Alex St. John Interview

By David Craddock, Apr 12, 2007 10:00pm PDT

In the first of our two-part interview with Alex St. John, we heard from the former Microsoft evangelist about the creation of DirectX, the wild parties he threw in order to lure developers over to the Windows development environment, and other sordid facts about his Microsoft days. In this follow-up interview, Alex discusses his casual/"light-hardcore" game company, WildTangent, and discusses his philosophies on game design.

Shack: Part of your campaign to lure more games over to Windows dealt with showing developers that the environment was easy to use. Microsoft seems to be applying that same strategy with XNA Game Studio and Game Studio Express, the latter of which is supposed to make development of games quick and fun for enthusiast game developers. Do you see kits such as this one as a step in the right direction for the casual games market, which seems to be more in tune to what you're into these days?

Alex St. John: What we consider casual gaming really doesn't need anything from XNA to work. There's a new domain of gaming that's emerging that XNA is probably relevant to, which we call "light-hardcore." If you think of casual games as 10-20 megabyte download, little 2D games with a few snazzy 3D effects or something. When you get into light-hardcore games, you're getting into 50-200 megabyte games with 3D production values. I think this is an emerging genre where XNA might be more relevant. That's the sort of stuff you'd see on Xbox Live Arcade, and it's probably more the kind of stuff that'd be brought online to the PC as well.

I've actually tried the XNA stuff, and WildTangent very early on put out a 3D engine for games, and what we found was that there was a huge number of developers and college kids who downloaded the technology and made use of it because it was a good way to learn how to build a game. However, very few of them were capable of producing commercial quality content. And so, some of that stuff you kinda go, yeah, it's neat, and people who want to learn how to [write] games will get interested, but I doubt that it will result in a lot of compelling commercial games.

Shack: Probably better to just go out and get some books, maybe take a few classes or something?

Alex St. John: Yeah that's probably true. I've tried it, and I've got some friends that have tried it, and we agree that it presents a nice environment to learn how to attempt writing a game. From the point of view of being an interesting educational tool, it probably has some value, I'm just not sure that it has great commercial value.

Shack: Speaking of WildTangent, how did that come about? Seems like something very different from being so high-up at Microsoft.

Alex St. John: You know, that's a funny story. I left Microsoft, I was burned out, so I decided to take a long vacation before I even thought about what I was going to do next. My past came back to haunt me in the form of Chrome Effects, a browser that I built the prototype for before I left Microsoft. What it was, Microsoft was very aggressive about winning the browser wars with Netscape. The DOJ trial and all that stuff hadn't occurred yet, so Microsoft was in the "Crush Netscape" mentality. Myself and the same guys who built DirectX had built an architecture for a super multimedia browser. Think of it as Internet Explorer with Flash and 3D DirectX graphics, all integrated and scriptable, and you kind of have an idea as to what we were working on.

That project took off at Microsoft after I left. The guy who was running it, Eric Engstrom, who led the DirectX development for the first five generations, called me and said, "Hey Alex, this Chrome Effects browser is close to launching, but we're having some trouble marketing it. I need you to come back [to Microsoft] and help us launch it." I said, "There's no way I'm coming back to Microsoft, and I'm pretty sure they wouldn't want me back." And he said, "Nope, all sins are forgiven. We've gotta get you back here, we really need your help." But I was adamant. So he said, "Well, what if you started a consulting firm and I just hired you as a consultant? Just help me get it launched. You owe me, you got me into this."

So I founded WildTangent, Ltd. as a consulting firm to help him out because I got guilt-tripped into it. Basically, WildTangent started out as myself working with Microsoft's marketing to help design marketing programs to help launch this new super browser. Then Eric said, "You used to do the launch events, get demos created, and prep [Bill] Gates on everything. We need you to do that [for the Chrome Effects project] as well. Get the demos made, we'll take care of the money." So I ended up hiring a friend from the United Kingdom I worked with to run my development, and we worked out of Microsoft offices. I hired some 3D game guys, and some web guys, and we built these Chrome Effects marketing materials for Microsoft. I was basically assuming that this was going to be a relatively short-term gig. I'd get the thing launched, then I would go back to retirement with a clear conscience that I'd helped Eric execute the project I'd gotten him into.

