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Q&A: Curse's Thieblot & Kriegel On Social MMO Networks

Q&A: Curse's Thieblot & Kriegel On Social MMO Networks

August 31, 2007 | By Alistair Wallis

August 31, 2007 | By Alistair Wallis
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Founded in 2005, MMO focused gaming portal Curse has since developed from an add-on database into its current fourth iteration - a fully fledged community touch-point, complete with social networking aspects, game-specific Wikis, and user submitted videos.

Co-founder and CEO Hubert Thieblot has also seen the site move from his native France through Germany, and now to San Francisco, with the number of full time employees rising from 5 to twenty in that time as well.

The venture attracted investor interest toward the end of last year, with $800,000 raised in an angel funding round in December. More recently, at the end of July, Curse announced that it has received $5 million in Series A funding from French venture capital firm Private Equity and investors.

“Curse’s vision is to build a full-featured, community-driven portal devoted to online gaming, providing players with invaluable resources and delivering the gaming demographic to advertisers, as well as partners in the game development and publishing industries,” commented Thieblot at the time.

We spoke to Thieblot recently, along with Curse general manager Wilson Kriegel, and asked about the site’s development, the MMO social networking market, and Curse’s plans for integration with developers and publishers.

Gamasutra: How did the basic idea for the project come about?

Hubert Thieblot: Basically, for Curse, I was playing MMOs – I was a really hardcore player. I was managing a guild called Curse, and we were quite successful in all the games we played, like Dark Age of Camelot, World of Warcraft and a few of the Korean games. I was involved in the World of Warcraft alpha and it was a complete mess to try and get information on add-ons and updates from the official forums and all the people posting on the website. So I decided to make a database, and it turned out really well – we’ve had a lot of traffic and a lot of attention, and that’s when I made Curse a business. It was sort of a guild website.

GS: So that was around the time of the alpha?

HT: That was 2005.

GS: Were there hopes you had for the site at the time?

HT: I had no hopes. [Laughs] It was more like, I wanted to get attention for my guild and I thought that doing a community website would be a good idea, and at the same time I just wanted it to be a personal business where I could live off of advertising. I would never have expected it to be this big, two years later.

GS: Where there other social networking sites that you were looking at to get ideas for the site?

HT: When I built Curse? No, I didn’t get anything from any social network, because we had no social network when we first started Curse. We only started that six months ago. As an example, though, I’m a Facebook and MySpace user and we take…not advice, but we look at what they do, of course.

Wilson Kriegel: So, with the timeline, basically, he brought in his brother, who was a co-founder in late 2005, and they started structuring the business to bring in advertising through Google AdSense and other networks. The company, or the team of five people, was headed out of Germany at that point and throughout that time they had about 1.5 million unique already, and now we have 3.5, and we’re delivering around 80 to 100 million page views. But 2006 was really the year when revenues grew, and reiterations of the site took place – two of them, that year.

With the money coming in, Hubert had the sense to really build on and structure the success of the add-on and the community, and started about a year ago, I’d say, to think business and think business centric; look at further and greater opportunities off of what they had accomplished and succeeded with already as a guild site and a fan community. So, around a year ago – there was a team of five, and we’re a team of 20 – that’s when the shift took place.

GS: What was bringing people to the site before the social networking? 1.5 million unique visitors is still pretty phenomenal.

HT: It was the add-on section. You can customize your World of Warcraft interface – you can customize how your health bar is, how quests are shown on your screen; you can customize a lot of things, and it completely changes the user experience. So, the reason so many people came to us at first was that we were the first, the biggest and the best on the net.

We basically have been surfing on that wave for two years and a half, but we only started developing the site – real development, bringing new tools into the site like database, Wiki, forums, social networking – about a year ago. All of those tools are really recent.

GS: So version 3 of the site was the first step?

HT: Yeah, version 3 was the first step. Version 2 was really just an improved version 1, with very limited features, but version 3 was a fully Web 2.0 approach to business.

