Gas Powered Games or From Belarus With Love

Please note that this entry is a re-post. The original piece was written on October 7th but due to technical difficulties was not posted to the blog.

Christ Taylor started Gas Powered Games (GPG), a Redmond, WA-based video game company, in 1998 with several other ex-Cavedog Entertainment employees.  For the youngsters out there (or people not familiar with the PC gaming industry), Chris was the main force behind Cavedog’s Total Annihilation, a 1997 ground-breaking real-time strategy (RTS) game for the PC. Total Annihilation was epic, genre-defying masterpiece, one of the best strategy games ever made! This game had one of the most amazing soundtracks (the whole score was written by Jeremy Soule, a legend in the industry) and was the first RTS game to feature 3D units as well as massive scale never seen before (or after).  As you may have guessed by my tone so far, Chris is considered something of a legend in the industry so it pains me to see the downfall of GPG over the last couple of years.

GPG developed the Dungeon Siege series (first one came out in 2002, a whopping 4 years after the company was founded) and, most notably, Supreme Commander, a PC game many considered the spiritual successor to Total Annihilation. In 2011 the company was hired to develop Age of Emprise Online, which was plagued by issues upon its release date, but subsequently received many awards and was the third most played game for Windows Live for 2012 based on unique users.

GPG then hit a rough patch – it put on hold its development of the Kings and Castles game (announced as far back as 2010) and in February 2013 canceled its Kickstarter campaign for Wildman, an action role-playing game.  That project was plagued for a while (Chris Taylor laid off a bulk of his staff a couple of weeks earlier due to financial woes) and the company raised only $504,000 of its $1.1 million goal. Earlier this year Microsoft ended its development contract on Age of Empires Online and the money stopped coming.

Three days after the Kickstarter cancellation, GPG was picked up by Wargaming.net.  Wargaming is a Belarusian game company most famous for its free-to-play World of Tanks online game. How did a Belarus developer afford this? In 2012 Wargaming’s revenue was 217.9 million Euro, with net profit of 6.1 million Euro – almost all of this money came from World of Tanks. Wargaming.net has over 60 million registered players worldwide.

How did a legend in the US gaming industry end up in such a predicament? Failed projects, lack of control and non-evolving strategy stick out as the main culprits. Let’s examine these further.

It is no secret that game developers and publishers often have massive friction and pull the metaphorical sled in different directions. The developers treat their work as a creative, artistic process that brings intrinsic satisfaction. The publishers are often branches of famous media conglomerates and are usually after the quick buck and bottom line. Unfortunately for the developers, computer games are massively expensive to develop, so they need the publisher funding. This agency conflict does not necessarily have to be extremely negative, however, in GPG’s case, the lack of control led to some lackluster performance (their Demigod and Supreme Commander 2 games were not exactly fans’ favorites). GPG has had a different publisher for almost all of their games (besides Age of Empires and Dungeon Siege which were all published by Microsoft, but as Bungie Studios already showed us, you don’t want to be associated with Microsoft for too long).  I cannot guess who is to blame for the failure of some of these projects but either way Chris Taylor’s creative genius does not seem to mesh well with the corporate culture of most publishers.

The bigger culprit, however, is GPG’s refusal to change with the times and realities of their target market – PC gaming.  The company is appealing to an extremely narrow facet of hardcore gamers, the ones who still play RTS games and spend a lot of hours playing complex games. From a macro-perspective, the market is huge – it topped $18.6b in 2011. However, most of the growth over the last 3 years has been in free multiplayer games played in a browser window or small “time-killer” titles that can be played on the go. GPG has no presence in any of these niches (Age of Empires Online is now a Microsoft title) and is committed to the old 90s and 2000s model of a complex game requiring many hours to learn. This is commendable, however, they must face the realities that unless you have a blockbuster title (see GTA 5 – its sales hit $1billion in the first week) you are most likely to have very limited penetration with your title. Yes, the critics may love it, the hardcore fan-base may adore it, but at one point you need to generate enough money to pay your employees.

I don’t think Chris can take the ego-hit and accept that his company has been diminished to a peripheral player, one that only the rabid fans enjoy and that does not generate massive amounts of cash. While PC gaming is not dead by any means, you cannot expect a great outcome coming in with a 10-year old strategy (the canceled Wildman game did not look much different from other similar titles already in the marketplace). Let’s hope he has finally found a good home at Wargaming and will be able to focus on developing a truly revolutionary title, without worrying about the financial minutia. Chris and his boys at GPG are definitely capable of it!

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