Thomas Bidaux has an online gaming background that has spanned ten years, beginning at France Telecom working on French MMORPG La 4eme Prophetie then Dark Age of Camelot, then moving to NCsoft to establish its European subsidiary and manage the teams responsible for Guild Wars and City of Heroes.
In April 2008, he left NCsoft to found his own online gaming consulting company, ICO Partners. A year and a half on, Bidaux has grown a small team and works with clients such as Atari and DoubleSix. In a chat with GamesIndustry.biz, he speaks about the company's successes and challenges to date and the future for digital gaming as he sees it.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about ICO Partners and what you do?
Thomas Bidaux: ICO Partners is a consulting agency, dedicated to online games and the business of online games specifically. We advise a very different area of clients in online business, and people who want to enter the online gaming business who have not done it before. We advise international publishers who want to enter the European market and we have a lot of contact with Asian publishers helping them build their strategy for the European market. We help developers as well who are interested in self publishing.
It's one of our biggest growth areas this year, as successful studios start to have enough cash to consider self publishing online games they need to learn how to become publishers themselves and there's a number of skill sets they need to acquire. As a company, the real thing we do is act as experts for online games and share that expertise with people.
Q: Who do you work with?
Thomas Bidaux: We have helped Club Penguin in Europe, we help Atari. We are currently working with NHN, which is the number one internet company in Korea. They're looking at the European market and we're helping them with their strategy. We've been collaborating with studio DoubleSix - there's also a number of people we can't share the details of, but those are the ones we can officially talk about.
Q: What made you decide to set up an online consulting company following your time with NCsoft?
Thomas Bidaux: I've been working in online gaming for ten years. I really wanted to do something else, something different to what I had been doing with NCsoft. And consulting for me was the next logical step. It's a lot of fun to work on one game; it's a lot more fun to work on multiple games. It's even more fun, in a way, to work with multiple companies on multiple games.
I think we are all thriving and learning new things, and when you're a consultant it's a learning experience that makes you richer in many, many ways. That was some of the motivation. The rest was that I am a huge proponent in telling that the European market is a huge market for online games that is untapped by many people. So those two things combined together made online consulting really attractive to me.
I started on my own, tried a lot of things and last year, in September, I was joined by a former NCsoft colleague Diane Lagrange. Now we are three people and we have a fourth person joining us by the end of the year so we are a small, focused company. But because we hire people with a really high level of expertise in that very specific area, we do very very well.
Q: Do you have a broad remit with the sorts of online games you're working with? It's obviously a market that's constantly evolving at present.
Thomas Bidaux: Yes. I've worked on MMO RPGs, client-based, products sold through normal retail - and now we're working also on Facebook games, browser based games, all of these kinds of things. Anything that is online and connected we try to work on - which is a very broad definition.
Q: The market is growing fast. Was that another of the reasons you decided it would be a good area to get into?
Thomas Bidaux: Ideally actually I would have started a bit earlier, because I think that it grows quicker and quicker each year. And it's still going to grow for a few years. But yes it's one of the reasons. I knew the market has a lot of potential - we're just seeing the first premise of games online. I think people don't realise how many games need to happen to reach the full potential and there's a lot of things that are not happening yet. I think there's potential growth for years and years to go. We'll probably see very quick growth right now and it may slow down at some point but the growth itself is not going to stop for a while.
Q: What are your own predictions on where the digital market is heading over the next few years?
Thomas Bidaux: I think that physical distribution will always exist. It's just going to become marginal. It's going to become a marketing exercise, it's going to be collector's editions, something for collectors to have physical objects and everything's going to continue to move digital.
The other thing that's going to happen in my opinion is the distinction between console and PC is going to be blurred with social games and iPhone games. Everything's going to merge in some way and become something so games will be connected. How long it's going to take, I don't know. It might be a long process because we all need to learn how to develop different things. Whether you are a physical developer and you need to understand other aspects of your work, you know, real time games, things like that. If you are a real time game developer and you don't know anything about social gaming you need to understand how different platforms work. The learning curve is steep for everybody, but it's going to happen eventually.
Q: So you think that's the biggest imminent challenge for digital - developers learning these new processes?
Thomas Bidaux: Yes, everybody needs to learn new disciplines, new ways to develop games, and it's going to be a real challenge. It's going outside of your comfort zone.
Q: How about the problem of the overcrowding of the online market?
Thomas Bidaux: It is overcrowded. Not in all of the markets, but in general it is. That's the nature of investment. People see something growing and they invest a lot in it and some will crash and burn and some will do very very well. Social gaming has been doing very well but some companies will not be able to succeed in that environment. It's true for every sub section. It's not going to change the growth, but it's going to be a challenge to be the ones surviving the very competitive environment that's being built at the moment.
Q: What are the specific challenges you face working with online clients as opposed to ones in the traditional retail sector?
Thomas Bidaux: Online is so much about making your game evolve -you launch the game and it's just the beginning, you've got to keep it working. I tend to find that online game developers have a bit more of a flexible mindset than offline developers - they are more ready to experiment, they are prepared to go somewhere they are not used to because their game is an ever changing product. So in that respect I think they are easy to work with compared to people who have only done offline games.
But people tend to underestimate the value that is built into the traditional offline game - the story, the high quality of the production some games have, visually, all these kinds of things. They think it's not important. And it's probably not at the moment, but it will be important soon to actually learn from the more traditional gaming industry. I have examples of developers who were developing games as they were going and making very unbalanced design decisions. And that was very tricky to get them to go the other way and actually hire professional game designers, crunch numbers and extend balance. It didn't make the games unsuccessful, but it makes them more difficult to maintain.
Q: And what about the challenges working with foreign developers looking to move into European territories?
Thomas Bidaux: There's a definite cultural gap between what a good game is for European players and a good game for Asian players. But because there have been success examples in Europe, they tend to be willing to learn. I'd say it's more difficult to make that point with American developers than with Asian ones. Because with America, they really feel that American and European players are the same, which is not true. Whereas Asian companies, even if they already have an American presence, they understand the specific needs for the European market - they know they can't translate directly from what they've done in the US. In some ways, when we work with foreign companies, it's surprisingly simpler with Asian companies because they have a mindset that is suitable for learning what they need to do.
Q: Has there been anything that's happened within the industry over the last few years that has come as a surprise to you?
Thomas Bidaux: I wasn't expecting server based gaming to be along so early. Gaikai and OnLive - I was looking for them to happen but I was not expecting to see them being announced and being ready to present to the market so early. I would have said it would have taken two or three more years for them to reach that level.
The other surprise was the iPhone - because the iPhone was able to cheat within the mobile context. They were able to actually twist the arms of the carriers and make them change the rules of how customers were interacting with applications on phones and that was a good surprise. Especially now, it gives everybody else, not just Apple, but other devices too ammunition to do the same thing and it's made game business on phones a lot more possible. Now it's happening on iPhones, it may happen on other devices as well thanks to Apple.
Thomas Bidaux is the founder and CEO of ICO Partners. Interview by Kath Brice.