XL Junkie

Monte Cristo's studio head JÚrome Gastaldi on the challenges of self-publishing and working with community-based games

Monte Cristo's ambitious new product, Cities XL, is attempting to combine a traditional city-simulation game with massively multiplayer online functionality, giving players the option to take part in a global, entirely player-dependent global economy.

Here, talks to Monte Cristo's CEO Jerome Gastaldi about the challenges of self-publishing, working with community-based games, and the development scene in France.

Q: Is self-publishing Cities XL turning out to be as much of a challenge as it sounds?

Jerome Gastaldi: Yeah, self-financing this production can be challenging. I think that the problem with this industry is that when you get in this business you always complain about how difficult it has become, but when you get out of it you complain about how fun it was, so you go back to it.

Q: What prompted you to attempt to blend the MMO and simulation genres with Cities XL?

Jerome Gastaldi: We had been looking around at simulation games for a while and to be honest, we are just astonished that there is so little production in the simulation genre, because thanks to the Tycoon series and the like it is a well-established. There is a player population here that is maturing and growing as a demographic year after year , and there aren't a lot of simulation games for them to buy.

Obviously we also investigated the reasons why an MMO is successful. Why do people stick with it? What is important? What is the motivation for playing at the end of month six, and is that the same motivation that keeps them playing at the end of month 18, or 20? We've been trying to see the logic.

We looked a lot at Web 2.0, user created content and user interaction on the web, and we thought it would be cool to create a game that could start a community and can depend on and expand through the web as well as the game itself. With Cities XL, player interaction is not limited to the game; it can also be expressed on the web, through the player community website. That's where we're coming from. It's a pretty innovative concept overall, but really we think of it as a combination of several recipes that have already proven successful.

Q: How is the retail strategy going to work with Cities XL, seeing as it functions both as an offline boxed city-sim and as an MMO?

Jerome Gastaldi: The boxed game will be at the ordinary price point, so about GBP 30 in the UK. Unlike in an MMO, we're not going to switch the light off after 30 days and say "Give me your credit card, or we'll stop you playing". We really want the players to see the subscription as access to an additional level of service, of possibilities, because effectively what we are giving them is the possibility to help each other, to build stuff that they can't build on their own, and that's the whole principle of the subscription system. We think that the impact that this will have on the experience of the player is where the revolution will be for this genre.

Q: Do you see most of your revenue from the game coming from subscription?

Jerome Gastaldi: The boxed game will be marginal, in the long term. When we look at benchmark title of the MMORPG genre, the box makes up less than 20 per cent of the revenue. The average is probably more like 30-35 per cent; we're going to be in this bracket. But subscription is not our only source of revenue.

It's going to be cheap – we're talking GBP 3.50 a month or GBP 9.99 for three months, which is less than one month of a premium MMORPG – but in addition, players will want to keep on enriching the game with new playable content, and we will make it possible to buy plug-ins like gameplay expansion modules on a pay as you go system, too. That plug-in might be a car factory that will allow you to design and manufacture cars and sell them to other players, for instance, and you could buy that for maybe GBP 1, and play 5, 6, 10 hours with it. It's not life-changing gameplay experience, but it will be simply another level of interaction, another few hours of play, and we think that players who get really into Cities XL will want to stay in the game. They'll want to play more.

Q: There's a lot more self-publishing developers involved in MMOs. Do you feel that drives creativity in that sector?

Jerome Gastaldi: I think that, historically, it is that way because you need to be a little bit mad to start a project like this. You need to have a strong level of belief. You know how big productions work – it's like a committee. You have to go through the classic process of telling the publisher how your game is like previous games, and if you want to do something that's never been done before, the chances of getting green-lit are pretty low. So I think that's why this is happening. You have to completely switch your mentality; you have to accept that you are in direct contact with the people who are actually going to play the game. On our website, which we've had up and running for ten months, we haven't released any playable content, but we've got constant feedback from the community, which is feeding us with ideas and that is reacting to the stuff we put out. To be honest it is a totally refreshing process. You exchange one producer at a big publisher for ten thousand guys that actually want to play the game you're making, and give you advice and feedback. Although I'm not one hundred per cent certain who's more likely to be right.

Q: Given that subscription is such an important part of your strategy, how will you encourage players to subscribe?

Jerome Gastaldi: There is a lot in the MMO system that we're putting in place that will be a motivation for players to subscribe. For instance, there's the fact that you're going to be able to subcontract things like garbage recycling for your online city to other people, so if you want to have a really nice beach resort with no negative impact from pollution, you can subcontract all the dirty work to other players. You can't create an idyllic paradise island in the single-player game if you have to have a recycling plant, for instance. So that's the first driving factor.

The second thing is realising that we need to make people really care about the city they build.. I mean, it's difficult to build up a level 70 character and then say "I'm giving it up". It will be the same with the cities. It will take a long time to build a big project, as the game plays out in real time. So we think that [the subscription-based portion of the game] is an extra level of gameplay that's more long-term, and much richer than anything any building tools can provide on their own, including ours. We need to make sure that the player will get into the online world when he is comfortable enough in the solo mode. The player is going to decide the pace; we're not going to force him to start subscribing from the off.

Q: The only real comparison is Guild Wars, which can essentially be played as a single-player game with a one-off charge, but which hooks in keen players with expansions. Did you take any inspiration from NCsoft's strategy?

Jerome Gastaldi: There's a little bit of influence from that. There's also a bit of Spore, we like that philosophy –the fact that the level of interaction between players is at their own discretion. They really want the players to feel comfortable in the system. We feel really lucky to be working on a sandbox product. Let players play games like they want to play them – if they want to get really into it, we're giving them to tools to do that, but if they want to stay safe then we'll let them take that direction too. Different players have different taste. We need to give them the choice.

Q: How do you feel about game development in the rest of France at the moment?

Jerome Gastaldi: I think it's a cool time for game development. There are two styles of developer in France. Firstly, there's the ones who have been trying and trying for a long time to work with big producers. The second breed of studios is much more independent, and I think you're going to see a lot of cool games come out of this. We're already seeing it – look at Trackmania, for example. Small team, but there are millions of people playing that game. I think that certainly on the PC side, we are going to see two or three top-class games coming out of French developers in the near future.

The fact is there is real real schism in the industry, I think that the next gen has really created such a dependence on huge, multi-million-dollar productions. But I think that the internet has so many possibilities, there is a whole new level of interactivity that we can be exploring. Honestly, as an industry, I think we're pretty crap at it – look at the web, look at browser based games, look at social networking, there's an awful lot we can learn. I think that we in the games industry are a little bit self-centred about what we do; we have to open our eyes a bit and take influence from elsewhere.

Jerome Gastaldi is CEO of Monte Cristo. Interview by Keza McDonald.

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