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Phoenix Labs' lessons learned from League of Legends

Studio president Jesse Houston wants to leverage experience without banking on it, shares guiding principles shaping his new shop

Last week, a trio of ex-Riot Games developers announced their new Vancouver-based studio, Phoenix Labs, along with a stated desire to focus on AAA multiplayer games. While one might infer that the team is going to make a direct competitor to Riot's hit League of Legends, Phoenix Labs president and co-founder Jesse Houston told GamesIndustry.biz that's not necessarily the case.

For one thing, Houston doesn't want Phoenix Labs to be thought of as a bunch of ex-Riot developers, because it "doesn't necessarily send the right message."

"If we were hunting for how to get EA to take interest or something like that, that would be the way we think about it," Houston said. "Really, the way we're trying to build our studio is find folks who are super culturally aligned, who are senior yet really open to learning, and figuring out how do we change the industry and how we think about making video games as we continue to progress over the years. How do we leverage experience rather than basing ourselves on it?"

"My head has always been in these connected experiences and how great they are... the next generation of games is one where the best experiences will come when players are playing with their friends."

And when it comes to multiplayer online gaming, Houston has plenty of experience to leverage beyond his two-year stint with Riot. While at Ubisoft, Houston worked on the Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six series, both acclaimed for their online play. When he moved to BioWare, he handled cooperative multiplayer in Mass Effect 3.

"My head has always been in these connected experiences and how great they are," Houston said. "I think the next generation of games is one where the best experiences will come when players are playing with their friends."

Whether Phoenix Labs' first game competes with League of Legends or not, Houston said it will reflect some core beliefs he picked up at Riot. Among those is a belief that whatever the business model of his next game winds up being, it will serve the game rather than drive it.

"Whatever makes most sense for the experience we end up coming up with, what ultimately feels really good, will be the one we go with," Houston said. "There are pros and cons to all monetization models. I don't think it's quite binary, or trinary. Subscription, boxed product, and free-to-play aren't the only real payment methods that are acceptable to me. There are others out there, but I don't know what we'll do yet because it's got to fit."

Another lesson from previous employers that Houston has taken to heart is the player-first mentality. Whatever decisions were made at Riot and BioWare, Houston said the guiding principle was always the question of how to best serve the players.

"Subscription, boxed product, and free-to-play aren't the only real payment methods that are acceptable to me."

"The key thing to remember is the communities of gamers--especially those who self-identify as gamers--those folks are your core customer, for lack of a better way of saying it," Houston said. "They are the most important thing you can solve for. Keeping them exceptionally close, and keeping the relationship of trust with that group is the most important thing an organization can do...Every company makes mistakes, so it's never perfect. But keeping that focus is the most important thing I got from them for sure."

One thing Houston is less likely to emulate about BioWare and Riot is the scale of their operations. Whatever style of game Phoenix Labs ultimately pursues will impact its headcount, but Houston said he's determined to keep the shop "reasonably sized."

"We want to try and do with 20-40 what teams of 100 normally can do," Houston said. "That's the current thought process, but we'll see what the game demands. Ultimately our belief is if you hire a team of badass ninjas and you empower them to really kick ass and take names, they by themselves are able to deliver so much more than they would in an environment where there are 300 folks, where you lose a lot of momentum to alignment, and stuff like that."

Another focus for the studio is creating a game with global appeal, something that isn't just targeted at audiences in North America and Europe.

"One of the things that is similar amongst gamers universally is they like great games," Houston said. "And I think being able to create a great game for a global audience is the way to go, so whichever publishers we end up creating a relationship with will need to be able to have a degree of reach globally. I don't want to leave out all the awesome Turkish players or Brazilian players or Chinese players."

That goes beyond simply translating games into the local language. Houston also talked about avoiding characteristics that simply aren't palatable for certain audiences, or for which they have no point of reference. For example, characters with only four fingers don't work well in Japan, while an Old West setting loses some appeal if the audience isn't familiar with 1800s America. But how does a developer located in a single city transcend its own culture and understand what works for all audiences?

"For us to get into the marketplace, we don't have to bump out random game X. It doesn't work that way."

"That's the rub," Houston said. "So we have a theory, and now we need to figure out how to get down that path. And it's not to say I don't know. It's more to say that's going to be one of the biggest, hardest challenges for us, or any game developer. How do we create really relevant stuff for an audience we don't necessarily represent?"

For the moment, Phoenix Labs is being self-financed. The studio hasn't settled on going the venture capital route just yet, but Houston said he's not planning to use crowdfunding, and sounded unlikely to pursue alpha-funding or Early Access models, either. While the advent of alternative funding has been exceptionally good for the industry as a whole, Houston said, he's concerned about developers becoming reliant on Kickstarter. If they crowdfund a game that isn't a breakout hit, there isn't enough money coming in after a game's launch to fund the next project, leaving developers in the same financial situation that prompted the Kickstarter route in the first place. As for Early Access, Houston said he wants players to check out the game early enough that they can influence development, but not so early that they don't have a great experience playing it for the first time.

Even if funding might be a little easier to come by in the mobile market, Houston's convinced that there's still plenty of growth to be found in online PC gaming. But that's not the only reason Phoenix Labs is focusing its efforts on multiplayer PC titles.

"There isn't really a relationship between high-fidelity or high quality products and tight-knit communities in the mobile space," Houston said. "In the PC space or in the console space as well, there's still a really great relationship between players who buy games that are great and who buy a lot of games. I believe the industry as a whole is still very much not one of scarcity, but one where if we make a really great product for a community that really believes in it, they're going to buy it. And they're going to buy everybody else's game too. For us to get into the marketplace, we don't have to bump out random game X. It doesn't work that way."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.