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Work Doesn't Take A Holiday But David Perry's Free To Play

After David Perry (Earthworm Jim, MDK) left Shiny Entertainment in 2006, he decided to take 'a year off'. Yet, now CCO for free-to-play PC MMO publisher Acclaim, he's busier than ever, and Gamasutra quizzes him about his multiple projects.

After twenty years in the business, with the decision of Atari to sell Shiny Entertainment in early 2006, founder and Earthworm Jim, MDK, Messiah and Enter The Matrix co-creator David Perry decided to take a year off.

But, as humorously recounted in his recent talk at the Montreal International Game Summit, things didn't quite work out the way he hoped, and he's since ended up as chief creative office for the relaunched Acclaim, consulting on games and directing multiple MMOs -– and that's only a few of his commitments.

Gamasutra recently talked to Perry after his session about his "holiday", his many projects, and the concept of free-to-play MMOs.

Are you still on holiday?

David Perry: I think I've given up on that idea. I tried to take a year off and I think I got about two months in before everything exploded and I had a zillion projects running. So, no. The vacation is over and I don't think it's going to start again soon. I've got all kinds of commitments. The people working with me would have a cow if I just suddenly decided to take a month off or something.

What would you say your main commitments are now?

DP: I'm acting now as the chief creative officer for Acclaim, so I'm helping start a new publisher, which is pretty big. I've got my game investors company. I've got the game consultants company. I've got the four MMOs that I'm directing right now, but there's actually some more that we haven't even announced yet.

I'm also starting to study social networks and things like that. I'm getting very interested in where our industry is going rather than where it is. I know my history is very connected to the old stuff, but I've always got that radar going. Maybe sometimes on things too early, but I'm fascinated by stuff like that.

How on earth are you managing to split your time between so many projects?

DP: It's funny, actually, because I was asked to speak at the quality of life summit which is probably the biggest mistake they've ever made. I just said to them, take a trip to Japan and look at the sleeping bags under the tables, and you'll see there's no "quality of life". It's not to be mean or anything, it's just that they want to succeed and these people are our competitors.

I work till about one or two every night. I've been 25 years in the business, and that's the hours I put in. I literally couldn't get it all done otherwise.

 


All your projects seem to pull in different directions. Wouldn't you like to scale back and concentrate on only a few?

DP: I would, but then something else interesting comes up. I just started two more projects and if some idea comes up, well, I have a lot of people to help. I have a lot of students and I have this "army" now of students who will pretty much do anything I ask and so I can take on any project, no matter how complicated or painful, and they'll be willing to dive in and help. That's been wonderful, and it's something I've never really considered before.

But with the Top Secret project [an Acclaim-affiliated project to get the public to help build their own MMO], we now have 55,000 people signed up. And with that list, I can ask all 55,000 people by e-mail if they'd like to do this or that. There's never anything that doesn't get a yes. I actually think that if Top Secret is successful I will have a million people sign up for the next one. Now that would be an army.

So you believe in delegating a lot of responsibility?

DP: Yes. I'm a big believer in saying, "here, run with this, let's see what happens." I want to give people a chance -- that whole analogy of giving someone enough rope to hang themselves. But of course we help them as much as we possibly can. Certainly no one in my teams complain about having their strings pulled and not being allowed to do whatever they want to do. How well they do, though, decides what they do next.

You worked as a consultant with EA on the recent Simpsons game. How was that experience?

DP: I was contacted by Gracie Films, the company that makes the Simpsons, and they happened to be involved in the making of this one, doing the script writing for it, and they wanted to have a video games person on their side.

For me, I couldn't turn it down. I've turned down a lot of stuff, but to be sitting on the other side of the desk from EA, that's an awfully interesting place to be. I thought I would learn something. I was very interested to see how they pitched, how they focus tested, how they handled their projects, and it was definitely interesting.

What did you take from it?

DP: The thing that impressed me about EA was that, on a project across multiple platforms with a huge amount of dialogue and assets they are able to pull it all together. The fact is that EA has this ability to turn a "machine" on when they need to. When that machine is on every single person is part of it working every single piece.

I find it very interesting how they are able to, with a limited amount of time, get everything done. They're very good at that and they absolutely have that system down. A lot of other companies might be like, "Oh my god, we have so much dialogue, how are we ever going to get it done?" EA knows instantly that they need fourteen more guys to do it in the time. And then they've got the fourteen guys working on it the next day. Most studios don't have that luxury.

So, Korean MMOs. Was Audition the first game that caught your eye?

DP: Well, Audition is kind of more just an example of how successful they can get. It's a game that would never see the light of day here over there can suddenly be an absolutely massive success.

I was interested in Audition because it was one of the real breakout titles in Korea. And they did a licensing deal with a company in China and the game was unbelievably successful there too. So it's really interesting to find out why and when you start to analyze a game like that, you see some really crazy game ideas, like the "punishment move" that I discussed as an example of a way they try and break the ice for people and make them chat more. It's kind of similar to what Jonathan Blow was talking about.

I go over there and I like, look over their shoulder and I analyze it and think, "Would that work in the U.S.? Would people get that?" Some of the stuff is just pure craziness, but some of them are actually damn good game play ideas. I think, "That's an interesting hook! I haven't seen anyone do that in the U.S."

