21CF Chats: FoxNext Games’ Aaron Loeb and Rick Phillips on the Aftershock acquisition, making world-class games

21CF Chats: FoxNext Games’ Aaron Loeb and Rick Phillips on the Aftershock acquisition, making world-class games

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FoxNext oversees video gaming, location-based entertainment, and virtual and augmented reality productions across Twentieth Century Fox Film and Fox Networks Group. The division, which was just formed in January, announced its first acquisition: Aftershock, a leading creator of mobile games with studios in Los Angeles and San Francisco. With the acquisition, 21CF takes a big step into the video-gaming business, adding the development and distribution of new games to its successful portfolio of licensed games.

“Aftershock brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise, and a remarkably talented and passionate group of game developers that will immediately position FoxNext for success within the video gaming industry. The studio has an exceptional pipeline of high-quality games in development, and we look forward to bringing a new level of entertainment to players around the world.” said FoxNext President Salil Mehta in the acquisition announcement.

To get more insight into the acquisition of Aftershock, I spoke with Aaron Loeb, Aftershock’s head of all game development and newly appointed President of Studios for FoxNext Games; and FoxNext Games’ newly promoted President of Licensing and Publishing, Rick Phillips. They talked about what the acquisition says about the gaming industry, how a film or TV brand lives and thrives in the world of games, and what excites them most about the industry today.

What is Aftershock?
Aaron: Aftershock is a “spin out” company from Kabam, one of the world’s leading free-to-play game companies. The Aftershock team is made up of Kabam’s former LA and San Francisco studios, as well as the central publishing and studio leadership headquartered in San Francisco. Over the years, Kabam made multiple game franchises that grossed over $100 million each, including “The Hobbit: Battle for Middle Earth”; and “Marvel: Contest of Champions,” which has generated around $600 million lifetime gross revenue and is still a top-grossing game two-and-a-half years after its launch.

Earlier this year, South Korea’s leading mobile game company, Netmarble, acquired Kabam. The acquisition was for the company’s name, its Vancouver studio (and the “Marvel: Contest of Champions” game) and much of its technology. The remainder of the company was spun out to a new entity called Aftershock. The Aftershock team of about 80 people brings to FoxNext all the know-how and experience from Kabam’s decade of success in free-to-play games. We also bring multiple games already in development.

Rick: I’d gotten to know the executive team at Kabam over the past five years through our licensing business. Kevin, Kent, Aaron and Amir are consummate gaming executives and studio leaders. They delivered an exceptional pitch for an “Avatar” game; our partner Lightstorm and we felt it was the most compelling of the many pitches we received. So it was a no-brainer to license “Avatar” to Kabam and take the opportunity to acquire the LA studio.

What was the reaction in the industry regarding FoxNext's acquisition of Aftershock?
Aaron: We were just at E3 in LA, the annual show where publishers, developers and now consumers from across the video game industry get together every year, and the reaction was very gratifying. Everyone was very congratulatory and excited about what it means for a company of Fox's scope and scale to enter so fully into the video game space in this way. Fox has obviously been a very powerful presence through its brands and work with partners, but getting into direct development is a whole new level of commitment that I think the industry is extremely excited about.

Rick: There is also great enthusiasm internally in the film and television businesses as well about expanding into gaming and having a direct relationship with the consumer through our game distribution.

What do you expect will change about your day-to-day responsibilities?
Rick: I’m still running a dynamic licensing organization which is releasing 7-10 licensed games annually.  But what’s really exciting about the new role is the opportunity to build a mobile-games publishing organization. To date all of our games are released through our licensing partners. Building this capability in-house will enable us to connect directly to our players and over time build a broad distribution network. Self-publishing will also broaden the opportunities for us to make games that we might not have been able to develop. Fox is a world-class marketer of film, television, sports, documentary and other programming across the world; it’s incredibly exciting that Chairman and CEO of Fox Networks Group Peter Rice and 20th Century Fox Chairman and CEO Stacey Snider are interested in investing to build this capability within gaming.

Aaron: Now I get to work with the amazing people across Fox, starting first with Rick’s team in FoxNext Games. We are a company of video game veterans joining one of the most storied film and television companies on earth. There is a lot of learning ahead as we figure out how to share across our different art forms.

What do you think the acquisition says about the current state of the gaming industry?
Aaron: We're at a point again in video games where scale is really important. There was this period where there was enough disruption in games that a very small company without a huge amount of funding – and there were several of them – could suddenly rise to incredible prominence through clever distribution. This resulted in some giant companies in the landscape, some that didn't even exist 6-10 years ago. We're back at the point now where the market, particularly in mobile, is crowded enough that having access to beloved entertainment properties and large networks of fans and viewers is incredibly powerful. It enables you to get noticed in a market where great games come and go without anyone playing them because there are so many thousands of titles being released every week. Fox has great advantages that other companies don't have because of the power of its brilliant creators and properties to reach consumers all over the world and get them excited about playing a game.

