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Brink developer's next moves: Free-to-play publishing, backend support

Brink studio Splash Damage has unveiled big plans to Gamasutra for the future of the company, as it attempts to achieve vertical integration through the founding of two new companies.

Mike Rose, Blogger

April 19, 2012

11 Min Read

Brink studio Splash Damage has unveiled big plans to Gamasutra for the future of the company, as it attempts to achieve vertical integration through the founding of two new companies. The company also revealed that it is planning a studio-wide transition to Unreal, marking the first time in 10 years that Splash Damage has not used id Software technology for a project. WarChest is a brand new video games publisher founded by Splash Damage, while Fireteam is the company's own online services operator. Through this trio of outfits, Splash Damage is now looking to fund, develop, operate and publish its own free-to-play games, as well as titles from outside developers. Fireteam will supply developers with third-party integrations from backend support, while WarChest will handle the promotion and operation of online games, with the overall goal to offer gamers connected online experiences that are both high-quality and free-to-play. Gamasutra visited the Splash Damage headquarters in London, UK, last week to talk to company CEOs Paul Wedgwood and Richard Jolly about the move, and what we can expect for the future of the service. Splash Damage and vertical integration "You have this market of gamers, whether they're playing on iPhones or on PCs, who for most part are being exploited by absolute free-to-play crap through compulsion loop mechanics, paywalls and pay-to-win strategies which serve nobody well," begins Wedgwood. "To our mind, that's where video gaming has just become a science rather than an art - and that's a bit sad and a bit of a shame." "But it doesn't matter," he continues, "because good quality games will overcome that kind of thing in the long run - it always does. People tried in the early goldrushes when consoles first came out to put out lots and lots of crap. When the PC first became a legitimate gaming platform, supermarkets and petrol stations were full of rubbish PC games. So we're kind of used to that idea." "But about a year ago, we started to realize that there was this potential to achieve vertical integration as a company - to be the funder, creator, developer, operator, perhaps even the publisher of content that we created." This is what led to both Fireteam and WarChest coming into existence, and Splash Damage's call-to-arms for free-to-play games that are both high-quality and non-exploitative. "It's an interesting opportunity, because there are games that we'd like to make, where we'd like to risk our own money making them, that wouldn't necessarily fit the traditional publishing model of a massive AAA console game publisher," he explains. "So there's both an opportunity for us to create stuff that is really good quality that we really love making that isn't exploitative free-to-play crap, but at the same time to produce the types of games that large publishers wouldn't option - they simply wouldn't be the kinds of things that they'd want to make. Perhaps because the kind of money that they'd make wouldn't be enough to turn their lights on." Wedgwood is well aware of the general musings of the gaming public and press over where free-to-play games are headed. "Everyone's asking the free-to-play market, 'OK, if free-to-play is the future, where's your billion dollar game then?' -- and it's a valid argument to put forward." "Luckily, we don't need a billion dollars to turn the lights on at Splash Damage. In fact, we just want to be able to pay staff rent! So there are lots of fantastic opportunities that come out of that model." Wedgwood mentions "vertical integration" numerous times during our chat, as Splash Damage attempts to control all areas of game development and publishing. He claims, "we don't think has been done before in Europe, and certainly is completely new as an idea in the West." Fireteam and connected game experiences Fireteam is the first pillar in this new approach. A small team of just over half-a-dozen staffers, the studio was actually soft-revealed last month, although Splash Damage did not at the time say its exact connection with the new outfit, simply stating that it was partnering with Fireteam. This was because the company wanted to wait until the announcement of WarChest before revealing its master plan fully -- Fireteam's single office is, in fact, just off from the Splash Damage entrance hall. With Fireteam, Splash Damage intends to sell online services to video game publishers to operate connected game experiences, as well as providing the same services for WarChest's operations. Wedgwood goes as far as to say that Fireteam has already signed its first deal with a big-name publisher -- although he wouldn't reveal which, stating simply, "it's massive." "We're talking about games as a service," he notes. "Rather than developing games purely for their first week, we think about long-term player engagement, not just for a couple of months, but for 2-5 years, and we can continue to serve that community post-release." Coupled with this idea of long-term engagement, Fireteam is also focused on "connected game experiences" -- another phrase that Wedgwood lavishes on the project, stating that this is one of the most important objectives of the entire operation. "You'll have seen this recently with games like Mass Effect 3 -- we really think that the future of video game development and content marketing is going to rely on you being able to take a general idea for a universe and bring it to lots of different platforms so people can enjoy it in different ways and at different times," he says. "It's frustrating to be obsessed with a fantastic free-to-play game on PC, and then not be able to do anything when you're on your iPhone, or in a browser, and so on." Wedgwood says it's appropriate to call Fireteam a "very Steam-like platform," adding with a grin, "although it's completely white-label and not like Steam at all." Fireteam came from the company's desire to have a reliable online services provider that didn't get bought up every few years. "Splash Damage has, for the past five or six years, integrated its multiplayer game with other online service providers," he continues. "First we worked with Demonware, but they were bought by Activision, and that now powers everything to do with Call of Duty. Then we worked briefly with Quazal, and they were bought by Ubisoft, and now power everything to do with Ubisoft backend stuff. And then we worked with Agora, and they were bought by Major League Gaming." This waterfall