WK: And that was in December 2006, so between October 2006, where they started building the team and now there’s been two iterations of the site, as well as moving the offices to San Francisco and a complete redesign of the business strategy and the team.

GS: Why did you decide to move to San Francisco?

HT: Obviously, I’m French, and Paris was not an appropriate place to extend the company. And even if we had raised money in France, it’s mostly because of the very good connections we have in France. We had opportunities in the US also, though.

We went to Germany to get more people on board, but most of the big players, in terms of video game sites, are in the US. I felt that we had to go to build…basically, this is where all the Web 2.0 hub companies are. We don’t want to be a copycat – taking a US concept and bringing it to Europe. We want to be innovative, and we want to compete against IGN, GameSpot and all the other big players. So San Francisco seemed the right spot for us.

Here, there are a lot of developers who already know our business, in the gaming industry, or the media industry I should say. There is a lot of good management also, so we decided to move here. When we met Wilson, after we decided to move into the US, he suggested San Francisco.

GS: How easy was it to secure funding for the site, and what kind of funding are you receiving?

HT: The gaming sector is thought to be very hot right now, and we have more opportunities for funding in the US than in Europe. I can’t say it was just easy, but I can say it was not hard, and I think we’ve done well.

WK: I was one of the founders at IGA Worldwide, the in-game advertising firm, and I’ve done an IPO before and other things, and I was pretty delightfully pleased by the terms and the AGS approach to how they wanted to work with us. It’s a $5 million Series A, we did have an angel round of $800K before that. One of the key aspects of where the relationship is very strong is where we’re allowed to maintain innovative and business creativity and strategy, which is often something that is lost in Silicon Valley with start ups and entrepreneurs. Friendster is a good example of that.

We try to maintain the innovation and control over the how we move forward as a company, and over the business model. AGF, from that standpoint, was the most open minded about how they would work with us.

GS: How important is it for you to be able retain that freedom?

WK: It’s critical. Speed to market, product innovation, entrepreneurial creativity in how we do business inside the company, how decisions are made. We’re a profitable company, since our day of operation, and there’s a priority in how we do business. We’re always on our toes about what’s going on everyday, and insuring that we’re making decisions based on what’s best for the company in the long and the short term. We are about building a really long lasting gaming entity that will serve the gaming industry and the users for years to come.

We are in the business of making money, for employees and investors and the management team, so having the creative rights, if you will, to what we do is as important as a writer writing a book, or a movie producer producing his movie. That’s the essence that I believe will make us successful, and that’s what Hubert brings to the table. If Hubert is stifled, by our investors or by those who have put money into the company, we lose the essence of what makes us different.

GS: What do you think are the most important elements in making the business a long term, global prospect?

HT: We have a few focuses. First is working much closer with game developers and publishers. We want to position ourselves into a service company, where we provide a service for them and the community. We build websites for them, we apply our knowledge about building a successful website with multiple services, which they do need for the game nowadays.

We are also building a huge sales force, so, again, making money is a huge part of Curse, and it’s what we do everyday. We’re also building a premium site, to combat against Gamespot, FilePlanet, IGN, and so on. It’s going to be a monthly subscription, and I think we have some pretty neat ideas about how to sue the social network and the add-ons and downloads, and all of this will tie together. We’re adding an application into this.

WK: I think the root and the essence of what Curse is, more than being a social network site, is the development of web technologies and innovations. I like to consider us a web technology site, in that regard – a lot more like Photobucket and Digg and YouTube, where technology is the essence of user generated content or what’s most pertinent or relevant to that particular individual or particular IP. We intend to stay in the MMO space, and there are many contents to cover in that space. It’s very mature in Asia, which will enter the US market, and we intend to facilitate that.

The premium subscription, ecommerce – it’s all in line with what our community and user base is accustomed to, and is willing to transact on. I think, at the heart of that, is innovation of product and services, and value added services, both to the user base, and potential partners, like publishers. I think Apple is a good example of a company that is successful because of innovation around products. I hope that we – not to compare ourselves to Apple – but I hope we can stay within that philosophy of innovating for the consumer for a great product and great value adds.