The big hitch with Chrome Effects was that the technology that Microsoft developed was very cool, but it was also way ahead of its time in terms of what computing power was available during that period of time. The problem they had was that the technology was really cool, but it didn't work well on a modern machine. Machines that came out a year or two from then would really rock Chrome Effects hard, but at that time it [Chrome Effects] just wasn't ready to perform. So our question was, how do we get this into the market so we have an opportunity to iterate on it within a year without everyone saying, "What the hell, this thing is really slow." How do we position this thing? We knew were doing something innovative, and I think that you don't have to make a big commitment to telling the world what it's initially good for. All you have to do is say, "We're being innovative, we're pioneering online stuff. We're enabling a whole new domain of web design applications, so let's keep it about being cool, innovative, and fun without having to promote why consumers would need [Chrome Effects]."

Jokingly, I said, "Hmm, it's really cool, you want to have it, it's kinda clunky and buggy initially, and it's made in America. Sounds like a Harley." So I figured what we should do is go get a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and since the browser is called Chrome Effects, we should have the bike made from solid chrome, just ridiculously overpowered: turbo charged, nitro boosters, interior illumination.... Basically just go crazy on it. Then we'd have the bike modeled in 3D. So when the beta of Chrome Effects is sent to developers to check out the technology, we'd use the Harley Davidson roar and have our bike go jetting across the screen. That's how we positioned Chrome Effects early on. You hold off on the topic of "How practical is this?" until you've had time to show off the cool aspects of the technology.

Microsoft marketing said, "We love it, let's do it." So we had a $5000 custom Harley bike made for Microsoft. Gates and [Steve] Ballmer would ride it on stage when they showed off Chrome Effects, booth babes would pose with it, we'd use it for press photo opportunities, all this stuff. The idea was a year after Chrome Effects had launched, Microsoft would hold a big event and give the bike to whoever designed the coolest Chrome Effects website [a year after the technology was released]. It was Microsoft being hip and fun rather than making a statement about Chrome Effects's practical uses. The bike was made, it was shown, the executives rode it, Ballmer used it at events, all kinds of stuff.

Right on the verge on shipping this new super browser, two things happened. The first thing was that Microsoft lawyers said, "All this stuff is great, but there's no way we can give away our motorcycle like this. The thing is turbo charged to something like 168 horsepower. If some kid wins it and drives it into a wall, we'll be sued for millions. We just can't give it away." So Eric says to me, "Alex, you gotta help me out again. I need a separate legal entity to run this contest [to give the bike away]. I'm going to assign the bike to you, and you'll run this event. I'll make sure you get the necessary funding to get everything done." WildTangent, Inc. accepted the bike, and we went through a whole legal process to give away this bike as part of the contest.

So now we're all set, right? Nope. Just as all of this is about to launch--within weeks--the DOJ trial hits. The anti-competition stuff isn't a joke anymore, it's for real, and it's going to cost billions and we'll be under all this public scrutiny. So Microsoft decided they weren't going to ship Chrome Effects, they were going to bury it, because launching this super powerful browser with the intention to kill Netscape would just make matters worse. Furthermore, they wanted Eric to be one of the witnesses testifying at the trial about anti-competitiveness stuff. I come into the office one day and all the contractors are clearing out their desks, everything is being shut down, people are being shoveled off to other groups, and Eric says, "Hey buddy, I'm really sorry about this. I'm gonna be off in Washington being coached by the lawyers to testify. We had to bury the Chrome Effects project. I'm sorry I got you into this, but I'll do my best when I get back in six months to get your bills through accounting--but hey, in the meantime, enjoy the bike!"

Shack: Oh, man.

