The city-building genre has been around for a very long time indeed, but this month French developer Monte Cristo released its take on that sector of the industry with Cities XL, a game that can be played offline or online, and with significant meta-game elements taking place on the official website.
Following the game's launch, we caught up with studio head Jerome Gastaldi to get an impression of how gamers have responded to the title, what the challenges of multiple play-styles (and multiple revenue streams) have been, and what the plans are for ongoing development.
Q: What's the response been to Cities XL since launch?
Jerome Gastaldi: I think that to be honest we had a launch that's gone according to plan. We entered the top ten in the UK according to Chart-Track this week, and we're second in France, and we're expecting to be top five in Germany.
So the good news is that we've got the volume we were expecting, perhaps a little bit higher, and those extra users are triggering some early-stage problems on the platform, but overall, within the game we're pretty positive.
What we see is that people are playing a lot - we've got a really high level of concurrency, a lot higher than we thought we would have. It's peaked at around 70 per cent, with the lowest point being in the region of 37 per cent... which for a builder game online is certainly higher than we expected - but that's early-stage.
In terms of service, the launch went well - we've started to have some little platforms issues on the trading side this past weekend, and we're playing cat-and-mouse with that at the moment. It means that the trading is very well used, and there's a bit of latency there that we need to fight against. But that's the only noticeable problem we've had, but it's getting better.
Q: It's unique in terms of the way that it's engaging players, with the choice of playing offline, online or the meta-game using the website - but clearly that's not been a difficult concept to sell to people?
Jerome Gastaldi: Well, I don't think most people have fully understood the scope of the project, and that's normal. It will take them weeks to learn the full game, and weeks to understand the benefits of using the world to play - and also to realise what trading will allow them to do.
So I think the overall level of understanding isn't there yet - what's clear is that it is a difficult concept to put across, because when you say you're making a builder game with subscription, but you don't have to subscribe if you don't want to... we're a bit out of the box in terms of thinking.
But there's a logic there for us, because there are two populations that can be interested in Cities XL - people who just want to play solo, because they've never played multiplayer before, and you can't force those people to play multiplayer, you need to provide them with a solo game... but if there's a level of curiosity there, they can go to the Planet offer.
And then there are those people who are really interested in the idea of building cities and being able to trade and collaborate - and we need to give them the option to do that straight away.
So I think the message has gone out loud and clear now, and we don't have any indication that it hasn't - but a lot of the game has yet to be discovered, and I think people who are going to go online will have a few months of surprises.
Q: How far do the boxed product revenues cover initial development costs, or will you be relying on some of the subscription income to help with that?
Jerome Gastaldi: We will need to get a fair number of subscriptions to cover the initial cost, yes. The overall level of investment wouldn't be sustainable for a boxed-only product, not in the current state of the PC market.
Q: Cost of development is a big issue, and this project is pretty ambitious... but on top of that is the challenge of the service model - is that something the team is looking forward to, given that the launch is only the beginning of the story.
Jerome Gastaldi: It's clear that for us it's one of the key challenges - to be able to move from a product company to a service company, because effectively that's what happens. We've had to acquire expertise that we didn't have in the company: the head of customer support is coming from outside of the industry; the head of platform is coming from one of the leaders in the MMO genre.
We have had to open ourselves up to people that could bring experience, that had been through launches before - so that they can help in changing the mentality of the company. When you're under the pressure of the community you react differently to when you're not, and more than anything it's been a management challenge, and a really interesting one.
To meet that, we brought them in really early on so they could go through the beta, and basically we tested the service-side too - so far we're pretty happy with the way it's gone.
Q: The launch period seems to be the hardest part for any persistent online games - we've seen it most recently with Aion, but not even World of Warcraft was immune... so on balance you seem to have done okay...
Jerome Gastaldi: Overall we're happy with the way it's been handled - and when I say that, we are seeing volumes that are four to five times larger than those we had during the peak of beta-testing, so we're in a zone that we've not been in before.
