PC Interview

Dave Perry explains Top Secret

Ambitious community-developed racing MMO discussed

Paul sits down with Dave Perry to discuss 'Top Secret', the ambitious community-developed racing MMO title currently boasting a development team in excess of 20,000 people...

'Top Secret' is a fascinating idea, what are your hopes for it long term? Is it the first of a long line of such ventures?

The whole idea of this game is to expose talent that's out there. Some developers think I'm crazy, that I'd be better off using professionals. However, I spend a lot of time with students, last night (for example) I spent the entire evening with them, teaching, but it always turns into a two-way thing. Where they inspire me, and I try to show them that they do already have the skills needed. If only a small room of them can impress me, can you imagine 20,000 or 100,000? Lets face it, if this works, the next team will be 1,000,000 people. That could change everything as we understand it, meaning the game could ship with an unprecedented amount of insanely high quality content (try to compete with that when you only have today's 30-70 person teams!) Dave Perry explains Top Secret

While indie game development has embraced the idea of development teams spread globally, communicating via the internet, for a major publisher to create a game in such a way is a bold move, what inspired the idea and do you think the gaming community will embrace the project?

It's the future of business (in my opinion), you don't hire people based on if they're willing to move to your town, you hire them based on skill. You use ALL technologies to bridge the gaps. For example, the other day three of us were editing a single spreadsheet live on Google Spreadsheets. I've been using Microsoft Excel for years, and it's always been a lonely (and often boring) experience, but when you see the other people working away on the same document, it's really refreshing.

Interestingly these kinds of technologies (Wiki's are another example) don't even require us to be in the same country! Skype means phone and chat communication (even with video) is pretty much free. It's just the way things change, and I'm a major believer in moving with the times. If you don't like moving with the times, then look at the savings of not having to run a big headquarters office (been there done that, in the past I've spent a million bucks on custom office layouts, and $50,000+ a month rent). That seemed smart back then, but I'm not convinced that's how to be competitive going forward. I'm a professional consultant now, and I certainly don't advise pouring cash into a fancy building when starting out.

As unofficial 'modding' has become part of PC game culture over the last decade do you see projects like this where the gaming community get more involved in the initial game development themselves as the next natural step?

Modders are simply stunning. You have no idea the pain they will go through to do what they want. No matter how horrible the tools you give them (if any), they always find a way to not only make new content, but sometimes they even IMPROVE the game! I'm amazed by them, I was a programmer for many years, but my technical strength was never to reverse-engineer the work of others, I see it as a special skill. At this point there's enough experts out there to make it clear that modding will NEVER go away. So why not help these guys out? They are smart, passionate and extremely talented. I love the idea of them getting to dive into something big and challenging, but at the same time, welcoming them with open arms.

How much of the finished game will actually be created from participants ideas?

I've had a few people say, "Ah, I get it, you just want us to make a free game for you?" It couldn't be farther from the truth. I've already got a fully funded team, they will do everything that our online team don't do. They will also fix any problems, like if 3D models come in kinda funky or broken, they will just do whatever is needed to turn them into final game assets, they also will do all programming. We can't know what will work and what won't, but I want to be sure this game ships, so I have full technical support. I also will have a full team of people monitoring the forums (managing all these people will be a pretty decent task).

To answer your question, my hope is that 100% of the game ideas, and a major percentage of game assets will be made (or at least submitted) by the participants.

Has the central idea and gameplay framework already been decided upon?

Yes, we have an MMO engine, so we're starting day-one with the ability to drive servers, connect people, sell items, display 3D objects and worlds, make an interface, register, patch, etc. So consider we start with an engine that's an empty shell. The GREAT news is we don't wait 2 years to get the tech working. So I think we will have this puppy done in a year. The genre I chose is Racing. The reason being that everyone has played a racing game, we all have opinions, and I think the genre could use some new ideas. Will they come up with new ideas? I'm betting yes.

Do you think you run the risk of ending up with a game created and influenced by hardcore gamers that will only really appeal to that area of the market?

No, I'm the final judge and I won't be making a game that's niche. We want a really fun game that gets very popular. Then I will be really happy.

Project management on any new game must be a hard enough job when the bulk of the team are sitting in the same building, how will the logistics of the project work when the team is spread worldwide and consists of such a large number of people?

I wish there was a book I could buy, or a conference I could attend that would explain to me how to do this. Basically we need to work it out as we go along. I'm planning to use a CB Radio like system (meaning for each subject there's a main moderated channel and lots of side channels). The main channel is for people to post their entries to the latest challenge, they can discuss on a side channel as long as they like, but at some point they need to post to the main channel. If they meet the criteria, a moderator will move their entry over to the judging channel, and their reputation goes up. Users can also affect the reputations of each other. When it's time to judge, either I will do it, or sometimes I will bring in industry celebrities. When the winner is announced, their work goes into the game, that challenge is locked, and we move on to the next one. In the background there's a lot of other forward-looking discussion going on.

