience. Last year we announced the strategic partnership with Sony Computer Entertainment and our plans to develop titles for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable gaming platforms.
Q: What's your impression of how the portfolio is benefitting you on a customer-by-customer basis - are they moving around, staying in the 'family'?
Sebastian Vidal: It's working very well - we can see depending on age and gender how much time people are spending on one specific game, how many people who leave one of our games come back to another of our games, or come back to that game when we have a new update - and that happens a lot.
Churn within MMOs is a natural occurrence as a players interests migrate from title to title. The portfolio of titles we offer increases the probability of players remaining within our game worlds.
Q: Do you consider that the titles you currently have are sufficient to sustain the portfolio in the long term, or are you seeking more diversification?
Sebastian Vidal: I think we cover the basics, which is good, but we need to have even more variety - we want to expand out from the traditional MMO, to expand to other genres. If you look at something like Counter-Strike, that's an online game more than an offline game, and in terms of gameplay types that's where we want to expand the most.
Q: World of Warcraft aside, who do you consider as the competition? What's the threat from some of the new titles coming out this year?
Sebastian Vidal: Well, at NCsoft, we regard competition as a positive thing - for us, for players and for the industry as a whole in fact. The MMO space is still a niche genre compared to the legacy of real time strategies or first person shooters.
The launch of World of Warcraft brought awareness of this genre to a broader audience and any title that can achieve this ultimately benefits all involved. The new titles will each exhibit a strength that will enhance the MMO genre, pushing the creative and technical boundary forward for us all.
Right now we have several unannounced titles in development around the globe - in addition to Guild Wars 2 - that will offer players unique aspects, whether it's from gameplay, genre or business model perspective, or a combination of all of those things.
Q: Do you think MMO players are really looking for something new, or do they just want a new version of World of Warcraft?
Sebastian Vidal: I would say that players desire an element of both. Fantasy RPGs are not the largest genre in the offline gaming world - real-time strategies, first-person shooters, science fiction, contemporary settings, and so on.
So there is so much more we can do in the online space, beyond the fantasy MMO with subscription fee. The one thing about innovation and great ideas in general is that nobody knows they are great until it’s obvious to everyone - The Sims, the Wii, the iPod are just a few examples.
Last year we launched the sci-fi MMO Tabula Rasa from leading development figure, Richard Garriott. That game challenges many of the established MMO gameplay functions.
It introduced fast-paced tactical combat, with players and creatures jockeying for optimal positioning in real-time, adding greatly to the excitement of combat.
Also dynamic worlds, where NPCs and enemies have clear military objectives and move to take and hold strategic areas of the map, making the game world different each time the player returns.
It's engaging, with thought-provoking storylines, with instanced spaces that are used as story telling centres, something that eliminates the level grinding, and brings more offline role playing to the online world.
Plus there are innovations to many game mechanics that are considered as standard, such as the players' ability to save and clone their character anytime along the way, so that you can explore all player classes.
So Tabula Rasa promotes players and developers to think beyond the 'established norm' and encourages the industry to strive for innovation. It's often a challenging and risky process that's not always met with acclaim, but in the end it is what really makes a difference and will move our industry onwards.
Q: But it is a game that's come in for a bit of criticism recently, regarding a perceived lack of endgame content. Clearly you're still developing and supporting the game, but what are your thoughts on how it's coming along overall?
Sebastian Vidal: Tabula Rasa brings new MMO game play mechanics to the genre. The game has established a core audience that recognise and appreciate these changes, so we are happy to have achieved this response.
Our next stage is to encourage more players to try the game and therefore we will be running a series of online trials from the middle of May. In terms of your comment to ‘lack of end game content’ – making an MMO requires a huge amount of time, it’s a very complex task.
So you have to make choices - do you want to focus on the endgame, to add more content, or to make sure what you have is polished? With Tabula Rasa, because the gameplay is quite innovative, a lot of that was new, so we decided to focus on the balance and polish.
Overall, we're pleased with the games performance. Of course, like any publisher we hope that the titles performance will improve over time; we will continue our investment in the game, offering players lots of new content and technical improvements over the coming months.
That is the beauty of MMO games compared to offline. With offline, if you didn't quite hit the mark with version one, you move on to releasing version two. With MMOs, they are constantly evolving so we can address issues we have recognised and of course the feedback from the community is essential to this process. We are very fortunate that we have such a loyal and strong following that wants to see the game do well.
Q: What do you think will change the market in the next twelve months, and beyond?
Sebastian Vidal: To be honest, in the world of MMO development and publishing, twelve months is a very small period of time, considering that the average game takes around three to four years to develop.
I very much doubt we will see any ground breaking changes within this time, but what we will see are further refinements on tried and tested formulas.
Later on we'll see Aion: The Tower of Eternity offer players some unique twists on current MMO gaming - new gameplay features from 360 degree and three-dimensional flight and combat to PvPvE, which is the interaction of two playable factions, competing against one another and a computer controlled faction.
That will be complemented by outstanding art direction and a very strong and intriguing background narrative.
And our existing portfolio of titles will benefit from regular content updates - we've recently updated Lineage II with the Hellbound update and in a couple of weeks, super-powered City of Heroes/Villains will launch Issue 12: Midnight Hour.
Meanwhile Tabula Rasa is on a monthly cycle of content updates, keeping the game experience fresh and exciting and Guild Wars runs regular in game events for players.
Beyond twelve months, there are not many 'classical' MMOs in development. I envisage the future will see much more blending of traditional online games, such as Counter-Strike and Starcraft, and MMOs such as Lineage II and World of Warcraft.
I think this is a high potential trend that Guild Wars started with extraordinary success.
Q: And further down the line, how significant do you think consoles will be in the MMO market?
Sebastian Vidal: Well, in the end it's just a platform - the important thing is the game itself, and whether you're playing with a keyboard and mouse, or a control pad...a game designer can come up with something good for either interface.
So I can't see any reason why they won't do well on consoles - it's a huge market, although the biggest market right now is the Nintendo Wii and DS, which aren't the best platforms for MMOs.
But all the consoles, including the DS, can go on the web and browse, so really the platform is the web, and the console is simply the interface for the web. So I think in the future, for me, you can design a game for the web and it will be playable on any platform - the DS, Wii, PS3 or anything.
Sebastian Vidal is NCsoft Europe's chief operating officer. Interview by Phil Elliott.