Kabam: Adding the prestige to free-to-play

"The traditional publisher/developer model is kind of like the prisoner's dilemma" says president Andrew Sheppard

In a basement room in a hotel in London, the president of Kabam Game Studios Andrew Sheppard is explaining the art of the magic trick as dictated by Christopher Nolan's 2006 film The Prestige. The Pledge, The Turn and The Prestige, otherwise known as the set-up, the trick, and then the extra twist on the trick that sends people crazy.

"We talk a lot about that inside our company," Sheppard says of Kabam's free-to-play business, which is growing at a rapid pace.

"The explicit goal is to deliver on our commitments, what we say. Whether it's a business result, game play experience, launch date, whatever. But the aspiration is to always prestige what we're doing, can we do what was unexpected? And if you can achieve that it's something to talk about, and it makes people to feel good. That's all people want, they want the unexpected."

"Adding countries is just checking a box and it's very easy to do that and to do it poorly"

Kabam launched in 2006, and by 2012 boasted the sort of figures that make accountants need to sit down. $180 million in gross revenue, 70 per cent revenue growth, successful games in 100 countries. Its aim is to be a global company, with services that move with the sun, as Sheppard describes it, and for every game to feel like a local product. That's why he's in London on one of his 120 days on the road this year.

"I always find it funny, and I'm going to bag on Americans for a sec, that Americans will see a foreign product come in to the country, typically from Asia and they'll say 'oh, why would someone build a game like this?' But then at the very same time they'll take Call Of Duty and they'll just shove it into Asia, or Need For Speed and they don't even see those as being logically inconsistent. Kabam is different, we're trying to do things differently," he says.

"When you look at the top grossing countries for us it's US, UK, Germany and France, and the way I look at that is it just speaks to the fact that we should be doing better in Europe. A lot of other companies will look at that distribution and say 'we should double down in the US' or 'we're running properly' and for me that says 'hey, we haven't even invested in Europe the way a European company would and we're fortunate enough to have a pretty large business presence here. So what would actually happen if we thought about things like a European company?'"

Kabam already knows the answer, it recently opened a Berlin office and grew engagement in Europe by ten per cent in two months. Sheppard believes that's thanks in part to the distribution opportunities of mobile. This is a time of global change in the industry, but it has to be done right.


"Adding countries is just checking a box and it's very easy to do that and to do it poorly."

Sheppard is softly spoken and not one for controversial statements, but he is passionate that free-to-play has to be done right, and while discussing why traditional publishers have so far failed to conquer free-to-play, he's firm about the problems they're facing.

"In my humble opinion the traditional publisher/developer model is kind of like the prisoner's dilemma, and it's a finite round version. As soon as you know when the last game is in that [franchise] everyone acts badly and they just try to extract as much value as possible. In a service based model which runs for years, decades, you can't afford to do that. You need to operate with integrity, you have to always optimise for the long term of a relationship," he argues.

But he's not giving up on the competition just yet, there's still a glimmer of hope that they can catch up, as long as they do it fast.

"There are a lot of smart people working at those companies and they do have a lot of resources and they do have time. Time is starting to slip as you see mobile take off, but they ultimately have time. As a corollary the probably don't feel the urgency that they should, but I would like to believe that they could... However history would also say that they won't."

He argues that one of the problems is actually the community that traditional developers see as their bread and butter, the hardcore console gamers.

"As soon as you know when the last game is in that franchise everyone acts badly"

"There is a vocal minority of folks, and increasingly it's the reduction of that gaming community, that don't want free-to-play and they're the stalwarts, the hold-outs. And that is a vocal minority and it's an influencer group a lot of times, right? So I think traditional gets caught in this really difficult spot - which I think is what happened with coin-op where in your service of that vocal and influential minority you increasingly pull your business away from the mass market audience."

So if it doesn't have to worry about the competition just yet, what is Kabam focused on for 2014?

