Q&A: Howard Marks on the new Acclaim
Some 15 years after bringing Activision back from the brink, the CEO of the resurrected publisher talks with GameSpot about history repeating itself and the age of micropayments.
Last year, Howard Marks made news by plucking the Acclaim name from the ashes of the defunct company's liquidation proceedings, dusting it off, and building a new publisher with it. But instead of following in the old publisher's footsteps, Marks announced he would be importing Korean massively multiplayer online games for the American market.
Unlike most American MMO games, the Korean games Marks is interested in importing are free to play, with revenues driven primarily by micropayments, the sale of in-game items to users for small sums of money. They would also incorporate another growing trend in the form of in-game advertising.
With its premiere title BOTS in open beta, and the follow-up 9Dragons in closed testing, Acclaim last month announced that its next game would be its first original title: a violent Korean-American collaboration titled 2Moons. The game will be a remake of a Korean MMOG called Dekaron, but it will be changed for Western audiences with the help of Shiny Entertainment founder David Perry.
Marks sat down with GameSpot in the waning hours of last week's Austin Game Conference to discuss the show, the new Acclaim, and the industry in general.
GameSpot: What's the most interesting thing you've seen or heard at this year's Austin Game Conference?
Howard Marks: To me what's interesting is that there's still a lot of disagreement among people as to what the future will look like, how people are going to play online--whether it's the casual player who plays on the Web site, the free download, or the subscription.
I think there's also a problem of nomenclature. No one really is talking the same language because there's no real set definitions of each audience, each type of play style. My view at the end of the day is it doesn't really matter because it's the player who should vote with their dollars and their playtime as to what will work. But it seems that people are very passionate, very opinionated about their own views--which is great, but it's not necessarily going to build a big industry.
GS: Does it remind you of the discussions that took place when you headed up Activision?
HM: It's identical. When I [purchased] Activision in '91, people said, "You're crazy. It's a dead brand. You're never going to make it. It's too late," or whatever. So our view was, "No, it's not, because we're going to walk away from the cartridge business." And we decided to go into the CD-ROM business. At that time, the only way you could sell a CD-ROM was inside of a box [with the CD drive]. And then eventually it became retail. And then you know the rest of the history.
GS: In your presentation yesterday, you were pretty candid saying things like, "I don't have all the answers." Were you as confident in what you were doing with Activision and CD-ROM in the early '90s as you are now with Acclaim?
HM: I don't think I was confident in '91. I don't think I knew what I was doing in '91, honestly. It sounds so silly today to say that, but that's the truth. I don't think we knew what we were doing. We had a vision, but we had a lot of doubts. And certainly we had a lot of doubts because people were telling us all the time to have doubts because we were going against the popular notion that games are played on cartridges and that that's how it is. We innovated. We tried new things.
I'm in the same position right now. I have some doubts. I have a vision but like most people when you're trying to innovate, you have some doubts. And people are coming to me talking about why it's not going to work. [But] I have a vision. I'll probably modify my vision a little bit--maybe tweak it--but at the end of the day, I'm going to go with it.
GS: You've said before that you picked up the Acclaim name pretty much for the brand recognition. Even if it kind of left on a bad note, there were so many people that grew up with the console versions of Mortal Kombat or NBA Jam that there was value in them. But a lot of the target audience that you're going for with BOTS and 9Dragons wasn't born when Acclaim was at its height.
HM: Well, with 9Dragons, they were born because 9Dragons is skewed a little older. I agree that with BOTS, we're pretty much going off to a new audience that doesn't know the Acclaim game. But their parents do know about it. That's cool. Now the truth is there's the good and the bad [associated with Acclaim], but that's still good because the ABC of brand is recognition. That's what it is. It's recognition. You need a brand that people recognize, and I think that in the age of malware, spyware, crapware, and all the other wares, brand recognition is important because there's trust.
GS: What prompted your decision to get into developing new games like 2Moons instead of just bringing over Korean games?
HM: I have access to some great talent, and to me this is a talent-driven business. It's no accident that real top talents always make the next hits or have a higher track record. This industry is very risky because it's hit-driven, and therefore you need to work with high-quality talent, people who have proven themselves who are dedicated to their craft. A guy like David Perry has proven himself so many times over at producing hits, understanding gamers, challenging gamers with some new game play, I thought, "This would be a great way for Acclaim to come back," and really go back to their old days. Mortal Kombat was a huge innovation because they took a violent game and put it in the hands of teenagers. It was a huge innovation. It was leading-edge stuff.
GS: Is that a good thing though?
HM: Should we rate our entertainment? I don't think we need to. Let the parents and let the kids decide. If the parents are not happy with teenagers playing that game, they should not let them play that game. It's their responsibility. They shouldn't be watching HBO at night.
GS: But it's fine for companies to make violent games and target them at children--?
HM: As long as you're honest about what's in it. If you're not honest about what's in it, like [Grand Theft Auto], I don't agree with that. I agree that you can provide violence like you do it on TV, you know, Blade and all that stuff you read about, but you have to be very clear, up front, and honest about what it is. So with 2Moons, we are telling people, "This is a mature game, just 17 and over," and we're honest and we say, "This game contains profanity; it contains blood and violence and gore."
GS: Are games with blood, profanity, and gore like that common in Korea? Have they been tried?
HM: Well, it has been tried and it's worked, but it's not common. It's a niche. Let me put it this way. Mortal Kombat innovated over Double Dragon, Tekken, and all the other games because they gave you some kill moves that were very aggressive. And that one innovation was good enough for people to think that this is a cool game. MMOs today are sugar-coated, nicely taken care of where you usually don't see blood, and there's usually less action, more a process of a quest, and we think that's great.
With 9Dragons, that's what we are offering people. But that's not for everybody. And I think 2Moons is the same thing. 2Moons is not for everybody. 2Moons is for those gamers who like very aggressive gameplay with gore.
GS: Have you run into many challenges having an American developer overseeing a Korean development team?
HM: Oh, it's tough. It's challenging because you have the 10,000-mile barrier and in some ways, a language barrier, as well. But the reason we did this one is because David and Mr. [creative partner Sunghun] Baek really gelled. They got it. They figured out each other and they figured out what David can bring to the table. And they have so much respect for Western game designers, especially a guy like David who's done so many hits and so many games. And then David has a lot of respect for Mr. Baek because even though he's younger and less experienced than David, he brings some experiences that David doesn't have. And David loves that.
GS: What previous games has Mr. Baek done?
HM: This is his first game. He's done another game that didn't come out. So this is his first commercial game.
GS: Have you considered bringing any of your titles to the console markets?
HM: We would love to do that. We are dying to do that, to bring it to the next-generation consoles.
GS: If you're dying to do it, what's the holdup?
HM: I would say the holdup is we don't want to be in the retail-distribution business. So we would have to find a partner to do it because right now, [Microsoft] is telling me that they're limiting [Xbox Live Arcade games] to 50MB even though the demos can go up to 1GB or more. It's a little strange. I'm not sure I understand that, but that's how it is today.
GS: Are the manufacturers too strict as gatekeepers as to what gets onto their consoles?
HM: Oh, absolutely--50MB is kind of an arbitrary number and that's not enough to give you a good experience in a real multiplayer game. In a single-player game or a small, very casual multiplayer game, absolutely, that's more than enough. But for a game like BOTS, which is more like an MMO, it's just not enough. We need more.
GS: Thanks a lot.
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