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NCsoft's Jeremy Gaffney

On subs versus free-to-play, managing the MMO lifecycle and the future for massively multiplayer

Jeremy Gaffney is one of granddaddies of the MMO industries, having helped found Turbine as it broke online ground with Asheron's Call, pitching in on the still-unreleased Ultima Online 2 at EA, and then bringing to bear the likes of City of Heroes and Richard Garriot's Tabula Rasa at NCsoft. Now, he heads up Carbine Studios, owned by NCsoft West, on a project which has remained publicly mysterious since Carbine's founding in 2007.

Here, GamesIndustry.biz chats to the executive producer about why games execs ideally need development experience, the ongoing debate between free-to-play and subscription-based MMOs, whether the genre can move to mobile and console, whether it's still possible to have a huge MMO launch in a post-Warcraft world, and why he could never have predicted the current face of the industry back when he was working on Asheron's Call in the early 1990s.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat are your specific responsibilities now? Are you purely heading up Carbine or are you back calling shots at NCsoft too?
Jeremy Gaffney

Right now I'm purely Carbine, the executive producer for this studio, I basically run this whole development team. Historically I used to run product development for NCsoft in North America as a whole, so I've had the global responsibilities as well, but I took a year off and went to the team that I thought was coolest when I came back.

GamesIndustry.bizDevelopment's your preference, then? You've switched in and out of that and exec positions in the past, haven't you?
Jeremy Gaffney

Yeah, I was at Turbine for a while - founded that back in 1993, 1994, took a year off before going to EA Origin to work on Ultima Online 2, then worked on NCsoft for six or seven years before taking a year off then coming to my current gig. I highly recommend taking a year off every now and again, because if you stop playing games because you're too busy working you fall directly out of contact with things. Similarly, the longer it's been since you worked on one game the easier it is to become a dumb exec who doesn't know what's going on. It's good to get back into development every now and again.

GamesIndustry.bizHow much do you feel that's a problem across the industry - execs who don't really have too much game design knowledge?
Jeremy Gaffney

If you don't know if your own game is good you're going to be in trouble. It's very important if you're a dog food company to eat one's own dog food, and if you're a game company you'd better be a gamer.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat kind of potential oversights were you able to correct when you were an exec, which you might not have been had you not also been a designer?

The longer it's been since you worked on one game the easier it is to become a dumb exec who doesn't know what's going on.

Jeremy Gaffney

The interesting part of being an exec in this space is being able to see so many games. Obviously NCsoft is a very powerful company globally, and so when game companies want to go into the Korean market or the other Asian territories, we're one of the first companies they come to. Similarly we have very strong presences in Europe and the US, and so you get to see a lot of your competitor products. When you want to hit those territories, we're a very good company to come to - we're obviously a very cash rich company, we're a great place to come to for funding, and so there's a really nice mix of being able to see very blue-sky projects and seeing established projects from other teams who want to hit new markets. You really get a good swathe of the industry that you get to check out all at once. So that's the real benefit of being that kind of global exec. As a gamer, especially if you're looking at blue-sky projects in particular, it's very easy to make a Powerpoint. Knowing how much of that Powerpoint is going to turn into an interesting game over time is an art, not a science. No amount of focus testing or market research is really going to get you there versus knowing what makes a good game and getting a sense from the people working on it that they have the right things it takes to make a great development team.

GamesIndustry.bizAre you thinking purely with your dev hat on at Carbine?
Jeremy Gaffney

We have a more global mindset as we're not just thinking about development; we're also thinking about the business models, we're thinking about the interesting things we can do, not just as gamers but also in terms of hitting new markets, doing unusual business models. But the game comes first - 'good games sell' is not a bad way to run your business. So we concentrate first on foremost on it's got to be a great game, and the rest follows.

GamesIndustry.bizWill your project continue the regular NCsoft philosophy of targeting the East initially and then adapting as considered necessary for Western audiences?
Jeremy Gaffney

We're strong believers at NCsoft that you really need to hit your local territory first, because you understand it the best. Then when there's opportunities to go global... Because we're all geeks, we're all gamers. You go to Korea and the heads of NCsoft there are also gamers, they play your game and they can tell you very rapidly 'hey, we think this is going to appeal, we think this other thing is not going to appeal.' Having that sort of network of gamers throughout our exec team really helps us to be able to make these sort of calls on a global basis. But as a gamer, worry about your own territory first and then the more global you can go the better.

GamesIndustry.bizDo you have to make pretty sweeping changes to what your doing, in terms of both business model and design, based on how rapidly and dramatically the MMO industry is changing?
Jeremy Gaffney

We have a mix, I think, of really sticking to your guns and thinking "hey, we think this idea is great regardless of where the market goes - it's going to be worth doing this" and being flexible enough to say "hey...." When you have an MMO, and the fastest they ever come out is every three or four years, and on average that's maybe six years, seven years for most of the big titles. So if you need some flexibility, say as the market changes to adapt to it... The overall precepts are kind of timeless in that good games sell. A good thing now is that even if a competitor is doing something similar, if you're doing it well... There's so many moving parts in an MMO that you get your core straight and then a lot of the details can follow or adapt. That core has to be fixed, it has to stay put through a lone development cycle.

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Alec Meer


A 10-year veteran of scribbling about video games, Alec primarily writes for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, but given any opportunity he will escape his keyboard and mouse ghetto to write about any and all formats.