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Interview: Anthony Rosner director of “IRL – In Real Life”

Anthony Rosner - 2011

Anthony Rosner is a softly spoken final year film student at the University of Creative Arts about to graduate and an avid World of Warcraft player. He started playing in February 2005 and built up an impressive list of achievements for his in-game persona, Sevrin, that the average noob could only dream of. Sevrin was a bit of an in-game celebrity and for a while Anthony enjoyed the virtual glory and sense of achievement the game gave him. One crushed heart, a gap year in Norway and six years later he decided enough was enough and pulled the plug on his guild and digital alter-ego. The result is a short film: “IRL – In Real Life”, a cleverly ironic title that deals mostly with the very opposite.

What’s fascinating about this extremely well made project is the obvious nerve it’s struck with gamers and non-gamers alike. In less than 4 weeks it’s already received over 280,000 views and that number will no doubt continue to climb. Several major gaming sites have linked to it and Anthony’s inbox has been lighting up. Reading some of the YouTube comments is as fascinating as the film itself, apart from the usual un-intelligent quips like, ‘why did you quit?’, ‘dude can I have your mount?’. Gamers definitely indentified with the experience and applaud Anthony for making the brave step to share it as openly as he does. Some have had very similar experiences and quit, others say they’ve been playing for 7 years but it’s not an issue for them (denial?), but most just appreciate the story and how well it’s told.

Anthony's virtual alter-ego 'Sevrin'

We’re grateful Anthony took some time out of his schedule to talk to us about his experience. Please be sure to check out his Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/irlmovie , and you can follow him on Twitter: @antronoid

TDM: Anthony, thanks for agreeing to talk to us. Congratulations on the success of your short film “IRL  – In Real Life”, you’ve already received over 285,000 views since it was posted on January 15th. How does it feel? What have some of the reactions been?

AR: Thank You! It seems very surreal, for the first couple of days I had it set to private and only showed a couple of people. Then on the 18th January where I made it public and received over 1000 views within 24 hours, I was quite amazed by how quickly it spread, and then the rest was history! I really am quite speechless about the whole experience, it’s great! The reactions have been very positive and supportive too, although there are some negative comments, they are actually really great to read too as the majority provide interesting topics to discuss. The comments that have had the most impact however are the ones where people have decided to change their own life to some extend from watching my film. Having that effect on some else, is something that I don’t think words can describe.

TDM: It’s quite a personal film that feels extremely honest, what gave you the courage to make it and put yourself out there like that?

AR:  When I first thought of the idea, I wasn’t really sure about making it, it did feel too personal to me it is a large part of my life that I tend to keep hidden, however, I thought this is my chance to tell my story. I wasn’t even sure about releasing it on YouTube either, I’m glad I did however!

TDM: Did you find that MMO gamers have reacted differently to non-gamers that have seen the film, like people on your film-course? I thought you did a great job describing things like raids in layman’s terms (“it was like a team sport, you’d have to play together to defeat the hardest bosses in the game”), was that deliberate to make it more accessible to non-gamers?

AR: Yes, well first and foremost, my film was aimed at people who did not play games or WoW, so the film would be understandable for everyone. I also wanted the film to appeal to gamers too, from all sorts of games that people may have had experience with spending seemingly endless time on. I would say the variety of reactions even between MMO players has been quite diverse. I’ve gotten everything from “Get a life” to “I just un-installed WoW”. Some people being able to relate to the film directly with their own experiences, whilst others have a more objective view. People on my course have reacted very positively, as they are looking at it more from a technical viewpoint alongside the story of course. There is definitely a huge variety of opinions. 

TDM: Although the film could be described as lighthearted in tone it certainly deals with what must have been a difficult time. You tried to quit more than once, how hard was it to finally follow through? What was the turning point?

AR: The turning point really was the need for me to focus on things that could potentially affect my future, whilst I enjoyed playing Warcraft, it is not something I wanted to do forever, although I believed it could have easily become that. The first few times I tried to quit, I found difficult, one time I uninstalled the game before a raid was due to take place and went for a sleep, vowing not to play again, however 2 hours later, I was back on again, I didn’t feel right without it back then, but back then I wasn’t thinking about the future as such so when I finally decided to call it a day, I knew I was doing it for the right reasons and I eased myself away from the game, so I didn’t just cut it off. 

TDM: Why do you think your film has had such resonance within the gaming community? 

