Eutechnyx' Todd Eckert

Racing studio's North American boss on new business models, the importance of brands and tax relief

Eutechnyx was founded in Gateshead in 1987, and quickly built up a name for itself as a leading developer of racing games. In modern times, the company has grown beyond its family roots - in 2008, it opened second studio in Pittsburgh, headed up by director of North America, Todd Eckert. Formerly from the film industry - he was a producer on the Joy Division biopic Control - he's now making high-level calls as the developer moves towards online and micropayment-based racers.

At the GameHorizon conference in Eutechnyx' hometown of Gateshead, spoke to the effusive Eckert about the developer's plans to expand beyond racing games, the appeal of microtransactions, the important of brands and the effect of the government cancelling planned tax relief for the UK games industry.

Q:What's your feeling about regional conferences such as GameHorizon?

Todd Eckert:It's interesting because this is the third time that I've been to GameHorizon and the second time I've spoken. It seems to me like it's increasingly less regional, and more national/international. So if you look at the fact that not only does Ian [Livingstone] host it, he always does a great job... guys like Jesse Schell, he's fantastic. We live in the same town, I live in Pittsburgh so I get those talks as a one-to-one talk. So of all the conferences that I go to, I think I enjoy this one most.

Q:Do you think it's important that there are very few other ways for a small indie dev to meet big international guys like you?

Todd Eckert:It seems to be the best way, really. That's one of the reasons why this one works. No matter how big you are... I mean if you're Peter Molyneux I suspect it's beneficial to meet smaller developers who are smaller and hungrier, and in your absolutely deserved ivory tower you don't always get the chance to talk to them. I think cross-pollination is incredibly important.

Q:And of course it's potentially under danger, because of the UK tax relief stuff.

Todd Eckert:Yeah, of course. It's weird because you look at it like in America's film industry. America was the centre of the world film industry just by virtue of the fact that it was - it wasn't for any particular great reason. And Canada, it was essentially a lampshade, they made two movies a year, they said that "well, okay, the people that make movies spend a lot of money. It's a creative industry, creative industries spawn off other industries, and it's something that you can export all over the place, you don't have to have a factory to do it. Okay, so let's incentivise that. And they took a giant chunk of production away from the US, and the US went "s***."

So they had places like Louisiana, and then all over the place, even in California, so pretty much everywhere has come up with incentives, incentives are the norm. So in the US right now you still have that monetarily second fiddle approach to Canada. Because Canada gives massive incentives in Montreal, we looked to Montreal for opening a studio. And the issue is not whether or not the incentives work, but whether or not we're going to find anybody that we can work with over there, because they're all gobbled up by Ubisoft and the like. So I think incentives are very, very important, that being said I think some of the most interesting work in the world comes out of the UK. And you can't replace vision with inexpensive labour.

Q:Ian was saying tax breaks looks like begging rather than pride, that we should come up with something that reflects more positively on what the UK games industry can do.

Todd Eckert:That being said, when I did Control we were the only film going on in the UK at that time because we were a quintessentially British film. We flirted with Luxembourg, we flirted with some of the other places where you could get incentives, but it felt wrong.

Q:Had to be Manchester, huh?

Todd Eckert:Actually, no it was in Nottingham. The reason was Manchester doesn't look like Manchester looked in the 70s, and East Midlands Media gave us a pretty substantial incentive to go there. But the UK in general had no incentives when we were doing it, so we had the sound guy from Harry Potter because he wasn't working and didn't want to go to Eastern Europe.

While vision is hugely important, I feel that the UK government is not going to solve its overall ills by trying to cut off the only industries that remain to it. If you move to an entirely service-based economy you will fail. Giant mistake.

Q:No plans to move out of the UK yourself then?

Todd Eckert:Well, the company was founded in the UK. The family that owns it, they are not only very British guys but they are Geordies. I would be very surprised if the core of the company would ever move from here. That being said, our expansion into areas like China and in America - I think that's been important to where we are now and it's definitely going to be important to our future. But if you look at the key creatives: still here.

Q:That's good to hear. When you hear about stuff like Eidos being bought by Square Enix, there's an element of "oh no, there goes another British company..."

Todd Eckert:Well yeah, and that just feels odd. We're looking at growing the company and hiring more people - and we're hiring now, and we're hiring here. It's a matter of being able to find the right people and put them into positions of giant responsibility. Seriously, we do trial by fire. If you get somebody from university, and you see raw talent, it's then our history to give them the chance to either prove that they're that good or you find out that they're not. You'll never have long-term employees - and we've got a bunch of long-term employees right here - unless you say "alright, you seem pretty smart, let's give it a shot."