Alex St. John: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. I'm standing there going, "What the hell?" Microsoft owed me maybe $300,000 in contracting fees and, of course, it's always a struggle to get stuff through their accounting, and although Eric said he was going to do that, he wasn't going to be around. So I have WildTangent, Corp. I have a team of people that's really good at building web-based 3D content, and I've got a chrome Harley Davidson--which is sitting in our lobby to this day, by the way. I hang stuff on it. But anyway, at that point I was having a pretty good time doing this stuff, so the idea of disbanding everything and going back to retirement... well, I basically thought, "Man, this is so much more fun than just doing nothing." I mean how often do you get an interesting new market opportunity in an emerging space like the Internet where you're the expert, and you can be pretty sure Microsoft won't compete with you?

Turn to page 2 to hear more from Alex St. John.

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Shack: What was WildTangent's first game that really put you on the map?

Alex St. John: There was an interesting progression of those. There were several games. One of the things I realized from Chrome Effects was that all this graphics technology is really cool, but the only well-understood commercially valuable application for this kind of technology is gaming. There might be other practical things like stock tracking or map building--like Google Maps has today--but it was unproven at that time. I know a lot about the games business, and what I figured back then was that the industry would shift from boxed content to being broadcasted like television. If you look at gaming as a new medium, in its very earliest most maiden stages of development, it's going to move from being this static medium to something that's broadcasted into people's homes like television. The business model and content will be very different from the kind of movie theater model the games industry is in now. It's not going to be Halo 2, a complete game, it's gonna be episodic.

I thought to myself, "I'm going to invent the new publishing models for game publishing on the Internet. I'm going to be at the forefront of gaming when people start to stream it or download it rather than buy it in a box." We started out very early with the recognition that one of the principle components of our strategy would be advertising. We said, "What's happening is, gaming is becoming a dominant media type. A lot of people, especially young men, are spending more time playing games rather than watching television, and advertisers are going to want to get involved." So we decided to form an infrastructure for streaming games online with advertising built around that. The very first games we made were 3D games that were just sort of tech demos to see if they would work.

The first game in that category that we made that generated enormous attraction was a game called Gem Master, a Tetris-like game with 3D spinning gems written in Java. We put it up on the website and we took bets on how many downloads a day it would generate, just by throwing it online. It started out with no traffic, no marketing, no Google keyword searches to help us out, we just threw it out there. Eventually it got about 25, 50 downloads a day, and within a few months it had climbed to 1500 downloads per day. Over a period of a few years it reached tens of thousands of daily downloads, and we considered that proof that the idea of building games in that manner could work, and could generate what we called "viral distribution."

The very first game that gave us a business model, probably the most significant one, was a game we released in early 2001. It was the first 3D streaming advertisement game ever released on the Internet, and it was called Toyota Takoma Adrenaline. Not surprisingly, our first customer was Toyota--and Microsoft. The deal was, Microsoft GameZone would take the media buy for a 3D Toyota off-road racing game and tie it to the Takoma Adrenaline TV campaign. The game was written in Java, and it streamed real-time ads from MSN into the game, so it was also the first game to stream ads from the Internet. It had an enormous number of players, it was a great success, and that really launched WildTangent. By 2005, we were doing [hundreds of thousands of dollars] a year in advertising game campaigns, building "advert" games for Pepsi, Chrysler, Coca-Cola, and all these folks, and hosting campaigns for them. We had over one hundred people building these games. We were the largest [advert game company] on the market, and I think at that point in time, in that area, we hit over 100,000,000 game downloads. It was a very lucrative business.

However, the problem was that it was very hard to scale that business. For every advertising customer we wanted to take on, we had to have another game team to build another original game for that company. We very quickly realized that even though we were very successful, there was a very large gap that kept us from going from a 10 million dollars a year business to a 100 million dollars a year business, as a custom game studio for advertisers. We faced a major business transition at that point.

Shack: It's funny you mentioned a Tetris-esque clone as the first game that got you started, because that seems to be one of the first games that all budding developers, professional or otherwise, strive to emulate. On that note, what other games would you say are responsible for giving you and your employees some of your inspiration?

