Xbox Live Arcade proved the surprising popularity of simple, casual games on next gen consoles—but can you build a new business out of that fact? What if you tossed in comics? D2C Games, the new company from Scott Orr(Lead Designer for the first two Madden NFL games) and Bart Besseling(Head of Quarium Inc, a company that has worked with EA and other large companies on various projects), is bringing casual gaming and comic book content to the consoles and handhelds. With their use of Quarium’s Hydrant Technology, technology designed for rapid development and online infrastructure, D2C hopes to bring game development costs down and pass that savings on to the consumer. I had the chance to sit down with Orr and Besseling to discuss casual games, interactive comics and digital distribution.
What Exactly is Hydrant?
Scott Orr: Hydrant is a platform that Bart has been evolving over the last 10 years. It’s a distribution platform, transaction platform, digital rights management platform and it also serves as the underlying base of our game engines. One of the core components of all the D2C games, be it sports or episodic, is to really leverage this shift in the market around the gamer generation’s desire to personalize everything they do as well as be connected to each other.
When you look at MySpace, YouTube or any number of blogs, they want to be connected, share their life with their friends or make new friends. In Hydrant, because of how it has evolved over the years and the fact that its primary focus is networking and multiplayer, we’re well positioned to be able to add that to lower cost, smaller scope games, because we’ve already made the investment of creating that infrastructure and that capability. I think with a lot of casual games, you try to keep the cost down so multiplayer community and personalization are often left off the table because of cost reasons.
The other thing that Hydrant has done for us is allowed us to reduce the engineering cost of the game from 50% to 25%. That gives us the advantage of being able to offer more game for the dollar. Bart thinks that, going forward, he can shrink that cost even more. As a result of the smaller scope of the games, and because we’re focusing on two areas instead of trying to support every genre out there. This will allow us to create more sophisticated games without a comparable increase in cost to develop or to the consumer. This will make for more of the same as consumers become more sophisticated.
Casual Games for Consoles and PC
SO: Yes. Our focus is on consoles and handhelds, but our platform, Hydrant, allows us to fairly easily move content to the PC as well as mobile platforms as well. Our primary focus is on next-gen and PSP.
Jason McMaster: What would make you target the next-gen consoles since they’re dominated by expensive one-shots? XBox Live Arcade?
SO: The Live Arcade validated this model of games that are smaller in scope and scale that are less expensive than the high end games. It’s validates that gamers are willing to pay 10 to 20 dollars and download something to their console. With the success of that and Sony, with, we believe, Nintendo eventually following suit, these distribution methods are aimed at smaller and new publishers like D2C games. Our charter right now is to take what we know from the high-end in terms of production value and quality and bring that down to a smaller scope, and, in our minds, reach a much broader group of gamers.
The high-end, of course, is the heart and soul of the game business and so is the hardcore gamer. We believe, however, that there’s a growing and expanding casual gaming market of new gamers and ex-hardcore gamers that don’t have the time to learn the games, let alone master them. Either that or they want something that is easy to pick up and play for a half hour as opposed to having to devote 3 or 4 hours at a time.
JM: You know, that’s a great market. As a lot of my friends have gotten older and had kids, they don’t have the time for gaming like they used to.
SO: Exactly. One of our core targets, from a design standpoint, particularly for the sports games, is that we’ve made games where the father actually stands a fighting chance of beating his 8 year-old. With the high-end sports game, typically dad doesn’t have the time or the skills to compete against his kid. These are the types of games that they can have fun with either competitively or cooperatively for an hour or half hour. Of course, when the 8 year-old has finished his homework he can go play Madden or whatever other games they may be interested in.
The other ares that we’re targeting is episodic, and specifically episodic sci-fi horror. In that genre we see a lot of opportunity, not just from the casual gamer, but there’s not a lot on that going on in the high-end market. We’ve formed a partnership with Steve Niles, which is a very highly regarded comic book writer, known for his series called 30 days of night. The first collaberative effort we have with Steve, called Strange Cases, isn’t only a game coming out this year but we’re also, this fall, bringing out print and interactive comics under the name of D2Comics.
To make the comics more interactive, we’ve added sound and music that the writers of the original property are involved with, some pan and scan to create motion and a limited amount of user control with respect to the pacing and accessing special features, like pop-up video and behind-the-scenes info. They’re going to retail for 3.99, which is only a little more than the printed version. Not only does this allow us to bring comic properties to be developed, but existing, to a broader audience than the current retail distribution. It’s hard to find comic book stores outside of major metro areas. We believe that these comics are going to be breakthrough for distribution.
Why Digital Distribution Over Retail?
SO: If we do any retail distro, say for PS2 which we plan to support, we would partner with an existing publisher that has the retail distribution and infrastructure in place. Part of the attraction of digital distribution is that there’s no inventory risk or the cost of creating and maintaining that inventory. The way we’re going to market these products, as you mentioned, will be through the respective manufacturer’s online stores and we’re also working with sponsors to get the word out to a broader audience. They would be redirected to the appropriate sites to download demos and buy the games. With retail, of course, you need to have a huge war chest of money to advertise and compete with EA and Activision.
Reaching the Masses
SO: One of the things that’s interesting about digital distribution is that it helps everyone better manage piracy. We have encryption from the major platforms, of course, but beyond that we have our own encryption and digital rights features that allow us to know, over time, whether a game is legitimate or not. If it’s not, the game is made into a demo, and all of those demos can be passed to other people with limited play. Ultimately, word of mouth, turns a good selling game into a hit or mega-hit. We believe that anything that we can do to facilitate good word of mouth, including transferring demo from player to player, will spread the word sooner rather than later.
Also, the digital nature of the content makes for easy updating. It can be a subtle update that fixes bugs or it can come in the form of additional content that we charge a nominal fee for. Our vision for that is that we want to allow the player to gradually expand the scope of the game and ultimately, if they want to build it out to the equivalant of a high end game, they can do that a piece at a time.
Who and When
SO: Chalkboard Sports and the comics will be released in Q3, as early as July or as late as September. Of course, in typical game time, later is more realistic. It could be a bit earlier or later, depending.
JM: Are you planning on launching on all targeted platforms at once or just going for certain ones?
SO: PS3 and PSP first. We’re also looking at Live Arcade and Wii. One of the things that led us to support Sony with PSP is that Sony has been very supportive and encouraging of publishers developing new kinds of content for the PSP. They view the PSP as a multimedia platform, and not just a game platform, so D2Comics is something they liked a lot and quickly approved. We all obviously believe that it’s the kind of content that can do really well on the PSP and bring PSP users a new kind of entertainment experience. With Chalkboard Sports, being real-time strategy sports, with a new kind of look and feel, which is different from what I did back in the 80′s and 90′s. We think casual and hardcore gamers are going to love it. Our focus testing certainly bares that out.