AR: I think that the subject matter has hit a hard or a soft spot amongst gamers, this is something that a lot of people enjoy after all . Understandably some people do not like to see the game they play and enjoy be attacked in a film, I should point out, I was not attacking the game in my film, at least that was not my intention, this is a comment that I have seen a lot. But it is a relatable subject, that was my intention with the film, to create something that people could relate to and on the whole a lot of people could see themselves in my film, which is great for me!

TDM: Game addiction is at times a somewhat controversial subject. What’s your take on it especially in regard to MMOs?

AR: It is really hard to say, there are so many opinions about it, however, I did feel like I was addicted to Warcraft, I needed to play, I was always thinking about it, I couldn’t live without it. Whether it can be called an addiction I have no idea, but I feel it is up to the individual, if they are aware they have an addiction to the game then that is the first step of realising that something isn’t going quite right for them. I mean, I used the game as a means to escape my real life. Whilst it is dangerous to become absorbed into the game, I do recognise the fact that games can be played in moderation (and for most games I do play in moderation quite casually) however, that isn’t so easy for everyone to do.

TDM: Do you believe developers/publishers can and should do more to protect gamers from playing excessively? Some games have time out warnings, and if you play too long the game will eventually lock you out forcing you to take a break. Of course gamers can overcome this with alts (multiple accounts), but from your perspective where is the line between personal responsibility vs. game design?

AR: I think some developers are aiming to do this, I know Blizzard are doing this with Warcraft currently allowing players to join into raids and such quite easily, without pressures of being in guilds, which offers a wider variety to players and how to manage their time effectively. But there are elements to games, especially MMO’s that require a huge time commitment, especially in the cases where, if you want to be the best you have to play the most. But yes moderation really is the key, I think it comes down to the fact that it is just a game, and players should have a sense of responsibility when deciding to play games, it is after all an entertainment device and should probably be treated accordingly, which is something I can do now, but unfortunately did not do back then.

TDM: Have you played any games since you quit WoW? 

AR: Yeah, I played Minecraft for a little while and dabbled into Skyrim, MW3 and SWTOR (for a little while). Although now I feel I have my priorities all worked out I can enjoy these games in moderation and organise my time effectively to have a balance of my real life and my gaming lifestyle.

TDM: What are you future plans, are you going to keep making films?

AR: Well, firstly I am going to finish University, which will end in June, so not much longer to go. And then after that I hope to become a film director and work in the film industry, I am not sure if I will make another film about games, although who knows!

TDM: Thanks again for your time Anthony it was a real pleasure speaking with you, all the best for the future! For more on Anthony and IRL please check out his official site http://anthonyrosner.com, Facebook and Twitter @antronoid

IRL – In Real Life

“IRL – In Real Life” is a short, light-hearted documentary looking at the effects of World of Warcraft addiction, produced as part of a 3rd Year Film Production project at UCA.

After losing six years of his life on World of Warcraft, third year film student Anthony Rosner decided that enough was enough and started living in the real world. His documentary, IRL, takes a look at the effects MMORPGs can have on people and show that there is hope at the end of the tunnel.

Originally posted on GeeksAreSexy.net it’s been on YouTube since January 15th and already received over 100,000 views. The comments below the original Youtube upload also make for some interesting reading.

Don’t Listen to Your Community

January 30, 2012 2 comments

Community has emerged as one of the most critical aspects to successfully maintaining an online game. Even the most backward box publishers have come to realize the importance of community management and have teams that interact with the players on a daily if not hourly basis. If you get community management right you’re setting yourself up for success, get it wrong and it could ring the death knell for your product. A strong community following can sustain a games longevity, and a weak community can end it quicker than you can say /ragequit.

Image Courtesy of Penny-Arcade.com

MMORPG’s lead the way with community management long before there was a Facebook or a Twitter. By their very nature MMORPG’s are social creations (massively multiplayer) and at some point or another the most anti-social gamer will be forced to group up to complete a quest line or an instance. As such community forums were a natural evolution for players to take discussions, complaints, feedback and flame wars outside of the game world. For some developers they remain a critical tool in managing alpha test feedback to fine tune and improve the game-play experience.

Fast forward 10 years from some of the first MMO forums and even big brands like Nike and Coca Cola now employ whole teams of community specialists to manage their social networks and community initiatives. However community and or social media is not the best way forward for every brand, McDonald’s recently learned this the hard way when a twitter hashtag campaign backfired quite spectacularly.

