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Home of the Wargamers Report: Interview with JD McNeil, CEO of Matrix / Slitherine

Boggit interviews J D McNeil at the Home of Wargamers 2014 Conference

 

J D McNeil, CEO of Matrix/Slitherine delivers his “State of the Company” address at HOW 2014

J D McNeil, CEO of Matrix/Slitherine delivers his “State of the Company” address at HOW 2014

J D thank you for agreeing to do an interview with me.

It’s a very big step for new developers entering the gaming industry and quite fraught with difficulty. Why should new developers see Matrix/Slitherine as anything more than just another publisher?

There are a number of reasons why a developer would find a deal with us attractive.

The first and primary reason is that we can showcase their game and put it in front of a very dedicated audience. When gamers come to our websites they know exactly where they’re going and what they are coming here for. We track and check statistical analysis of all of this and the industry norms for sell-throughs and visits. It’s an analysis that many companies have and they don’t generally share it. But what I can tell you is that we outstrip any known factors for any other site that we have got information on. The sell-through from visits is enormous, people come, they know why they come, and they buy. So that’s the first reason.

The second reason is that we work with the developers/partners from the very start of their development. No matter how good a developer is, when coming to a new business sector or any business sector, they can make mistakes, they can make errors. That’s not saying that they do make mistakes or errors. But we will advise, cajole, help, push and prompt. We try and get them to a placewhere we know from our business experience that their product will sell. Now that’s invaluable time being saved, it can knock months off to be honest. It’s also the case that when a developer comes to us too late in the cycle, we are often faced with the situation that the errors, or the points, or the things that we think would improve his sales are beyond redemption, and to strip out and rebuild it could take an enormous amount of time.

A perfect example of this is Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager game, where the developer had been working on this as a hobby project for something like four years before we found him, and got in touch. We advised him very strongly that with the growth of the tablet platforms and other opportunities, his game would be enormously successful if we could launch it on a variety of platforms. The code the game was written in was not suitable for that. So he had to bin four years of work and recode. Obviously, it didn’t take him four years to recode, as he was redoing work he had already done. However, he did have to recode it into a language that we knew we could put out for the tablet platforms. That language is Unity.

Left to right - Ignacio Liverotti, Lead Developer of Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager, Iain McNeil of Slitherine, Alex Shargin of Flashback Games, and Marco Minoli of Slitherine

Left to right – Ignacio Liverotti, Lead Developer of Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager, Iain McNeil of Slitherine, Alex Shargin of Flashback Games, and Marco Minoli of Slitherine

The third reason is the ability to reach the public. Our marketing and PR dept are very well connected throughout the industry, and today’s just an example of how well connected they are. They can assemble and reach the people that the developers just don’t have access to.

I’d say that those are the principle factors why a new developer – in fact not even a new developer- but any developer in working in this sector of the business should consider working with us. If a developer is not creating a product that we think that we can deal with, we’ll advise them from the start that we’re not the best place for them. We won’t direct them anywhere else, but will simply say “your product will not sell to our audience”. We don’t have infinite reach. We’re a very specialist ‘niche’ business, and I say again ‘niche’ is not Matrix/Slitherine – It’s a sector of the industry!

J D enjoys a glass of fizz with Romain Soulié, Studio manager of French Developer, Studio Nyx, the creators of Legions of Steel - a tactical alien combat game inspired by Space Hulk and similar games.

J D enjoys a glass of fizz with Romain Soulié, Studio manager of French Developer, Studio Nyx, the creators of Legions of Steel – a tactical alien combat game inspired by Space Hulk and similar games.

 

 

JD, you’ve seen some very exciting growth in PC sales, where do you see the greatest growth in the market in the next year or so, and why is that?

Our growth in PC sales has been unremitting over the past four years. Slitherine in particular was not only working the PC market but we were very much into PS3, Xbox and various other console platforms. We released on all those platforms. We are a registered publisher, and also a worldwide publishing partner of Microsoft and Sony. Accreditation like that is not easy to come by, and we are significant steps along the way for any publisher-developer. So we’ve been concentrating on that market until retail started to collapse.

