[Interview] Rubicon’s Paul Johnson Talks “Crashing Tsunami Wave” of Portable Gaming, Combat Monsters, and More
Three critically acclaimed portable games and a BAFTA nomination – that’s the track record of a small UK-based indie game developer Rubicon from the last 30 months, and it’s certainly something that even much bigger names in the industry would be proud of. Given how the release of their next title, a turn-based strategy TCG Combat Monsters is drawing close, we thought this was a perfect time to reach out to them and discuss the said PC and mobile game, their plans for the future, potential move to handheld gaming consoles, “crashing tsunami wave” of portable gaming, and much, much more. So, without further ado, here is our unedited interview with the co-owner of Rubicon Development, Mr. Paul Johnson:
PGR: How’s the Combat Monsters open beta coming along? Will you be making the planned September release window?
Paul Johnson: Everything’s working nicely right now and the Beta has helped us nail a ton of stuff, but the bug reports and tweak suggestions have slowed down to a trickle. Within another week or two we should be looking at making submissions, fingers crossed. But that does mean slipping into early October before anyone sees it unfortunately.
Are you completely satisfied with Combat Monsters’ current list of features or can we expect some big additions in its first few updates?
It’s both, really. There’s plenty of stuff in there to draw in players, but Combat Monsters is one of those games that can be expanded in meaningful ways more or less indefinitely. And that is something we are definitely going to be doing.
Already on the list are things like player to player trading and sit and go tournaments, as well as tons more monsters, cards and new mechanics. This is our magnum opus and we intend to keep expanding the game forever.
We’ve noticed that Combat Monsters’ business model is pretty fair for a freemium game, and you yourself have described it in the past as “pay what you want”. Is a free-to-play game something you wanted to do from the beginning of this project, or have you decided to make it free mid-development?
I’m glad you noticed! F2P gets a lot of negative press in some corners, but it’s really down to the individual game. Combat Monsters can genuinely be played for free without nagging, cool-down timers and everything else people hate, but if you want to get more out of the game then it won’t cost you much either. I think we offer the best of both worlds and I invite people to try it and make their own mind up – risk free of course.
We had no burning desire to make a specifically freemium game though. What we wanted to make was Combat Monsters, and the monetisation via booster packs just seemed an obvious choice from the start. With this payment model, players can tailor their spend to how much they enjoy the game, with no hidden surprises or constant nagging to spend more.
We hope our players will put their hands in their pockets simply because they want to play a great game and get loads of excellent new stuff, but this still feels very risky for us. We know the game is great fun and great value, but finding the players in such a crowded market is a concern. They can’t agree with our opinion of the game unless we get them to see it in the first place!
Who narrated the Combat Monsters Teaser Video in that awesome voice?
That would be Tony Porter. He’s a freelance, so can be hired for reasonable rates. Any developers out there looking for an audio specialist could do a lot worse – he brought our game alive and I recommend him wholeheartedly. But only once he’s finished out stuff!
After the game is officially out, what then? Are you planning to announce a new project in the near future or will you be focusing on updating your existing games?
We have a fairly slim ‘to do’ list for the future right now. We’re overdue to make an update to Great Big War Game which should come out before the holiday season, but we’re pretty much focussed on Combat Monsters forever now. We want to make this game as big as Magic: The Gathering but also understand this is no small task. The nature of the game is open to becoming a classic and it has a ton of advantages over competitor games by more well known companies, so we’re certainly going to push it as far as we possibly can. If we fail to reach those giddy heights, it won’t be for want of trying.
What’s the status of the PS Vita port of Great Little War Game?
Sadly it’s long buried. It’s a shame really as we had it running and it looked excellent, but there were some serious issues from Sony like not allowing us to sell the game in the USA as it was missing the multiplayer component. I wouldn’t rule out a future port of Great Big War Game (which has that) if Sony were forthcoming with devkits and support, but we’ve got it all on with Combat Monsters otherwise.
