Interview: Gazillion On Accessibility, Big IP In Free-To-Play Games

Dan Fiden, Gazillion's VP of publishing, sits down with Gamasutra to discuss the company's plans for browser based development, its 10-year deal with Marvel, and its approach to free-to-play online games.
While the free-to-play market has grown to support a variety of games, platforms, and business strategies, online game developer Gazillion Entertainment says that accessibility and strong IP are the real keys to free-to-play success. Earlier this year, as part of a 10-year deal with Marvel, the company released the free-to-play MMO Super Hero Squad Online, a kid-friendly title based on the Super Hero Squad action figure line and television show. Gazillion is also working on Marvel Universe, a second, more hardcore MMO based on the same powerhouse IP. In addition, the company is working on its own internally-developed property with Fortune Online, a web-based action RPG in the same vein as Blizzard's Diablo titles. Earlier this month, Gazillion announced a partnership with German media corporation ProSiebenSat.1 Digital to bring both Marvel Super Hero Squad Online and Fortune Online to Europe. Gamasutra recently sat down with Dan Fiden, Gazillion's VP of publishing, to discuss the company's plans for browser-based development, its 10-year deal with Marvel, and its approach to free-to-play online games. Recently, a lot of companies have entered the free-to-play space, some with different strategies than others. How would you describe Gazillion's approach to free-to-play games? Dan Fiden: As a company, our strategy is super accessible, synchronic, massively multiplayer free-to-play games for a browser deliverance. The thing that I think differentiates us from the thousands of other companies playing in this space is that we're trying to bring "AAA quality and AAA IPs" to free-to-play. And we're also really committed to the browser as a gaming platform. Fortune Online's built in Flash, and if you check it out, it's pretty amazing for a Flash game -- there aren't really any other Flash games that look like it. And Super Hero Squad was built in Unity, and again I mean I think it's one of the largest and richest and highest fidelity Unity games out there now. What drove you guys to want to do exclusively browser-based titles? DF: Accessibility. We really feel like where technology is going is kind of in the direction of a browser essentially being an operating system. And we want to push that future -- we don't want to wait for that future to kind of happen to us and then have to deal with it once it's here. We really feel like we're right on the cusp of the technology being there, and so we kind of want to get into that game fast. What could be better than being able to play a really awesome high quality video game in a browser on the hardware you've already got that you use all the time? It just opens to a lot of possibilities. Yeah. I imagine being in that space right now is kind of tough as well. What sort of limitations do you encounter when developing for browsers? DF: It's really hard, but we think it's worth it. I think that as a team at Gazillion, and as a group of people who are passionate about the games, we want to do something interesting, and sometimes that's hard. And we'd rather try to forge a path than just follow what everybody else is doing. But yeah, it's totally hard. Building what we've built in Flash was painful in lots and lots of ways. Obviously 3D is not something that Flash does in any real way, but we wanted to support Flash out of the box, not force you to install anything beyond just the regular Flash. So that required us building a really complicated server side and rendering technology that allowed us to take all of these regular video game-style 3D assets and recombine all the different swords and shields and outfits and everything that you can do and render those out on the server side into assets that are usable within Flash, and then put those on the client You guys have a ten-year deal with Marvel to make games based on its licenses, right? What's your overall vision for that ten-year span? DF: Well, we haven't made any announcements on any additional titles or anything, but we love the IP; we think the fact that we have access to the entire Marvel universe really gives us an incredible range of possibilities. We don't really feel like once we've made Marvel Universe that's the end of the sentence; I mean there's just so much that happens in Marvel. You look at like all of the things that Marvel does within that same universe and it's really incredible and awesome, and there are lots of different ways to go within the universe and I would expect that we will try to do that as well. It's just interesting because you got two games announced so far based on the Marvel universe, and they're both online games. You don't see that very often, companies making two online games based on the same IP. It's unusual. DF: It's a big IP. [Laughs] It is a big IP, but it's especially unusual to see a developer working on multiple online games for one specific license. DF: Yeah. My personal opinion is that, you know, we're very close to the point within the industry where non-online games will become a very specific focus. I feel like everything has to be online; online is the basis of kind of what game development is, and we definitely believe that's the future. You know, the majority of people will get their games through the internet in one way or another, not just through a store. We believe that free-to-play is like going to be the dominant business model, not just for WoW-style MMORPGs, but for all kinds of different games online. So what told you guys it was the right time to jump into the free-to-play market with MMOs? There aren't that many Western developed MMOs made specifically for free-to-play just yet, so what told you guys that now's the time to jump into that space? DF: Well, I think that there are probably a few different answers to that question. One is we really, really believe in the model, and I personally really believe in the model. I feel like it makes sense as a business model and a way to consume games for consumers, because it mirrors the way people are consuming all media right now, right? Like people are essentially microtransacting television right now, you know? They're microtransacting music now; they don't see a reason that games should be any different. This may sound a little cheesy but I really believe that free-to-play is a democratic way to play games. I know that there are people