What goes into translating a film, TV brand or set of characters for these kinds of games? Or what goes into propelling those storylines within those films and TV brands?
Aaron: That's a great question. This is something we are obsessive about at Aftershock. There's a real difference between the creative endeavor of making your own thing from scratch and working with an existing property. With an existing property, the first and foremost thing is you have to be completely true to it if you want a great result. You can't just take an existing game, put the characters from the film or TV show on it and say, "There you go." There's the rare occasion that will work, but usually fans will sniff it out in a heartbeat. So, it's figuring out what is the gameplay pattern that feels completely hand-in-glove with the property.

Rick: That means it’s less about translating than it is about creating. In our games, we don't look to replicate the story that’s conveyed in our film and television shows. We seek to build upon the universe, characters and world that our creative partners have brought to life. We seek to create new and authentic experiences within that creative universe. We're not looking to copy or replicate; we're just trying to create a new, different and authentic experience with characters and worlds fans know and love.

How does that work?
Aaron: It will vary based on the nature of the creative property. For the “Avatar” game, for instance, if you don't have a game that makes sure you see the lusciousness of Pandora, you have failed to properly live up to the possibilities of James Cameron’s vision. These are things you should think about. Oftentimes, you're looking for something that has a vast set of characters you can continue to tell stories with for many, many years to come. If you have a successful game, you want people playing it every single day for 3-5 years, maybe even longer. Will you have the rich tapestry of characters and story possibilities that will keep them interacting for all that time?

When you can enable the player to feel like they’re embedded in the world and telling their own stories in it, with the characters they love, it’s very powerful. It's important that the player feels like it's their own, that they're a part of this world they love so much.

What’s the most challenging part of creating these experiences in mobile games? Is it technology limitations, schedule constraints or something else?
Aaron: When it comes to mobile, one of the biggest ones is figuring out a play pattern, a usage pattern for the game that deeply immerses the player in the experience of the world but does it in a way that fits on a mobile device and does not require them to sit and play for 10 hours. In video games, we talk about a game being immersive, and what we mean by that is a person sitting on a couch and going into a world and being part of a story for eight hours straight. That is just not something that works with mobile at all, obviously. You're on the subway, etc., so in the mobile world, coming up with a play pattern where someone feels profoundly connected to the world and in some ways is constantly thinking about it is difficult.

How do you achieve that?
Aaron: The biggest way we do that in mobile is through social gameplay. This is incredibly important and will continue to be for everything we do as part of FoxNext: connecting you to other players within the setting of a world that you both love. So you’re both people who are fans of “Avatar” and you're connecting through the game, and you're telling a story together and you're experiencing the gameplay together. This will keep you connected to the game and immersed in the universe of the game for years. When we succeed, the game becomes an important part of your life; it becomes a thing that you come back to over and over again. Figuring out how to meet that design challenge is, I think, probably the biggest and hardest thing. When you get it right, it's incredible.

Rick: That is critical. Having a great product solves a large percentage of the problem. Within the mobile category, you have the added challenge of thousands of mobile games released on a weekly basis, so ensuring that your game is discoverable within an exceptionally crowded marketplace or app store is difficult. You ameliorate that problem to some extent with great brands and great games, because then that gets recognized from Apple and Google. But it's about connecting with both the core fans and consumers of a game and lovers of a specific brand. There's also moving beyond that to find new fans who like the genre of game you've built and will try it with the IP that you've integrated into it.

What about gaming excites you most right now?
Rick: What excites me is the opportunity for Fox to have a first-party development capability within the game space. Fox has always been a storytelling company, yet we've never fully rolled up our sleeves and immersed ourselves in the gaming business. With the acquisition of Aftershock, we're doing it. The mission is to build gaming and extend the Fox brands, as well as other brands. We want to create a third pillar within Fox alongside film and television, and make gaming a storytelling platform.

Aaron: We're still in early days for game makers to understand the power of persistence across all devices. Now that you've had about six or seven years of cloud computing available broadly, you can have persistent game states shared across players globally where you're all participating and changing the world of a game. Some people are changing the world of a game with a mobile device, a VR headset, a console, a PC, etc. And we're seeing the earliest fruits of that labor, of players playing together in worlds that are shifting and changing based on player behavior. That's going to happen more and more. If you look at the console space, everyone's thinking about open-world games. Social mechanics are coming into those open-world games. The creative possibilities that are opened by that, where it's not merely an auteur at the top that has come up with a game design and story that’s going to be sent out to everyone through a game that they buy once and it's done – but it becomes a giant social play space where we’re making a world together. For creators, storytellers and game designers, that's an incredible moment of possibility. We're just at the beginning of it, so seeing what happens over the next five, 10 years is very exciting as a game maker.