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WoW Insider interviews 38 Studios' Brett Close about Azeroth Advisor

Mike Schramm

Last week we reported that 38 Studios, a company working on its own MMO property, had picked up the Azeroth Advisor, a custom newsletter directed towards players of World of Warcraft. At the time, we were slightly confused -- why would another gaming company want to purchase a guide written to promote and help players of a competitor's game? To get the answer, we went straight to the top, and sat down to talk with Brett Close, CEO of 38 Studios, about the reasons behind his company's purchase of the Azeroth Advisor and the technology behind it.

Last week, Curt Schilling, the company's founder, spoke on The Instance podcast about the buyout (that took place in May of this year), and what Mentor Media's newsletter and technology had to offer 38 Studios, so we asked Close about that, including how they planned to extend the custom newsletters to games that didn't have WoW's Armory and why they want to support players of a competitor's MMO. And we also talked about the fact that the newsletter is going free and why they decided to start giving it away.

The conversation with 38 Studios' CEO starts right after the break.

WoW Insider: Tell us first about 38 Studios and what they do. Our sister site Massively has covered a lot of your work, but our readers might not know so much about you, so tell us a little bit what the company is and how it came ot be.

Brett Close, CEO, 38 Studios: 38 Studios was formed in late '06 -- October of '06 in terms of people coming in the door -- and was founded by Curt Schilling. Co-founders were visionaries Todd McFarlane and R.A. Salvatore -- if you don't know who those guys are, Todd McFarlane is the creator of Spawn, and a comic book magnate/pop culture icon. And R.A. Salvatore is a New York Times international bestselling author of fantasy fiction work in various forms, primarily known for the Drizt novels. Curt got me involved with the operation regarding my game development experience over the years, and we talked and came to some very similar conclusions and resonance about how an organization could really break new ground and have some really productive changes in not just what you build but how you treat the people, so we really formed the studio on a new vision of how games are developed, how they can be distributed, and a completely different vision of where MMOs and online entertainment can go. We're really an entertainment company, in a broader sense than just a videogame company. We create original IPs -- currently the Copernicus IP is based on the work of R.A. Salvatore -- not his previous novels, but some completely new and original intellectual property, and we're building an MMO and a variety of other products that stem off of that intellectual property.

Copernicus is an MMO, right? It's a massively multiplayer game?

Correct. Not a standard MMO -- it's really what I would call a generation beyond anything that's out there, so significantly different in a number of ways, but it would be a correct term to identify it as what you'd think an MMO would be.

And I also wanted to ask you about Mentor Media and how this all came about. How did they start, and how did this get to the point where 38 Studios said, this is a company we want to be involved with?

It was sort of a mutual discovery process, actually. They are local to our area, we're based just outside of Boston. They're not too far down the road from us. We had a number of endeavors underway involving that Copernicus intellectual property and the products surrounding Copernicus as I said, not just MMOG, but pretty much everything we can provide the customer, in as many points as possible to give them the best entertainment experience possible, from novels to McFarlane toys, to MMOG web-based products, mobile products, console products, et cetera. So we already had some definitive ideas about web-based products that would suit the Copernicus IP, and where we saw a way to build the community, not just in terms of MMOs, but the future of a gaming community, everything. So we came across Mentor Media by finding their product, the Azeroth Advisor, and were impressed with it even in its original form, which was very different than it is now, with its feature set and capabilities. What we didn't know is that it was based on patent-pending, very impressive and powerful technology that generates these procedural, customized, personalized newsletters for the customer, and it really dovetailed very nicely into some of the things that we were planning for Copernicus initially, but more broadly than that, they had a pre-existing product for WoW and that customer base, and we saw that as a very interesting blend with our mission statement of providing the MMO market with the best entertainment experience possible. What we want to do is continue to expand that product with really the 38 Studios signature quality.

And also, there's something else in there that people aren't really aware of, which is the other places that we can take that product. It's currently obviously being launched as a WoW product, but there's, based on the technology -- it's a very unique and interesting technology -- there's a lot more that we can launch that into both within gaming and tech products as well as elsewhere.

How long ago did this all go down -- what's the relationship there? Did you buy Mentor Media, do you own the company, are they a division of 38 Studios, and when did that happen?

They're not a division, we didn't buy them -- we actually bought the Azeroth Advisor and the technology and that group merged into 38 Studios, so it's all part of the same team now.

And when did that happen? It was earlier this year?

That was in May of '08.

Explain to us quickly what exactly Azeroth Advisor does -- does it pull information from the Armory and then determines what your character is like and send you information based on that? Are the guides written by people who are hired, or how does this all work?

There are a couple of different things. We do have a knowledge domain, a knowledgebase of articles that are composed to generate the newsletters, and we pull information partially from the Armory and partially from the client-side data on the person's computer, and based on various events that are things like leveling and what type of character class you are, what sort of raids and quests you've recently gone on, we can provide context and very personalized information based on what you've been doing, helping to give you a very clear focus on what you can do rather than just leaving the playing field wide open. It gives you a much more targeted sense of where the entertainment value is, and allows them to make more targeted choices about the type of experience that they want to pursue in the product.

The biggest question I had about this when I first heard about it is something you talked a little bit about already, but it's basically, and if Copernicus is an MMO, you would eventually be competing with Blizzard, so why would 38 Studios want to own a newsletter that covers a competitor's game?

