Establishing a New Colony
A Ten Ton Hammer Interview with Mike Wallis, CEO of Colony Studios
May 2, 2007
Throughout the entirety of this year, MMO fans have seen the list of game development companies working on new massively multiplayer titles grow to an astounding high. Everyone seems interested in milking the MMO cash cow, and there seems to be an abundance of talent that is joining the hunt for the true “next generation” MMO.
Colony Studios is the latest addition to this long-running list, yet they claim one advantage over many of their competitors – an enormous amount of experience. According to their announcement, Mike Wallis, CEO of Colony Studios, believes his team has more per capita experience working on hit MMO titles than any team of its size ever assembled.
With over 17 years of experience in the industry himself and 23 titles shipped under his watch, Wallis can certainly back up his portion of the claim. But his proclamation caught our attention here at Ten Ton Hammer, and we were eager to hear what he had to about the Colony Studios team and where the future of the MMO industry was headed.
Fuller: Congratulations on the founding of Colony Studios. Can you tell us about how you got the company started?
Wallis: Thanks for your congratulations! A few of us originally founded Colony Studios back in September of 2005 when we were talking with Universal licensing about doing an MMO based on their hit TV series, Battlestar Galactica. There were many moving parts to that deal, and it ultimately fell through, but we had formed the basis of the studio with the intention of creating an MMO. We lost some momentum, but ramped back up again about 10 months later when we had the opportunity to work with a group of investors to secure initial seed funding. After securing the funds, we expanded the team to 10, licensed the Hero Engine middle technology, and started work on building our first playable.
Fuller: The team you have put together comes with a ton of MMO experience. Give us some insight into the team and what background they bring to the company.
Wallis: It’s too early to be outing my team members (that will come later), but we do have very seasoned vets who have spent a number of years working on MMOs. For example, I was the senior producer for EVE Online and Lord of the Rings Online, we have a senior engine programmer from Ultima Online, a designer from WoW, another from Lord of the Rings Online, a 3D artist from City of Heroes, a systems programmer from Everquest and another from Dark Age of Camelot. Some of our folks have been on the development teams for two or more MMOs. With our collective experience, we have a solid development base and we plan to utilize and exploit our experience to make our next generation MMO.
Mike Wallis, CEO of Colony Studios
Fuller: Entering the next generation MMO market means going up against a large amount of competition. Tell us your thoughts on where the industry is going and how you define the term next generation?
Wallis: There’s competition whether we decide to create a console game, a handheld, or any other platform or genre and that’s great. Competition pushes developers to keep improving their products or get left behind. We look forward to all the new MMOs coming out and wish nothing but the best to all the devs out there trying to make their mark.
As far as where we think the industry is going with the MMO genre, it’s all a matter of perspective. The MMO genre is still relatively new but in gaming terms that hardly matters. This industry is cyclical. I remember when FPSes ruled the day and a wave of mediocre products came out and cooled interest in the genre. Then RTSes were king until a rash of less than stellar products stagnated the genre. I think the same is happening in the MMO genre currently. However, we do hope to shake things up a bit and create not only something that stands out from the crowd, but to create – overall - what we hope is a really great game.
Fuller: The current MMO market carries a large number of fantasy based titles. You plan to enter with a sci-fi genre game. I know it is early, but can you tell us a little about this decision and why it was made?
Wallis: Fantasy-based MMOs will always be popular because even though they are based in a world of fantasy, they are still centered on things people understand. It’s somewhat easy to imagine swinging a sword and riding a mount. Plus these titles are steeped in the rich tradition of role playing games, which historically have been ruled by fantasy based designs.
Our game style is focused on our players doing things on a somewhat larger scale than a typical fantasy based game. In some fantasy based MMOs, players can own houses and craft simple items. We look to allow players to terraform entire worlds and manage systems-spanning trade routes. Expanding your faction’s territory on a galactic scale is also something we are aiming for.
