Don Daglow has been programming video games since the 1970s, and been involved in some much-loved simulation and role-playing games, including one of the first successful massively multiplayer online games, Neverwinter Nights. He also founded the long-running Stormfront Studios in 1988, which closed almost 20 years later.
Now he's back with a new vision of video games, focused very much on the social and mobile space, but no less enthusiastic and passionate about the creation of entertainment and play. Here, in an exclusive interview with GamesIndustry.biz, he discusses the attraction of online gaming through Facebook, designing for brand new audiences and his thoughts on the current console space.
Q: It must be an exciting time; you've just announced a new studio (Daglow Entertainment). Can you take us through what you've got planned?
Don Daglow: We're working with a major publisher. We're not talking yet about what the actual product is – that will come during the summer - but we're set up initially to be Facebook developers, we're focused on doing everything high-end, high-goal. It's a great feeling and I tend to go into a lot of superlatives, then I realise what I'm doing is just blubbering enthusiasm because we have a great partner - a great project to work on - and, frankly, I'm having a ball.
Q: Facebook isn't known for "high-end" quality right now. What do you mean by high-end?
Don Daglow: Just in the last three years I've been working on guerrilla high-end projects which were very ambitious in their vision but with almost no money to work with – that's one kind of high-end. Another kind of high-end is when you're working with a major publisher and you have a typical budget for this kind of thing and, now you're not going guerrilla, you're able to focus on quality and you're not having to go "well, after we have to eat beans and gruel, somewhere sixteen years from now somebody will think we did something great."
Designers in the Facebook space already deserve a tonne of credit for having established that there's millions of people who would love to play games
Q: Historically you come from a console and PC oriented background. What attracts you to the social and mobile space?
Don Daglow: I love a new audience. If you go back through things I've done, especially as a designer – here my formal title is creative director but functionally it will be lead designer – what I've always loved is something that would be a new kind of product that can reach a new audience.
What some of the really great designers in the social space have proven is that there are actually several really cool audiences in this space – and those are people we can entertain. I think designers in the space already deserve a tonne of credit for having done that proof for having established that there's millions and millions of people who would love to play games: just put the right game in front of them.
That audience is learning very rapidly and that audience is changing and growing very rapidly and finding its own special interests. What's really exciting is that new audience you can reach which, I think, inspires new kinds of thinking. If I were making a movie just for my cousin Irving – I don't actually have a cousin Irving but imagine for a moment that I do – if I were making movies just for Irving: once I got to the tenth movie I was making for Irving there would be a certain limiting quality about it because all I could do would be what Irving liked.
The cool thing about new audiences is that if I then made a movie for you I would then start thinking of completely new ways, because I've been naturally thinking about Irving all the time and now I'm thinking about you.
If we look at new audiences we can start to think "hey, there are a lot of traditions they don't know and there is a lot of interface stuff" and here are all the issues you have with an audience that is not like our regular audience. But that's actually cool because it starts you thinking in new ways and, when you think in new ways, you think things you wouldn't have thought before – to paraphrase the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz.
Q: The social space is now a very crowded one and there is a lot of attention in this area. What have you guys got to do to make the company and the products stand out?
Don Daglow: Five answers come to mind at once! The first thing I would think of is that, having gone to CES and E3 since the Eighties, every time I would walk through the halls at those shows, all the way back to when we were battling Atari and ColecoVision, I remember thinking: "how can all these titles possibly succeed - there isn't the audience; there isn't enough money; there isn't enough shelf space for all these titles? How does this business work?!" Now when I saw it thirty years ago you can understand my jaw going dropping, but at E3 you get the same impression now.
The only way to get through this mess, with all that stuff that's out there, is to build something that's fun to play
I actually think of the Facebook market as being like that experience at E3 – and at CES before E3 – in that in each of those situations I came back and thought that the only way to get through this mess, with all that stuff that's out there, is to build something that's fun to play. Focus on the fun and focus on the gameplay. It sounds naive, but for thirty years I've been operating on the basis that if you get the gameplay right, even in a crowded market, you'll be okay.
I can think of a lot of times when we've gone up against bigger competitors and held our own or took the next bestselling spot in our genre simply by that process of saying: "well I guess we've just got to go on faith because the business keeps rolling along and we think we know what we're doing and we believe in what we're doing and we love the project, so let's just focus on gameplay and see if that'll work out." It doesn't work out every time, but it works out a whole lot of the time.
Q: The fact that you're working with a big publisher must let you get on with the business of making a good game whilst they get on with the business of marketing it and selling it. Would you say that's still quite a traditional way of working, even though it's a new format and a new era for games?
Don Daglow: Yeah, in that way it really is in that, if you've got a publisher who knows what they're doing and can get their act together in a lot of these ways, there's a whole batch of things you don't worry about – which frees you to worry about fun and gameplay. Every business structure has its pluses and its minuses, but having a major publisher to work with, the way we do, there are a lot of variables you don't have to be preoccupied with.
Q: You've said you're working with a license on this new title. What are the strengths of working with a license in the social space and is it easier to hit a certain audience with that license rather than create a new IP?
