Louis Castle's been around the block. The American videogame designer co-founded Westwood Studios, which, as all real-time strategy fans know, created the groundbreaking Command & Conquer series.
He stayed on when EA bought Westwood, eventually becoming a big cheese within the publishing behemoth when it closed the studio in 2003. Then, in 2009, Castle joined InstantAction as CEO, and set about changing the way we play games.
This morning Castle kicked off the Develop Conference in Brighton with a keynote entitled "Traditional Games Breaking into Social Networks: A View from the Frontline". Here, speaking to Eurogamer, Castle explains how he's going to rid gaming of piracy and why we'll all be playing the next Call of Duty game for free in a browser.
Eurogamer: Tell us about your keynote.
Louis Castle: My keynote is about traditional gaming. Any kind of game can be distributed through the web, if you're willing to approach it in a different way. Eventually the same kind of content we see in consoles and on PCs for dedicated download is going to be available through web browsers.
I know that's the case. I wouldn't even say it's probable. It's going to happen. I know it's going to happen because all the different companies are announcing initiatives, like Google with their native client stuff they want to do, and all these various companies all saying, 'Well we want to support 3D through the browser'. Even Flash is trying to get better 3D support through the browser.
The difference is all of those different initiatives are individual one-offs, and they're a very small fraction of an already fragmented and heavily pirated market. So it's very challenging to get any publisher that's spent $60-70 million building and marketing a game to want to put it into a place where it's basically going to get stolen and given away for free.
It's very analogous to the music industry. So my keynote, in one sentence, is talking about all the different barriers that exist for high-quality published games to make it into the web, both technical and market barriers, and what we are doing at InstantAction to try to bridge that gap.
Eurogamer: Do you believe that even high-budget console games with their impressive visuals will be playable in a browser?
Louis Castle: I think it'll happen, on PCs, Macs and consoles. It's going to happen across the board. At GDC we were showing demonstrations of InstantAction playing Assassin's Creed II. We've put Crysis on there, Call of Duty, all of these great games you would think, 'Oh my God, that's never going to work.' But we have them all working in a browser.
And we're talking to a lot of publishers out there. They're understandably concerned and nervous. They want to see the platform out there, well distributed, successful. We've got some announcements at PAX [Penny Arcade Expo] in September and hopefully some more following that over the fall.
Eurogamer: Obviously those high-budget games require a decent PC to run in a browser.
Louis Castle: Correct. To be clear, we partner with Gaikai for thin client. InstantAction as a platform offers thin-client play that masks a progressive download. The progressive download can happen in a very short period of time relative to the game size.
In the case of something like an Assassin's Creed or a Call of Duty, it might be a couple of hundred megabytes or more. It could take as many as 20 minutes, maybe 30. So during that time we serve a Gaikai feed that lets you play immediately. And while you're playing the Gaikai feed we're downloading the game in the background. As soon as the game is on your system and ready to run, we then switch you over to play on your system, with a free trial for some period of time that's up to the publisher.
After the free trial the publisher has lots of options on our platform on how they want to charge the customer. They can do a cliff purchase, which is what Secret of Monkey Island is doing right now. Or they could do rent-to-own, which we don't think works as well. So you're paying, say, $10-an-hour, and that $10 is coming off the purchase price. So if you've spent five hours for a $50 game, you've bought the game. You never have to pay after that.
They're playable through the browser, full screen, as well as a browser window. Games can actually talk to the browser and talk to things that are inside the browser, which is nice. Your friends list can be your Facebook list, which is a lot nicer when it comes to finding somebody you want to invite. You can create a Facebook group that is your Call of Duty friends, if you will. You then look to that group and invite people inside that group to play synchronously online. It does all the connections in place at 100 per cent of the game speed.
Eurogamer: The future you envisage, what does it mean for the console manufacturers?
Louis Castle: For the time being the ones we're doing are just for PC and Mac. But in time I believe the same thing will happen on a console, where you'll be on Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. You'll find a game through some sort of browser-like experience. It might be the PSN home screen or it might be through the Xbox Live menu system. When you find that game you'll be able to get an instantaneous play of a high-quality game that doesn't require a download. While you're doing that there will be some sort of download that's going to your hard-drive.
The system we've built is actually designed to work like a web server. It takes a space of memory on your computer and then uses that as a cache. It's not a traditional download. Games that might be 16 or 20 gigabytes, it might only manage five or six gigabytes on your hard-drive for that game. So you never really have the whole game on your system at once. But it doesn't matter because it uses your connection to keep the content in front of you, so you don't have to wait very long to get it.
