The first time Dusty Welch worked with Vince Zampella, they produced the Call of Duty franchise. Now the pair are reuniting, as Zampella's Respawn Entertainment today announced that it has brought Welch on board as its new COO.
Welch told GamesIndustry International his core focus in his new role will be on corporate and product strategy. In addition to planning and building for the growth of the studio, he'll be leading the studio's publishing (PR, marketing, community) efforts. As for the situation he's stepping into, Welch obviously sees it as an attractive one.
"I think Titanfall has positioned Respawn incredibly well," Welch said. "Titanfall, at least in our viewpoint, really is the success of the next-gen cycle. It's the no.1 new IP [in the first quarter of 2014], the best-selling game through the first quarter of NPD data. And I think that's really, really hard to do for a mature company, let alone a start-up."
Welch and Zampella are best known for their work on traditional core gaming experiences like Call of Duty and Titanfall, but it's clear that they also share aspirations in non-traditional segments of the market. Zampella recently unveiled co-founded mobile game studio Nuclear Division, while Welch spent three years starting up the now-defunct U4iA Games, the free-to-play studio behind the mobile first-person shooter Offensive Combat.
"I do see opportunities for [AAA] products to really usher in a focus on engagement and retention. I think that's an important element that is currently missed by consoles and by console makers."
While Respawn isn't about to abandon the console market, elements from mobile and free-to-play can already be seen in its approach to Titanfall. Welch pointed to the team's current focus on providing ongoing free updates for the game, including new content and game modes.
"You can think about it as us dabbling in that software-as-a-service or live ops type of business model," Welch said. "We're providing ongoing content. We're reading the tea leaves, if you will, with player engagement, and then reacting to that on more of a monthly basis than the daily basis you'd find at a Zynga or a Riot... I do see opportunities for [AAA] products to really usher in a focus on engagement and retention. I think that's an important element that is currently missed by consoles and by console makers. And it's something that if no one else does, I can say it's something we're going to focus on."
The games-as-a-service approach is still evolving, Welch said, and developers are just beginning to explore it as a new market space. That process will take years to complete, and until that happens, smart companies need to spend their time understanding what works well from a consumer engagement standpoint. Despite his enthusiasm for the free-to-play and mobile space, Welch doesn't see them as replacing $60 retail games like Titanfall.
"We whole-heartedly believe in the consistent future value of big AAA HD products, and that includes Titanfall and games like EA, Activision, and some of the other giants are making," Welch said. "But of course we're not immune to where the industry is experiencing new growth or emerging business models."
That means free-to-play, mobile companion apps, and explosive growth in the Asian gaming industry are all likely to influence Respawn's future in some form.
"I think we'll kind of have a blend here going forward of the big huge products, and I wouldn't be surprised if over the course of time--and no bet on when that is--we embrace some of these other business areas and business models," Welch said. "There's no doubt about that."
Even if the industry does tilt toward user engagement and long-term retention, Welch believes some realities of the traditional retail environment will endure. Holidays will always be a prime launch window for new games--Welch said Titanfall could arguably have done better as a Q4 release--and having "big launches will still be crucial for Respawn.
"I think for us, and with our partner at EA, still offering a traditional, AAA, massive blockbuster-type launch is really important," Welch said. "I think it's healthy for the industry. I'm a former marketer by trade, so I love what you can do and how you can communicate to audiences on a global basis efficiently, effectively, and quickly with a huge launch campaign, how you can talk to potential new users. I think that's really valuable for marquee AAA products, and I don't see that going away anytime soon."
"Our biggest obstacle as we go forward isn't to think about additional products; it's how we identify and onboard the right talent."
But with Titanfall already on shelves and its next game not yet announced, Welch says Respawn's biggest challenge lies elsewhere.
"Our biggest obstacle as we go forward isn't to think about additional products; it's how we identify and onboard the right talent," Welch said. "I'll tell you unabashedly that we're looking."
Welch put the company headcount around 100 at the moment, with 6-10 open positions on its website updated monthly. And while the studio is desperate to find the right talent, it would rather go without than to bring on the wrong talent.
"I think this team has generally done more with less," Welch said. "There's no steadfast number we have to hire to. It really comes down to the quality of the individual plus did they share that same commitment and vision we have to the player and the gameplay feeling. And if they have that, we find we can do significantly more with significantly fewer resources."
That's a luxury not every young studio has, as Welch no doubt knows well from his run with U4iA.
"Having left the nest of Activision where it was safe and comfortable and started my own free-to-play company, I would certainly say it's more challenging to be a start-up in the gaming space than it was even three years ago," Welch said. "Maybe part of that is due to the lack of investment nature that you find. I think Zynga going public and then experiencing significant challenges in their portfolio and financial challenges really upset the investment market from a [venture capitalist] perspective."
With multiple mobile studios waning or going out of business in the last few years, Welch said venture capitalists have grown to see the gaming industry as "yesterday's news." And even though Oculus has raised eyebrows with its $2 billion acquisition by Facebook, he views the perceived value of that purchase as driven by non-gaming activities. Even so, the situation isn't completely hopeless. King is still down from its initial public offering, but hasn't become a cautionary tale on par with Zynga, while some other up and coming players in mobile gaming could yet bring new life to the field.
"If one day we were to see something like a Kixeye or Kabam trying to go public, then that would be renewed evidence of strength and power in capital markets aiming for the gaming sector," Welch said.