Red 5 Studios: Interview with Mark Kern

Mark Kern is the President and CEO of Red 5 Studios, a start-up of experienced game developers who hope to bring the world the next big MMO. Kern, a former Blizzard developer, took some time to answer our questions in this WarCry exclusive.

WarCry Q&A: Red 5 Studios
Answers by Mark Kern (President/CEO, Red 5)
Questions by Dana Massey

WarCry: It used to be that no one ever heard of a game company until they announced (or launched, if you go further back) their product. Now we see many companies poking their heads up before their game is ready for the light of day. Why do you feel it is important to get the Red 5 name out there at this stage?

Mark Kern: I think we have an interesting story, especially if you look at all the great people coming on board the team. I don’t just mean the many people from World of Warcraft or Blizzard, but everyone coming in from other places where they’ve been at the top of their game. We have a great team from all over the industry, and that’s something I hope will pique people’s interest in what we are doing. We’ve also been doing some interesting things like the Golden Ticket program that I hope will give poeple a glimpse into the quality and culture of the company we are building that we are also putting into our first game. As to why we do it, we want gamers to follow the company, and not just one specific game. We feel its important to build a community even before the game launches, and that starts from the beginning of the company.

WarCry: You guys have a lot of experience on the team, but while you highlight former Blizzard developers, when going through the profiles, it becomes apparent that your team really came from all over the industry. Talk about what some of the less direct experience – in terms of MMOs – brings to your team.

Mark Kern: We actually tend to avoid MMO experience. World of Warcraft did not have a fleet of experienced MMO developers, in fact, almost all of us were brand new to the genre. And I think that helped. MMOs had been steeped in a tradition of do’s and don’ts that didn’t sit well with what we wanted to do. It’s hard to imagine now, but grinding, long leveling times and steep death penalties were considered essential to MMO design. If you want to innovate, you need fresh thought, and that’s what we accomplish by recruiting people from other, related industries.

WarCry: Your website mentions your commitment to digital distribution, rather than boxed companies. This is odd for a company with an announced publisher (Webzen). Why do you feel so strongly about this?

Mark Kern: It’s not strange at all. Publishers of online games in Korea and China distribute everything electronically. In fact, in the majority of cases the digital distribution is free of charge. I think this is a great deal for gamers, because it lowers the cost of entry. Publishers are starting to raise prices on games from $50 to $60 to try and cover the costs of next-gen development, but I think the prices should go the other way. It’s a better model for the industry if gamers can try a whole bunch of games and pay incrementally for their favorites, and it can be more profitable. It’s a win-win for both sides.

WarCry: Every time I go to a game conference, I hear speeches about how it is important to know your audience and go for it. Your company seems to be taking a global approach. Why do you feel you can succeed in capturing a truly global audience while so many other games only seem to grab one, if they’re lucky?

Mark Kern: Well, the first step is paying attention from the beginning that you want to reach a global market. If you are not thinking globally from the beginning, it will be very hard to adapt your game at a latter stage. The reason we feel we can do this, is because we’ve had lots of experience with international markets. World of Warcraft is the first MMO to really succeed globally, and it wasn’t easy. It’s not just a matter of one or two big changes. Rather, it’s a hundred little tweaks that we put into the game and the business plan to make it work. Taewon Yun, one of our founders, was really instrumental in preparing World of Warcraft for Asia, and we benefit greatly from his experience.

WarCry: Your website is largely dedicated – it seems – to attracting development talent. What sets you apart for the developers out there reading this?

Mark Kern: Nearly all independent developers are work for hire. This means that a publisher comes to them with a license or an idea, and the developer puts together a budget and bids on the project. Very rarely do developers get to work on their own games or create their own IP, characters, stories, etc. This is the first difference. Red 5 Studios is a standalone developer dedicated to creating original worlds and games, and working at Red 5 means having a say in what we do and what we make. The second big difference is that we focus around online entertainment. This is very different from boxed product. By having a steady revenue model built around a strong user community, you don’t have the pitfalls of box games that have to make all their money in the first 30-90 days. You can build a business around an online model that avoids the hand to mouth existence of many developers struggling from game to game. Finally, we are assembling one hell of a team, as you can tell by reading our bios. If you want to work with some of the most creative and talented people in game development, and to get in on the ground floor to help create a brand new company, Red 5 is hard to beat.

WarCry: On the other hand, why should potential consumers take note of the Red 5 name?

Mark Kern: Again, I would point to the team and what we’ve accomplished in the past, and what we are capable of in the future. I’d love to point to our game as well, but we’re not announcing that for some time.

WarCry: You announced at GDC that you’d licensed the Offset Engine. What does this engine offer that made you select it over other options in this highly competitive field?

Mark Kern: We’ve known Sam and the Offset gang for some time. Their offices are a short drive from ours. When Sam first showed me the engine, it was incredible. The visuals are really spectacular. But, at the time, the engine was unfinished. This was actually a bonus from our viewpoint. Most engines aren’t built with MMOs in mind. They are structured for level-based FPS. As soon as you say you want large open spaces, tons of players, a database back end and robust server architecture, you’re out of luck. There are MMO specific engines available, but most of them are unproven, or don’t offer the graphical power that engines like Offset offer.

WarCry: Most companies at your stage are trying to get one office going well, you already have two (Shanghai and California). Why the second office?

Mark Kern: The reason we are in China is because that is the world’s largest MMO market. If you want to succeed globally with your MMO, you want to succeed in China. Everyone plays online games in China, and hardly anyone plays boxed games or consoles. By having an office in Shanghai, we get to be on the ground floor of this huge wave of online gaming in Asia.

WarCry: So your company website seems to have a scene from outer space on it. Should I read anything into that?

Mark Kern: You can, but the world we are building is a little unique. It crosses genres in many cases, so I wouldn’t read too much into it.

WarCry: Finally, what is your timeline for telling people exactly what you’re working on?

Mark Kern: It seems like some companies like to announce their project as soon as they come up with a name and some concept art. What we like to do is to wait until things have gelled and we are playing our game and have something much more tangible to show. This takes time, but we want to do it right. We’re not there yet, but I think you’ll see something from us sooner rather than later.

Now tell us your thoughts on our forums!

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