"I'm actually quite a big fan of Candy Crush"
Ben Cousins leaves DeNA to become a consultant on all things Free-to-Play
Even when he's just left a job, Ben Cousins manages to sound more relaxed and confident than most people would when they'd just been promoted. He's currently explaining to me why he left DeNA's Scattered Entertainment, the free-to-play studio he's been running ever since leaving EA Easy in 2011, and he's doing it with trademark aplomb.
"People have been asking me to help them out forever," says Cousins, as he talks me through his decision to become a freelance consultant. "I've got lots of friends in the industry, having been around for 15 years - it was always frustrating to turn down offers to be on advisory boards or management boards, to be worried that I was breaking non-compete arrangements when I spoke to people. I wanted to spend some time exploring this idea of consultancy, freeing myself up to help out those people."
"there is an enormous demand for free-to-play shooters on mobile - not necessarily something I would have assumed at the time we started work"
"When we set up Scattered with DeNA it was very much built around the idea of exploring three specific products: shooters aimed at different demographics," he explains. "The Drowning was our mid-core game, Lawless was our casual game and Isolani was our core game. We'd gone through that first [period] of exploration and my co-founder, Senta Jakobsen, is so strong at running the team that this seemed like a good break point to move on and let those guys move into a new strategic phase."
And what does Cousins' departure mean for Scattered and DeNA as a whole? Will we see them retreat slightly from the Western market in the face of higher user-acquisition costs and lower ARPU, in the way that Gree has been forced to?
"DeNA's certainly doing quite well across the board with its Western products; I think it's probably in the top five mobile publishers in the Western world at the moment," Ben counters. "Generally they work multiple products across multiple platforms, so they don't necessarily get the headlines - if you get one or two big hits then it's very obvious that you're being successful, but if it's spread across ten or so games then it's less clear that you're doing that well.
"So I think DeNA's still very much focused on the Western market and achieving success there. If I think about the three games from Scattered, in terms of download numbers and engagement, you can see that Lawless was the best performing so far, which was interesting. I think that's something to do with the smaller download size and the mainstream appeal of a cops and robbers setting. Also the game is an LA-based crime game which came out very soon after GTA V, so they piggybacked that a little bit by accident. Apple also featured it quite strongly - I think they saw it as more of a traditional mobile game with a smaller download, easier controls etc.
"My takeaway from those three games was that there is an enormous demand for free-to-play shooters on mobile - not necessarily something I would have assumed at the time we started work on them: there weren't any examples of that on the platform. We've seen multiple examples of multi-million download products in that category since. Besides those three games from Scattered we had Dead Trigger 2 last year, which was a huge hit, and Gunner Z from BitMonster, which was a pretty big success as well.
"The games from Scattered were focused on acquiring users and trying to find out the mechanics that you need to retain them rather than monetisation, but Gunner Z and Dead Trigger 2 seem to be generating quite a lot of cash for those independent companies. I think going forward, what 2013 taught us is that the free-to-play shooter, as well as some other categories, are definitely feasible genres on mobile and becoming ever more so."
In many ways, consultancy seems like the perfect home for a man who, by his own admission, finds it very 'hard to keep quiet'. Cousins certainly has more experience than most Western developers, plus a solid AAA pedigree and an integrity which has earned the respect of many of his contemporaries. Does this mean the end of his developing days?
"I'm sure some of the work I'll end up doing will be working directly on games and there's always the possibility of me setting up another studio or going into another role like that," he expands. "This consultancy thing is very much feeling my way and finding out what's out there. I don't want to ever get to the point where I've just got a Power Point and I'm jumping from one studio to another doing one-day presentations, teaching them 'how to do free-to-play'. I don't think that's possible. I want to forge deeper relationships with clients and work very much on a problem-solving basis."
'How to do free-to-play' has very much been Ben's agenda for the last eight or so years. From the days of working on PlayStation Home to the recently launched trio of free-to-play FPS games which he oversaw at Scattered, Cousins' evangelism has been consistent and voluble - a perspective which hasn't always made him friends, especially among players and developers more engaged in traditional retail models. When I ask him about whether he feels vindicated by the ongoing industry shift, he offers a diplomatic response, tempered with the occasional logical barb.
"For me, whenever I'm talking about free-to-play and its inevitable overtaking of the industry, I'm really talking about audience engagement and revenue - I still think we'll see a shift where the majority of people worldwide are playing free-to-play games and generating the majority of the revenue. That doesn't mean a complete eradication of all other business models," he allows, before adding "after all, you can still go into an arcade to play today, and there are still subscription MMOs out there."
"It's more of a proportional argument about market share than absolute ownership. Free-to-play has been, and continues to be, so exciting because it's growing so rapidly. There are still plenty of opportunities, and problems to be solved. That's not the case for traditional packaged goods. It's still a lucrative business, if you're one of the successful companies, but the growth isn't evident."
