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Shining Example

Seven Lights boss Tim Harris on the company's plans to bridge the gap between strategy games and MMOs.

Last November, Chicago studio Seven Lights unveiled plans for its first game - The Continuum, an online strategy title with MMORPG elements. In this interview, company co-founder and CEO Tim Harris discusses the title's unusual payment model and Seven Lights's plans to introduce a new genre to gaming.'s different about Seven Lights? What makes you stand out as a developer?

Tim Harris: We want to take all the great things happening in the MMORPG realm and all the great things happening in the digital goods realm, and combine them in the strategy genre.

So I think the difference is the blend of elements which we're putting into our games, coupled with a great deal of player customisation and control over the way the game develops. We're introducing our first gaming experience on the web so we can mould and edit and morph and introduce new content almost on a real time basis.

How exactly will it work - will the game be downloadable?

Actually it will be playable in your browser. Our first game, The Continuum, will be an online collectible war game with a very heavy dose of RPG in the backend. I don't mean a heavy dose from a gameplay standpoint; it's turn-based strategy, and it will be very familiar to strategy game players.

You'll have a persistent collection of characters associated with your account - maybe five, maybe 250. Each time you use them in battle, they will develop as if in an RPG. So on an ongoing basis, you can develop every character in your army.

How will players pay for this?

Primarily it will be on a per character basis. You'll buy a pack of characters much as you'd buy a pack of collectible cards for a trading game, or a pack of miniatures. You won't know what you're getting and the characters will range in rarity.

However, we will be offering subscription-based payment on a higher level for those players who want new characters and extra goodies every month.

Would you say this is a tried and trusted business model?

Over in Asia there's plenty of this, and we're really taking a leaf out of their book with the digital goods scenario. The difference is that the digital goods aren't static, as they tend to be in Asia - they're dynamic.

The difference with what we're doing is that you and I could get the same character out of the box and develop them in totally different ways. I might go for strength and speed, whereas you might go for magic or hit points.

Why follow this strategy? Why not opt for, say, the hugely successful World of Warcraft subscription model?

We're all huge fans of the games that are out there, from subscription to analogue hobby games. We found that when we wanted to purchase games and content we wanted a scaleable model, rather than the gym membership-style subscription which is happening in MMORPGs. I've level capped in some of those games and then forgotten about the subscription, and just like the gym you're paying for it whether you use it or not.

For us, it's more about a feeling of ownership for the players. Instead of purchasing the game, which is free, you're buying stuff in the game, which is stuff you're really going to feel you have ownership of. Then if you stop playing, you're not getting charged.

As companies like yours get more involved with digital distribution, do you think high street retailers will suffer?

I don't think we've yet moved into a scenario where people either buy digitally or from retailers - people are doing both. Will there be an effect, and will it be detrimental? Yes, I think it will be, but I don't think it will be catastrophic. Digital and traditional retail will continue to be robust.

What are your plans for the mobile platform?

Continuum 1.0, which is purely web based, is only the first window into the Seven Lights World. Further iterations will move on to downloadable clients for PC and then directly on to mobile.

Everything going on in the economy and game world of The Continuum is to do with transactions - you can trade and auction and do all sorts of things with the characters and the equipment you own within the game.

The mobile section of this is twofold. Firstly, we're going to facilitate trading, matchmaking guild type decisions in the mobile space. But we're also going to have a series of casual games based around the core Continuum experience, and some of those will be on mobile.

So while you won't be able to play the grand turn-based strategy game on mobile, you'll find you can play a quick puzzle or action game that's to do with the plot. You can use your characters in these casual games and they will develop.

What's you view on the mobile gaming market in general at the moment?

We have very strong opinions on what the mobile space is good for and what it isn't. In the US, that has a lot to do with carrier issues, and we're far behind Asia and Europe in terms of mobile phone capabilities.

We've seen a lot of companies try to export their IPs into the mobile space, and with things like Splinter Cell, the mobile phones simply aren't ready for that kind of experience. I think what publishers should do, and what we're trying to do, is facilitate their grander games via snack-sized experiences which aren't trying to be the game itself.

What about other platforms? Will The Continuum appear on consoles?

Yes. The time is right for an independent developer to come out and do a web based world class game in a very interesting way. Is the time right to do that on an Xbox 360 or PS3? It might be a little premature.

We're obviously very encouraged by the kind of strides which Microsoft has made with XBLA and the way they're setting up their online facilities, because The Continuum is the kind of experience which will fit right in with that.

There's still a great deal of mystery around what Sony is doing and what their service will ultimately offer. We got a glimpse after the launch of PS3 but I don't think we've seen the full service yet.

The point is, once these guys have got their online services together it will be the perfect time for something like The Continuum to cross over onto one of those platforms.

Do you think that Sony has a long way to go with its online service?

I don't think there are any questions about whether Microsoft has done a bang up job with its online services, so as of today they have a significant lead.

The question comes down to whether Sony will organise its services in such a way that it can compete. We certainly saw with PS2 that not enough companies have the resources to create their own online services.

I think Sony has really got its work cut out in terms of building a really robust online service around the PS3 that's easy for developers to use, and provides additional revenue opportunities for them from downloadable content and episodic games. So yes, they have a little ways to go to catch up.

What does the future hold for Seven Lights? Where would you like the company to be in five years' time?

The vision for Seven Lights is no less than to create the next big genre in games. What we want to do, in North America and eventually globally, is to bring all these wonderful experiences which people are having in MMOs to other genres.

For us it's about building original IP from the ground up that start in a player-created, customised and controlled way, and ultimately form into the next big genres that show up in movies and comic books and what have you from a multimedia standpoint.

So while we are starting in games with all our IPs, the ultimate vision is of a world which is a living, breathing entity that will eventually find its way into many other media. The first two issues of our Continuum comic book series have already been published, and what happens in the online storyline will start to drive what's happening in the comics. Players will be able to directly affect what's happening in them from a character standpoint, from a battleground standpoint and in terms of the storyline.

Tim Harris is co-founder and CEO of Seven Lights. Interview by Ellie Gibson.

Ellie Gibson avatar

Ellie Gibson


Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.