Q:Do you expect to increase the number of projects you're doing as a result of all this hiring, or is it more about supporting your existing games?

Todd Eckert:Well we've already expanded that. We're getting more into character games as well as just vehicle games - expanding the palette of what we're doing. And all of the games that we make are with our own engine. I think that's very important to our future, just because we love racing games, we love cars, and we've got relationships with all the most important car companies in the world, including some really weird ones that people don't necessarily know.

I Just got the paperwork for a German supercar company called Gumpert. They make this car, it's another hand-made, million-euro let's go 250 miles an hour car. So we kind of established that relationship. But I think what you're going to see with us is different types of business. We've already kind of expanded our vision of how we do business, and I think you'll see some titles that five years ago people wouldn't have thought of Eutechnyx as doing.

Q:What about the funding models for these games? Obviously the talking point of this conference - and others like it - has been about freemium, microtransactions and the like. Are you embracing that?

Todd Eckert:We're in the tail end of development of a car game, a free to play microtransaction-based game called Auto Club Revolution. It's interesting because if you look at it, why people want to have the Ferrari in the first place, it generally not because it's this fantastic piece of technology and they can go 200 miles per hour. Generally it's because it's reflective of a certain status, because they like being associated with the power and beauty of these machines...

Q:Which is why you see a lot of middle-aged guys wandering around in Ferrari baseball caps.

Todd Eckert:Yeah, exactly. But generally the guys in the caps are the ones who don't have the cars. That's the other thing, it helps get them laid. But this game recognises that all these licensed brands, people associate with them because it's emblematic of something within them. It's not necessarily the driving thing. 90% of the people you could put them in a Vauxhall or... a top of the line car (because if I say anything else I'll get in trouble) and they wouldn't tell the difference. So it's about community, it's about talking to each other, it's about envy, it's about exploration.

Q:Jesse Schell was saying in his talk yesterday that how many other brands outside of Harley Davidson do people get tattoos of? I guess you need to pursue that kind of aspirational thinking.

Todd Eckert:That's exactly right. Society's changed - it used to be you were in a pencil factory or you were in shipping or whatever and what you did was generally a pretty good indication of what you were. We don't really have that any more. If you're working in a Tesco, there's nothing wrong with that, but it's very hard to say "that's me, that's who I am." So instead you associate with a product, or you can associate with Aston Martin, or you associate with [the band] Interpol, or you associate with Apple. Twenty years ago, even if the technology had been the same, would people have lined up for a phone? No. They lined up for a concert ticket. That was it.

We're looking for those things by which to identify ourselves, and that's where brand identification and the reason communities that develop around brands exist. So let's say you are a giant Lotus fan. You could establish the London Lotus club if the UK Lotus Club is already taken care of. Or you could start the Worldwide Lotus Club. And you'll have situations where you actually have direct contact with some of the car manufacturers. So if you, for example, love Lotus and you are part of that club, then you will be given offers that people who aren't part of that club can't get. And so it is exclusivity, it is envy, it is all of those things that drive us in the real world. And that basically becomes the boilerplate for what's in the game.

Q:So you're moving away from the old model of "I want to achieve and progress" and instead onto "I want to own?"

Todd Eckert:I think it's both, it's whatever's meaningful to you. And that's one of the reasons that my speech yesterday, I decided to base it on the music industry because there are a lot of parallels. I mean, Britain started out as a singles culture, and then became an album culture, but people resented the fact that they had to buy the whole album for the two songs that were good. Because frequently, not always, there were very, very bad songs on an album and you didn't want them.

Q:It's track 3, and here's the dirgey ballad...

Todd Eckert:Yeah, exactly. Man, I hated it. And so sooner or later people said, Okay, why don't you let me buy what's meaningful to me - and there you go, that's iTunes. So even though iTunes is a lousy interface and it's impossible to find anything, if you know what you're looking for you still get to buy the two songs that you like and you get to get rid of everything else.

It's the same with the new game model. So you don't have to spend the £50 to buy the whole thing when all you care about is a segmented portion of the gameplay. So you buy the assets that are meaningful to you, and history shows that people who pay in game wind up paying much more than they would if they were just purchasing just a game in a box in-store. So for me it's a logical progression of the way the human mind works.

Q:Is there not a risk for your model of people identifying with certain brands so aggressively that they just won't be interested in buying anything associated with any other brand? Won't that limit how much you can earn from them?

