When you consider Monumental Games' founders set up the company following Climax with the plan to build a hunting MMO in just three months, it seems almost surprising the developer is doing as well as it is; five years on spread across three studios with teams working on Facebook games, PlayStation motion control games, Capcom's next Moto GP title, its Hunter's World IP and the beginnings of a possible console MMO, as well as continuing to run its first MMO Football Superstars.
But despite appearances and CEO Rik Alexander's apparently relaxed attitude to production schedules and gaining £2 million in funding last year, it's clear Monumental is doing a lot that's right. GamesIndustry.biz spoke to Alexander and COO Paul Mayze about the studio's success to date and where it's going from here.
Q: Can you start by giving us a bit of a background on Monumental and how the business has developed over the last few years?
Rik Alexander: We started Monumental just over 4 years ago, myself and Rocco, who is our chief tech guy, in our respective bedrooms. The idea was simple - we were going to make an MMO specialist developer. Just the two of us, no money... We had an idea for a hunting game, which, I managed to delude myself we could make in three months. I'm actually quite good at production normally, but for some reason I deluded myself to thinking that. Three people, three months, a full MMO, easy. Anyway that didn't happen. We got to the end of it and we had a game, but there was no way you could show it round publishers, so at that point we decided to go and see if there was some real work out there. We did a whole bunch of work, then set up our first office - £5000 a year rent, ideal - and grew to 24 people before it got too crowded and we had to move. I say crowded, it was actually rammed.
It was in the second year we decided to make a proper business out of Monumental. When we started it, World of Warcraft was this big beacon turning over a billion dollars. Everyone knows online's always been the future, the question was just when. We figured it was then, and we decided to make a play for it and see what happens.
We've now got 110 people spread over three studios - Nottingham, Manchester and Pune, India. And we have three conceptual studios too, so we do racing, online and conversion and technology. It makes it easier for people to understand exactly what it is we do. We were calling ourselves a specialist online game developer but we were doing Moto GP as well, so we decided to split the studios. Moto GP comes out in March this year and we've got a real USP which is that we're the first ever game on Xbox 360 and PS3 to do 20 player multiplayer online. We're currently averaging 85 on Metacritic - for our first racing game, which was built in 18 months from nothing. We're quite happy.
But online's the exciting place. We're moving into console MMOs, we're already in PC MMOs - we have a football game, a hunting game - and browser MMOs as well, so into Facebook. So we've ported our tech into all of those places, started about eight months ago and our first Facebook game should come out in June.
Paul Mayze: You look at World of Warcraft and people see it as a mass market MMO, but when it comes down to it it really isn't. It's still a hardcore MMO, it's just quite an accessible one. When it comes down to it, 13 million is absolutely bloody fantastic but it's still only a fraction of the number of players that are playing Farmville.
So we're thinking, if we're going to plug something into Facebook, we're talking proper mass market here. MMOs are for hardcore players - how's that going to feel to a Facebook user? Then we realised there's no reason why MMOs should be for the hardcore. There's no obligation to have quests and grinding and all the things we tend to associate with MMOs. Suddenly Andy Norman, one of our game directors, had an epiphany and suggested that we take it right back to basics. I think he suggested hide and seek initially...
Rik Alexander: We decided that in order to start tapping into a broader market, we needed a game that everybody knows. We didn't want to teach them anything, we wanted something that's dead easy. So hide and seek, tag, all these games you'd have played before at school. What we've done is created a big playground and put in various themes. So you've got tag, infectious tag, British bulldog, all that kinds of stuff, and the idea is to get on Facebook and push it out.
Our Facebook strategy is simple - over two years we're going to release 4-6 games and we're going to use KPIs [Key Performance Indicators] to track the first one, put themes out, keep evolving it and track the KPIs to see what everybody likes. So very Playfish, very Zynga - they made some money to start with, but they didn't make the big money until 18 months in when they just looked at all the KPIs, looked at what people wanted and then went for the big one and now have about 80 million users in Farmville.
So we're kind of coming in at the second phase. The first phase, the 2D stuff, is going very well, and we're coming in with 3D social games, proper ones where you can interact with your friends in a 3D environment and do all this stuff you already know.
Q: So you're going to put these games out and use the data to see which ones have legs and which you'll continue to support?
Rik Alexander: Exactly, we'll just evolve it. You can theme all this kind of stuff as well, so you can have vampires versus humans, pixies versus dogs... uh, yeah that's a weird one. It's easy to just do one thing one day, something else the next, and see what happens. I think in 18 months time Facebook is going to have more veteran gamers. Although they probably don't realise it, they're becoming better at games - playing Farmville teaches you certain things about gaming. Over time they'll be thinking I don't want that any more because it's boring, what I want to be able to do is compete with other players and beat them in other ways.
Paul Mayze: We're doing play tests every single day internally and every day we're iterating the gameplay. Half the time you're iterating it just by telling people the rules of the game, just like you would in a playground - it's like making up games to play and using this environment to play them out. It makes everything so much more accessible because it's what people identify with from their youth.
Q: Do you have one studio now looking about the Facebook side of things?
Rik Alexander: It's part of the online studio. So they're working on the Facebook stuff we're calling browser-based MMOs, and then we're also working on console-based MMOs and obviously we're working on Football Superstars as well, so it's quite a reasonable size studio.
Q: What was the biggest draw to Facebook?
Rik Alexander: 300 million users. That's it. It's the biggest platform there is out there. PS3 doesn't compete with that - the consoles are different platforms, there's money to be made on them but they don't compare with 300 million users.
Q: So why is it that you think the big games companies like EA haven't been quicker to get on board with a userbase of that size?
