Q&A: InstantAction pulls out of GarageGames

CEO Josh Williams details the hardcore-focused browser game service, set to go live January 2008.


Marble Blast Ultra

To most people Web browser-based games entail finding a way out of an utterly obnoxious room or punting an adorable penguin as many furlongs as possible until it lands, typically in the most gruesome fashion conceivable. However, the indie game gurus at GarageGames are hoping to change that perception with InstantAction, an online portal that promises "console-quality" games aimed at a hardcore audience.

Cyclomite will be an InstantAction launch title.
Cyclomite will be an InstantAction launch title.

Eschewing the casual-game formula, GarageGames is building InstantAction out with games that emphasize high production values. Rather than being based on Adobe Flash or similar programs, GarageGames has created the technology to enable either its proprietary Torque engine or any other game engine to work in a browser. For its users, GarageGames has built up extensive usability features including leaderboards, friends' lists, and stat tracking.

GarageGames has already signed on support from both established developers and up-and-coming indie talent. In October, Bungie cofounder Alex Seropian's Wideload Games announced it would be contributing a launch title to the service titled Cyclomite. Currently, more than 12 games are in development, and while GarageGames wasn't willing to confirm rumors that InstantAction would feature a Starsiege Tribes successor, a first-person shooter is definitely in the works for the service.

Backed by media conglomerate IAC, GarageGames plans to roll out InstantAction in January 2008. Beta testing is currently under way, and those interested in participating can sign up through GarageGames' InstantAction placeholder site.

To get a better idea of how InstantAction will deliver hardcore games through a casual-friendly medium, GameSpot recently spoke with GarageGames CEO Josh Williams.

GameSpot: So what is InstantAction all about?

Josh Williams: We're doing browser games, right? Normally when you think of that, you think casual games because that's all that exists in the browser right now. What we've been working on in the background for a couple of years is technology at GarageGames that lets you do higher-end stuff in the browser. Basically, we can do console-quality, near-console-quality games focused on core mechanics, action-oriented gameplay--multiplayer stuff with full 3D shooter graphics in a browser. We have a couple games up and running in InstantAction alpha, which we're trying to launch in early 2008. We're going to try to push it as early in '08 as we can.

GS: As far as the service itself, what kind of features are you all building in to it?

JW: Already everyone has a profile on the site, along with a friends list. With that friends list, you can go through and track what games your friends are playing. We have real-time presence information, so you can see who's online, who's offline, and what they're playing when they are online. You can invite friends to come into your party.

One of the cool things on the site is that when you have a party of players, you can move from game to game on the site together as a group. Normally, of course, you'd go navigate through one game's lobby system to hook up with your friends, and if you wanted to switch games, you'd have to pop out the disc, put in another disc, go through another lobby system, and hook back up with people, or at least people who have that game. This way, it's more like a virtual couch where you're playing together, moving from game to game. We make the whole process of inviting people to play really easy, and another thing we do is provide a URL, a link, that you can send through e-mail or instant messenger that anyone can just click on. When they click on it, they'll either join your party, or if you're live in a game session, they can actually join your game server if it's not full. The idea there is to make joining a game online as easy as watching a video on YouTube.

We have tons of other features, such as the whole idea of leaderboards and stats tracking for games will be in there early on, and over time, since this is a site online, we'll roll out more features. In the future we'll plan competitions and have official support for groups and clans and that sort of thing.

GS: So the main thing you're trying to convey with this is that it's not just Adobe Flash-style games.

JW: Right. The reason you don't see real high-end games in the browser right now is that there's no real technology to support it. You can't do much other than single-player, 2D stuff in Flash. There's [Adobe] Director, but that's not great for making high-end games. It's not really improving the technology. The technology we have allows you to develop a game as if it were for a desktop like normal. You don't have to worry about the fact that you're in a browser when you're developing a game, and you can use any engine technology you like. Of course, we make the Torque game engine, but you don't have to use Torque to make games for InstantAction and have them run in the browser and integrated with our back end system and platform. It took us a couple years to figure out this tech, but basically we allow you to render in the browser and have nice, smooth user input and controls in the browser, as well as hook up to the back end features and services like the friends list and profile and all the stats-tracking stuff through an API. When you develop for a console or platform, you get a development kit for that platform. We basically view this as a new platform for gaming--like a console for the Web. You get a development kit for this platform as well.

GS: If this is console-quality gaming, what kind of specifications will people need for their computers?

