GS: One thing that seems difficult about the online space is that a lot of it is venture capital funded. Were you worried when you were thinking about getting venture capital that they’d want to dictate what you were going to do?
MJ: It was a bitch. Of course they were! That’s why we kept saying no. Depending on the VCs, you have smart VCs and you have dumb VCs. Sometimes they’ll want to have control, but sometimes smarter VCs say, “We’re going to invest this money in you, take your time and get it right.” Smart VCs give a company time to get its product right. We turned down lots of offers, just for that reason.
GS: But you finally wound up getting some, right?
MJ: Yes and no, it depends on what you’re talking about. What wound up happening was from a financial standpoint we did a deal with Abandon, we did a deal with TA, then we did a deal with EA. With Abandon, we originally sold 33% of Mythic in order to do Camelot. That deal was – here’s the money, do Camelot. With TA, who were real VCs, they came in and said we believe in you guys, you guys rock, here’s some money. What we want in exchange was some stock. A lot of stock. And so that’s what we did. They said there you go, make your game, make us all very happy.
GS: Would you say they were happy with the eventual results?
MJ: Happy isn’t the word I would use, I would say they were thrilled. I think we’ll be getting Christmas cards from them. Everyone who’s invested in Mythic, from TA to the shareholders, is ecstatic. No dissent at all.
GS: Are you nervous at all about company culture as you transition over to EA?
MJ: Am I nervous? No. Was I nervous? Yes. That was one of the things we had to be convinced about by EA. I mean I’ve been in this industry a long time. I know the good and the bad, I’ve heard horror stories, I’ve heard good stories. EA is a big company with a long history. So I had to be convinced that this EA, the EA that’s being run by the people in charge today, was an EA that we would be happy as a partner with going forward. So I can say now without any doubt that I’m very happy with it, and I’ll tell you something else, I’m more happy today than the day I did the deal. I’ve spent more time with these guys, and I’m not just saying that, I’m kind of straightforward. I’ve gotten a change to spend a lot more time with these guys, and I really like what I hear. And I really like what I see. I sat in, because my official title will be studio GM and a VP at EA, so I sat in on franchise reviews and things like that, and the questions I hear from the execs are the questions I’d hoped to hear. Which is – why is this game going to be great? What do we need to make it great? Not “how many units can we get in a box tomorrow?” I didn’t hear that question once.
GS: What do you think about the free to pay, pay for items model?
MJ: One of my favorite questions. My feelings about companies that goldfarm, item sale and things like that is well known. I hate them with a passion. I think that if a game is designed properly, and can be funded by item transactions in such a way that it does not hurt gameplay, and it doesn’t turn the player into just a credit card, then I’m okay with it. What I’m not okay with are games that are designed to be nothing but quarter suckers in the online space. I think what we’re going to see is some games that are designed well, where item sales can complement the game.
One of the things I’ve talked about is let’s say you’re buying some fluff in the game. You want your suit of armor to look a little different from everyone else’s, or you want your guild to have its own banner or tabard, or little things that don’t affect balance – great, fantastic, why should I have a problem with that? But what I have a problem with is like if you know that you spend five dollars more than somebody else, you can kick their ass, that’s not good. That’s bad. That’s a message to the player that it’s not skill anymore, it’s not a willingness to play the game, it’s just a willingness to spend more money. And then they’ll know they’ll never have a chance because you will always be able to spend more money. So for that I’m dead set against it. One of the nice things I’ve heard from my meetings with EA is that they’re against it too.
GS: What do you think of non-character based MMOs?
MJ: I think that non-character MMOs have failed, and will continue to fail at a higher rate than character MMOs. At least pay-for-play character MMOs. Free MMOs that use vehicles, well that’s a model I haven’t seen. I’m not sure it’d do any better. But when you’re looking at a subscription based MMO, the reason that most players want to play the game has to do with their character. I know for example with women, there’s an even lower attraction rate to the game if all they get to play is just a car.
