One of the interesting technologies doing the rounds at the moment - both at GDC and Develop this year - is InstantAction, a platform which enables full games to be played within a fraction of the time it would normally take to download and install, and which are playable in virtually any internet environment.
It's a claim that's been made before by others, but here the company CEO, Louis Castle - co-founder of EA's former Westwood studio - explains why it works, and offers his thoughts on why he hopes it will be a nail in the coffin of bricks-and-mortar retail.
Q: So for anybody that may not be aware of InstantAction, give us a general overview.
Louis Castle: InstantAction is a system that allows content created by interactive designers and creators to get directly distributed to consumers. It's a whole system of technologies that work on the web to take that entertainment and bring it right down to the consumer, wherever they want it.
We use several technologies, which is why I'm dancing around the technology issue, but it's really great - because you can discover the games through social networks, web browsing, you can find them in interviews and just about everywhere. You click on it just like you would a YouTube video, but instead of it being a video it's actually an interactive game.
So that's InstantAction - a whole system of being able to take games and give them directly to consumers in a way that nobody's ever done before. Browsable, discoverable, sharable, social networkable - all of those things - on top of being able to run the game right on your computer where you ultimately buy it.
The incremental purchases are also really important - so you get to play for free, the full release version of the game. It's completely secure, and once you get to a point where you're really enjoying it and want to buy a bit more then we can sell it to you incrementally - so you don't have to put up the full price of the game up front.
It's a very different way of distributing - it's letting customers discover and consume content.
Q: The business model's an interesting one - who decides how that works, on a per-game basis?
Louis Castle: That's the wonderful thing about this, it's a licensed technology - so the partner, the content creator, is the one who gets to decide where these things can be embedded. You can white list and black list locations, and also get to control how long the trials are, how much the rentals cost, how much the ultimate purchase cost is - or they can decide not to do rentals or purchase and just go with ad revenue or item purchases, subscriptions and so on.
It's a very different way of doing things - and being able to do all of them allows the content creator to decide how the consumer is going to enjoy that content. We get a piece of all the transactions, but it's a nominal fee - a 30 per cent cut, just like if you were doing a Direct2Drive or Steam, but we offer a lot more value than just a downloadable service.
We also provide all of the metrics as well - so partners can measure how long it takes people to get through the first level, or what kind of items they like. They can do covert testing - they could give some people a 20 minute free trial and other a 15 minute trial, to see which one results in more people buying the game. They can do all that stuff on our platform - it's a full publishing solution.
Q: Others have tried to do something similar in the past, and not really succeeded - why is InstantAction going to succeed in their place?
Louis Castle: Well, it's already successful because it's been doing it for three years. The first thing is that I don't know of anybody else that has the kind of technology that we've been showing everybody for years - they haven't been paying attention too much, because the games have mostly been indie games, but this technology is very robust, and millions of people have played with it.
I'm sure other people will come up with technology, but it's not just the ability for people to play through a browser - it's the ability to take any game, no matter what engine it's been built with, and run that through a browser... and to serve it through a browser in the same way you'd serve to video.
Nobody's done that, and that's part of the strength of bringing in a team from IAC to go down and create InstantAction in the first place. These are the guys that created Evite and Match.com - they know what they're doing on the web. They created the edge-serving technology that actually sends a game in the same way that you'd send a webpage.
Q: The question that people will always ask is what speed connection they'd need to have in order to take advantage of the service...
Louis Castle: Well it's difficult - if your connection speed isn't 'that fast' you're going to have to wait a little bit longer to get your free trial. But let's take a typical two hour install of a game like Call of Duty 2 - that install is now down to under 15 minutes... so that's not terribly long to wait on your cable modem.
Now, if you happen to have a really fast connection and you could have gotten that game down in an hour, then your wait time is now only five minutes, so you're much happier. But we're not sensitive to download in the same way.
Q: Is it core games you're targeting now?
Louis Castle: Our history has been with independent game developers - what's really nice about a game like The Secret of Monkey Island, that game loads in under a minute, even on a really bad connection. Because we only have to load about 50MB, that's next to nothing - even though it's a 3GB game, we only have to load that much.
So indie games are even smaller, and they load almost instantaneously - they don't really even need some of the features we offer, like the thin client and stuff, which is great. We're fully supportive of those guys, and it's not like they can't use the platform - there's no velvet rope there, we want people to use it and a lot of titles to come out on it.
We do have to prioritise the higher end content, because it takes a lot more effort to get those working right - but ultimately we want it to be a platform that anybody can use.
Q: Because of the ability to get games out in almost a viral way, how do you go about seeding that?
Louis Castle: There are lots of methods - first of all there's online advertising, and you can just advertise the link. You could also embed it in a press release if you wanted to - the way our technology works it's truly a web application, but at the same time it's also a fully-native application. It's kind of what Google wants to get to with native applications.
What that means is that you have the ability to have links into the social networks - I can actually send you an invite to the game, then you click on it and we do it that way. But just about any way you can imagine, you can share it - so it's a little different than just being able to go to a site, because the game can show up in people's blogs, and so on.
Now, I don't want to diminish the marketing and PR efforts, because that's one of the nice things about InstantAction as a whole system - it was designed to be a whole destination portal, so all of the functionality of a portal is at your command. You can sell advertising and things like that, you can do your marketing and PR...
So although we want this system to be usable by huge publishers, we don't discount the value of publishers - in fact we embrace it, because they know how to name and fund products, they know how to guide development, to market and PR. Developers may think they know how to do that, but the reality is that the publishers are very good at it.
We license our platform to the publishers so that they can publish on it - and we would license to an independent developer as well, but they're going to find out pretty soon that they really like publishers, just for different reasons.
They think they like the publisher because of the distribution, but actually that's not why you want a publisher - you want them because they know what they are doing.
Q: Is this the thing that kills bricks-and-mortar, then?
Louis Castle: I hope so. I have no love at all for the Wal-Marts and GameStops of the world - they've abused the industry horribly with selling used games, and rentals. There's no love lost there at all. They're all desperately trying to figure out where to go next too, but at the end of the day they've killed the distribution method.
They've put our entire industry in jeopardy by taking all of the money out of the system - between them and the pirates it's really a tough way to go. We didn't design this system to defeat piracy - it wasn't why we built it - it just so happens that because of the way we deliver it, it makes it extremely difficult to steal... but that doesn't mean it's impossible.
We're not going to pretend anybody can stop a pirate, but we've made it really, really hard by accident.
Q: You can make it as hard as you like for pirates, but if you make it as easy as possible for consumers - at the right price point or option - then that's a big chunk of the battle right there.
Louis Castle: Absolutely - so many of the pirates would tell you that one of the big reasons they do it is because they feel like going out and paying £50 for a game just to see if they like it or not seems unreasonable.
So now I tell them it's better than that - we'll give it to you for free, so you can see and try the products before you buy them. Don't make it difficult for us - help us change the industry.
Q: So how close is the demise of physical retail in your opinion?
Louis Castle: Oh, I'm not going to put the pennies on the eyes of traditional retail - those guys are going to be around for a long time, and it's going to take a while. We're not going to be the only technology out there, but every one of them will be another brick in the wall, another step in the right direction to saving our industry from partners that became parasites. They're really no longer partners - they're killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
Louis Castle is CEO of InstantAction. Interview by Phil Elliott begin_of_the_skype_highlighting end_of_the_skype_highlighting.