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Emerging Trends

Emergent VP Katie Morgan on the company's cut-price middleware and the issues facing smaller digital distribution developers

At Games Convention in Leipzig this year middleware company Emergent announced the release of a cut-price edition of its toolset Gamebryo, firmly aimed at smaller companies working on titles for digital distribution platforms.

A few months down the line at Game Connection in Lyon GamesIndustry.biz caught up with Katie Morgan, Emergent's VP of sales and marketing, to see how it had been received, and mull over some of the issues in that sector of the industry.

GamesIndustry.biz How has Gamebryo Casual been received so far?
Katie Morgan

I think the timing of the launch was perfect for the industry - there's such a draw towards the high-end console, but the production costs are so high that a lot of small studios don't know how to get started and it's difficult to get that first project funded by a publisher.

So the opportunity to go with a downloadable game is a real draw for smaller and newer studios - to be able to work with an engine that's fully-featured, gets them up-and-running fast and have them get experience of something that's going to launch them into full console path with their product line.

Gamebryo Casual is the full-featured Gamebryo, just at a reduced price to support the project in line with the production budget, the size of the game, the timeline, the price point - it's all matched.

GamesIndustry.biz How many deals have you signed so far?
Katie Morgan

We're at five or six studios that have signed up with us since Leipzig, and we're selling it regularly. This quarter I think will have as many deals as we had last quarter, and every one of them seems to leverage us into a full retail deal with that developer.

GamesIndustry.biz A lot has happened in the past year with regards to online platforms - do you see downloadable games as a bit of a new frontier?
Katie Morgan

Yes, I think what happens is that you get these development splinter groups, a lot of the go, take a couple of their friends, and they start three-man teams. They try to represent the artist, designer and programmer, they'll have an idea, see if they can get some funding and off they go.

We've spent a lot of time at Emergent trying to figure out how to capture the hearts of those people - we want to support them. There's so much creativity and passion in those people, and they're trying to break away from the chains that bind them when they get into a big place.

We're really supportive of the developers who splinter off and want to chase their passions - we'll empower them, get their hands on the technology, so they don't have to spend a lot of time developing that architectural framework for their idea. Let's get that idea prototyped, get a vertical slice, get it in front of publishers and have them embrace it, not shape it.

GamesIndustry.biz So it's trying to reduce the risk?
Katie Morgan

Absolutely - I think that's the biggest point is that you don't have to make that investment in keeping up with the technology and solving every problem, or when you've solved that problem it's only for that one game - when you make your next game you've got to solve it all over again.

For a publisher it's reduced risk because they recognise the technology without having to trust a lead engineer. I think the downloadable thing is where it comes together, and it's increasing that entrepreneurial side of the business.

GamesIndustry.biz Is it increasing the creativity across the spectrum of games, do you think? How important is that for the industry?
Katie Morgan

I think it's important for consumers, because they get to see that stuff. I think the iPhone is a perfect example when you see the range of applications that are available there, for free or at a charge. The consumer wins there, because they get to try it all. That's what I think the downloadable model does.

It scares me a little bit, because I think there are some really talented studios with some really great ideas, and they have this notion that they can make an XBLA game first, and see how it goes. But I don't know there's a proven model there yet - that if you make a successful XBLA game, now you can go make a full retail game.

You prove yourself, you prove the studio and what you're able to deliver.

GamesIndustry.biz How important do you think the iPhone could be in the scheme of things?
Katie Morgan

Well, it seems that everything Apple does is an important spoke in the wheel. They're certainly trend-setters, and everybody has to have one. What the revenue model is - that's yet to be determined, as is the role of middleware in that I think. We're watching it very closely.

We play games on our iPhones and clearly developers are very excited. Those initial numbers were impressive, but the actual revenue model that's behind it is still a little bit murky. It's going to be interesting to watch.

GamesIndustry.biz Some concern has been expressed over the number of titles being developed for the online platforms - how big a problem is that, do you think?
Katie Morgan

I think it's a huge problem. What we've seen at retail over the last five years, maybe more, will happen to the downloadable store front, so to speak - more content available than there is virtual shelf space.

Over the last couple of years on the downloadable platforms it's evident that the merchandising is starting to suffer. Right now, because it's being controlled by the first parties it doesn't have... at retail we use market development funds, and we fight for it - the marketing itself become a profit centre. You haven't seen that happen with the first parties yet, but clearly relationships drive the marketing and slotting - you can get advice in terms of when not to launch your game because of other launches... it starts feeling a lot like old retail relationships, so it's very hard to know how to get a game with an original IP to stand out.

I think that first party is doing its job of trying to keep a level playing field, with banner rotations and merchandising opportunities, but the reality is that you've still got a chance of going up against the latest download from Rock Band, or whatever.

A lot of the developers believe that it's not the same money, that it's not the same buyer - but I think they get a little lost in their own passion. Because the consumer is - they'll come along and see what's up there today, what's new, and their favourite song just came on for Guitar Hero... that's what just got their dollar.

So I think that's tough. I really want to see a way to corral the energy and passion of those developers, there's got to be a way - there's got to be an iTunes model out there that lets everybody get their stuff up in front of people, and sold and merchandised.

GamesIndustry.biz How do you see Gamebyro Casual growing? What percentage of the business do you think it will become for Emergent?
Katie Morgan

Well, I'd say in terms of the number of SKUs that we're selling - if I try to remember my 2009 projections - it's probably in the 30-40 per cent range. They're priced accordingly, and with each studio we'd anticipate a follow-on project for retail - or there're a lot of studios just dedicated to downloadable games, so they'll be repeat customers.

GamesIndustry.biz How important is it for you to be able to grow the product alongside the teams? Assuming the three-man studio won't stay at that level for ever, how do you provide a solution along the way?
Katie Morgan

That's exactly our strategy - we see every individual person in a studio as a Gamebryo client, whether they start as three and grow to 40, or start as 3, grow to 200, split up and go to three other places... those people have all used Gamebryo. It's like setting up seeding at a university and all those students learning.

So we want to get into a studio, have it become the core technology for that studio, help it be successful, help it find publishing deals, help it find marketing deals, line it up with whatever support it needs. If that studio is successful, we're all successful. If it doesn't succeed, there are still Gamebryo experts that go onto the next place.

If you have the right technology, then it follows people.

Katie Morgan is VP for sales and marketing at Emergent. Interview by Phil Elliott.