GDC09: Joystiq interviews Gazillion VP about Marvel MMOs, Lego Universe and where the publisher came from

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GDC09: Joystiq interviews Gazillion VP about Marvel MMOs, Lego Universe and where the publisher came from

Gazillion. Up until a couple weeks ago, the word was representative of numerical hyperbole, and now it represents a publisher with massive venture capital backing and the MMO rights to major IPs like Marvel and Lego. We had a chance to interview the company's VP of Marketing Paul Baldwin -- with a fire drill intermission -- during GamesBeat 2009 last week. We asked him pretty much anything we could think of ... you know, considering we knew almost nothing about this new publisher.

Joystiq: We're here with Paul Baldwin, who is the vice president of marketing at the "newly founded" Gazillion Entertainment? What's the deal there?

Baldwin: Newly announced. The company was in stealth mode since 2005, so we've been around for a while, but we are "newly announced."

You guys just appeared on the scene and got the Marvel license. I can tell you, we spent hours the day we first heard of the company, just calling up several journos and PR asking, "Who are these guys?" So, who are you guys?

Good question, I have to first say that I was amazed myself that we were able to keep the company quiet since 2005, additionally when we acquired NetDevil in July of '08 and obviously we were very excited to get Jumpgate and of course Lego Universe, then we also acquired a company in Seattle, and we've been slowly building up the Marvel Universe studio, Gargantuan, in San Mateo, and throughout this period we were able to keep it quiet, which, once again, really surprised all of us. As I mentioned, the company started in 2005. At that point, we had kind of modest goals, frankly. We had an original IP, which is going to be a big client, high production quality -- World of Warcraft-like production quality -- coming out. That was the first product we had actually on tap.

Is that Lego or Marvel related?

That was another property we haven't announced yet.

Oh, so you've got another one in the pipe?

Correct. We actually have six or seven titles that are in production right now.

On that note, you've got all this venture capital behind the company. Major, major names. How did you get these players? There's a lot of money going into this company.

We definitely have fantastic support. Our connection to the VC marketplace is Rob Hutter who is our CEO. He's a partner at Revolution Ventures, which is one of our investors, so he comes from that world, if you will, he comes from that space. Through his connections there he found some great partners with Oak Investment Partners and Hearst Interactive Media and some other people as well.

One of the interesting things that we saw was that the announcement of Gazillion was seeded in Wall Street Journal and in Venture Beat, but nothing really in the game press. Do you not see the game press' audience as being part of the demographic you're trying to reach?

The gaming press is imperative to our success. We're making a wide range of products, some for kids, some for the core gamers. Regardless of either one of those target audiences, the gaming press is a huge part of how we're going to reach those people. I came from Eidos, where products like Tomb Raider, Hitman and Legacy of Kain whose bread was buttered with the gaming press. The goal of our announcement however, because we didn't want to talk about the products specifically at that point, was more our corporate goals, and therefore we kind of focused on the Wall Street Journals, the Forbes, The Washington Post, The Venture Beat, etc. By all means, going forward our key partners will be the enthusiast gaming press.

Super Hero Squad is the name of the first Marvel game, and then there's Lego Universe. Neither of those are really adult games, so where are the games like World of Warcraft and Everquest?

Good question. We actually think that what makes us unique is that we're going for the mass market. Much like a Pixar film not only resonates with a six-year-old kid, but a 39 year-old guy like myself the whole way through. Much like Zelda works with eight-year-old kids and 35 year-old hardcore gamers in terms of the depth of gameplay. We want games that are easy to play, but have the depth of some of those IPs I mentioned in terms of Pixar and Nintendo products. We do, in fact, have several games that are targeting the hardcore. The first product we have launching with a partner Codemasters is from Net Devil and it's called Jumpgate: Evolution which is kind of "pick up and play" accessible.

And that was another title that we haven't really seen much of, it's something that popped up on the radar and looked interesting, but we didn't hear much about it. There seems to be a disconnect between talking to the core audience with this company.

Keep in mind that with Jumpgate we acquired the developer, Codemasters is the publisher, and Codemasters actually controls 100% of the marketing and the PR, so we're in a support role there. So whatever happened prior to us coming on board, we can't really control.

You should poke them more.


Going forward, we're making a big push. In fact, at GDC we have 15 press meetings that are all hardcore press coming to see Jumpgate. That's one of several games we have that are targeting the core. We have another unannounced game that the folks at NetDevil are doing, that is very much targeting the core. Marvel Universe will absolutely target the core.

Marvel Universe is an "adult game" of the "kids game?"

We'll say it's a "mass market" game, but you can probably call it the adult version. The kids' version, or our first product to market, is Marvel Super Hero Squad, which was a specific attempt by the folks at Marvel to reach all the young kids that love the Marvel characters.

A bunch of companies at this point have tried to make a Marvel MMO and failed. How are you going to succeed where other companies have constantly failed on this one IP?

