John Romero is one of the few names in the industry that everyone knows. One of the co-founders of id Software, the game designer worked on such influential shooters as Castlevania 3D, Doom, and Quake. After working on his own with Ion Storm on the much-delayed flop Daikatana, Romero moved into the mobile space with Iron Monkeystone Games before working on console games at Midway like Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows and Area 51.
These days, Romero is developing free-to-play PC and mobile games at his company, Loot Drop, including the just-released Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Commander for Facebook and the new iOS version of that strategy game. The CEO, CCO, coder and game designer took a break from developing new games (he has a number of original free-to-play games in the works) to talk about his latest venture in this exclusive interview.
How did you end up migrating to the free-to-play games space?
In 2010, I was trying to convince my MMO company (Slipgate Ironworks) that I co-founded to pivot into social games on Facebook and eventually decided that they were not interested in doing that because they had so much invested in MMOs. So I decided to take myself out of the company and move to social games because I had seen the rise of the social. I saw the rise of Zynga, Playfish and a bunch of other small companies and the game designs looked really interesting because they were not like any of the hardcore games I’ve played. They weren’t even like games I played on handheld Nintendo systems or anything, and that made them interesting to me.
What was your first free-to-play game?
I consulted with a company and made a game called Ravenwood Fair in 2010 it did really well. At its peak it had about 25 million MAU (monthly active users) and about 2 million DAU (daily active users). That was a great experience and it was fun designing the game to be a very light style of gameplay with the social element. That’s why I decided to start Loot Drop in November 2010 with Brenda Brathwaite. We definitely knew how to make social games. So we continue to work on developing through the evolution of the space and that’s what we’re doing now. We’re trying to evolve not only the things that the mass audience on Facebook likes to play, but also to introduce new kinds of play to that mass audience and see where it goes.
How have you seen publishers like Ubisoft embrace social games of late?
A few years ago it was all about cloning because there were a lot of companies out there that didn’t have game designers in them, so the easiest thing to do is to look at what’s successful and try and copy that. They called it fast-balling a game. There was a lot of that going on and the game industry took notice and basically dove into social. Now we’re seeing all the genres, all of the design, all of the production value that we’re used to in games. All of that stuff has descended into social and basically started taking it over. Most companies steered clear of the hardcore stuff because this is a very casual audience on this platform. There were a lot of game companies just trying to do casual in the Facebook way in the beginning. Now we’re seeing companies get more competitive and making some hardcore games.
Today’s Facebook audience is ready to have skill-based gameplay and more hardcore content, graphics that are more realistic and shooting and maybe blood and stuff like that. That’s where we’re at with Ghost Recon, bringing more of a core type game into Facebook. But there’s still that Facebook element that people will understand like the energy model and the currency they use to buy and all that. We kind of keep all of the things that are very familiar to Facebook users, but then put all of that into a game that’s more hardcore with Ghost Recon Commander.
How do you see this game fitting in with Ghost Recon: Future Soldier now out for consoles?
Ubisoft talks about it as being a companion game. It’s not a replacement. I don’t think that it’s a launching pad to a different game. It’s a nice way for Ghost Recon fans to play the Facebook version during the day as a separate game. And it allows them to feed their addiction for the game at night by giving lots of unlocks that will work on the PS3 or the Xbox. You can change your character’s camo and look at how your gun looks and all that kind of stuff. There are also some very high level Ghosts that you can unlock in Facebook for the console game and then bring them on missions. We want this game to be additive to the console experience.
What impact do you think tablets will have on the traditional console business in the future?
That’s kind of something that I wrote about on my blog in 2005, which was bye-bye consoles. I was thinking more about the PC, itself, being so powerful. Your PCs at home if you’re upgrading them are powerful machines. They’re way more powerful than consoles. They keep getting faster and faster, while consoles sit for six years without changing, or if they do they there are minor changes. There’s been this truth in the games business. It’s been happening for a while, but they’ve gotten to the point now with the technology and the price differential, why don’t I just get a PC? Why would I spend more money beyond the console when a PC can deliver Wi-Fi video at HD resolutions. I can play my console games on my PC and blast it to the screen and use a wireless controller? What I didn’t foresee in 2005 was the rise of the post-PC, which are all these tablets now. These are the things that actually will probably be the end of the consoles. The new iPad has crazy fast graphics and it’s a fast machine and it delivers great games. It can mirror the graphics to a giant HD screen and it’s basically just showing you that you don’t need a console.