With the rise of World of Warcraft came an increase in the popularity of tools which enabled gamers to customise their own experiences - generally known as add-ons. Such modifications sprang up for all kinds of in-game activity, from combat to exploration, and such has been the popularity of some add-ons that Blizzard has incorporated solutions of its own into the default user interface.
One site to spot the trend early on and offer a platform for gamers to centralise their add-on requirements was Curse - originally a guild website which developed into a fan destination, before the company began to capitalise on its audience and expand its operations.
Since 2007 the company has raised USD 11 million in two rounds of funding, and branched out into other games and other sites. Here the CEO of Curse Inc, Hubert Thieblot, talks about the company's journey, how a passion can become a profitable business, and why he's looking forward to the rise of console MMOs.
Q: Curse is something that grew out of a passion for games - talk a bit about where the whole thing rose up from.
Hubert Thieblot: Well, I started myself playing MMOs when I was 15 with a game called The Fourth Coming - which was small GOA MMO, and the first one localised in French - about ten years ago. I then played Dark Age of Camelot, and a bunch of other games, before World of Warcraft came along and I got into a decent guild of pretty good players.
We had a guild website, and we decided that we wanted to build additional features to that site in order to attract more people - features for the game, but not ones that were necessarily related to our guild. We wanted to start a community and we needed to find a niche that would bring people in.
One of the things we had at the time was a private add-on database - at this point it was just an FTP with a bunch of add-ons we were using for raids during the beta of the game. One day we looked at it and decided to put it on the internet, and very quickly we had hundreds of thousands of people coming each month to the website to download add-ons, or talk to the authors.
We basically fulfilled a need that existed - prior to that you had to go through the forums, or lots of small sites belonging to add-on authors in order to download them. When you had your updates, it could take hours and hours to sort out.
So first we created the website as a focal point for all of the add-ons, and then we built a client to make it even easier for all the people that have a lot of add-ons.
Q: And where were you based at this point?
Hubert Thieblot: I was in Paris at this time. I played for about a year and a half, and we made some pretty cool stuff in the guild, even before we had the add-ons section. We made some gameplay videos, some of which were downloaded millions of times, and we had a pretty hardcore crew of people going for kills on endgame content as fast as possible.
We had a pretty good reputation in Europe, and when the site got much bigger - about 1.5 million uniques per month - the server bills started to get pretty big, so I put some advertisements on there in early 2006, and then I realised this could be a chance to turn the passion into something bigger.
So we hired two people in 2006 and moved to Germany for a year. Then we raised USD 5 million in series A funding in early 2007. Shortly after that we moved to the US, and we've been here ever since.
Q: A lot of people will be wondering quite how you made the leap, even from 1.5 million uniques to raising USD 5 million. How did you go about setting up that funding round?
Hubert Thieblot: Well, I was pretty fortunate in knowing the right people in Paris. Basically we made some very good connections with our ad-serving company, which was also the owner of a big portal dedicated to women - auFeminin. I got to meet the founders, they liked us - so we started with this network and then moved to the VC community in Paris, and I got to know what we needed to do to raise this amount of money.
So I've been fortunate with the contacts that I got very early in the company.
Q: And when you went into those meetings, what sort of things were people interested in discussing? Did they already know a lot about the MMO space and community gaming?
Hubert Thieblot: Well, it depends on the firm. When we raised most of the first round of funding with AGF Private Equity they had an idea of MMO gaming. They didn't want to invest in a one-product MMO company, and one of the things they liked about us was that we support the games - we don't take $50 million to risk in building a game...
So we were a good fit for them in terms of product, and they really believed in the MMO space getting much bigger in the next few years.
Q: So moving on to today, you raised another USD 6 million last year bringing the total to USD 11 million - you've expanded the business and branched out to titles other than just World of Warcraft. But you've also got a subscription element as well - what's that about?
Hubert Thieblot: Well, Curse.com is mostly UI add-ons for now. We've done a lot of development around it, and on the author side we've built something like a SourceForge for UI add-ons. Right now we have about 5000 projects on the site, representing more than 10,000 active authors collaborating together to build them.
On the user side we've got the Curse client, which is used by 1.6 million active users, to manage all their add-ons - and of that number each person uses an average of 21 add-ons... which is pretty big.
And as you mentioned, we've got some activity on other titles as well, such as Warhammer, Runes of Magic and Conan, and we'll support any new MMOs having add-on support on the site as well.
