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Raising the Dead, Again: Can Howard Marks Revive Acclaim?

Fifteen years after reviving then-troubled Activision, Howard Marks has his eyes set on re-establishing recently-bankrupted Acclaim, reincarnating it as an MMO-specific publisher relying entirely on in-game advertising revenue. In this Gamasutra interview, we find out his motivations behind this move.

With a storied history including relatively fondly received titles such as the early Turok games for N64 and the Extreme G series, alongside less well-reviewed licensed properties and numerous movie tie-ins, Acclaim Entertainment finally shuttered its business in 2005. The game properties it still owned were sold in a bankruptcy sale, and relatively few in the gaming community mourned its loss.

But just as the post mortem had begun on the fallen giant, Howard Marks bought its remnants and restarted the company as "Acclaim Games." If that decision raised some eyebrows, the announcement of his proposed business model may have raised a couple more; the goals of the new Acclaim involve exclusively developing massively-multiplayer online games, all of which will be free to play, supported mostly through ad revenue.

It sounds crazy, but Marks pulled off a similar strategy in March, 1991, when he and his business partner, Bobby Kotick, bought another troubled game developer: Activision. Back in those years, "multimedia" gaming (through CD-ROM drives) was taking off, so Marks re-positioned Activision to make games which took advantage of the emerging medium.

The new Activision released games such as Return to Zork to some success before growing into the powerhouse it is in the current business climate. Today, similarly, Marks sees online gaming growing into a dominant genre in the industry. He brought on David Perry, co-creator of the Earthworm Jim series, to design a variety of online games to appeal to a wide range of people: from those who are into World of Warcraft-style RPGs to casual gamers who prefer simple-to-play diversions.

Gamasutra: Some might say that forming an online gaming company using the name of a reviled and ultimately bankrupted company seems kind of ballsy. Why even bother using the Acclaim name?

Howard Marks: Acclaim is a great brand. It has sold over 200 million games over the years, including some huge hits. Consumers who have played Acclaim games have an emotional attachment to their experiences, which even money cannot buy. Starting with Acclaim is a great advantage for us. We have gotten thousands of emails thanking us for bringing it back.

GS: What is your overall business strategy? The online gaming market seems to be becoming tapped out, and saddled with a limited audience.

HM: Our strategy is to offer multi-player online games that are free to play with in-game advertising, and offer optional virtual items for sale. We have announced four games so far, starting with BOTS!!, which is a robot fighting action game with MMORPG elements. There's also 9Dragons, an MMORPG that uses a Chinese medieval martial arts fantasy theme. This game is beautiful and deep, and our beta testers seem to love it. It will be available towards the end of this month.

2Moons is an MMORPG directed by David Perry that features a blood-spewing fest with strong language and lots of action. This game is so violent that we are recommending players to be 17 and over. DANCE!, also directed by superstar David Perry, is an MMO dancing game where up to six players can dance together as teams, couples or individually against others. It features top hit songs as original recordings, not cover songs like the other games.

Soon we will be announcing another three MMO games that are in the music and sports field.

GS: World of Warcraft and Second Life dominate this genre and appeal to two decidedly different gamer demographics. For what kind of audience is Acclaim hoping to sell to?

HM: Each game we offer will have a different audience. The nice thing about online games that are free to download is that players can try them to see if they like them. We analyze the age group at the beginning in open beta to understand who is the target market our games appeal to.

With that knowledge in hand, we then start building the community. For BOTS!! we are seeing players from 13 to 19 as our core group, and for 9Dragons we are seeing 13 to 34 as our core group.

GS: There are a lot of free-to-play MMORPGs either available or currently in development. What sets Acclaim's offerings apart from them -- why should gamers invest their time on your titles?

HM: You are right; there are many. What sets us apart is that we are offering AAA title games that cost tens of millions to build. We also offer a very high-quality service with lots of game masters, community leaders and moderators to help the community. Service is critical for a successful online game, and we understand that.


GS: You're importing the talents of Korean developers, like for 2Moons. What's the difference between what a North American (or Western) player likes in an MMORPG compared with his Korean counterpart?

HM: I think players are different in our market, and we need to offer games that are satisfying to our audience. We have brought in talented directors like David Perry to work closely with the teams to build a great game.

Unlike other publishers who will remain unnamed, we take great pains to adapt the games to our markets, and we are not just offering a badly translated Korean game. We think this is a disservice to the player. Ultimately, our players will be voting with their game play time whether our games are fun or not.

GS: Would you say that it's more difficult to import Korean-style MMORPG play than it is to export a North American MMORPG?

HM: I think they are both difficult. World of Warcraft is an exception to this because it transcended both cultures.

GS: What online game category in Korea do you think would translate successfully over here for the North American and Western gamer demographic -- something that we haven't seen yet?

HM: I think there is a lot of potential with music-based games (MMO type) in our market, also action-oriented and sports MMO games.


2Moons, Acclaims new free-to-play MMORPG

GS: Is the new Acclaim planning to develop for the consoles? How about the Xbox 360's Xbox Live?

HM: Yes, but Microsoft needs to allow us to offer an online game that is larger than 50 MB. People are downloading 1 GB demos on their Xbox 360. Microsoft needs to take the bold move and say they will support online games.

GS: We have yet to see a game for a console platform that captures the imagination and enthusiasm of gamers on the level of what World of Warcraft has done for the PC. What do you think are the challenges that might be inherent in using game consoles for MMORPGs?

HM: The biggest is the user interface. The console is an experience in the family room, whereas the online PC game is an experience with a keyboard. Chatting is challenging on a console. I think that as console devices get better the fun factor will increase. Online games are social games, so the console needs to become a social platform as well.

GS: The old Acclaim died as a company that cranked out shoddily made games to cash in on licensed properties. What do you hope the new Acclaim under your command will be known for?

HM: We hope that Acclaim will be known for bringing back the fun into games with affordable entertainment accessible to everyone. For us, multi-player games are simply more fun.

 

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