Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Anonymous guest interview: Working in AAA games

Being a small-time, shitty video games blog, I'm at the very bottom of the games media food chain. I don't get news early, I don't get review code nor do I get invited to press events. But thanks to my anonymous guest spots, industry professionals have kindly contributed material here, without risk to their job by revealing their name. And thanks to that concept we have a bit of a change. An anonymous guest interview! Obviously, I can't reveal their identity or the name of the publisher they worked for, but I can tell you they (up until recently) worked very high up for a triple-A publisher. And they he/she has promised to answer all my questions, with 100% honesty.

"Jack Dickirollo" has been the Chief Executive Officer for  rEAlly games  for about six years- earning 800,000 sods a year, until recently, where he  stepped down for unknown reasons.

SuicideGaming: Thank you for granting me this interview. So, I'll just come right out and ask the burning question, why did you resign?

Jack Dickirollo: Glad to contribute,  no one is ever gonna read this anyway, so I'm golden. In answer to your question, it was heavily advised by the Chief Operating Officer and our share holders that the best thing to do - in light of the poor financial returns for last year- that I step down as CEO of rEAlly game. As the CEO, the buck stops with me. I've done some great things that I'm really proud of. But I also have to accept responsibility for when things go less than our research predicted...Plus, I get a severance pay of two years wages. So I don't have to sell my ivory yacht just yet. 

SG: So what cause the board and COO to lose such faith in you?

JD: It was a culmination of things. Like I said, last year was one of our worst financial years. On the surface things have looked like we were sailing along like normal, and we were. But a lot of our profits went into very risky and expensive projects...

SG: (interrupting) You mean the failed MMO?

JD: That was the main one. We threw the chequebook at B.O.Ware, they had made us some successful RPGs and some moderately successful DLC for them. It seemed a no-brainer to have them make a MMORPG. At the time every big publisher was trying get a bite of the WOW cherry. This was before having a free-to-play model for MMOs was even a idea to our research. We saw all the potential for a world-wide, constant userbase that would always be connected to us 24/7. And when we purchased the rights to the movie, The Lawnmower Man - which our research showed was a great IP to exploit and had great recognition amongst 28 and a half - 29 year old males. It had mega-hit written all over it. 

SG: So why wasn't it a hit?

JD: By the time, Lawnmower Universe Online was finished, the MMO bubble had burst. We spent millions on developing the servers, setting up the intricate systems of  of buying new kinds of hair and even got Pierce Brosnan involved with the marketing. But the initial reaction was less than stellar. less than half of what our research had  had predicted. Less than six months later, that userbase has reduced by 9% and then we got caught up in a pointless media shit storm.

SG: I take it you're referring to the now infamous planet of exclusively gay characters?

JD: It was the media trying to make a story out of nothing. We thought it shrewd to cash in on our research into LGBT gamers who wanted the option of same sex relationships in Lawnmower Universe Online. It was a option in B.O. Ware's previous title, "Brass Effect" so we decided to have a gay planet, so if players wanted to gay up their game experience, they could. What's so bad about that?

SG: Well some took offence that the gay characters couldn't leave the planet and the planet was called, "Nancy-Prime 075"

JD: And it cost us a small fortune copyrighting that name as well. Some transformers fetish site wanted it. But by that point the free-to-play model was becoming the new thing. And it seemed like a great way to instantly recoup our money, but the failure of LUO began a snowball effect that pushed the need for more profits on future titles, to help cover the costs. We always had the foundation games, you know, yearly updates like BIFA: 5-a-side football and John Craven's Rugby. Those games keep the lights on in the office and maintains the upkeep of my luxury catamaran. The B-Games, like Bread Face do slightly less business but are worth investing in, in hope they cross over into big sales.

SG: On the subject of the Bread Face series, the critically acclaimed survival horror game set in a haunted cake shop Why do you think the third in the series failed to meet it's sales expectations?

