Diablo’s co-creator on free-to-play, modern game development, and working on established IP
David Brevik is a man who understands the action RPG genre. He co-founded Blizzard North, helped create the Diablo franchise, and was instrumental in the formation and structural planning of Battle.net while he was part of Blizzard Entertainment. As President and COO of Gazillion Entertainment, he's working on Marvel Heroes: a free-to-play Action RPG/MMO hybrid based in the Marvel comics universe.
Speaking to Brevik about Marvel Heroes also afforded the Report an opportunity to get his thoughts on the state of the MMO market and games industry at large. Will we be seeing more free-to-play titles? Is AAA games development really that bad? Why did the co-creator of a legendary IP forego creating a new world and work within an established universe? This is what Brevik had to say.
The benefits of playing with someone else's toys
Brevik told me several times throughout our interview that working with Disney and Marvel had been a good relationship. Disney isn't publishing Marvel Heroes, and so they only check in every so often to see how things are progressing. Marvel, meanwhile, even went out of their way to make sure Brevik and his team had a heads-up on upcoming Marvel events and promotions.
“A few years ago, Marvel came to us and said, 'We think you should put Rocket Raccoon in the game,'” Brevik told the Report. “And I went, 'Uh… okay? I like Rocket Raccoon, I like the Guardians of the Galaxy, but Rocket Raccoon? Really?' And they said, 'No, no, trust us!' And I said, 'Okay, we'll put him on the list.' And a year later, they announced the Guardians of the Galaxy movie and I'm like, 'Ohhhhhh, I get it!'”
The Gazillion team also has also had access to the CG models for Iron Man used in the upcoming Iron Man 3. When Marvel debuted the new costume for Cyclops in the Marvel NOW! Event, they did so in Marvel Heroes. The relationship between Gazillion and Marvel, in other words, has been symbiotic.
Given how positively he spoke about the relationship and its effects on development, I wondered if Brevik thought more developers would opt to work with an established IP as opposed to creating their own. Brevik said each approach had its ups and downs, but that working in something established brought in an audience, fans, and history, and developers could focus on creating interesting game play instead of building a fanbase.
Speaking of fanbases, you may recall the tiff that Brevik was involved in when Diablo 3 director Jay Wilson dropped the infamous “fuck that loser” line on Facebook. I asked Brevik what his relationship with Wilson was like today, and was told that the past is “water under the bridge” as far as Brevik is concerned. “It is what it is,” Brevik said.
Free-to-play, free to succeed
Should the Marvel brand fail to get people interested, Brevik hopes the free-to-play business model will. Being a free-to-play game allows people to get invested, to check out the game at little to no risk, because after all, what have they got to lose other than a little time?
Marvel Heroes isn't alone in this approach: another ARPG, Path of Exile, has been a big success, as have many other free-to-play titles. Still, some free-to-play games have been hampered by their need to make money, which makes them feel downright exploitative or just plain not fun. With free-to-play still a relatively new market strategy, how did Brevik know it was the right call to make a free-to-play game?
“I want as many people playing the game as possible. If they don't pay, fine. I don't care. I want them to be entertained, I want them to enjoy the game, I want them to give it a try, and any kind of barrier there, I want to try and eliminate.” Brevik said his dream was that one day, games would be launched straight from a browser, free-to-play, and high-quality. “Whether you're paying or not doesn't really matter to me, it's much more, 'we've got millions of people playing the game, enjoying themselves, and supporting us through activities, playing, broadcasting, and making it part of their lives,” he said.
While that's a nice sentiment, warm feelings and being nice to the player aren't buzzwords you throw around in business meetings. Even free games still need to make money, and I was curious as to how Brevik convinced investors to fund his, especially since he says he doesn't want to wring money out of players' pockets. And what about other developers looking to develop for the free-to-play market? Should they be frightened or excited by the prospect of developing for this business model?
Other developers shouldn't be afraid to argue the case for free-to-play; Brevik had no experience with such a business model before Marvel Heroes, and some investors of the game pitched their money in specifically because it was being developed for what's seen as a growing market.
EA, THQ, Square Enix and Capcom have all dealt with financial woes over the past year, and all have cited slow sales of boxed products as a major contributor. Free-to-play games, however, are growing. The success of social games and games like League of Legends have proven that free-to-play can be successful when handled properly, Brevik said. The way he sees it, that's not likely to change.
The bursting bubble of modern development
“Modern game development is really, really in a tough crossroads right now. The fact of the matter is there are examples of games that are not taking very much time or money to develop on phone and tablet that are making tremendous amounts of money versus games that take huge amounts of staff, huge amounts of capital to not only create, but then also to market, and are huge risks and can fail,” Brevik said. “There are games where it's taking $100 million, $200 million dollars to create, and then marketing on top of that on the same scale, and that's a huge risk.”
“It's very, very split right now as to where do you go, what do you do, what do you spend your time and energy on, where do you take the risks? You can see, I think it's pretty obvious, there's gonna be a lot of focus on mobile and tablet. They're definitely going to give consoles a run for their money because the risk is just so high on consoles and so low on phones.”
If that's the case, why isn't Marvel Heroes a mobile game? Brevik explained that, while development risks are low, visibility is a large barrier to mobile market success. Games on phones and tablet tend to be more viral and spread via word-of-mouth as opposed to advertisements, and the sheer number of games coming out at any time means even good games can get buried and lost in the shuffle very quickly.
Brevik said developing for PC wasn't an issue, because the team budgeted accordingly. Part of the problem with inflating costs is that games need to sell more to make up for them, and even games which sell upwards of 3 million in under a month are deemed to be failures. The games industry is collapsing under its own weight.
Jim Sterling illustrated this point last week in his Jimquisition video, Dark Souls and Dark Sales. “When EA's telling me Dead Space 3 needs to sell 5 million copies to save the series, I'm not feeling sorry for EA, I'm not shrugging and saying, 'Well that's reasonable, Dead Space 3 costs a lot of money,' I'm simply stunned by the short-sightedness of it all,” Sterling said in his video.
Brevik, it would seem, agrees. He credited responsible budgeting and sticking to deadlines as one of the most important aspects of developing Marvel Heroes, and said that if more people “go in with their eyes open,” they'll see that game development doesn't need to be this leviathan monstrosity. “The money is out there, the audience is out there, you just have to be careful and make sure that when you're making a game that you give it your best effort and have the best chance for success.”
“The fact is, if you have a great game, people will come and play.”