The trick to successful community management is actually not about listening to your community, it’s about knowing what not to listen to. It’s about being selective about what you hear. For most large MMOs it’s estimated that out of the total player base only about 3% – 10% of players actively participate in forum discussions outside of the game. For social media usage and mentions this % probably skews upwards quite a bit. The point is that a small vocal minority usually represents a much larger silent majority. And usually because they are the most vocal they tend to be the most opinionated, but they may be complaining about things that 80% or more of the silent player base are totally happy with. Therefore it’s about weighing up the feedback carefully and reacting to what makes sense. The instinct is often to react to highly critical messages first rather than to look at the full picture. Game data, and internal QA teams can sometimes corroborate what players are seeing. Also seek other data sources to cross reference feedback where you can. Experienced and talented community managers will understand what player feedback to pay attention to and what to disregard. Reacting to the wrong feedback can be as detrimental as ignoring the valid complaints.  It’s about intelligent filtering of the white noise.

7 Basics for Games Business Development

Image Courtesy of Fireflyseo.com

This months contribution comes from a biz dev professional who has worked both on the agency, developer and publishing side of the industry:

1) The most critical thing for me is that you need to understand who you are talking to. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people wasting my time trying to sell me something that’s totally irrelevant to my business and being really pushy about it at the same time. For example I was at a MMORPG company and someone was trying to sell me advertising in baseball stadiums for 175,000 USD spouting off how many million eyeballs they have. My point to him being, only 0.1% of those millions (if I am lucky) may be relevant to me. So do research on the company you’re approaching, understand what they do and be sure that what you offer is a really good fit for them. Demonstrate your understanding when you email them or when you speak to them on the phone. Get a good grip on their product line-up and understand what markets they operate in and how they monetize.

2) It’s better to reach out to 5 companies with the above approach vs spamming 50 with a generic cut and pasted letter that doesn’t speak directly to their needs.

3) Understand who the decision maker is, before you go to deep into any discussions try and understand the hierarchy of the business and who the relevant person is to pitch to, as well as the ultimate decision maker. Sometimes the person you’re talking to is the right contact but doesn’t have the authority to sign off. However you could create a internal win for them, making his or her life easier if they bring a great new technology to the table that helps the business. Understand from them what they need from you to get things pushed through internally. Enable them to become an internal advocate for your business.

4) If you can create mock-ups or examples of the companies logo or games integrated with your system, sometimes visualizing something goes a long way to explain what it is you can offer. It can be as simple as including a screenshot of their product within your UI when you’re presenting to them.

5) LinkedIN is great tool for reaching out to potential partners, if you don’t already be sure to use it to build your contact base and research companies you might want to work with. Keep your links on your profile up to date and join groups that deal with your business genre.

6) In your first contact be direct but not pushy. Time is valuable to everyone these days and not everyone wants to commit to lunch or dinner, or even an hour phone call over something they know nothing about. Ask for a 10mins or 15mins window to give a brief intro on what you’re all about. If you’re less demanding in what you’re pushing for you’re more likely to get a response. Provide documentation or emails that can shared easily internally, don’t send 10mb 55 slide powerpoint decks. The easier you make it to share, the more likely it will get shared.

7) Check out conferences that may be relevant for your business, go through the attendee list, most conference websites list this publicly. Find out who’s going and work on setting up meetings in advance. Failing that you can try go around to the booths and see if you can grab 5mins with the relevant person. Although it does really help if you know who you should be talking to in advance. Some companies are more receptive to walk-ups than others.

The Myth of the Poor Developer

Image from kavistechnology.com/blog

Almost every other week you read sad stories of studios closing down and talented people losing their jobs. This is a great tragedy within the modern games industry that is evolving faster than you can say, “What’s your business model?”.  With retail sales, subscriptions, 99 cent downloads and free to play the market has a plethora of choices on how to monetize a product and more often than not companies will fail in trying to figure it out. There will be a lot more failures before there are successes unless there’s a shift in thinking, especially in the development side of the business.

Much like in the music industry where the record company is always the bad guy and the bands are the cool creative ones, the same applies in games. Publishers are the money hungry corporate vultures that don’t understand gamers while the developers are the downtrodden and beaten stepchild that’s lucky to get a pay check. Mmhhh, not quite… there are in fact quite a few developers that are extremely well funded either through private investment or publisher backed money. Development studios aren’t poor, they’re just really expensive to run and in certain cases not run effectively.

