Respawn's new COO on the future of triple-A and publisher relations
Given Jason West and Vince Zampella's contentious relationship with their last publisher, it's perhaps not surprising that they've recruited someone to handle their relationship with Electronic Arts.
What may be surprising is that the studio's new chief operating officer is a 13-year Activision veteran, Dusty Welch -- though he did leave the company around the time the Infinity Ward blowout
Respawn Entertainment CEO Zampella first recruited him to help out on getting Titanfall
ready for launch. "I told them I would help them... through the April time frame, to do marketing and publishing, and get the game out the door," Welch says. The game's out the door, but he isn't.
Welch came on because Zampella sought "somebody he could consider a business partner and another sounding board, someone he could talk to and rely upon to help build the business." The two share the "same sensibility," Welch says. "I helped to create the Call of Duty
franchise back in the early days. We built a really rewarding and mutually respectful partnership."
Partnering with a publisher: Essential to the life of an independent Respawn
"EA is our publisher; we love to work with them."
Having a COO at the studio "gives the developer a chance to have someone come on board to help think about corporate and product strategy," Welch says. His background encompasses publishing, marketing, PR, business, and finance -- and he thinks it's valuable to embed "more kinds of traditional publishing expertise" in an independent development studio.
Given Welch's long history at Activision, it may be no surprise that he sees the value in a close publisher relationship, but there's also little question that a game like Titanfall
couldn't exist without a major publishing partner. Few independent studios -- besides perhaps Valve and Chris Roberts' Roberts Space Industries, with its unprecedented Star Citizen crowdfunding success
-- can afford to do triple-A unassisted.
Still, the closeness of EA and Respawn's relationship may surprise you.
"EA is our publisher; we love to work with them," says Welch. Recruiting a COO "isn't about being autonomous. This is really more about getting smarter... The more we can understand and onboard publishing insights and strategy and figure out growth vectors," the better off Respawn will be. In turn, "the better we are, the more capable we are at partnering with our publisher," Welch says.
"I wouldn't have joined on board if Vince didn't have a vision of building a strong powerhouse developer," says Welch -- one with its independence, but a smart attitude toward tackling the future and working with its most important partner. "If we can form a great partnership together, our products will prevail."
How that relationship works: Welch explains
"The only way I can think of to do that is to have that incredible capability, that dialogue, that partnership with the publisher -- that allows you to take advantage of every opportunity, every headcount, every organization that a huge publisher offers," Welch says.
"If you can leverage that, you can cross the traditional developer/publisher barrier. If you can beat those walls down and think about expansively talking to your audience, and build your business together, you succeed. Both companies ultimately win." In this scenario, he says, Respawn gains "the freedom and resources to make a better product."
"If your partner gives you that capability, you damn well better jump in the sauce with them."
"My role, in some respects, is to be... that bridge between the developer and publisher, and ensure that relationship can be respectful, productive, and cohesive."
Respawn is plugged right into the EA machine -- Welch met recently with CFO Blake Jorgensen and discussed where the company sees the industry going over the course of the next generation.
That kind of conversation "helps us at Respawn understand where the market's going," Welch says. With that kind of access, Respawn can learn "what they're doing with their franchises and where the market's going, while keeping our autonomy."
"Many developers and publishers have had adverse relationships with each other," Welch acknowledges. "My role, in some respects, is to be... that bridge between the developer and publisher, and ensure that relationship can be respectful, productive, and cohesive."
Welch cut his teeth working with Id Software when he was at Activision. He oversaw that relationship for seven years: "to really understand their products, their ethos, their agenda, and marry that up with my portfolio," he says, "and in some cases keep Activision, the publisher, away from the developer."
Envisioning the evolution of Titanfall and Respawn Entertainment
The next challenge for Respawn, says Welch, is turning Titanfall
into a service.
"This week, we're releasing a new content pack -- so more free content, game modes... you name it," Welch says. This is "our way to test the live ops, software-as-a-service model that traditionally exists in free-to-play mobile, and not on the console."
"This generation of gaming for Xbox One and PS4 should allow for the triple-A megahit titles, such as a Titanfall
, to expand their offering beyond the launch window and probably offer more of a software-as-a-service-type model," Welch says, but cautions that the studio is still figuring out exactly what that means both business and design-wise.
"You're thinking about this month by month, week by week. What content are you continuing to provide? How are you delighting the audience at every single turn to keep them engaged?"
Welch points to League of Legends, World of Tanks
, and Kabam and Kixeye as full of lessons triple-A developers can learn from. "Their type of model and focus on working on user engagement will blend and find its way into next-gen consoles."
"I still believe wholeheartedly in triple-A mega-franchises and all that goes with it."
"There's a lot of potential for that," Welch says. "I still believe wholeheartedly in triple-A mega-franchises and all that goes with it," Welch says, but it's time to draw in "new audiences" and explore "new business models."
It's worth nothing that Welch was a co-founder of failed free-to-play studio
U4iA Games, and no doubt brings a head full of F2P learning with him.
"You will find there are different market leaders that emerge, that are more about gameplay and retention," Welch suggests. But don't be mistaken, he says: "the most important thing is really around gameplay engagement and fun factor," not business. "Our primary cause and our uber-ethos is that high quality gameplay feel, and it's a consumer-first mentality."
"I think the smartest developers, regardless of platform, are thinking and prototyping, and designing, and iterating with that in mind -- with the consumer experience first and foremost," Welch says. They're considering "how they can extend engagement with the player," but "it's not so much about, 'How can I make more money?' It has to be led with the mentality of how I can provide more fun experiences for my audience."
"Everybody's competing with each other with that most elusive golden nugget, which is the consumer's free time," Welch says. "It puts more ownership and pressure on the developer... to make a far more engaging and delighting product."
The far future: New opportunities, platforms, and audiences
He's also looking further into the future, at the expectations of the next generation of consumers who Respawn might engage with.
"I think, importantly, there are types of products, other formats of products, that Respawn could offer over time."
"There's younger generations that come up below us," Welch says. "I think, importantly, there are types of products, other formats of products, that Respawn could offer over time. That is very much expansive to the current portfolio. I think if we weren't thinking that way, I'd be concerned. Part of my job is to think that way, and help us realize those visions and goals."
"Vince has a unique ability to look in the future and prognosticate. He's very up to date on the business trends and emerging markets," Welch says. "Vince and I often share the same thoughts and the same visions on potential opportunities where Respawn can go with respect to mobile, free-to-play, and emerging markets."
The game developers at the studio are generally "more lasered-in on dev," says Welch, and it's his job to enlighten them about opportunities and help them strategize.
"Understanding what makes World of Tanks or even Candy Crush wildly successful, and retain users at such a high rate, that can help us understand the principles and apply that to our portfolio."
"The creative juices and development acumen is so high, I feel they could tackle any challenge or opportunity," says Welch. "Our goal is to meter those out to the most potentially successful."
"A majority of what I need to focus in on is consumer insights and consumer trends on a global basis, and helping our dev team internalize those." He also hopes to recruit more developers
for the studio.
And learning about what works in other industry segments is directly applicable, whether or not you are in the same business, Welch says. "For argument's sake, let's say we never make a free-to-play game. Understanding what makes World of Tanks
or even Candy Crush
wildly successful, and retain users at such a high rate, that can help us understand the principles and apply that to our portfolio."
"We realize and recognize that our greatest success lies ahead of us," Welch says.