Q&A: Former EALA Exec Castle On Plans For InstantAction
InstantAction parent company IAC announced today that former EALA exec Louis Castle is the online game publisher/developer's new CEO, confirming earlier reports of a job change
for Castle, who also founded Westwood Studios.
In his new role, he'll spearhead the continued expansion of InstantAction's game portal business while working to create original IP for the company, to be delivered via its platform. IAC CEO Barry Diller praised him in a statement as "an accomplished story-teller, visionary, artist and inventor."
IAC also owns a number of popular websites, including Ask.com, CollegeHumor.com, Match.com, and Vimeo.com, among many others. InstantAction's former CEO, Josh Williams, is remaining with the company and assuming the role of fellow and chief technologist.
Currently InstantAction offers a number of both first and third-party created, complex 3D web browser games on its website
, intended to be monetized via advertisements and microtransactions.
The company also has stakes in both IP ownership and original game development, with the acquisition
of the Starsiege
IP, which includes the classic multiplayer game Starsiege: Tribes
, from Activision.
Castle's new strategy for the company includes opening up the InstantAction platform to external publishers, working with independent developers to publish their content onto the platform, and launching a new Las Vegas studio to create games. Technology will be run out of the company's Portland, Oregon offices, which will be expanding.
To find out the meaning behind his move, Gamasutra sat down with Castle; the extensive question and answer session below illuminates his philosophical differences from IA's prior strategy, how GarageGames and Torque fit into the equation, the drive for social network integration, and how he sees competitors like Valve's Steam and cloud-based service OnLive.
Why did you join InstantAction?
Louis Castle: Taking a step back, it's really looking at the future of where games are going.
Games are always going to consumers, no matter what you do. There are always lots of different ways of getting them to the consumers. Clearly the best way to get entertainment to consumers is to get it directly to the consumers.
When I started looking at the ways that games are evolving, the kinds of markets, the incredible growth in social gaming, and seeing how well that fit together, it really became clear to me that I wanted to be involved in the social gaming space and the web distribution and gaming space.
I've done a little bit, obviously, over the years on all of these fronts, have made MMOs and things like that. So certainly I've been involved, but it certainly feels that the time has come. And that was really the impetus more than anything. I've had these very vague ideas of what kinds of things I might like to make; I'd like to build games around the social gaming platforms. Not to disparage anything that's out there, but the games are light.
I'm a gamer. I'd like to make richer experiences. Hopefully very easy-to-use experiences, like Boom Blox
, which has a very easy-to-get-into but deep and rich experience as an entertainment experience. I'd like to build products around social networks and around a lot of different platforms simultaneously, and that was what excited me about the opportunity.
Going direct to consumers through Facebook or Flash is very appealing to developers right now, in part because it avoids the publishing angle. What are your thoughts?
LC: I have opinions on that. The idea of controlling or limiting the amount of content that's created and driven to consumers is getting disrupted at this point because of the social networks. I also think that there's a quality of entertainment product -- that could be going to consumers -- that's still controlled and constrained by the things that have been done in the past.
There's not a real good technical reason for it; it's more of a social issue than a technical issue. So, being with InstantAction that has this great technology that makes it able to use 100 percent of the machine it's running on, but do it in a browser, and having links to social networks is obviously really, really powerful.
So this is obviously significantly different, in my mind. Not because the tech is on paper seems like that big of a difference, but because the consumer experiences we can deliver are that much better. So when I talk about social gaming, that doesn't mean that I want to go out and make games that are competitive or even similar to the kinds of games that are available now on the social platforms. It means that I see those as a place to deliver content and entertainment, and I don't think that it has to be limited to text-based strategy games.
A lot of the distribution model that's still present on the console side is still tied up in what Nintendo pioneered in the '80s -- it's a direct descendant of that. It hasn't changed a lot.
LC: Sure. Without disparaging any one publisher -- I mean, everybody's guilty in some ways, right? There's an observation of mine, where the industry's sort of hoisted on its own petard. So many of the content creators and providers seek to constrain and limit the access to the entertainment because that is what they perceive their value to be. [In doing so], they actually make their lives more difficult.
