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MMO Week: Joe Ybarra and Rod Nakamoto

The industry legends talk to about the philosophy behind their latest venture, the publisher FireSky

Last month a new publishing company, FireSky, was formed as a subsidiary of Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment, the company also developing the forthcoming MMO based on the popular sci-fi TV series Stargate Worlds. The company will also publish a number of other titles, as well as a special platform called Social Networks At Play (SNAP), which the company believes will bring gaming and social networking together.

Continuing the MMO Week series, talked to two of the company's figureheads - industry veterans Joe Ybarra and Rod Nakamoto - talk about their plans, the concept of mass-market, and the future of content distribution. You say you're going to go above and beyond the traditional relationships between MMO publishers and their customers, so what will that entail?
Rod Nakamoto

I think you have to understand the philosophy and vision behind what we're trying to create here. I think you're starting to see a trend where companies like MySpace and Facebook are trying to add more entertainment value to their sites and present them to the consumer.

And you're also seeing portals like Pogo trying to add social networking components, but while we all want to be seamless to the consumer, the fact of the matter is that it's a very complex set of things that have to be put together, in order for it to be seamless.

A lot of that comes from our idea of having a theme park which is anchored by a major attraction - and Stargate Worlds is one of those anchors for our virtual theme park.

The great part of it is that while you're in the theme park you can do a lot of other things, and we've put together a lot of different layers to allow continuity between the different products that are available within the theme park. Everything from economy, to the avatars, to a way of experiencing your friend's networks, and all of the things that your individual friends like to see without having to force them to participate in the same game.

There's a lot of thought being put behind this in the way that it's presented to the consumer, and the way that we want to maintain them as part of the environment. So on the one end there are the social networks, on the other something like World of Warcraft, and you're trying to bring both ends together?
Joe Ybarra

I think that would be a good way to look at it, but another component in the way you're describing it is important - that we also intend to deliver products that are very different from MMOs but still have an online component, that still widens our audience and brings in different types of gamers besides just the MMO players.

So it gives us an opportunity to do quite a few different things, and one of the things that's exciting is that as we start to deploy this we'll see new things emerge that we'll be able to take advantage of, because our business is all focused entirely on this one application. So if Stargate Worlds is a starting point, what are the next steps?
Rod Nakamoto

The next step is something that we call Project Ascension, and that is an application that embraces the SNAP philosophy. It's an application that allows for the integration of different types of online entertainment that we are presenting, and I think we'll start to see all of these components come online and have a formidable presence in next three to five years, as the additional products that we have under development also start to come online. What sort of cost levels are we talking about? It's not a cheap undertaking.
Joe Ybarra

Joe and I between us have about fifty years of experience in the games industry...we've learnt how to spend money very well, and we enjoy the process... [laughs].

But I think we're very selective about what we're doing and how we're doing it, and a lot of that is driven by the vision that we have to make all this stuff happen, and to reach the consumers that we need to reach.

Because it's all there - all the data is there. You see low-cost computers being made available to people who were never able to afford computers, you see a greater broadband accessibility - and this has created an entirely different type of consumer, who doesn't frequent the brick and mortar retail stores to buy entertainment. They buy it online, and we recognise that.

Plus we believe we can put something together that not only attracts them, but maintains them. Where's the backing for this coming from?
Joe Ybarra

The chairman of the board of our company, Gary Whiting, is responsible for the funding of our organisation, and he has a team of people who are basically raising capital full time.

What's been remarkable about what they've been able to accomplish is that we've been funded entirely by individuals, and we've had quite a few of them, quite a few investors that have put money into our organisation, and it's exciting - we have a wide range of people that are involved. People seem to understand and are more ready to invest in a gaming environment now - has it reached a new level?
Joe Ybarra

I think so, and the other interesting thing about the way that we've implemented this practice is that the model is very similar to movie production in the way that they're funded, and the cache that people attach to it.

To go to your point, it's just as exciting an investment for an individual now to money into the games business as it is to put it in movies, and I think in some cases it's more exciting - because some of our investors play the games, and they want to be part of that. People look at the similarities between games and films, and wonder whether videogames can be classed as mass-market - what are your thoughts?
Joe Ybarra

I think the best way to look at it is that the IP for Stargate Worlds was originally a television series, and what's really interesting about working on a TV-based property, especially with Stargate, is the fact that it's an ongoing production and the mentality that they take towards creating the show is very similar to that which we take when building a game.

Then of course post-launch we intend to produce incremental content on a regular basis very much like television programming - so from a development standpoint the two models are almost exactly the same.

I think what's also interesting is that the audiences that consume these products, both from TV with respect to science-fiction programming and gaming, is the same. As we refine our processes, as we start to look into the future of how we can make that relationship between television and gaming even closer than we've accomplished already, that's a really exciting aspect of our business. Yet the biggest game in the genre came from another videogame originally, while MMOs based on hugely popular franchises haven't made a significant dent on WoW - what do you take from that?
Joe Ybarra

Well, the first thing that you said there about original IP - it really is the case here for us that we do intend to make original IP for ourselves, that we'll be able to deploy through the FireSky publishing label.

But if you compare the other types of products, one of the things you have to recognise, being in the games business, is that the one thing we have to produce is a great game - and it really doesn't matter what the property or subject matter is, we have to deliver to the customer a great game.

If you take that attitude, and turbo-charge it by adding a really terrific property to the idea, then you end up with something that we believe will be pretty magical. I think that's the procedure that we certainly evolved at the beginning in starting Stargate Worlds as part of our responsibility here.

We're a company filled with gamers, and we have a passion for making great games, and we've given them the tools and processes necessary to deliver something really elegant - so my personal feeling is that I'd be proud to ship this game even if it wasn't Stargate Worlds! Boxed product has matured, but how far along do you think we are with online distribution of content?
Joe Ybarra

Oh I don't think we're anywhere close to being at full maturity. One of the interesting challenges that we have with Stargate Worlds from a content distribution system is the fact that because we're giving the user a high quality experience, the size of the project is fairly substantial.

So in terms of ease of use for our customers, we could distribute it electronically, but we're talking a lot of content here - it could be hours before you actually get the build. So for us we feel that the retail component continues to be one of the vehicles that we'll use to get the product into customers' hands.

Longer term though, as you're alluding to, as broadband continues to increase its penetration and become increasingly more powerful, then pushing the amount of data we're talking about here becomes less and less of a problem for our customers.

In terms of the economics of that, they're pretty reasonable as they are today - so the question isn't so much one of a business issue, it's one of accessibility.

Joe Ybarra is senior VP of strategic operations and Rod Nakamoto is senior VP of product development for FireSky. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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