"I'm one of these people that's incredibly interested in the future and what's happening next in the game business," David Perry explained to GamesIndustry.biz after his Lunch With Luminaries event at last month's E3.
That was what led the founder of Shiny Entertainment to leave the studio in 2006 and join former Activision head Howard Marks at the resurrected Acclaim, which at the time was looking to bring the free-to-play formula that had worked so well in Asia to as-yet untapped Western markets. Perry and Marks correctly identified where the market was headed, and they staked out the territory when the competition was few and far between, but it ultimately didn't click. In May of 2010, Acclaim was acquired by Playdom, which was in turn acquired by Disney two months later. All of Acclaim's games were shut down the next month.
"What we found was the friction of playing free-to-play games was actually what would break them."
So why did Acclaim become an industry footnote instead of another Riot Games, Supercell, or Zynga?
"We had this idea that we could take games from China and bring them to the United States and everything would be fine," Perry said. "But that's not how it turned out. It turned out to be very complicated to actually get these games over here and to Westernize them. It wasn't just a case of localization but actually changing [the game]. We always tried to change too much."
For example, Perry said Acclaim would try to change the player avatars to better suit Western tastes. That meant giving them "Western-size heads," which in turn meant redoing assets for all of the customization options (like hats) to properly fit the new avatars, as well as working to create their own Western-focused licensing and sponsorship deals.
But even as Acclaim floundered, Perry said he was having mental breakthrough after mental breakthrough.
"What we found was the friction of playing free-to-play games was actually what would break them," Perry said. "The more people you lose, the more you have to have the others try to buy to solve the math problem. So if you have a leaky boat, effectively that boat's going to sink unless you can get an awful lot of players to experience your game."
One particular point of friction was the on-boarding process. Acclaim had started working with downloadable game clients, but the MMO free-to-play business was increasingly turning toward browser-based solutions that let players get into the game almost instantly. Perry identified the multiple gigabyte download as one particularly significant leak in the boat that needed fixing.
"Free-to-play walked me down a path that led me to cloud gaming," Perry said.
"There's an immediacy requirement, and if you don't have it your competitors will be outselling you. Even if your game's better, it doesn't matter because they will have better systems in place to share it."
The big turning point came out of a talk Perry gave at the 2009 DICE conference in Las Vegas. The developer proposed a future with a frictionless solution, where gamers could instantly access games of all shapes and sizes online, no matter how complex or demanding. After the talk, a group of engineers in the Netherlands reached out to Perry to tell him they had the same vision, and that they had already realized it. Though Perry was initially skeptical, it only took a streamed game of Mario Kart to convince him.
Perry left Acclaim in late 2009 and co-founded his own streaming company, Gaikai, in early 2010. Two years later, Sony acquired Gaikai for $380 million, and used the company's technology not just for the PlayStation Now game streaming service, but for some core functionality of the PlayStation 4, like the background downloading of content.
But even with one of the key friction points that doomed Acclaim on the verge of being solved, Perry recognized there's no shortage of other problems in the industry.
"As we go digital, you're going to live or die by your ability to find digital customers," Perry said. "And people who are not used to this idea of tracking every single friction point in their games are going to have to start to pay attention... From you tweeting 'I just saw the most amazing game' to me hearing about it, the clock is now ticking. If I don't play it soon, I'm going to forget about it. You've got my interest right now, so how quickly can I get to that experience? In the future, you'll be able to track exactly how frictionless your outreach is, how quickly you can get people in, and get people to realize they like the product. It's just a different world. There's an immediacy requirement, and if you don't have it your competitors will be outselling you. Even if your game's better, it doesn't matter because they will have better systems in place to share it."
"I have this mantra I keep saying: Everything, everywhere, instantly. Because that's where games are going to end up."
Perry stopped short of saying that the quality of a game has become less important to its success, but it's clear he thinks developers can't focus on it to the exclusion of all else.
"Sometimes things are actually good, but there's nothing to really talk about," Perry said. "It really comes down to the individual product and whether you want to talk about it. Is there a moment in the game that makes you start tweeting and laughing and wanting to show people and share it? You've heard a lot of talk about sharing, and that's what they're saying. That sharing is incredibly valuable. Have you thought in your game design, 'Is there a moment that's really worth sharing with other people?' Is there that moment in the product? Because if there isn't, I don't know if that's going to help."
With Acclaim and Gaikai, Perry was ahead of the industry trends twice. So what does he see coming next?
"I have this mantra I keep saying: Everything, everywhere, instantly," Perry said. "Because that's where games are going to end up. You'll have every game ever, instantly. I think of it as a train on the track. And I keep saying, 'Where's the end of the track?' Instead of talking about where the next station is, I think when we get to the end of the track it will be every game, everywhere I go, instantaneously, at a decent price. That's the final destination."