Todd Eckert:There's a risk but there's a little bit of Amazon thrown in there, where if you bought your Mercedes McLaren, you might also like Koenigsegg, which is a Swedish supercar manufacturer, they're based in the middle of nowhere, you get into the factory and it's absolutely gorgeous. And so you think "I don't know anything about Koenigsegg", it doesn't take any time and you think "wow! Holy s***! A million and a half Euros, they only make 24 of them a year, it looks really cool...." And you do that association. It's totally possible that there will be people who get in, they have their brand, they have whatever they want, they buy, they don't buy, but they have fun on the site and that's great. There are going to be others who are going to do that connect the dots experience, and have something more.

Q:Are you taking into account rivalries - for instance the Ferrari club despising the Lotus guys? So you won't try to sell one company's cars to fans of the other.

Todd Eckert:Maybe, but one of the interesting things about it is even if you own a Ferrari, you don't care about anything other than Ferraris, you'll still want to know about Lotus because you'll want to be able to malign them.

Q:Either that or just to viciously run it into the ground.

Todd Eckert:Or you'll want to look a Lamborghini because you're going to be going to be racing against Lamborghini. So you'll think "it's really got more horsepower, wow."

Q:You're clearly confident that the microtransaction model is going to work, it's not just a temporary bubble?

Todd Eckert:I don't think it's a bubble because it's human nature. It's not artificially inflated, it's just the way people think. You can look at Korea, I was just there a couple of weeks ago, and there aren't really videogame stores, that aren't record stores. The whole country the government put broadband everywhere. So if you have the option of sitting there and downloading a game when it comes out, or you get in your car - and Seoul's an amazingly congested place - and drive somewhere with a store, what are you going to do?

The other difficult thing is, and I think that's true for any artistic medium, I've always felt that the greatest bookstores or record stores what not necessarily the ones that had what you were looking for, they were the ones that had stuff that was just great, that you didn't know existed. And blogs sort of fulfil that, but it's never the same as the person in the store speaking to you, these amazingly tangential conversations, and going home with all these things you didn't expect to buy. So it's figuring out a way to harness that.

With games, as you go into online field, we have to be much more clever in showing people what it's about. It's one of the reasons that we're going marketing campaigns with some of the car companies and some other relevant associated people with the game.

Q:Traditionally you've been a PC developer, but do these multiple projects mean you're looking more towards other platforms now?

Todd Eckert:We're currently working on pretty much every SKU you can think of. So we got two games that are PS3 and 360 games, and one of them on Wii too. Online, ACR will be available through phones and iPad and whatever. So we're kind of embracing all of it. The consoles obviously have legs for a while longer, but there are certain benefits to... we work with Sony and Microsoft all the time, so I don't want to malign them... but there is something awfully attractive about not having to pay that Sony or Microsoft fee.

Q:How long until Apple steps up and flexes similar muscle, though?

Todd Eckert:Yeah, although I thought Steve Job's answer for the antenna problems was hilarious.

Q:How do you feel about assertions that a couple more generations of iPhone and we'll be playing something like Gears of War on it? Is that something you guys are keeping in mind for your own projects?

Todd Eckert:Phones, no. iPad maybe, but I still think that there's a reason that people continue to go to movies and theatres and that's because when it's condensed on the back of an airplane seat it's not the same thing. I was just talking to someone about Heavy Rain which is my favourite game of the last year, and I love the fact that technology's getting to the point where you can express, give an emotion beyond aggression. People always said that games are incredibly violent - I think a lot of that came from the fact that the technology was so limited that you couldn't do anything other than have a guy pick up a brick and hit another guy with it.

I think as facial animation technology continues to improve, which is something we're working very deeply on, and you're able to express things like empathy and humour, people's pupils dilating and all that kind of crap, you're able to have much more meaningful self-experiences within games.

Q:I take it you're not working on facial technology purely for your racing games, then...

Todd Eckert: Um... yes... Although...

Q:The driver crying when he loses?

Todd Eckert:They generally don't cry though. [Laughs].

Q:In terms of racing in general, do you subscribe to the concern that it's becoming a niche genre, in many cases becoming too technical for a broad audience? Do you have a battleplan against that?

Todd Eckert:We did a game called Street Racing Syndicate which had online connectivity. And we soon saw that Europeans like racing circuits with a gazillion different twists, really really difficult. Americans wanted to have four mile strips which were straight, so you can go balls-out fast, turn around and do it again. Simple. It was a good indication of what people liked. So it's obviously it's not localised into American, but it is sort of.

How many people in the UK are going to care about late 60s American muscle cars? Probably far fewer than care about them in Wisconsin. So you do put more focus in different areas, and since ACR is a truly global game we will be pushing different content to different people.

Todd Eckert is Eutechnyx's director for North America. Interview by Alec Meer.

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