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First-Person Advertiser - Talking In-Game Ads With Threewave Software

Vancouver-based Threewave Software CEO Dan Irish explains the developer's business model of developing free, sponsored first-person shooter content, also revealing a Source engine Xbox 360 title and new XBLA titles in development.

Based in Vancouver, British Colombia, Threewave Software is a developer best known as the company behind the original capture the flag mod for Quake way back in 1996, arguably one of the first mods to popularise team play in multiplayer first-person shooter titles. Since then, Threewave has been creating multiplayer content for some of the biggest FPS franchises, including re-creating their seminal version of capture the flag for id in Doom III: Resurrection of Evil.

Recently, Threewave has been expanding rapidly with the intention of broadening their scope and ability, with intriguing ideas on funding, distribution and development practices, including pioneering the use of sponsor funded, ad-driven content in the multiplayer FPS genre.

At a recent open house event before the New Media B.C. annual general meeting and barbeque, Dan Irish, CEO of Threewave and previously the executive director of Relic Entertainment’s Homeworld 2, sat down to talk to Gamasutra about his plans for the company.

Gamasutra: Tell us about your plans for ad driven content.

Dan Irish: No one’s really figured out how to get ads into gaming and make it effective and measurable. Massive [Inc.] is really only starting that process now, with their dynamic ad technology.


Dan Irish

Where we fit into that picture is not so much creating the content and then placing an ad in it, but by creating the content around a brand. For example, one of the projects that we completed recently (though it’s not announced yet) features terrorists taking over the Alienware computer factory.

But creating that sponsor driven content is really how we would like to evolve multiplayer games - so you’re not just shipping with the ten maps that come with the game, then maybe you release five maps later, and then mod community does 500 maps but only about three are really good. We’d like to provide sponsored content that also supports the brand of the FPS, allowing it to have a whole stream of maps that are available month after month, featuring different product placement each time. Maybe in a Jeep-Chrysler level you’ll be able to drive their vehicles. Maybe a Pepsi branded level where you jump through a Pepsi logo to materialise somewhere else.

We’re looking to implement ads in the content in a way that isn’t obtrusive to the user. You know the way that pop-up ads are so annoying, and you just want to escape that? We want to integrate it better than that, something that adds to the experience rather than subtracts from it.

GS: Do you expect the sponsors to pay entirely for the product? (i.e. free to the consumer.)

DI: Oh yeah, that’s the basic concept. We’ve signed up a couple of projects along those lines, though they’re not announced yet.

Another thing is, imagine you’re a publisher, and one of the maps of your games, or one of your brands could be part of a 300 million dollar ad campaign. No one spends that on marketing a video game, 10 millions dollars would be a lot. It’s a great opportunity. Not only to the publishers, but the consumers, who get to have more content.

GS: Have the sponsors interfered or demanded certain things about your projects? A famous example is that the licensed cars of Gran Turismo can’t be damaged due to the manufacturer’s requests.

DI: We’ve actually dealt with that in some of our current projects, and we’re finding that most of the sponsors understand it now. Before it was “just a license” and their product was appearing in it, now they feel like they own it, that it’s part of them. It’s a bit like watching 'The Unit,' where they drive GMC police vehicles - they get blown up all the time. Along those lines, they understand it’s integrated to the story, the concept, and it doesn’t show the product in a detrimental light.


GS: So the games are content driven, not ad driven?

DI: That’s right. It’s about finding a way to integrate the ads into the content that’s unobtrusive to the user. That’s the key word, as you don’t want to piss off the community; you don’t want a backlash, as then you’re not going to be able to generate the numbers that you’ve promised the sponsor. So we’re very conscious of that. I’m not saying it’s not an issue, nor am I saying that every sponsor is a perfect fit for FPS titles either. I can think of any number of household products that you couldn’t integrate.

The interesting thing about our diversified business model, though, is that we’re not dependent solely upon the publisher. We can develop content for any FPS and provide that to the community, perhaps even independent of the publisher. So content comes out for the FPS, they’re aware of it, but they’ve not had to support it. So the publisher’s FPS brand and the sponsor’s brand are both developed. That’s a compelling idea.

As far as our business goes, it’s an opportunity for us to look at which projects we’re going to undertake in a much clearer light, rather than saying “oh this project is being offered to us, we’d better take it, because I don’t know if we’ll get another.” When you have revenues coming from multiple sources, not just from the publisher, that gives you more choices, more opportunities to find projects that fit your beliefs.

GS: But which comes first? The content or the sponsor?

DI: We’ve done it both ways, one project one way, one project the other. I’d say either way can work, but either way also has its challenges. You do get a number of disconnects between media buyers with what they think is possible and what actually is, but we’ve had other sponsors who were totally cool, they just want to see their logo and are very receptive to whatever we come up with. I guess it’s really the difference between an educated buyer and an uneducated one.


