Rumble Entertainment was ready to release its first game, KingsRoad, last year, but players didn’t like it. So the startup game studio, headed by former Elevation Partners partner Greg Richardson, went back to the drawing board. The company has learned that in the new age of mobile, you have to invest heavily to make a “console-quality” game.
Fans are getting more discerning, and gamemakers have to iterate on their titles until they get them right. And to get advice on that process and a longer runway, Richardson raised a new round of funding from Asian free-to-play online game giant Nexon.
Richardson, who spoke with us after a talk at the Casual Connect game conference in San Francisco, wants to build a game that will last forever — or at least far longer than a typical mobile game. Here’s a transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: So what’s driving your hookup with Nexon?
Greg Richardson: For us it was the opportunity to partner with a company that was basically the godfather in the free-to-play space. They’ve been operating successfully for more than a decade, making microtransaction-based games similar to the ones we’re making – much more like ours than almost anybody in the west. Their ability to add value around immersive synchronous free-to-play games is unique. We felt like that was so valuable that, even though we weren’t actively pursuing an investment round, it made a lot of sense.
The second win for us is the fact that they’re so strong in Asia. It’s been difficult, historically, for western companies to do business in that part of the world. Even though we’re our own publisher in the west, the ability to potentially leverage them as a partner in places like Korea and Japan has a lot of promise.
GamesBeat: Is that an option, to use them as a publisher in Asia?
Richardson: We don’t have a commercial agreement that we’re announcing today around that, but I think there’s a strong potential for that to be the case.
GamesBeat: You didn’t disclose your terms, but are you viewing the investment landscape in a certain way right now? Is it a good environment, a tough environment?
Richardson: I can talk about us in particular, and then I can give you my observation on the environment. We’ve been lucky. We’ve had great investors with Google and Khosla Ventures. We’ve been able to raise a lot of money at very favorable valuations, which you need to do the ambitious things we’re trying to do.
When we went out to raise money this time, we wanted more than just capital, which is why Nexon ended up being the perfect partner for us. We weren’t actively talking to the traditional investors. That said, a lot of the third parties we talked to – in a publisher role – are talking to those. What we’re hearing is that there is no money to be found.
It’s an interesting time. The fundamental growth of the game business, according to all the health metrics – the number of people buying tablets and using smartphones, the people engaged and playing on Facebook – are all growing past all-time highs. You can’t find a fundamental data point that doesn’t show you the game business is going to the moon. Arguably it’s the fastest-growing and highest head room business in the world right now. Maybe the data guys could give us a run for the money. But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of venture capital being invested.
I think two things explain that. One is that the only real public company in the west is Zynga. Whether they have anything to do with making triple-A quality immersive games — which they don’t, they’re in a totally different business with a different audience – is lost on most investors. Second, traditionally venture guys have shied away from any kind of content-led businesses. They appreciated the early days of free-to-play, where it was about user acquisition, leverage of an ecosystem, terms of service for free virality, data analytics, and aggressive monetization. They understand all those things, because they all apply to a lot of other businesses outside of games. But when it comes down to, “Hey, I have a great entertainment experience for people,” they don’t trust themselves. The vast majority of them have backed up.
You do see a few examples, like Mitch Lasky at Benchmark or Rick Thompson, who was one of my co-founders. They’re still out there looking for great deals. But they’re in the minority. It’s going to create an opportunity for some of the larger Asian guys – Nexon, Tencent, others. If they wanted to take advantage of it, the EAs and Activisions of the world could put capital to work in a way that could be very strategically meaningful to them.
GamesBeat: Is this something that some [initial public offerings] in the game business could help with?
Richardson: What we really need is, whoever is going public next should be a consistent, stable business that’s built on a backbone of delivering high quality games. They shouldn’t be a single-hit-driven company or the most aggressive guys at a particular moment. That won’t help us. If more of those companies try to go public and then their hit game is gone, or the dynamics that made them successful is no longer relevant, and they don’t sustain, we’ll continue to have this problem.
GamesBeat: One of your games is a shooter. In free-to-play mobile games, is it hard to monetize a shooter?
Richardson: If you look at KingsRoad, the action-RPG we have, there are a lot of similarities to Dungeon Fighter Online, which has been one of their most successful franchises. And in the shooter category, whether it’s Counter-Strike or Combat Arms or a couple of others, [Nexon] had a ton of experience with the kind of games we’re making. That made us feel further validated by the fact that [Nexon] wanted to put money into us. They saw and played our games and said, “These are winners.”