I guess my point is, we will have a good place to start and then we will work it out from there. Either you buy into this all the way or you don't. If you buy in all the way, you know there's a guy out there with better ideas on how to run the forums, so we will be prepared to listen when he shows up.

This happened with my gameindustrymap.com site, it's getting completely re-designed due to user input. I guess the point is, I listen.

There will inevitably be accusations that 'Top Secret' is in reality no more than good old fashioned 'idea mining' with a shiny new face on, how would you respond to such criticism?

Ideas in this business are a dime a dozen. Read my blog (here). As I told that class, it's not about the ideas (yes they have to be good), but then it's really about the ability to show up and execute. That's the really hard part. Execution sets the men from the boys. Even after 25 years in the biz, I still learn better techniques every day. The winner of this competition is the person that really shows up, that's able to look at the game and make fantastic suggestions all the way along (not just someone sending in an idea and sitting back with arms folded).

So never never under-value the fact that we'll be making sure the execution happens.

You've compared 'Top Secret' with television programs like 'American Idol' and 'The Apprentice'. Programs of this nature are often criticized for simply creating a production line of disposable talent to serve their own needs rather than building long term careers for the winners, do you think that the winner of 'Top Secret' will be able to escape the potential stigma of having entered the industry through what is essentially a talent contest and carve out a genuine career?

Well American Idol has been an incredible success. It's the #1 show, they get billions of votes, their artists have had many #1 albums. They basically expose them and from there on, if the talent is really there, they become a hit.

The press have already told me they are fascinated by this process, they really want to see the winner, and see what he/she does next. It's the biggest team in game history and the biggest prize in game history (just consider the average price of an MMO).

So this person (male or female) will end up in the drivers seat, but with all the press watching, meaning more promotion that 20 year veterans. Imagine I gave you $10M to go make a movie, I'm sure you would be more comfortable spending it if you had an established director willing to answer ANY questions you had 24/7. Our winner gets that too, they can reach for my help anytime they need it, on the other hand, they will need to ask. They are going to be thrown in at the deep end. It's my job to find that person that I think will really amaze us all.

Tell me what more we can do? Here's a team, here's our support, here's the media. Honestly, it really will be up to them.

The finished game promises to be a MMO with no subscription, revenue being generated, in part at least, by in-game advertising. There is still a lot of skepticism about how much in-game advertising players will tolerate and more importantly how effective it is from the advertiser's point of view. Obviously you feel you can find an effective and successful balance, can you give us some insight into how you hope to achieve this?

I think that not having to pay $60 is a pretty big benefit from the start. They also don't need to buy any in-game items unless they LOVE the game. Meaning we don't get ANY cash from a gamer unless they love the game - VERY different from the console model. We also are pioneering the idea of optionally turning off adverts, so if you REALLY don't like them, just turn them off (how many other companies are allowing this in any form of media? - Zero!). So I can put my hand on my heart and say that games with this model are truly 100% free.

The first game to demonstrate this is my MMORPG - 2moons (2moons.acclaim.com). Open beta is probably under 14 days away, go ahead and try it out. If it works, we will move the idea over to other Acclaim games. It's the first time there's ever been an exchange with the gamer. Meaning (1) They get the game for Free (2) They get an extra experience boost if they are willing to turn on advertising, and allow us to have that revenue (3) If they don't want to do that, no problem, enjoy the game for free.

I think anyone that shoots down this model I'm proposing would do a MASSIVE disservice to the gaming community. It would be so easy for me to go back to charging subscriptions and $60 up front. But I just think the cost of games needs to go down, not just a little bit, it should be cheaper than movies and music, and I'm certainly putting my money where my mouth is here (so I hope people support me in this initiative).

TV seems free, but (here in the USA) it costs an expensive cable subscription, with extra charges for premium channels, and heavy one-time charges for sports, etc. Once they get you, then they spam you with adverts every chance they get. In fact they now have hardware to compress TV shows without you knowing so they can squeeze in more adverts than ever planned before (for me that's just the wrong direction).

We will KILL all other forms of media if all games were free (just think about that, imagine every game, everywhere you go is free. Meaning we all own every game. Arcades, Home, Cellphone, PDA, etc.). It's a vision that Acclaim is focused on, it's very forward looking and I'm a fan of people willing to be maverick and take risks, when the rest of the business is focused on avoiding risks.

So as you can tell, 2007 will be a fun and challenging year for me.

Thanks for your time, Dave, best of luck with progress on 'Top Secret'.

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