effect led Splash Damage to realize that "the best way to do that was to start that company and control it completely ourselves." "In essence, Fireteam is an online services provider for video games, that has all of the backend work that insures the servers are up, content distribution is available, player stats, profiles, storage, connectivity, plus it operates the microtransaction store and acts as the virtual currency bank." Since the service is white-label, it means that Fireteam can provide "a very Steam-like service" that is completely branded to whichever company is using the service. "Online services is one of those areas where we really knew we needed to be better," Wedgwood admitted. "We're a multiplayer studio... and somebody in that studio should be good at that task!" WarChest and the future of free-to-play "With Splash Damage, we finished Brink, and it's estimated to have sold more than 2.5 million units worldwide, which at retail would mean that it's generated around $120-140 million in revenue," explains Wedgwood. "But of course, as an independent video game developer, we don't earn that kind of revenue, as we're not the publisher of the title... but we could see there was the potential to serve our fans content directly, and while we don't want to take anything away from what Splash Damage does, we wanted a vehicle that we can dedicate exclusively to that pursuit." This led to the formation of WarChest, completing the company's three-pillared approach. With WarChest, the company has a very fixed mindset of what it hopes to achieve, and the games it is looking to put out. "It's really important to us that our games -- the games that come from Warchest -- should be free," says Wedgwood. Titles that are both AAA-quality and free-to-play are what WarChest is aiming for, with "connected game experiences" once again mentioned as a main strategy. Indeed, Splash Damage has completely shifted its operations to free-to-play. Its first title to come from WarChest, iOS strategy game Rad Soldiers, is free-to-play, while Splash Damage's next two games -- a PC title later this year and a console game next year -- will also both be free-to-play (Wedgwood describes them as "Free-to-plAAA"). "About half of Splash Damage at the moment is now working on entirely self-funded projects," reveals Wedgwood, adding that "the other half is working on a blockbuster game for a external publisher." If you think the plans behind WarChest sound ambitious, Wedgwood is thinking much further outside the box than you may even begin to imagine. "I'd love to see our new publisher one day compared to somebody perhaps like [television network] HBO, who produces phenomenally high-quality TV shows," he says. "Some people pay a subscription to be the first to see those things, while some people pay to buy the Blu-ray boxsets, and other people wait until they come to TV and are content with seeing advertising. And of course, some people pirate those shows, but nevertheless see the product placement." "But everybody is happy to consume HBO TV shows because they're really, really good, and I think that is the future of video gaming -- you can think of the free-to-play market as television." His analogy continues, "Think of quad-A gaming as the big box office stuff that needs to generate $200 million just to break even. What you're seeing now is the rise of television. With television, very few people pay, and the rest of the people who enjoy TV for free don't really worry about the fact that they're not paying." "I think that's the tier of gaming that's going to replace the mid console market over the next generation of gamers. I don't think you're going to see a sudden outflux of gamers from consoles -- I think it's just a generation growing up and doing something else." Splash Damage's near-future plans are well laid out, then, but how does it plan to sustain the model over the course of the next few years, or even decade? "It's an entirely platform-agnostic digital publisher of games that are AAA and free with connected experiences across multiple platforms," Wedgwood answers. "I think the long-term vision is for connected experiences to really start happening." "I think a lot of people, when they look at what they're building over time, they're not really thinking about virtual goods as a really important component of their game -- they think of it as just something they can sell to make money from. Whereas our long term plan for our games is really to think about what's going to create an everlasting, compelling experience for players." "If you ever want to tell the difference between a developer who is making a game to money-grab, versus a developer who is doing something for their fans, look for whether content updates include content for their existing fanbase, rather than simply to acquire new users," he notes. Community values and Facebook gaming WarChest also plans to utilize Splash Damage's past experience with community management, with a huge focus on offering customer support and forums that feel personal to the fanbase. "It's not going to be one of these commercialized dot-coms that has an automated community manager and automatic swear-word filter etc," explains Wedgwood. "There is a real team of people here who care, who are arguing with you on the forums... we might even publish a telephone number, we're that serious about it! We just want people to know that it's real, it's a real thing." One platform that Wedgwood isn't so keen to explore with WarChest is Facebook games. He describes it as "less interesting to us," although he still says that Facebook games can be compatible with the proposed model. "Facebook gaming requires you to use somebody else's platform and you don't have that level of independence compared to if you're doing it yourself," he says. "One of the things we like about offering a platform ourselves is that other people can share that platform with us, so if there's an independent video game developer that has something really cool that we can help them finish, then we have the ability to take that thing and put it on our platform and see it succeed, in a way that they would otherwise struggle with if they were working independently." Wedgwood finishes up by noting, "Genres are often defined initially by the gold rush of people who run to it, producing a lot of crap, and then as other people realize that there's a market for really good quality things, they move into that market." "That's what we're doing -- we're not the first to market, but we believe we're the first developer to offer AAA free experiences that are connected. We're certainly the first publisher to be building a platform that we can provide to other people to do the same thing."

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