JW: This really comes down to the specifics for the game. When we say "console quality," I want to be clear--not many PCs can run Gears of War or Halo 3 like on their Xbox 360, and the whole idea with InstantAction is to get people up and running quickly. We don't want to have people sit through 3GB of download before they can actually start playing. We're not trying to create 60-hour epic games. But we can take full advantage of PC hardware. As for minimum specifications, it is going to be title-specific. We encourage developers to make their titles fall back to as wide a range of systems as possible, but [for] some games it might make sense to only support shader model 2.0 graphics cards or what have you. The same version of Marble Blast Ultra for Xbox Live Arcade runs on the 360 as on the PC. We've added 11 new multiplayer maps exclusively for InstantAction. So it's the same game running on the 360 that's running on the PC browser. When we originally ported it to the browser for InstantAction, it required shader model 2.0 hardware. Now we're working on fallbacks for it so that even though it won't look as nice, it can work on a wider range of hardware, and any developer can do that.

GS: So I guess this all adds up to a different way of thinking about browser games.

Far-future gaming.
Far-future gaming.

JW: Right, exactly. All those Flash games are really simple, they're little toy games, but it's awesome that there's so much creativity out there and really the thing that makes those games so popular even though they're so simple is that you can get a link, click it, go play and waste five minutes. If you had even better gameplay, better graphics, more compelling content that's just as accessible, those games would really break out and take off.

GS: While developing and optimizing these games for browsers, have you found one that's stood out above the others?

JW: No, working in the various browsers isn't too much different. We want to roll out with support for XP and Vista, Firefox, and Internet Explorer. And we want to support OS X too as quickly as we can. We're trying to support all the popular browsers and OSes.

GS: So once people get into these games, how are they going to be paying?

JW: There again we can be pretty game-specific. The fact that we're online lets us do all kinds of different stuff. If you're doing a normal game, you've got to stick with charging a price for the retail version or downloadable version, and then maybe a subscription fee or something. What we'll do with each game is take a look at what makes the most sense for that particular title and really what works best for gamers--what people are going to like the most. For some games, we might just stick with the unit sales thing where we're charging $10, $15, $20, or whatever it is for a title. If we're updating a game all the time, and it makes sense for that particular game, then we can do subscriptions. It might make sense that we give a game away for free, the initial version, and then sell add-on content or level packs or what have you. The cool thing about being online is that we can be pretty flexible with it, we can try different stuff and really customize it per title and figure out what works best for people that play.

GS: Will people be able to pay a standard flat fee and have access to all of the games?

JW: We thought about that, but that's not how we're thinking we'll launch it. But basically we want to talk with people who are coming to InstantAction and spending time there, playing games, and figure out what's the best model for them. If some kind of bundle package works, then we'll do it. But we're not looking that way to start.

GS: What's the turnaround time for developing these games?

JW: The development cycle for these games is typically about 12 months. Some games that we have in the initial portfolio were already under development with developers that we had relationships with already. So they might have already had six or nine months into them, and now there's only another six or nine months left to do. A lot of the titles are close to completion now, and are slated to be complete when we launch in early January or in the coming months thereafter. So a typical development cycle can range anywhere from 6 to 18 months, [and] is kind of our target range.

GS: Is it cheaper to develop these kinds of games?

JW: I think it is, partially because we bear some of the brunt ourselves, in terms of helping out with certification and QA when we work with developers. Also, for instance, with Marble Blast Ultra, it has a user interface that's all done in a Web page. If a developer chooses to make their game that way, we often help out with a lot of that work too. Also, it's just really fast and easy to develop these sorts of interfaces for the Web. It's easier than doing it the traditional way. The rest of it is pretty standard PC development costs and timelines. Although, of course, if you leverage good technology, you can save a bunch of costs and time that way, whether that be Torque or any other valid PC engine.

GS: You mentioned Marble Blast, and GarageGames has done several other casual-style games such as Minigolf Mania and Tube Twist. Where do you all stand with casual games on InstantAction?

JW: Most of the games that are on GarageGames' online store won't be coming to InstantAction. You're right, the games we've done in the past or published in the past were basically targeted at the audience that was playing downloadable games online, which has been mostly casual stuff. We've never done Bejeweled-style total puzzle games or Chess stuff or whatever. We've always had higher-end 3D stuff at least, but yeah, Minigolf Mania is a good example of a 3D game that's still very casual. That's not our goal with InstantAction. We kind of had to do those games in the past because there wasn't a platform like InstantAction that allowed us to do really compelling, core-oriented stuff online. And now there is. We really do see our main audience as core gamers and X gamers. Probably folks like you and I, who like to play core games, don't have as much time as we used to. But for me, if I can just open a URL and start playing a game for five minutes...and maybe that turns into an hour or something at work...then I'd play them, a lot.

