French development studio Cyanide are at work on cross-platform Games Workshop license Blood Bowl (the license of which they gained after an out-of-court settlement from a Games Workshop-led lawsuit over their previous fantasy football title Chaos League) and have since announced Dungeon Party, a new free-to-play MMO for PC.
CEO Patrick Pligersdorffer began his career in the games industry with Ubisoft, opening the internal development studio of Ubisoft in Japan, before opening Cyanide in 2000.
Pligersdorffer talks with Gamasutra about why Cyanide are proud to be seen as a PC developer even in the face of repeated declarations of its death as a viable platform, talks piracy (including defends StarForce copy protection) and discusses the French development community.
You've said you don't believe the PC is a dying platform. Why?
Patrick Pligersdorffer: I believe the PC is a changing platform but definitely not a dying platform. It is evolving to face the tough situation it has been put in, but it remains the platform where innovation takes place.
Before, innovation was "limited" to technology and gameplay, but now, the PC is also where the new business models are emerging: online distribution, micro-transactions, subscription-based gaming. Although they are not that new, they are really maturing and it offers new opportunities to developers. We can experiment with new things. It's really an exciting time to be a PC developer.
So you still consider yourself a PC developer, even though a lot of your upcoming titles are cross-platform?
PP: We're probably still a PC developer primarily because it allows us to work on titles that probably would not get picked up by publishers on consoles. We like to try new things that we feel passionate about. So far, it has always worked for us. The PC is a platform where you don't have the barrier of console manufacturers and the publishers' marketing team telling you what can work and what won't work.
Without the PC, we wouldn't have been able to release titles like Chaos League (hence no Blood Bowl) or Cycling Manager (which tops the PC charts in quite a few European countries every summer). We really appreciate this freedom and we don't mind being seen as a PC developer primarily although we have shown that we can work on any platform. It's not the platform that motivates us; it's what we can do on it.
As opposed to some developers, we don't focus on any specific genre or platform. We like to keep our options open to only work on projects we feel passionate about. It's refreshing not to keep working on the same things over and over.
But don't you think machines like the Xbox 360 cannibalize PC game sales?
PP: I agree that the 360 can probably cannibalize PC sales but to be fair, there are games that are released as 360 exclusives for a few months and as gamer who owns both platforms I don't necessarily want to wait for the PC release although if both versions had come out at the same time, I would probably go with the PC version for many games. In the end it depends on the type of game.
There is a cannibalization effect because in general, the versions are also identical, they are straight ports and the PC version rarely maximizes the specificity of the PC controllers (mouse and keyboard) or the high-end video cards. Maybe if the versions were more different, there would be less cannibalization. But again, it mostly depends on the type of game. I don't play sports games on my PC (unless they are management / strategy) and I don't play strategy games on consoles.
What about piracy? I notice you have used StarForce protection, which has had a lot of bad press.
PP: Piracy is a tough subject. Is piracy hurting sales? Definitely. Is each pirated unit a lost sale? Definitely not. What I really hate about this topic is that when you talk to people it seems to always be black or white, no shades of grey. There's a lot of hypocrisy going on. Gamers will tell you that they only pirate games that they wouldn't buy.
First, I don't believe that to be true because they are not put in a position to choose between getting nothing or buying the game. This has a significant impact on their purchasing decision although they don't realize it. Then, if you are not interested in a game, why play the pirated version? To test the game?
If so, many games have demos. If you don't like the demo, don't buy the game but don't use a pirate version either. You might miss something but life will go on.
On the other hand, developers and publishers complain that piracy is killing them. Maybe we are overcharging? Maybe what we offer is just not good enough and that gamers are not willing to shell out dollars for sequels and look-alikes? At least, piracy is pushing us to think long and hard about how to captivate these players enough to motivate them to buy legal copies. And I believe micro-transactions are a very positive step in that direction. It's no surprise that the model comes from countries where piracy is rampant.
As for StarForce, we have indeed used StarForce quite a few times and honestly the customer support related to this protection is lower than other protections we've used. I won't make many friends with this, but I believe a lot of the bad press StarForce has received is related to the fact that it was tougher to crack.
Other protection software companies have implemented similar mechanisms now and they don't seem to get the same bad press. If we are going to protect our games, the protection needs to be hard to crack. If not, we're just bothering legal customers without any upside.
Honestly I don't like the fact that we need to protect our games! As a gamer, I hate having to play with the CD in the drive (thank god for digital distribution). But as a professional, I understand that we need to protect them. Piracy is really one of the big reasons why we are exploring new models. Not because of the lost sales but rather because the hassle for paying gamers is non-existent.
How have your PC titles sold?
PP: We have been pretty lucky so far. Each year, Pro Cycling Manager does quite well for us in countries where cycling is a popular sport and digital distribution allows us to achieve significant sales in territories where publishers would not be willing to take a risk (the US for example). Chaos League did very well in the countries where it was released at the time.