You’ve had some bad experiences with Windows RT in the past, but what about Windows Phone? Have you considered developing for Microsoft’s portable OS again?
The RT version went as prescribed and the phone version isn’t much better in terms of sales. Not sure why that is to be honest. There’s clearly less of them in the market, but even factoring that in, the percentage of sales doesn’t match up to the bigger devices.
However, now we’ve got the rights back from our publisher we made a full windows 8 compatible version for the store and that’s doing ok. Not great, but worth the effort.
In summary, the tablet version is now better than the phone one, but neither come close to the levels of sales we see on Android and iOS. Microsoft have a big hill to climb to get market-share levels similar to their competitors. At least from our perspective.
On a related note, any thoughts on the 3DS handheld console? Given its increasing popularity and the turn-based nature of your most critically acclaimed games that’s perfect for portable platforms, do you believe that developing for it would be a lucrative endeavour for Rubicon?
We did think long and hard about this but we’re still waiting to see if the market expands more. If our engine already supported 3DS then it would be a no-brainer, but a port from scratch would involve significant workload and we’re only a tiny company. As an indie it’s just too much of a risk, but if a publisher descended and offered to fund it, we’d love to squeeze it into the schedule.
What do you think is the biggest problem in the video game industry today?
From a developer’s point of view, it’s discoverability without a doubt. Small Indies like ourselves, with neither a big marketing budget nor expertise on how best to spend it, are always going to struggle to reach large audiences. Word of mouth is our only reasonable hope to expand, but for that to work you have to get in front of a fairly large seed audience to start with. We’ve just about achieved a passing grade at that, but we’re still nowhere compared to the bigger companies. Many Indies with good games sink without trace – discoverability is a really big deal.
The BAFTA nomination Great Big War Game received this year was a huge recognition for mobile and portable gaming in general, given how you were going against critically acclaimed PC and console games like Diablo III and XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Do you believe smartphones and tablets will have an even greater impact on the video game industry in the future and to what degree?
Tricky one. I think there will always be a market for AAA console games and there’s also a bit of a renaissance going on with the PC right now too. But mobile and tablet gaming seems like a crashing tsunami wave, with no letup in sight. In terms of hours played, I think mobile might already be ahead and will certainly continue to pull away, so the future is bright there.
With mobile hardware beating Moore’s law whilst console and PC has kinda levelled out, I do see a future where there is no point owning a dedicated console. I think that the imminent next-gen consoles will probably have a good run, but there will not be another generation after that. By that point, all this tech will be so powerful that the need for different nouns and form factors will have gone. Sony’s next-next-gen “console” will be a tablet with joypads, as will Microsoft’s and maybe Apple’s too. You heard it here first!
Considering how you have plethora of experience developing for both PC and mobile platforms, how would you compare the two in terms of development kits, ease of publishing, and competition?
In terms of development environment, I think PC wins hands down and most developers would agree to that. Apple’s stuff is a fairly close second and getting better all the time. Android is, well, Android.
Ease of publishing is the other way around. On mobile it’s very easy to get something out in front of people, whereas on PC it’s almost impossible. Steam is about the only real option there, but the current greenlight process is more about the quality of the developer’s PR powers than the quality of their games, so is almost pointless for companies like ours. We’ve had Combat Monsters on Greenlight for a month now and are 25% of the way to nowhere, which is a real shame – it works great on PC.
For competition I don’t really know. On mobile it is fierce indeed, but Combat Monsters is the first game we’re trying to self-publish on PC so have no past experience with which to gauge. However without Steam it’s not hard to predict where our audience will be coming from – mobile!
Don’t forget to stay tuned on PGR for more in-depth interviews with various influential and intriguing names from the gaming industry, Android, iOS, Windows Phone, PS Vita, 3DS, and other portable games-related news and reviews, cool giveaways, and everything else related to gaming on the go!