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City Life

Monte Cristo's Jerome Gastaldi on business model variety, putting together an MMO and using venture capitalist cash

The MMO scene, white elephant in the room aside, proved to be a tough place to launch last year with a couple of high profile, high cost titles finding it difficult to keep up momentum. But the genre doesn't just need to be about sci-fi- or fantasy-based RPGs, something which Monte Cristo is hoping to prove with building sim Cities XL later this year.

To find out how the project is coming along we spoke with Jerome Gastaldi, studio head at Monte Cristo, and asked about possible launch dates, making functionality available in web broswers, the thinking behind mixed business models and whether tax breaks would make a difference to French development. How is Cities XL coming along - how far from launch are you?
Jerome Gastaldi

We're at an advanced stage - the project is feature-complete and running from the data centre - so from now on we'll be moving on to balancing it. We've been working on it for about a year and a half, and the window of release is May-September this year.

It's a large window, but it's linked to a certain level of marketing budget we want to achieve, and that's likely to happen in the summer, or towards the end of it. If not we'll have a first launch, and then a second launch. How are you approaching the issue of network needs and infrastructure? How big a player base are you expecting?
Jerome Gastaldi

At the moment the game's been running from the data centre for the past four months. We've been pretty proactive on that - at Leipzig we were showing it from the data centre.

The current level of infrastructure allows for 250,000 planet (online) players, and part of the decision around the May-September release is how much ambition we're going to have at launch, because it takes three-to-four months to deploy any additional infrastructure we may need - and the indications are that the potential is there - so we may have to upgrade it. Most MMOs are either subscription or micro-transactions, but Cities XL offers a whole range, from low-priced subscription through to even a solo mode - is it your aim to cater to all player types?
Jerome Gastaldi

Our philosophy for the business model is that it must mirror the way you expect your potential clients to buy. We don't buy the specific microtransaction-only philosophy - we ask ourselves what our players would be ready to buy, ready to pay for.

They're ready to pay for a solo game - millions of people are buying solo games - so we'll give them that, but they've also proven that they're ready to pay for playable content as well, whether that's in solo or connected mode. So let's give them access to add-ons and plug-ins that they can buy online.

And as soon as you talk persistent online service, you have to talk subscription - so that's just the way we end up with a mixed model. People will buy the game, and then they will have the possibility to upgrade it with more playable content and online functionality. That's the plan, and we feel pretty comfortable with it. I think there's logic to it. With the lower price points are you expecting people to subscribe for longer?
Jerome Gastaldi

I think they will. With premium MMOs people are playing between two and four hours every day. Are they going to be inclined to spend that amount of time on our game? No. World of Warcraft is the cheapest entertainment per hour you can find anywhere, except free-to-play games obviously.

But we think [our subscription price] is fair enough, because we'll have a big infrastructure, in-game support, lots of features, a lot of networking functionality - and there's a price for that.

We think that asking them to pay maybe GBP 10 for three months is putting us in a bracket which is really low, and we want the price to be really low because we don't want to put them in a position where they ask themselves if it's worth it.

If it was our only source of income I'm sure we'd have a different philosophy, but I think that the more they're on the subscription model, the more they'll be willing to upgrade their game. Looking at some of the web-based aspects, how important is allowing people to access certain functions outside of the game environment - maybe people checking in with building progress at lunchtimes, and so on?
Jerome Gastaldi

For us it's key, because effectively it's about giving them a big toolbox, giving them the possibility to do lots of things within that toolbox with their friends. One of the measures of success for us will be a placing on people's favourites list, one of the top ten or fifteen web pages they check every day.

All of the web-based gameplay has been designed to give players the maximum amount of accessibility to their network within the game - not just relying on a client-based product, we thought it would be nice to have some of the browser-based pluses, and give that to the player. Most MMO games have their own dedicated forums, which are communities of sorts, but this is much stronger in terms of bringing players together?
Jerome Gastaldi

For me, forums are the best and worst of features. The problem with them is that it's so easy to post crap. Look at most of the official MMO forums out there and compare them with unofficial ones - there's a completely different tone.

We want people to have a much richer way to express themselves, but we also want people to have a way of expressing themselves that's a little bit more than just flaming. I think there's a trade-off here - I'm not sure we'll run forums ourselves, especially when we'll be giving players the number of communication methods that we are. Do we need to have forums, when there are full-blown social networking features? What's your view of the development scene in France? There are tax incentives looking on the horizon, are they something you'll be looking to take advantage of?
Jerome Gastaldi

There are a few schemes that have been put in place, but so far they've been pretty marginal, mostly for pre-production. Now there are these tax breaks which could be good news for the industry.

But there's this tricky part when you look closely into the system, which can also put you at risk - effectively, if you don't release the game, or if your game changes scope and some of the promises you make change from the file, you have to pay the tax breaks back. If you're doing work for hire, big publishers might ask you to make changes that would remove your eligibility.

Full credit to the guys that did the lobbying though, because at least it's something that can give a little bit of breathing space to the studios. It's not something that's going to change the story, though - that's for sure. Developing an MMO is probably one of the costliest things ever to hit the games industry, so how are you coping with that side of things?
Jerome Gastaldi

A lot of belief, a lot of balls, and a bit of luck [laughs]

We were convinced early on that there was an opportunity there, and we've been able to convince some venture capitalists to follow us on the adventure. Full credit to those guys, they've done it on a PowerPoint and a video, and they deserve respect for taking a level of risk that no big publishers would have taken, so I hope we're not going to disappoint them.

We will be making money through boxed sales, because it's also a solo game - but by the time we launch we'll have spent about EUR 12 million, and that's not money that you'll recoup just on the solo game alone.

Even so, we think to a large extent this is a lot less risky than a single-player game. There are so many monetisation opportunities in the system, whether they're coming from the pockets of players or real-world brands, we don't see ourselves as having taken a massive level of risk.

Plus the nature of the game doesn't require the same level of infrastructure that you'd need for an RPG MMO, for example there's not the same need to reach a certain level of latency performance. The investment per subscriber is therefore a lot lower. Has the economic situation affected you at all, such as the reception you get from venture capitalists?
Jerome Gastaldi

No - I think there's a lot of money out there, and I don't think the economy will affect our ability to raise money. I think it will affect the conditions in which we can raise it, though, because the valuations of games companies has dropped by about 48 per cent I think since the beginning of 2008, and it keeps going down.

Looking at the stocks, all of them have gone down, not just the games companies. But it doesn't mean there's no money - just that the valuation is less positive, but that's life.

Jerome Gastaldi is studio head at Monte Cristo. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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