Fuller: Many MMOs have fallen into various patterns that we see across games. Things like, leveling, crafting, PvP, raiding etc. Do you have any plans to break these conventions or offer something new to players?
Wallis: We certainly don’t want to reinvent the wheel, nor do we want to come to the table with standard paradigms that will feel exceedingly archaic once we are ready to ship. If we go live in 2009, do you honestly think players will tolerate another MMO chock full of “go kill ten of those ‘xyz’s and bring me 10 of their scalps” quests? We certainly don’t.
Fuller: The secondary market is a major issue in the MMO industry right now. Now that it has become more established, how do you feel it will impact the next generation of games?
Wallis: We’ve seen SOE do very well with their Station Exchange model, and that was only across a limited number of servers—imagine all the revenue they are leaving on the table by not capitalizing on the service across all their servers. I believe as more and more of the early adopter MMO gamers, who were indoctrinated to MMOs by UO or EQ, age and get married and start families, they will utilize their now disposable incomes to get ahead in the game. In other words, since they don’t have the time now to spend raiding for unique items, they would instead be more inclined to spend real world money to gain the same item. That’s a very simple example, but I believe that is where the next generation of MMOs is headed – micro-transactions.
How will it impact the next generation of games? We’ll see more and more games utilize the micro-transaction model. As developers and publishers see the amount of revenue a site like IGE makes with transactions, it is an increasing difficult amount to turn a blind eye toward. Therefore, in the future we’ll see more and more Western companies incorporate item exchange and micro-transactions into their games.
The Colony Studios Logo
Fuller: In your press release you mentioned the phrase, “safe MMO”. When did MMOs become “safe” in your opinion? How can the industry give players more of a challenge then just a quick time sink after death?
Wallis: The term “safe” describes MMOs that basically copy existing paradigms in other games. The reason I use this term is because MMOs are typically large budget affairs, so many developers go the “safe” route and don’t try to go too far outside the lines when designing their games. This is due to the desire to gain the largest audience possible. In our opinion, game developers need to remain true to themselves and to the player base. What this means for us is that we will never underestimate our players by dumbing down the experience. Our game won’t intimidate, but by the same token it will not bore players to death either.
Fuller: You also mention in your press release that you plan to have player influenced content. Do you feel games have gotten away from allowing players to create their own fun?
Wallis: Yes, we feel that the MMO genre has gotten away from what made the “old school” MMOs great: community. Many MMOs are now focused on solo play and that’s fine as players should be able to predict their play experience when they log in. However, when everybody is in it for themselves you tend to get a much less connected community. What you usually end up with is a chaotic miss-mash of rambling braggarts and Chuck Norris jokes spammed through chat channels. People are not nearly as concerned with the community around them as they are with how people can get them something they want and then leave those people behind as soon as possible.
This in no way, shape, or form pegs our game as a “forced grouping” game. We feel that we can create a game where players feel that they are “in it together” and by that we intend to allow players to influence the flow of the content in the game based upon their combined efforts. Everyone in your faction will end up relying on you in one way or another.
Fuller: You seem to be on track with the game you are developing. Have you spoken to any publisher’s yet?
Wallis: Yes, we have made preliminary contact with publishers with whom we have had existing relationships. It’s still very early in the process, however, and I should add that we are always interested in the opportunity to dialogue. *smiles*
Fuller: With the founding of Colony Studios, what can we expect in the future? Can you tell us some thoughts on where you are going and what we can hope to see in the coming months?
Wallis: The team is focusing on polishing up our existing playable, with the secondary priority of adding in new features. We want to get the project to a state we feel comfortable with taking it around to interested publishers and potential investors to secure the next stage of funding that will allow us to move into full pre-production. We have an additional nine developers who have committed to joining our studio once we secure the next level of funding, and that would fill out our pre-production team.
Visit www.colonystudios.com in the coming months for our new announcements. Thanks for giving us the opportunity to talk about Colony Studios with the readers of Ten Ton Hammer!
Make sure you check back in with Ten Ton Hammer for all your Colony Studios news, screenshots, and features!