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ICO Partners Part 1

Thomas Bidaux discusses free-to-play on console and what makes the UK one of the toughest in Europe

The explosion in online gaming over the last ten years has meant that, whilst there have been many successful experiments, there aren't many old heads in the game - like any fledgling industry, there's something of a dearth of experience.

One man who has been there since nearly the beginning is ICO Partners' Thomas Bidaux, co-founder of the specialist online gaming consultancy. Here, in the first part of an extended interview, Bidaux and the head of the PR side of the business, Julien Wera, discuss the company's origins, plans and market insight.

GamesIndustry.bizSo ICO Partners specialises in consulting for the online gaming market - what made you choose that area?
Julien Wera

Well, that was our area of expertise. Thomas has been working in that arena for twelve years - which is pretty rare, considering the age of the online gaming industry - at GOA and NCsoft.

The other people on staff, we're a team of five, they've all worked in the online gaming space, all at NCsoft as well, except for me. I worked at Gala Networks Europe in Dublin for a long time, then I worked on some online projects at PopCap for their social games. I was on the PR marketing side.

It was really natural for us. Basically we had accumulated all that knowledge and all that experience, especially in free-to-play, microtransaction - new business models basically. Online game operation. We're not consulting in game development, we're consulting on the operations side, promotion. The service side of gaming. We're not game designers.

Basically we had a feeling that there is a need for that knowledge because that's where it's growing. There is a need for experience because it's a very young industry - maybe six or seven years old. It's very hard to find experienced people on that side of things. There's definitely a key need.

So that's what we wanted to do. When Thomas was at NCsoft and founded ICO it was really to help online games companies establish their business, to help their business thrive on Europe. We're really focused in Europe, we're working with Asians and Americans, studios and publishers, but we're helping them to establish their business in European territories.

Thomas Bidaux

The short answer would be that I don't know how to do anything else! I've never really done anything else other than work in online games. I was lucky enough to start very early in 1999. At that time it was very small, but it's been growing. I've been working in that space for 11 years and I've never seen it slow down. If anything it's the opposite.

It's fun, it's interesting and it's where a lot of innovation is taking place. Not all of it, but a lot of it. So we should be doing it. It's good for us, it's good for the industry. It's a good space.

GamesIndustry.bizThere's a definite marked difference between the European MMO market and those of Asia and the US - what special challenges to companies from those territories face when coming to Europe?

If you don't tweak it, make it specific to Europe, you're going to sound like a big, arrogant American company

Thomas Bidaux

It depends on whether you're looking at it from Asia or America. From the American perspective it's the fragmentation and the cultural differences. The gamers' tastes are going to be very similar - they generally like the same stuff. With western populations and cultures we tend to like the same things. There are some differences, say in France we tend to be a bit more Japanese friendly in terms of designs, in Germany they're a bit more rough and PvP centric. It's cliched but kind of true.

But in terms of business, even if it's culturally similar, it's actually very deceiving for American companies because they tend to think that if it's similar then it's the same. Actually it's the differences where they fail. They don't pay attention to the small things. They think cultural references will be the same, that the tone will be the same - actually that makes a big difference. If you don't tweak it, make it specific to Europe, you're going to sound like a big, arrogant American company and that's going to get a knee-jerk negative reaction from Europeans.

It's exactly the opposite the opposite of what they're trying to do. The other thing is fragmentation. America is 300 million people, all speaking the same language, all having the same distribution channel, all having the same media. Europe is 50 different countries, 20 different languages, lots of different cultural backgrounds, music, jokes... Humour is a fascinating thing to study in Europe - we all have a different sense of humour. We very rarely agree on whether something is funny or not. So it becomes very difficult.

We also have a different history in terms of online games. We come from clan-based, subscription MMOs - in the US there was Ultima Online, Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot, World of Warcraft. That's their basis. If you look at Europe, well, Ultima Online was never that big, Everquest was never that big. Dark Age did well, WoW did very well, but in between you have this things going on called Runescape, BigPoint, Ankama in France - we have a webgame culture that's totally different.

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Dan Pearson