JD: Partly because of the massive debt left by LUO, but mainly it was simple because the developers had gone made with power. Sure they included our original idea of 17-player co-op and a in-game system of upgrading your shoes for real money, that was great, but the producer lost the plot and overshot the budget. Prior to LUO bombing, that wouldnt' have been too bad, but when I saw the money being spent, I had to step in and insist the game be wrapped up and shipped, to stop the production hemorrhaging any more money. Fact is, AAA game budgets need AAA game sales figures. And Bread Face 3 just didn't sell well enough for a sequel.

SG: Some blame Bread Face 3's drop in sale on the new co-op and microtransactions as well as the game looking unfinished in paces. 

JD: It wasn't unfinished, the producer stupidly included too much if anything. He left almost nothing for DLC. I just stopped him including too much free content. 

SG: By "free content", you mean the game that comes on the disc?

JD: Precisely. We put up all the production and marketing costs. It's our game code, our IP, not the gamers. All they own is a plastic circle and the box it came in, so we'll sell them the media to play our game in any way we see fit. And no way did we cheap out on Bread Face 3, we spent millions to get Elkie Brooks to sing on the TV ads. The failure of Bread Face 3 is just the series running it's course. 

SG: On the subject on the media people play their games on. One of your biggest achievements at rEAlly games was the creation of the online distribution store, rEAlly: Oh-Press. The service recently came under heavy criticism when-

JD: (interrupting) I know where this is going. We spent millions on those Oh-Press servers. Our research simply could not have predicted the huge rush of people on the release of our digital wendy house sim would cause them to crash. How could we have known that would happen? A crystal ball? Reading tea leaves?

SG: Making a educated guess from pre-orders? 

JD: Market research doesn't work like that. It takes years and millions of dollars to fully conduct it. The servers are, more or less, working now and we made amends with our customers by giving every Oh-Press user a free tyre change in our digital racing game, Drivings. That's worth $2.99 in real money. 

SG: Would you not admit that Digital Wendy House needing a always on internet connection was probably the cause of the server crashes? Why did a mostly single player game need to connected to your Oh-Press servers anyway?

JD: Well how else are we supposed to monitor everything our customers are doing and deliver more microtransaction more efficiently? That's the main appeal of the Oh-Press system.

SG: So are you saying DRM and microtransactions are just ways to keep your customers on a short leash?

JD: What else is it good for? Fighting piracy? That's just what we tell the press. Once we have customers in our grasp we don't let go, that why we want them always connected to our servers. And it gets them into a pattern of behaviour where they get used to always being connected to us and a future of freemium games.

SG: So you think the future is the free-to-play market?

JD: I think every game should be freemium, in a sense. Our research shows people are less inclined to buy a title they're never tried before, so the best way around that is to sell them the opening portion of a game, and if they like it, they can pay to unlock other aspects of it. 

SG: It sounds like a paid demo.

JD: Because it is! It's the future of the industry.

SG: So you don't see a link between everything you just talked about and your resignation?

JD: It was LUO huge budget and lack of revenue that did it. We should of gone with a freemium pricing policy from the get-go. The knock-on effect on other titles to perform outstandingly in this economy was the unavoidable. I'm stepping down as a way for rEAlly games to streamline their corporate operation. It's been a tough year for rEAlly. Especially with the press using every slight mistake as a opportunity to publically bash us. No wonder out COO, Paul Minks felt he had to tell those arguing bastards on GamesIndustry.biz. 

SG: You don't think games media should openly criticise publishers?

JD: No, that's not what they're for. They're the last line of publicity. No one cares about review scores because they make no difference. And they would all go out of business of we pulled our adverts. That's the only purpose magazines and websites have, to publicise our games. When they report on a release date or preview, or some promotional item, it's publicising our game. Or do the dude-bros at IGN, the weaboos at Kotaku or the smug hipsters at Polygon think we send them free stuff and invite them to fancy events because we like them?

At this point, Jack Dickirollo said he wouldn't answer any more questions until I paid him $5. Something this blog doesn't have. So unfortunately I had to cut the interview there.

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