ION 08: MMOs and the television content model (SGW)


Joseph Ybarra, SVP of strategic operations at Firesky, the publishing subsidiary of Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment, presented a session today at ION 08 about the Stargate Worlds production model that borrows heavily from Hollywood and TV models. The goal for SGW is to approach content updates for the game more like a production cycle for television, in which an episode takes a predictable amount of time to complete (14-16 weeks in the case of Stargate Atlantis).

After some background on Firesky and CME, Ybarra showed the Stargate Worlds trailer and launched into a discussion of the strategy with SGW. The idea is to adopt a movie model for the development phase and a TV model for the post-launch "live" phase. They chose to use the BigWorld middleware platform and Unreal Engine technologies in an effort to use proven tools: "don't reinvent the wheel." This allows them to both minimize risk and focus on the content. Under a television model, the lifespan of the product is long. You've got short, predictable release cycles where the quality and quantity of the episodic content is driven by the audience. Adopting the TV model also offers the opportunity to expend effort in creating a number of smaller, "light MMOs," where the company will be creating more games for smaller and niche audiences. The benefit is that you don't have to shoot for home runs; if the "pilot" takes off you can double the budget and build more of that. With short development cycles and smaller budgets, Firesky can afford to release a bunch of smaller games and let the audience size determine which properties are taken further and built up beyond the pilot stage.

In contrast to the movie model, where studios focus primarily on customer acquisition, under both TV and games companies have to focus on audience acquisition and retention. Retention is achieved through the immersion inherent in the gameplay itself, through the introduction of new content, and via rewards for long-time players (the equivalent in the TV world is when you see references in Season 8 to something only viewers who also saw Season 1 will understand).

Firesky is also taking a unique approach to financing the game. They haven't pursued any corporate backing whatsoever, instead opting for a large number of individual investors (about 600) in the average range of $100,000 to $250,000 with a handful coming in upwards of $1 million. Fundraising is ongoing and has been driving a lot of credibility in Hollywood.

The presentation shifted to a bit of discussion about how content from Stargate Atlantis might be integrated with or utilized inside the game, as well as the other way around. An initial example is the contest they ran with MGM in which the SGW trailer was shown on Atlantis and viewers were asked to enter for a chance to actually be incorporated into the game.

Question and answer

Q: Will any of the writers from the TV show cross over to writing for the game?
A: We've consulted with a number of script writers but the thing is that "gamers don't read." Script writing is important but it's actually not that important. But yes, I do expect this to happen more and more over the lifespan of the game; I also expect the reverse where stories from the game end up influencing or appearing in the TV show.

Q: Will there be in-game ads?
A: Maybe. There are certainly opportunities inherent here as a game in a contemporary setting. For example you might have the team wearing North Face gear as they head into a mission or something. Or, there was an episode where Richard Dean Anderson was drinking a Heineken beer -- so there are definitely opportunities, but we really don't actually need it.

Q: Are there other business models you're looking at to monetize the game?
A: We're looking at things like pay as you go, and of course free to play and microtransactions for sure.

Q: Can you talk more about the crossover between the TV show and the game and how you'll deal with the difference audiences?
A: The target audience is first and foremost MMO gamers, not SG watchers. We have to have good gameplay no matter who we are. Still, we happen to have a large crossover already between SG fans and who are also gamers. We'll be going after the fans who are viewers and not necessarily gamers next.

Q: How will you manage producing content in a way that meshes well with the pace of television, where you have on and off seasons and deadtime between big sections of the plot?
A: The game is actually based on SG-1 which isn't in production anymore, so that's easier. But in the future we definitely plan to pursue content integration and tie-ins with the storyline in Atlantis.

Q: What are you outsourcing on this project?
A: Everything, if we can do it. We're outsourcing the script development and writing, the UI, everything on the publishing side, possibly the NOC, definitely the web development, the retail sales and manufacturing.

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This article was originally published on Massively.