Splash Damage co-founder Richard Jolly talks to Develop about free-to-play and games that aren't for everyone

Richard Jolly talks Dirty Bomb

We talked to Richard Jolly, co-founder of Splash Damage, about monetising a free-to-play game and the dangers of leaving the triple-A publisher cycle.

You’re making Dirty Bomb for Splash Damage, you’ve partnered with Nexon to launch it, you’ve departed from the retail games cycle. Is there anything you’re afraid of, anything you fear?

Richard Jolly:Am I afraid of anything with Dirty Bomb? I don’t think so to be honest. That doesn’t sound arrogant. Maybe it does? I don’t know. [laughs]

[Laughing] I don’t think you get to say whether it sounds arrogant.

Jolly:Ok, well let me justify it. The game has been playable by our fans since alpha, so it’s been what, two years now? And it’s been a different development cycle for us. It’s not been like the traditional retail thing.

That doesn’t give you any cause for concern? Have you been able to adapt?

Jolly:Normally you don’t have that much exposure to your players or their feedback. I guess we’re lucky to have these hardcore fans of the game and of the studio who helped us to refine ‘what is Dirty Bomb’ now. It’s definitely a different mentality of development compared to what we’ve traditionally fallen into. So with a retail game you get it to a kind of form where it’s now known as a Open Beta, but it’s really just a demo, you’ll do maybe one or two updates after that, maybe some DLC if you’re lucky and then you walk away. With a free-to-play or Live game is different. The game at year one is different from the game at year three, because it’s constantly evolving, it’s never staying the same.

Is there any concern about the way the free-to-play concept has been poisoned over the years?

Jolly: It’s definitely gotten a bad name over the years. But [free-to-play] is not necessarily a bad thing for us, because it means that there’s no barrier to entry. Traditionally you have to put money down in order to get access to a game, and you feel invested if you want to continue to get your money’s worth. With a free-to-play game, when it’s out there in the public eye, there’s no initial cost, so there’s a lot of pressure on us as a developer to make sure people enjoy that first experience. Which makes it more interesting for us.

And also, it opens up your game to a much wider audience, because it doesn’t cost anything to play — more players will come in. So that’s also very different, it’s the nice thing about free to play I think.

The people management situation with games as a service versus your traditional development cycle is quite different. How do you feel about coming into a situation where there’s never any downtime?

Jolly:I love it, personally. Because I’m really bad at feature creep. And it’s always bad when you’re working on a retail game and you have to cut a feature right at the end, and you know that it’s never going to see the light of day, players are never going to see that. With a live game, you can say ‘well, let’s put it in the roadmap and we’ll get it in the game.’ That’s f***ing awesome, right?!

Yeah, it is. Is there a feature that you regret never getting into one of your games?

Jolly: Oh, there’s loads. There are so many examples I couldn’t give one in particular. This is the nature of game development, when you get close to release it’s really f***ing hard to let go. But with Dirty Bomb, once it’s out and playable by players it’s no longer our game any more. It’s their game, because the players who contributed, they play it more than we do and they know more than we do, and so they contribute so much more. It almost counters that sort of elite dispute you get from other studios or with other games where they say ‘you’re playing it wrong, you don’t know what you’re doing’ we’re not like that at all, we have to listen to our players because they’re the future of the game. If they go and get pissed off, there’s noone left around to play it.

Is there a danger in trying to appeal to too many people then?

Jolly: I think there is, and I think with Dirty Bomb we haven’t got a massive audience appeal. It is kind of returning to our roots, with the hardcore pc gaming nature of things. So not everyone is going to enjoy it because of that. But I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

Games have only quite recently in the last decade and a half started trying to appeal to absolutely everyone.

Jolly: Yeah, and I think the problem with that is that you end up diluting your game so much it loses a lot of substance of what the vision was for it. With Dirty Bomb, we wanted that sort of fast-paced hardcore shooter, because there wasn’t really anything around like it. And we enjoyed that kind of game and our players enjoyed that kind of game. We didn’t want the slow aim-down-sights gameplay where you’re walking through syrup or where you get one hit, headshot, and everyone’s dead. So we’ve got lower lethality but much higher skill-base because of that. I think that differentiates us a little as well.