I think that’s the key to why we’ve been successful, and why we’ll continue to be a viable, profitable, innovative company.

GS: So, with the premium subscription model, how do you know that’s what your audience is after?

HT: Because so far, with World of Warcraft add-ons for example, we have tens of requests a day for an application to tie into our database to update all of these files. We have a huge demand. We see what other sites provide, and we see a few big gaps of service that MMO gamers need covered.

WK: What makes us unique, first of all, is that we’re not an editorial company. A lot of what we do isn’t about writing articles. A lot of our developers, they’ve been playing these MMOs for almost a decade. We innovate from within the inception of the usage and the user, and that interactivity and experience that the user can have with an MMO game.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the industry, and those are very different from console games and entertainment. The database, the information needed with touch points, the ongoing loyalty and retention and experience with the products and social sampling – they spend 40% of their time outside the game around information on sites like ours. I think there’s a lot more to do for them, because they’re a lot savvier as web users, and they’re a lot savvier as gamers. Some are more casual, and some are more hardcore, but ultimately, their need in terms of how they can experience a product is greater in terms of information – real time information and various other types of information – and content.

GS: So they’re more prepared to pay for content that console users?

WK: Yeah, I think if you look at the fact that MMO games are being bought in a box or downloaded and then paid for by a subscription, a lot of these users are often on fansites and pay, to retain the fansite or community, because of the cost of servers or whatever else. Even if it’s just a couple of dollars a month. There’s a sense of loyalty and passion that they have that’s substantial enough that, even just to be able to maintain a guild or community where they feel there’s relevant information for them, they’re willing to provide several dollars a month.

There’s many opportunities from a value add standpoint as to how much more they can get and gain and why and how, and we’re very focused on that. In relation to our indirect competitors, like IGN, which are very wide market and provide premiums and content for a five year old like a 50 year old, but they’re mostly pre-sell. That’s what these companies are focused on: bringing games to market.

We’re developing innovation and application, one being a lot more advanced than what X-Fire has out there, and with many more functionalities that are relevant to an MMO gamer. That will feed into social networking at the same time it becomes relevant to the gaming experience. There’s a lot of innovation that can take place in how users pay for or interact and use the IP.

GS: What about more direct competition then – sites like Guild Café?

HT: Well, I think they are doing a good job, but when you have the social networking sites, you need a huge community. We have a good advantage, because we have had a community for years.

WK: In a simplified way, there’s competition everywhere, everyday. Shaun Fanning at Rupture is a good friend of ours, and we enjoy competing with him and they’ve done some great things we can learn from, and we’ve done some things they can learn from. I think it’s really exciting there’s so much innovation in our sector right now. I think the EAs of the world are investing into trying to innovate and be a part of the MMO space.

So, we’re not so concerned about competition – I think it represents the demand in the market and the demand for competition. For us, it’s really about knowing how much value we can create for one destination, and doing what we’re best at and complementing that through partnerships and user generated content. How much can we empower our users to use the product in the way they see fit?

We have and will continue to provide more tools and functionalities that are relevant to MMO gamers than any individual touch-point that’s out there right now. WoW has a tremendous database, which is great, but in some ways they’re limited because that’s all it is. We can complement the experience of using the database with videos and Wikis and take that value to the next level.

We expect our community to double by the end of this year and hopefully reach around 6 million unique, and many, many more in 2008. I think scalability allows for innovation because of data. And usability, and user generated content. So we’re in a very good position to be competitive and to keep innovating, because of our scale already.

GS: How much room is there in the MMO social networking market?

HT: There is a huge potential, because they can come and leave and come back to the games, and right now there is no way to keep track of people you played with a year ago, or two years ago. There is no social network that has all this history of players and to innovate around this, you really need a lot of players. I think we are in the best position right now to do this.

