The lights are on
In the current issue of Game Informer, we published an interview with Robot Entertainment's Patrick Hudson. The company, formed by ex-Ensemble veterans has left Age of Empires behind in favor of innovative downloadable and mobile games like Orcs Must Die and Hero Academy. Unfortunately, there just wasn't space to print the entire interview in the magazine. Here are the questions that were cut from the print version.
Why was the Halo MMO you'd Ensemble had been working on for Microsoft cancelled?
Too big, too expensive. There was obviously a lot of turmoil within Microsoft at that time, it wasn’t long after that when Bungie spun itself out of Microsoft and what was going to become of the Halo universe within Microsoft was unknown. It was a big production, it would have been a pretty expensive bet. Microsoft was going a different direction.
Halo Wars was released. It got great reviews. Real-time strategy fans felt that it was the best translation of that genre to the console space. But it wasn’t that long after it released that Microsoft dissolved Ensemble. How did that go down?
It was a big shock and surprise. When it finally came to be, we hadn’t seen it coming. In fact, we had been planning to grow the studio at that point. We found out probably six months before Halo Wars was finished that Ensemble wasn’t going to exist after we finished Halo Wars. Obviously, it’s tough to finish a game that ambitious with the knowledge that your studio isn’t going to be there at the end.
Was it hard to retain staff and keep morale up?
There were a couple of things that helped. Microsoft was generous from a severance standpoint with everyone that left. But it gave us enough time to put Robot together. Robot was really formed when we were still at Ensemble with the idea of working on Age of Empires Online for Microsoft. We couldn’t take everybody with us, because at that point Ensemble was 110 people. That was too big for us to start over at Robot. We ended up taking about 45 people with us to Robot. That all happened while Halo Wars was finishing up.
You started Age of Empires Online and then handed it off to Gas Powered Games. Was that the vision for the company, was it built to make that game?
No, it wasn’t the vision of the company to build that game. It was a work for hire thing. That game helped us get started from a funding standpoint. We put everybody on that game to make that game for Microsoft. That’s really how Robot got its initial cash to get going. We had a 24-month commitment to that game, and we saw that out. Then, we really went on to what was the vision for the company, to make our own original games. It’s only been a year since we finished Age of Empires, but since then we’ve shipped two original games of our own. Now, we’re really going about doing what we dreamed of doing once when we set up Robot.
The games that Robot has made have been quite different than Age of Empires. Was it always the idea to focus on emerging platforms like downloadable and mobile and focus on smaller-scale games?
There’s two pieces to your question. It wasn’t necessarily our vision to start working on mobile games, that evolved. But it certainly was our vision to work on smaller scale projects. We’d been working on those three and four year games with massive teams and massive budgets for a really long time. There just wasn’t much of an appetite among this group of folks to jump on that train again. We were anxious to get on smaller type of things. The first game we dreamed up was Orcs Must Die, which was imagined as a 12-month project with a fairly small team. Hero Academy was born the same way, with a small budget and a small team, but that was clearly a mobile game. Certainly, the size of doing something on a smaller scale has been of interest and it’s been fun and rewarding. Working on games is hard; releasing games and getting them into the players’ hands is a lot of fun.
Were you frustrated with the long, heavy-investment development process?
There’s certainly the investment side of it. We didn’t want to go out and start pitching publishers and trying to raise money for a big game. That was a bit of a driver. But the biggest driver was, “Hey, we don’t want to sign up for another three-year slog.” It’s just tough to go through that over and over again. We were ready for something different.
The RTS genre was really dominant on PC in years past. It’s less so now. Has that genre fallen off or can it still be a major genre in gaming?
I think it can still be a big genre, but it’s changing a lot. I don’t necessarily know where it’s going to go. There were some really big franchises that were huge that you could count on with StarCraft and WarCraft and Age of Empires and Command & Conquer. They were massive and when they would come out they’d sell millions of units at 50 or 60 bucks as a PC game. There isn’t that market any more for PC retail. But, you know, it’s fun to watch the charts on Steam. There are some RTSs that pop up and do quite well. I think you’re seeing the RTS genre bleed into other platforms as well. C&C has their browser game they just came up with. Some of us here are playing that beta and enjoying it. It’s interesting to see how the RTS genre is reimagining itself. You’re seeing some strategy plays on mobile and things like that. It’s different from what it was, but I don’t think the genre quite ever goes away. There are too many people that enjoy that gaming experience.
On iPhone and iPad, it seems like almost an early ‘80s boom where a few games sell huge numbers of units, like Angry Birds, but for every one of those there are 500 games that don’t sell at all. Could you see a crash coming in that market?
I think you’re right. The notion that it’s an ‘80s style market is over, and has been over for a couple of years. What’s happening right now is there’s a lot more professional developers, bigger studios, bigger publishers that have rushed in and are putting big budgets and higher production values behind titles. That’s probably crowding out hobbyists and part-timers a little bit.
I don’t know what Apple does to change that in the future. Apple’s still really good about featuring titles from all different types of developers and publishers. If you have a quality game that’s different, they are pretty good about putting it up. But they can only choose so many games per week. There are thousands of games coming on to the platform every week or two, and they can only feature so many. But they’ve been pretty good about featuring a little bit of everything so far. There is a risk that the big guys control the platform a little bit, when you think of the size of Zynga and Gree and Ngmoco, it’s much harder to compete with. It’s hard to say, but it’s changed a lot. That consolidation has been happening and the market is much different today than it was two years ago.
Have you been pleased with Hero Academy sales on iOS?
We have been pleased. We didn’t know what to expect with this first game. We invested a bit heavily in it. Not just in the game itself, but in the server technology that runs our multiplayer gaming. We had a vision for doing more multiplayer iOS games. We built that piece up front and took a long-term view. The critical reception has been amazing. It put us on the map as a mobile game developer and gives us some credibility. The money has been fine. We’re not in the top-grossing charts everyday, but we have a passionate group of players that are buying up content and we’ve been pleased with that. It’s a different scale. You spend a lot of time and money and effort to make these, but the price sensitivity is so great on iOS that you can package content up for two bucks, which was unimaginable a few years ago.