Well, there are two parts to that answer. One is yeah, this is a parallel product that is completely decoupled from Copernicus in support of the WoW product and the WoW playerbase, so this is something that, as I've said, increases the player experience in the largest MMO out there today, so a significant portion of the population of MMO players out there can have a higher-quality experience because of this product. And that's absolutely true and square off the center of our mission statement in delivering products that increase the value of the MMO experience out there. It's a marathon, not a sprint -- there is going to be a period before, a while before we actually get our product out there, and in the meantime, in terms of releasing products that increase and enhance the quality of the experience in the MMO industry for the players out there currently, and enhance that community, it makes a better experience for the player, which in turn keeps the MMO industry thriving, which is obviously just good for us at 38 Studios also. Blizzard loves the product, we've got a great relationship with them, and all the way around, it's a win for the player and a win for us, and it's a very strong value proposition.

The other piece to it, as I mentioned, is the patent-pending technology, so this is sort of the continued proof-of-concept, as I say, there was already a specific WoW site up and running, the Azeroth Advisor, when we acquired this technology, and so to extend and continue that, since there were subscribers to that, only makes sense. It would be sort of silly to buy it and kill it, and not only annoy those customers, but destroy the value of the whole technology proposition. So not only that, but in terms of the backend technology that supports this, it's very powerful and very compelling technology, and there are a lot of other places we can take it, so this is really just the continued proof of concept for how powerful this technology is.

Curt Schilling was on The Instance podcast and he talked about this, and he even said that Mentor Media was eventually going to be looking for writers for other games -- are there other games specifically that you're interested in doing this for?

There's nothing we can mention. Again, it's wide open and there's nothing else out there that's doing what this product can do. If you look at community as being key to, honestly, even products that are not MMO products, the idea of looking at energizing community for a variety of different products out there, and even non-gaming industry products -- there are different places and businesses where this is very applicable stuff, so I'm not ready to give you names of products that we're working on, but absolutely, we are examining other places to try this.

Curt said that as well, and my big question about that, basically, is that not every industry/MMO game/whatever you want to deliver a newsletter about has an Armory or all of these hooks that you can get in and find out what a player is doing. I know EVE Online has an API, but not nearly as much information as the Armory. So the question is, as good as the technology may be, how do you tag the games that don't have those types of hooks in them.

To be clear, primarily the information comes from client-side data. So the Armory is a pretty trivial part of it. And the technology is extremely versatile, and we have the development team on site, we've got fantastic engineers, so being able to take this and apply the framework to a variety of existing problem domains is relatively trivial. It's very versatile in that sense.

It's also going to be free -- is it free now, starting now?

As of the launch date, which we haven't officially released the PR information on launch, but as of launch, it will be free, correct. Technically now, it is free.

So it will be free, if not now than soon. What was the charge originally?

It was $4.99. Per month, per customer, and then there were different stratifications in terms of cost tiers, for annual and that sort of thing.

Why did you decide to go free then?

It just goes back to the value proposition, in terms of branding it as a fan site and giving the MMO customers out there, the players out there, the best experience possible, no money down, and letting them get in and see what a great product this is. It's the best way to serve the MMO community and the game community, and get that quality of experience in the MMO market in general. Which, again, I think, reflects back on 38 Studios and the quality of our products and only increases and energizes the industry, which is good for them and good for us. And in terms of general knowledge, the best way to approach it, just letting people get their hands on this for free. So it's partially a business decision, and partially a sort of philosophical decision in terms of just letting people enjoy that without having to incur extra costs.

So it's basically a gift from 38 Studios? Will it be ad-supported, or will you mention 38 Studios products in the newsletters?

We are not doing that, actually. We currently are not going ad-supported, we may offer a premium enhancement of some sort that may involve a different sort of busines model extension, but for now, you get the fullest extent of the product as it exists for free, and that's where it stands. Again, we want this product to be a strong value proposition that really enhances people's player experience.

Cool. Anything else you wanted to know about Azeroth Advisor or 38 Studios and your involvement with it?

I would just say -- obviously, I'm going to say this -- but I have not spoken with anyone yet that has tried the product that didn't just say "Wow, that is really cool, that is very impressive. I can't believe you guys have done this, because it's super high quality and interesting product that allows me to utilize my time better." We're all very constrained on where our free time goes. Everyone that's tried it has loved it, and secondly they're just absolutely thrilled that we're offering it free. So I would strongly impress on people to go take a look at it and you'll be hooked.

Who's your main demographic for this, then? Is it just all WoW players, or is there a specific type of player that you're targeting with this?

No it really goes across the board. Again, the main demographic is probably, if anything -- it works for the high-end and the very experienced players, and it works for the very inexperienced who kind of need an on-ramp and a lower barrier of entry to get in. They people who are a little too shy to get into the product and to get into WoW -- again, this lowers the barrier of entry, this allows them to experience the game, and if they're time-challenged, if they've got kids, etc. Or older players who have other things they have to focus on in life, they don't have to go read some of the player guides or kinds of things online, or spend tons and tons of hours to figure something out. This helps them target the best way to get to level 40 if you're 39, and a Mage, here are the types of quests available to you and the best way to attack that. So it really doesn't take away the experience, but gives you more tools and more choices in how to focus on the experience, and make it more efficiently enjoyable.

Thanks very much.

You're welcome, thank you for your time.

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