Not to dodge the question, but I can't really comment on the products, or the attempts rather, that went before. We're going to assemble the best team we possibly can. We have some great team leaders that we're excited to talk about soon. So we're going to start with a team, and our passion for Marvel. One of the things that people don't talk about in MMO space -- maybe the hardcore gamers aren't aware of it -- but how hard it is to operate these games; the back end support. That may be a reason some of the other products failed. The game design may have been there, but the toughest part about actually making an MMO game -- and this is a ridiculous statement -- is not making the game, but actually operating it and doing all the customer support and the billing and actually just running the servers. It's extremely hard to do that worldwide and that's where most games fail. So, we're going to assemble the best team possible. We already have a fantastic infrastructure that we're going to be utilizing for all other products that we have and from that foundation, try our best to make the best game we possibly can.

We know you've got the money, we know about the company, we know you have the IPs but who are the developers ... [cut off by fire alarm] See now the question is, Paul, do we run out of the building screaming or do we just hold tight and let the potential fire consume us?

I haven't heard anyone yell "fire" yet. So I think we're OK. We batten down the hatches until a strong person asks us to remove.

OK. So we'll wait for the guy with the helmet?

And the baton.

... And the baton.

So, getting back to your question regarding studios.

Yeah, who are the developers?

NetDevil's been around for 10 years. They're arguably one of the first MMO companies ever in North America.

[We are asked to leave the building and continue the interview outside ... where the fire alarm is actually louder.]

So, anyway, the developers on these games, who are they?

Our success of failure will ultimately ride on the quality of our development teams. We put a big emphasis on that. A perfect example of that is us working with the folks at NetDevil. ... Our team in San Mateo, for instance, Slipgate Ironworks, the entire team has worked on 16 MMOs. That's a tremendous wealth of talent there, and experience. I mean literally, of a team of about 80 guys, they've worked on 16 MMOs. Our guy who runs quality assurance, Ed Hocking, used to work at SOE. He's shipped five MMOs. And that's just an example.

Each one of our studios, the majority of people on the teams have worked on MMOs. So that is kind of a prerequisite. However, we don't only hire people who have done MMOs. One of our goals is to make games for the mass market, and so we have people from Pixar, from Disney. Certainly we have people from the console space, as well as folks from the MMO space, and the idea is this kind of unique group of people with talents from just outside the hardcore gaming community will make games that not only resonate with the hardcore, but also games like Marvel Super Hero Squad, Lego Universe, have also, can hopefully get MMO's beyond just the hardcore.

On the whole Marvel thing, do you have comic book people that are working there? How close will it be to what's going on currently in those worlds? Or, is it a new alternate realm?

With Marvel Super Hero Squad, it's a TV show. It's based upon action figures that have already come out for kids, but there's a TV show coming out later this year on Cartoon Network. We're pretty much closely tying that to the show and to the IP. So Marvel Super Hero Squad will follow that IP pretty closely, and we're excited about that because that TV series will be successful and will be on for several years, and so it's a great continual marketing option for us to be able to drive awareness for that title. Marvel Universe, frankly we're just kind of starting that one out, but each team working on a Marvel product has several people that are "Marvel lore" kind of historians, if you will, that know everything inside and out about the brand. So that's a core part of each team that we build upon.

About parental controls, the first game is for children. Will kids be able to play it with their parents or is it designed just for kids? What's the thinking going into that?

Lets look at, for instance, Lego Universe, the perfect example of really Gazillion's aspirations to make games for the mass market. If you think about the fantastic games that TT Games have made with the folks at Lego: Lego Star Wars one and two, Indiana Jones, and Batman. Those are games that literally kids five, six, seven, and eight have played and loved, their dads have loved, and hardcore gamers we know who are really interested in those IPs have loved. So, Lego Universe is going to take all of those fantastic elements, and proved elements from the TT Games products, and bring it into literally a world where thousands of people can play together. And you can actually create and build structures and fun things with the Legos themselves and then share them with friends. So it's taken all the best things from the TT Games, from Lego Batman and Lego Star Wars, and bringing them into a massive MMO type experience.

But that's owned by Warner Brothers, TT Games. Do you have any association with Warner Brothers?

No, no. My point there with TT Games is that they struck on a wonderful formula. Lego Star Wars works with kids eight-years-old and Star Wars fans that are 45.

Lego Universe will have that same sort of gameplay, that not only works with young kids and their parents, but also the hardcore Lego fans that want to play in a world where they can interact with people from all over the world, build unique Lego structures, and then share them with their friends.

Is there anything else you'd like to add that I wouldn't know to ask you?

I think people understandably were excited about our partnership with Lego and Marvel. Those are partnerships that we think are going to be kind of the foundations of the company, but we're also creating lots of original ideas as well, that we're excited to talk about in the coming months, and we'll be happy to talk to the folks at Joystiq about those as well.

Well, thank you very much for your time.

My pleasure.
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