Don Daglow: I think a lot of licenses are not suitable, especially at the current time in this space, because they kind of drag you off in different directions. Once in a while a property will come along with a story it's telling, and a connection the property has with the audience, so much aligned with what you want to do with the game. At that point the license is not an albatross weighing you down – the license is a way for people to feel familiar with your property, so they feel they know what's going on in the story right from the start.
Q: What do you think about the snobbery towards social games exhibited by some of the more traditional games industry?
Don Daglow: I don't feel that way about the Facebook space because I'm having a great time working on it and I think it's a really interesting challenge. If you think about painting, there are abstract painters where, if they see somebody doing a landscape, they just go "ah, that's not for me" and they just shake their head and walk off, because they're an abstract painter – that's what they do. I have a friend who is a painter and he does abstracts in oils where he does really interesting exercises in colour – and he also does seascapes.
I know people who would say "so you love the abstracts and you make the seascapes to make money" because that's what people buy in a gallery. But his answer is "no I simply love the sea; I love being in the ocean. Oh and, by the way, I also love these abstract paintings." So I don't see it as a matter of respect or disrespect or whatever else – I think it's just a matter of taste. Some people are abstract painters, some are landscape painters and some, like my friend, do both.
Q: What did you make of Nintendo president Satoru Iwata’s comments at GDC that the mobile and online space was “drowning” the industry: that there is too much content, too much content for free and that companies can’t make a living in that environment? Was that a realistic assessment?
Don Daglow: Apple is a hardware company. Bees buzz, birds fly and hardware companies want to sell hardware. What Apple has done – and I think it has worked fabulously for them – is they’ve said “look at our hardware, look at all the software you can get here. And there is tonnes of it and, because there is tonnes of it, it’s cheap.” So isn’t that fabulous for the consumer? When I’m going to buy hardware, I turn to Apple, I open my arms in a warm embrace and I say “oh, I love you Apple, because you give me tonnes of applications and they’re all cheap!”
But then, of course, I have another personality and that personality is as a games developer. And when that personality kicks in then I look at it very differently. This is a market that is so saturated with stuff that there are a lot of fun little titles that are worth playing but, because of the nature of it being such a garage operation, you have pretty darn good stuff that is free or very inexpensive so the economics of how you create a premium brand product and charge a price that will actually pay for a significant team, as opposed to have an individual, and then have a long enough tail to sustain a team – that’s a very hard thing to do right now. Very hard.
Apple is a hardware company. Bees buzz, birds fly and hardware companies want to sell hardware.
We’re in a case where Apple is calling the shots on its platforms and I don’t think, on platforms like Apple and platforms that have to compete with Apple, that’s going to get better – I think we’re seeing the way the world is going to be. So people have to work in business models that are either based on extremely low cost, to create opportunity to make money and build the next game, or they’re going to have to find other ways to monetise virtual goods and things like that, so that you can support a team rather than one person and a distributor.
Q: On that, how big is your team at Daglow Entertainment?
Don Daglow: Right now we’re about ten people but, in the Facebook space, you don’t know how big your team is going to get. You can have all these guesses and estimates about how the numbers are going to go but the Facebook space is different. In the console space, sales [departments] makes projections, marketing [departments] makes projections - you build your game and, if the game is looking better than expected and it gets good retail and press response to previews, those estimates go up and you may get a little more money. It’s basically a negotiated thing, you put your game out into the world and then you see what happens and that’s that.
Here you get the core of your game, which has to display the fun and has to immediately display the premise or the reason why people want to play, you put it out there and the you just go into the most intensive schooling you have ever had in your life. Now instead of sending it off into the ether and praying – and there’s been many nights when I’ve thought “ok, well it’s out of our hands now please people love our game, please people love our game, please people buy our game!” and you do that prayer – now we always wished that somehow we could influence the outcome and we got our wish because now we go into this intensive study process where we expand the game and tune it based on what people are actually doing. So we don’t know how big our team is going to be later because it all depends on how those numbers go.
Q: What are your current thoughts on the console space? Do you think it’s an impenetrable place for a new start-up if they don’t have the backing of the format holder?
Don Daglow: I think that for packaged, console user expectations are so high that budgets are going to be significant and the bigger your budget the more accountants you have and the more lawyers you have involved, and costs actually grow disproportionately when that happens. So I think that there are a lot of reasons why you have to have a company with significant cash on hand to play in that world.
Now the downloadable console space – that area is in flux. Whatever you think of the way the world works today, don’t wait to tell people six months from now because the market is going to be different. We’re certainly seeing some squeeze in access to distribution compared to what we had before. We’re also seeing some erosion of price in places. But it is a place where a good game, that maybe even a single programmer did, can still break through. So I don’t think we’ve choked off the innovation in that area, but I do think that – like everything else – it’s getting tougher.
Because this console cycle did not evolve the way everybody expected, the infrastructure was built for this generation based on the PS2 and Xbox generation, and the Wii disrupted that – the economics never supported it so everybody stuck it out in the hole, in effect, and that has chain-reacted really negatively through the industry in terms of the number of projects, risk taking, the number of jobs lost: all those factors.
Don Daglow is creative director of Daglow Entertainment. Interview by Matt Martin.