Rose Amongst Thorns

We R Interactive's CEO and co-founder on advergames, gamification and why they shouldn't be dirty words.

Gamification, like many a buzzword, has suffered its fair share of backlash. Core gamers see it as a bastardisation of their hobby, whilst many brands remain unconvinced of its selling power. Most people can't even agree on a standard definition. David Rose's company, We R Interactive, takes what some might see as gamification and turns it on its head - producing a game first and fitting suitable sponsors into it to monetise afterwards.

It's a refreshingly quality-lead approach, and the company's lead title, I Am Playr, has attracted big budget clients in the form of Nike and Ginsters. Here, ahead of his appearance on a panel at Nordic Game next week, Rose discusses We R Interactive's approach to the world of advergames and brand promotion, and explains why they shouldn't be dirty words.

Q:Let's start with talking about your panel session at Nordic Game.

David Rose:Well, it's less about We R Interactive and what we're doing and more about some of the TV and game crossovers which have happened in the past. From my perspective it's about lessons learned from early forays like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire - why we thought that worked as a great quiz and TV format to take across to console - I think there were four million units sold on that first release - but also why some of the other quiz formats perhaps weren't as successful.

I think the conclusion is that properties have to have great game mechanics at their core. For all the talk of gamification and properties existing across different media, for something to be considered a game, the game mechanics should be cracking. That rule hasn't really changed through all these years.

So we'll be retrospectively going back through some of those successes and failures, to what we're doing here at We R in looking at that serialisation of content. Why sequel is a frowned upon word in the games industry but is embraced in TV. Why some of those patterns which have yet to be proven in games seem to work so well in broadcast.

Q:Your business model is an interesting one in that you seem to reverse the traditional advergame process by creating the game first and then attracting sponsors afterwards. Is that a fair summary?

David Rose:Yeah I think it is. It's certainly done that way round. We've been lucky with the likes of Nike, who've been working with us for almost a year now, and helped shape that product, but what I think people are realising now is that blatant advertising is just that - it's not a great experience for the user. Fundamentally what we do is set out to make a great game first and foremost then, if a brand is truly additive to the user experience then great, everyone wins.

The player gets a better game - and in the case of Nike and I Am Playr, we're telling the story of a footballer from first person, but we're really telling the story of a brand ambassador from the first person. Anything that befalls them players can have an emotional response to it. So when you're handed that Nike sponsorship, it suddenly means something. It might be a relatively small amount of content, compared to banner ads or pre-rolls, but it also might be something which, for once, you actually go and share with your friends.

It might be a relatively small amount of content, compared to banner ads or pre-rolls, but it also might be something which, for once, you actually go and share with your friends.

Q:Is that brand sponsorship a pre-requisite to shipping a game? Would you create a standalone product if you felt it was strong enough?

David Rose:Well we have the benefit of being independently financed, so we're not reliant on brand revenue to finance the production of our product. That's a great position to be in because it means that we're not forced into making compromise. So I guess with that as our starting point you could say that if we felt that a game was strong enough to stand on its own and be monetised through normal microtransaction or freemium models, then absolutely we'd do that. It's not a prerequisite that our games must have opportunities for brand involvement.

The I Am series of games, telling that first person narrative, we believe are are creating a channel in which we can get brands across very successfully. So of course it's a big part of it. So when we're building concepts for new games, we are conceiving them with points of integration in mind. I guess from a business perspective, the nice thing is that the big risk when founding a company is putting all of your eggs in one basket and hoping that users love the game. If they do and play it for a few months, they might pay us some pennies for content. Our eggs aren't all in that basket, so we somewhat de-risk that business by having that advertising in place.

I should probably add that it's been borne out in our original investment, with the likes of Peter Mead, Fru Hazlitt, they recognised that we were offering something different to what was currently happening in that world of brand advertising. Because everyone's looking at social media, at ways of getting people getting involved in their brands, games are a great opportunity.

Q:Does that commercial aspect limit your creativity at all?

David Rose:There are two sides to it. On one side we're trying to make decisions that maximise our creative freedom. I guess a good example would be that we set the game in a fictitious league in a psuedo-fictitious country, so players have no pre-conceptions as to who might be league sponsors or what brands you would expect to see in that specific situation. That's done less for the brand side of things than to retain our creative freedom to tell any story we want to tell.

