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Q&A: Kuma's Halper On Episodic Gaming, Controversy

Q&A: Kuma's Halper On Episodic Gaming, Controversy

May 29, 2007 | By Alistair Wallis

The Kuma\War series of PC episodic games has built a name for itself releasing new content dealing with ultra-topical content such as the war in Iraq, the Swift Boat Veterans campaign against John Kerry in the 2004 election, and a possible invasion of Iran -- each released while, or at least very soon after, the news is being made.

But while its best known, these news games aren't all Kuma has released, with newer series such as ShootOut!, produced in association with The History Channel TV program of the same name, and the advergame-centric DinoHunters series also making up Kuma's freely downloadable output.

In this in-depth interview, Gamasutra talks to Kuma CEO Keith Halper about his controversial content, business model and future plans.

What were the aims of Kuma when the company was founded?

KH: Kuma was founded to take advantage of trends in convergence. PC technology was becoming more powerful, more connected and popping up closer to entertainment centers in the form of DVRs, advanced cable boxes and next gen game consoles. From our perspective, PCs were starting to look a lot like TVs, and vice-versa.

We created the company to take advantage of the possibilities this enabled; new kinds of games that could uniquely leverage emerging technical capabilities. Specifically, we wanted games that could be delivered online, games that could talk to one another and that could be updated on the fly in realtime and that could take advantage of shorter production schedules.

What we wanted to create was the video game analog for television. What does that mean? Firstly, that games should be free and delivered frequently, like TV. Secondly, that we could become - like TV- more character-focused, developing our worlds and personalities over weeks and years.

Thirdly, we could tackle genres like news, unscripted TV, 'ripped from headline' fiction and other categories that are difficult in traditional game development and distribution paradigms.

Lastly, our development is unique in that we can take feedback from our audience and let them participate in the creative process, building entertainments they wanted to watch and participate in.

What do you consider the company's target audience? Has this remained the same over the past few years?

KH: Today the median gamer is 31 years old. Our median gamer is 26, so we're slightly younger and hipper, relative to the traditional "box product" games. Of course, part of this is a result of being free and online. But it's not just the money; our gamers also have a high household income relative to the masses.

I believe our games talk specifically to a TV crowd for whom TV is no longer enough. If you look at the statistics, young people are spending fewer and fewer of their leisure hours watching television. Our audience doesn't want to spend $60 per game because television has built in them an expectation of free, high-quality content.

The other thing to know about our audience is that it's truly global; we have gamers from Europe, India, Japan, the Middle East and South America. There's something we do that speaks to young people all over the world, and we can definitely handle international advertisers.

Why did you decide to push for episodic gaming? The market would have been far from proven at the time you started, right?

KH: Absolutely, but that's the moment of opportunity, isn't it? As a startup, we specifically wanted to do something that couldn't be done at all five minutes ago.

Kuma, and episodic games generally, require a large online audience with high-speed access and a robust set of production tools that let us respond quickly to changing ideas and real-world events. These conditions did not exist in 2002 when we formed, but it was clear that time was going to solve the big issues. The little issues - production methods, asset library, software tools - were things that we could solve, own and gain a leg up on a market we could see peeking up just over the horizon.

At a personal level, I just love episodic storytelling. I think it resemble life more than epic storytelling. I loved Goodfellas, but I lived for "The Sopranos." I feel like I know Tony better than any other characters in the genre because he's been coming to my house every Sunday night for the past half-dozen years. It's been pointed out to me that most of my pre-Kuma games - the Star Trek and Tom Clancy products - have been episodic in their own ways, so perhaps this is something I've been working towards creatively for a long time.

Here's another way to look at the split. On one side you have big budget, long lead technology-driven titles from the major publishers. These can be awesome entertainment experiences, but can represent a major risk to the tune of $15 million to $30 million.

That presents a hurdle to experimental concepts - you spend that kind of money for a public company like EA, you'd better have a hit. So the model favors franchises and other proven commodities like graphics innovation. Episodic is short lead with a lower financial risk.

Additionally, since online marketing is buzz marketing, elements such as controversy, timeliness and creative experimentation are not only more feasible, but are keys to success. I think the difference between episodic games and traditional games is similar to the difference between movies and TV. Technology aside, what's more innovative, Spiderman the movie number three or "Heroes" the hot new TV show?

How difficult has it been to keep content appearing at a regular rate? What challenges do you face in doing this?

KH: It is very difficult -- the never-ending daily challenge of our lives. We're combining the complexity of game development with the schedule of the "Daily Show." We've had to create new tools and a whole new product methodology to get the job done.

When we first started up the company, we visited our former colleagues at the big game companies and were told, "Great idea, but you'll never pull it off." And here we are, 120 episodes later, making our stand every day.

How much gameplay is in an average episode?