Inside Threewave's Offices

GS: So you consider yourself primarily content creators.

DI: We’ve developed the odd plug-in, and certainly we have an emphasis on programming as we always have to develop and integrate our SDKs with the core engine. But I think one of the main advantages of the way we do things is that we don’t have to invest millions and millions of dollars in technology that’s only going to be used in one game. We’re using the tools that are provided by some of the top developers in the world, and it’s how they make great games.

Making great games is challenging enough as it is, so we try and concentrate on creating content in a reasonable amount of time – between 9-15 months, rather than 20-30, where the team could easily get burnt out. We like to offer our staff the ability to switch projects and roles, too, rather than just “you’re an animator, animate Spongebob Squarepants for the next three years.”

GS: All your content has a quick turn around?

DI: That’s a main goal of the studio. Certainly to respond within a year, but at the least much shorter than a traditional studio. The advantage of that is that we can service the ad industry. People there aren’t thinking further ahead than six months. That’s really the goal for us – to get to that short a development time.

GS: How do you expect to distribute these titles?

DI: There are opportunities to distribute online via Steam, or through other online services and communities. There’s also the possibility that sponsors might want to distribute the titles at retail. So I wouldn’t say any specific distribution model is preferred – it just depends on what the brand is, and what is likely to be most useful for it.

GS: Are these products likely to be stand-alone?

DI: Generally speaking, yes. Even based on existing technologies we’ll have our own game executables, though there might be specific situations when the brand could be integrated into the main product, in which case you’d need to own the original game. It’s a case by case thing; online distribution could very well be “map only,” while content bundled at retail would be stand-alone.

Nothing has been proven yet, but that’s the kind of direction we’re heading in.


GS: When do you expect to start rolling this out?

DI: We expect the middle of next year – we’ve had tremendous interest from everyone from TV shows, movies and other top name brands.

GS: What else are you currently working on?

DI: Currently we have an FPS title in development using the Source Engine. It’s an original IP due the middle of next year for Xbox 360, and it uses one of the advanced physics engines; new physics, new special effects, and a new level of realism, a lot of different things people probably haven’t seen in a game before. Unfortunately, it’s not announced yet.

We have a couple of projects coming out for Xbox Live Arcade too, which is new to us. It’s part of our strategy here; the smaller projects give more people more opportunity to develop projects quickly. You can begin and end an arcade project in maybe 6 months and really see the results. At the same time it has such a wide distribution and there’s only a few companies being given slots, so we’re fortunate enough to be one of them. That’s really exciting to us. It’s a good opportunity, too, as it’s not our traditional focus. We’ll probably announce those soon.

GS: What kind of market are you aiming the Xbox Live Arcade titles at?

DI: I would say… Well, how about a competitor to Nintendogs?

GS: How many employees are there at Threewave? What is the corporate structure like?

DI: We’ve got 36 employees, having grown from ten people at the beginning of the year. The company is set up that myself, the founders and some other key people makes the decisions, but I like to think of this as more of a meritocracy. You can do anything here at Threewave; you can graduate school, come here and start building levels, and go on to produce. There are a number of different people, with different talents who all contribute to the company here.

GS: So do you find the new media courses are making it easier to find new hires?

DI: The new courses are certainly attractive to us. That’s not to say we discount the traditional teaching methods, but neither would we disqualify someone if they didn’t have a college degree. If they can accomplish something with the tools, if they’re recognised as having talent within the community, we want to talk to that person. I think the new courses have definitely increased the talent pool, though.

But it’s a really competitive market right now. There are a lot of new studios in Vancouver, new animation houses, and it’s an exciting time of industry growth, but it’s increased the challenge in finding the right people. However, it’s going to draw more talented people to Vancouver, and it’s going to be good for the videogames industry. Finding the right people is only going to get easier.

GS: So why Vancouver for Threewave?

DI: People say go to San Francisco, Boston, Florida. Everywhere has their advantages, but no place has all the advantages Vancouver has. It’s got a great talent pool, several different studios and hence a great community.

Vancouver has a real focus on technology too, with several initiatives that really benefit us as a company from the government, such as tax credits, and organisations like New Media B.C. Very competitive advantages, compared to the small fish we’d be in a sea of developers in San Francisco.

GS: And finally, who would you say inspires Threewave?

DI: Valve definitely inspires us. We’ve got a very good relationship with them and are working on a number of products with them. The thing that’s inspiring about Valve is that any member of their team could be a project lead somewhere else. They’ve put in the time to find the people that are the highest quality and that work well together. That’s an incredible investment. The result is they make great technology, are committed to their brands, and support their community.

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