Leading the Way

Vanguard's CEO Arthur Houtman on changing the nature of core games

Three months ago Vanguard Entertainment Group was officially launched, with former Guerrilla exec and OneBigGame director Martin de Ronde as chief creative officer.

Earlier this month the company unveiled Arthur Houtman as the new CEO, and here he outlines the developer's vision for the future - what kind of games it wants to make, and why the console digital platform environment needs to change.

Q: First of all, what's Vanguard's business going to be?

Arthur Houtman: Basically our idea is to look at what's been happening in the gaming scene as far as social gaming, and that kind of thing, and what that could mean for more core games. So it's not about what, on the one hand you might say are all these games that aren't really considered games - the Farmvilles of the world, which are more click-fests than anything that's really skill-based.

But there are a lot of features surrounding those kind of games that we definitely feel attracted to as gamers - how you get your friends involved in games, the persistence of the games, things like that. We think there are a lot of lessons to be learned, and games as we know them have hardly changed over time.

We get better graphics and there are some mechanisms that pop up in casual games, but for the more classical genres there's not much evolving in there. For the last five years I've been working in online, and for the last year and a half with Martin [de Ronde] we've been really looking at all directions in terms of what online could mean for core gamers.

It's clear that there's a real need in the console space to have on one hand games that give a slightly different experience, even though it's still the same kind of game - but I think the persistence of games is something that's attractive. We're used to buying a full price game, going off and playing it, and then turning the console off - and when we want to play it again, we go back... but there's no persistence, and I think that's something interesting.

As to involving friends and other people in your games, there's a little bit of that going on, but again it's very discrete, let's say. It doesn't really make sense of your experience of the game itself - it's almost like an add-on.

That's a little bit of it - looking at the social and online game space, whether that's MMOs or Farmville, and then seeing how we can take lessons from there to the console world and make games that are on one hand better, but also lighter. That's why we're looking very intensely at the XBLA/PSN space - making smaller game experiences, but having more persistence.

Q: And these are games you're looking to create internally?

Arthur Houtman: We have about 45 people here internally - a big development team. Previously our big game was Greed Corp, which is still out on XBLA; the next one that's just been announced is Gatling Gears with EA.

So we definitely want to develop internally - we have quite a list of ideas we want to explore, but with 50 people we have to be smart on how we divide our resources. But definitely in the first instance it's a lot of things we have here internally, and we want to continue to develop the ideas, the prototypes, and see how it goes.

Q: At one point in the industry's development talking about a staff of 50 would have been considered a big number. Nowadays that's not the case for the big core games - but it is quite a lot of people for the downloadable platforms, isn't it?

Arthur Houtman: I think it's a lot of people when you look at smaller games, definitely - we're thinking of running two different projects in parallel, and being very smart about it. Also, because some of the things we want to be doing is a little bit of new terrain for us as well - and there again are some of the learnings in the social space, where companies put out the core bits of a game, see how it's received and evolve from there.

A lot of these games aren't even finished when you put them out; of course, a lot has to do with your business model as well. If we're asking 40-50 for a game, people expect that to be a top-notch experience. If it's more of a freemium model or really cheap, people know it's a smaller game, that fewer resources have gone into it. They don't expect as high a level of quality, so people in the social space can get away with bringing out games that aren't really complete, and they have "beta" written on them for their whole lives.

Not that we want to make games that have a low level of quality; one of the main things in starting the company with the team that we have is that the quality has to be console-level - it's not about making half-baked games without any real mechanism. The whole experience has to be quality - but it doesn't have to be a 20- or 40-hour experience.

Q: XBLA and PSN have seen a degree of success in terms of unit sales - at least those that seem to sit in the top two or three in the respective charts. There's been a little bit of concern voiced about sales numbers below those top positions, so how important is it for you to get to the top of the charts?

Arthur Houtman: Well, of course you always want to be at the top of any chart that you're part of, but unit sales is another thing where we need to evolve the business models. What Sony and Microsoft let us do with the platforms - I think there's something that also needs to evolve there.

Of course it's always risky to go to a freemium model, and we'll see if we ever get completely to freemium, but a lot cheaper games that have other features - and if you really like it, if you can spend more on it, then that's a better model.

So top of the charts? For the moment, with the business models of today, everybody knows exactly where that lies - you know how much you're selling your game for, and maybe a little bit of an idea as to how much it costs to get a game out there, to get people on board with the game, how much to spend on marketing and so on.

But as you're looking at different models now where there's room for everybody's spending appetite - if you look at, commercially, how you position things, and the P&Ls and business models and all that boring stuff...

Of course, with a game like GT5 you get people happy to buy the game for 60. Others might have bought it at 40, and others at 30 - but those people won't get the game, so you've lost them. The game still does quite well, good quantity and it's a top-seller - but if you look at that kind of model... and I think that's one of the reasons why the new business models are quite successful, because people can spend what they want, so you're much more in control as well of what you're going to give to people, what they like, what they'd want more of or not.

I was with Infogrames/Atari before, and it's almost difficult to imagine that for so many years we just put games in boxes, and just sent them out hoping they'd be successful, without much user feedback. Now there's a lot more going on with user-testing and the big publishers definitely have it more down to a science to see what users like - but still, it's a very small group.

