SXSW – MMORPGs in Austin

Over the years, Central Texas has emerged as the mecca of massively multiplayer game development. Why did this happen and what does this mean? How will the massively multiplayer market change in the next five to ten years — and, assuming such changes occur, will Austin be able to retain it’s position as the geographical leader of this genre?

Moderator: Gordon Walton Co-Studio Dir, BioWare Austin
Gordon Walton Co-Studio Dir, BioWare Austin
John Blakely VP of Dev, Sony Online Entertainment
J Todd Coleman Dir, KingsIsle Entertainment Inc
Shannon Cusick Orbis Games LLC
Richard Garriott NCsoft Interactive

Q: what advantages does Austin have?

Cusick: networking, companies already here, relaxed attitude, environment, resources. College students; existing gaming industry
Blakely: about 30 or so known game companies in Austin. talent base is here; getting people with that experience is invaluable. lots of support from state government. talent pool is stressed and this is a great place to attract them.
Coleman: talent pool is the biggest attraction. and austin is pretty sticky, people want to stay even if move away from your company. Austin is also ripe for deals – known, resources, community leverage etc.
Garriott: agree with everything said. and there is another special aspect – thought technically competitors we are all very friendly, especially in MMO space. these games are big, take a long time, relative infrequent and so rarely head to head. also no signs yet at being at saturation, so successful games help each other. Churn rate is under a year, so all these games out for multiple years, every game that has had over 100k subscribers still has that, even after 10 years for some year. each new release does not cannibalise. it’s a rapid growth segment, and with good conscious we can root for each other.
Walton: talent is mobile, people get brought in. it is totally environment based; we have high tech meets creativity meets tolerance. you can be weird here, there is tolerance for it. a lot of places that were making games are making less than before, we used to be spread out and now we cluster

Q: what are the disadvantages?

Garriott: i see a problem, our demand for certain education levels, skill sets and experience has tapped out the market and cannot find a wide variety of people, such as 3d artists, 3d software engineers. in some specialties we have to compete, with outside town, state and country. have opened large office in china to get talent pool. definitely not cheaper and easier but truely cannot find staff I need.
Coleman: harder and harder to find people which I why I keep stealing them from you richard. need to educate people in general about how big the games industry is in Austin and how much an impact it will have. music and film get the press but games is a staggeringly large impact and does not get press.
Games are growing and this will continue to be a burden.
Walton: we need hits to attract talent, as we have not had a lot recently. Financing side, we only have small publishers in town. we are not where the money goes but we are where the work goes. the digital distribution gives us an advantage

Q: who are our competitors
Cusick: california, (SD/LA) and east coast. Baltimore etc.
Blakely: seattle, consoles etc. WoW growth, people will go there. I keep a close watch on Blizzard.
Coleman: I don;t spend a lot of my tome thinking about competition in this space. the job os to come up with a creative vision and see it through. who is doing things, similar, is not as important, the biggest thing is losing people and then they would have gone to austin not another city
Garriott: our biggest competitor is ourselves, we will live and die on game quality and how we educate how big the industry.
Walton: West coast, aligning with Asia which is a centre of gravity.

Q: Where do you see the MMO market going 5-10 years?

Garriott: that’s one product cycle?? it eveolves slowly; I hope my new game shakes it up a little; most MMOs are built in model of everquest, they are refined but in similar. that is the first thing that needs to change. we need to bring in elements of other kinds of gameplay.
Coleman: you’ll see different business model, ads, freeplay and pay for powerups etc. you will see some implosions, there us a lot of money coming in, attracting investment, you are starting to see deals going to teams that have not done it before. and what we do is not easy, you have all these problems. every hard problems is there to solve. as well as the tech issues it still needs to be fun. we will see a lot of large losses, with really dramatic wins, and interesting play out of places we do not expect.
Blakely: the console..what does MMO mean on console. there is a shared experiences etc so how d we tackle that. we need less traditional play and we need to deliver the new stuff.
Cusick: want it to be as big as hollywood and this the place to be.
Walton: they are still in their beginning as our iteration cycle is slow, so when we think about MMOs they are part of one big landscape. there is opportunity to branch out. The tools are getting better which means that smaller teams can do stuff; only huge hi cost teams have been able to do things for a while. those are the opportunities.