Take a break and hop in a tank.
Take a break and hop in a tank.

GS: So with that rumor circulating of GarageGames working on a game in the vein of Starsiege Tribes, InstantAction is more geared toward these type of gamers. Have anything to say on that game, by the way?

JW: We're still sticking with our official "no comment" response for now. But, we are working on a FPS, and that's all I'll say for now.

GS: OK, so going back to how the games are smaller and quicker to develop. They seem like they might be geared toward the indie development crowd. Is that where most of the games will come from, or are you trying to attract bigger, more established developers?

JW: Yeah, we're attracting a lot of bigger, established developers. Of course, we want to support indie developers because there's tons of creativity there, and at GarageGames our philosophy's always been about helping foster independent games and game development. So certainly we're already working with some indie teams, and I'd say that's in the category of undiscovered talent--really creative, effective teams that have great game ideas that are getting them done, so we're definitely supporting that. But we're attracting a lot of pro talent, too, in established studios. A couple of weeks ago we announced Alex Seropian and Wideload Games would be doing a game for InstantAction, and we have other bigger-name developers that we'll be announcing in the coming weeks and months.

We have over a dozen games in development for InstantAction, with three or four of those being developed internally and the rest are all external--second- and third-party stuff from a mix of big-name developers. There are people who are at big studios who are sick of working on three- or four-year grinds and being just a cog in the wheel of a hundred-man team, who maybe are veterans and remember several years ago when it was still fun to make games. And they can take this as an opportunity to focus on fun gameplay, work on a project for 6, 12, 18 months, making sure the gameplay is really fun, making sure it looks sweet, get it out and find an audience, and then maybe update it over time since it's online. That's a thought that appeals to a lot of developers, too; that they can have a direct connection to their players and audience, iterate quickly online, tweak, make it better, create new content, whatever it is, which is much better than having to go dark for three years, start doing prelaunch stuff, then launch on year four, and then do an expansion pack 12 months later.

GS: So do you think we'll see big-name studios doing side projects on InstantAction? As in, while we're waiting for Gears of War 2 or whatever, Epic Games would put out some fun game in the meantime?

JW: Yeah, when you start thinking about it, there's all kinds of things you can do. One of the things when we work with a developer, even when we fund the development, we work with the developer such that they own the IP. So, one of the cool things that people can do with InstantAction, and we already have people doing this, is they can take their favorite game ideas, the IPs they most want to work on, and put it out on InstantAction. There, they can develop the core idea of it, make it look sweet, but still have the short development timeline and really get that core gameplay feeling really good. Then, if it does well and people like the idea, they can grow it into a bigger project. Whether that be another version for InstantAction and other platforms, or whether that be a boxed product for consoles or retail PC. That's a really smart way to leverage the Web, and InstantAction is a great platform for that kind of stuff. And yeah, we already have developers that are thinking in that kind of line, and I think we'll see that a lot.

GS: About this time last year, GarageGames cofounder Jeff Tunnell wrote an article essentially conjecturing how much money can be made off of Xbox Live, and it turned out that indie developers are getting, not really fleeced, but they have to pay a substantial amount to Microsoft through distribution fees and whatnot. Is this something you all are trying to change with InstantAction? As in, are you trying to make it more profitable for indie developers and help them get more exposure?

JW: Yeah, we're trying to do all those things. Of course, we're not taking potshots at Arcade or anything. Say whatever anyone wants to say about the rates and where they're moving now, but it's still been good for indies overall. Arcade is another platform that helps establish digital distribution in the minds of publishers and of gamers, which is great. It's another platform for distribution that gives developers more options, which gives them more power ultimately, so it's been a good thing over all. But for us at InstantAction, we want to go a lot farther. Not only do we offer great royalty rates to the developers that we're working with, but even when we fund a title, again we work with the developers such that they own the IP. We also do something else that is really rare, if it even happens in the industry when we fund a title. We don't make the developer work for advances on royalties. We actually pay them a fee to cover the cost of development, and then they earn royalties from day one, right from the first unit they start selling they get a royalty on. So that's been a big thing for us. In building InstantAction and taking on our investment at the company, not sacrificing those ideals was primary in all our planning and strategizing and discussions for this stuff.

GS: So do you see Xbox Live or PlayStation Network as services that can coexist with InstantAction, not as competitors?