who kind of hate free-to-play and say that, you know, "to pay to win" and stuff like that, but I really honestly believe that I would rather have the ability as a consumer who loves games to go in and sample a game and play it and pay for what I like within the game, rather than having to make a 60 dollar decision based on a really awesome trailer and no gameplay, you know what I mean? I love to try games; I love to try tons of games. And it would be great for me to not have to pay for every single one of those and only pay for ones that I really love. I think as an industry and as a company, we think we make great games, so we should have the guts to be able to give it to consumers for free and say like, "We think this is awesome!" I mean we're still confident in that, but you're going to think it's awesome that we're going to let you play most of it for free, you know? Yeah. You say that free-to-play games are kind of democratic, so arguably when players spend money on microtransactions, they're voting with their dollars for what they want. How much do you guys look at what's selling in your games to influence your future titles or post-launch support? DF: That's a great question. We absolutely look at what people are doing -- not only at what people are paying, but where people are spending their time. You know, free-to-play games aren't always a direct purchase of a specific thing. Like in Super Hero Squad, you can go in to the store and you can purchase Captain America to play. A lot of people do that, so we learn that people love Captain America, you know? Fair enough. But sometimes it's a little less direct than that. Sometimes it's like this: You might have an energy system and you earn energy organically every day, and if you want to use more energy than what you are allocated for free, you have to buy, right? It's a relatively standard model in free-to-play. But within those kinds of models you have to kind of look at where people are actually spending their time and spending their energy, and what features are kind of consuming the most energy to figure out where we should expand development and, you know, honestly places where we should back off from it. So yeah, we absolutely do that. The idea of post-launch support, I think a free-to-play game service is free anyway. The development part is awesome -- you kind of get to realize your vision as a game developer. But the rubber hits the road post-launch; like that's when you really are building out this game. And it's super exciting because you're kind of doing it in real time while people are playing it, you know? So I don't think of it so much as "post-launch support," because for me that kind of gives -- it almost implies this "Oh, we're going to stay with you guys post-launch just because we're nice." [laughs] It's the whole thing. So Super Hero Squad is out now, and you have people playing it every day. How has your development changed now that it's out there for players? DF: I think the pace of it changes. You need to move more, because not only are there any obvious things like, "Oh gosh, there's a huge bug and we need to fix that right away!" because we have real customers in the game right now. There's that stuff but you also have access to all this incredible data about what your players are doing in the game. And if that data is pointing you in a really clear direction, every day that you don't act on that data, you miss out on a huge opportunity. So you need to move into a kind of a development cadence that I think is a little less...I don't want to say relaxed, because pre-release development isn't relaxed and that can be really stressful, but it's a different kind of stress. I think you spend a lot of time looking at your own product and second-guessing yourself, and I think that that doesn't happen so much when you go live. You really have tons of phenomenal data and it's a question of, "I just need to burn through all of this stuff that I've found out, and act on it as soon as possible." Has anything in all that data surprised you? For instance, have players shown interest in an aspect of the game that you guys weren't really focusing on before launch? DF: Yeah, I mean there's so many really interesting things that we're learning within the game. But I think that the one that, for me anyway, I found was surprising is some of the heroes that people are really loving. I mean you know, they're all of the Marvel classics like Spider-Man and the Hulk, Wolverine, Thor, and the ones that you would expect they are definitely performing well. But like Black Panther -- everybody loves Black Panther, and none of us saw that coming. I mean he's been like a monstrous hero for us; like everyone wants Black Panther. It totally took us by surprise and it took Marvel by surprise, too. It's just really interesting for all of us to kind of look at the characters within the pantheon that people are responding to, and it's definitely not all of the ones that you would expect. Do you guys think that the audience differs between people who are going to be playing these free-to-play online games versus people who are sticking with the sort of subscription based stuff like World of Warcraft and Rift? DF: Yeah, I think that there are probably differences. I think though that the biggest differences are between that the folks play different kinds of games. One of the concerns I have, or challenges I think that I wrestle with sometimes is just using the term MMO. Because I think that so frequently we say MMO, and immediately people just think WoW. WoW is an awesome game, but it's not the only kind of online game that there can be. And being a massively multiplayer online game isn't really that specific. You could easily make a cart racer that is a massively multiplayer online game. I think free-to-play as a business model can be applied to all kinds of games, every kind of game. I'm sure that there are certain people who will always prefer the kind of microtransactions in whatever kind of game they love to play. I also think that there are people who prefer to just say, "You know what? I want to pay my monthly subscription and just have access to whatever I want to have access to and not have to worry about it all the time." I see that more as like a payment option choice than, you know, it's like there are people who prefer to subscribe to Comcast and just get HBO and Cinemax and all that other stuff. And then there are people who like to just download their television just one episode at a time.

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