Makers of 'BlackLight: Tango Down' Anticipate Video Gaming's Downloadable Future

"BlackLight: Tango Down" is a first-person shooter focused on multiplayer online skirmishes, in the vein of mega-hit "Modern Warfare." The difference? "BlackLight" can only be downloaded and costs just $15, far less than a boxed game. Fast Company asked Marcus Beer, Director of Public Relations, and Shane Bettenhausen, Director of New Business, at Ignition Entertainment, about their strategy in releasing downloadable games, and whether digital titles are the industry's destiny.

BlackLight: Tango Down

Kevin Ohannessian: What is BlackLight: Tango Down?

Marcus Beer: BlackLight is the first downloadable game that delivers enough content so you can keep playing for months and months on end. A lot of the downloadable games that come out are smaller, with regards to the amount of content. This is a futuristic online shooter with 12 maps, 4 modes, 4 player coop, and over 2 trillion weapon combinations.

Shane Bettenhausen: We first talked to developer Zombie Studios about BlackLight last September. At that point, what they had was this semi-featured multiplayer mode, which was going to be part of a larger product. Originally this game was going to be a giant boxed product, like a Halo or a Modern Warfare. We were really interested in focusing on the multiplayer. You look at the stats of a lot of games, like Modern Warfare 2, on day one tons of people, before they even try the single player, are going straight to multiplayer. There have been all of the advancements in the genre to keep it sticky, to keep people going back online, fighting to get new weapons and new ranks. There's this whole movement toward multiplayer first. So we were like, "Let's do that. Lets give people the mode they really want and not spend all our efforts trying to make a single player game they may not even play." This allowed us to make a game with a much smaller budget and really focus on delivering a quality experience to the hardcore guys online.

You mentioned Modern Warfare, how come big franchises like Modern Warfare or Halo don't go digital?

MB: That's a tricky question. At the end of the day, they make games that sell huge amounts in retail. Let's not forget that retail is the key component in the games industry. We are at the start, the second year now, of digital downloads on console being a big thing and starting to evolve. The bigger companies know they can sell 7, 8, 9 million units of Modern Warfare, or Halo: Reach. They can do that and get a lot of money back. They also sell a lot of consoles. That's the situation now. That's going to be the situation for the next couple of years, because they want to make sure they can deliver stuff that you can't deliver on a download yet. Until we've all got T1 lines tapped into our 500 terabyte hard drive consoles, I don't think you will see a Halo or a Modern Warfare, or a game of that budget of $60 million or $70 million, delivered digitally. They want to keep retail happy. The pipeline is not quite ready yet.

SB: Digital distribution on the consoles has been a bit of a frontier. Microsoft was really disruptive with XBLA. If you look at the last few years, the progress being made, up until Battlefield 1943, a lot of publishers were afraid to really invest in a game that looks like a boxed experience and is a little more fully featured. The price points are creeping up for these games, and people are expecting more from that. We are going to see better experiences coming out on downloadable platforms.

You mentioned before the budget of the game was considerably less, because it was multiplayer only.

SB: Almost a third to a fourth of the cost, had it been a boxed product. This game is running on the Unreal engine, which is the graphic engine that powers Gears of War and a lot of huge games. That engine isn't cheap and because of that it does end up costing more than your average XBLA game, but we feel that we added enough value and functionality so that it's not that risky after all.

BlackLight: Tango Down

What do you expect to see in the digital market in the next two years?

MB: You'll see more small companies, like ignition. We're the companies that are able to act that much quicker. You'll see a rise in the quality of games. You might see a rise in the price point to $20, where the games are big enough to justify it. I think that's when you'll start to see a leveling out in regards to different tiers in downloads. The growth of the console downloadable stuff is dependent on a couple of things: It's dependent on how Sony and Microsoft want the content delivered to their machines, what content they are prepared to allow, what limitations they put in place, and it depends on the pipeline. It depends on what sort of Internet connection everyone has. Downloading BlackLight, which comes in under a gig, on a DSL is not a big issue. But if you're going into the 3, 4, 5 GB games that's when it becomes a bit trickier and people will have to leave their machines on overnight. As people's wireless connections in their homes improving, you'll see bigger games.