The same kind of thing would apply very naturally to the consoles, the Xbox and the PlayStation. But as we're finding with the PC publishers, it's a very different business model. It's completely alien. And so it would take some time working with Microsoft and Sony to get to where we could deliver that. We're just not focused on it right now. But I believe it'll happen. If we don't do it, somebody will.
Eurogamer: What does it mean for those of us who go to a shop and buy a game on a disc?
Louis Castle: I'm infamous out there about bashing the bricks-and-mortar retailers. When they offer a service, which is the browsing the boxes and informing the customer, especially like a GameStop where you used to have people who knew what they were talking about, there's value there. It's like going to a record store. There aren't many of those around any more. The people who know about the products, that's a real value the retailers are providing.
Where I have an issue with the retailers is when they do the resale of a game because the law allows them to do it. By doing so they don't pay the publisher anything. They promote that as strongly, or even more strongly than the actual full sale game.
Essentially what they're doing is they're just quickening the death of the retail space for the publishers. The publishers have to spend more and more on games. They're not getting any cheaper to build. The big ones are getting a big audience, true enough. But the vast majority of games don't make money any more because your sales have been so badly chopped out by these retailers that are reselling.
So my answer to the question: what happens to the resellers? Well, as long as they add value I suppose they'll stick around. But if they cease to add value then they won't be around. They'll go back to selling it, in the case of Wal-Mart, everything under the sun. In the case of GameStop, I'm not really sure what.
I feel like they're the ones strangling the goose that's laying golden eggs, so I'm not particularly worried about their problems. I'm really more in for the consumers. Connecting the consumers directly to the people who create the content.
Eurogamer: Won't it be hard for gamers to wrap their heads around the future you predict?
Louis Castle: I don't think so at all. In fact my keynote, one of the things I pointedly show, is that we've been waiting since 1995, or maybe even sooner, to see the internet disrupt the game business. And it hasn't yet. There are a lot of reasons why it hasn't, but it hasn't. We did witness it, we just don't realise it yet.
It's like the dinosaur that's been stabbed in the tail - it hasn't got to the brain yet. The Facebook games, and Zynga, and Playdom and Playfish have shown us the future. I don't mean they've shown us the future in the way that many people do, which is all games are going to look like these games. What they have shown us is if you have an entertainment experience that's easy to get into, doesn't require any special requirements - hardware upgrades, anything like that, literally you just click and play - and it's tied to a place where people already are, where you're not trying to drive them to a place, it turns out millions of people will play poker. 20 million a month or something crazy like that. Or 16 million people playing the new FrontierVille in a couple of weeks.
Louis Castle: I would argue that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, or Need for Speed: Shift, any of these games have such an immediate curve appeal to somebody. If you were able to actually easily access those games, with 500 million people on Facebook, you would have millions of people playing those games in a week, too. Easily.
It's just that you can't. It's just so challenging, it's so difficult to get to that content. You have to buy a box. You have to hook it up to your television. You have to use this funky controller. It's not where you are. You have to make a point to say, 'I'm going to go play a game instead of watch television.' All of those things are barriers to seeing this ubiquitous entertainment happen. Facebook, through their interface, allowed Zynga to show us exactly what games will be. That's the way games need to be distributed.
Eurogamer: You seem to be echoing what Bobby Kotick has said about wanting to put Call of Duty onto PCs and building an MMO-like subscription model around it.
Louis Castle: Yeah. The big publishers, having just come from one, look at the PC business and say, 'The only way this survives is if we can find something that makes piracy irrelevant.' The dumb ones are trying to stop piracy through protection and secrecy. You know what? Pirates are going to beat it. Build a better mousetrap, get smarter mice. They're going to crack it.
Our system is very difficult to crack, but I would never say it can't be cracked. Of course it can. But the reason it's difficult is different from the reason other people are. We're not out there trying to do a copy protection scheme, DRM. What we're really doing is we're offering a service which is hard-drive management, which never puts the entire game on the system. That just makes it very difficult to steal. You can do it, it's just harder. We encrypt every single packet with an individual for security to make sure that the right person is getting the packet. Then we tie it in to all the different networking features with your social network. So now that makes it even harder yet, because you'd have to rip all that out to get it to work.
