You might not think it – and you might not have even heard of his company – but Heiko Hubertz is gaming’s next big CEO. Move over Riccitiello. Move over Kotick.
In fact, scratch that. He already is one of gaming’s big business leaders – it’s just that he’s built his business everywhere except the places traditional games are.
As the founder of a company with 150m customers, Hubertz oversees a business that has reached a mass audience through increasingly sophisticated browser games.
Now, however, he wants a slice of the growing pie that Call of Duty and other top-tier action games have built. We revealed last week that Bigpoint wants to seriously grow its audience in English-speaking regions, appealing to core gamers using high-end browser games promoted through TV. Hubertz bold claims aren’t just a page torn from the Riccitiello/Kotick Bullish Statements playbook; the games go live in a matter of months. Ads are already running on TV. The revolution has begun.
GET TO THE POINT
When Hubertz founded Bigpoint in Germany during 2003, the firm was unassuming – just a team of five working on simple sports web games based on ice hockey, F1 and football. Quickly, though, its success proved how web games are sneaking up on consoles in terms of quality and audience engagement. And now it’s the first to pose a legitimate threat to something like Call of Duty.
The firm leapfrogged to a mafia game in 2005 – which made more money than all the sports games combined.
“This was the eye opener for me – we were just five people then, and didn’t realise we’d hit on the next big thing in gaming,” says Hubertz. Next came a pirate game, the market’s first real-time Flash-based MMOG, with “none of the boring text-based stuff – full of action and exciting to watch in your browser.
“Since then our growth has been amazing,” he says. In 2006 Bigpoint launched a game with a German TV partner – games promoted on-air attracted lots of users, and healthy revenues. A year later it launched its first non-German games, and even sold a stake of the business to US TV giant NBC Universal in 2008 to help with its outreach beyond continental Europe. The firm opened a San Francisco office earlier in the year, where Hubertz spends most of his time.
Today, the Bigpoint empire includes 150m users. And now Hubertz wants to grow that to include key territories USA and UK.
A BIGGER SLICE OF THE PIE
Currently, 80 per cent of that 150m are gamers in non-English territories, because so far Bigpoint has focused on the genres popular in Europe – strategy and role-playing.
So on the flip-side, attracting 30m English-speaking users to those games isn’t bad – but to grow it further the real driver is the kind of games usually seen on consoles.
“The entire English-speaking territory is very important to us for our growth,” he says. “But the US and UK are very console driven. The tastes amongst gamers are more focused on action games. But now the technology is so much better that we can develop high-quality 3D games for the browser.”
He calls new Bigpoint game Ruined ‘the next big step’: “Games like Call of Duty and Halo – you wont develop the same kind of game for the web, because they have huge budgets. But you can target the same audience, and attract them to the browser.”
And you can get more money out of them, he adds.
“It helps that console games introduce game mechanics to players, but we can teach the other side of the industry how to monetise its players better. Take Call of Duty – it costs £40 or €60. But our users spend more than €20 a month in microtransactions, and play for six to 12 months. So they pay more for their time with our game than they do on buying Call of Duty or Halo just once.”
Hubertz is convinced that web-enabled platforms – not consoles – are the ultimate future of video games. He says: “In the browser we can already achieve quality on par with what 360 and PS3 can do – you can target the owners of those consoles with the browser games now.
Plus, those games can also be played on iPad, iPhone and Android devices. Cross platform is the big thing. You aren’t restricted for when or where you play – consoles can’t do all that. That’s an important advantage for us.”
But Hubertz doesn’t think his aggressive targeting of core gamers is going to damage the console model much.
“What we are going to do doesn’t necessarily mean those players will stop playing Call of Duty or Halo, but they will play our games just at another time, when at work, in the office, or at a computer at university.”
Will Bigpoint go to console? He laughs at the suggestion – because for Bigpoint to embrace consoles the consoles have to change first.
“It’s difficult to say – I don’t think there will always be consoles with disc drives. But there will always be devices dedicated to games. Those machines will be interesting as they are online-focused devices.”
And Hubertz is interested in the new wave of web-connected TVs, like Google TV: “Those kind of platforms are interesting because when you can play Flash 3D games on your TV that’s a big competition for consoles or streaming services. So that area is very attractive to us.”
Of course Bigpoint can be so forward-looking as it’s in a luxury position – partly private and part-owned by European investors and a media conglomerate. Lines of enquiry about the company being for sale are pointless – Hubertz says he’s not interested, leaving Bigpoint to focus on what makes it so successful: being both a games publisher/developer and an agile force on the web.
That’s borne out when we ask what the company’s secret is. What makes it confident it can bridge the gulf between console and web-games? “Well we view everything we do as experiments. You never really know if anything you do will be a success – so you be prepared for that. Ultimately, whatever you do – your games have to be of a high quality. That, if anything, will be our secret weapon.”