GamesBeat: You make buildings immediately usable, which kind of runs against some traditional monetization thinking. Typically games will make a player wait for their buildings, which drives them to run out of patience and pay.
Castle: You’re highlighting a nuance here. We encourage people to pay to bypass some of the grind that’s natural in any resource-based gameplay like RTS or MOBA. We don’t mind people paying for that because it just accelerates their play. What we don’t want is people thinking, “Well, I guess I’ll turn my game off now and wait a few hours.” We don’t want a situation where the most efficient way to play the game is not to play it. It’s a very different model.
You’re right in that we’re probably leaving some amount of money on the table when it comes to frustrating somebody into paying. But I don’t really feel like we want to make games that monetize because people are frustrated. We want them to monetize because they’re excited and they want to spend into the gameplay experience, not away from it.
GamesBeat: I assume that you’re happy with the results so far?
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Castle: Yeah, it works quite well. It’s always hard to read the tea leaves – you have a lot of correlative data, not necessarily causal data – but we’re seeing better engagement levels and better play from payers once they’ve paid. That indicates that they paid to play, not to avoid playing. If we were to go and put all those time mechanics into the game, we might monetize a bit better in the short term, but we’re in it for the long haul. We want people to continue to be happy players, whether they’re highly engaged payers or highly engaged non-payers.
GamesBeat: If you over-monetize, it seems like you run the risk of having players drop the game out of frustration.
Castle: I saw a lot of that when I was at Zynga. There was a time when there was a real press to increase monetization rates. It’s even worse than that, in a way, because when somebody quits a game out of frustration, they go from being a net promoter to a net detractor. That’s bad for your ecosystem in general. You never want someone to quit because they hate your game. [laughs] If they quit because they got tired or they’re a little bored, then shame on you for not giving them enough content or whatever. But to get them to a point where they just get frustrated and quit is a bad outcome.
I think everyone recognizes that. Most companies are trying to avoid it. I just think it’s easier to fall back on known and accepted techniques, even 1.0 web purchasing notions like paywalls. Those are still around because they’re effective. It’s just not the more nuanced move. It doesn’t get you the long-term happy payer. We don’t really distinguish between payers and highly engaged players when it comes to our analysis of how the game is being played. At the end of the day we’d much rather have players that are paying us because they feel like they’re getting a good value for their money and saving some time. It’s not bypassing the game in any way.
GamesBeat: What do you do from here on out to keep people happy? Are there multiplayer features like clan warfare coming?
Castle: Absolutely. There’s a big war zone mode in the game. In the beginning you play PvE, against bases that were created by our designers. We have more than 100 of those in the game right now and we’re constantly adding more. They teach you how to use a certain unit or tactic. Immediately you’re sent into a campaign mode, which has a story and gradually gives you access to units on the PvE side.
Very quickly, almost immediately as well, we also get you into anonymous PvP, where you attack other players. Although you see their name, you don’t really think of them as opponents so much as, “Oh, that’s a cool base. It has some metal. Let me go get that.” Sometimes you’ll get a revenge loop there. The PvP becomes a light personal engagement. But it’s certainly not a social engagement yet.
Once we open up the world maps, we open up the social aspect of the game. Now, when you pick on a base or decide to attack a PvE target, you can use your forward operating bases — game pieces that modify the battles — or your alliance members. Suddenly it’s very important to become a member of an alliance. It’s much more helpful when it comes to taking down big targets. Ultimately you end up using your alliances to take down PvE targets, and then you battle against other alliances to try and take targets or prevent access to certain areas. It slowly but surely grows to be a large group mechanic against another large group mechanic.
Some people in our game are already at the highest level of playing the elder game, but they don’t engage in that at all. They’re having a great time just doing PvE stuff, solo stuff. We try not to judge that. We know that people stick around longer when they’re playing with their friends, but for some people that’s just not their cup of tea, and we don’t want them to feel like we’ve abandoned them.
