[Former Blizzard North developer David Brevik -- now president and CEO of Gazillion -- on how the company creates games, case in point: Marvel Universe, which he hopes will open the genre to new audiences.]
With a career spanning the success of Diablo II and the failure of Hellgate: London, David Brevik has seen what can go right and very, very wrong in game development. Now, as president and CEO of Gazillion, it's his job to oversee the company's MMO projects.
Originally attracted to the company by the offer of helming the Marvel Universe MMO project, Brevik talked to Gamasutra about his plans for that game, his desire to create quality games that find an audience, and how the company is "trying to change the ways that MMOs are viewed."
What do you oversee at Gazillion?
Well, almost everything. [laughs] A lot of the projects. Really, I'm involved in pretty much all the decisions for the company. I started out as the studio head at Secret Identity and then was promoted to president about six months ago.
At this point, what does Gazillion comprise from a studio perspective?
Well, we still have a bunch of different parts of the company. We still have Amazing Society, which just released the Superhero Squad game. And then we own the NetDevil group. Then we have Secret Identity here in San Mateo.
So, is NetDevil still working on Jumpgate Evolution?
I can't talk about that. [laughs]
Worth a shot. [laughs]
And [Marvel Universe developer] Secret Identity, was that formed out of development team assets you had already?
No. It's a brand new studio that I was recruited as the head of. This was right after... I actually got a call from some of the people at Gazillion, which they weren't Gazillion at the time. They said, "Hey, we got the Marvel license. We've heard that you want to make the Marvel Universe product."
I said, "Yes, I have for a long time. I'd love to come there." And they said, "Well, you can start a studio." So, I brought a bunch of people that I've worked with or a long time, including people that have worked with me all along the steps of the way from Blizzard North on up that formed the team.
Was this essentially soon after the Flagship thing happened?
It was about six months after... In between, I went to Turbine for a short while, and helped do some DDO free-to-play stuff.
I don't want to go on record and say that Marvel Universe is the first announced triple-A F2P game, but it seems like...
It's definitely the first free-to-play MMO, Western MMO ever, that I know of.
Yeah, launching, and also with something like this kind of huge license to tie to it.
Without anything concrete about it, it's hard to compare to other games in terms of scope. I don't know if you've talked about the size of the development team.
It's big. We're really investing many, many hours. More than most competitors.
Can you talk about the size of the team working on it?
Right now, size is in the mid-30s right now, but we will be growing quite a bit in the next couple of months. I'd say we'll flatten out between 60 and 70.
Does that also include outsourcing?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
Yes. A bunch of different parts of it. [laughs]
A sizable investment.
Yeah. Yeah. All in all, it's a very sizable investment overall. Yes. Equivalent to what most MMOs spend, basically.
Are you personally overseeing this project still even though you've moved on to a higher role in the company?
There were a bunch of things in the company I had to focus on, once I was put in this position. I made a bunch of changes. But now, a lot of those changes have been completed. I'm much more involved in day-to-day. I try to make myself available to at least work with the team for at least an hour or two every day. That's my goal in the end: oversee as much as possible. But there are multiple projects going on and things like that, so I'm not completely focused on one thing.
It seems like we’re sort of at an inflection point when a game like this can be announced as free-to-play.
There is a question about what platforms it will be on, and right now free-to-play is sort of semi-possible, but not quite possible, on console platforms. I think we’re all at a tipping point there.
It’s only a matter of time.
I agree. And I think that anybody that goes there with that type of business model is going to really shock a lot of people.
When you look at MMO design, and you have a lot of experience working on a number of games in this kind of vein, and obviously there's a lot out there. Do you think there's a need to do things differently in MMOs?
Absolutely. I think that in a lot of ways, they got into like the EverQuest rut and never really got out of it. In my opinion, MMOs are something that's like a game style. It's like I want to play with thousands of my friends, but that shouldn't dictate that I'm an EverQuest/WoW clone. That kind of goes into my design sensibilities and the direction that I think we're heading. We're trying to change the ways that MMOs are viewed, with all of our products.
I think there's a sense that if people can be attracted into massive multiplayer experiences, it could be transformative for the way people view games, but thus far, they haven't so far delivered much more than the DikuMUD style experience.