With a worldwide distribution to help maintain the community it could have been much bigger but it's always tough to convince publishers when you have something that does not fit into existing genres and doesn't have anything that you can compare it to. As for Loki, it worked well in Europe. It was released much later in the US and I have no figures yet.
Since we work with local publishers, the figures vary substantially from country to country. We've had several number one ranked PC games in some countries over the years and with different games. It just seems harder for us to achieve similar results in English-speaking countries where it seems that only big publishers manage to achieve significant sales.
How about in your home market, France?
PP: France is a decent market. It's a bigger console market than PC but it's not as console oriented as the UK or the US. The PC is still reasonably strong despite a high piracy level. The typical blockbusters are also big-time sellers here but we have quite a few local publishers that are doing well by providing niche PC titles.
I'd say that it's a rather well-balanced market where you can achieve solid sales. Not huge numbers but something that cannot be underestimated.
Is it a good place to make games?
PP: France is a great place to make games. We have strong engineers, artists and game designers. I think that talent-wise we are on par with any other country. A lot of French developers work in big studios (or even set-up their own studios) worldwide which, in my opinion, is a testament to the quality of our training.
While the number of studios in France is quite high, we don't have very large studios (I'm exclude Ubisoft from the discussion). The reason probably lies in the very strict labor laws in France that makes maintaining a large structure quite a challenge.
I think we are on the verge of seeing bigger independent studios emerge thanks to the recent support of the government and the fact that publishers worldwide are starting to recognize the talent that is available in France. The fact that more of our developers now speak English is also removing a barrier that previously limited our growth potential.
There was the recent announcement of tax breaks for game development companies in France, too.
PP: It's sure to make us more competitive. We'll be able to keep talented developers in France. That's the biggest change that I forsee.
How is Blood Bowl coming along?
PP: Great. We love Blood Bowl and are extremely happy to be working on its video game adaptation. Games Workshop has given us a lot of freedom with the universe. I think they appreciated Chaos League and they have been extremely open to suggestions.
They asked us to rework the graphical look of Blood Bowl which was great for our artists since you don't get that much creative liberty when working on a license in general. In terms of gameplay, since we have two modes, one real-time, one turn-based, we have been able to experiment with the gameplay mechanics in one mode (real-time) while sticking to the rules with the turn-based version.
We're working very hard on community features. We expect the multiplayer to be a key element in the success of the game. So far, the feedback from the beta-testers has been extremely motivating. We've tried to diversify our testers so as not to only have hardcore Blood Bowl fans and they seem to be extremely happy with the game so far.
Well… I'm a big fan of the board game -- how authentic is it going to be? Are you using living rulebook rules? Are all the teams in it?
PP: For the turn-based version, it's almost a perfect port of the living rulebook 5.0. For the real-time version, we obviously had to make changes but the spirit of the games and the foundations remain the same.
As for the teams, they won't all be in it. There are 21 "official" teams for the board game and that would have been too big. We decided to focus on eight races and being able to provide the other teams later on. This will also allow us more time to work on each race.
Why have you decided to enter the MMO genre with Dungeon Party?
PP: A variety of reasons. First, we have always designed our games to have a strong multiplayer component. It's what helps build communities and you can get more interesting positive criticism to improve your games this way. As I mentioned earlier, we also felt that we needed to adapt to the changing PC market. Getting PC games on the shelves can be difficult in some countries, especially if you want to make something original.
We also felt that it could limit piracy. We didn't want to enter the MMORPG market because it's getting crowded with big-time players, requires a huge investment and we didn't feel that we could bring a very different approach to the genre. So for Dungeon Party we opted for a team game with short but intense sessions with an original gameplay and a not-too-serious universe.
How are you going to monetize it?
PP: It will be free to play for the core game, meaning you will have access to many maps and the main characters without having to spend anything. If you want to get extra-maps, additional items, new character classes and designs and so on, then you will be able to purchase them from our online store.
So, the game is based on micro-transactions. What we like about this model is that you basically pay only for what the game is worth to you. Some people probably will enjoy the game without feeling the need to buy any of the additional elements while some players will want to play with the new characters or customize their avatar.
In terms of game design, we're working hard at finding the right balance so that gamers don't feel that they need to buy items to be competitive. So most of the additional elements will be cosmetics or only offer very limited and short-lived boost.
It's quite cool as a gamer to know that you can rely on a larger community than if everybody had to pay for the game. It increases your chances of finding partners and opponents and we wanted to make sure we wouldn't lose that aspect. We've been looking at quite a lot of games with a similar model to get a better feel about what worked and what didn't. It's really an exciting model for us -- without the PC we wouldn't be able to do it.