GS: And then at the same time in Korea the biggest game is a kart racer, so I guess it depends on the market.
MJ: Right, and I’ll readily admit that I’m not an expert in Asian games. I know something about Asian games, I’ve done some research, but I’m nowhere near an expert yet. So most of what I’m saying applies to North America and Europe. Maybe Asia as well, but I can’t say that without a degree of uncertainty.
GS: How would you go about tackling Asia then?
MJ: I’d spend a lot of time doing research, I’d spend a lot of time on the ground, talking to people who’ve lived there, guys who’ve seen the community, and seen the games. Have you ever been to the Austin Game Conference? A couple of years ago I delivered a keynote, and it was considered a bit of a downer. It was very straightforward, and one of the things I said was that I think most of the Asian MMOs coming into the U.S. are going to fail in this generation, just as I think most American games going to Asia are colossal failures. And the reason is not because we’re smarter than them or they’re smarter than us, but that it’s tough enough to figure out what will work in your own country. How much harder then to figure out what will work in a country where you’ve never lived, where you have none of the same cultural experiences that they do. So in order to figure out what will work in Asia, you need people who will understand the market, you need to do research, you need to look at it, and even then you’re only increasing your chances a little bit. But that’s absolutely something I’m going to be looking into over the next few years.
GS: Why did Imperator get put on hold?
MJ: The reason was very simple. It tested well when we had journalists come by pre-E3, and we did well at E3. Everything that we read was good, some good, some great, nothing amazing, but nothing like “Oh my god, this game is trash.” But what I didn’t see afterwards were two things that were very important to me. I had to see the team take what we had done up to E3, and then after E3 really take the next step. I didn’t see that. What I also didn’t see was the excitement that I was hoping for from the E3 show. It got good reviews, but I didn’t get the really hot vibe that I wanted to get. So I looked at the reviews, and I looked at the decisions we had made and that I had made, and I said, you know what? This is not going to be, I don’t think, a big hit. It’ll be a good game, but not a great game. And as a company, I can’t afford for us to spend a lot of money doing just an okay game. And at the time, Mythic was independent. And so if we failed with Imperator, there wouldn’t be anyone to bail us out. So I looked and said let’s postpone it, let’s focus on Warhammer, then when the time is right, let’s go back to the IP, see what we were doing right and see how we could make it better. I loved the concept, I think it could be a great game and a great IP, but it isn’t today.
GS: Do you find it harder to judge quality or how players will react in an online space?
MJ: Oh no, I think it’s easier, especially with our kind of games, because you interact with other players. So I can throw twenty people into an area and say here’s a stick, go beat the snot out of each other. Then when they’re done, they can tell me what they thought. And they can tell me on so many different levels that you can’t do in a standalone game, so I think that in many ways it’s easier. Now designing the game, and getting it right, that’s a lot harder. But getting feedback is a lot easier.
GS: Do you think the online market can support as many genres as can be supported on console?
MJ: No, I honestly don’t. I think there’s a little bit more limited market for the genres, but a less limited market for subscribers. It’s a little dichotomy, right? Certain genres work better on the console as stand alone or small multiplayer games, vesus massively multiplayer ones. So I think that genre-wise I think we’re a little more limited in the pay-for-play MMO space.
The last thing you want to do is try to shoehorn a genre into a space. I mean if it works on consoles, then we’re going to really make it work in the online space, right? You hammer and hammer, and what do you have in the end? A beat up game. A beat up design that you’re trying to force into a space that it may not fit. PC games are different from console games, and if you try to shoehorn something, like games that were designed for the PC to the console, sometimes bad things. So I think the MMO space is the same way. One thing that makes it different though is the subscription model. If you’re asking someone to pay X dollars for a box, then X plus additional dollars over the course of the year, they’ve got to like it a wee bit more than a plain old stand alone or console game.