I guess I'm probably being a little obtuse about all that, but what I'm getting at is, for our business, for InstantAction, and what excites me about InstantAction is, being a place where publishers and content makers or marketers and all of the things that are great about publishers, they're not trying to control or constrain things. Actually, our goal is to connect them to the consumers in ways that are otherwise very difficult to do.
I actually don't view myself or InstantAction as competitors to publishers in that way. I think we want to be their partners. So that's one big difference you'll see in the upcoming months, under my direction. We really want to be a great partner for publishers to deliver great quality entertainment on the web and on social networks, instead of trying to control or constrain that pipe for ourselves.
Because InstantAction's tech offers the ability to deploy existing game content on the web through browsers. That's the point of it.
LC: It's kind of brilliant, yeah. It's awesome!
So you see opportunities to take existing games that publishers have in their repertoire, and deliver them in a new way?
LC: Yeah, and to deliver them directly to the consumers. We have all sorts of things that we're working on right now. And we're already in that space, really. There are so many companies out there saying, "Hey! Look at this! We got an engine running in a browser!" (laughs) Well, we're already way ahead of you. We're working on the next level of what that means and how it can impact the consumer experience in a positive way. So that's the kinds of thing we're hoping to bring out.
So that's one of our big pillars. And there are actually a couple of other ones too.
I really believed in the mission of GarageGames from the very beginning, which was to connect developers directly to consumers. So that's something we'll be looking at doing a better job of -- improving the Torque tool set.
It's already pretty darn good, very, very robust, but even making it better and investing a lot more time and energy into that, and really giving those indie developers an ability to publish, really publish. Not just download or distribute, but give them a full publishing platform. That's really exciting to us.
And the third column is doing my own games. I have my own aspirations of the kind of entertainment I'd like to do, and it's really wonderful to have the opportunity to be at a company like InstantAction where it's both small enough that I can get my hands around the entire thing, but big enough to be on every single platform that I'm interested in publishing on right now. So lots of good reasons, I suppose.
You talk about the potential to work with both established publishers and indies. What are the advantages of working with both, and how does InstantAction want to do it?
LC: Well, IAC has an obvious competence in web services -- everything from SEO to just about everything you can imagine in terms of web services, all the companies they have. So a great wealth of knowledge and information. And so it's spent a considerable amount of money creating a wonderful platform that, currently, very few titles are enjoying the privilege of.
So to answer the question directly about publishers and developers, I don't see any reason why they have to be mutually exclusive. The thing that's good for publishers could also be very good for independents. It really depends on how much integration you want to have with our company and our platform, and how much assistance you need. I think it's a continuum of opportunity and it doesn't have to be limited to one or the other.
Up till now, a lot of what InstantAction has done is get original games that are exclusive to InstantAction. It's almost like first-party publishing for your platform.
LC: Well, I've already just talked about the philosophy. My difference in philosophy is a broader thing. Every business in the interconnected social media space -- whether it's mobile devices or computers/internet -- every single business that tried to control the content and restrain the consumer has found itself massively disrupted.
You can go to the music industry, you can go to film, you can go to television -- you can go to everybody and it's again, and again, and again, consumers want their media. These devices break open the traditional control valves that have existed.
And so everybody kind of gets knocked around and spins in circles and tries to find a new place to be. And so rather than being a person who thinks that I'm going to control that, I'd much rather use our opportunities and use our platform to open it up. To basically enable people to find the content they want to find and allow them to get it in the way they want to get it. And hopefully they will pay for it the way they want to pay for it. We're not looking to constrain anybody or any of our partners. We're looking to be a facilitator.
There's ad-supported stuff on InstantAction right now. How do you view payment options?
LC: Well, we have ads and [in-game] items. You can do basically any way that you can think of monetizing a game, or paying for, or making money from a game is available through our platform. It's one of the attractive things about the platform.
And because of its design, it allows these things to be commodities for our customers -- for both our publisher customers and our consumer customers. So to me, it's more about being the place that doesn't try and pick a fight with anybody, and just tries to make everybody more successful with connecting content to consumers. That's what we want to do.