Specific to your question, we think there’s a lot of value there. With a first-person shooter, it’s a skill-based game, and it’s PvP-based. A lot of the techniques you see in free-to-play games that are more PvE-based, or in games where you don’t mind if a player can pay to win, don’t apply at all. The experience they have – mostly around what not to do – is going to be important to us.
That’s not to say that they haven’t had a lot of success, because they have. It’s that the scar tissue of things we might try, that they have tried, is invaluable. It shortens that iteration cycle. Not everything we’ve done, whether it’s in KingsRoad or Ballistic, has worked. You like to feel as if the signal to noise ratio on the things you try is high.
GamesBeat: It seems like we may be in a stage here where mobile moves to a next generation, or something that’s a step above whatever you would call the first generation of mobile games. I don’t know if this is the period where triple-A does go over to mobile or console quality goes to mobile.
Richardson: When you look at what’s happening with tablets, the appetite for tablets in the west has been tremendous. Then you look at the data suggesting that nine out of 10 people that own a tablet in the United States are playing games on it. The people who own that hardware are a captive audience for games. Their spending rates and conversion for microtransaction-based games are multiples higher than on phones.
All of that says you have a ripe audience with the underlying memory and graphics and CPU hardware, plus the screen real estate, to deliver triple-A quality games. You’re already seeing some games start to be successful in the mobile space as they add more core game mechanics or IPs or themes that are more relevant to the traditional console audience. Higher production values and graphical fidelity matter, whether it’s CSR Racing or Clash of Clans or even Puzzle & Dragons, in the sense that there’s actually a traditional RPG ethos to that game.
GamesBeat: Is it difficult to figure out how high to shoot right now?
Richardson: Right or wrong, we decided to be very ambitious. We wanted to define the games we built by what we thought the audience wanted, not what was easy to do or currently successful. That meant high-end graphic fidelity. It also meant realtime synchronous multiplayer. When you talk about the next chapter of mobile gaming, one of the tenets of successful PC and console games has been being able to play in real-time with other people in action games. That hasn’t landed yet in mobile.
We’re doing exactly that across our entire portfolio. There are moments, as an early-stage company, where it feels like we’ve taken a lot of risk. Our games have taken longer to build and more money to build than we originally imagined. The flip side is that we think we’ll be where everyone wants to be before they get there. What’s interesting about tablets is that they’re always-connected devices. If we’re the first ones to deliver the great synchronous multiplayer experiences, we’ll get an outsized share of the rewards.
GamesBeat: Have you figured out whether the touch screen or the controller is the best option?
Richardson: I’ll use KingsRoad as an example. We got the game running on tablets earlier this year. We did it with the same design that runs on the web browser. What we found is that the translation of a mouse-driven control system to a touch screen was pretty straightforward. While you have to be thoughtful about the user interface and user experience, it was a pretty seamless transition. We know there’s not a ton of R&D that has to be done to solve that problem from the player’s perspective.
The flip side is Ballistic, a first-person shooter. You have two controls – where you move and where you shoot. It’s a tough problem, but it’s one that’s going to be overcome. The example I use is when the first Xbox came out and they showed Halo. Every first-person shooter player and almost every reporter said that you can’t play a shooter with a console controller. Now that seems silly. I think we’ll see the same kind of innovation and transition happen on the tablet.
GamesBeat: Could a single game be good and still run with the mouse, the touch screen, and the controller?
Richardson: You always want to be afraid of the lowest common denominator in design. We’re not going to do that. While all of our games cross PC and mobile devices, or will eventually, you have to be thoughtful about whether you have a game where the quality of the experience you give to the player can be delivered. Second, you have to take the time not to just port them, but to step back and say, “What is it about this device that it does well? How do we change the design to take advantage of that?”
In KingsRoad, for example, it’s great to use your finger like a mouse, but often you’re covering the screen with your hand while you do it. Where you place the UI needs to be different than in the PC space.
GamesBeat: Some of the speakers here have talked about the difference between mobile and console, in that you don’t see the same patterns in the top 50 as far as what the most popular games are. There’s an absence of brands on mobile. You don’t see sequels that are bigger than their predecessors. The problem becomes that you have to get lucky with each successive game. There’s not something like Call of Duty where you have a guaranteed hit.
