In the opening keynote at Unite 11, David Brevik outlined the past, the present, and, most importantly, the future of the games industry. He's well placed to do so; a co-founder of Blizzard North, a co-creator of Diablo, and one of the intrepid souls who set sail with Flagship Studios, few can lay claim to Brevik's success or setbacks.
In this interview, Brevik holds forth on staying relevant, the free-to-play future, taking on the Marvel Universe, and the introduction of real-money transactions to the world he helped create.
Q:Your keynote speech was about the future of the industry, broadly speaking, and I noticed that a lot of the trends you mentioned - social networks, mobile technology, the App Store - have really emerged in just the last few years. Is it difficult to stay relevant in that rapidly changing environment?
David Brevik:Well, it's something I'm passionate about so I don't really consider it to be a chore. It's exciting. I embrace all of these changes. And although it may seem like a lot has happened in the last few years, I can say that it always feels like there's rapid change. A new piece of hardware is coming, people are congregating around a new website, new business models, new opportunities, some work, and some don't.
Q:Something that came through in your talk - and I don't know whether it was intentional - was that these huge, overnight changes are rarely so sudden. They are generally the result of a long series of incremental steps, just as a game like Diablo led to much broader changes further down the line.
David Brevik:I think that's always happening. It may seem like there's sudden change, but most of time it's telegraphed. It's very rare that something like Facebook comes out of nowhere and makes such a big splash. Most of the time it's a process of evolution.
A direct relationship with the customer that was never available before... A lot of effort was wasted on people who had no interest in what you were doing
David Brevik, Gazillion Entertainment
Even if you take cellphones: at first you had the car-phone, which was this nightmare of a giant box, but they got smaller and smaller, and then, in Japan, they started playing games on these things, and then that came over here. And then you get the iPhone, and that changes a lot... They just did it right, but you could tell that it was coming, right? People were already making games for the mobile space, and it was growing.
Q:It was less the hardware than the distribution platform there - the whole ecosystem Apple provided.
David Brevik:Right. A direct relationship with the customer that was never available before. Before, I'd put [a game] on the shelf at Target...I don't know whether they're there to buy blankets, or videogames, or what. A lot of effort was wasted on people who had no interest in what you were doing.
Q:Is that empowering? When you first started there was much more of a separation between the people that made the games and the people that bought them.
David Brevik:There was nothing. There was no feedback. I sold my one copy of my BMX game, I don't even know who bought it. As far as I know it was my mom. And I never get to talk to that customer: Did they like it? Did they install it? From that to now, when we're getting feedback all of the time, is amazing. Measuring all the clicks, and how long they're playing, what they're interested in, and how we can improve. To be able to do that in a live environment is really exciting.
Q:You were involved with Flagship, which was a very ambitious studio, and it's fair to say that many of those ambitions went unrealised. What did you take away from that experience that informs your current project?
David Brevik:Well, a lot. There were a lot of lessons learned there. The big one was that we tried to develop all of the technology from scratch, and that was a much harder road to travel than I imagined. In the past, it wasn't that much of a big deal to create your own engine. We had only done 2D games, so not only were we trying to make our first 3D game, but also develop all of the technology from scratch.
That was a really big hurdle for us to get over, and since then I haven't been developing engines. It doesn't make as much sense. I don't want to be an engine company - I want to make games... Often you'll have ideas that you might need to write custom technology for, but at the same time try to not bite off too much.
We just tried to do too much. We had massive ambitions, and we were used to working under the kind of deadlines we had at Blizzard, where we had the luxury of letting the product out kind of when we wanted, and not on a specific deadline. We were, y'know, running out of money [laughs]. Developing in that fashion, with that mindset, was a new reality for a lot of us, or was a reality that we hadn't experienced in a long time.
Q:One of the motifs of your talk was "What would Nintendo do?" - a question that developers should ask themselves when making creative decisions to help them choose the right path. You're currently working on an MMO [Marvel universe], which is a space that's still being figured out to a large degree, so I have to ask: what do you think Nintendo would do with an MMO?
David Brevik:I think MMOs in general are in a rut; it's still mainly WoW clones... A lot of people have done these games, but it's been that same kind of gameplay, and that doesn't mean that's what it has to be. Look at Ultima Online: it's an MMO, but the experience of Ultima Online was very different from World of Warcraft, yet everybody's gone in that one direction.
In reality, a massively multiplayer online game is a platform. It's the ability to get people together in the same game to play at the same time; it doesn't have to be limited to this one kind of game. If I was Nintendo, or Gazillion, I wouldn't necessarily make that same game.
Q:Gazillion is going free-to-play with Marvel Universe. It's fair to assume that Nintendo wouldn't do that.
David Brevik:Sure. I agree. In the last few years they haven't really used the internet in the same way that other platforms have. I won't say that they do everything right, but the idea there is that, a lot of the time, their products really are core to that technology. They keep that in mind.
If I've got a device that, when I wiggle it, I get feedback, well then my gameplay is going to evolve around wiggling that device, right? So if I've got a keyboard and a mouse my gameplay has to evolve around that. What are the strengths of that? I use keyboard to chat, I use mouse to click; well, Diablo is click the crap out of that mouse.
