A while back, I got together with Jerome Gastaldi - Monte Cristo CEO and lead on Cities XL - to talk about Cities XL. By "a while back" I mean, January. RPS has been busy with not doing anything. Since the demo has just been released, I thought it time to go back to the recording of Mr Gastaldi's splendid Gallic accent and forthrightness - I've avoided about half the swearing - to talk about Cities XL, the construction genre, and the future of the PC. It's worth noting that the interview is six months old - I've concentrated on discussion of concepts to avoid any details being out of date. And here we go!
RPS: As a brief over-view... Cities XL. Explain the high-level concept.
Jerome Gastaldi: It's a multi-angle project. You've got the solo game. You've got playable content which plug-in and enriches the space. You've got the subscription offer – the planet model – which is open to you to have persistence on a planet, specialising city by city and trading with each other and creating big projects together. And fourthly, this web-based interface. We give the players the possibility to show on the web what they're doing in the game and also allow them to continue to play the game. All the trading elements are playable on the web. That's the concept.
RPS: But the core is...
Jerome Gastaldi: The corner-stone is a solid city building game. We're going for the Sim City 4 spot. For the first time in our history we have the money to effectively do that. The second challenge is to give easy access to the genre. It's still a steep learning curve. When we released City Life in 2006, we did a small game – 76 Metacritic, while Sim City was 84. It's the difference in ambition. But we did a survey of 70,000 registered players and we discovered that 83% told us that the game was too difficult [To get into].
RPS: That's a different audience than the traditional games one. How else are they different?
Jerome Gastaldi: You look at the figures of Sim City 4, you see they sold a third of their numbers in the first twelve months. That means they sold over sixty-five percent after the first twelve months. It's not a gamers game. It's not a game people jump on. It's a game a lot of people will buy, in their own time, because of the subject... and we have a bit of the same feeling with Cities Life. We're selling just as much – not at the same price-point, but just as much. What's clear is that the learning curve is too steep because there's a lot of stuff you've got to understand immediately. The unique challenge is to ease the entrance to the game to those guys. There's a couple of ways we can do that. We're changing the builder interface, looking at RPG interfaces where you can get anything which is vital at one click. We're going to keep the dashboard obviously – as players want that – but any statistic they can have access to which is wrong with them with one click.
RPS: So, you talk about these "gems" adding extra content of the world. Tell us about this Ski-course thing you're demoing.
Jerome Gastaldi: Your goal is to make this company make money. It's linked to your city, to a certain extent. It takes electricity and recycling, for example. The company is like any other city in the city... just that you're running it. You provide activities. You build the ski-slopes, and decide what colour it is – so making this one a green slope, then people who take it won't be happy. And you'll need more hospitals nearby. That classic sort of gameplay where you're giving people what they desire.
RPS: In other words, it's a game which you can plug other games into. What about the web side of it? How will people be able to interact in the web interface?
Jerome Gastaldi: We're integrating it with full social network functionality, not because it's trendy – because we're not a trendy company – just because it truly has a purpose in the game. Think of the trading as something we want to create socially. It's not really skill based. It's something which should make people interact. The classic gameplay mechanic behind the trading is pretty simple. Every day the server will will deduct a level of inventory. The cities are producing tokens. What you're going to trade are tokens. Tokens of money, tokens electricity, tokens of engineers, tokens of labour forces. If you developed your gem-holiday resort, you'd have a token of that. You don't have to exchange resources against money – you can exchange resources against resources. You can also can just give away for free. The tokens exist for 24 hours – if you don't use them, you lose them. Why trade with others? We want to get rid of the restraint of the builder of the balancing act – which is where the fun is single player – but if a guy wants to recycle stuff for the rest of the world, so be it. Transport or trading gem – the airport, the port – which gives you the ability to trade further, but also trade them for a little longer time. Like, 2-3 days. So if you have one, you can effectively trade for profit.
RPS: What other reason do you have to trade other than specialisation?
Jerome Gastaldi: The second reason is for building the big works – buildings which you can't just build. Let's say we have the rights for – say – Old Trafford. We're not going to sell it for a building, but players will have blueprints. They can either give them away, or sell them for tokens or – if you really have a guy you don't like who wants it – say “give us twenty quid on paypal”. That'll happen, and we don't have a problem with that. We manage the rarity of the blueprints [just giving them to people]. When you start this big project, you can't build it on your own. There's too much resources. For each stage, you've got a number of resources you need to acquire for a number of days. Maybe Old Trafford would take 10 days. Effectively, you'll offer contract proposals for other players, using a search engine to find places which are compatible with what's looking for – and in the vicinity of your transport capacity. And then you issue the contract request, just dragging and dropping what you want to exchange. We want a guy to fail to make the contracted resources, and then receiving an angry e-mail from someone else. We want that kind of thing we want to happen.
RPS: So what happens if they default on a deal? That will lead to problems for the person who doesn't get their supplies.
Jerome Gastaldi: We think we have enough tools in terms of the comments they can leave to effectively do that, rather than a flag. We don't want to punish people because... some people will do it on person. Say I'm competing with you. You're number 2 and I'm number 3 in the resources. I get someone else to not send you the guys you needed to keep a project going, just so I can go one up... it's the game. If it points out every time, it's just like a schoolmaster. I think it'll be like natural selection.
RPS: You can also walk around in other people's cities. How does that work with the add-on stuff?
Jerome Gastaldi:Even if you haven't bought the gem-ski, you've got its assets. So you're able to come and visit where I'm running the gem-ski, you can see content you haven't bought yet, and you can ask people “is it worth it”. You can go and look at it, and see if you think it's something you like. For the big projects, you can go and see how it is – we really want players to see stuff they don't have. See if you like it.