Alex St. John: The main thing that changed for [WildTangent] was that we decided to move away from advert games, publishing games electronically that were supported by advertisers but were really not meant for consumer purchase. We evolved our studio away from building games for advertisers to building games like Fate, a Diablo clone. We were actually doing both advert and public games for a time. The thing is, when you make an online game, you don't have to wait six months for the thing to get put in a box, you don't have to sell it through a channel. You can make something, throw it out there, and if people like it you can make it better; if they don't, you can dump it on and move on to a different idea.

One of the fundamental philosophies we developed early on is that a game designed for online distribution should be stemmed in a very simple gameplay premise, can be executed very quickly by a small team--no more than two or three people--over six months. If you invest more [team members] than that, you're making a big mistake, because you probably picked an idea that was too big to execute well. We wanted ideas that could be completed with six months, then put online to find out if people like it and if so, make appropriate changes to release an even better version. That changes the philosophy of game design dramatically.

What we look for in the way of ideas is, we hire people who have a real passion for game design, who have ideas for games that they want to make, and the nice thing about our business is that we don't have to do anything traditional. We can take risks in game design that others are afraid of because we're not talking about gambling a 5 million dollar budget, we're talking a few hundred thousand bucks. A lot of our best titles are usually made by junior developers who did not necessarily come from a traditional game industry background who just love making a playing games. We surround them with talented game artists, and we say, "Hey, if you've got talent and an idea you're excited about, go ahead and take a stab at it." We'll give them some feedback in the ways of, is it refined enough, does it need more or different content.

Fate, the game I mentioned earlier, is a great example. Fate was developed in six months with one engineer, and we had about 70 contract artists working on it. The engineer just loved Diablo and wanted to try making something like it in a lighter form. He just said, "I'm gonna go for it," and at the time, there was no evidence whatsoever that a game that complex could perform solely online. But we said, "You know what? You do great work, we believe in your enthusiasm and your sense of game design. Go for it." We've got 300 titles in our catalogue--Fate is 2 years old, and is our number one selling title. It outsells Scrabble, outsells Bejeweled, all those others games.

Again, our general philosophy is to hire talented, passionate folks who have ideas that they're in love with that they want to make and turn loose, then we give them some supervision and guidance in terms of how to refine what they're doing into something that has commercial value.

Turn to page 3 to hear more from Alex St. John.

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Shack: It seems a lot of people claim that WildTangent plugin bundles contain adware or spyware. Alex, what's that all about, man?

Alex St. John: Yeah, what is that all about? It's silly is what it is, and it's absolutely never been true. The problem is, our technology, when we first launched it, was just like a Flash player, except it was for 3D games. Nobody understood how the technology works for streaming games. If you want to deliver a streaming game, what you have is technology that you download first, and it looks at your hardware and says, "What assets do I need to run on this particular hardware?" For a streaming game, you only bring down the assets that are needed to run reliably on a particular machine. What the technology did is it came down, looked at your machine, then called up the server and said, "All right, I need these graphics, these sounds, and this game code." So what you're doing is running a little background process that calls the information from the server into the game.

The trouble is, in situations where there was a lot of spyware installed on people's computers, pop-ups and stuff, anything that's running any kind of background process is suddenly called spyware. People saw ads popping up on their machine from genuine spyware that they got somewhere, and they don't know what it is. The spyware's hiding, they can't even identify it. So they say, "Okay, what's running? I see these five processes... ah! I imagine that WildTangent must be the source of that!" Which around a hundred million people did because our games are widlly popular. We got hit really hard by accusations. All we were able to say was, "We don't distribute spyware, here's how our technology works, here's our privacy statement, we're a real company."