Being able to access the same game from anywhere is really compelling... The console companies understand this, and they're going to have to change
David Brevik, Gazillion Entertainment
Now, it's a little bit more abstract when it comes to business. In Asia, the free-to-play business model has proven very, very, very successful for a number of years now, and it's really catching on...because it turns out that if you give the game away for free you actually make more money. Businesses really like it because they're all about the greed, and from a developer standpoint it's exciting because my game gets in front of more people.
Really, I do this to entertain people, and my audience just grew. It's not necessarily what Nintendo would do, but for me, as a game developer, it's kind of a dream come true.
Q:You referenced the Wii earlier, which kind of slipped in just before the explosion of some of the key changes mentioned in your talk - specifically social networks, smartphones and tablets. We live in a more multi-device world than we did when the Wii launched, and that's reflected in the strategies of companies like EA, like Microsoft. Have we moved away entirely from that sort of niche console, where it's this box that does only what it does?
David Brevik:I think so, but it's not just that, though. I think combining those things together is really the next step. Being able to access the same game from anywhere is really compelling. I can be on a car journey and, say, check on auctions, or interact in some way because I've taken this trip a zillion times. It's that new horizon... The console companies understand this, and they're going to have to change. They know that.
Q:Back to free-to-play, we talked to Sony Online Entertainment's John Smedley recently, and he predicted that The Old Republic will be the last major MMO to launch with a subscription model.
David Brevik:I agree. I have a lot of friends in the industry and... I mean, the budget for The Old Republic is outrageous, but it's the last, large scale subscription game I can think of.
Q:Could it easily change to free-to-play if the subscriptions don't justify the budget?
David Brevik:No. Part of the problem with it is that you aren't going to get the results. This is kind of going back to my talk: if your gameplay is integrated with the very concepts that you're trying and integrated with the platform you're going to get a better experience. Converting something to free-to-play works to some degree, but to have the most success you have to have that as an integral part of the game itself.
Q:You're talking about free-to-play as a design concern, which it certainly is, but not everyone sees it as more than a business model. How does that change your role, and the sort of things you think about when crafting the experience?
David Brevik:Well, it's a definite learning experience. What should we charge for and what shouldn't we charge for, and making those decisions every day. You can be cruel or you can be generous, and riding that line, coming up with your rules, will greatly effect the amount of money you'll make from the game. My philosophy has been a little bit more generous. I would rather lean towards generous than cruel.
Let's take a for instance: we're going to charge for convenience items. You can get the same effect by just playing the game; you can jut beat up monsters or whatever, and every now and then a micro-transaction coin will drop, or you can spend $5 and get a packet of ten right now. That's integral to the design
Yes, you can tack this on. But the real science comes when it's really part of the game in a way that isn't mandatory... Getting those things right is important.
Q:Yes. Anyone switching to free-to-play won't have gone through that process of finely tuning and balancing where the paying begins and where the free stuff ends. So there must be a risk of alienating your existing player-base.
David Brevik:Yeah, absolutely. And not only that, but what do you do with your existing subscribers: How do they view this? How do you treat them? 'I've already spent X amount of money on this game. What do I get out of this?' There are some tough problems to deal with if you don't make a free-to-play game right off the bat.
We intended Marvel Universe to be free-to-play all along, and it will show us a different experience, a different type of free-to-play
David Brevik, Gazillion Entertainment
Q:That hasn't stopped a lot of MMOs making that switch, most recently DC Universe Online. Is that influx of competition a good thing for Marvel Universe?
David Brevik:Yes, because people are getting used to it. Now, I think that people's free-to-play experience, your mileage may differ here. The fact is that what one free-to-play game does is different to everybody else, but we intended Marvel Universe to be free-to-play all along, and it will show us a different experience, a different type of free-to-play.
Q:On the subject of payment methods, as someone who helped conceive the Diablo franchise I'd be interested to know your thoughts on Diablo III's real-money auction house.
David Brevik:I see it more as a customer service thing.
Q:But it's also just one more kind of persistent payment method. The industry is obviously moving away from one-size-fits-all pricing, but is this sort of thing going to be a feature of more games in the future?
David Brevik:It is. And the reason is that games aren't as profitable as they used to be - on a percentage basis. It takes so much money to make a AAA game these days you have to ensure that it's going to be a hit. That's why we see so many sequels, but another way you can go is to charge your customer more than once. The fact is that if you're going to have a game that's persistent - that continues - people expect you to modify it, and how are you going to pay for those modifications?
In the past we used expansions, but expansions have become more spread out and you've got little pieces of content...on a monthly basis. Very soon it will be down to weekly updates. In China there are games that change every day, and we're moving towards that sort of thing.
Q:What Blizzard has done, though, is allow commerce to take place between players, which sidesteps a potential problem of the developer creating more content: if you're kicking out too much, people start to question the value of it.
David Brevik:Right. 'Hey. What am I paying for?' It's like I said, in a lot of ways the auction house is a customer service. There was a lot of calls in the past about people getting ripped off buying items on eBay, but that had nothing to do with us or our game. It was kind of a problem, but here is a way to allow secure transactions.
I think it's a feature that people will enjoy. Gamers are a little bit aghast by this, but everybody knows these are the same people that went and bought the Ring Of Jordan on eBay. At first people are going to be a little, 'Oh my God! They're draining us of our money!' But it'll turn out that they're not draining you. It'll take a little while to sink in, but it will.