How do you attract users to InstantAction? You're talking about hooking into social networking and increasing the wealth of different game titles that are available. Do you see it as just a natural progression?
LC: Well, yes, I guess when it comes to attracting customers to InstantAction, I'm a little different than the strategy that we've employed in the past. Social networks are a relatively recent phenomenon; InstantAction has been around for a few years, and GarageGames much longer. So when you look back in time, nobody could have predicted the kind of pervasiveness they have in our business.
So obviously, if you've seen [Fallen Empire:] Legions
on Facebook, clearly we intend to put things into social networks. But probably more so than people imagine. And of course we're masters of advertising; that's what the company does, mostly. So obviously we can drive people to our portal.
But I guess, philosophically, it's better to bring the entertainment to the customer than try to drive the customer to the entertainment. So we have a lot of different solutions that we're pursuing right now to do that.
Can you talk about that?
LC: Well, obviously we want [to move] piece-by-piece. When I have something to show you I'd love to tell you about it that way. Obviously the one way you can see it is Legions
on Facebook. You can go onto Legions
and play a full, 3D-rendered game that's using 100% of your computer's power on a Facebook page. And that can be spread in a way that a lot of people -- it's a great way to virally spread content than to try and send somebody to a page to go find it.
The engines of virality are a big thing on Facebook -- of manhandling users into spreading your content. How do you look at that?
LC: I find social networks both wonderful and inspiring, and annoying, all at the same time. When people who make entertainment content are counting on driving X number of people through a door, only to then grind them up and spit them out again and monetize them to some amount -- I hope, I sincerely hope, that these are temporary aberrations and they're not the way of the future.
I certainly don't like getting spam. Nobody does. There are businesses out there, we all know who they are, I don't have to name them, that basically make a business out of just irritating people. They manage to get a couple of bucks out of them here or there, and then they move onto the next one. Since social networks are growing by tens of millions, they always have another one. It's the P.T. Barnum thing. "There's a sucker born every minute."
At some point people get tired of being the sucker. And so, companies that are depending on that as a model right now might be patting themselves on the back, but eventually hopefully the consumers vote with their feet, or their clicks, and go after content that has real substance to it and games that are really entertaining that they like and they stay with. So I don't aspire to be a company that aggregates a lot of eyeballs just to throw them out the door again. I aspire to be a place where people go and find something they like and stay.
You're talking about bringing in some publishers and working with their games. Have you been able to talk about any of the companies?
LC: Can't quite say anything yet, but watch this space. We're doing some pretty neat stuff.
It seems that, in a way, that could compete more with services like Steam, that deliver other publishers' games. It's a different paradigm, but it's got similarities.
LC: Actually, it's one of the principles of IAC -- always identify who your competition is. And I think that's a great principle of business. So you want to know what your competition's up to.
I don't think that other digital distribution technologies or companies are direct competitors with us. I suppose to some extent they must be. We offer something very different, which I think distinguishes us. We don't have to compete head-to-head with that. Hopefully we offer something more valuable. That's something we've yet to prove to our partner publishers. And that's what I'm setting out to do.
And more importantly, it's more about the bricks and mortar distribution. That's really who our real competitor is. We want to make it easier, better, more fulfilling, cheaper -- in every possible way better -- for a consumer to get their entertainment product through us than it is to have to get in a car, drive down to a store, buy something for 50 or 60 bucks, go back to their house and sit back and wait a couple of hours before they get to play.
We want to beat that. And that experience is not exactly enjoyable. No gamer likes all that. They put up with it because the games are so compelling. We're going to try and break down some of those barriers and make a little less friction for the consumer.
You talk about wanting to make your own games.
LC: Oh, absolutely. Already starting.
You obviously have a long, long development background. So that's something I would have asked you even if you didn't mention it.
LC: The three pillars of our business are: one, to be a great publishing partner for our existing frontline publishers and their current catalogues, not just older stuff. The second target, or business model, for us, is to directly connect developers to consumers in a way that's more robust than we already do.
Of course, the Torque tools are already good at that. We're going to try and make that better. And then finally, the third one, is to create products specifically designed around the current consumer landscape.