Rik Alexander: I think it's difficult for big publishers to move dynamically into spaces that are quickly growing and changing. EA have huge infrastructure costs, so doing anything costs them £10m - as soon as they set up the team for a year it's £10m. You'd end up spending that on your first Facebook game, you'd never make any money back, at which point you'd stop making Facebook games. It's just a different business than they're used to.
Paul Mayze: The social gaming space went from zero to where it is now in the same time frame that EA would typically make a single game. I wouldn't blame EA for being slow to react but the way that they did react was exactly the right way - you can't go for organic growth in an area like that, you have to do it by acquisition and buy into the space.
Rik Alexander: It's the best way, to buy the companies that can do it - make sure they've proved they can do it and buy them. It's a very difficult thing for them to do, because of their infrastructure, because of the way that they think about games; how they make them, production, buyers and all that kind of stuff. You can't get into the space if you think like that.
Q: The Facebook space is a crowded one, as is the online MMO one. Is it a daunting prospect taking on the numbers of competitors that you are?
Rik Alexander: Not really. We're positioning ourselves with a Facebook MMO, which no one is really doing right now although I'm sure people are thinking about it. You've got people like Jagex who are doing their own browser stuff and I'm sure they're thinking about it. It's a very interesting space, and one of the reasons we're doing it, along with console MMOs as well, is because not many other people are doing it. A lot of people getting into it don't necessarily know games very well, which doesn't mean they'll fail, but we're bringing our huge games experience into a social area, we can react and design games specifically for those markets, whereas I think some people don't have the experience to do that.
Q: So what can you tell us about what you're doing in the console MMO space?
Rik Alexander: Well, we're currently talking to a big North American publisher about a deal on a console MMO, which we'll hopefully announce in the next 3 months or something. We've already ported our tech onto it - it's an ongoing process, we're still developing tools and so on. I think the big players will start moving into console MMOs, now that the format holders are moving in themselves and releasing the ability to do console MMOs, like billing, who gets the share, do they have to use PlayStation Store, what's the royalty share, harddrive downloads and so on.
Now those hurdles have been gone through then everybody's going to be moving into it. I think it'll be 2-3 years before the main players, or rather the normal players get into it. But we want to just be part of the solution, so we'll be 2-3 years into knowing about console MMOs before anybody else thinks about it.
Q: Have you thought about what sort of model is going to work best on console?
Rik Alexander: Well, we don't mind, we're flexible. We have digital download MMOs already - Football Superstars and Hunter's World - and we have a hybrid micro-transaction model. But we're also more than capable of doing full retail packages as well, once we figure out the details with Sony and Microsoft with subscriptions and so on. We're open to all kinds of models at this point, we're not going to define, we just want to be part of the solution.
Paul Mayze: Most publishers are very likely to feel more comfortable with going down a retail model initially I suppose. But 2-3 years on, a lot is going to have changed in that time I suspect, so it may well be that, come the time, digital distribution is leading on console.
Q: Last year you were awarded a £2 million grant. How's that changed the business?
Rik Alexander: We got investment in a year that hardly anyone got investment. Talking to some of our peers, most of them said the only people that got investment last year were ones with really good stories behind them, that had shown really good growth, turning over some decent money and looked to have great futures as well. We actually raised the money with no business plan on a three and a half hour meeting. We were literally about to go to the city on a three month tour, we'd prepared for it and then we had this meeting with Maven Capital Partners and two weeks later they gave us the terms sheet so we had to make the decision. And it was an easy decision really.
Paul Mayze: I would like to add that after the three and a half hour meeting there was a ton of work...
Rik Alexander: One of the reasons we chose Maven is they understand the space quite well and it's easy terms as well. We could have gone to the city, but the expectation of what [Maven] need to get out of it is lower I think than any other VC company.
We've never really had cash before. We've just grown out of doing deals and had just enough money to survive for a few months beyond where we were. Which is an interesting place to be... I'd never really thought about that as a negative until one of the investors said 'wasn't that a bit scary?' And I went, 'well that's just business surely,' and they said, 'no, most people raise money so they don't have to worry about it.'
But then we raised the money. And it sits in the bank, it helps us negotiate with publishers properly so we don't have to worry about starting work and having to get paid quickly doing a contract. We can spend money and make the right decisions. It doesn't mean we can rest on our laurels, but we can strengthen our foundations and accelerate growth.
Q: What's your view of how the industry is performing at the moment? As a maker of online games I guess you might feel that the NPD figures aren't really an accurate representation of everything that's going on at the moment?
Paul Mayze: NPD only tells part of the story - it's going to have to broaden some of its definitions to capture the wider market. I think that last year the games industry did have its own recession, it's just that while it was having its recession everyone was saying the games industry is recession-proof. So there was a difference with public perception and what was actually happening. We're noticing things really picking up so we feel really positive. But everyone's reporting on last year's figures and so we're getting a bit of a lag I think in the media.
Rik Alexander: Normally we get lots of enquires about what we're doing in January - people have got new budgets, they've just finished all their Christmas titles, they've had holidays, so they always pick up the phone in January. But it didn't happen this year, I don't know why. 1st of February the phone starts ringing. February is the new January... I can't believe I said that.
Paul Mayze: A lot of publishers battened down the hatches last year, and I think they're un-battening them now.
Q: What are your views on the new technologies we're now seeing a lot more of - 3D and motion control?
Rik Alexander: Our Manchester studio, which is our conversion and emerging technologies studio is working on a whole bunch of Natal and motion controller stuff right now. We have augmented reality tech. We're looking at all of that stuff - it's exciting times.
Rik Alexander is CEO and Paul Mayze is COO of Monumental Games. Interview by Kath Brice.