The problem is, real spyware guys lie and point consumers in our direction, since the suspicion is already there. How can you establish trust with a consumer base that's being lied to all the time? We had hard times, and it was especially frustrating because the guys making the anti-spyware stuff are getting bombarded by complaints all the time, and they don't look at our product and say, "No, this stuff's just streaming games. WildTangent keeps a good privacy policy, they're just a company making video games." They just go, "Eh, well it'll just be spyware, too." It was a frustrating experience for us. The only thing we could do is give the consumer as much control as possible, explain to them exactly how our technology works, have a clear privacy statement, make it easy to uninstall absolutely everything.

We've never been spyware, never allowed pop-up ads, never spied on a user or tracked any personally identifiable information. Never did any of those things, never installed without the user's express permission, never had anything that sneaked back onto the user's hard drive after WildTangent software had been uninstalled. A lot of that is just Internet rumors. You do your best to counter it, but at the same time you have to be understanding of people not having a lot of trust in the Internet because they're getting fucked over with real spyware. It's a shame because it did a lot of damage to us. We really are a game company. Advertising is in there, but you always had to explicitly download, for example, a game we made for Coca-Cola. I've always felt like we've been good little game development citizens, we've done our absolute best to be clean.

Shack: Well, while I was researching you, I read about the rumors and accusations, and all I could think was, "This is a huge videogame company. How could they have gotten away will all of this spyware stuff if it were true?"

Alex St. John: Yeah! I really appreciate the opportunity to clear my name. It's absolutely silly nonsense, never been true. I deny everything! We make games, our business isn't selling personal information.

Shack: It just makes sense. I mean, WildTangent is so huge that if you were guilty, wouldn't you have gotten busted by now?

Alex St. John: Exactly. We ship so many products. We're Dell, Hewlett Packard, and Compaq's game publisher. We carry so many games on all PCs from those companies shipped in the United States. These companies would not put spyware on their machines. It's just absurd.

Shack: Do you still get to spend time coding, or are you too busy "steering the ship?"

Alex St. John: The funny thing with being a CEO is, I have management overhead, so I'm not allowed to be an engineer anymore. However, I code just about every week. My system is a 2GHz Dell XPS with 2GB of RAM running the latest version of Microsoft Visual Studio, and I write DirectX artificial intelligence and game code just about every; I just don't show it to anybody all that often.

Shack: So you do it just to keep in practice?

Alex St. John: Yeah, kind of. I do it just to do it. I'm an engineer at heart, so it really doesn't have as much to do with keeping up as it has to do with loving it. The funny thing is, I'm in business meetings all the time, negotiating contracts and managing money, greeting people all day. When I finally go home to relax, I make games.

Shack: Is that something you look for in recruits? I imagine you don't want to hire people who just complete assignments, who only do what they have to do.

Alex St. John: That's the real test of a gamer. Some of the best talent we've ever gotten are kids who taught themselves to code and just want to make games--and they kick ass at that. In many respects, a love and passion for gaming and for game development is the first job requirement. And then, you know, degrees, education, stuff like that, is at number two [requirement].

One of the first interview questions we ask when we have a college graduate come in is, "All right, you did all your homework, you got a 4.0 grade point average, that's great--now show us the games you made on your own. Not homework, not big projects you were assigned to do; show us what you make in your free time." If the answer is a blank stare, or a fumbling, "Well, I, uh...." They're never gonna make great games. They're not gonna have a passion for it, they don't have the mind for it, and their skill set becomes irrelevant. We look for people who just can't help making games, because they're the ones who are going to do a really great job.

Shack: That answer isn't too surprising, considering you and formal education never really saw eye-to-eye.

Alex St. John: [Laughs]

Shack: What do you say to those who really want to be a part of the game industry some day, but don't have a lot of education, just some experience and a lot of drive? Does your educational background influence some of your hiring decisions?