We chat for a while about the areas which seem off-limits to that proportional increase - the things which don't make sense to be free-to-play. We stick for a while on that bastion of console development, the 20-40 hour narrative game, which Cousins admits would be a tricky model to encase in microtransactions.
"It's certainly an interesting design problem to solve - a time limited experience like that, where you pick it up, play it then put it aside, is rather difficult to do with free-to-play because generally you're generating quite a small amount of money per player per day, so you have to extend that player's play time over a much longer time period than you would with an average packaged goods game. That's why games like Candy Crush have hundreds of levels and games like League of Legends and Clash of Clans can be played forever.
"We're already seeing some successes with single-player free-to-play games, but story-driven is going to be more of a problem unless you find a way to extend that story forever, like a soap opera rather than a stand-alone movie. There's no question that free-to-play can generate enough money to justify a large development budget, so I think there's definitely a gap in the future market for a game that appeals to that player who's looking for a single-player story-driven game, but who doesn't want to spend $60/£40 for a full-priced game."
I'm about to argue that an endless narrative is impossible, that you can't keep people's attention without closure, that there's no way any of the big-name developers who have produced the great narrative-driven games of the last few years would want to work on something so open-ended, but then I remember Ken Levine's talk at this year's GDC...
In that presentation, Levine talked about the possibility of 'narrative LEGO': building blocks of character, which could be 'remixed' to produce endless narrative permutations. I ask Cousins if he thinks that approach could work, and it turns out that he's already been working on a solution.
"The key thing is to reduce the cost of new content to a lower price than it normally is in narrative games," Cousins believes. "Call of Duty, The Last of Us, these are strongly cinematic games, the way that they deliver the story requires voice acting and motion captured animation - specifically built set pieces are very costly. Compare that to the way that content is delivered in the successful free-to-play games, where making a level for Candy Crush, for example, is relatively cheap. You need some kind of systemic approach to creating new content... I guess that's what Ken Levine is talking about there. There's also the potential to be smart in the way that you build your environments and deliver your story so that the expense isn't there.
"Isolani, which Scattered just released, is actually a single-player, story-based free-to-play shooter and we focused a lot on trying to create an environment and story where game content could be created very rapidly. So the environment is sci-fi, modular in construction, so it can be built very quickly. There's no real animated human characters in the world, all narrative is through voices in your head, fighting robots, cut-scenes are kept to a minimum. So those are the ways we looked at potential solutions for that problem, but there's obviously a lot of different ways to do that."
It's in no doubt, then, that Cousins' passion for what he sees as a bright new future remains undiminished. I ask him whether that's ever been called into question, whether he's ever felt like he's been barking up the wrong tree. Even over the phone, Cousins audibly settles into a story he's evidently called upon to retell quite often. He starts by explaining the title of his GDC talk this year - a quote which is often misattributed to Ghandi: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win," a title which Cousins is the first to call "pretentious."
"Having worked in free-to-play since 2006, I've definitely seen us go through this phase when, early on, people didn't even know that it existed," he explains in justification. "I remember when we turned PlayStation Home into a free-to-play experience, that was based on Phil Harrison's trips to Korea and seeing what was happening with Kart Rider. You needed really good contacts to even know this was happening, that the business model even existed.
"My guess is that, around 2017, the global sales for free-to-play games will surpass all of the other models. So that's coming"
"I went to the first microtransaction roundtable at GDC, also in 2006. There were about ten people there - it was a real cottage industry. Two or three people teams making MMOs, people like Daniel James making Puzzle Pirates, early experiences which are still going strong. There was a real ignorance about it, though. Then in 2009 we started to see more high profile products launching. Battlefield Heroes, Farmville etc. Then people started paying attention, but to laugh. They saw these 'simplified', 'cartoonish' versions of games and started suggesting that they wouldn't amount to anything, that they'd never appeal to a discerning audience. There was a lot of scepticism, even in EA at the time about free-to-play. Certainly the press I spoke to around the launch of Battlefield Heroes were questioning whether a free-to-play shooter could ever be a success.
"Now we're at a point where big names are getting involved, and a lot of money is involved and people are reacting. Something people have mocked is getting really big and that threatens people's view of the industry, or even their jobs and the potential success of their products. That makes people concerned. That's been my angle over the last six months to a year - I've seen people go from being dismissive of the model to being a bit more aggressive about it, starting to express concerns. To my mind, those are manufactured concerns, based on the fact that they're uncomfortable with it. These questions about the ethics of the model, the consumer rights of free-to-play, have become important subjects, which they weren't in the past.
"The next phase is the 'then you win.' My guess is that, around 2017, the global sales for free-to-play games will surpass all of the other models, that's hardware and software on console and traditional PC. So that's coming. But we're definitely following this pattern that's been seen in political and economic revolutions in the past."