So, if you think about platforms, people think about the Xbox or Sony or whatever, the Wii, the PC, or the Mac. Those are devices, and we think of them as platforms, but really, it's more about who's on the other side of those devices. What defines an Xbox is more so its customer than the piece of hardware it's running.
And so when I look at where PC games have evolved into now, the customer landscape is dramatically different, and it's been a really short period of time, and I'm sort of brash enough, bold enough, and cocky enough to say, "Hey! We know how to make really good games. I know how to make really good games. No matter what the platform. Identify the consumer for me. Give me what it is I have to work with. I'm going to go make something really fun out of that." So that's really exciting to me. Will it be a hit, who knows? It's a hits-driven business, always, so what I do is keep swinging.
You talked a bit about philosophical changes to how the business operates now that you're coming into it. Does that necessitate technological changes to the platform? If so, how do you see that kind of rollout?
LC: The answer is, yes, it does. We're already focused on that. I can tell you that I think that most of the people in the company feel very inspired that there's clarity now: "What are we going to be? What are we going to do?"
I would say the technology changes, the reorganization around the vision -- this is not strictly new in the sense of what they're trying to build, but why they're building it has changed pretty dramatically so that does change the way your organize the business and the way you look at the business.
If you're trying to create a boat that you're going to sail yourself it's a lot different than trying to create a boat you're going to turn over to a bunch of other people to sail.
Looking back on Westwood, you think about Blade Runner. You're starting to see adventure games come back in the casual space...
LC: I love adventure games. I was the chief cook and bottle-washer on Blade Runner
. I had a great team with me. I was all over the art, the design, the technology, everything. Loved the film. To this day, I still use Blade Runner
as an example when I'm talking about games and what went right.
When will that come back? My hope and belief is that quality writing and storytelling is already on a great resurgence and will become more and more important. That's not to say that there's not room for great twitch and fun thumb candy. But for me, it's always been about the stories you tell and the characters you create and the worlds you imagine, and sharing those with people.
I think, really, the new-new thing here is bringing the consumer into that puzzle. So that they help to contribute to and grow those things, instead of just being passive consumers, they become active participants. And that's the great thing about social gaming, about connected gaming. People get to create their own stories, and that's a lot of fun. The adventure game as we imagine the adventure game probably doesn't exactly reemerge like that. But that doesn't mean it won't be something that's obviously a story-driven content game.
In terms of social gaming, that's not prevalent at the moment.
LC: No. Obviously, text-based, turn-based strategy is kind of the prevalent thing right now.
Ultimately, a lot of these companies that are making social games do not have a long history, so it's hard to say what's happening. There's a lot of room for evolution, and things have happened so fast that there's a lot of room for improvement.
LC: People talk about how fast it is on the internet. It's true; it's definitely true. But I go back, way back in the game industry, when three months was a long development cycle. So it's not that games started at two years, three years, and four years. They started with monthly installments, and three months, and if you worked a whole year on a game, then that was a tremendous amount of time.
And it was small teams, just five or six people. So from the amount of man-hours put into a project, it was a small fraction of what's being put into them today. So it doesn't feel new to me as much as it feels familiar. Those are great places.
It's also why you see a lot of old timers coming out, dusting off their resumes, and jumping into the new fields because you're finally at a place where small teams can create content. You can iterate very quickly, and you can find new things to do very, very rapidly. It's all very exciting. It's a wonderful rebirth.
That leads me to something I was already planning to ask about. Brian Reynolds went to Zynga. I think it was a bit of a surprise for people.
LC: Yeah! But no, not for me. It makes perfect sense to me.
LC: Well, because he's a strategy nut. He loves strategy games and Zynga makes strategy games. No matter whether you think of them that way or not, that's what they are. So there are a ton of advantages there. I think with people like [Mark] Skaggs and [Brian] Reynolds and [Mike] Verdu, that's good news for consumers, I think. Those are very talented people.
Getting people who have experience into a new place. I interviewed Mark Skaggs and he seemed very excited about moving to Zynga.
LC: I think bringing those kinds of people on board is a very wise move, because I know those guys personally and I can't imagine they would do anything but great experiences, given the opportunities.
