In this exclusive interview with TheGamingEconomy, Rogue Games COO Bryan Buskas discusses the California-based publisher’s focus on premium mobile games (Apple Arcade, Google Play Pass), free-to-play titles, and recently announced expansion to PC and Console games.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected Rogue Games’ publishing model?
If you were to ask us about our priorities six months ago, we were very focused on a handful of free-to-play mobile games, which would compete in the largest mobile games market segment. However, in Q4 2019, we happened to be in the right place at the right time as a launch partner for Apple Arcade – a premium mobile games subscription service. The platform is interesting because it’s a subscription service for games, similar to Netflix, Spotify, Pandora, etc, but highly selective and curated in terms of the games. If you look at subscription, it works across all verticals: music, film, TV. In games though it’s brand new, we’re only six to nine months in. Fast forward to today we’ve announced over five games for Google Play Pass, we’ve signed many more than that as well which will be announced later this year.
Free-to-play has moved a little bit lower in terms of focus for us because, while we do see increased engagement across all our games as people are staying at home and have more free time, on the other hand the free-to-play world is becoming dominated by the ‘big’ games: the likes of Call of Duty, Fortnite and Roblox. Those are the games where people are really investing the time, the money, and the effort. They are true social networks: Roblox is a Facebook for gamers, Fortnite is a Netflix for gamers. They’re very much social worlds versus smaller free-to-play games, the types of games we would launch.
I’d say COVID has helped the gaming industry as a whole, with record numbers across the board. On the other hand though, I think a lot of that’s flowing to the bigger publishers in traditional free-to-play, but we are seeing good momentum in these subscription services. Consumers today have been hit, many have lost their jobs, etc. Everybody’s a little bit more value-conscious in entertainment, so the USD$4.99 a month for hundreds of games offered by the subscription services, is something that’s valued by consumers.
PC and console is an area we’re expanding into, but that’s really just digital products. Obviously Sony have their own subscription service, so does Microsoft. And on PC, you have five to six major distribution stores from your Steam, to GOG, to Humble, to whatever. We can feature in those spaces as well, more for premium games. We are still going to launch a few free-to-play games each year, but there’s only going to be a few that we invest our time in.
How have you had to adjust your internal processes to adapt to that shift to different mobile, PC, and console, environments?
On the premium side for us it really just comes down to finding content that’s original, unique, and super polished. We’re kind of the opposite to hyper-casual today. Where those titles are clones and iterations which are launched every day, every week, we’re looking for unique stuff. Our goal is to find the right platform for that content. That’s really where we strive to add a lot of value: helping to figure out what the right channel to market and distribute that game is.
Ultimately our goal is to have cross-platform games that connect across all surfaces, however a lot of our developers can be one person teams, two people teams, or teams of 5-10. We have a studio team and focus on working with these developers at a very early stage. In the back half of the year we’ve got 15 to 20 games launching, all those games we signed in the summer of last year, and we’ve been working with those developers since then to get those games to the KPIs and the benchmarks where they need to be to launch globally.
Along the way, new opportunities are coming up in gaming more than ever before. Other big platforms may launch new gaming services, tools, and games. I think the pandemic has really just accelerated that in games, and you just see more avenues in which people are consuming games. Take streaming platforms like Stadia. People have been trying to stream console games for as long as I can remember, take the Gaikais and the OnLives that were trying to stream set top games probably 10 years too early, to today where you can get pretty good quality and great experiences direct to your TV. We see the same thing with Apple Arcade, in that these services are now going cross-device between mobile, Mac, and TV.
What advice would you give smaller-scale developers more exposed to the economic effects of any post-coronavirus recession, what advice would you give these studios?
I’d say our biggest advice centres around the content and the passion that we see from these indie developers. It’s not rushing just to throw their games out there, it’s channeling that passion into the game and directing it in the right way to make it something that’s going to be successful.
The other piece to consider is licences and IPs. Sometimes as a small developer, you’re working on your own game as great as it can be. You’re not thinking along the lines of, “How do I make this a million times bigger?” by attaching it to something much bigger in pop culture or entertainment. For a small team, that’s working on a great game, we say, “What if this had X licence attached to it?”, so you’ll see more licensed IP from Rogue going forward.
Brand involvement, such as advertising inside a game, has also grown massively and it’s more acceptable to gamers. Epic have put virtual concerts inside of Fortnite that are truly revolutionary. There is a reason games are now massively larger than a box office, even pre-pandemic. That’s a cultural thing as well too in that millennials, Gen Y, Gen Z, demand things that are more interactive and more experiential. Going back to Call of Duty, 15 years ago those games always had an amazing storyline in the single player campaign. There were military generals that wrote the scripts for those. They were massively produced and though it might only be a five hour campaign, but almost every player of Call of Duty would always take the time to play that single player experience. Today, in Call of Duty Mobile there is no single player campaign. You just jump in to the world, adjust the settings, and you’re straight in playing and engaging with your friends. Gaming has not slowed down at all.