WK: I think that made Facebook unique, for example, is that it was specific to a market. It allows for a MySpace and a Facebook. A lot of the other sites that are out there are also demographic-centric or IP-centric. In our industry, I think MMOs will expand to the console space, and in that time we’ll expand too. I think there are many other types of MMOs that will enter the market place – free to play, item based, so on – that will continue to let us expand.

The social networking aspect is, I would say, one piece of the puzzle, and there are many other pieces in how we can cater to the non-existing gamers, or the non-mature gamer base. In all industries, there’s normally two or three major guys, and everybody else is falling behind. Being number one is a focus.

GS: What about in terms of the expansion of the Asian MMO market in America? How can you facilitate that, and how does it help the site?

HT: Asian MMOs are a huge opportunity for us, for a few reasons. One is that most Asian MMOs have no official website, or it is nearly non-existent, so there is nowhere the community can share advice with one another, give videos to one another, their achievements, etc. We want to be this place.

The MMOs themselves are quite different from World of Warcraft, and there is definitely a huge player base for these game in Europe and the US. We can see with a game like Lineage II - it has still quite a lot of subscribers. There is not no one covering them, but the coverage is very little right now.

WK: In a similar fashion, if you look at the Asian market, the MMO genre is one of the most mature gaming genres, I would say. It is about people, it is about entertainment, it is about being social, and all the quirky little things that come around with that. We’re experiencing it in one form, if you will, because of the types of MMOs that have become successful in America to date. I think, like many aspects of the games industry that have taken time to evolve or mature – like casual games, which went really cared for several years ago, and is now one of the most heavily invested areas of the games industry – MMOs are going to be really hot in the investment side of the games industry in 2008.

I think the market will move into the US, and it will allow for different types of gamers, or people with different interests within gaming, to be able to interact with different types of IP. In the same way that Wii established a side of the market that people didn’t think existed, with different experience of gaming and a different content type, I think that will take place with the MMO segment.

GS: What kind of integration are you looking at doing with developers and publishers? I mean, what communications do you have with them, and what are they looking for from your site?

HT: First of al, we are in the content programs for most of the big MMOs. We get to interview the game developers, the game publishers, we get exclusive assets, we try to run contests. We build a community for the game. They have multiple interests in our site – we support their game, we make their users play more.

Obviously, they spend advertising on our site to get more customers. Also, what we are going to do now – we can’t provide any names yet – but we are going to build official sites for game publishers or developers for their MMOs.

WK: It’s about shifting the technology that we’re applying for our community that has made us successful and providing that back to the IP owners, which is very important to us. How they can bring their games to market, pre- and post-sales and how a user can interact with their product.

I think in today’s constant production business model with the video game industry, we have to be very attentive in regards to how these IP owners want to move forwards and what they seek to accomplish, and they relationships they have with the community when they bring their games to market. World of Warcraft has been a wonderful thing for the entire industry because it’s demonstrated a genre that is viable, a business model that is viable a way of interacting with your users that is viable – many things that just never took place before.

Hubert has obviously ended up in a tremendous position, to be able to capitalize on this innovation and initiative, and we’re seeking now – after having been successful in working with World of Warcraft and other IPs – to bring that experience and technology to the publishers and developers to help them, which ultimately helps the customers, and the users, and the brand and how they make money, and how the user interacts and experiences the product which he is paying for.

We’re trying to bridge that gap and create a huge amount of value in the industry.

GS: What other plans do you have?

HT: We have more and more ideas now. We are polishing all the current features on the site, adding new features, better quality, better products.

WK: I think there’s opportunity with competitive gaming, and I think there’s opportunity with guilds. I think there’s opportunities with guide building and guide making, I think there’s opportunities in the fact that our demographic is some 30% plus IT professionals – passionate, highly educated people, tech savvy who could influence or bring value to the building of IPs, or of beta testing of IPs. There’s a lot of room to grow.

HT: We want to serve the developers and publishers, but we also want to serve the community in the maximum possible way we can. The guild thing would be a major thing – we’re going to provide a full package for a guild, including all their needs, basically. We can’t go into it now, but it’ going to be coming really soon.


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