Digital Illusions CE (DICE) is of course best known for their Battlefield series of games and so far as I can tell, with the occasional detour here and there (primarily into various titles of the Command and Conquer series), shooters have been Sean's career focus for some eight years now. Because of the success of Battlefield Heroes, whether EVE players like him or not, whether they like EA or not, that makes Sean one of the foremost experts in developing and selling both free-to-play gaming and shooter-based gaming in the world.
The cynical among you will immediately retort -- not without cause -- that he's also one of the foremost experts in pay-to-win free-to-play gaming in the world. We'll get to that. First, full disclosure: the following post was written without consulting CCP employees. But at the end of the day, what are they gonna say? This guy reports directly to their CEO. So while they may have their own opinions over a pint, in public they're going to be enthusiastic and supportive.
Let's start with the reasons why this a good move for CCP:
- It gets CCP a smart, successful leader in the industry who has a proven track record successfully developing and selling both shooters and free-to-play games.
- It gets CCP someone who's intimately familiar with development and retention issues in a F2P marketplace open to millions of potential customers.
- He's both press-savvy and a good communicator, and able to operate well in an environment of games having difficult launches.
- Frankly, it weakens what is likely to be their strongest competitor going into the holiday season just as that competitor was developing their marketing and launch strategies.
- Interestingly enough, Sean has a lot of familiarity with nordic personalities and developers. I assure you this is a thing.
- It gets CCP someone who's familiar with what game genres are likely to go over well in different markets around the world.
- It gets CCP someone who's very experienced in tying a lot of fractious development teams together, something it's clear that Hilmar himself was kind of struggling with.
But let's get to the downsides. There are really only two... but they're kind of huge.
- Sean views free-to-play gaming almost exclusively through the prism of "basic game-play is free, everything else costs."
- Sean comes from a company that has not been afraid to spend enormous amounts of money to solve their problems.
Read through or watch various interviews that Sean has given on F2P strategy over the years, and at times he comes off as kind of forgetful about what he's selling. Game companies exist for one reason and one reason only: to sell fun and good memories. That's it. That's your product. Forget that and you're dead. I've covered this a half-dozen times or more on the blog over the time I've been writing it, all the way back to the very beginning.
Now as a Vice President in a big company with ten thousand employees, forgetting this fundamental to focus on the "consumer" and the money side of your business is certainly a forgivable offense. There's several thousand people below you that are going to remember that games are fun and are going to take care of that part of the business for you. Sean says "I see the world as a micro-transaction" and describes games in the same breath as pay-per-view movies bought in addition to basic cable, or buying a meal on in economy class on an airplane. And at the VP level, there's nothing at all wrong with that perspective. In the C-suite, you set the high-level business goals and those will be translated into ground-level directives by the personnel in your management chain. That's their job.
But how well will this translate at a company with 6% of EA's staff?
The good news here is that it seems clear that Sean's initial focus is going to be on DUST 514. I doubt very much that CCP is going to dip their toe into the EVE micro-transactions pool again without a lot of forethought into the matter. The lessons of the summer of rage haven't been forgotten. On Massively today, Hilmar pointed out two areas that are both consistent with EVE and consistent with a micro-transactions approach, ship paint-jobs (which I'm overwhelmingly in favor of, even if some of the cool colors and skins are bought with Aurum) and dual training (which I didn't care for CCP's approach on, but I don't object to the basic premise). And Sean was very quick to mention that he agrees that he doesn't think "[free-to-play] is the be all and end all business model."
But that still leaves Sean developing his strategies with a tiny staff where he's going to have to keep track of all the elements himself. When CCP hired David Reid, I was very enthusiastic about the hire because David came from a company of similar size and understood the challenges faced by a smaller organization. Sean's experience with a small business is some 13 years old; he's going to have to re-remember some old skills. And in the meantime, DUST's current customer base is too small and too fragile to try to swing the "buy cool stuff!" stick too much. Sean also says that EA saw little or no cannibalization across their brands. I think he's going to find CCP is seeing something very different.
The same interview says...
The "money barrier" as Decker put it - the bit where you hold out your hand and ask for cash, is still the trickiest part of balancing the experience of free to play games.Which brings me to the other potential downside, because that's not the only money barrier Sean is facing.
"That money barrier is difficult and interesting," he said. "For us it's - can you offer something of very clear value to the player where they feel they want to do it, but at the same time do not upset the ecosystem of everybody being able to play, and it will turn into 'pay to win'. You really need to do a great job of balancing that out."
EA is really really good at one thing, and that one thing is marketing. Now again, I'm a big fan of David Reid, but this is an area that CCP has been struggling with since 2003 or so. Sean is coming from a company that quite frankly tended to solve development issues, marketing issues, and issues of building an audience by throwing enormous amounts of money at the problems and then expecting enormous returns. In 2009, EA rather famously said that a typical game needs to sell more than a million copies to break even... but of course said that in the context of nine or ten figure marketing budgets.
I'm pretty sure CCP doesn't have that kind of coin. Nor do I think CCP has the money, wherewithal, or inclination to spend more on marketing than it spends on development, something that it's been occasionally reliably rumored that EA has done to guarantee success of this or that game.
On the flip-side, of course, EA benefits hugely from the fact that so many of their games can operate from the same engine, Frostbite, which has been in continuous development for more than five years. This engine, originally developed for the Battlefield franchise, has now crossed genres to be used in virtually every type of game EA makes from the Need for Speed franchise to Dragon Age. This has done a tremendous amount to limit the development cost of EA's games and freed up a lot of cash for other uses. This is obviously a good thing... but it's another thing that Sean isn't going to have at CCP. At CCP, the individual development teams don't even use the expression "NIH", preferring instead to have each team develop their own phrase for not wanting to use another team's work to speed development or reduce costs. Or as Sean puts it himself...
...at the end of the day you don't want to spend half of your time creating tech - you want to spend your time making a game.Yup. Except CCP has never learned this lesson. Hell, CCP spent months developing their own in-game font, for Heaven's sake, to say nothing of their own in-game engines for everything else, too (notably Incarna). Is Sean going to be able to deal with that? Or will one of his first tasks have to be to break up that kind of thinking?
So yeah, I'd say there are some interesting times ahead.
Again, the good news for EVE players is that we shouldn't see too much impact in space for the time being. For now, my recommendation to EVE players is not to freak out. Yeah, there's already a threadnaught. Yeah, it's filled with EA rage. And yeah, in the time it took me to write this post, it grew three pages.(1) But guys, let's calm down and see where this goes. I know you guys like to speculate. I know you guys like to go negative. And yeah, as I noted above, there are some good reasons to be concerned. But for the moment, let's sit back and see which money barrier becomes the critical one.
(1) And yet, no matter how big the threadnaught gets, this will be the best post in it. Classic! Love it! QOTW right there.