We've also added support for add-on tags, where people can upload screenshots and tag the add-ons they use - a bit like tagging people on Facebook. That's been really good for traffic, and it's really helped the less expert gamers to find useful add-ons.
But right now Curse is about 50 per cent of our traffic - we've expanded into acquiring niche news and forum websites dedicated to single games. So we have Diablofans.com, WorldofRaids.com and AionSource.com, as well as various databases on games. Basically, for every new game we look at, how can we add value for the gamers?
Most of the time, as we play the games ourselves, we can look at what would be beneficial, and what's needed to have a better experience.
Q: What's your relationship with Blizzard like?
Q: It's a testament to the authors of some of the add-ons that Blizzard picks up on the ideas they create and sometimes implements them in the game. For example, in the latest patch Blizzard introduced its own quest-related system which mirrors a popular add-on called QuestHelper. But is that a good or a bad thing for the authors, do you think?
Hubert Thieblot: I think there are multiple benefits to add-ons. The first, and biggest, is that the user interface is the first thing that people look at when they enter a game. That's how you control your game and character - so allowing add-ons and customising the skin of the interface allows for a level of freshness. It's a game within a game, and it keeps a lot of people motivated - if they want something new, they don't need to wait for the publisher, they can just go on our site and download extra add-ons.
So I think it benefits the publisher because people spend more time in the game. But I think also think it helps the publisher to understand what the community wants in a user interface. Blizzard has, in nearly every patch, added features that add-ons had been doing before - I think it's expected.
Look at the iPhone business - even Apple is doing it, so they'll add a default application to the handset's line-up that was popular as an App previously, such as voice recording.
I think authors... some don't care, while others aren't very happy with it. I'd say more than half the time people still use the add-ons they were using before anyway, because sometimes new features can be buried in the default UI and a user won't know how to find it - while the add-on will continue to work as before. I think a lot of people use add-ons to do a lot of stuff the default UI can already do...
But I think the default UI in World of Warcraft has quietly improved in the past four years, and I think that benefits everyone - it makes a better game.
Q: And what about the relationship with the authors?
Hubert Thieblot: We share 20 per cent of all our subscription revenues to authors. We've had the premium subscription live for eight months and we've already made multiple tens of thousands of dollars of payments.
The UI community has been really appreciative of what we've done, and every day we're looking at ways to do more - because they create 50 per cent of the content sales, so they're an important community to work with.
Q: While you have the premium subscription, how important is it that you continue to offer content for free?
Hubert Thieblot: I think we'll always have 99 per cent of the content for free - that's really where the internet is right now. It seems that people are willing to pay for extra services, but not content... except when you're a very big print brand, for example...
So we keep working on the basis of providing everything for free, and if we see that there's an extra feature that we can build and charge for, we'll do it - but most of the time we don't charge for new features.
Q: 2009 was a bit of a quiet year for the MMO space, but already 2010 is gearing up to be a bit more spectacular - possibly World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, definitely Star Wars and Star Trek games... what are you most looking forward to?
Hubert Thieblot: I think the MMO industry is facing a real challenge right now. A lot of people are playing catch-up with Blizzard and the quality of the content in World of Warcraft. I think that we're going to see some really high-quality MMOs starting in Q4, 2010 and into 2011-2012.
I'm personally really looking forward to console MMOs, because when you think about it, if 50 per cent of Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners are online, that means that there are nearly 35 million next-gen consoles able to run an MMO now. That's already three times bigger than the PC MMO market - the hardcore PC market.
I'm really looking forward to seeing who is going to take the MMO market on console, because that spot is available right now.
Q: The console space is pretty much a closed book to the add-on space though, so how would that affect your business?
Hubert Thieblot: Well, add-ons is only 50 per cent of the traffic right now, and the other 50 per cent is really engaging users with news, forums and databases around games.
Q: But in terms of the needs of the user, WoW has established without any doubt that gamers do want to be able to customise their gaming experience - so would you advise console MMOs to try and include that sort of thing?
Hubert Thieblot: Oh yes, I'd definitely try to work with Sony and Microsoft to see how add-ons could be implemented on their consoles. They're actually becoming like PCs anyway, so I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be possible.
Hubert Thieblot is the CEO of Curse Inc. Interview by Phil Elliott.