Right. Right. Yes. Were hoping to change things with this product. [laughs]
You know, there's a lot of talk about, you know, attracting everyone, from people who have just seen Iron Man down to people who, you know, live Marvel as their lifestyle. So, that's gotta be a challenging mandate.
Well, I mean, I guess. In a lot of ways, it speaks to my design philosophy, which I've had for a very long time, which is to start with things that are familiar, easy to grasp, et cetera, and then add layers and layers of depth and complexity on top of that slowly over time. It's the Blizzard formula that I used for so many years. And so we're taking the same kind of approaches.
But even approached as accessibility from a Marvel Universe IP standard, it's like slowly introducing characters that they may not have heard of, but then they can get really a lot of story and intrigue and understand where they're coming from, and understand the story and depth of these characters, which is really something that I really value when I'm talking about the Marvel Universe.
It's not just about superheroes and their powers; it's about the real character of these heroes and the relationships with other people, and how they react. We want to build that into the game we're making, and I think we've got a really great start on that. I think it's going to be a really compelling experience.
When you talk about storytelling in MMOs, again, that's been a sort of...
Holy grail? [laughs]
A holy grail, a real problem, a $300 million problem for some companies.
Obviously, you guys have some idea. You've brought on Marvel talent. You have a solution in mind.
But you must have an ideal as well, right?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that there are some examples of MMOs that have done story pretty well. I think Lord of the Rings did a pretty good job. I think a lot of the new expansion for World of Warcraft did a good job. And so involving story more as a part of your experience gives the game purpose, and that's really what I want to... it makes you care. It gives you goals.
And I really want that to be a part of what you're experiencing, and have influence on that, and be able to tell this amazing story, and experience that through the eyes of these different heroes. It's going to be really, really fun.
Think about the dynamic of comic books, which is super recognizable characters that people invest a lot in, thrown into situations that are really profoundly challenging to them -- whereas most MMOs are a character you're really invested in thrown into a really boring situation. So, it's a sort of profound change of the genre if you're going to try to up that ante.
Yeah. And that's exactly what we have in mind. That's exactly the goal we're trying to achieve.
Because it's something that only single-player games have really tackled at a great level of depth.
Right. Right. And that's what we're trying to change. Again, when you think of the Marvel universe, you think of stories, art, relationships, histories, et cetera. Giant epic stories. These kind of things are what this product really is going to be about. And then we're going to do it on a massive scale with a bunch of people, you know, playing the game. I think it's really exciting.
Since it's going to be free-to-play, it's probably going to change about how you run it, too, post-launch. Have you been putting a lot of thought into that structure?
From my background, where we ran Diablo II and it was on Battle.net, you could play it over the internet for free, the Diablo II client server. We had to learn a lot of tricks on trying to run servers very efficiently and very cheaply because it was basically money out of our pockets. We were running those servers for free. So, I think we're going to apply a lot of those lessons learned from the way that we architected our server structure to do the same kind of thing so we can run players very cheaply.
But at the same time, we understand what free-to-play means. Free-to-play, it's like a majority of your people will never pay a dime, and that's okay. So, we're designing the game with this in mind. We're designing it so that we're going to create something that runs very efficiently technically and allows people to have a great experience. Most people won't ever pay anything, and that's alright.
Have you done a study or looked at things like conversion and upping those rates and getting people engaged?
We'd be satisfied with normal rates with conversion. It's fine. Normal rates of conversion in general end up making more per month than subscriptions do, and that's really why some games are going free-to-play.
Absolutely. It attracts more people. That's how it works.
Yup. exactly. Large audience. We're getting a smaller percentage of paying users but a much larger audience, and they end up spending more money a month. It ends up being better business.
Would you say you need to be free-to-play to attract the kind of audience that would find a Marvel license appealing?
No. I mean, the great dream... I'm going to go on record saying this, and I might get in trouble, but the great dream here is, I am very much a creative kind of guy. I love making games. I love entertaining people in this way. For me, if I could make a living and do this and give away my product for free -- this is something I've said for a very long time, that is what I would do.
It's not really necessarily about making money for me. This is about making great entertainment and entertaining my friends and colleagues. That's really what it's all about for me. So, this is kind of a dream, and I get to do that in a lot of ways. That's really kind of the approach that we take.