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InstantAction's Louis Castle

On music games, streaming rivals and publisher anxiety

Louis Castle is perhaps best known as one of the founders of now-defunct Command & Conquer creator Westwood. These days, however, he's the CEO of online distributor and developer InstantAction. The company has a strange history, having originally set out to offer browser-based 3D games, before switching to streaming mainstream games and, most recently, creating the Guitar Hero-like InstantJam for Facebook.

GamesIndustry.biz talked to Castle shortly after InstantJam's announcement; below, he discusses its possible future, competitors Gaikai and OnLive, the music industry's attitude to a guitar game that can potentially play any song, and just what's happened to InstantAction's original plans.

Q: Are you looking at bespoke peripheral partnerships for this, or is keyboard your main controller.

Louis Castle: Well, we figured there's 20-something million guitars out there already, so you can always buy a guitar for our game online, or we could make a partnership with a guitar manufacturer. In this case we've skinned these [gestures to nearby guitars], but you can use the ones for Guitar Hero or Rock Band, anything with USB. Keyboard works really well too, I've actually played keyboard a lot more because while I'm trying to talk and play at once I want my controls pretty immediate.

Q: The problem Activision and EA seem to be up against is, while track sales are fuelling XBLA and PSN they're not really shifting many games and peripherals now. How consciously is your model about employing the stuff that's already in people's homes?

Louis Castle: Right. A lot of people already have their guitars, a lot of the people who want to buy music games pretty much have them already. So first of all we can open this up to 500 million people on Facebook, and on top of that it's compatible anywhere on the web. So you can put your game anywhere, you're going to have millions and millions of people suddenly that are exposed to this kind of gaming. Maybe they'll be using their keyboards at the beginning but hopefully we'll start moving hardware as well, at retail. And frankly for us it's more about motivating people to buy songs again. So, the way we make money on song sales - we're an affiliate so we make our 5 or 10 per cent, and we give you more than the song's price in value, in the game. So we're essentially kind of bribing you to buy songs.

Q: How have the music publishers been about it?

Louis Castle: This is very, very different model for them. So they're looking at it going, well, we don't know if that's going to work or not. At the end of the day, all we ever do is just play the song. So if you bought the song you have the right to play it. We don't cache the song or anything, we never upload or download music, so we know we're within our rights. At the end of the day, what we really want to do is motivate people to buy songs, and to buy merchandise. So we're trying to be very friendly to the music industry because if you think about it, this model spans all the types of music available, it can continue to grow with the music industry, so it can continue to grow indefinitely. Versus the model they had before, which is sort of the opposite, collapsing.

There's only so many artists who are going to want their music in games, and at some point you're going to have beaten it out, are there going to be another 80 songs like that which are going to be that compelling? Plus they really can't afford to cover the best 80 songs you could find, and certainly not going to be able to come out within a week or two of release of new songs. We're going to be right there, day and date. So it makes a big difference. My hope is that six months or a year from now, the music industry will be over the moon and happy about the fact that they're making 70 per cent of every sale - and we're making millions. [Laughs].

Q: So how important to Instant Action overall is this, given you were originally going to be running in-browser and then streaming games?

Louis Castle: Well, we're still in the game-streaming basis, because this is our game that we're doing the same way. And a browser plug-in, obviously. This game is basically the proof of the platform, so we're hoping that it's going to open a lot of doors for us. Certainly, it's going to help us out a lot.

Q: Why did Instant Action's streaming games seem to go a bit quiet following The Secret Of Monkey Island Special Edition?

Louis Castle: It's basically really simple. We got very close to a lot of deals with a lot of potential partners, and as we're doing that we got very close with our game. So we thought 'well, we've been waiting for you guys to get over your anxiety and all that', and they're waiting and saying 'well, show us something that drawing millions of people and so on.' So I think 'okay, we're so close now with this, we'll put all of these deals on hold, we're going to go do our game and we'll show you how it works and the proof of the pudding.'

And meanwhile we actually did do a deal with Greenhouse Games at PAX Prime, we're going to be coming out with all the Greenhouse games. We'll start with a couple of them and then we'll roll them out. So you'll start seeing the breadth of titles from them and obviously our own stuff, and then the size and volume of the stuff that we're doing with InstantJam.

Q: You mentioned publisher anxieties - what were those?

Louis Castle: Well, you have to remember that we're going after triple-A titles. I can't mention which ones because we're not under contract. These are their crown jewels. So they want to make sure that our system is stable, it's out there, it scales well, the customers are going to have a good time. That's understandable. And we've done a lot of testing, we've been through their labs and things like that, and many of the publishers went through things like costs. We're waiting for signatures, basically. We were so close with InstantJam, we just thought 'you know what? Why don't we just put out our game, we'll show you how it works, and then come back to you guys.'

That's the answer: we're ready, but they want to see proof, and this it.

Q: How much do you feel that you're in a race with anyone else, like Gaikai or OnLive?

Louis Castle: I think that Gaikai and OnLive are great technologies, but it's going to be a while before they're a good experience for everybody. It'll certainly be a long time, if ever, that they're appropriate for all games. So what we're doing is showing that... well, this [gestures at PC] is not a great internet connection, for instance. I've shown this demo on netbooks, over 3G. That's not coming any time soon on these other platforms. I think that the idea that the network speeds are going up all the time and latency is going down... that's true on average, but the actual latency is getting worse and worse because there's more and more people online. Eventually, way down the road, everybody will have ubiquitous high speed connections and that's great. We're happy too, we just want to deliver our games to our customers. InstantAction is about delivering discoverable, shareable, embeddable content that is of console-standard quality.

Q: Do you see Google, with Chrome Web Store, as a rival?

Louis Castle: The interesting thing about Google and native client and all that is games still have to be written or ported to a native client solution. Which is fine for small games, Plants vs Zombies and things like that, but I really don't think that unless there's some financial incentive, that the guys who are doing the next Medal of Honor or the next Call of Duty or the next Crysis are going to go racing out and writing it for a browser. This technology lets them write the game for whatever they want to write. If they write it on the Xbox, it's an immediate port from the Xbox to PC, you've got to change the interface but all of a sudden you can have a PC and a Mac version. It uses all the web SSL stuff to keep the security, so piracy's going to go way down, and we get to reach a big audience. Get a Facebook app out of it too. So it's pretty cool - I wouldn't come and join InstantAction as the CEO if I didn't think it was a great opportunity. But I don't see this as the ultimate technology. I just see this as a great way of going where we need to go today. One day, it may be that everything's streamed off server farms. Maybe. There's a lot of reasons I think that's going to be a while.

Louis Castle is CEO of InstantAction, Inc. Interview by Alec Meer.

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