What I always ask myself is, forget about the pirate for a second. People focus on the actual act of piracy and the pirate breaking the game. That's not the problem. If you think about it, those people are few and far between. There are maybe a few thousand in the entire world. Those guys don't hurt you. If all of those guys ended up stealing your game, and each of them bought a copy, frankly, to steal it, you actually sold a lot already, right? So they don't bother you. The problem is the consumer can find the pirated content easier and acquire it more easily and cheaper than they can acquire the official content, with all of the features intact. That's the problem.
What InstantAction does is it says, okay, let's attack it from the difficulty, first of all. Let's make it really hard. Well what's the consumer going to do? They could go to a pirate site, risk getting virused, download the game, which is going to take them on BitTorrent five or six hours on a cable modem. Or you can go play it on Facebook or InstantAction for free in 10 minutes. Instantaneously if you have a Gaikai feed.
Well I can tell you, from a consumer's point of view, I'm not going to the pirate site. I'm not going to wait hours to get something that may or may not be the real thing when I can go play the real thing for free right now. If I'm playing it for free for a while and I really like it, I'm not going to mind paying a buck or two for every so many minutes, or buying items, or paying subscription fees. Those fees are not the issue. Once the game is compelling the consumers will pay because they want the content. They've shown that time and time again.
Will they pay in small amounts? Yes, they'll pay small amounts over time. Will they pay 50 or 60 bucks? Probably not. But that's okay. You don't have to charge them that way. You should be able to charge them in incremental fees. Once you do that though, you've both eliminated the reason that the consumers go to pirate sites, and made it very challenging for those people who host those pirate sites to bother to crack your games. If you're doing it for a commerce reason, you'll never spend your time. If you're doing it for the challenge, okay, you'll crack it.
Eurogamer: Do you think you'll eliminate piracy, for all intent and purpose?
Louis Castle: I think we'll dramatically change the game. I don't think we will eliminate it, no more so than we would eliminate bricks and mortar. My approach is to avoid them, because they don't add value, they add friction between the consumer and the content that's been created. Just like piracy adds business friction between the content creators and the consumer, because they create a free marketplace that makes it very challenging to conduct business.
Those things are friction that I think we're going to help to eliminate. But we won't be the only thing. OnLive does a very good job of doing both as well, for example. They have their own issues, but our system is far from perfect. There's no perfect solution yet.
Eurogamer: You believe high-quality console games will be playable in browsers in the future. What kind of timeframe are we looking at? Five years? 10 years?
Louis Castle: I'm always the optimist. I always think it's going to happen sooner than I think. When I joined InstantAction a year ago, I was expecting major upheaval within that year, and it hasn't happened yet. But the signs of it happening are getting more and more frequent and closer and closer to the bone, as it were.
I don't even think it's five years out. I think it's just a few years out. In my worst-case scenario it would be five years. In my best-case scenario for the consumer, it's happening within a year, maybe two, where you'll see almost everybody would prefer to go play the game for free somewhere, download it incrementally and buy it in pieces or through some other microtransaction, than the few people that will actually go to the Best Buys, GameStops and Wal-Marts of the world.
I think those will still be sold. Just like, essentially you don't really buy World of Warcraft at a store. You buy the installation disc. The game is the game. You're paying for a subscription. I think that same model we'll find prevalent around the world on all games.
Eurogamer: So you reckon we'll have the option to play the latest Call of Duty through a browser in the next year or two?
Louis Castle: It could happen this fall if we can get the deal put together with Activision, quite frankly. Are you listening Bobby?
Eurogamer: This sounds like exactly the kind of thing he's looking at.
Louis Castle: They all want it. In fairness to the publishers, our system, we just launched it with Secret of Monkey Island. We changed everything about InstantAction. We built it upon the base we had before. I think those are some of the issues they're concerned about: can we go to scale? These are precious gems they have.
I understand why nobody wants to put their brand out there unless they're absolutely certain it's going to work and it's going to be a great consumer experience. It's thrust upon us. It's incumbent upon us to prove to them that it can work. I don't believe we're the only ones. In fact, I know we're not. There are lots of other companies out there. I mentioned them in my keynote, some of the other people that are out there and how they're approaching this problem.
It's really not a talk about InstantAction by the way. It's really a talk about the transition our industry is going to go through and the likely technologies that are going to get us there.
For more on InstantAction, which has just launched with The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, head over to the official site.