Realtime Worlds is one of the UK's largest developers, responsible for hit title Crackdown and now working on ambitious MMO game APB - but while the company tends to keep its own counsel on industry developments for the most part, this year CEO David Jones is presenting keynote sessions at both GameHorizon and Develop.
Here, in the build-up to next week's event in Newcastle, we spent some time with the man himself, to get his thoughts on investor funding and the economy, the future of retail and online game, E3's motion-control revelations, recruitment and careers in the industry and his feelings on Ruffian's Crackdown 2 deal.
Q: Why are you speaking at GameHorizon this year?
David Jones: Well, basically, a lot of people - especially developers and publishers in the UK - have been asking us questions. What we've been doing, why we've chosen to go down the route we have, what were the challenges? So I thought we may as well use something that's industry-focused, but a little bit on the business side, which GameHorizon is, to explain those things - what we see as the potential upsides, what the downsides are - rather than sit down with everybody individually.
Q: It's generally a pretty senior level of business people that you'll be able to communicate with?
David Jones: Absolutely, and we'll be talking about how we've seen our business evolve, things we've found after 25 years in the business, and how we've tried to do things differently. I think it's a good audience for that, and it should spark some interest and thought, maybe give some people guidance - especially on the development side for people who are wondering what the options are.
Q: Last time we spoke was after you secured USD 50 million of investor funding - because that was in place, I guess you've probably not been affected by the economic conditions?
David Jones: No, and even if we did have a game coming to market I still think we would have weathered it. I don't think, in terms of retail dollars, it's affected that much. Obviously internally, if we wanted to go and raise more money for example, that's going to be a huge challenge.
I think the only way it's affected us is just in terms of staying focused - there's probably a lot less room for manoeuvre. Maybe about 18 months ago if we were in the same position in the market and saw an opportunity, potentially we could have gone out and raised some more money based on that.
But from our perspective, and I think for any VC-backed company, it's about being laser-focused. In terms of the market, I don't think it's been affected that much in terms of retail dollars. Obviously for some publishers the results probably aren't so good, and they will use current conditions as a market for that, but a lot of that is to do with things like used game sales - there are definitely other areas that are affecting publisher dollars.
Q: We've seen other companies with investor funding get into trouble, when those investors have been looking for a return - for you guys I guess the plan's always been very clear, in terms of putting titles out to market, so have your investors continued to be supportive of that?
David Jones: Yeah, absolutely. We've stayed on track to do exactly what we raised the money for, so from that perspective they've been very happy and supportive. You could look at it both ways - the way the market is, it's only the strongest and fittest that really will survive.
I'm sure like anybody, they've invested in quite a few things, probably some of which have seen a definite decline in the business models, such as advertising - there are definitely some of those companies that have been affected.
But our end-user business model, videogame sales and online gaming, those markets have been pretty resilient - so hopefully they'll view us as one of the ones that will weather the storm, and do well out of it.
Q: APB is the key product you're working on at the moment - how's that coming along?
David Jones: We're very, very happy with it. We're looking at a launch date of early 2010 - we've got the partnership with EA Partners cemented, because we knew we'd need to start building presence at retail, marketing-wise. And we've signed a deal with a company on the hosting side - so everything's going really well.
We're playing the game every day now, hosted internally - obviously it's a company first, we've never done anything like this before, but overall I think everybody's pretty confident that we'll have a successful launch.
Q: With an online game there's a potential opportunity to do away with retail completely - obviously now isn't the right time for that?
David Jones: I think you're right - but first of all, with big-content games, just distributing it online might be a bit of a challenge. We've basically got a full DVD. Those barriers are coming down, and the costs of doing that are coming down, but we're trying to innovate enough in the game itself without trying to innovate in the way that we distribute the game - we want to take some risks, but I don't think we want to change every single thing from day one.
It's just about picking the areas where we feel there is a good opportunity, but in terms of just getting the game into gamers' hands, we felt that was maybe pushing the envelope too far.
Q: Without talking specifically about your products, do you think there will be a time when the industry does end up in that place, where it's more profitable to distribute purely online?
David Jones: Absolutely - once we've got a better understanding... there's been a lot of talk recently about micro-transactions and average revenues per user, and everybody says the same thing - they're not quite sure what the correlation is, how you really work out the business model.
Once there's more data to work on and people are a bit more comfortable with the different ways of coming to market, it'll be a gradual thing. I don't think there'll be explosive change.
But we do have to think like a service-based company, it's absolutely right for our market and for it to be delivered. In some respects we should have been ahead of the music industry - it went digital pretty damn quickly. We should have been there, we're perfect for that, but they just got carried by the wave. I think we'll follow, but it's taking a risk - it depends how pioneering people want to be.
Q: It's also down to technology, both on the server and consumer side. With respect to MMOs, they take a long time to develop, yet technology in the games industry changes quickly - have you changed your plans based on new advances when compared to your original plans?
David Jones: I would say definitely a lot of the social stuff. It's absorbing stuff like the last.fm deal we did, where people tend to socialise around music. And voice-over IP is becoming more usable, more cost-effective.
