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Storming the Future: Splash Damage's New Moves

The CEO of the Enemy Territory and Brink developer explains why the company is shifting its strategy, how the future looks like the past, and why he thinks that the term "whales" is both disrespectful and puts developers on the wrong track.

As an FPS-centric gamer, I'm well aware of Brink developer Splash Damage's past success, bursting from the mod scene with Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and semi-followup Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, as well as it being id Software's go-to studio for Wolfenstein and Doom 3 multiplayer maps.

Splash Damage is clearly a team that is looking to break from the norm too. While it's fair to say that Brink fell rather flat with gamers -- with the various concepts proving better on paper than in execution -- there's no denying that the game's focus on teamplay and class-based advantages and disadvantages was inspiring.

As is now public knowledge, Splash Damage's CEO Paul Wedgwood isn't just attempting to think outside the box -- he's built a whole load of boxes, and is now hoping to take a holiday in the far reaches of every one of them.

From the company's newly founded vertical integration, by which it has founded its own games publisher and online services provider, to its string of free-to-play titles -- including iOS game Rad Soldiers -- Splash Damage has obviously done its research, and is now simultaneously following the general trends of the game industry while also hammering along on its own terms.

Yet, while Splash Damage is focused heavily on pushing its new free-to-play development and publishing approach, Wedgwood spends a great deal of our chat reminiscing about his modding days, giving the sense that all his talk about vertical integration and his desire to control all parts of his games' development and publishing is in response to the current rude health of the indie scene, and his yearning to replicate the freedom of his modding days once again.

"We loved how hardcore and elitist we were," he says. "Our community was one of the most offensive and aggressive around -- we used to get 125,000 posts a week on our forums, and every single one of them contained swear words, and they were always at us or at other players. So it was an impossible community to get into in those early mod-making days, but it was good for us, because we became really thick-skinned, and we've always worked well with our community since."

"We know, for example, that 1.6 percent of our community absolutely hates us, and they come every week and tell us how much they hate us. We hate them back -- at least it's mutual!" he laughs. "But if they weren't there telling us what we've done wrong, then we'd be worse off."

The Splash Damage boss is a little defensive of the triple-A space at points -- again, quite possibly due to his desire to be part of the indie boom that the industry is currently experiencing.

"Sometimes people are critical of triple-A, particularly in the indie scene, because they think it's exploitative, or focused on sales or whatever else. But there are lots of skills that triple-A developers have that don't exist in the indie scene that really benefit players. User interface design is one of those examples where you really do find people saying, 'This indie game is brilliant -- if only I could get the bloody UI!'"

"We're really obsessive about that sort of stuff, and we have a much stronger understanding of what it takes to make a really compelling and easy-to-understand interface, particularly by just looking at advances by the competition -- games like Infinity Blade, for example."

Wedgwood is clearly well aware of how far the company has come from those humble mod-based beginnings, and that with success comes a potential distancing from both your fans and your values. The Splash Damage founder says he's not planning to grow up just yet.

"I think for us, once you have a boardroom and nice chairs and big plasma screens and everything else, there's this risk that you can become one of the arrogant, upper echelon tier of the games industry because of your player count numbers, or sales numbers, or whatever else," he explains.

"But that isn't really why we got into video games -- I was in IT when I first started out, and I did it for 14 years before I realized how much I hated it. To make my transition to the video games industry, I cut my annual income by about three-quarters. So the thing that occurred to me was, we started the company because we wanted to do a job that was fun. If you can get to your 40s, and still be in a boardroom talking about alien invasions, then that's a life well spent!"

"And we're just about 200 years ahead of the rest of the population, because when machines do everything for us, we'll spend all of our time just theorizing and talking about alien invasions," he jokes. "But for now, 95 percent of the population sadly has to do real jobs."

"So we're just massively privileged to be in this position of not having to do any actual real work with the whole of our lives! Which is an incredible proposition, if you think about it."


Wedgwood reflects on that period of Splash Damage, noting that he and his team were able to simply do whatever they wanted with their games -- "made games that we wanted to play", he says.

"When we tried to work out what we were going to make next, we worked out what we really wanted to be playing in a couple of years' time, and if nobody else was making it, we started making it ourselves. That was as difficult as the decision was," he adds.

"I think that's exactly how it is for the indie game scene today, and why it's so exciting. There was this horrible drought period from 2007 to around two years ago, where there was no independent game development, and we really felt like we were the last of the mod makers, because console manufacturers and developers don't release the SDKs for their games."

Says Wedgwood, the only way to make a game that was good enough to gain public interest was to get hold of an SDK -- and the Quake III SDK was looking rather dated, plus it required you have "an army of high-poly artists".

"So basically you just had this real challenge on your hands, which led to this drought. When mobile gaming came along, I think that's when it really picked up again, and we started to see tons and tons of indie developers. And then, of course, Unity helped it to a completely transformed market."