Audience Questions

Q: traffic and housing will impact life quality…would like to understand…content creation in SL, is this a way to bring in creative types? what is your comment on SL environment and is anything going on in Austin about this?

Garriott: when thinking UGC I think of pen/paper and D&D. the early adopters were all good story tellers, small audience. as it expanded you lost the storytellers and it was no longer fun. the majority of UGC is not exceptional and is abhorrent to wade few. but we only employ a small % of the talented people. so provide a tool set and let the creative excellence bubble up. the largest MMOs who have tried UGC have failed in the sorting process..we need to solve this. we need to filter and push the good stuff. there needs to be an economic feedback loop to drive to the good stuff.
Blakely: We announced our Home at GDC; we need to provide tools that allow people express themselves. still a puzzle we are trying to work out.
Walton: the concept of ownership is very sticky. if I won something in a game I am stuck in the game, so tapping into it is important.

Q: Perplex city – we are sending people on quests, we have developed a permanent large world. everyone seems to be ending up in the same areas but approaching form different areas.

Walton :not everyone is going after massive audiences, may 80% of us are. mass markets are not where most MMOs and ARGs are going forward, a lot of niche markets.
Cusick: most of our stuff is niche, but we would like to do mainstream stuff.
Blakely: gameplay has roots in a community of shared story. It;s a new thing about story telling, all mediums coming together. Look at the Heroes community. we will see more of this across all mediums.
Garriott: as attractive as find metaverse games, but it is never going to be a best game as a particular niche, ie games are cool in one part of offerings that are out there.

Q: it was difficult to build games and have a life outside how do you ensure the workers have a life?

garriott: I spent many years with 12+ work days 7 days a week. once i could afford it, but now I have many more interests. for the last game we have a policy against crunch mode, we keep demands low, no more that 8-10 hrs a day. I think we have a well managed overtime policy; we manage the crunches well, we think lifestyle is important
Cusick 0I’m a firm disbeliever in crunch time
Blakely: we try and be smarter about how we do games, looking at new techs, educate the investors, publishers etc. mange the efficiency. Keeping it measured and predictable etc. in an increasingly competitive environment you need the talent to stay around.
Coleman: if you kill people up to launch, then when it launches it is dead, you need people on top form then.
Walton: yet to see creative business that can run to a schedule; we have good intentions, the challenge will remain to do what we set out to do; there is never enough time or money. we are purely managed, have little foresight about times and crunches are always a possibility. have to be s,art enough to minimise it, years away from being able to build a plan
Coleman: not sure you ever can build to plan.

Q: you made a comment that austin is where the work goes not the money – can you elaborate why and what can the city do to help?

Gariott: we are one of the publishers, compared to west coast we have close to zero publishers. They go through investment and withdraw from outside publishers. we have to get them in town to keep them here. None of the things for other industries have been offered to hi tech industries etc have not been offered to the game industries, eg tax benefits.

Q: the film board has said the same the other day, the same thing that the game industry are looking for, can someone do the same thing?

Garriott: I’m a convergence sceptic, but while there are some concept artists that can do art, that is the beginning and end of convergence; the same people cannot do both industries.
Coleman: skillset is difficult to cross over but IP is not. there are some cross overs from distribution, PR etc. but a lot of key differences.
Blakely: we are part of Sony Pictures..we find it tough to cross over. look to invest here, but money will always go back to west coast.
Walton: he who has the money makes the rules. the money is not here, it is Dallas, Houston. you need to finance it here or you just be a job shop.

Q: Are Sony doing a good job of promoting the games division?

Blakely: yep. our chairman has done an amazing job of letting us run our business. They are hands off, but look for opportunities to leverage IP. we have shared resources on recent products. Still a challenge internally figuring out the corss overs.

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