Prime Numbers

Monumental's Mike Cox on middleware opportunities for online social gaming

Mike Cox has worked in the games business for sometime, founding Audiomotion, working as a producer for Electronic Arts, establishing Czech studio Vatra for Kuju and selling middleware at Emergent. Itís the last role that has set him in good stead for a business development role at UK studio Monumental Games, as he begins to sell new MMO engine Prime.

Here, in an exclusive interview with, Cox talks us through the transition from development studio to service provider, the growth and challenges of online markets for independent developers, his thoughts on mergers and acquisitions in the social space, and opportunities in web games.

Q: Can you just begin by telling us how you got involved with Monumental, and your role there?

Mike Cox: Iíve known Rik Alexander [Monumental CEO] for ages and heís always had interesting tech that heís flirted with releasing outside of the company. So my role was to come in as someone who knows middleware and take the Monumental tech and see if thereís a market for it. And I was surprised when I got there at how much theyíve got. They genuinely to do have the worldís first commercially available, browser-based 3D MMO engine.

Q: Thatís quite a mouthful. And a bit of a stretch to be honestÖ

Mike Cox: Obviously Unity has got a 3D browser-based engine, but itís not dedicated to MMOs. Unity is great but if you want to use it for MMO stuff youíve got to write all your own front and back end code. Itís not a trivial task, itís possible, but itís a big job. The advantage of Prime is that itís all built in. You can effectively plug it straight into Facebook or whatever browser based application you want to use and the MMO functionality is already there.

Q: Is it pretty niche? Thatís got to be a niche market at this pointÖ

Mike Cox: Itís a niche market at the moment but its growing, definitely. As online games become more social and more and more people interact with each other, thereís this situation weíve got at the moment where you think youíre interacting with your friends on Frontierville but actually youíre not. You can see the consequences of their actions, which is great, but you canít interact in real-time with them apart from chat in a little box. What Prime offers is the ability to interact in an MMO with 3D models in real-time. The games that it can create look a lot more like traditional 3D games than youíd expect. In terms of numbers, weíre looking at LPSW - Light Persistent State Worlds - weíre not talking World of Warcraft. Weíre thinking that in each section of our world youíll get between 2000 - 3000 players. Itís still a hell of a lot, and it feels like an MMO. Itís not as vast but in reality the database can handle hundreds of thousands of people.

The key thing that appeals to me as an ex studio head is the small amount of resources you need to get something up and running. All the tools are there, all of the pipeline is there, effectively all you are doing is adding content, and thatís relatively easy to do. You just export your geometry and youíve got world creation tools that come with the software and literally within a day you can have something up and running. And then itís a matter of finessing it and adding more content. Weíre aiming it at developers who like the idea of getting into the social online gaming space but havenít really done it before because theyíre from a more traditional PC or console background, and they donít want to invest the time in creating their own tools. Especially if they havenít been in this space before because they wonít know what tools they need, and they are also looking to rapidly prototype.

Q: Do you have the support network already in place? Because now youíre providing a service to other developers Iíd imagine thatís a whole new business division for Monumental.

Mike Cox: One of the transitions that Monumental is going to have to make is the move from being a straight forward developer - we care about our staff and our games - to actually supporting lots of external companies, some of which may not even be in the same time zone as us. We already have an internal support system but that will have to be amended to be able to handle multiple calls and priorities. We have a whole ramp up plan to go from internal to external.

Q: How quickly do you see that happening?

Mike Cox: From now through to the next six months. What weíre saying to our very early adopters is that they are coming on this ride with us, here are the tools, they work and weíll probably go the extra nine yards initially to get it all set up for you and get extra people on site. Thatís why Iím being careful about who we initially let it go to. Weíre looking at friendly developers who we know are interested in this and effectively heavily discounting it initially to get people on board.

Thereís no point in trying to cover this up, itís the first time weíve moved in to middleware. But weíve been clients of middleware before and weíve had a lot of experience so we know whatís expected. Itís not that frightening and the tools are very stable, theyíve been developed over 3-4 years. The things weíre going to have to cater to are other peopleís demands and there will be some surprises.

Q: Youíll be able to see how different people use your tech, which should be interestingÖ

Mike Cox: The biggest thing we have to sort out immediately, and weíre on top of it, is the documentation. Thereís lot of it and itís spread all over our servers and not in an indexable form, so weíve just hired a technical author to get that as it should be.

Q: Have developers signed on the dotted line to buy Prime yet?

Mike Cox: No one has signed on the dotted line because the people who have been looking at it are friendly developers. Iím expecting to announce shortly our first five developers who are using it for real projects. What Iím looking for on that are a diverse number of projects. Weíve shown it around and the response has been excellent. What I really want to do is pick four or five developers who are going to use it fully and make really good games and different types of games so we can use them as examples of what Prime can achieve.