Nevertheless it's been pretty clean - although it would have been 'perfect' if we hadn't had the bottleneck on the trading system, but what we're effectively discovering is that people who bought the game are making far more use of that trading than those in the beta.
So clearly the pattern of play - it's not the number of hours that's being played, but the pattern that's significantly different to what we noticed in the beta. But it's nothing to worry about, it just means we'll play catch-up for a while.
Q: At what point do you feel you'll be past the 'post-launch' phase and into the 'ongoing development' period?
Jerome Gastaldi: I think it's impossible for us to tell - what we know from past experience of city-building games is that they're not big day one sellers. They're not games that people jump on in the first week, and you make 50 per cent in that first week. The curve is pretty stable.
So we think it's a good start, and the time ahead of us - the build-up to Christmas - should see an increase in numbers... but I don't know how much tranquillity that will give us in the next couple of months!
But that's a nice problem to have - potentially we've have to postpone some acquisition content, and we cut the access earlier this week for trial players, so we're not registering more trial players at the moment: The trial version that can be given away in the box meant that numbers were going up drastically, and we want to put the emphasis on people who have played the game first.
Q: We spoke at the beginning of the year, and you said then that the game was feature complete, with the emphasis over the following 6-9 months focusing on balancing gameplay - did that go according to plan?
Jerome Gastaldi: [smiles] Well, at the time I wasn't talking b*llocks, I would have sworn on it. But we pushed ourselves to get into beta in April, so pretty early, because as a company we were at the stage where we were having internal differences of opinion, with no metrics to evaluate them.
So we launched the beta because we needed to have feedback from potential users, and from that we were forced to make some drastic changes - not on the game itself, but more on the interface and trading system. We went back to the drawing board on those two aspects and adjusted them a lot in the past four months.
What we had thought was an almost finished game in January, wasn't...
Q: Can you explain a bit more about the changes that were made?
Jerome Gastaldi: Well, with the user interface, when you zoom down you can see the statistics of the planet, and you can see three or four figures where players are clearly blocking - they can't develop any further. You lose a lot of those players, let's say 75,000 inhabitants, and you have to ask why, and why there's a problem.
When you've done a bit of digging you start to understand why, and with the interface there was some information not being given to the players, so that has been pretty useful.
The second element was that we were really being pushed for a trading system that was a lot more oriented towards the market place, rather than one-to-one. People wanted a level of reactivity that we didn't design to begin with.
Q: The last three months of the year has proven a difficult time to launch a game in the past - you'd probably argue that Cities XL doesn't really have too much direct competition, but have you found it at all difficult launching in October?
Jerome Gastaldi: It's an expensive part of the year - what you can buy in advertising at this time of year is drastically lower than what you could buy at the beginning of September. To that extent it's a challenge, but we still believe that with the activity we'd had early on, it was worthwhile to release this side of Christmas.
Q: Does that have implications on how you market the game - coming back to the service model, presumably that means marketing has to be ongoing as well?
Jerome Gastaldi: The marketing has to be ongoing, yes. I think we've dedicated around 50 per cent of our overall marketing spend so far, and the rest of it will go on opportunities around Christmas activities. We think Cities XL is a typical gift game.
Q: And when will you begin to evaluate the success of the game?
Jerome Gastaldi: I think for retail sales we'll wait until Christmas, because it's not the kind of game you need to have right away - it has to have a bit of time to settle down. In terms of the overall business model I think we'll have to wait on subscriptions.
We're not forcing people to subscribe after the trail period - but we do expect some of them to. We've got around 7-8 per cent of those people who bought the game who have subscribed before the end of the trial period.
But we don't know what value to give to that over time. In a month's time we'll have an indication, but we also think that a certain number of players will go through the solo mode, get bored with it, and then want to see what's happening online. For those guys, how long will it take them? We don't know. We'll have to be a little bit patient.
Jerome Gastaldi is studio head at Monte Cristo. Interview by Phil Elliott.