JW: No, we don't see them as competitors. As a couple of examples, we take good titles from Arcade and PSN, and potentially even Wii Ware in the future, and when it makes sense, we can bring them to InstantAction. Likewise, when there's great games from InstantAction, whenever it makes sense, we can take those to console partners as well. We have great relationships with Microsoft, Nintendo, as well as Sony. If it makes sense for a particular title, we can do a console version, and already with a couple of the games we're funding for InstantAction, we're going to help bring to console platforms. Just thinking about it as a gamer, even if I wasn't involved in InstantAction, I'd still check it out and play games there, but I'm still going to have my Xbox, PS3, and Wii, even if I don't always have the time to actually open them up and play them.

GS: So you'd say that something that would appear in InstantAction would be comparable to something they'd find on Xbox Live?

JW: Compared to the Xbox Live Arcade portfolio, most of the games on there wouldn't even make it on InstantAction. That's not to be disparaging to anything on Arcade, but there's a lot of casual titles on there. We're not looking to do Hexic HD or something for InstantAction, that doesn't really make sense. We wouldn't really be differentiating our channel from some of the other stuff that's out there. Marble Blast Ultra is, for our example, kind of the minimum spec. So Marble Blast is multiplayer and single-player, entirely physics-based gameplay that's got 3D, shaderized graphics--fairly complicated game. Arguably, you could say it's one of the most complicated games on Arcade, or at least it was for a while. And that's kind of our min spec for InstantAction.

Marble Blast Ultra will be the minimum spec.
Marble Blast Ultra will be the minimum spec.

GS: What kind of effect do you think InstantAction will have on the indie community at large? Do you think it will help raise awareness? Do you think it will get indie developers more on the map?

JW: Yeah, we think it will help raise awareness, certainly. Also, again, it should be a great platform for games and game distribution, and a good business model that way. Every time there's another platform that comes out that's successful and works with indie developers, it puts more powers in the hands of developers. The games industry used to be ruled totally by console manufacturers and a couple of publishers, and then there were more and more publishers, and now there are more and more platforms. In the end, it's platforms and publishers competing for content. And there's always a million game ideas and a bunch of people who want to make games, and that's great. But essentially, it's easier today to be an indie developer than it ever has been, and we definitely want to help that. Yeah, we hope it has an effect on that and, of course, push the industry forward more.

GS: Just to touch briefly on the IAC/GarageGames deal: InstantAction was cited as a primary impetus behind the deal. Has that relationship been working out well?

JW: Yeah, we're superhappy about it. We spent a long time talking to IAC and a bunch of other people about funding options, because we've had this vision for creating this platform for games in the browser. But we knew we couldn't do it on our own; it just takes a lot more resources than we had on hand to get it done. Yet, again, GarageGames was founded on very strong principles, and so we weren't just going to do a money deal and sacrifice all that. It took us a long time to find a partner who got the vision we were talking about, and who was willing to work with us the way we were willing to work with somebody. It took a very wise company to see the value in working with a partner in this way.

We like the idea of working with IAC, and the main reason we wanted to work with them was they had the same plan, which is funny, for doing InstantAction as we did. They wanted to see high-end core games in a browser, and they just couldn't find anyone who got it. They talked to dozen and dozens of game companies, from traditional publishers to little indie studios, and they couldn't find anyone with the technology to do it, or really even got the vision. And when we started talking to them, it was funny because we both would say a little bit, then the other party would say a bit, and so on, and we both were talking about the same thing. And it's been great working with them since. They've basically given us the resources to help get this thing done and out there and really promote it and get it in front of people after we launch. And we've been able to learn a lot from them in terms of building a great platform.

GS: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

JW: When you think about games being online in a browser, one of the other cool things we can do is iterate quickly. Since there's a direct connection between developer and player, one of the cool things we can do is that players can have a lot of input on the direction that a game goes. Developers can try stuff out and test it online. We think that's one of the cool things that this platform will provide, too. For our games particularly that we're developing, we really want to listen to the audience. In the beta period, we'll be trying out early concepts for future games that we want to work on, throw up different types of stuff early on before it gets launched to private groups and get real-time feedback online, and have the players help us figure out what would be best to work on.

GS: That raises an interesting question. You mentioned developers may want to try out ideas on the service. Have you taken into consideration that people may not like having to pay for games that aren't really "done"?

JW: We're never going to charge for a game unless it's polished, and great and worth paying for. That'd be a horribly bad move for us to try to charge for a game that doesn't feel done. We'll never do that. But, if you bought a game or two, you could be selected for access to an early game and give feedback on it. You don't have to pay for access, that'll be free. You should be rewarded for giving feedback.

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