The moment we peg it too much to the real world then we're somewhat framed by what's happening in the real world and we're forever chasing our tails to remain consistent. If the game is going to be live for five or seven years, then people don't want to be playing the 2011 season. So on one side we retain creative freedom. Where it is restricting is that we've got to be aware that we've got a wide range of brands that will could be involved. Some sports, some lifestyle, some family orientated, some more adult.

While we've got the capacity to serve content to any age range, to any country on a case-by-case basis, we're not going to go away and create 18-rated content or be too controversial because that is where those clients would quite rightly draw the line. It does limit us on some of our edginess.

Those divisions have been quite easy to arrive at because they're probably the sort of editorial decisions we would arrive at anyway because we are an online game and we need to make sure that we're suitable for our lowest common denominator, which is a thirteen year old playing on Facebook.

Q:There's some cynicism about advergames and the way they've been implemented in the past, do you think that it will always be a dirty word?

David Rose:I think it's a wider discussion than that. I think it's changing. Casual games were sneered at for years and maybe still are, then it was the turn of farming and social games. Advergames you can probably put in that camp as well because other than what Red Bull and Burger King have done on console, there haven't been massive development fees going towards their creation. As an industry we've always been keen to knock those cheaper products.

I think that what's changing is that the industry is recognising that a small, indie developer can now have the opportunity to compete with the very largest. People are rating, buying and playing games on the merits of the games rather than the size of the budgets. With that, you knock down barriers because you're no longer defining a casual game as something you play online that looks like it's cost 20,000, and a AAA game as tens of millions - the truth is, who really cares? Who cares who's written the cheque to develop that game?

I think the problem with advergames is that they haven't been conceived by game developers always. They've been conceived by advertising agencies retained by a brand to come up with a game because they've heard that gaming, with its interaction, is a great thing to do. That's probably not going to create good product. That's why I'm still slightly concerned that we'll be perceived as an advergame, because truthfully, we've approached it by saying, let's create a great game first. If it so happens that, by telling that story, there's some brand involvement, then fantastic, but it is secondary.

I think that's going to become more prevalent because brands, clients, people interacting with product, is going to be a very valuable way of game developers to fund their content. I don't think that there's anything wrong in that. As long as agencies and brands get educated that it's only as good as the game at its core. Some brands will fit very very well in translating to good games, some are going to be incredibly difficult to find good points of integration.

Q:What about in game ads in core products? Will it ever be accepted? Could we ever see AAA content in an ad-supported model?

David Rose:I can see a world where that potentially could change, but the core economics of the business are going to have to change first. It's going to take a very brave publisher to invest in that top end product based on that model today. The question that everyone is then facing is then, given that there is a way to support that ad-funded or freemium model with online delivery, but the cost of development has to balance on the other side of that equation, how can we do that? The user is accepting to a certain extent ad-funded content at that lower level.

If you wanted to raise fifteen million quid and develop a AAA game and distribute it online, you could. It would be a fool that funded you, but there's nothing stopping them.

That's exactly the point that we came to when forming We R, because I was sat there as a gamer saying, how can I bring high-production value to online games without repeating the mistakes of chasing an ever increasing development budget? If you wanted to raise fifteen million quid and develop a AAA game and distribute it online, you could. It would be a fool that funded you, but there's nothing stopping them.

BigBall, our film partner, had the opposite problem. They had 67 million people viewing their show, and yet when that show stopped screening, they equally lost those users and they hadn't monetised them along the way. Their problem was retention and monetisation, and my problem was delivery of quality and reach. In a roundabout way that's exactly why we founded the company in the first place. There has to be innovation if users are going to accept those different models.

Q:You've got a number of key investors from film and advertising. Is there much can we learn from those industries?

David Rose:Absolutely. How many times are games criticised for having poor scripts? Or when film has been used predominantly as cutscenes with little consequence in the past and we've ridiculed its production or acting? Gamification often misses the point, which Warren Spector summed up brilliantly at GDC last year, when he was talking about gamers making fun and a sense of reward from repeated actions. Games at their core are skill based, a skill at which you improve. The majority of gamification examples out there achieve neither of those things. Are they true games?

I'm not knocking gamification, but it's not games development. I think as people explore those areas more and more, they will realise what is a true game and they'll really take some lessons from it.

I think it's tremendously exciting at the minute, because no longer can anyone afford to be arrogant and say, because they employ a bunch of smart people in a games studio, we'll have a crack at it and it'll all work out okay - we have to go out and look for specialists in different areas and try new things.

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