Alex St. John: I think that my background should certainly stand as a testament that you can go really far in life with no formal education. I don't even have a high school diploma! I am a mutant in that I was home-schooled in Alaska by my parents for sixteen years, and then I did a swing through college but ultimately, I can from some an exotic educational background that it was just too hard to fit in. Essentially, I was one of those kids that didn't need education, and yeah, that's why I keep an eye out for that same drive and passion in new hires. I understand technology really well because I have an enormous irresistible passion for it; I just can't help learning. I found that, in the end, in the real world, when it comes to being innovative, and making real products that actually sell, that passion and drive is far more valuable than all the college credentials you can possibly earn.

Now, that doesn't mean that stupid people can do good work. Just being a college dropout, or high school dropout, doesn't qualify you to be a success at life. I really mean that. There's a subset of folks, the reason they don't have a formal education is because they have a weird up-bringing like I did, or for whatever reason they were just so passionate they just pursued that passion and found a successful career. One of the best 3D engine guys we have was a grocery bag boy before we hired him. He built a lot of our games with technology that was used by a lot of people. The guy who did Fate, his background was in farming. He has an art degree, and when we hired him, he was [living at home] killing himself to make an RTS game using DHTML and HTML scripts with Java Scripting. He was desperately trying to figure out how to make games even with the most primitive tools available to him. We brought him on board, we put him next to 3D guys with game industry experience, and taught him how to go for the gusto. Seven years later, he's making games like Fate on his own.

The advice I have to give is this: education is one way of getting the proper background and expertise needed in order to pursue a passion in gaming. There are other ways, as I've learned, to pursue that passion and become successful as well. Online publishing is just such a market, because there, what you do counts for more than what your resume says.

Turn to page 4 to hear more from Alex St. John.

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Shack: Did you ever find your lack of formal education to be any sort of barrier?

Alex St. John: I was very, very insecure about that when I first entered the workforce. I saw myself in terms of all the things I didn't know that other people did. A lot of the success I have came from that sense of inadequacy on my part, and the urge to overcompensate for [my lack of a formal education]. I worked and studied very hard, and I also quickly discovered that my unique point of view was a tremendous advantage. I perceived, coming from a nontraditional background, that a lot of people were used to being spoon-fed knowledge. The idea of picking things up and figuring them out on their own weren't comfortable with that. They were used to the idea that people teach them, they don't just go and figure it out. I quickly realized that was a tremendous advantage for me. I was fortunate to be born in a high-tech era, where people could come in and create entirely new market opportunities in technology.

For me, it was not an obstacle at all. In fact, I feel like I moved my career exceedingly quickly because of my strange background. Being a very fast learner, a self-motivator, and being very dynamic in terms of how I thought about things was an advantage. In retrospect, I look back and see that I am very fortunate to have the background I do because it gave me an unfair advantage of those who came from traditional education. That's not true in all contexts, but in the situations I found myself in, it was very beneficial.

Shack: So "learn by doing" is essentially your life's mantra?

Alex St. John: Yep. Go, just do it, just teach yourself. I've got a programmer who's 15, 16 years younger than I am, and he grew up in a traditional education background. He'd say, "I really want to own my own company one day like you do, so I figure I should go work for a while, get some experience, develop some contacts, then maybe when I feel comfortable enough, start a business." I told him, "Hey, I hate to tell you this, but none of that will actually prepare you for the pain of running your own company. My advice to you is, you're young, just try it. You'll probably fail and it'll hurt like hell, and you won't make much money, but my experience is, the only thing that teaches you how to run a company is to just do it." And he's done that, and he's doing tremendously well.

Shack: How important do you consider casual and "light-hardcore" gaming to be for the industry, and where do you see those genres headed in the future?

Alex St. John: One of the things I love about the games business, it's always changing. The market is evolving so quickly that essentially, whatever you know today is wrong. The next big thing is guaranteed to be different from whatever was used to sell games today or the day before. If you think about it, in 1993 when I was in Microsoft, Doom was the biggest thing ever in gaming. Then followed a whole generation of first-person shooters, but overall, Doom held the true innovation in gaming. Today you look around and see MMOs like World of WarCraft. Nothing like a first-person shooter. Hard to imagine, back in 1993, that a game like World of WarCraft could ever have been imagined. I love the games industry because it's a business of innovation. You have to create new things, new ideas, because doing the same thing over and over is bound to lead to failure.