What do you think about services like OnLive and Gaikai that have been announced? You're talking about using 100 percent of the computer, and they're talking about using zero percent of the computer.
LC: It's a great observation, actually. People who compare what we do to Gaikai and OnLive are missing the fundamental difference, but you just articulated it very well -- which is basically, their whole model is the game runs somewhere else, wherever that is, and the computer you're using is just a dumb terminal that lets you play.
And that will work for a number of experiences and will be fine, and for a number of people who are close to and have high enough bandwidth to have that experience and not suffer latency problems and something like that. And frankly it's a great augmentation to being able to run things natively on a platform.
I do believe that we are not at a point where those will become the only way people play but I expect them to be fairly successful in their own ways. And that's a good thing. it's good because people get the content and they get to play, but it's a different kind of model altogether.
OnLive's whole demo at GDC was showing people playing Crysis on a netbook, right?
LC: It's very compelling.
The two ends of the spectrum -- the most demanding PC game on the least capable platform.
LC: It's very compelling, isn't it?
If it works, when it works...
LC: Good luck to 'em! There's a lot that has to go into delivering that experience. So that's a whole new business model, it's a whole new pricing model, the capitalization behind that is pretty significant. Each one of these -- I'm under NDA on both of them to some extent, I suppose, so I have to be careful -- but each one has its pros and cons.
They may be perceived as direct head-to-head competitors but their technologies work substantively differently, and their model is different -- how they plan to make money and how they plan to roll out.
So it will be exciting to see how they go, and I wish them both well. I think it will be good for gaming. Again, I am all about connecting the content to the consumer. I want to be a part of that story. But if somebody else does a good job of that, too, I'm never afraid of competition.
It does seem that gaming options -- ways and paths to gaming -- are just multiplying, multiplying, multiplying right now. Every couple of months there is a new way to play games, a new way to deliver games, a new platform. You can't even call the consoles "platforms" anymore. They contain multiple games within them. Xbox 360 has packaged discs, Xbox Live Arcade, and Indie Games. That's three different routes to the same controller.
LC: I guess that's kind of what I was getting at earlier -- even the term "platform" becomes confusing. We call ourselves the InstantAction platform, the InstantAction network. But, really, what that means is just a place where a consumer can get connected to content.
I think that if you define it as broadly as that, then clearly the Xbox 360 is a platform, and the Sony PlayStation 3 is a platform. And so clearly is any PC, any Macintosh, any iPhone. They're all platforms of a type. For me, I do like to look at the consumer on the other side of that too, so I don't necessarily think that it's just about the ability to connect the consumer to the content, it's about which content, which consumer. So you have to factor that in.
Obviously the Wii is a very different gaming platform than a PlayStation 3. There might be products that are really successful on both, but by and large, the experience that the consumer is looking for when they use one machine is dramatically different -- even if it's the same consumer, and that's something that gets missed a lot, I think.
Can you talk about the location changes coming to the company?
LC: We're creating a new studio in Las Vegas, and we'll be moving some of the folks over from Eugene [Oregon] to help out with that. Everybody from the company is go-forward if they want to; they may be asked to move, and they may decide not to, and that will be their choice. We're also expanding the operations in Portland [Oregon].
A lot of people don't realize that InstantAction already has an office in Portland, so we're expanding that because we expect there to be a lot of growth there, and Portland is a very desirable place to live. The presence in Eugene will be there for quite some time, and I can't say with certainty where we're going to go with that. The news is more about expanding in Portland and opening in Las Vegas.
Can you talk about the studio you're opening in Las Vegas?
LC: It'll be a product space, and the Portland studio will be about our platform. The Vegas studio will be about products -- tools, tech, products. I live in Vegas; it's my expertise. So we center the products side of the business around my expertise. It's where I know what I'm doing.
Then the platform side is really centered around the incredible team from IAC that have really been collected from all over the industry to build this incredibly wonderful platform that they've built.
So those guys know exactly what they're doing and I'm glad to be their leader and happy to work with them, but clearly they have a depth of knowledge, and it's going to take me a little while to acquire that knowledge.