Richardson: The challenge I’d present to people who speak from that perspective is, name a high-quality free-to-play game, loved by its players, that was well-designed as a game service that hasn’t succeeded. That’s a null set. We’re so early in the days of mobile that we haven’t seen anywhere near the maturity and consistency of quality products being brought that we’ve seen on consoles in the last 10 years. It’s still wide open.
Take Kabam with Kingdoms of Camelot. When they modified it for tablet, it wasn’t a runaway hit anymore on Facebook. It was probably on the back side of its life. But it’s been rejuvenated by finding a new audience. Is it the greatest free-to-play strategy game ever made? I don’t think even Kabam would say that. But it’s had outsized success. The point is that it’s really early. What’s driving the success of any individual title is generally that it’s first in a category at a reasonable level of quality.
I hear two things a lot. I hear a lot of complaints about the cost of player acquisition and I hear a lot of complaints about how the deck is stacked against you as a mobile developer or publisher, because it’s only the people who have an existing audience that are going to win.
In the first case, I say that if you make a good enough game, you’ll find that you’re buying a very low percentage of your installs. The cost of paying for those is going to be tiny when it’s amortized across all the organics you’re getting. So build a better game. Second, the better-quality games are winning. Build a better game.
GamesBeat: Once you launch, though, you’ll find at some point that a game starts tapering off. Is that the point where these other things related to user acquisition start to matter?
Richardson: Maybe. One thing you’ll see with sequels succeeding is that people have iterated on the game. They feel like they’ll get a better launch thrust with Apple or Android’s help by bringing a new product out there. Then they’re leveraging the existing audience to buttress it.
There seems to be a school of thought that says on mobile and tablet, the life cycle of players is very short. If you keep people playing your game for four or five weeks, you’re pretty successful. I think that’s really limiting. One of Nexon’s core partners is NCsoft. They’ve had their best six months in the life cycle of Lineage, which has to be more than 10 years old, in this last six months.
These great games that are built for free-to-play can last a long time, especially the ones that are more immersive. It doesn’t seem like Clash of Clans is slowing down. Lineage is a good example. Dungeon Fighter is still very successful in China. So is CrossFire. League of Legends continues to grow.
I’m not sure how to think about the life cycle of these games, other than that you should plan for them to be around forever. If you get to the point where they have diminishing returns and you’re spending more money on the marketing, you have to ask yourself – is there anything I can do to improve the product? A game like Lineage is massively different now, 10 years later. They’ve evolved and iterated against what the audience wants. They’ve become much better games.
It’s what I talked about with the restaurant analogy. You may open up and be okay with a restaurant, making enough to sustain, but if you keep iterating and working on what you’re doing, all of a sudden you can be a great restaurant. Great restaurants can last decades. But as soon as you stop moving forward, you’re probably in trouble.
In the early days of free-to-play, a lot of publishers and developers treated their games as something disposable. Build ‘em fast and cheap, milk ‘em for what you can get while they last. That’s as opposed to saying, “Hey, I’m investing in an entertainment service that could resonate with players for years.” It’s just a different mindset.
GamesBeat: Where did you find the patience to do things the way you do them?
Richardson: [laughs] I don’t think I have the patience. That’s been really hard. Part of what attracted me to starting Rumble in the first place is that we weren’t going to have as long of development cycles. Our assumptions about how long it would take us to get our games out were wrong.
The thing that’s been helpful is that you have a lot of users playing your game while you’re building it. You’re not doing it in isolation, wondering if you’ve built a gas-guzzling SUV when gas prices are about to jump. You don’t have that concern because you’re getting feedback every day from the players and finding out whether what you’re creating is exciting them.
For another thing, I’ll give you some examples from KingsRoad. When we first launched the open beta in April, we didn’t have much of an elder game. You’d play through the game to a certain level, and there was content to play, but the bulk of the game wasn’t there to compel you to continue to play. We launched something called Champion Mode, so our most veteran users now had a whole new modality of play to go after. We saw our metrics take a step function forward. The business got fundamentally healthier. We did it again with guilds, where we gave people a chance to have team-based camaraderie and competition with each other. Again, fundamental improvement in the business. When you see that kind of iteration work, it compels you to be patient. You’re finding out that by being patient, you’re making the entertainment value of what you’re creating that much better.
That’s part of what got Nexon excited. They saw the metrics from the game just going up and to the right. They’ve learned over the years that patience is critical to success. Had we lost our courage and killed KingsRoad and then gone down the path of trying to replicate a hit free-to-play game, I think we would have been of less interest to them, and in the long term we would have been less well off.