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Prime Numbers

Monumental's Mike Cox on middleware opportunities for online social gaming

Mike Cox has worked in the games business for sometime, founding Audiomotion, working as a producer for Electronic Arts, establishing Czech studio Vatra for Kuju and selling middleware at Emergent. It’s the last role that has set him in good stead for a business development role at UK studio Monumental Games, as he begins to sell new MMO engine Prime.

Here, in an exclusive interview with GamesIndustry.biz, Cox talks us through the transition from development studio to service provider, the growth and challenges of online markets for independent developers, his thoughts on mergers and acquisitions in the social space, and opportunities in web games.

GamesIndustry.biz Can you just begin by telling us how you got involved with Monumental, and your role there?
Mike Cox

I’ve known Rik Alexander [Monumental CEO] for ages and he’s always had interesting tech that he’s flirted with releasing outside of the company. So my role was to come in as someone who knows middleware and take the Monumental tech and see if there’s a market for it. And I was surprised when I got there at how much they’ve got. They genuinely to do have the world’s first commercially available, browser-based 3D MMO engine.

GamesIndustry.biz That’s quite a mouthful. And a bit of a stretch to be honest…
Mike Cox

Obviously Unity has got a 3D browser-based engine, but it’s not dedicated to MMOs. Unity is great but if you want to use it for MMO stuff you’ve got to write all your own front and back end code. It’s not a trivial task, it’s possible, but it’s a big job. The advantage of Prime is that it’s all built in. You can effectively plug it straight into Facebook or whatever browser based application you want to use and the MMO functionality is already there.

GamesIndustry.biz Is it pretty niche? That’s got to be a niche market at this point…
Mike Cox

It’s a niche market at the moment but its growing, definitely. As online games become more social and more and more people interact with each other, there’s this situation we’ve got at the moment where you think you’re interacting with your friends on Frontierville but actually you’re not. You can see the consequences of their actions, which is great, but you can’t interact in real-time with them apart from chat in a little box. What Prime offers is the ability to interact in an MMO with 3D models in real-time. The games that it can create look a lot more like traditional 3D games than you’d expect. In terms of numbers, we’re looking at LPSW - Light Persistent State Worlds - we’re not talking World of Warcraft. We’re thinking that in each section of our world you’ll get between 2000 - 3000 players. It’s still a hell of a lot, and it feels like an MMO. It’s not as vast but in reality the database can handle hundreds of thousands of people.

The key thing that appeals to me as an ex studio head is the small amount of resources you need to get something up and running. All the tools are there, all of the pipeline is there, effectively all you are doing is adding content, and that’s relatively easy to do. You just export your geometry and you’ve got world creation tools that come with the software and literally within a day you can have something up and running. And then it’s a matter of finessing it and adding more content. We’re aiming it at developers who like the idea of getting into the social online gaming space but haven’t really done it before because they’re from a more traditional PC or console background, and they don’t want to invest the time in creating their own tools. Especially if they haven’t been in this space before because they won’t know what tools they need, and they are also looking to rapidly prototype.

GamesIndustry.biz Do you have the support network already in place? Because now you’re providing a service to other developers I’d imagine that’s a whole new business division for Monumental.
Mike Cox

One of the transitions that Monumental is going to have to make is the move from being a straight forward developer - we care about our staff and our games - to actually supporting lots of external companies, some of which may not even be in the same time zone as us. We already have an internal support system but that will have to be amended to be able to handle multiple calls and priorities. We have a whole ramp up plan to go from internal to external.

GamesIndustry.biz How quickly do you see that happening?
Mike Cox

From now through to the next six months. What we’re saying to our very early adopters is that they are coming on this ride with us, here are the tools, they work and we’ll probably go the extra nine yards initially to get it all set up for you and get extra people on site. That’s why I’m being careful about who we initially let it go to. We’re looking at friendly developers who we know are interested in this and effectively heavily discounting it initially to get people on board.

There’s no point in trying to cover this up, it’s the first time we’ve moved in to middleware. But we’ve been clients of middleware before and we’ve had a lot of experience so we know what’s expected. It’s not that frightening and the tools are very stable, they’ve been developed over 3-4 years. The things we’re going to have to cater to are other people’s demands and there will be some surprises.

GamesIndustry.biz You’ll be able to see how different people use your tech, which should be interesting…
Mike Cox

The biggest thing we have to sort out immediately, and we’re on top of it, is the documentation. There’s lot of it and it’s spread all over our servers and not in an indexable form, so we’ve just hired a technical author to get that as it should be.

GamesIndustry.biz Have developers signed on the dotted line to buy Prime yet?
Mike Cox

No one has signed on the dotted line because the people who have been looking at it are friendly developers. I’m expecting to announce shortly our first five developers who are using it for real projects. What I’m looking for on that are a diverse number of projects. We’ve shown it around and the response has been excellent. What I really want to do is pick four or five developers who are going to use it fully and make really good games and different types of games so we can use them as examples of what Prime can achieve.

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Matt Martin

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Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.