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Exclusive Interview with Mark Kern - Talking Tabula Rasa, Science Fiction, and Consoles

Posted Thu, Dec 04, 2008 by Cody Bye

Predicting the future is nigh impossible for any competent video game analyst let alone the average MMOG player. We've seen our games come and go, eager to try out the latest and greatest on the list, but it seems like despite our best intentions, nothing ever goes as planned. A great example of that fact this past year was the announced closure of Tabula Rasa, the cancellation of Marvel Universe Online, and the varied issues that Age of Conan faced after its release.

Mark Kern, Chief Creative Officer of Red 5 Studios

However, there are people in the industry who happen to have a solid grasp of the MMOG markeplace, and one of them happens to be Red 5's newly announced Chief Creative Officer, Mark Kern. After helping to push World of Warcraft out the door and into the arms of millions, Kern has now founded his own studio and recently moved into the CCO position to drive the creative vision for the game and any future upcoming titles from the studio.

Just before Thanksgiving, I had the opportunity to chat with Mark about their teams progress with the upcoming MMOG, but I also picked his brain on a number of other issues including the closure of Tabula Rasa and Flagship Studios, console gaming, and the future of the science fiction genre in MMOGs.

To start, I brought Mark's focus to the closure of Tabula Rasa and Flagship, both of which came as startlingly heavy blows to the MMOG industry. Both of those entities looked like the could be in the market for the long haul, but each proved that seeing is not necessarily believing. With Mark's studio being relatively new, I asked him what sort of steps Red 5 was taking to insure that they didn't end up like Flagship or TR.

"This is hard stuff," Mark answered. "It is really challenging and it's not easy to create an MMO or create a company from scratch. When you put those two things together, it is extremely challenging. We've tried to be very proactive in terms of maximizing our opportunity and minimizing the inherent risks with a startup. It was really one of the reasons we went with a publisher AND went ahead and raised venture capital. We wanted to have a lot of resources at our disposal so we could concentrate on making a great game."

"I think that's really a key," he continued. "A great game will pay the bills. Your distractions, these things that crop up from time to time, all come back to what's best for the game. If we do that, our opportunities multiply. If we don't do that, our opportunities shrink."

The closure of Flagship Studios was of particular interest during our conversation because of the fact that it was headed by a number of ex-Blizzard employees. With Mark also being a former Blizzard alum, I asked him if he had any insight into the process at Flagship and why the studio still managed to close even though Hellgate and Mythos appeared to be relatively good games.

How do science fiction games avoid ending up like Tabula Rasa?

"I obviously don't have a lot of visibility into what was going on at Flagship or what occurred there," Mark admitted, "but it seems to me that they really had a perfect storm going on, a confluence of different things including a number of great games that they were launching against, time frame issues, and a number of other things. When that occurs, it's very hard to work against those issues."

One of the biggest questions we've seen come up over the past few weeks from players sounds something like this: "Are sci-fi games destined to fail?" and "What can a studio do to make a non-fantasy game succeed?" To be honest, those are two very important questions, even though they sound almost simplistic. The last decade has proven that the biggest MMOGs tend to be the games that focus on fantasy (EQ, FFXI, WoW, Lineage, etc.) rather than science fiction (Auto Assault, Tabula Rasa, Star Wars Galaxies). Mark and I discussed what it would take to make a really, really successful sci-fi MMOG.   

"I think the key is that you need to marry whatever your theme is to the nature of the gameplay," Mark answered. "If you're doing a sports-based game, it's better to have the theme be based around a sport that people know. If you're going to do a game like World of Warcraft, the fantasy based game is the type of game that players have grown to expect with that sort of gameplay."

"But I think that the issue comes in when you talk a theme or a genre that doesn't fit with the style of gameplay that you're making," he continued. "I think that's some of what you've seen with these failed games. If you just go out and try to make a WoW-type of game with a few tweaks, then try to place the sci-fi genre on top of it, I think you've got some big issues there."

"There are different expectations that certain genres bring up," Mark concluded. "That said, players change and tastes are fickle. I remember, back in the day, when Starcraft was coming out in Korea, and we had a lot of feedback from the Koreans that a sci-fi game would just never work there. Obviously, that was proven wrong. "

On that note, I asked Mark about their focus on E-sports, which is the "theme" that they've discussed the most in their interviews. Although Mark noted that E-sports will only be one element of their upcoming game, it's certainly not what their entire project is focused around. With that clarified, Mark had this to say:

I think we're drawn to e-sports because it feels like a fresher experience. When we play games that have these aspects, we discover that these are the types of things that really excite us. Taking what we know from persistent online worlds and applying it to e-sports, it just resulted in great bouts of brainstorming. The ideas were just cranking out, and that led us to believe that we were really on to something. I think we're really drive by our primary focus, which is all the gamers that are working at Red 5, and they act as a terrific weather vane for these ideas and their validity.

Why are companies like Turbine so interested in moving to consoles? Mark Kern has the answer!

Finally, we wrapped up our conversation with Mark with a small dialog on consoles and how the MMOG marketplace will be affected by the gradual growth of MMO developers towards that space. According to Mark, the Euro-Western marketplace and the Japanese marketplace are the two biggest areas that come up in the console discussion, even though a large part of PC gaming is based out of Korea and China.

"The reason that we're seeing a lot of interest in consoles is that Western developers are seeing a huge shift, and everyone keeps talking about how PC game sales are down - although we can debate that and say that it is shifting online - but everyone is really seeing the growth of online play on consoles," he said. "People are seeing a huge number of unique users logging on every day to play games like Call of Duty 4 and Halo, along with the 10 million accounts on the PS3. People want to grab that."

We'd like to thank Mark Kern and Chris Schmidt for taking their time to talk with Ten Ton Hammer so close to the Thanksgiving holiday, and we hope that you leave us a comment on the interview in our forums below!

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