The former EA COO and Shiver founder on new business models, small development teams and the future of games
Having founded Madden developer Tiburon nearly 20 years ago in 1994, before working his way up the publisher’s ranks to the position of chief operating officer and later holding stints at Microsoft and Zynga, John Schappert has a wealth of experience in games from all facets of the sector.
His latest venture, Shiver Entertainment, in partnership with Nexon, will focus on the booming free-to-play market for both mobile and PC, but, for the time being at least, will stay away from Schappert’s old stomping ground, consoles.
We recently sat down with the Tiburon and Shiver founder to discuss how the industry is changing, the emergence of free-to-play and where he thinks games are heading.
Schappert says he’s wanted to return to the world of start-ups ever since he left Tiburon, and while he’d enjoyed taking on bigger and bigger responsibilities at the game industry’s largest companies, he couldn’t be more excited about beginning his new venture.
Starting his new studio in Miami, Florida, the same state where he founded Tiburon, Schappert says while much of the usual legwork in opening a business hasn’t changed – such as finding a new office and even opening a bank account – the gaming landscape both locally and globally has altered hugely.
“Where I’d say it's very different is when we started Tiburon 20 years ago in Orlando, there really wasn't any tech. It's not to say there wasn't any, but for the most part there truly wasn't any tech companies in the area, and the state of Florida I'd say was very paltry.
“Now Tiburon is 500 plus people, there's a few more tech companies in Florida, it's certainly not the mecca of Silicon Valley, but there's a lot more tech going on here. In fact one of the largest, Tiburon, is just four hours north of us. So it's a known quantity.
“At Tiburon we had to hire from all over the country and import people. Now there's a higher local userbase and talent base than there was before. And what's also great is there's a lot of independent developers. Back then you couldn't find someone that had made a super Nintendo or Sega genesis unless they had gone through all the rigmarole of being able to get access to all of that hardware and do it.”
Schappert says that unlike Tiburon, and the console-focused industry of pre smartphone-era, the sector no longer requires the mega studios of hundreds of developers to create a game.
In the modern industry, he says, a team of 20 great developers or less can create a phenomenal success, a model he’s looking to match at Shiver.
This could mean a number of small studios around the world, including perhaps the UK, although Schappert is keen to put keep his focus tuned to the Miami studio for now, where he is looking to hire both experienced and inexperienced developers alike.
When we ask if it’s in fact better to have a smaller team in the current industry, Schappert agrees, and has no desire to create the mammoth teams seen as his former stomping grounds EA and Zynga.
“I think it is, absolutely it is. The smaller the team the easier it is to manage,” he says. “At some point you need to have enough scale so you can create the wider experience and the highest quality experience. But you know, you can do that with teams in the tens of people rather than the hundreds of people these days. In fact you can do it with a sub-ten team.
“I think we will have good sized teams that won't be crazy big. Our desire is not to have the most people working on the most games, our desire is to have the best people working on the best games. And we're going to do that in multiple locations worldwide, but near term we're clearly focused on Florida in Miami.”
A free-to-play future
While Schappert may be steering away from the large teams he has become accustomed to, industry trends and his time at Zynga have clearly whetted his appetite for the free-o-play market, which will be a core focus for his new studio.
Like the high-end 'triple-A' free-to-play experiences on mobile studios such as the UK’s own NaturalMotion have spearheaded, Schappert also wants Shiver to specialise in high-fedilty mobile and PC experiences, with a particular focus on the hardcore and midcore gamer markets..
He says although the industry will still revel in premium offerings, the future of the sector, at least on mobile and PC, is largely in free. This is a space, Schappert explains, where even the smallest development teams can compete with the big publishing giants, who have to date only lightly tests the waters on what he terms the mass market 'everyday devices' such as smartphones, tablets and PC.
He remarks however it could be a few years before a change is seen in console, where there are only a few test cases in free-to-play, such as Dust 514.
“I think the shift to free-to-play is real and happening," he says.
"I'm a big supporter of the industry and I've been in it for a long time, and it's difficult when you watch month after month of negative reports, sales going down, retail shrinking. Yes, there’s a little bit of pickup here and there with some digital goods but by and large the last couple of years have not been that positive for the traditional console gaming industry.
"Meanwhile what you see happening is called the free-to-play industry where you've got new games that have cropped out that are full y digitally distributed not by any of the big players. You've got the mobile titles, smartphone and tablet titles popping up. Again, for the most part, not by the big players, and they're doing incredibly well.”
He adds: “I do think it's not hard to predict where the future of the industry is and I think that's absolutely the future of the industry.”
With such a focus on free-to-play, is there a danger developers are concentrating too heavily on monetising their users, rather than creating fun and innovative gameplay experiences?
Schappert doesn’t seem too concerned, and believes consumers always want something great, and only the best titles will rise to the top.
“I think folks that make a game that is too rigid on the economy, if it's asking for money too much, you really can't truly play it and enjoy it in a free session, and I don't know that those are the games that are going to bubble up to the top and be the ones that everyone plays.
“I think it's also important that people that spend money for these games feel good after. We don't feel bad after we go and see a great movie."
End of the social boom?
Schappert remains hugely confident in free-to-play then, at least in the mobile and PC space, but what about social? The former Zynga COO once told Develop "pain lies ahead" for those who don’t get into the social boom.
But despite Zynga's struggles since then and his exit last year, Schappert remains convinced on the importance of social in gaming.
“I think social is extremely important to all flavours of gaming. If you’re talking about specific platforms, i.e. Facebook and PC,” he explains.
“I mean look at Facebook, listen to their earnings, listen to what they say; their shift from traditional PC laptops to mobile is absolutely real on their platform. And social in general, to me it means these are not single player linear experiences that I play on my own.
"The more traditional paid game, these are experiences I play with my friends and groups of people. The social aspects are very real contributing factors to why people enjoy these games and come back day after day, month after month and year after year.
“I absolutely believe in social. I also believe that the market is shifting and Facebook as a platform still has growth in it. But you’re seeing a lot of that growth happening on mobile and tablet these days, which is great."
Schappert’s latest venture then is one far and away from his industry roots at Tiburon, but one that echoes all of the experience he has garnered over the years from EA, Zynga and even Microsoft.
And with such a history in the sector, and the backing of Asia mobile publishing giant Nexon, which has invested in the company, Schappert will be hoping the free-to-play bubble doesn’t burst before he gets started, and continues to go from strength-to-stength.