One of the things I think will happen to the games industry--in fact, I think it's happening now--is, I think a lot of what we know about the games industry will get buried pretty quickly. The traditional PC game business is collapsing. It went from a 2.2 billion dollar software business in the 1990s to less than a billion dollars last year--and it's still shrinking. What's happening is, the market is moving from single-player 3D games being the compelling thing to games becoming competitive in terms of how accessible they are to a broader audience, and how much community and social dynamics they support. What you see emerging is that the games business is moving online.

Today, online gaming on the PC is bigger than the hardcore, boxed PC game business. All the money's moved to online. We're moving right out of the cardboard boxes and onto the Internet. The models are changing, many based on subscriptions like you see in World of WarCraft. We've got advertising models based on around free play, and it's becoming based on people paying for downloadable games. I sell thousands of games a day to people using credit cards. There aren't any bags or boxes involved. When you see that drain happening on the PC, what you realize is, that's going to happen to the whole industry. It's gonna take a while, longer for the consoles, but that's what's going to happen to them. It's like drive-in theaters in the 1950s. All the real money in the video industry--advertising and all that--moved to television.

I think a lot of traditional gamers who are real excited about a PlayStation 3's or Xbox 360's graphics capabilities, or the Nintendo Wii's controller, are focused on that more traditional world of boxed games that have great graphics. As they're doing that, all around them, all the money is moving online. The next generation games they want to play will be online, the most successful content and stories will be associated with online community play. I suspect that what we build in the games industry today will be nothing compared to what we create 5 years from now. 5 years from now, everybody will say, "My dad's still buying boxed games!" Everyone else will be playing games with community-based content and distributed via the Internet. That's where the market will shift.

Shack: So you see topics such as episodic games to be the next big thing?

Alex St. John: Yeah. Digital distribution certainly will be. Episodic gaming is a model for digital distribution. I won't claim to say that the model will work better than something else because there'll be a lot of experimentation going on, but digital distribution is definitely the next big thing. A major barrier in this market, digital distribution, is that traditional retail games are growing in size faster than a typical home's available bandwidth. So tomorrow's games will be 40 gigabytes or whatever in size, and you'll still be on, probably, a megabit of bandwidth in your home, on average.

What will happen is, the ability to deliver those games will be diminished. And what will happen is, again to compare to television, maybe the content will be episodic, or maybe it will just be formed differently. Fate, as an example, is interesting because it's a game designed inherently for online delivery. Fate is 28 megabytes, and yet the game has bottomless content. No two levels are the same. If two different people install Fate on their machines, they'll have different dungeons, all the monsters and items, quests, will be different. So what you have is a game with moderate production values that is built in a way to have endless play, designed for online distribution, and highly compact. What I think will happen is, your idea of what a game is will change because games will be built differently. There will still be that market for big, fat, art-heavy titles that need to ship on a blu-ray disc, but most of the money in gaming will come from new types of content that you might not be able to imagine today, but they're created for the online marketplace. Maybe some of that stuff will be episodic, but I actually believe the games just won't look like anything you're familiar with.

The industry is at a cliff where, it's very hard to imagine what these new games will look like. The only thing you can be sure of is that they don't look like the games you understand now. Whatever preconception you have of what a game can and should look like are wrong. I'm fortunate, because I believe I have somewhat of an idea of what the new type of games will look like because I've been in online publishing for a long time. What I've learned is, the dynamics and the way we think of game design is just different. You don't compare a Seinfeld episode, running at a half an hour, to a half hour of Titan the movie; the two just aren't comparable.

Shack: Because the episode of Seinfeld has a conclusion, whereas Titanic you're only half an hour in?

