“We looked at Idle Minds, the makers of Pain,” THQ Digital UK’s creative director Don Whiteford tells me when I asked him where he looked for examples of developers that understand digital downloadable games. “They’re listening to the customers, they’re learning and they’re feeding it back to make it an enjoyable experience and keep that thing going.” Currently heading the Red Faction: Battlegrounds project, Whiteford hopes to show THQ the greater value of developing digital games in smaller teams with more rapid development cycles. He sat down with Gamesauce to talk about his findings, the challenges of adapting a game studio to developing digital downloadable games and how a publisher like THQ has a growing interest in it too.
During GDC Europe Whiteford also gave a talk where he shared his insights on changing a studio’s business model to go from retail to digital, including the aspects of changing production, customer relations, the digital market and general expectations of the product. “In the digital space you can put stuff out, be sensitive to customers and their feedback, you can learn from the customer and then you can evolve the product that way,” Whiteford argues. “It’s much more in step with the market. The risk goes down, but the benefits go up.”
For Whiteford’s team working on Red Faction: Battlegrounds, diving into the spirit of digital games has been quite the challenge. “This is our first product, so we’re taking our very first steps here,” Whiteford admits. “We don’t have all the answers by any means. A lot of things that we’ve learned for the studio is about reorganizing big teams, taking them down to small teams. There’s a huge learning curve there.”
According to Whiteford, he and his team are most excited about being able to experiment more with digital titles than they’ve previously had with AAA ones. “Our first game is actually taking a little bit more of a retro stance, which is another thing we find great about this space,” Whiteford says. “It’s a twin stick shooter with very classic sort of features from the Atari days. But we then laid in these rich graphics from this generation of consoles. I think we may also start experimenting with the more abstract things in the future.” But Whiteford also has the challenge of dealing with his colleagues at THQ. It hasn’t been easy for him to get the message across what he and his team want to achieve with Red Faction: Battlegrounds. “When you examine the digital space, what you find very quickly is that for a small developer this is actually a very good model,” Whiteford explains. “THQ is a big publisher. You look at the kind of returns you get in this space. Maybe it doesn’t add up for them. It’s not at the scale of the stuff they’re doing now with Homefront and Space Marine. So that’s why we thought, perhaps the strategy of THQ is to absolutely build up their brands and to get people familiar with their brands.”
Like most developers, Whiteford and his team started out iterating with a small prototype, but then also came across the Red Faction IP as a perfect fit for their game. “So we thought one way to add value to both the customer and THQ is to use the brand IP as a theme for our game, which led us to using Red Faction,” Whiteford explains. “It’s interesting, because we are seeing this in other places. I guess one of the first games that did that was Fable with the pop quiz and the DICE guys did a great job with Battlefield 1943. All of a sudden, they’re putting out a really high-quality game that people want to play. So it stands on its own, it has great value, but it also makes people aware of the franchises again. That’s clever, that really works. It’s about adding value for everyone. Both win.” Looking forward to all the positives concerning digital downloads, Whiteford has also had to deal with the challenges. Any digital downloadable game has to be good to sell, require consumers to support it and have the right price. “We’re still trying to figure that out,” Whiteford admits. “My thing is really, it’s got to feel like good value to the player and we have to try and figure out what that is.”
A new frontier
Whiteford agrees that the digital downloadable space faces its own issues. The challenges of releasing a game, standing out, distinguishing yourself and helping the customer find you are just a few thoughts that THQ and his team have been dealing with. “For us, what it comes down to is that we’re in the business of making good games,” Whiteford says. “Our philosophy is to make sure when we put something out, that it stands out and people like it.”
Whiteford is also enjoying some strong support from THQ, who has showed an increased interest in digital downloadable games and has been ramping up their line-up with the recent release of Double Fine’s Costume Quest. “We’ve been with THQ for quite some years now, and the company is really changing in a really good way,” Whiteford argues. “There’s a lot of learning going on, a lot of reorganization going on with some good people who are starting to look at these things in different ways. I think a couple of years ago it would’ve been worse.”
Whiteford had already proposed to go into the digital space to THQ a while ago, but was told it was too big of a jump for the publisher at that time. “There’s a lot more understanding now with a lot more people focused on this space and they’re starting to get a better understanding of how to get in there to pitch it,” Whiteford adds. The easy part for Whiteford to sell to THQ was the decrease in team size and the ability to reduce costs if projects would end up failing. Finding developers ready to take the step to creating digital downloadable games wasn’t hard either. “The comparison is, on the big projects, you’re a steak knife and you do that really well. In this environment, you’re a Swiss army knife,” Whiteford says. “For some developers, this is actually really exciting. It allows them to reinvent themselves. There’s a lot of learning there for the developer.”
Appetite for digital
As THQ’s support for digital downloadable projects is growing, Whiteford and his team are picking the fruits. “THQ definitely is really interested in this space, so it’s good to be with them right now,” Whiteford admits. “We started on this project a bit late after Red Faction: Armageddon. In the future, hopefully we can get these things more synchronized and a bit more of a discussion of how it fits.” But as far as the support for Red Faction: Battlegrounds goes, Whiteford is quite satisfied with the support he is getting. It has allowed him to focus on releasing a great game underneath a popular brand and game franchise. “We want people to feel that they’re getting great value,” Whiteford says. “They’ve tasted some of the brand. Brands are a very precious thing. In the beginning, one of the questions a publisher would have had is, ‘will something like this damage the brand?’ There is that kind of fear.”
As Whiteford looked at the titles going out on various digital channels, he noticed the high quality of games coming through and the variation of game experiences offered to the consumer. “I would like Red Faction: Battlegrounds to be seen as a good companion game,” Whiteford says. “Something that people enjoy playing for what it is that reminds them of some gameplay they’ve enjoyed in the past.” Luckily for Whiteford, THQ wants that too. “They like the idea that more people might be aware of the brand as well,” he adds, “who have not otherwise played the game before.”
Whiteford has experienced his share of skepticism about his stance on the value of traditional publishers going into the digital downloadable space. “It’s been healthy skepticism, rather than negative reactions,” Whiteford admits. “A digital product like this can actually even support retail by enhancing a brand or giving someone a reason to go buy something from a store. So it works for them too. Retail has got to learn about this as well. How are they going to take advantage of this and how are they going to change their business models? It’s a way we have to think. It is a digital future.” But as Whiteford stated in his GDC Europe talk, publishers have to start considering their products as a service. “There’s a lot to re-educate ourselves with,” Whiteford admits. “There are a lot of things to try. Some of it is going to work, some is going to fail. We just have to make sure that it doesn’t cost a lot when we fail.”
Red Faction: Battlegrounds is currently in development by THQ Digital UK and has been scheduled to tie in with the release of Red Faction: Armageddon in March, 2011.
Vlad Micu is managing editor of Gamesauce.org. He previously has been a freelance game industry professional for over five years and traveled around the world while running his company VGVisionary. Starting VGVisionary during college, Vlad was able to work independently as a pr & marketing consultant, event manager, industry journalist, speaker and game developer. He just returned from Bangkok, Thailand, where he pursued his dream of making video games as the game producer at arkavis, an up and coming casual game studio.