RPS: Also, you give blueprints to solo players, which can be given away. That's a way to bring them into the main game, I guess.
Jerome Gastaldi: The only constraint we put on the solo players... we give them an avatar. We give them a webgame. We don't have their data, because we don't store their data, or any of the things which cost us money, because they don't pay... but we still really want them to be part of the community. We want to see what other people are doing. By giving them the blueprints to trade, we're giving them a purpose to talking to people in the communities.
RPS: So building a community is essential to what you plan?
Jerome Gastaldi: The day we're successful will be the day we're in the fabric of those guys. Those 15 webpages to check every day. They may not play for a few weeks, but the spouse is going away for the weekend and... they figure they'll give it a crack. They're not willing to spend three hours a day playing. We don't want to push them into an experience where their progression is limited to the time they have to put in. That's not this type of game. These people have more money than they have time.
RPS: The webgame talk makes me think of my time playing Travian. One thing I did like was it managed to just casually slide into my life...
Jerome Gastaldi: We looked at Travian. We looked at a lot of things. We learned a lot. But what we're talking about millions of guys who are buying builders and tycoons. What we've learned is if anyone can have a strong, negative impact on their city, they're going to pull out. That's for sure. So we need the level of interaction to be a different level to Travian.
RPS: So, the business model is basically a solo game, a 10-quid-for-three-months persistent game plus the ability to buy "gems" which give you added game. The question of how to moneterize is one thing which can be enormously tricky. Something like Hellgate got a lot of pain for how it approached it. What's your thinking?
Jerome Gastaldi: The business model must reflect what people are willing to buy. Do we a damn about microtransactions? No, we don't. But we know that the guys will pay real money for playable content. They don't expect the full scope game to come for free. Don't take a piss out of them – give a good ratio of money for playable content, and they're ready to pay for it. We want to give goodwill content – buildings which we'll produce and give for free. We did it with City Life, and it did so well for us, as people love to get free stuff. The subscription element is a different thing. We ended up with three months as we're providing a real service with real costs. Now, the question became, how long are these people going to play? They're never going to play as long as a premium MMO – which is arguably the cheapest entertaining experience per minute. But we wanted to be as inoffensive as possible. What's the price of a packet of cigarettes? What's the price of a shitty game you'll play for two hours on your phone? That's where we're coming from. If we sell for that price, something that offers several hours of experience, people won't mind. I don't think we're taking the piss.
RPS: It strikes me the key difference is - and one place where Hellgate fell - was that people felt they were removing content which was typically viewed to be part of the experience. Conversely, in this, everything you pay for is extra on top of what a traditional City game would be.
Jerome Gastaldi: If we were leaving out content from a soloable game, we could have a back lash. But we're not going to do that.
RPS: With you taking this direction... well, I look at EA with the Sim City brand. You do this. Meanwhile they do the not-very-Sim-City-actually Sim City Societies. Do you think they've dropped the ball? Why?
Jerome Gastaldi: I think EA is a corporation has no key brand which they don't develop internally. They take care of them all. The fact that they subcontracted the SimCity DS to a Japanese developer, that they sub-contracted Societies... they're giving up. And they're giving up because Will Wright himself... well, there's been interviews where he's said that they think they've pushed it to the limits and don't think there's anywhere else to go with it. They're working on the Sims and Spore, all of which have the possibility to be a multiformat game. Sim City hasn't the potential to be a multiformat game. And we all know their thoughts on online. I think nobody is taking care of this field, neither on the tycoon label or the city-building label.
RPS: Before coming here, I was on the Quarter To Three forum, where there was a thread where people were sighing over the state of the managment genre - that there hasn't been a decent one come along in ages. Why haven't people been making them?
Jerome Gastaldi: How many studios are independent. How many can decide what game they're going to do next? There's not a lot of us and it's bloody hard work. It's so much easier to take publishers money... but to take money, they're going to ask you to do multiplatform. A world of warcraft clone, or a multiformat game. This is an area where very little money is being thrown at it. We think there's a big opportunity here.
RPS: It's interesting how the genre sort of devalued itself. Look at how the word "tycoon" was put on such a huge variety of stuff.
Jerome Gastaldi: You had fantastic games... but then you had people churning a game in two months, in the same engine with crap graphics. And that's why we don't put the word Tycoon, because it's now cheap.
RPS: It strikes me that what you're doing is a lot like what Stardock talk about. That is, trying to provide games for a specific niche. Is that the future of the PC?
Jerome Gastaldi: PC as a platform has been losing ground to the consoles. 5 years ago, you could buy a racing game on your PC... now you can't. 5 years ago, FPS were selling more on PCs, now they're not. As soon as a genre can go towards consoles, it does...which is reason one for the shrinking of the market. Reason two is WoW. WoW is swallowing hours of gametime, and that has a real impact. If you aggregate the PC market, including subscriptions and online markets, it is huge. The fact that the PC market happens both at retail and online, and has the online community reactivity which consoles are never going to have – Mr Sony or Microsoft to approve your patch in three weeks. So this is never a genre which is going to go to console. You're never going to have the input device to give the precision. And we don't believe those guys [who play this] who have vanished. We think there's a big niche out there. If you look at the NPD, those builder and tycoon games are about 8-9% of the PC market. It's not a tiny little niche. There's still a lot of life in there and we won't see the end for a long, long time.
RPS: Thanks for your time. I'll be sure to write this up immediately, and not in six months, because that'll be terribly rude.