MMO Week: COG's David Solari

Codemasters Online Gaming talks tough PC market, MMOs on consoles and bringing development in-house

Since its first release at the start of 2006, Codemasters Online Gaming has grown to release four titles in two-and-a-half years, with its fifth due later this year. Cutting its teeth on Korean imports RF Online and ArchLord, the publisher then went on to pick up to titles with two of the biggest licenses in fantasy role-playing – Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online. It's next title is NetDevil's Jumpgate, a space combat MMO for Europe and North America. Vice president and general manager of Codemasters Online Gaming David Solari admits it's not all been smooth sailing. The company has been willing to make radical changes to some of its titles in order to keep consumer interest as the the online business has presents a steep learning curve. But the company remains as flexible and dedicated as the MMO market demands, and here Solari talks to about the tough PC business, plans to move game development in-house and the future of MMO gaming on home consoles.

Q: Codemasters Online Gaming has been official for over two and a half years now, you've got four titles out and another, Jumpgate, due later this year. Is this all to plan, are you pleased with the development of the online division so far – this seems quite a quick growth for the online business?

David Solari: For MMOs it's quick. These games have a lot of longevity and we're now taking on a fifth game. It's certainly been a lot of hard work, more than we imaged it would be. It's not an easy thing to do. When we looked at the market and the things that were growing and the things that were exciting we identified MMOs as something that we wanted to get in to. It was a big challenge because none of us had really done it before but it's been coming together really well over the last year. We had a steep learning curve but we're getting there.

Q: How autonomous is Codemasters Online Gaming to the Codemasters that we know for the more traditional videogames?

David Solari: We have our own marketing and production teams because marketing and producing them is very different to more traditional games. We have our own internet operations team who are the guys who keep the data centres running. But we're totally integrated with Codemasters in terms of finance, legal, HR, all that kind of stuff. We have our own skills contained within the organisation in order to operate.

Q: What would you say have been the biggest achievements of the online business so far?

David Solari: We publish, we do all the operations, we've our own billing and account system, we monitor all the games, we have our own data centre space in Amsterdam and Boston. We've built an infrastructure that can support anything and do it all. Most companies that get into the MMO business are missing a part of that. We have a real strength in boxed distribution at Codemasters and some of the other guys don't have that or don't do all the elements of the business themselves. The benefit of making our own billing system is that it can do item sales, it can do subscriptions, it can do recurring billing. The core skills are the central strength of the business.

Q: So going feet first into the MMO business has paid off, rather than just experimenting with MMOs?

David Solari: Sure, we're masters of our own destiny. We don't have to rely on somebody else to publish our box or manage our servers. We took the route that we would try and handle everything ourselves.

Q: Are there any particular business models – micro transactions, subscriptions, boxed sales – that have stood out as stronger than others? And I say this because you have tried subs with ArchLord but made a change to support in-game items sales instead.

David Solari: Different business models offer different things but what I would say is we wanted to look at a variety of business models and it really depends on the game. The game has to be designed around the business model for it to work. Lord of the Rings Online is growing, it's very stable and very strong which is solid, guaranteed revenue for us. If we tried to turn that into an item sales game tomorrow it just wouldn't work. But with RF Online and ArchLord they had systems in the game where that business model would work, they came from Korea and they were item-based games anyway so we converted them in the west and we saw players increase by sixfold and revenues increase by threefold, which was absolutely fantastic. The item sales business isn't as guaranteed as a regular subscription-based game, it's not as predictable but if it works it can be very effective. We're constantly looking at ways to tweak the business to make it more effective, not just for us but for the customer as well.

Q: How confident is Codemasters in the PC market, because you're not just competing with the MMO market but also free-to-play PC games and virtual worlds?

David Solari: It's one of the toughest areas of the videogames business. It's the hardest space in which to make games, you see some really big, high-profile games that don't end up coming out, there's huge risks involved. The model that we took initially was licensing games – we will get into development eventually – but we did licensing so we could manage the risk and learn more about the business. There's a lot of competition – World of Warcraft is obviously the massive title, and it's a quality game but it's also a phenomenon. We don't think about competing with WoW because that's just stupid, you can't do that. If you're going to go into the fantasy-based genre now you're going to have to have something that really makes it stand out. With Lord of the Rings Online we've got a 9 out of 10 title and the Lord of the Rings license. We launched ArchLord and RF Online a while a go but I wouldn't want to launch them now because I don't think they would do anything. But we have had reasonable success with those titles. With Jumpgate we've got something that's very different, it's not fantasy based, it's space combat with lots of action, with a great pace and visuals. Obviously EVE Online is in that space but they are quite different games. And it's not a genre that's nearly as crowded or dominated as that fantasy space is. We're thinking really strongly about what we're going to do next. There's a ton of fantasy MMOs we could have signed that have a lot of potential but we don't know if they'll be successful in the market. Recently we've seen a couple of really nasty failures in the MMO space, whether the message wasn't right or the quality of the game wasn't there, because it's an extremely competitive market.

Q: You just made the point that Codemasters Online Gaming titles are all licensed. Are you currently considering bringing development in-house, because obviously the bigger Codemasters group successfully develops titles, it has it's own engine for titles like DIRT and GRID?

David Solari: We always had a five year plan and it was always in the middle of that five year plan that we would start developing our own games. We are looking at that and we have to think very carefully about what title is right, what will work in the future. These aren't easy questions to answer and it's very easy to fail in the MMO market so you've got to take your time, be careful and be sensible.

Q: And how about the console space? There are a few titles in development looking to really establish MMO gaming on home machines – APB, Age of Conan, NCsoft's PlayStation 3 game for example – is that an area Codemasters is currently working in?

David Solari: The time is right for some good console MMO games. It's a little more challenging because of the restrictions of a console — certain games aren't going to work. There's two titles that we're really interested in for taking to console right now and that's something I'd like to see happen in the next year or so, but it's got to be the right game. It's got to be the right business model too. It's more difficult because the first-parties take a share of the revenue — and it's quite significant share. You have to do your sums and see if it's going to add up at the end of the day. First parties aren't going to run the data centres for us and that's the biggest expense in our business. We have to work that out with them.

Q: Have you spoken with Sony and Microsoft about it, what has their reaction been?

David Solari: They're certainly not against it. It will be interesting to see how Age of Conan does. Final Fantasy was very successful on 360 so I just think you need the right game, and I think there's a really good opportunity there because there's not enough companies there right now.

Q: What did you think to Robert Kotick's comments that to compete with Warcraft you need around a billion dollars?

David Solari: I don't think you can compete with Warcraft. In two or three year's there will be something else that will be able to compete with Warcraft but nobody will be able to tell you what that is now. Chucking money at something isn't the answer. When he talks about a billion dollars what he means is the amount of investment that title has had since it was first released, it must be getting on for one or two hundred million. Its not a cheap business to be in.

David Solari is vice president and general manager of Codemasters Online Gaming. Interview by Matt Martin.

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