Q&A: Turbine's new LA chief, Jason Bell
New head of the developer's SoCal operation talks about focusing on game development and breaking into the Asian market.
Jason Bell must have had his hands full these past three years at Atari. As senior VP of creative development, Bell was part of the executive team that brought a number of big-budget, high-profile games to market: "And for the past year, I managed a portfolio of stand-alone products aimed at the mass market and was in charge of Atari's global move into the massively multiplayer space," he says with pride.
Strangely, the Atari Web site still lists Bell among its corporate executives. The fact is, Bell left the Terminator and Enter the Matrix publisher almost two months ago. Today he popped back into view when it was announced that Turbine had tapped Bell to head up its new, LA-based studio.
GameSpot spoke with Bell shortly before today's news was announced and asked him to explain how the new operation fits into Turbine's plans of growth, not just in the North American market, but on a global scale.
GameSpot: How much of the new West Coast facility will be devoted to game development?
Jason Bell: In cooperation with Turbine/Boston, we'll be working on some development projects. We've already talked generally about doing an expansion pack for [the original] Asheron's Call, and that's probably what we're going to be focusing on out here. It's going to be a small studio for the first year. We're not going to have a huge group of developers. We'll be focusing our efforts on designing and developing an expansion pack with external staff as well. The leads will be in the LA studio.
GS: And in addition to game development?
JB: It's also going to be the real spear point for biz-dev in Asia. We're going to be spending a lot of time on planes, looking at Korea and China.
GS: What's the potential upside that can come out of greater ties with the Asia market?
JB: There's an enormous amount of potential in Asia, obviously with D&D Online. Everyone we've spoken to in Asia-Pac is interested in D&D, also Middle Earth Online as well. But there are several different markets in China.
GS: You mentioned AC1 earlier.
JB: Because some of the machines in the rural areas are lower [spec computers], AC1 is an attractive game for some of the partners we're talking to. Although its an older product, with some changes and upgrades, it will be an appealing game for rural areas that dont have high-spec machines yet. And there's considerable interest for AC2 as well. Even a small percentage of market share in China is a significant win for Turbine.
GS: What else is behind the new operation?
JB: Another reason to open up a studio in Los Angeles is to have two locations to bring talent into. It's not always that easy to hire people into Boston. [We also intend to] capitalize on some of the relationships with the studios and other players out here in LA.
We're [also] going to be looking into [creating] new IP here. Hopefully, we'll be expanding considerably in 2005, but we're being careful for this first year.
GS: Do you plan on expanding on the MMOG base Turbine is known for?
JB: That's where Turbine's expertise is. That's where our technology is very, very strong. Almost inarguably, we have the strongest lineup for any independent studio. Sony [is strong] with Galaxies and EverQuest certainly, but if you look at our proven competencies in AC1 and AC2, and you look at MEO and D&D, I dont know who you'd stack up against us.
GS: Dark Age of ?
JB: Mythic is doing very well, obviously, but they dont have two licenses that are as high profile as MEO and D&D.
GS: Who else is coming on board in Los Angeles?
JB: John Lee [formerly of Softbank/Korea]. He's a brilliant guy, and we think he is critical to the company strategy of moving intelligently into Asia-Pacific. We dont think anyone has done it well yet, and we intend to do it as intelligently as we can.
GS: Are there plans for Turbine to bring existing Asia-Pacific properties to the US market? What can you tell us?
JB: No specifics, but yes. No one's really done that successfully at this point--including NCsoft with Lineage in North America. We think that through a combination of the right partnerships and careful joint ventures, we can find the project that will be appealing to a lighter style of gameplay here.
GS: Which means what?
JB: We're looking at products that are not as play-session, hour-intensive as the current crop of MMOGs. We think there's a market for a lighter persistent-world style of gameplay, and many of the Korean companies are succeeding extremely well at that. The product span in Korea is mature; they are probably two or three years ahead of us. We think the Korean market may very well be predictive for the US market, so we are very interested in looking at some of the lighter games that dont require a 40-hour-a-week investment of time to maintain status or have fun in the world.
GS: Will Turbine ever consider games outside of those played on a PC?
JB: Certainly we are looking at moving some of our products, present and future, to console.
GS: That's a huge statement.
JB: It's a serious move for us. Having spent three and half years with one of the world's biggest publishers, I understand how competitive and difficult that market is, so it's not something we'll do lightly, but there will end up being a convergence to some extent. Right now we're working in our proven expertise, which is PC online gaming, but certainly Turbine is going to be looking at consoles and trying to make smart decisions about how to move into that market
GS: Any interest in mobile?
JB: Very much. And we're taking that into account in the design of our games going forward. It's just going to continue to grow.
GS: Is mobile an easier move than consoles?
JB: It's a more difficult thing to go through the relationships with the console manufacturers for consoles. It's easier to see applications for mobile. You have everyone from cable operators to set-top box manufacturers to all of the telcos interested. They are aggressively moving in this direction. They see the market in Europe, they see the huge success of SMS. Everyone's known for a couple of years that this is going to be a large potential market.
GS: I'm having trouble seeing AC2 on a cell phone, Jason.
JB: Obviously, we dont intend to serve a fully graphic MMOG on a cell phone, but there are lots of applications and lots of wonderful ideas that we have on how that content can be spread out onto a different medium, through mobile. Again, this is a case where if you look at Korea, you see what's probably going to happen here in terms of accessing content--and not just accessing content within an online game, but with performing activities or buying different objects or different upgrades within the game due to the integration of all of the billing on cell phones in Korea. It's certainly going to happen here as well.
GS: Ready for the new assignment?
JB: I'm just thrilled, particularly with my background, to come on board and help Turbine build new relationships. It's a wonderful opportunity.