Taking care of that going forward, we have a whole system set up for regular events and constant releases of new technologies for players to use, new equipment to modify their units. There’s a road map for many years of additions to the game. We don’t start day one wondering what we’re going to do for the next six months. We know what we’re going to do for the next couple of years.
GamesBeat: What was it like to deal with the moving target of having outstanding graphics, but also running on as many devices as possible.
Castle: That’s been a challenge. We still have people out there who give us one-star reviews because they tried to play on their six-year-old phone and it didn’t work. I wish players wouldn’t do that. They don’t realize how devastating that can be to a game. We worked hard to support as many phones and tablets as possible. At the end of the day, the graphics are spectacular, and though we have four different scales on visuals to give you decent performance on lower-tier devices, at some point your device is just too old. We’ve done the best we can.
That’s part of the reason it’s taken quite a bit of time to get this to worldwide release. We wanted to be sure we had a wide representation of market potential, and of course all the other things we talked about. All those large world map features require a lot of iteration to get right. You need good-sized audiences to do that, which all adds up to more time.
Everyone notices the graphics are spectacular. Most companies take—I don’t know if I’d say “safer,” but a less expensive route of simplifying their graphics so they can run on as many devices as possible. But I feel that takes away from a modern war game. If you look at the ads some of these companies run, you think, “Oh, I want to play that game!” Then you download it and it’s text and slide bars. You have to imagine all the rest, like Infocom adventures from the ‘80s. [laughs] I do think it’s important to have a great visual presentation.
GamesBeat: What was the team like in this case? Does it remind you of the scope and scale of the teams you had at Westwood?
Castle: Actually, our team is considerably bigger than the RTS teams we had at Westwood. Back in the day we could bang a game out with 12 or 15 or 20 people. The Rogue Assault team has been at least 50 people most of the way. It’s a big team. That being said, the task they’re taking on involves many times more content than anything we ever put in a C&C.
In a way, if you think about how much is being accomplished, the output per person — it’s certainly more productive now than it’s ever been. You see that in people being able to ship a game with a handful of people and still be competitive. You could never have done that back in the day, especially with the depth of content we have. The speed at which consumers can go through content is shocking nowadays.
It’s a funny thing. With mobile games, and especially these MMO games, the very first day you launch the game is the beginning of the process. It may be the end of our personal navel-gazing as far as whether or not it’s ready, but it’s the beginning of figuring out what the game should be for all the people playing. We look to the community to give us feedback, tell us what they like, tell us what they don’t like. We’ll be listening and adapting as quickly as possible to make sure we’re making a game the community wants to play.
GamesBeat: It seems like that whole process may be painful, but it’s necessary to be competitive in the market today.
Castle: I don’t find it painful, actually. I know a lot of people seem to feel that way. I find it invigorating, though. It may just be my ongoing insecurity about whether I’m really making the best games I can. [laughs] It’s important to hear people say what they like or what they didn’t like, and very important to know why.
Even though I’ve made a lot of games in my life, more than 150, it feels like every time I make another one I learn something new. There’s always a new hill to climb. It’s hard sometimes to hear the criticism, but it helps us make better games. We want to hear the good and the bad.
GamesBeat: There’s also the process of putting a game together over two and a half years, though.
Castle: There is that, yeah. It’s painful because — there’s been a couple of times where we felt like we were close to launch, but then the data told us we needed to work harder and get a little bit better. That’s always a hard decision. I applaud the senior management at Kixeye for having the integrity and the guts to hold it and say, “No, we can do better.” That’s important.
One key to the genius of Blizzard is that they’re willing to wait. They’re willing to kill something. They’re willing to keep working until they feel something’s ready. That’s worked out for them spectacularly. That’s something every company could learn from. It sure would be nice if we didn’t live a world where 4,000 games come out every day and two of them are worth playing.
GamesBeat: Did you have to have a lot of conversations with Will about the big picture?
Castle: Oh, no. Will and Dave Scott and Paul Preece are dedicated gamers. They’re committed to making sure that the brand is protected, that their products are as good as they can be.
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