Relentless co-founder talks PS3, casual games, Buzz and digital distribution

Q&A: David Amor, part two

In the first half of our interview with David Amor, the Relentless co-founder discussed the practices and legacy of the studio itself.

Below, Amor discusses issues beyond, from the PlayStation 3 brand, to the future of social gaming and digital distribution.

How far can Buzz go as a boxed retail product?
There are of course digital opportunities for all games, but there are a lot of people that don’t have their consoles connected to the internet, particularly on the Wii. I still think people like wrapping things up for Christmas.

The death of retail that is often spoken about seems premature.

At Relentless we’re trying to tie together a bit of both. We’re creating question packs that people can download as well as coming out with a Blu-ray product that sells at retail. So I don’t know when we’ll be completely digital, yet I doubt it will be any time soon.

So we should still expect retail editions of Buzz?
I imagine so. Take that as my own speculation. My speculation is that we’ll continue to see boxed product probably until the end of this generation.

I expect all-digital distribution is on the way for us, but not right now.

Is the arrival of all-digital distribution something you’re looking forward to?
Well there are obviously economic benefits, for developers and publishers at least, when it comes to digital distribution.

But also, from a creative point of view, I like the idea of not being forced to sell something at a standard retail price. The iPhone App Store is a good example of how interesting games emerge when people can set whatever price point they want.

Speaking as a consumer, I love the idea of being able to download something and not buy it from the shops. Speaking as a professional in the industry, it seems logical to me that video games follow the iTunes route where more music is sold via download than as CDs.

Games like Buzz obviously are pitched to a wider target market than the average hardcore title, so is there a challenge with DLC in that your biggest audience – much like the Wii owners you mentioned earlier – may not be so fluent with digital content?
I would guess there is a correlation between more casual game audiences and people not getting connected online, and not being in the habit of doing that.

It’s one of the challenges, as a studio that is set up as working on social games for the wider market, that digital distribution probably works against us. It’s usually the core audience that cares about having their consoles online, and are in the habit of spending their money there.

That being said, Sony is certainly pleased with the sales of the Buzz Question Packs, and Sony is certainly keen to support more. I would guess that they would stop supporting them if they weren’t making any money.

What are your thoughts on retailers taking downloadable content into their stores, selling downloadble tickets to digital-only games such as Patapon 2 and The Lost and Damned?
I’m not sure most people are in the habit of buying things through their TV using their videogame controller. It’s dangerous to immediately demand that your business goes through PSN, Xbox Live or WiiWare, despite the potential of digital distribution itself.

So, I like the idea that other people are starting to introduce ways of selling content through retailers. I just gives people more options, and I think that – if you look at the UK’s Pay As You go mobile phone market – there are still a large number of people who are more comfortable with buying a physical product.

With Buzz: Quiz TV, you had to start your technology from scratch, right?
Yeah, we went from being a company that wasn’t so technologically focused – where we used a lot of middleware – to Sony giving us a PS3 where there was absolutely no render technology for it and we had to build our game from scratch.

So we suddenly had to work around all this bleeding-edge technology. There was nothing about Buzz that was any less ‘progressive’ than other next gen games, in that regard. Just like any other company we had to spend a lot of time to get our tech up to speed.

How did you meet that challenge of bringing your tech up to speed?
It was certainly useful being close to Sony; they gave us access to what ended up being called PlayStation Edge technology. That proved to be a useful leg-up, and Sony’s internal studios were willing to share some of the stuff that they were working on as well.

But, and I know it sounds simple, the best thing we did at that time was get more engineers on it and hired accordingly.

You mentioned previously that you’re working on titles other than Buzz. How is that progressing?
Yes it’s going well. Buzz has obviously been fantastic line of work for us, and we have kept working on that franchise – and continue to do so – for longer than I had first anticipated. It just took a long time for us to get something to run alongside it.