Alex St. John: Exactly. And the other thing to think about is, is 3 hours of Seinfeld more or less valuable than 3 hours of Titanic? That's hard to say, because Seinfeld generated its revenue from people getting television subscriptions for something like $79.99 a month, so how much advertising has been packed into those 3 hours of Seinfeld? You can't compare that to going into a movie theater and watching Titanic. The content is different, the business model is different, the only thing you know is Seinfeld is nothing like a movie. The amount of money generated by television is vastly larger than the amount of money made by movies. Everything's different.

Shack: To conclude our last interview, I wanted to get your opinion of yourself. In Renegates of the Empire by Michael Drummond, he describes you as, "A rogue soldier who never understood how to follow orders and never paid much attention to chain of command." Do you think that's an embellishment?

Alex St. John: [Laughs] No, that was totally true at that time. That's a fair characterization of me when I was first starting out.

Shack: What about now? Are you still a "rebel," or have you calmed down a bit?

Alex St. John: You know how parents say, "I hope you have kids one day?"

Shack: Oh yeah.

Alex St. John: I think I'm being paid back for all my crimes during my youth, being a boss now! I still love being creative and innovative, but I probably am a little bit more refined, and definitely, when I look back, I think, "It was pretty funny, creating all the stuff I did, but on the other hand, there were probably more effective ways of getting things done that didn't require burning as many bridges as I did." I would like to think I'm more refined in my renegade attitude.

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Comments

  • David,
    Kudos - a great interview, and quite well done. Having been along for the ride with Alex, I can vouch for the candid nature of his answers (though I might quibble with a detail or two and Alex knows which ones, <grin>).

    This is a better look at what happened and what we accomplished than either of the books that tried to cover this topic, because this interview managed to reveal the human side of him that I'll always remember fondly.

    Though it does miss some of the details...

    == the WinG effort which led to the personality driven split and eventual public feuding with Chris Hecker

    == the fight over the driver architecture with Michael Abrash who then went to id Software

    == the immense help we had from some specific great people in the industry like David Stafford, Zach Simpson, John Miles, et al (and you know who you are if I forgot to mention you specifically!)

    == the fight with Intel over NSP which threatened the "WINTEL" duopoly

    == how neither Alex or I would have had a leg to stand on if it weren't for Craig Eisler being the DirectDraw code writing demon from hell (which we even managed to get him to dress up as for our Judgment Day Game SDK launch event) PS All of you Watcom compiler fans from the early 90s now should know why after Craig left Watcom it went downhill .... Craig is and always will be my personal coding hero

    There are many more interesting tales and legends to delve into that do illustrate how and why there is a [Direct]Xbox.



  • Great interview! I hadn't heard of Alex before now, but he looks like someone to watch.

    As for PC gaming, is it really any wonder it has declined in relation to consoles? How can the PC game industry compete with consoles when PCs cost 2000 dollars to play a newly released game well, when consoles cost 1/4th of that? It's surprising to me the PC games industry has done as well as it has. The barrier to entry is HUGE for PCs. It has nothing to do with being online.

    Its also is the whole reason "casual" games are considered casual is because they are budget titles. It's not their download size that matters so much, it's that they require very little in the way of graphics hardware, and can be played on almost any computer. The games themselves are cheap. Valve's Steam has shown that even AAA, huge games are easily distributed online.

    I would think that the really important part of online games is not "instant gratification". I bought a game a few weeks ago on Steam on a whim. It was easy, because I don't have to go buy the game or install it. All I have to do is click a few buttons and in a few hours it will have downloaded and I will be able to play it.

    I think the biggest advantage to online distribution is not instantly getting what you bought, but the ease in buying it. People are going to be willing to wait a few hours, or even a few days, to play a big budget game if they can afford it. They'll download the "casual" games if they're computer is crap and/or they are strapped for cash. No one says, hmm I could buy Civilization IV, or I could buy Pacman. Well I can download Pacman in 2 seconds so I'll get that!

    And that's really the difference here: budget. Even in the future when we can dowload at 25 gigs a second, if it still takes 10-20 million to make a "next gen" game, there is going to be a market for the games that cost 10,000 dollars to make.