KH: We aim for about an hour, the length of a TV episode. This is obvious for the properties tied to TV, like ShootOut!, which we did with The History Channel: we found that gamers wanted the playing experience to parallel the viewing experience. But it's turned out to be generally preferred across all of our games. We used to produce much longer game-isodes -- about four hours each. It was the gamers themselves who told us they wanted a shorter path to a satisfactory conclusion. Again, like TV.

Then again, of course we have a crazy core of multiplayer freaks who just want us to drop them in a beautiful game map and let them play for hours and hours, 'til they're red and blue in the face. We're happy to oblige.

Do you find that gamers are still playing older episodes?

KH: Some of the first ones we came out with, like "The Battle in Sadr City," remain our most popular. Our very first episode, "Uday and Qsay's Last Stand," was about the fight to bring down Saddam Hussein's sons; it's about four years old, and I guarantee there are people out there playing it right now. If you choose the right episode and do a good design job, news value will pass seamlessly into historical value, and it can last forever.

What made you believe that free episodic gaming was a profitable business model? How long did it take before the model began showing signs of real profitability?

KH: We always knew advertiser-supported was the way to make this work, but in the beginning, the audience was too small, so we started with a paid subscription model. We made the switch as soon as we could, and within weeks we had signed up our first major advertiser: Schick, for their Power of Four campaign. That was a big leap of faith, and I'm glad it worked out, both for us and for Schick.

Will the episodes continue to be free, or is there a possibility of upcoming premium content?

KH: Free, free, free, free. The ad business is growing fast, and we're happy to be where we are, with a great combination of wonderful forward-thinking advertisers and a fast-growing audience, so I see no reason to change the model. In fact, you're starting to see other companies like GameTap converting to our model.

What do you believe you are doing differently to other companies involved in episodic gaming?

KH: We're designing games and creating properties specifically for episodic gaming and for supporting advertisers, as opposed to converting old retail products and shoving ads in them. It's a new paradigm for advertisers.

If advertisers are tired of seeing their ad jimmied into some far-off corner of a retail product, possibly frustrating users who already paid for the game and don't want to see ads, then we offer an alternative.

With Kuma, advertisers become part of the fun. In DinoHunters, players drive around in Jeeps, or try to shave a woolly mammoth with Schick razors. They're interactive commercials that are seamlessly woven into the gameplay and become essential tools for the players' success. We're not trying to foist ads on our customers or pass off aging retail games on our advertisers. Our games have fully customized product placement, which is more effective and more fun for everyone.

How did you get advertisers interested in the company? Who are you working with currently?

KH: We present an unusual proposition for seamless editorial integration of a product. There are visionary companies that recognized the value of this early on, and they came aboard with Kuma and have been rewarded with overdelivery.

A year after release, the Schick DinoHunters ads have become part of the fiber of the Internet. But now that we have hit a critical size where we're talking to enough consumers within our target audience, advertisers have started to come to us. We're working with guys like Jeep and Dell because we're getting calls from their agencies.

How much advertising do the products include? How did you decide how much was too much? Is there a limit to what gamers will accept?

KH: Finding the right balance between the entertainment experience and effective advertising is mission-critical. We have interstitials that show up before gameplay and between levels. We also do nontrivial product placement where the items themselves become essential, which is to say unobtrusive, elements of gameplay.

For example, you could be hunting dinosaurs on the streets of New York, driving around in a specially outfitted Jeep listening to indie bands on eMusic. We have all kinds of individual advertising options, but we don't turn them all on at one time, in the same session.

Consumers are willing to pay for their games by watching ads, but don't want to become hostage to them. We lightly salt impressions throughout the game in a way we think adds up to a positive game experience, and we listen to consumer feedback in real time to make sure we're right.

How do you decide on which properties to launch? Do advertisers have any say in terms of content?

KH: Because we're episodic, our cost to launch a new product is much lower than a box retail product, and that gives us the ability to experiment. We can build what we like and see what sticks.

Fans are not shy about saying what they love and what needs fixing, and that is a profound competitive advantage. We can reshape the property and re-release at will. DinoHunters, for example, has become a much more action-focused multiplayer experience thanks to user feedback.

To answer the second part of your question, no, advertisers don't have any direct input into the games themselves, apart from the integration of their product, which obviously we couldn't do without them. We try to involve them in the creative process of integrating their products as much as we can and as much as they're interested in. Sometimes agencies come in with great ideas we can actually use. But at the end of the day, we always need to create a game that consumers will love and play.

Did you feel any kind of reluctance to launch a property like Kuma\War, considering the controversial nature of its subject matter? What message do you hope gamers will take away from these games?

KH: Kuma\War is a very powerful property; it represents exactly the sort of thing that can be done with episodic games that cannot be done with traditional game products. There's a reason wargames are set often in 2020, if they're set in the here and now, they're already outdated by the time producers can crank them through the factory and get them to retail.

