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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.

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.

Why There is no WoW Killer

Image from an article @ Massively.com

The term WoW Killer seems to rear its head with every new MMORPG release, most recently Rift had the honor partly fueled by their marketing approach and partly due to the similarities in the gameplay with WoW. Star Wars: The Old Republic is also getting similar treatment as the industry and fans alike have high hopes for such a large franchise and respected developer.

The term itself is obviously flawed as nothing will ‘kill’ WoW outright but I think the term is supposed to allude to a product that can compete or even get close to WoW. Not something that will kill it.

There will never be a WoW Killer, too much has changed in market since WoW was released.

When World of Warcraft launched in 2004 not even the Blizzard team knew how big they were going to be, it took everyone by surprise. The game changed the entire lanscape of the MMO industry almost overnight. If you look at a chart of MMO subs the usual trend is for a the game to peak post launch, trend downwards and then level off. With WoW it was a straight line up and it never stopped going.

The latest numbers for WoW have surpassed 12m. When WoW launched the market was ripe for an MMO and there were several factors why it exploded the way it did:

  • PCs technology was getting cheaper and more powerful
  • Broadband penetration was exploding across Europe and the US
  • Games like, Ultima, Planetside, Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot had paved the way and educated consumers and retail on MMOs
  • WoW had the strength of the Warcraft brand behind it
  • Blizzard built a kick ass, extremely well designed and polished persistant world
  • WoW was one of the only products that had appeal in Europe, North America and Asia in equal measure
  • They did an excellent job marketing this title, starting with the hardcore and as the product grew went more and more mainstream
  • It become a cultural phenomenon: not just any game gets an entire South Park episode dedicated to it

It was like a Dark Knight or Titanic at the box office, the timing was right, it was a great product and once is snowballed there was no stopping it.

Now the market has changed and evolved in such a way that to surpass this success is no longer viable with a client based box sale subscription MMO. It may be done in other forms with slightly different genres or business models but there is always going to a Pre and Post-WoW era. It’s become the benchmark by which all MMO are judged and defined. But it’s an anomaly, it’s the exception to the trend, not the rule.  And no, you can’t kill it.

The Irony of Innovation

Gamers often shout; ‘We want innovation, do something different!’ The irony is, actually they really don’t. They say they do but ultimately they vote with their wallets. And over the last five years or so the vote has clearly gone against innovation.

Nope, I’m not just making this up let’s look at some of the most successful multi-player games of 2010:

  1. Call of Duty Black Ops – 18.88m
  2. Wii Sports – 16.60m
  3. New Super Mario Bros. Wii – 11.31m
  4. Wii Sports Resort – 11.29m
  5. Wii Fit Plus – 8.87m
  6. Fifa Soccer 11 – 8.44m
  7. Halo: Reach – 7.55m
  8. Red Dead Redemption – 7.21m
  9. Kinect Adventures – 7.17m
  10. Pokemon Heart Gold/ Soul Silver – 6.39m

[Sales are cross platform Worldwide. Figures from VGChartz]

Out of all those products Kinect Adventures is the only new franchise that was launched in 2010, along with the widely promoted Kinect hardware. Every other product has had another iteration pre-2010. If you look at the top 20 there’s still only 1 new franchise launched in 2010, and looking at the top 30 there’s a total of 2 new products launched:  that’s 6%. Of course every few years or so you get a break-out success with something new like a Guitar Hero, Kinect or a new franchise launched like Assasin’s Creed. But these are increasingly rare.

Arguably World of Warcraft did so well because it was part of an existing franchise, in terms of innovation it was the most successful MMO of its generation but it wasn’t the first. It was an established brand visually and by name with the Warcraft franchise. Even the world of Azeroth was known to loyal Blizzardians. Much of the look and feel of the original RTS games was put into WoW, even down to certain icons and sound effect. So to a Warcraft fan everything had a very familiar feel. And even though every  Wow-fanboy now shouts that every MMO since WoW is a WoW Clone you don’t need to look too far back to see that WoW borrowed a great deal from the  MMOs that preceded it. The big difference being that WoW just did it way better than any MMO ever had before. On top of this WoW is firmly rooted in the Fantasy MMO genre.

Which brings us to another interesting aspect with innovation or lack of in MMOs; the only ones that have enjoyed substantial success have all been in a Fantasy setting, by this I mean, Elves, Orcs, Crossbows, Swords, etc… you get the idea. Eve has been the only exception to the rule here, the guys at CCP have done a tremendous job with persistent and slow but steady growth. You could maybe list City of Heroes and a couple of others that have done okay, but nowhere near on the scale of industry leaders. Every other MMO that’s tried to do something a little different has failed faster than you can say ‘server shut down’. Remember The Matrix Online, Star Wars Galaxies, APB, Auto Assault? Tabula Rasa? All games that tried to break out from the fantasy umbrella and do something a little different. Now, were they all amazing games? Probably not and the genre alone is not the root cause of their failure but my point is that the rest of the industry looks at these failures and takes note. No one is going to be developing another driving MMO in a hurry, so if gamers really want innovation they need to broaden their tastes a little and give more niche products the time of day. Otherwise publishers and developers will continue to play it safe, which in an increasingly competitive and fractured market you can’t really blame them for.

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