"You look forward to the next two years and there's going to continue to be an enormous amount of innovation and disruption and we want to maintain our leadership in the space and in order to do that it takes really aggressive investment in people, process, distribution capability and game development," says Sheppard.

"We're moving to a model of having conviction and placing big bets on games we believe in... It means we're going to invest to make a game awesome, and to do that before it launches, as well as afterwards."

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Latest comments (5)

Steve Goldman Journalist. 6 years ago
f2p doesnt make games better. Period. It makes them worse.
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Kingman Cheng Illustrator and Animator 6 years ago
The balance in Hobbit Kingdoms is terrible, the pay to win factor ruins the game for the hard working gamers as I've mentioned in another discussion here.
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Jed Ashforth Senior Game Designer, Immersive Technology Group, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe6 years ago
"He argues that one of the problems is actually the ... hardcore console gamers .. that don't want free-to-play and they're the stalwarts, the hold-outs. And that is a vocal minority and it's an influencer group"

That's like saying that movie and TV fans who care enough to pay up front for a theatre ticket or a subscription service don't want their entertainment interrupted by ads are causing problems for advertisers, and they're spoiling it for everyone else who's happy to watch adverts. Customers are customers and they want what they want; If they don't want to engage with your game could it be that what you're offering is the problem, not the other way around?

Perhaps this 'problem' minority are just a bit more games-smart and just aren't as interested in the idea of 'free games' that they know really aren't free at all and are going to fall far short of the quality of experience they've come to expect and that utilise compulsion loops in financially oppressive ways? It's unfortunate the analogy with tricks and illusions is made - this is exactly what these 'holdout' gamers are wary of.

Hardcore gamers have played loads of games, which means they are rich in experience and wisdom to draw upon. They're the connoisseurs of this medium. Rather than complaining they're a problem, other companies recognise them as a 'premium' market demanding a different product and willing to pay more up front for it. Stop blaming them and engage them on their own terms. If your game is up to their expected levels of quality and value why wouldn't that audience buy it?
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Casey Founder, design36 years ago
Personally I don't think there is an inherent problem in F2P. As many have noted the issues arise in 'Pay to Win' or even 'Pay to Accelerate' which leach the sense of accomplishment and dedication from a game. If it's not enjoyable to play through the process of leveling up, playing through initial battles, learning the mechanics, etc. then the game was designed poorly from the outset. In the worst cases, as Jed mentioned, games are overtly designed to trick or betray their players into committing funds. This is just wrong.

Titles like League of Legends completely rebuke the P2W concept and nearly all transactions are vanity buys of new costumes (skins) for the characters you play in game. There are some faint P2A concepts, but these are purchases of 'boosts' which accelerate the rate you earn in game currency to purchase new champions or stat modifiers. The former have no effect on the outcome of any given match (arguably earning and playing a new champion in match is actually a DISadvantage for your team) but the later do give slight edges to players with as opposed to without them. Still the matchmaking system requires new players to win a certain number of matches before joining the more competitive play, which in turn guarantees they will earn in game currency at an expected rate and be able to purchase 'runes' to match other players emerging from the tutorial phase.

All of this is a long way of saying that while F2P is not the answer for all games and I at least expect (and hope) to see paid games continue indefinitely, there are great teams producing great F2P games for many audiences and platforms. It's also worth remembering that high rates of piracy and a general feeling of gamer/internet entitlement is a major contributor to the interest in the model by many developers and publishers. The F2P model can (and is) exploited but that is on the companies not the premise. Keep in mind there are plenty of "F U we got your $50" games as well. Lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago
Making money on games is no guarantee for gaining respect. Not among customers being public fans of the activity itself, nor other people seemingly in the same business. Being smart is also no guarantee that in the end your product will have done more good than damage to people. So choose your hooks wisely, not business-smartly.

No need to comment on the ad, though. I've made a pledge to not honor this turn of events with the prestige of calling it out for what it is in plain words.
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