It's not "war in games" that's controversial, it's the currency of what we're doing - we're telling today's stories today, and that's something that's never been done before. It's worth noting that the novel was considered controversial in Victorian times, when it first came out, for much the same reasons - authors wrote about recognizable everyday experiences, not some guy running around Greece with a sword. It had an immediacy and intimacy that was, well, novel and uncomfortable to a generation not raised with that sort of literature.

We're proud to be telling the stories of America's soldiers. These are important stories that need to be told. The fact that some people have a strong reaction is a testament to the power of video games as a storytelling medium. The soldiers themselves certainly seem to support us and send us their experiences in battle every week. It's our hope that our games will help our American audience come to appreciate the profound sacrifice our soldiers are making when we put them in harm's way.

I'd add that Kuma\War is immensely popular throughout the Middle East and other places where the war we write about is raging, and we are competing there with -- this is true -- games produced by Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards; games like The Night of Bush Capturing, a popular game about Islamic fundamentalists capturing President Bush.

Why do you believe Kuma is qualified to deal with these subjects, and why do you feel it necessary to deal with them?

KH: Here's the thing to know - we are primarily game makers, accomplished users of a set of tools. And with the type of stories we're telling, the accuracy of what we're doing has to be taken very seriously or we lose our edge.

At Kuma you play on GPS-correct maps and you're outfitted with the actual gear U.S. infantrymen carry. We rely on military experts and soldiers returning from the field to help us produce games that accurately reflect their experiences.

And we are constantly pushing the envelope of our skills and the tools available. We get better every time we produce a game and we've have been at it for a while.

Where do you draw the line in terms of subject matter?

KH: Finding the boundaries is a difficult task when you're asking people to contemplate the grim realities of warfare. But some of the horrors of war, particularly insurgent warfare in civilian settings - which is what war is becoming - are disturbing to reproduce but very important as they are part of the historical record. So do you white-wash the event and change its nature, or do you produce horrific imagery?

We had an episode called "Raid on Samarra" where, in the real-world battle, insurgents used schoolgirls as human shields. In the real world, snipers from the Stryker Brigade were able to take out the insurgents without injuring the kids in an amazing display of skill and dexterity. But you can't reproduce that in a game setting, where failure is to be expected. What happens when people miss? So we replaced the children with adults, but called out the change in the historical content that accompanies each mission. It was a compromise and one we still face regularly.

Which episodes have seen the strongest reactions, and how have you dealt with those reactions?

KH: By far the strongest reaction we've ever had was our "Assault on Iran." It was our first "future-speculative" episode, created to explore how the US might deal with an Iranian nuclear weapons program. It was written in reaction to President Bush's statement that "all options were on the table." We as Americans wanted to know what those options were so we convened a panel of experts and produced a game based on one likely scenario.

Briefly, rather than a large air strike that would produce civilian casualties, or a ground troops invasion that could replicate the Iraq situation, we focused on a solution in which our special ops would go in and destroy their uranium enrichment capability at Natanz.

When we initially released the episode, there was a lot of discussion as to whether or not we were right, and whether such speculation was inherently immoral. We expected that. But then surprises started coming in the form of emails from Iran: some from people begging the US to come in; some warnings and protestations reminding us that Iran is not Iraq.

In the end, there were hundreds of thousands of downloads in Iran. We were denounced by name in the newspaper controlled by the supreme Ayatollah as a possible precursor to real US policy, which is absurd on the face of it, but speaks to the great power of real-time video games as a storytelling medium.

We put Iranian and American gamers face to face, playing and talking together in a virtual space in a way that still eludes our real-world politicians. I think it's also a fourth-estate power - we help make real for people the sometimes oblique statements of politicians, who especially need to be careful of their words

What are the new properties that Kuma will be launching, and where do they fit into your line-up?

KH: You're asking me to pre-empt my own press releases! Stay tuned: we've a new product announcement in the next few weeks as well as many cool things a bit later in the year. In the meantime, DinoHunters is a big focus for us right now.

We'll continue to release LOTS of multiplayer environments on a regular schedule and then use those maps as 'sets' for a machinima series. Quite a few are up now, so you can get a taste of this summer's releases.

What other plans do you have for the future of the company?

KH: Expect us to become more like TV, and TV to become more like us. Specifically, video games are becoming online what TV is offline, and we want to remain at the center of that, the new mainstream. Our entertainment products won't just feel like TV, in many cases they'll BE TV.

Here's an example: a project we did last year with The History Channel - the episodic game companion to a show called "Shootout!" - let viewers "play the episode" of the show they just saw, as soon as the show aired. That's a good working model. We can turn any property into a gripping, fun, interactive experience, today. And who wouldn't want that?

So we'll start looking more and more like a TV network built around video games, where all the properties, all your shows are fully interactive games you can access anytime, from anywhere in the world.

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