In late March, media giant Warner Bros. announced the formation of a new free-to-play studio in San Francisco to be led by former Glu Mobile boss Greg Ballard. While the studio's business will cover the browser-based and social markets, its primary focus initially will be the mobile space. Warner is hoping that Ballard's experience and connections to mobile talent in the San Francisco area will give it an advantage. Unlike some publishers, however, Warner isn't looking to make a huge splash out of the gate. In a recent interview with GamesIndustry International, Ballard explained his new studio's strategy and how Warner views the space.
"It's something that been in the works for some time to open up a San Francisco studio. It just took us a little time to figure out how to connect all the different moving parts, but the idea behind the San Francisco studio is to create a small, but eventually growing development capability to do purpose built free-to-play mobile and browser games, what we refer to as the light freemium category of gaming, but to centralize in this location the publishing for all of the mobile titles throughout the Warner studio empire if you will. And so we'll be doing development of freemium games, publishing all the games, and hiring a staff here in Burbank to pull off the publishing part of it."
Ballard made it very clear that Warner doesn't have massive expectations for the mobile studio just yet. The goal is to publish about two titles a year, Ballard indicated, and we likely won't see the first of those until 2014.
"I think you have to listen to your consumers...We've seen the value of investing in community, even apart from the graphics or anything else you can invest in"
"We're not going to be the size of a Kabam or a Zynga anytime soon. The thing that I've learned about Warner is that resources follow success. What I've told the various folks in Warner is we want to do a couple of titles in 2014 and then a couple more in 2015 and see how the success goes. So we're building the capability to do only a couple titles a year for the first couple of years. So think of it as somewhere between 50 and 100 people over the course of the next couple of years," he explained, referring to anticipated headcount.
"We're not coming in like large companies sometimes do with the announcement 'Back off, everybody. The new winner is here.' That's not the attitude. That's not the way we're approaching it. It's going to be a slow and steady build on our successes sort of business. I think we've learned a lot from watching the other approach, which is to come in all guns blazing, which often doesn't work and alienates people along the way."
We noted to Ballard that mobile definitely hasn't been a core strength for the company, which he said is "fair" but he also pointed out that Warner has been in mobile more on the paymium/premium side for a couple years and "profitability has been substantial." Ballard has been with Warner for about two and a half years, and he told us that he's been pushing for a free-to-play focus for a while now. He also recognizes, however, that it has to be handled in a very careful way. Gamers can push back - they don't want to be nickel and dimed or feel like they're being exploited.
"I think you have to listen to your consumers. One of the things that we believe first and foremost - and I think we've really been pioneering a lot of this at Turbine - is to stay in touch with the community," Ballard stressed. "We've seen the value of investing in community, even apart from the graphics or anything else you can invest in; if you can invest in community and invest in people who are paying attention to the community, who are a part of that community, then you hear those warning signs and you pay attention and have discussions about decisions that you're going to make and how they will affect the community more so than if you're just removed from it, don't care, are not engaged in that community."
"At Turbine, I can't even begin to tell you how many discussions we will have and how high those conversations will go before we take what appears to be a fairly routine decision to do something in the mechanics of the business. We are constantly worrying about how the community will react. Sometimes, because it's a business, you have to do things that the community will have to get used to, but you can pre-sell it to the community, you can post-sell it by explaining it to the community, and you can acknowledge to the community when you've made mistakes," he continued.
Warner Bros. has a good number of popular IP - Batman, Harry Potter, Superman, The Hobbit, to name just a few - but movie licenses or prominent console brands don't necessarily translate well to the mobile world. After all, the most successful games on mobile have been made for mobile, like Angry Birds or Clash of Clans. Ballard fully believes Warner's properties will be a huge asset, but he'd like to create original IP for mobile too.
"The success of Kingdoms of Middle Earth proves to us that big brands can also be successful. The success of that title is, if you look at the underlying metrics, clearly being driven as much by the brand itself as it is by the talent of the Kabam monetization of it. So we really believe the time is right for brands to come into this marketplace, not to supplant the original IP," he said.
Ballard also expects that Warner will look to support its big budget console titles with mobile experiences.
"I hope in my wildest dreams that that could be the beginning of a brand of Warner that trickles up and gets exploited throughout the organization as opposed to one that comes from the movies down"
"We're going to continue to have titles that are associated with the large console titles that we launch. I think those will continue to be successful and I think we'll get better at doing those. One of the observations I had early on at Glu, when the smartphone business was first launched by Apple, was that the console companies actually had an enormous advantage, in the sense that they could create assets that were designed for console and paid for in a console budget, but those assets could then be brought into the smartphone world at a relatively small cost but a much higher quality than somebody that didn't have that asset would be able to create on their own," he said.
"So I could imagine doing something that is similar to something that we're doing on console, but maybe creatively going in an entirely different direction. So there are no constraints on us about creatively what we can do with a brand. But the idea is, at least for a while, to focus on Warner IP."
It may take some time, but what Ballard and Warner would really like to see one day is for one of its mobile properties to become a brand so popular that it can actually move upwards in the company. "At some point we will be doing original IP as well. And I hope in my wildest dreams that that could be the beginning of a brand of Warner that trickles up and gets exploited throughout the organization as opposed to one that comes from the movies down," he said. "That's not our mission in the first couple of titles, but you will see us over time as we're successful doing more of that."
It's early days for Warner in the mobile gaming space, but Ballard is eager to connect with everyone he knows in San Francisco. The location is a crucial element, he believes.
"One of the arguments that I've made internally is that we need to have the capability here, in San Francisco, where 70 percent of the talent and 80 percent of the innovation is taking place because that's how you start to build a presence in the business. Frankly, we have had a number of successes that probably haven't been noticed because we aren't here. Scribblenauts has been downloaded close to 3 million times. It is by any measure a success financially as well as in terms of its penetration. But it's like a tree falling in the forest when nobody is there, or a tree falling in the forest in Los Angeles instead of San Francisco," he said.
"So part of being here is to be part of the community and so that people do know that we're taking it seriously. We also think that there are enormously talented people here that we can tap into, some of whom I've worked with before. So it's an exciting opportunity for me to flex my network and also bring to bear the things that Warner can bring."