I know developers that have signed up publishers with no intention of ever delivering a real milestone and strung them along for a almost a year taking 160,000 a month for ‘concepting’. I’ve witnessed games being developed for 5+ years with development teams of over 250 people that are released and tank, I know of studios that haven’t shipped a successful product for 7 years that get bought for 50 million dollars, I worked with a studio that bought their team of 300 an ipad for Christmas – which would be cool if they weren’t 2 years behind schedule. The list goes on but I don’t want to sound like I am ranting. Or actually I do! Not just to rant though – my point is this: There are some accepted losses that come with developing a product but these losses have crept up exponentially over the last four or five years. Look at the Star Wars: The Old Republic, it’s rumored to have cost over 80m USD already, and that’s just pure development before any marketing or server infrastructure. These type of development costs set the ROI bar very high and put a lot of pressure on a publishing org. to turn a profit. If you’re starting 80m down that’s quite a large forecast you need to make up.

There needs to be more control and accountability on the part of developers, at all levels: financial, studio management and individual contributors. Not to be mean and controlling but to stop developers working on something for years only to go bust three months post-launch ala APB (All Points Bulletin). Imagine a marketing director is over budget 2 months in a row he’d be looking for a new job, right? Let alone going over budget for 2 years. So why is it okay for this to happen in a development setting and not anywhere else? It seems that development has become an accepted black hole, and the longer it remains that way the more damage it will cause and more good studios will close. So what are the solutions? This is something that’s not going to change overnight, but here are a few basic suggestions:

1) Stop throwing good money after bad. If the game is bad 3 years in, it’s going to be bad 5 years in. Cut your losses earlier and walk away.

2) Don’t be afraid to not launch. Sure you just spent an arm and leg to get this title to gold master and the main investor put his island in the Caribbean down as collateral but launching is going to cost you even more, and a negative critical reception of a below par product could jeopardize future launches.

3) Make milestones mean something. If a project is a year behind schedule then why have milestones in the first place? Stick to the schedule and if that’s not possible seriously evaluate if it’s financially viable to continue rather than pour more money in blindly.

4) Take individual responsibility at every level. So if you’re on a team that is several years behind and you’re watching Family Guy on your ipad while munching your free lunch in the pool room maybe think about where all that money is coming from and what you can contribute to making this work. Every individual at every level can contribute to changing the mind set of what’s okay and what isn’t.

5) Work with the publishing teams and not against them. Believe it or not all either of you want is to make your product a success. I’ve seen a lot of products stumble due to petty politics. Cut it out and get it done.

Traditional Publishers and the MMO Challenge

Eddie Vedder once said ‘Wake up or die in your sleep’. He was referring to the general state of the world back in ’91, but it’s solid advice for traditional game publishers in 2011. By traditional I mean the ones that still put a CD in a plastic case and send it to a retail store; EA, Ubisoft, Namco, THQ, etc. The only real exception is Activision because they made the extremely smart call to do a power rangers style move and join forces with Blizzard several years ago. Putting them in a strong position in both the online and console space. In Q1 this year alone their net revenue was $503m, in large part due to the on-going success of their World of Warcraft franchise.

Most other traditional publishers have online strategies that vary between non-existent to clueless, naive and embarrassing. However you can’t really blame them and expect a overnight change to the entire of foundation of what made them successful in the first place. Much like the music and film industries they are struggling to grasp the wide reaching implications of digital distribution quickly enough and clinging on to what they know works. Their biggest failure lies not in the un-willingness to change but in the un-willingness to truly understand the online space and MMO games and adapt their infrastructures to suit a new focus. We may think the MMO industry is huge but in the grand scheme of things we are still a niche within a niche industry and there’s a massive knowledge gap.

Here are some of the fundamental challenges traditional publishers face:

1) Retail focused Infrastructure – Traditional publisher are built around retail. They have manufacturing teams, operations teams, sales teams. They schmooze Buyers from Walmart, Best Buy, Gamesstop, etc., they print manuals, manufacture CDs, design, proof, copy, get ESRB ratings, and work on submissions with the console owners. All this takes manpower and money, even though retail sales are decreasing you still need all those resources to produce less units. So you the overhead remains but the profit diminishes.

2) Community – Historically big publishers are not used to in-depth community interaction, with the rise of social media this is slowly changing and even the most backward publisher will have a community or at least a social media team.  But by the nature of the box distribution model the process is one-sided and not as organic as with a MMO. With the lack of a beta phase there is limited consumer feedback pre-release. There is little involvement from the community in shaping the final product, often this beta phase can be a critical part of a MMO launch on where you build your grassroots community that drives your positive word mouth. Get this wrong and any product will struggle to recover.

