Last week one of the UK's most-watched, and one of the last remaining independent studios, Realtime Worlds, secured USD 50 million in investment funding to enable it to finish work on two upcoming online titles, one of them as-yet-unannounced, the other the GDC-revealed APB.
To find out more about how that money will be spent, and to look back on the studio's history so far, GamesIndustry.biz spent some time with the studio's founder and CEO David Jones for a rare interview.
In part one of this two-part feature, he talks about industry funding, upcoming projects, and that Halo 3 beta key giveaway.
Q: So what are you going to do with the USD 50 million?
David Jones: Well, it seems like a lot of money, but because we're in a big development, a big online game, they do require a significant investment – especially to launch something which is groundbreaking and world-leading. And we have another online title in development as well, which we haven't announced yet, so really to do that, and to stay independent with those titles for as long as possible, requires significant investment. So it seems like a big number, but it is quite a bit more expensive than developing a boxed retail product.
But what's been lucky, as we've talked to investors over the last few months, unlike the traditional retail box model, I think it's good to see they're willing to back moves in the online space. Because as developers it lets us get a bit higher up in the value chain, which is great – and I don't think we'd have found investment like that for a traditional boxed product.
Q: The online space has changed beyond recognition in the past few years – do you think Vivendi's revenue from World of Warcraft helped to give confidence to investors?
David Jones: I think it's given developers a different route they can take. I think it's good to have some exemplars out there, as well as the one that everybody quotes, but then you can also look at what you might call the lighter casual titles, like Club Penguin, Jagex with Runescape – there's a lot of stuff out there that's doing really well in terms of online.
So I think there are quite a few success stories out there, and in many ways they eclipse the studios doing the more traditional retail boxed product. Everybody sees the market has only just started, and there's still a huge potential for growth.
But the stories that are out there certainly help for the investment community to be happy, and eager to invest.
Q: Do you feel that USD 50 million is enough to see you through until revenues from APB's release start coming in?
David Jones: Yes, basically we call it our 'go-to-market fund' – effectively we've got everything we need now to launch two online games, and basically after that they have to be standalone, they have to support the business going forward.
The process was actually pretty straightforward. It is a bit unusual for developers to go to the investment community and actually get backing, but we learnt a lot – we met quite a few of the funds that are investors in some of the other online companies, and they definitely know the markets.
I still think you have to go with something that's innovative and a bit out of the box in terms of thinking.
Q: You have a personal track record in the industry, and Crackdown has won awards – how important were those aspects in sourcing the funding?
David Jones: I think fairly important – at the end of the day they're investing in what we personally believe is a great game, and as you know that's a tough call to make, especially with new IP, so they do put a lot of faith in the track record of the management team.
But then again there are companies out there, like Jagex with Runescape, that was their first ever game. They hadn't done anything before, but there still seems to be backing there for the innovators, who just have one idea, maybe who want to release something on a lower budget.
But for the big, big budget, it was obviously something that figured heavily in their decision process.
Q: Realtime Worlds doesn't do things by halves – with your projects so far, you're setting the bar pretty high, and they're not easy projects. Is that stubbornness, or confidence? How would you characterise the company's outlook?
David Jones: I think it's also just being realistic. It's easy for some people to underestimate what it really takes these days to produce a great game. It's certainly true of the retail market in online as well.
So we're very resolute, we know what it takes, we know how much it costs, and we don't kid ourselves that it's going to take anything less.
Just sticking to that principle, not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes, both internally within the company and with investors, saying yes, it is a lot of money, but truly that's what it takes.
Unfortunately these days it does take that amount. Crackdown wasn't that long ago and our development budget was something like USD 20 million*, and even that to me now, I don't know if I could do anything for much less than that.
You've got the Call of Dutys, GTA IV – some challenging stuff to try and beat out there, or at least set a bar equal to that.
Q: But those are both franchise titles – do you find it a little disappointing that the market has become – and understandably so because of the cost – dominated by franchises and sequels?
David Jones: Yeah – it's just a natural by-product of the way the market is. If anybody goes to somebody and says they want USD 20-25 million to try and create a new product…it's hard enough to create one game. I struggled with Crackdown – it's not just about making Crackdown, it's about trying to make something with franchise potential, it's about thinking about the next five years, and where we can take the game as well.
That's the hard part, especially when many, many genres have been done extremely well now. It's very tough, I find it tough as well, and in some respects that's one of the nice things I like about online is that it's actually a very tough model to keep doing over and over again.
At least with online the launch is at the beginning, and as a developer we launch the thing, and hopefully people like it and it starts to take off – but then we can really devote resources to it going forward, and get a lot more life out of the title, rather than just talking about sequels.
Q: So what do you consider as the franchise potential of Crackdown?
David Jones: Well, there were so many ways we could take that – basically I loved the potential new attributes and skills that you could bring to your agents, I loved the whole thing about the Agency, do more about where they came from, taking it to further cities – even add a bit of an RPG element to it by adding those skills, and so on.
It has got online potential because of that, and it's a game where you could see online potential, introducing more Agency vehicles, more over-the-top skills…just making it easy to see that future progression is important in a franchise, whereas in some other games, maybe your World War I shooters, because they're constrained by the realism of them, it's hard to see where you could keep building and building them without releasing the typical sequel.
Q: It is hard to get funding for games, and you've resisted the option of becoming a publisher-owned studio, but have you had many offers?
David Jones: No, not really, but we've been so focused on what we're doing, moving more and more into the online space, that we've not really have many dealings with them. Really we worked with Microsoft on Crackdown when the company launched, and that's been it.
Q: Does that surprise you? There are a lot of acquisitions going on.
David Jones: No, not really. Obviously we've had Crackdown, now we're just keeping our heads low and working on APB, and we're still relatively young. We've only had one game, so once you build up more of a portfolio, have more games live, and so on, there might be some interest there.
But it's not been on our radar either, it's just not something we've thought about. People have wanted to visit, but we've said there's just nothing to show so far, and we don't want to show anything until we're happy with it internally. Maybe we'll have some conversations once we're at that point.
We need to decide as well, even in the online space, what kind of collaboration we want to have with the traditional publishers as well – is there going to be a boxed product? Those kinds of questions need to be answered further down the line.
Q: Obviously at this point your independence is very important to you anyway, so I assume you don't have any interest in sacrificing that at this point?
David Jones: No, especially when we're setting the vision for the company, obviously that's something that we've got to have, got to stick to – especially when we're developing the game. We're doing things outside of the box that are probably quite scary to publishers, in terms of risk and everything, and that's why it probably works better if we just go for external funding just now.
I think it's good for creativity as well, to have that funding that's not publisher funding.
David Jones is the founder and CEO of Realtime Worlds. Part two of this interview will follow next week. Interview by Phil Elliott.
* David Jones got in touch to clarify his comments regarding the cost of development for Crackdown, and clear up confusion over the USD 50 million budget.