I try, but it's hard to disagree that free-to-play looks set to become the dominant model, that I'm only going to be typing the phrase more and more frequently. I wonder why I'm even compelled to argue. Professionally my interest lies in what's shaping the market. Personally I've played a lot of free-to-play games, I've enjoyed a lot of free-to-play games, so why do I still feel, deep down in a contrary, slightly bitter way, that I should be angry about them?
"One thing that free-to-play does is put the economic factors, the finance and the monetisation, directly next to the game design," Ben muses when I ask him why the model has seen so much opposition. "The mechanics themselves sit right next to consumers' financial activity. For many developers that's kind of sacrilegious, for them it's not something they ever wanted to do. It's like commercialising a religion, or forcing people to put coins in a slot to see the Mona Lisa. For them that's an aesthetic judgement closely tied to how you define games. If you think of games as art, pure art, which a lot of designers do because they don't really take part in the commercial side of the process, then I think free-to-play can feel very sacrilegious in that sense.
"So there's a bunch of things happening, but really the main driving force is that these games are very successful, making lots of money and being played by millions of people. The profile is rising and that's making them an easy target."
Like social gaming before it, free-to-play is a term which is often closely followed by the words 'bubble' and 'bursting'. With Facebook's gaming traffic almost dead, and Zynga and King's IPOs proving to have been less than explosive, what's to say that free-to-play, especially on mobile, isn't due the same ignominious end?
"People just stopped spending that time on their browsers and started spending it on mobile. This is where Zynga tripped up - they didn't see that transition happening"
"I think if you look at Facebook, what happened there was that, and Facebook acknowledged this, users moved away from using the service on the browser and starting visiting it much more on mobile. They saw a shift in their audience as everyone started to consume much more via native apps on mobile. So I don't think Facebook lost any users, I think people just stopped spending that time on their browsers and started spending it on mobile. Facebook's games were unable to make that transition because there was no way to run Facebook apps on the mobile client.
"This is where Zynga tripped up - they didn't see that transition happening. When we look at the three most successful games on iOS last year, they were all very like Facebook games - Clash of Clans comes from a lineage of Facebook games like Backyard Monsters, Candy Crush is a Facebook game and Hay Day is a super-polished and enhanced version of Farmville. So what I see is that the Facebook gamers have just moved from browser to mobile. A few companies have benefited from that and a few companies, like Zynga, have failed to capitalise on the transition and are left playing catch up.
"For me, unless something comes in and disrupts the mobile as a device - and that may be wearables or something else - I can't see the same kind of drop in engagement which we saw in Facebook games around 2 years ago. There's an idea that mobile is getting more core as the machines get more powerful; I think that's definitely happening. We've seen this on every other platform in history - they start off as kid focused and easy to develop, then they get gradually more and more complex. I think we're seeing that on mobile."
I push him on Zynga and King - companies which are holding the torch for western free-to-play, companies under fire.
"Maybe I'm a bit biased," he admits, "because I'm quite friendly with people who are quite high up in both of those companies...but I think Zynga and King were both over-valued when they were floated, and the market seems to have settled on a lower valuation. If I remember rightly, Zynga's stock has been climbing back up a little. There was a relatively short-lived drop-off just after they floated, but they've completely revolutionised the management team in the company with people like Don Mattrick and Clive Downie, so they're clearly working very hard on trying to revitalise the company.
"Looking at who they're hiring, I think they're probably focusing more on a games industry approach than a web-industry approach. I think what they did previously was try to solve that problem from a web approach, A/B testing, analytics focused - very much driven by user acquisition and lifetime value calculations. I think there are a lot more gaming-experienced people at that company now. I'm quite hopeful for them, but it's going to be difficult playing catch up on mobile. I think they had some poor performance early on with Farmville for tablets. That scared them a little and they lost six months to a year.
"What people don't understand about King...they seem to think that it's a one-hit-wonder. I don't think that's true. If you look at the most recent mobile games, like Papa Pear and Farm Hero Saga, they're monetising very nicely. What they've got is a very clever method of determining what games are going to be a hit. They got an enormous funnel of very cheaply produced browser games on King.com, so they can put a very small amount of investment into a game then see if people are coming back to play that game again and again to see if they have a potential hit or a good core mechanic. Once they have a sure-fire hit they can move it to mobile.
"For me, that methodology should continue to produce hits. It's not a methodology that pivots on one person being a genius or the company getting lucky, it's almost like an industrialised process of finding games that are fun to play. It feels mechanistic but actually produces quality products. I'm actually quite a big fan of Candy Crush, and I'm a fussy match 3 player. I don't always pick up on them - Candy Crush was the first one which grabbed me to that degree since Bejeweled."