If you look at - and again, we don't want to go completely in that direction, but it's an interesting thing to look at - Zynga pulls in 1TB of data, I'm told, per day to look at what people are doing, and what they play. Now, those games aren't really games - there's hardly any design that comes to it; it's all about mathematics. Everybody likes tractors, let's put up 45 different colours of tractors. It'll do well.

That's not where we want to go, but nobody's picking up those kinds of learnings and putting them into what core gamers would like. If folks playing the game were connected, and we're doing things for each other - I'm thinking that giving presents is something that core gamers appreciate - there are things you can look where you can get involved in each other's games, and because I'm playing, their game slightly changes.

It's interesting to know that if your friend is playing, I'm just going to pop over to my console to see if it changed anything in my garage, or whatever game it is you're playing. I think those are interesting things, because it makes for another experience - people have different experiences among themselves, and there's more to talk about, brag about, and stuff like that. It's not just a case of whether a player got the gold cup yet, or not.

I think it's opening up that register of how we can design products slightly differently and how can we promote different business models in this market. Obviously things need to change, because al those kids that are growing up today with all the free games on the internet are used to very different play patterns. When they come up to want to buy consoles and they're looking at playing more serious games, I think they'll have problems with our current business model.

Q: Are we going to see a re-education of gamers?

Arthur Houtman: I don't think re-education is the right word - I think the audience is evolving. Where the re-education needs to be is in our industry.

Q: There are obviously clear disadvantages to platforms such as Facebook in terms of visibility, and clearly XBLA/PSN will give you some advantage there. But those are closed platforms, so you're really looking for some more freedom to be able to control things like price points. Do you think that's really likely?

Arthur Houtman: I think they have to - obviously they have to evolve with it. I feel it's a little bit stagnant where we are with the consoles, and even the console market. Looking back at the PSone and PS2, then where we are today with the market, a few years into this console cycle - and I haven't looked at graphs comparing previous generations - but I don't think we're doing as well as we should.

I know that the manufacturers are trying to figure out where to go from here, and so I can only imagine that they need to evolve a little bit into that space. They are trying to figure it out - but I think one of the big things is the education of the industry.

As far as developers just putting out a game and saying, "Oh well, our game is this good, I'll sell more for 800 points than I would for 1200 points..." - That's just making a pure business decision. What we're talking about is designing games so they might be able to go out for 100 points, then there's a lot of things you can buy for 50, 100 or 150 points, or whatever.

I think that kind of model is going to be more interesting. What I think is that we, as developers, have a role to work this further. I think that developers themselves - I hear a lot from colleagues that Microsoft doesn't want to move, or Sony doesn't want this or that. Actually, I think it's different - I think they can't move without having really clear ideas, and people coming to them with concepts.

I feel a little bit of responsibility lies with the development community, and not people just saying that's the way it is, and we're going to continue to put out games as we used to - without coming up with clever, new ideas that could be attractive, and some proof in them from what happens in the casual space. There's not a lot of that happening - we might be sticking out our necks a little bit, to say that we'd love to have Sony and Microsoft on board with these strategies...

I think they will get there, I think they'll get there easier if they have people like us presenting ideas of how to get there. It doesn't have to be a direct switch - you can take small, baby steps and try things out - and that's where we need to be. So the responsibility lies on both sides.

Q: So to the question of marketing and visibility - the industry's not quite worked out how to nail the digital products just yet. Do you have any special insights there?

Arthur Houtman: If I had really good ones, I wouldn't put them in the press... at least not yet. But viral is a big word in the social space, and I believe that's been one factor in the success of kick-starting the whole social story with companies like Zynga and Playfirst. When they started off, they got all that for free, but now Zynga's paying fortunes to have banners on Facebook.

Again, I think I'd want to come up with ideas that platform holders could buy into and find interesting. It's almost as if, for the moment, XBLA is going to go the other way - that it's a marketing platform for the full-spec boxed games, with people putting up a couple of levels of the multi-million dollar titles and making it an XBLA download.

That's a dangerous way to go - it's still great content to have, and I'm sure there's a public for it. But on the other hand I think we should really work at making that platform something in its own right. It's always been everybody's objective - but all the big statements that we heard many years ago, from the different platform holders, in terms of what they were going to be doing... When you look at what they have done in the last two or three years, it's very thin.

They haven't been enormously successful with some things they've tried; some other things are working well - but there's not a lot going on, nothing very bold in trying to push where they can go with the digital platforms.

Arthur Houtman is CEO of Vanguard Entertainment Group. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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Latest comments (2)

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 8 years ago
Sounds as if the console is to be made into an arcade cabinet with wireless money transfers. A sort of XBL game room, only with titles which are still relevant.

I suppose Activision and Steam have their own numbers on how much people actually play Starcraft 2 and whether it is better to sell them a $60 box, or charge them by the hour Korean style. My guess is that the $/h might be good enough a value proposition for a boxed product, but once people actually break it down to the average level of play and the resulting hourly charge, the game will look mighty uninteresting for most people at the resulting rate. Certainly not as low a charge as Mr. Houtman has in mind.
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Gaby Lee media consultant 8 years ago
I think what's interesting here are his comments about how gaming needs to change - designing products differently to accomodate the iterative, social experience. I love the idea of how seeing what your friend is up to affects 'what's in my garage' to quote Houtman's example, how the social/?live experience changes gameplay and what there is to talk about, get excited about.
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