Retail’s been the diminishing factor in our business model for the last four years. We are now down to the situation where realistically the only real retail PC market left for us is Germany. The growth otherwise in the PC market hasn’t really altered for us. It’s been an accelerating growth. There’s been a lot of nonsense talked about the collapse of the PC market, and that phenomenon has never happened. The PC market has been steadily growing consistently growing, certainly in our world over the past four years. In terms of digital sales, back in 2010 we very much recognised that we needed to find something to replace the diminishing retail market, and digital was the obvious answer.

Organically you can grow a business so much but the real answer for us was to step outside for organic growth and Matrix was an obvious fit, as we had been working with Matrix for many years prior to the merger. The discussions, although they came to a head bringing the two companies together in 2010, had been going on for at least 18 months before. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was a big announcement to the outside world. It’s like all these good things, they don’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen in a flash – this thing had been structured and put together for some time.

 

Marco Minoli and J D take time out for a pose during the Battle Academy 2 Competition

Marco Minoli and J D take time out for a pose during the Battle Academy 2 Competition

Without a shadow of a doubt the growth in the tablet market has been phenomenal for us. We dipped our fingers in the pond with Battle Academy, but that was the first real attempt at it. We see that although there are multiple releases in the Apps store, there aren’t for our audience any real in-depth products out there. There some light player games, free to play and various things calling themselves war games, but there weren’t any in-depth fully featured games until Battle Academy came along.

Battle Academy was exactly the same game on the PC as we released for the iPad. Now there were some significant challenges because the memory capacity of a device is nothing like a PC. And there were some significant challenges to get a game like that transferred onto the iPad. Our tech people are brilliant at this. The game we sold was at 20 bucks, and we were considered off our heads. The press comment and the forum comments all over the place, were “these guys don’t know what they are doing, they’re nuts”. Battle Academy has been one of our highest sellers and in multiple territories across the world it’s been charted as the number one game. Even now it’s been out there for several years, it still sells, probably more in a day than any other product of that nature. It’s a phenomenal piece of work.

Next we came back out with Panzer Corps. We’ve released several other ones as well. The information we now have on the tablets is that fully featured big games are what the fan base want. They want to be able to play these games, the big games that they play on the PC. They still want to play them while travelling on the train, or wherever. The little softer, lighter games they can vanish without a trace. We’ve released some games that are not as heavy, yet we can see and mark the difference in the sales capacity. I’m not talking about the price point, I’m talking about the number of units sold. There are two factors, the price point and the number of units sold and we chart both.

Alex Shargin (left) of Flashback Games, and Tim van der Moer (right) of the Lordz Games Studio demonstrate an early version of Warhammer 40K Armageddon to the Press. The Orks R Timz Boyz!

Alex Shargin (left) of Flashback Games, and Tim van der Moer (right) of the Lordz Games Studio demonstrate an early version of Warhammer 40K Armageddon to the Press. The Orks R Timz Boyz!

 

Managing the merger between Slitherine and Matrix must have been very testing for you. Without disclosing any sensitive commercial information, do you have plans to expand into new gaming areas?

Bringing two companies together is always a challenge. I’ve been involved in multiple mergers over many years in different businesses, and I was aware that this was not going to be an easy step. We all feel that this year has been the final culmination of the coming together of the companies. They’re a homogenous unit now. The whole team regard themselves as one company, although we have different names to the outside world. We have one set of values, are chasing the same business opportunities, but we do this in different ways. We keep the identity of the individual brand names, since we feel that’s valuable for the public, and we certainly see that as being the correct commercial thing to do.

We are always looking to expand our business. No business stands still. Business is business. Standing still is a recipe for decline, and we don’t intend to decline. There are currently some very exciting opportunities being discussed, although for commercial reasons I can’t talk about any of that with you at the moment. These things take time to come to fruition, and circumstances can change in the meantime for the parties concerned.

 

Home of Wargamers has been an interesting showcase for the work Slitherine and Matrix has in progress and we’ve seen a very diverse group of people attend. What in your opinion has been the most valuable experience arising from the event, from your perspective, and why do you place such high value on it?