These two time periods differ in a very distinct way, muses the Splash Damage co-founder -- whereas there's money to be made in indie development now, there was barely even money to be made in commercial gaming back then, let alone modding.

"The great thing about the indie scene now is that you can make something like Minecraft," he explains. "This is a game that a few guys have made, and it's creating revenues that are almost half that of a mid-tier console game!"

"And of course, while 75 percent of our motivation for being in the video game industry is to talk about aliens in boardrooms, 25 percent of why we do it is because it has to be a sustainable business," argues Wedgwood. "We have staff whose rent and mortgages need to be paid. So we have to make decisions which are sensible and realistic."


Brink

With all this in mind, Wedgwood tells us that Splash Damage really began to take note of the industry's shift to digital distribution around a year ago, and the way in which it was having a significant impact on retail.

"To the public, the single biggest indicator of the economic downturn was the failure of retail," he notes. "And we could see that DVD and music sales were in decline, and it's really an idiot who predicts a great future for video game retail."

He continues, "But there is a massive, fantastic market of retail games. The great thing is that console gamers who love those top 10 games that come out each year, do get pretty good value for money. I mean, I play Mass Effect, Uncharted, Call of Duty, and I don't feel like my £50 is badly spent. I feel like I get really good value. But I had a 60 inch LED screen and a 5.1 surround sound system, and I want to drive that thing with something blockbustery! I think 'quad-A' is the correct description of those video game experiences."


At Wedgwood's mention of spending £50 on a retail game and feeling perfectly fine with that price, I switch the topic to his studio's latest target -- free-to-play games -- and how spending in these games compares.

On hearing the word "whales", most recently used to denote the small percentage of free-to-play gamers who spend serious amounts of cash on these games, Wedgwood is visibly disgusted.

"It's such a horrific term, isn't it?" he says. "The thing is, I'm one of those whales, which is why I'm most offended by the term! You know, when I played Hero Academy, I bought the dark elves the first day that they were announced straight away, and I wanted to be the guy who was attacking everybody with dark elves as they were released."

"I don't know if it's because I want people to know that I spent $1.99 on buying them, or because I was genuinely compelled to buy them due to the new gameplay abilities, or just because I wanted to status of having something that was unique and different to everybody else."

"But I enjoyed it and I don't miss the two dollars, so it's okay," he continues.

"Philosophically, the problem with that approach, if that's the cornerstone of your game's design, is that you then consider the 94 percent of people who aren't into doing that. And one of the things that offended me most at the recent London free-to-play summit was the very dismissive way that the presenters would talk about gamers, and how the valuable gamers were the ones that spent money, and these are your VIPs and the ones you want to get into your games."

"I just think that's bullshit," Wedgwood sighs. "You have to value people's time equally to the money that they can spend. People generally have more time than they need, more money than they need. I'm one of those people that has slightly more money than I need, but very limited time, so convenience makes a ton of sense for me and the ability to buy something to get ahead a little bit faster is brilliant."

"At the same time though, if I've got an abundance of time, I want the game to value that time -- I don't want to be told that it costs me 20,000 gaming hours to grind for a fountain, because that's just stupid. It makes no sense."

This is why it is important for Splash Damage to achieve a balance where the company values people's time just as much as their money, he argues.

"If you really believe in that philosophy, then there's no such thing as a whale -- because the whale is the person who gives you all of their time, just the same as the person who spends all of their money. Those people are just as important to the community because they are the ones telling their friends about the game. It's bad business practice to think of the ones that spend money as the community that you should serve the most. It's a mistake to build your game with whales in mind."


Rad Soldiers

Splash Damage has always aimed for the hardcore gaming audience with its first-person shooters, so its switch to free-to-play may potentially alienate a portion of its fan base. I ask Wedgwood whether he believes that the hardcore audience can be persuaded to come over to mobile and free-to-play gaming, and he proceeds to put his numbers hat on.

"The current market for people who play video games in the UK at the moment is around 35 million players," he explains. "Of that market, around 10 million are playing console games, which means around two-thirds of the market are playing games not on a console. And currently, around a quarter are playing free-to-play games, so 15 million gamers in the UK are playing games that they're paying for. So the truth of it is that around 4 to 5 million UK gamers are playing games that are effectively free, or that use alternative monetization methods."

"If you compare that to somewhere like, say, Brazil, where they have a population of 130 million plus, but they have a similar number of people playing video games -- around 30-35 million -- almost none of those people are playing console games at all, and yet their free-to-play numbers are roughly the same. So the proportion of console gamers has no immediate impact on the number of people who choose to play free-to-play games."

What we're currently seeing, he concludes, is a new group of gamers entering the market who didn't previously play game, but might have dabbled in a bit of FIFA on a Friday night with some friends.

"They may play Call of Duty and be one of those 20 million people who play that, but they're probably not playing the hardcore console games," he says. "They probably would play something cool on their iPhone if they weren't embarrassed to talk about it."

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