A lot of it is actually driven by cost - ultimately what we want to do is for our games to all be server-based, so that we can offer a great quality service. And what it really comes down to is cost - the really positive thing is that it offers tremendous gameplay potential, with connected experiences on high-end servers where you can do all the processing away from the client. To me it's about the technology to do that, it's pretty straightforward - a good connection to good servers and a good data centre - but really that's driven by cost, and that cost is coming down month by month
It's a different way of thinking - running as much of the game on the server as possible firstly frees up the processing power on the console and secondly means we can make really great connected gaming on a level that's not been done before.
Q: Most people seem to be pretty pleased with E3 this year - were you happy?
David Jones: Well, I skipped the last two, so I only heard about how dire they were. But for me it was good to see the industry up there, there was major coverage afterwards, good to see some really good names up there on stage. So I think it was great.
Q: One of the exciting announcements was around motion-control. Obviously you're not using Project Natal for APB, but as a game creator, what are your thoughts on that motion stuff?
David Jones: Well, it's obviously aimed at a broader market. Obviously hats off to Nintendo for having done all that, but it's interesting to see how Sony, and Microsoft especially, are trying to broaden their demographics.
It's kind of exciting. My own personal opinion is that Natal is cool, although having nothing physical is going to be kind of strange for core gamers. It's just going to absolutely need the right kind of killer software. There's this talk that core games can adopt this stuff, but I don't think so. Core games are really about having something physical in your hands.
I think that's why I like Sony's technology a little bit better in a way, having the wireless controller in your hand, with very high precision. I thought that was an interesting and good step for core gamers as well - but complete body-tracking? For me it'll have to be about that killer app that just could not have been done in any other way, apart from with that controller. That's going to be a challenge, and I'll be interested to see what that is.
Q: In terms of recruitment, being such a big company based in Dundee - have you struggled to fill posts? Is it that there aren't enough skilled people in the market place, or is it the perception of the area?
David Jones: I think there are a few things. First of all, we've got quite a healthy recruitment target. We already have 230 members of staff, which is a fair number, plus good people in the UK is a limited resource - there's always going to be competition for those people.
In respect to where we are, for people in the UK - yes, I think there is an issue. If you're from Manchester, or Birmingham, or London, and you've got family there, then it's always an issue. We do extremely well with people, say, coming over from Europe - for somebody coming from Birmingham, they'll know it's much smaller, and wonder what the nightlife is like. Dundee is small town in Scotland, so right away there's a culture check.
But for people in the US or Europe, for them, they're just coming to the UK - so those things are pretty inconsequential.
Q: You put together a pretty interesting incentive package to entice people to Dundee, though?
David Jones: Yes, we have done - it's partly about getting people to Dundee, but it's also part of my desire to make a career in the games industry a terrific long-term career. It is a tough industry to work in, and in the past it's all been about big projects, lots of crunch, badly-managed.
But the industry's trying to evolve, people want to work better, and put better practices in place... but at the end of the day those things go out the window when we've got milestones and deadlines.
I have a personal problem with that. I look at the Pixars of this world - those guys have huge respect in the movie industry. They have the returns on investment, and they can actually invest a lot more on things like training and professions, and making sure they always have the resources and equipment they need.
I've always felt that the industry's suffered in that respect. We want to change that, we want the industry to be seen to be a great place to work, a great place to build a career with a good life balance. So we do things like paid overtime, which very few companies do.
Q: One of the titles announced at E3 was Crackdown 2 - what are your thoughts on that game being developed by Ruffian?
David Jones: Well, obviously we created the original, and you want to be associated with success, so we want to see it go on and do great things. It has such a strong following now, but it was one of those products that came out of nowhere, and I think that was indicative of some of the problems in the industry before - Microsoft didn't quite know what it was, didn't quite know how to market it. It was one of those sandbox games, and I think the success caught Microsoft by surprise a little bit.
We were always ready to start work on the sequel, and get cracking, but one of the big problems facing developers is that you have to know what you're working on about four or five months before your project ends - so at that point we tried to have a discussion, get things kicked off... but in the end we decided to plough ahead with APB.
The bottom line is that what we thought would happen is that a sequel would be done by a studio somewhere... maybe one of the internal studios, or others that they've worked with, and that would be the way it went forward.
I think it was unfortunate that it had to be with a start-up in Dundee... it is challenging to get enough developers in one region as it is, so that was the only little big of negativity to the story.
Q: And do you get on with Ruffian okay?
David Jones: Yeah, it's just one of those awkward moments. In terms of the franchise, as always - as with anything we've created - we're always keen to see it do great things. This is like a bump in the road... was there really no way it could have been done by one of the studios Microsoft shut down...?
Q: "Of all the gin-joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine..."
David Jones: Exactly. That was the only negative thing. I was a bit miffed at Microsoft that it happened that way, but you live and learn.
David Jones is CEO of Realtime Worlds. Interview by Phil Elliott.