3) Marketing – Most large publishers have over-inflated marketing budgets that use a scatter-shot effect to reach out across multiple mediums: outdoor, TV, events, radio, online, viral and social media. Large scale campaigns like this make a lot of noise but are not necessarily ROI friendly or effective for a more specific demographic. If you’re trying to reach a niche audience such as subscription based MMORPG gamers you need to consider: they need the right PC spec to play your game, must have a credit card, probably be male between the ages of 16-35, etc. The point being you’re not going to best reach that person with an outdoor billboard on Sunset Blvd or the London Underground. You need more focused marketing efforts with a close eye on your conversion rate and cost per acquisition (CPA). Big publishers need to tone down their marketing efforts and make them much more focused on conversions vs brand awareness and noise.

4) External dependencies – Creative Agencies, Media Agencies, PR agencies, manufacturing suppliers are all part and parcel of modern games publishing. The issue is much like the traditional publishers infrastructure  these suppliers are setup to work on big launch campaigns and one off projects. Not necessarily on long term ongoing acquisition and retention marketing campaigns that a MMO with a life of 4 to 5 years requires. Retaining these companies of long periods is extremely expensive and cost prohibitive. Once you have contracts in place and have established relationships it’s not easy to close the doors on those overnight. And this is exactly why most online publishers will fulfill a lot of these function in-house themselves.

5) Timing – dictated by all of the above. The usual cycle of pre-release reviews, teasers, tightly embargoed exclusives all work differently for an online product. For example with an open-beta it’s much harder to embargo things, you can’t send press a review copy because the servers aren’t actually live yet. Not all the marketing should be front loaded, you need to think about the first 30 days when the subscription kicks in, you need to think about patches updates and what activity you need in-place post launch. You need to structure deals for pre-orders, head-start events, all things that usually do not need to be considered for a boxed product.

So what can these publishers do to better prepare themselves for continuing shifts in the industry?  Well, step 1 is acknowledging you have a problem. You need to accept you need to change to survive, once you’ve managed that the rest is down to practicalities. Build a knowledge base quickly, bring new talent into the management/executive ranks that understand the online space and have experience in it. Make the hard decisions sooner rather than later, focus on result oriented implementation, build effective data tracking tools for things like marketing and monitor those closely. Focus on digital distribution strategies either by relying internal systems or partnering with online distributors like Steam. Figure out future revenue models based on something other than pure box sales. And finally be brave enough to step away from retail.

The Rise of Cut and Paste ‘Journalism’

Commentators have often lamented how the rise of the internet has turned every amateur into a professional overnight. Often these pieces are written by bitter traditionalists clinging onto the false pretense that print journalism somehow has a higher standard by default. But you really don’t need to look far to see that print journalists are not more or less fallible than us online ‘amateurs’. Just look at the recent Sun piece on the 3DS as a perfect example of reporting that’s closer to fiction than anything else. There are some extremely talented and knowledgeable online games journalists out there. So please don’t take this as a rant against online journalism in general, this is squarely aimed at those that don’t get the concept that being a news source carries some responsibility.

There are countless game ‘news’ websites out there that contribute about 5% of their own content and simple cut and paste the rest from what they pick up off other sites. Where the issue arises is if the news they are picking up is false, unsubstantiated, and worse still, damaging to the company it’s referring to. I’ve seen examples of press releases that still had text that said “insert date”, or “partner quote here”. Which is also pretty poor showing by a publisher to let something like that leave the building but it gives you an idea about how much time goes into reviewing the ‘news’ content that’s posted by some sites. With this level of attention to detail it’s not surprising that some stories have spread like wildfire that have zero foundation in truth. The amazing thing is that up to 20 or 30 sites can run one such story as news and not one of them will bother picking up the phone or dropping an email to the publisher to even ask if it’s true, or try substantiate the source in any way. And the irony is that when you ask for a correction sites will often refuse to edit or even remove the wrong story mumbling about something about how that’s not their policy.

In an ideal world sites that run game news should either quote the original source of the news, thereby putting the responsibility on the source. And if they run any piece as their own, they should at least try and verify it with the publishers or developers being talked about. As is always the way with news, bad press tends to spread much quicker than positive press so the negative stories are propagated much quicker and travel further than a positive and probably accurate story would. I doubt this trend isn’t going to change anytime soon but my hope is that the younger news sites look to the good examples that are out there (VG247, Gamasutra) rather than compete with the hacks in a who can cut and paste quicker contest.

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