After a hiatus from the industry, Richard Bransonís Virgin Group is making a high profile return
Entrepreneur and adventurer Sir Richard Branson has turned his attention back to games. Based on the business tycoon’s previous relationship with the industry, that fact could be a significant one for developers.
Established way back in 1984 as a publisher, Virgin Games rose to prominence in the 1990s, when it handled foremost developer labels including LucasArts, Capcom and Bethesda.
Highly regarded series like Broken Sword and Cannon Fodder have Virgin to thank for their debuts. Similarly, a number of development veterans like David Perry and famed composer Tommy Tallarico had their careers launched by Branson’s company, which was most successful operating under the name Virgin Interactive.
Additionally, Virgin’s investment in Trilobyte’s FMV-based horror title The 7th Guest delivered a significant boost to the evolution of high-end CD-ROM multimedia gaming, subsequently providing a milestone for the development of gaming formats.
Gradually Virgin’s potency in the traditional games industry faded, as Branson and his colleague’s shifted their focus to online prize-based content.
Now its hiatus from conventional gaming is over, Virgin is back, albeit in a rather different form. Today Virgin Gaming is based around the branding of website that lets players from across the globe connect and compete in a range of online tournaments. Ultimately, the website allows gamers to challenge one another at a number of console games, clashing to claim cash and other prizes. In the past competitive gaming defined how people consumed interactive entertainment. In a nod to that heritage, Virgin Gaming’s offering is underpinned by a skill ranking system that purports to offer a levelled playing field for all who rise to the challenge.
Conversely, the team headed up by CEO Rob Segal is also demonstrating a savvy recognition of where consumer’s gaming habits are taking the industry. From Facebook to XBLA, people are tackling games together and in opposition.
But what tech underpins Virgin’s new vision for gaming, and what does this evolution mean to developers?
“The technology behind Virgin Gaming really sets us apart,” insists the firm’s co-founder and president Billy Levy. “We have a proprietary game validation system that automatically verifies and updates the results of all games played through the site, thus automating all tournaments and competitions and adding security and authenticity to the process."
That technology guarantees the fair play that is the cornerstone of Virgin Gaming’s service, and allows the team handling the competitions to be completely flexible with regard to creating and scaling tournaments. Instead of needing days or weeks to organise a large-scale competition, the staff at Virgin Gaming can organise and run a 256-person online event in hours.
BENEFIT OF THE CLOUT
As for the benefit to games creators, Virgin Gaming has a great deal to offer developers, primarily because the platform provides a flexible extension of and complement to their games.
The online tournaments promise to provide a tool to help generate interest, spur sales, extend shelf life and minimise trade ins. Furthermore, Virgin Gaming has opportunities for developers of all types as the company instigates its planned move beyond the console into the popular social and mobile gaming sector.
It’s hard to refute the fact that Virgin Gaming’s arrival is incredibly timely in that regard. It ably rides the wave of change currently influencing all most every facet of games industry ecosystem; an enviable position secured though a grass roots connection with the world of organised competitive gaming.
“The games industry is constantly evolving and, since playing games competitively was a major part of Zack Zeldin [vice president of gaming operations and co-founder] and my lifestyle. We had the foresight, and luck, to go in the direction of competitive, skill-based gaming. It seemed natural for us; we were doing it, our friends were doing it, leagues were popping up all over the place – so we felt that the natural progression was to take game tournaments online.
” Billy, who has known Zack since university, tells tales of the pair competing through gaming for everything from who was buying takeaways to who had to clean the dishes. The pair also spent a lot of money entering gaming tournaments – a fact that played a major part in inspiring them to create what has become the new Virgin Gaming service.
However, while personal enthusiasm and experience makes for a robust keystone for any business, it doesn’t guarantee a professional experience free from challenges. Fortunately for Levy and his colleagues, an open-minded approach has allowed them to pre-empt many of the hurdles that have become a stalling point for the few rival platforms that offer a parallel service.
“We knew many of the challenges going in, but we discovered a lot of new ones as we progressed,” admits Levy. “We looked at all of the problems that existed on some of the other sites that were trying to offer online video game tournaments – that was when we realised that our technology needed to be really sound. We couldn’t rely on the individual players to accurately self-report wins and losses,” he adds.
“We also needed to have a reputation system in place so that the community could police itself – similar to eBay. Finally, we knew that our customer service team had to be comprised of actual gamers that were familiar with the games we featured and that would be able to resolve any issues in a manner that would be fair and satisfactory to both parties involved.
” Ultimately, Levy is confident about both the potential of the new Virgin Gaming business, and what it can offer to developers. Playing on the sporting nature that is innate to many players, and the inherent competitive mechanic that is at the core of many titles’ design, Virgin Gaming has every chance of success.
“The fact that gamers can take something they are passionate about and be able to get more out of it than just bragging rights is huge,” concludes Levy. “Virgin Gaming is also an ideal place for gamers to just network and find quality competition.
“Some of the best feedback we’ve had from our community has been about friends they’ve made and/or the quality of competition they’ve found on the site.”
Developers interested in more information can contact the Virgin Gaming team at firstname.lastname@example.org
Virgin Gaming’s new approach to gaming is undeniably an intriguing one, but ultimately its success depends on one factor; consumers need to warm to the competitive structure.
For many, the likes of Xbox Live have perpetuated the myth that playing against strangers means being annihilated by a youngster on the other side of the planet who has apparently innumerable hours to perfect their ability.
“We want developers to understand that our goal is to take their great games and make them even better by allowing players from around the world to participate in massive tournaments for huge prizes,” explains Virgin Gaming’s co-founder and president Billy Levy. “We work together with our partners to help market their games and provide yet another avenue for their audience to engage and compete.
” It’s at that point that the ranking system comes into play. Virgin Gaming is designed to make it possible for gamers of all skill levels to enter a tournament and feel confident that they have a real chance of walking away a winner. That considered, it looks very likely that the competitive tournament gaming model could work, meaning developers could quickly reap the benefits Levy and his team promise.
The return of Virgin Gaming may well shake up the industry to exactly the same level it did a decade ago, when it made changes that can still be felt to this day.