SB: And digital distribution is becoming common place. A console like the Wii, a majority of users don't know that you can download games that way and are connected to the Internet. But on a console like PlayStation 3, 80% of users are connected to the Internet and it's a much better way to reach those guys. Now, it's okay for a publisher to just put a game out digitally. In the future, there are things like OnLive, these cloud computing solutions where you don't even have the game. You are logging in, playing the game, and transmitting it to your screen. I think the industry is moving away quickly from physical products. Physical products are still here, but clearly there's always new solutions to get games to people. I think moving forward, the kids growing up in this age of Facebook, they're not as tied to physical possessions and going to the store to buy games. Clearly, it's going to keep going in this direction.

As a publisher of digital titles, what would you like to see Microsoft and Sony, and possibly Nintendo, do for their next consoles to help foster digital downloads?

SB: I think Microsoft and Sony made big strides with the current platforms. I am excited to see how they can build upon this: make it more user friendly, make it a more seamless experience. What Sony did with PSP Go, their recent revision of their handheld—even if it was a bit of a failure at retail—it was an experiment, because there was no physical media and only downloads. That's clearly an indicator of where the consoles could be going. I don't think it's going to happen right away. With Nintendo 3DS, which is shipping next year, that's Nintendo's chance to get it right with digital distribution. Most publishers would agree that WiiWare and DSiWare on the current platforms have been slightly mishandled and there is not a lot of awareness. We're all hoping that Nintendo takes a serious look at the usability and the functionality and make it easier for the end user. Ultimately for the publisher, if the users don't know how to get these games, it's not very viable.

MB: One of the things we have to remember is that none of the console companies need to think they are reinventing the wheel here. At the end of the day, the PC has had downloadable content, downloadable games for such a long time. Look at the success of Steam.

SB: Now there is parity between boxed and download games on PC—those markets are equal. Which is pretty telling.

MB: PC owners always had the mindset, "I don't need a disk. I can install my games on my hard drive. I can download a game. I can play. I don't need to see a physical copy." I think now the consumer of consoles games is starting to see that you don't need a physical boxed copy for a game that is going to cost you $15 or $20. I think that, and the quality of games progress, you'll see sales numbers go up. What I would like to see for the next iteration of consoles? It's things we are starting to see with the new Xbox 360: built-in wireless, much bigger hard drives, the ability to store scores and saved games offline. Take a look at what Blizzard does with World of Warcraft, or what Steam does. The fact you can easily access your account from any machine without lugging a hard drive around. I think that's a key thing.

SB: Another cool thing Steam does is buying in bulk. If you buy three copies of a game in steam and disseminate them to your friends, you get a discount. It's a cool way to view virtual goods as a commodity. There is still a lot of room for growth in terms of how to tell users about these download services.

Are there other unique issues with publishing downloadable games?

MB: The key thing to remember, and this is the way we're tackling downloadable games at Ignition, DLG does not mean cheap. There's still a lot of snobbery when people look at downloadable games, "It's cheap, it's a throwaway game." There are games out there, whether it be Battlefield, Shadow Complex, DeathSpank, or BlackLight had they been released on the last generation of console, these could've been full-priced released that would've done very well. Yes there is, whether it be retail or online store, there is a fair amount of dross out there. But inexpensive games don't have to be cheap and nasty. I hate to see XBLA and PSN go the route of the Wii—look at how much shovelware that's been put out just to take advantage of the Wiimote. I would hate to see that amount of shovelware coming out on XBLA and PSN moving forward. I think if we continue to have great games like Deathspank or Braid, or BlackLight and Swarm, which is another one we are publishing next year, confidence is going to get bigger and bigger. That is a lesson we all need to take on board, as opposed to slapping out cash-ins and cheap little games that people download and go, "Oh crap, why did I bother wasting my $10. I don't want to touch DLG for a while."

SB: Probably the coolest thing about these downloadable games on console is allowing games that might not have ever seen the light of day in a box, because they are a little too different or too disruptive, able to find a huge audience. I think BlackLight isn't one of those games, it's a little more mainstream and like other popular titles. Swarm is a little quirkier and different, and reminds me of the successes we have seen like Braid, or Limbo which just came out on XBLA. Games that I couldn't imagine would ever get put out for $60, but for $10 or $15, a lot of people are willing to take a risk and try something different that has a point of view and is unique. It's cool to be able to foster those kinds of experiences and get them to a huge audience that never would've found them otherwise.

BlackLight: Tango Down is available now on Xbox 360 and the PC, and will be available soon for PlayStation 3.

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