Q: The MMO market is notoriously cut-throat. You either sink or swim. How intimidating is that market, knowing you can lose or win a lot of money? Especially considering it can be such a time-sink for users, who donít have time to play anything elseÖ

Mike Cox: Well, youíre talking about MMOs. Iím talking about lighter, persistent worlds. Light versions of MMOs that we expect to see on Facebook. Yes, they still involve an investment in time but not to the level of World of Warcraft.

Q: But the success and failure rate is brutal online, regardless of a new business model. Look at a company like Realtime Worlds which got over $100 million in investment and collapsed within weeks of releasing its first game.

Mike Cox: Itís a challenge, itís a tough market. But if people use Prime imaginatively and creatively they can make social games that donít necessarily look or feel like MMOs. The idea is itís a fairly generic platform for creating massively multiplayer online games. They donít all have to be quest-driven RPGs. They can be social games, they can be puzzle games.

Q: What showcase games has Monumental got in the works?

Mike Cox: Little Horrors is in public beta at the moment. This was the first real project that was made using our tech and weíve already found a producer for it. Itís going to be published by Jagex. Clearly itís not up to PS3 or 360 quality, but thatís not the point, itís designed to be played across Facebook and itís a lot different to what you would normally see on Facebook. All of the tools that created the game all ship with Prime and this is effectively the demo game that we give away with the product.

Q: Thereís a lot of acquisition activity in the online gaming space at the moment - do you expect it to calm down shortly?

Mike Cox: Ultimately, yes. I can understand why itís going on. But you still need studios with the skill sets to produce those kind of games. Middleware isnít a magic ticket, you still need the creative teams that can bring a vision to a compelling experience. Thereís a limited number of those. As far a Monumental is concerned weíre well-funded, weíre a profitable company and weíre not actually currently seeking acquisition any time soon.

Q: I guess my question is are you adding middleware to bulk up in the face of increase competition and dollars, or adding middleware to become a more attractive acquisition?

Mike Cox: I think ultimately a little bit of both. Initially itís because weíve got this tool set, we recognise that no one else is offering it and itís a relatively low investment to hire me and some support staff to get it out there. In doing that as a company weíll learn more about ourselves and the product, which should accelerate the improvement of the product. Otherwise, weíll get stuck into another game and weíll only make the tools we need to make that game. Thatís how internal development works. Doing Prime as middleware there will be requests coming in for other tools and optimisations that will benefit us as well as everyone else. For return on investment it makes sense to do it.

Q: Thereís a shadow of Google hanging over the social and online games scene - what are you impressions of such a huge player like that ramping up to enter the market?

Mike Cox: I hope by investing significantly with the products theyíre working on that the quality bar will move up. As a gamer myself, I was traditionally a PC gamer, then console and now Iím moving into the social space but I want the quality bar to be higher. Iím absorbed by some of the game mechanics of online games but disappointed by the visuals and end quality of what Iím playing. The sooner that improves the better.

Itís not just us, there is Unity and 3dvia and others out there pushing the quality bar up. A lot of online games, certainly in the social space, suffer from not having significant investment in them, and I hope with Google coming in weíll all be able to push that investment up and so the quality improves. It can be a very good thing.

Q: The Chrome Webstore sounds very encouraging for developers if Google can keep to the 5 per cent cut it said it would takeÖ

Mike Cox: So long as you can keep you original investment down, thatís the thing. And thatís why any middleware has got to be attractive, not just us, because the last thing you want to do is invest a reasonable-sized code team in reinventing the wheel when you donít even know if itís going to work or bring the money back in.

Q: So, the crude question - how much does Prime cost?

Mike Cox: Itís aggressively priced, certainly for early adopters and frankly until weíve got our support system up and running everyone is going to be an early adopter. Prototype licenses are £20,000. The idea of a prototype licence is you get you game up and running, or any number of games, play about with it, show it to publishers, get your funding. A full licence is £30,000, so if you want to convert a prototype to a full licence you pay us the extra £30,000 and away you go.

The other thing weíre doing is site licences. These are for bigger companies like EA, who might want to release 10 games and not pay £50,000 per game. They can buy a site licence for £100,000 and that covers them for a year, so they make as many games as they like in that time. The £100,000 includes support as well, which we think is bargain. On top of the £20,000 and £30,000 we charge £15,000 a year for support.

If youíre only going to make one game and take more than a year doing it, you would probably pay £65,000. But if youíre going to make more than one game and commercialise them, then site licence is the way to go. We may put it up in the future, but thatís significantly cheaper than anything out there at the moment. To start with thatís a fair price, thatís value for money.

Mike Cox is business development manager at Monumental Games. Interview by Matt Martin.

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