But it’s great to be working on something different. It’s nice for the staff and nice to have a different set of challenges. One of those games we’re self publishing, which is proving very interesting.

As you’re self-publishing, is there a chance that you’ll be adopting Sony’s Pub fund scheme?
We haven’t found it necessary to use Sony’s pub fund, but I’m pleased Sony has put forward a clear business model for self-publishing. They’ve always been supportive to us and we work closely, so I’m glad we could establish our own agreement on self-publishing.

How did this agreement come about?
Well, we said to them that this was something we were interested in doing, though obviously we didn’t want to jeopardise our work outside of that. I imagine from Sony’s point of view, they’re pleased to have exclusive games on their platform and especially ones they don’t have to fund.

Are you trying to step away from the quiz genre?

Well, our next venture is not a quiz game! [laughs] We’ve very much enjoyed working on Buzz and the success and exposure it has received, but I’ve never seen Relentless as a company that made just one type of game.

I consider us in the ‘games for everyone category’, and historically we’ve been very focused on the quiz genre of that wider category.

So your focus will remain on the casual gamer?
Yeah, I think that casual games remain an untapped genre; I’ve worked in more traditional genres for years and years before saying “right, let’s make games for other people”, and I don’t think we’re anywhere near discovering how many games can be made to satisfy that audience.

Guitar Hero did well, Buzz did well, SingStar did well, Wii Fit did well; this isn’t the end of that.

There are games, currently un-thought of in the casual genre, that will sell tens of millions. I’d rather have a business in that category rather than more established ones to be honest with you.

The second half of the PS2’s lifecycle was certainly known for its push into that wider market, do you feel the PS3 will eventually follow suit, specifically when Nintendo’s Wii went straight for that market on day one and has already sold 50 million consoles?

Yeah I think the PS3 will eventually take on that market. I know everyone is looking forward to a lower price point, which will help. I don’t think the PS3 is completely out of line with previous Sony home consoles, so that shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

There’s certainly a change in transitioning from a 130 million installed base to less so on PS3, but that’s just part of the nature of going from one generation to the next.

Aside from price point changes, what do you think needs to be done with the PS3 in order to better appeal to this wider market and, be extension, benefit yourselves?
It needs enough titles targeted towards the wider market. There are games in that category that serve that audience well, but I think there needs to be enough for consumers to buy it for more reasons than, say, Killzone 2 or Metal Gear Solid.

I’m genuinely not saying there’s a lack of them, but there needs to be a good portfolio of games for everybody to get that wider appeal.

I think that’s why Sony commissioned Buzz very early; I remember being concerned at the very beginning of the PS3 that there was going to be a miss-match between early adopters and the kinds of people who like to play Buzz, and Sony was adamant that it needed to deliver those types of games to better serve their consumer base.

What can the system offer to the wider market that other consoles cannot?
My feeling is the PlayStation, as a brand, remains enormous. That’s something that Microsoft is going to have a problem with.

I think that the Xbox 360 has reached a lot of people that it was always going to reach – core gamers – and outside of that key demographic is a lot of people look upon Microsoft as the company behind Windows and Office. They’re clearly going after the wider market with their Natal technology, but it will take great games to draw them in. People bought a Wii for Wii Sports, not for the Wiimote.

PlayStation means video games, and it’s a cool brand, so I wouldn’t underestimate how much this works in Sony’s favour.

It’s a great machine, it’s a powerful one, and it has a lot of potential.

What’s next for Buzz?
We’re about to release our free Home space called Buzz: HQ, which lets players answer questions in a Runaround style. It’s great fun to play, so I think it will be really popular. In addition, this Christmas sees the release of Buzz: Quiz World, which introduces new game modes, new quiz types, new contestants, expanded online modes and full customisation.

I don’t think Sony are resting on their laurels. They’re taking Buzz! in some new directions, some of which I expect will be announced later in the year but others will remain under wraps for a while yet. It’s a great franchise to work on.

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