In an illuminating session held at the recent ION conference, Firesky's Joseph Ybarra discussed the difference between on and offline game development, relating them to the differences between movie and television development in Hollywood, and detailed the development of the upcoming Stargate Worlds
"Movies are much like video games," began Ybarra. "[Execs] spend a lot of money to make one experience, put it out there and if it goes great, they make another one. if it doesn't, they move on to something else."
By comparison, in television, "There are shorter production cycles, much lower budgets and much more content than movies -- 20 hours versus 2 hours. With Stargate, in over ten years they made more than 200 shows, and they were never sure they would get another year on this show. This can be kind of unnerving."
Ybarra highlighted more detail on how the Stargate TV series was produced: "They would begin shooting in February and wrap in December. Each episode is about 40 minutes and only costs about $2 million to produce. Shoots last from three days to a week or two, and they'd front-load the time with the things they could count on like standing sets and established actors, so the vast majority of the time was spent in post production. To get this all done in one year they'd shoot episodes in parallel, too."
He continued: "Since they'd been doing this for ten years, they had this production organized down to a science -- they could just repeat the process over and over again."
After this, Ybarra showed a trailer for Stargate Worlds
, and explained that while the "movie model" applies to the development phase of a game, the "television model" applies to the live phase of an MMO.
Stargate Worlds' Television Style Production
Similar to Hollywood, Ybarra explained, they're "not reinventing the cameras and the lights or the nonlinear video editing": they're "renting it".
"Many video game companies try to reinvent the wheel every time," Ybarra continued, noting that Firesky decided to go for "established tech" (in the form of Unreal Engine 3 and BigWorld Technology) and spend their time and money on creating content.
Firesky got Unreal and BigWorld to "talk to" each other last year, but Ybarra did note that it had more trouble getting the tools set up. Despite that, based on a belief in fast prototyping, they managed to get a combat system developed within six months in the pre-production process - an approach, Ybarra claimed, that minimizes risk and allows a focus on content.
This concentration on content includes a wish to "tell stories more like TV," where there's not a lot of text description but instead purely visual story telling. Firesky creative director Chris Klug's mantra is "show, don't tell," according to Ybarra.
In addition, the live team approach is to completely mimic the television model. "If you do this right, you extend the product life span through the regular content updates," Ybarra felt. "If you have a successful MMOG you'll never stop making it - similar to Stargate making TV and DVD movies for more than 13 years."
Ybarra admitted that they couldn't provide new content in weekly segments, but that they were planning a "predictable release cycle" of new content every six weeks; which means working on updates in parallel.
The TV Model for Original IP
Ybarra emphasized the versatility of the TV production method for MMO production, stating that Firesky wished to take the concept to the development of original IP - shortening the development cycle using the things they've learned from the Stargate process and focusing in on established methods.
Firesky hope to "essentially make pilot games" - if the audience likes a game, they'll pour more resources into it and continue to develop. "The casual game space is doing this a little bit," said Ybarra, but they're going to do it with MMORPGs because the technology has now matured.
Ybarra envisions this "pilot games" project being monetized through the microtransaction model, or by launching with a free to play section and then taking subscriptions for expanded content.
Pilot games are to use smaller budgets, at roughly $7 million per project, and this will allow them to "take more risks and target smaller/niche audiences." "So if we want to build a war game for instance, we can give that a try and see how the customers like it," said Ybarra.
Acquisition and Retention
Whereas "movies focus on viewer acquisition, TV and games are both acquisition and retention," Ybarra said, continuing, "Movies use tools like directors, stars, characters and genres for acquisition. Games use gameplay for retention and television uses immersion, volume of content... Callbacks to earlier episodes please fans, rewarding viewers for investing time."
Using the methodology of emphasizing acquisition and retention has allowed Firesky "to build fundraising with mostly private individuals," said Ybarra, adding that this "established model" provides credibility - both with investors and Hollywood.
Ybarra concluded by explaining the way in which developing with a TV method using a TV franchise allowed even more opportunities.
He explained: "MGM is seeing [Stargate Worlds
] as an opportunity to get established in the Asian market more - where the show isn't especially popular but MMOs are. The game may push more viewers to the show since they're in sync with the canon. We're working together with the show to sync the content up as much as we can."