With years of industry experience stretching back to the earliest days of Electronic Arts, and other pioneering studios - he's produced games including The Bard’s Tale, M.U.L.E., Starflight and Wasteland, Joe Ybarra has seen a lot of trends come and go.
Ybarra also has produced MMOs including Shadowbane and The Matrix Online, and has been working with Arizona-headquartered developer Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment as its SVP of strategic operations. There, he's tackling turning the Stargate license into a successful MMO as Stargate Worlds, as well as working with multiple other divisions of the developer, including Handcranked Games and Superstition Studios.
In this in-depth Gamasutra interview, Ybarra, talks the challenges that this presents, and the state of the MMO business, including details on the company's second, as yet unannounced title.
I'm slightly unclear on how the company got started. Were the internal studios all hired completely from scratch, or did you annex existing teams?
Joe Ybarra: Well, yeah, the short version is: Yes, we built everything from scratch. And I'm trying to think now if there's an exception to that statement. I guess not, because we did pursue the possibility of an acquisition at one point, but for whatever reason, that didn't come through. So, we pretty much built the studio from scratch.
We started the company in July of 2005, and the company was basically started by a group of people that had a relationship with MGM, three years prior to 2005, for the rights to get the online versions of Stargate. And it took them about three years to find Gary Whiting, who is the chairman of our company, and our primary fund raiser. And so he thought, "Well, gee, this sounds like a really interesting idea, trying to do an MMO based on the science fiction TV show."
So I was recruited and brought on as employee number one, the start of the start of the whole studio process. And over the course of the next year, year and a half, we built up the first studio, which is Stargate Worlds Studio, and then -- as I mentioned -- about a year and a half later, we started up studio number two, which was at the time headed -- and still is, actually -- by Rod Nakamoto, who's our VP of product development. So, now we're a year and a half in the process, so over the next year, we proceeded to build two more studios. So we have four now, one of which is located in Boston.
It's kind of... I don't know if "insane" is the right word, but uh, to start a whole bunch of studios before having released anything. Maybe ambitious is the word.
JY: Yeah, there are several different adjectives that you could use to describe that. Yeah. (laughter)
I mean there's so much, and so many people riding on the idea that this license will work, right?
JY: Yes and no. I guess, yeah, the fundamental answer is: of course. We have a lot of investors, because our company has all been privately funded with a range of investors, and of course our job is to make sure that they make a lot of money out of this process.
So, Stargate is actually, of course, our first product, and it's the one that's the most visible product, but if you look at what it takes to be a real player in our industry, part of what's made the better companies successful is the fact that they have scale.
Quite a bit of that is, if you have a project like Stargate, and you have probably a large team working on it, and the project ships, what do you do with all these people, regardless of whether it's successful or not? So, typically speaking, if you have a one-product company, that means that a lot of people are either laid off, or they have nothing to do until you've completed a pre-production.
When you have multiple studios, it gives us the ability to shift people and resources around, to get better leverage over what we have. So, to that extent, it's a good idea. As far as the quantity is concerned, a lot of that goes back to the investment strategy of the company, for the investors to get the return on the investment that they'd like.
You know, we really have to have more than one product, and given that these products take a very long time to build, you're looking at five year plan for us to deliver enough product and enough content to the audiences. We really do have to have several projects going on, and that's kind of what fuels the expansion of our organization.