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Creating A Monster

Mind Candy's Michael Acton Smith discusses turning massive MMO Moshi Monsters into an entertainment brand

Moshi Monsters is not your average free to play MMO, but then creator Michael Acton Smith is not your average game developer. Founder of Mind Candy, Acton Smith's history includes the birth of online gadget retailer Firebox, and the ambitious but ultimately disastrous ARG Perplex City, which combined a real life prize of buried treasures with clues on trading cards and websites.

Then there was Moshi Monsters, an online MMO that Acton Smith describes as "Tamagotchi meets Facebook". After a shaky start and a near brush with bankruptcy, half the of all UK six to 12 year olds are now caring for their own Monster, and there are 50 million registered users. There's also the books and toys, with the the merchadise expected to earn the company £60 million this year, and live events and TV planned for the future. Acton Smith spoke exclusively to GamesIndustry.biz about his plans to turn the game into a global brand, and some of the challenges of building an online company.

GamesIndustry.bizAfter your Develop presentation I have to ask, are you genetically incapable of thinking small?
Michael Acton Smith

I think life is more fun when you do things to the extreme. I read a great book called The Magic Of Thinking Big and it was just about how most people think ordinarily and small and there's no harm in shooting for the moon and trying to do things massively. Because even if you screw up you still have fun along the way. We've had some missteps along the way, and headaches and sleepless nights, dead ends, but so far it's going very well.

GamesIndustry.bizWould you change anything? If you started Moshi Monsters again, would you do any of it differently?
Michael Acton Smith

I don't know if we would have got to this point without making some mistakes. That's the beauty of creating an online game, which is so different to the product based mentality from the old traditional school, where you spend years building something, putting it in a box, and then you cross your fingers when you ship it out.

So you can get it wrong, and we did when Moshi first launched, it was rubbish. It just didn't really spread, and we spent the best part of a year just tweaking all the dials and looking at the data and making hypothesis about what might work and little by little it started to come together, and then it really snapped into place in the summer of 2009. So yeah, I think you've got to make mistakes to try and find the winning formula.

You can get it wrong, and we did when Moshi first launched, it was rubbish

GamesIndustry.bizHow big a part does metrics play in that process? Do you follow them as closely as Zynga, for example?
Michael Acton Smith

I'd say we're a bit more balanced. Zynga is an analytics company first, and a games company second, and I'd say I love making games and I want my games to be around for a long time so while the data is important, we don't want to that to crowd out the creative, innovative, quirky stuff that you just can't really know with data. Sometimes you have to make those great leaps, and most of them go wrong but every now and them you come up with something that changes the game.

We love all that silly stuff, and I think it helps to build a longer term product that works not just as an online game, but now we see ourselves much more as a brand. We hear so many examples of kids that play Moshi that don't even know there's a website, they've discovered it from their older brothers and sisters, or the magazine, or the Top Trumps.

GamesIndustry.bizYou must have had offers from companies like the BBC or the Cartoon Network, so is it a company rule to go it alone?
Michael Acton Smith

No, we partner where we think it makes sense, where there's a partner that can bring value and experience or distribution, but in other instances we think it makes more sense to go it alone. So on the TV side we're still trying to figure out the best way to do this, and we have had a lot of conversations but I just can't quite get my head around the traditional TV model where you create a show, and you spend millions of pounds doing that, and then you hope a broadcasters will show it at the right time slot, often you have to give away a lot of the back end, and we've got an audience already, and a great IP. We don't necessarily need to follow the traditional model. So we're being open minded about it.

And the same in the film industry as well, we wouldn't want to, or I don't think it makes as much sense for us to sell an option in Moshi and give away all creative control to someone else. I think it makes a bit more sense to do something maybe a bit more collaborative.

GamesIndustry.bizSo have you retained a lot of creative control with the DS game, Moshi Zoo?
Michael Acton Smith

Yes, pretty much. We thought long and hard about doing that, and we spoke to some major publishers, and in the end we decided it made sense just to publish ourselves. So we're working with Black Lantern, who are making the game, and then for our distribution partner we're working with Activision. I wasn't meant to announce that [at Develop] by the way, but the cats out of the bag now, and Activision look like they're going to be a great partner. They know a fair bit about the video game industry.

So that's an example where it's not just us giving away all control, it's kind of realising that we're good, we understand our IP, we can finance the game and creatively create it, but we do need help in some areas such as distribution and then a few other elements that I think Activision are going to be fantastic at.

GamesIndustry.bizAnd what attracted you to Black Lantern as a developer?
Michael Acton Smith

So we spoke to tonnes of different partners, Black Lantern sent over a bunch of concepts that we really liked, they just seemed to be on the same wave length as us, they see this as potentially the first game in many. We just liked them. And they'd also created some good kid's games, which was very important. They'd had some success with other properties similar to Moshi, so we thought they'd be a good partner to work with.

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Rachel Weber

Senior Editor

Rachel Weber has been with GamesIndustry since 2011 and specialises in news-writing and investigative journalism. She has more than five years of consumer experience, having previously worked for Future Publishing in the UK.