I think that's one of the services we can provide. They're not aware when they're creating something that a U.S. audience might enjoy. We have to go in there and say, this game might work!

 


So you were interested in bringing Audition to the US?

DP: Yeah, but the thing with Audition is that it uses a new control system that Americans are not used to. The Chinese title Super Dancer Online uses Dance Dance Revolution style arrows, which Americans understand. You can plug a DDR pad into a PC and actually dance with it, for example. So we took Super Dancer Online and we did all the localization and all the westernization, redoing all the songs and so on, to create Dance! Online.

So after localizing Super Dancer Online you ended up leading some studios in China, correct?

DP: Well, I made some suggestions that they liked and they said to me, "We want to make games that succeed worldwide." So they gave me three teams and told me to make the games I wanted to make. So since then I made some game proposals and those are the games that are being worked on right now.

Can you talk about them?

DP: No, none of the games are announced. But we will announce them.

You can't even talk genre?

DP: MMOs! They're PC free-to-play MMOs. One is a music game and one is a sports game.

Can you talk about the teams?

DP: Not specifically, but in they're very scalable teams. They're normally about 30-60 people but there are about 200-300 people who are available at any time to pull onto a project. They're pretty normal.

In Asia they now tend to license engines from the west. They didn't do that before, they used to make their own, but now they're starting to say, "Why don't we just use Unreal?"

You're going to see that more and more. The visual look of the games over there is starting to get really stunning. When I go across and see the studios I think, "Woah, that looks fantastic." For an example, there's a game called Mabinogi Heroes from Nexon that you should see. It uses the Source engine and is really beautiful. They're really stepping up graphically.

What's the market for free-to-play MMOs? The casual market?

DP: We're talking about the people who love games but can't afford to keep tossing down 60 dollars each time. There's a middle ground with people who consider themselves gamers. We're not going for the Sudoku market at all. We're going for the people who consider themselves gamers who also love the idea of not having to pay for them.

 


How are you working to change consumer habits here, though? We're used to plunking down all the money at the start, not buying items with real cash.

DP: You know the company Netflix?

Well, what happened? They came along with a disruptive model. I was used to buying DVDs and I had racks full of DVDs until Netflix came along and now I have that I want, whenever I want, for a low subscription fee. It's killing Blockbuster.

It's just disruption. I'm actually of the opinion that with all media, the concept of ownership is going to go away. Owning a film isn't going to matter anymore. I have a three year-old daughter, and when she's grown up, when you think about the connection speeds and networks, she's just going to think about wanting to watch a film, any film, and it's going to be on her television. That's just how the world is going to be.

Music is going to be the same. People are already working on it. I can't possibly imagine what is going to make games not work the same way, even with the huge amount of data that is required.

The days of waiting for the distributor to deliver the games to the store and then waiting for the doors to open are numbered. You'll have a game within an hour of its release.

So you're impressed by distribution systems such as Steam, even though you're purchasing the titles outright?

DP: I think it's pure genius. Gabe Newell is going to make billions. If he doesn't sell it, and just keeps improving the service and increasing the infrastructure, getting more developers and publishers to sign up with him, it's going to be worth a fortune.

Another Korean MMO that you're localizing [via Acclaim] for Western audiences is Dekaron, now known as 2Moons. How was that?

DP: We got a writer in Hollywood, Henry Jones, who had a gap in his schedule and we asked him if he wanted to do some writing for an MMO. He was a huge fan of World of Warcraft so he said sure. We didn't realize how big the job was going to be -– he had thousands of pages to write. He nearly killed himself writing it all, but he got it all done and we've put it all in the game.

We're still catching up with the developers in Korea. This is something that developers here need to be aware of, how fast they develop there. They generally release a new version every three months! That's a very aggressive schedule. So there's constantly new content coming out. It makes it very hard for us to keep up and get it all ready in three months and then see the next thing that's coming out. We're still in beta, though.

Do you think you'll catch up?

DP: I think we're going to catch up in January. I had a meeting with the developers and found out about all the new features that they're adding in 2008 though and there's a lot. If you never played the game, and tried it in September 2008 you'll be amazed at how much stuff there was -– and for free.

How are you monetizing 2Moons in the US?

DP: It's all through item sales. We are going to add some in game advertising, optional advertising that people can turn off. We did put it in earlier but turning it on slowed down the game.

People were turning it off not because of the advertising but because it was slowing down the game. And we like to know why people turn off the advertising, so we can understand where we can go with it. If 95% turn it off when we put it in and it doesn't affect the game in any way, we'll know there's no future in in-game advertising for us.

There's another trend in MMOs now, user generated content, such as in Second Life. What do you think of that angle?

DP: Love it. I'm going to do a lot of that, and some of my future games are going to be all about that.

And hey, the Top Secret project is that on steroids, right? Thousands of people making a game -– managed by users, designed by users, made by users, voted on by users and then will be played by users when it's done. We're learning so much from that. It's controlled chaos: like herding cats. It's fascinating to see what works, what doesn't work.

Do you think you'll return to big budget, triple-A titles?

DP: Yes, actually. I will. Acclaim is already funding some games, experimenting. That's really our goal, to test different ideas, and we're going to be really careful, but we're going to keep investing, and trying to grow our own technologies, and all we need is one hit. if we get that one hit, we're going to use that money to fund some big projects.

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