One of the things Neil (Alphonso, Lead Designer on Dirty Bomb) told me was that ultimately it’s a game for certain people, it’s not for everyone as you’ve been saying, but he said ‘if it doesn’t look like a game you’d want, don’t download it.’

Jolly:A fantastic example of this situation is League of Legends, right? The most hardcore game in the world, but it has the most players out of anything. And it’s a really complicated game and a really hard game to get into, but people still do. So if there ever was a really prime example of what can be done with almost a niche hardcore game, then League of Legends is that.

Is that the dream? Is League of Legends the dream?

Jolly: I think if we could get anywhere close to League of Legends we would be over the moon.

Why do you think we haven’t seen a game like Dirty Bomb since Wolf ET?

Jolly: I don’t know. I guess our games require a little bit more coordination than most? We came, very much, from the competitive scene, that’s how the studio formed in the first place. Because I used to f***ing love playing in clan matches. That feeling of coordination you experienced when you were playing in a team is like no other experience I’ve had in my life. And it was f***ing awesome. And really that’s what we wanted to do with all of our games, was to bring that competitive nature. And that really comes together when you have certain team members playing their role. So we’d go on to practice servers, and we’d all just practice playing our roles. And when it all pays off, and you’re working up tournament ranks, there’s nothing like that feeling. And for us, I think we really just wanted to bring that back to players again and remind them of how cool that could be.

How do you manage matchmaking for the game? Will it match you with new teammates, or is it purely team vs team matchmaking?

Jolly: It will be team vs team, but I should say that the teams can and will be built based on the matchmaking data from the people who are playing.

How do you measure someone who is a fantastic medic but can’t shoot for shit, so the immediate stat measurement isn’t worth anything?

Jolly:The scoring system we use in the game is different from most in that it’s not just based on [Kill:Death Ratio], it’s based on XP(experience). And we reward XP for doing team-based actions so largely you’ll find that the best team players are also those who have the best XP.

Gamification has changed the way people experience videogames, and it’s at the stage now that if a game doesn’t have an XP system people don’t want to get involved. How do you manage that element alongside having people buying stuff at the same time?

Jolly: It’s a lot of juggling. We’re constantly re-prioritising features based on the data we’re looking at or what players are telling us, so our roadmap… I’d love to say it’s set in stone but it’s not — we’re constantly having to tweak it. So I guess one of the big things is that we’ve been far more data driven in our approach to development. Before Dirty Bomb we weren’t collecting data on a lot of our games.

So Fireteam is basically a backend system that does all our matchmaking and our server browsers, and we built that system and company to have that framework to collect and manage all that data that we get in all our games moving forward. And we’re actually now working with a bunch of other studios… which I can’t talk about yet… to use that, which is cool.

Is there a risk that trading money for the random reward of loadouts resembles gambling too much? Is there an ethical concern there?

Jolly:If you don’t do it right, yeah, sure. I think from a philosophical standpoint we don’t want to have any pay-to-win in the content we’re putting through. So the things you can spend money on are largely cosmetic, they’re not necessarily gameplay affecting. And you still have the option to grind your way through and earn game currency to buy the same things. And I think that it’s more about staying true to that value system. If you look at games in Asia, culturally they’re very different to what’s over here. Pay to win is still fairly acceptable over there, whereas it doesn’t make sense over here. So you have to be quite respectful from that point of view, when releasing a game [in the Western market].

Hearthstone is an analogue to your loadouts system, and some of the criticism it receives is that children are encouraged to pay money to get random cards.

Jolly:I don’t know if they’re encouraged to pay money. I mean, there’s nothing there to say ‘you must pay money’.

Well it’s not explicitly stated, but…

Jolly:And the interesting thing about Hearthstone is that you’ve got those daily challenges, so you can earn gold to buy packs. And we’ve got something like that as well, a very similar system in Dirty Bomb. So it’s not a necessity.

Are you hunting whales with Dirty Bomb?

Jolly: I don’t really know, is the answer to that. In an ideal world you’d like there to be an even distribution. I think to aggressively go after targeting whales seems a bit… exploitative. And I don’t think we’ve ever made the conscious decision to want to go after high spenders. It’s just not… it just doesn’t feel right. And I guess we’re kind of grounded in our ethics as a studio anyway, we don’t want to be that kind of exploitative company because we’re all gamers ourselves, and we just wouldn’t stand for it.

Thank you for your time.

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