The Home of Wargamers, the event was conceived by Marco some years ago. This is now, I think, the fifth occasion and each year it grows, changes, and develops. The single salient point of all of this is that this is a showcase for our developers by the developers. It’s all about them. It’s an opportunity that they would otherwise never get, to put themselves in face to face contact with a string of journalists. They have the opportunity to demonstrate and talk about their games. There isn’t any other opportunity that I’m aware of anywhere in the world that does this sort of thing.

Sure, publishers will promote games but with the sheer number of products and the release schedule that we have, this is a pretty big deal. You saw the frenetic, well almost frenetic schedule for moving people around into four different locations. That’s the first time we’ve tried it that way. In the past the events have been in one single gigantic room and the developers were called on one by one to present to the whole room.

By structuring this event as a series of different locations, where the journalists were rotated around the block, it meant that the presentations were crisper, shorter, and easier for the journalists to focus on without losing attention. They could then move on to the next thing in a very structured way. Anybody’s attention would lapse after two days of what we’ve been through. By giving the developers a short burst presentation, we gave the journalists opportunities to interact with the developers singly and in groups, and we just think it worked very well. One thing we taking away from the event is the structure that we put in this year, and it is different from previous years. I stress again, this is all about the developers. It’s their opportunity, one that they would otherwise simply never get.

 

We can all learn from experience to improve what we do. With the benefit of hindsight is there anything conceptually that you would do differently for a future Home of Wargamers and why is it important that you make that change?

I think I answered some aspects of this in the last question. This event was conceived some four or five years ago, and it’s grown and changed within its structure. The problem that we’ve got is how do you better something like this? Location, location, location! That’s a big thing for us. Where do we bring the people? How do we structure the event? It’s changing consistently. We learn at every event, and we try to better them.

After this event is over we will have a full debrief. There are nine members of staff here and we will all review what did, and what didn’t work. At this point in time it’s really too soon for me to comment on that in a meaningful way. I don’t exactly know where the real pluses and minuses were. In my own view, I know what I think worked very well, and I know what I think didn’t work so well. But the other members of the team will have a full view on that, so we’ll do the analysis next week.

 

Location, location, location! Part of the success of Home of Wargamers 2014

Location, location, location! Part of the success of Home of Wargamers 2014

 

JD, you work very closely with developers, but is there any particular current example of the nature of how you work with developers?

Yeah, the relationship is a close one and in fact we’ve just bid farewell to one of the guys who have been showcasing over the course of the last couple of days. He’s from 88mm games, their Frontline Road to Moscow game releases next week on the 20th. We’re bringing him across from Romania – because that’s where his studio is – and we’re setting him up in the Epsom office for two days. We’re going through a new project that we’re going to set him off on. This is a new license deal that we’ve signed, and which hasn’t yet been announced. I can’t obviously talk about that here, but he will be the project lead on this new game, which is being targeted specifically at iPad and the PC market.

 

 

Ionut Georgescu of 88mm Games, and lead developer of Frontline: Road to Moscow

Ionut Georgescu of 88mm Games, and lead developer of Frontline: Road to Moscow

We are also bringing over from St. Peterburg, Russia, Alex Shargin, whose Flashback Games studio is our Panzer Corps, and our W40K Armageddon developer. Last time we brought Alex over he was here for three months. He stayed with us, worked in our office and it really helped his focus. He worked closely with our team, being around them instead of working in some degree of isolation from his own studio back home. We’re looking forward to him coming back for another three months as soon as his Schengen visa gets approved. We like to bring the developers to work in our office for a period of time. It helps them to feel they are part of the whole cooperative process.

 

JD, if there’s one thing you would like a guest to be able to take away from the Home of Wargamers experience, what would that be and why would you attach importance to that?

What we want to create here is some memorable experiences for the guests. That’s both sets of guests – the developers and the journalists. It’s an opportunity for us to show the world what we are doing that otherwise wouldn’t be obvious.

We know what’s going on, the developers know what’s happening, but the mouthpiece here is the journalists who have attended. They hopefully will have had a great experience here, if they enjoyed what they done, what they’ve seen, the communications to the outside world will be much better than they would be otherwise. If our guests have enjoyed the experience, they will talk about it, they will sing about it. And that’s what we are hoping to achieve from this.

 

JD, thank you very much for taking the time and trouble to answer my interview questions. It’s much appreciated.


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