Game developer Mark Rubin explains how companies should treat big-spending fans
Mark Rubin worked on Call of Duty games for nearly a decade. He was executive producer for games like Call of Duty: Ghosts, until early 2015. After he left, he experienced that surreal feeling of shifting from being the head of a 260-person game studio to being a fan. Not only did he play Call of Duty games, as we wrote in part one of our interview.
He also became a huge fan of Marvel Heroes 2016, spending a lot of money in the free-to-play online game. That’s how he came to the attention of David Dohrmann, the CEO of developer Gazillion. Dohrmann invited Rubin to join the company’s board of directors. Rubin is still in a state of semi-retirement from developing games, but we talked to him about the unique insights that he has both as a developer and a fan.
In this part of the interview, he talks a lot more about his experience with Marvel Heroes 2016 and how to treat players who are big spenders. Here’s an edited transcript of the first part of our interview.
GamesBeat: With Marvel Heroes 2016, are you spending in the hundreds, the thousands, or the millions of dollars?
Rubin: Ah…not the millions. But I’ve probably spent—let me think. Probably just over $1000. Maybe $1200 to $1500. Someone at Gazillion would have to look at my account and tell me exactly how much. I’ve bought every single character. I spent a lot of money buying the Gazillion points to buy XP boosts and stuff like that. I don’t know how familiar you are with the game, but one of the cool aspects is being able to start a character over. It’s a way of prestiging, basically, like in Call of Duty. But the last prestige, the cosmic prestige, all your XP is quartered. It takes a long time to grind. I used a lot of G to buy XP boosts to get it as high as it could go, and it still took a lot of time. But I got one of my characters up to cosmic prestige, which was a fun accomplishment.
GamesBeat: Do you play Marvel Heroes very socially? Is there a group of people you play with?
Rubin: I mostly played on my own. I had a small group of people I would play with that were really excited about it too. The problem is, they’re still game developers, so when they went into crunch mode I lost them. I’ve been playing by myself since then. Recently I’ve gotten my girlfriend into it, though, so she’s playing now. It’s fun to watch her.
Unfortunately I feel like–Marvel Heroes is one of those games where you put in 100 hours and you haven’t touched half of everything. I haven’t leveled every character. I haven’t done a lot of the high-end content, which I’m excited to try and do. I’m trying to find a group of people to hit some of the high-end raids and really max out a couple of my characters from a gear standpoint. There’s still so much for me to do.
I was just looking at different character builds this morning. One thing I love about Marvel Heroes is the community is really strong. There’s some great community-generated content out there for people to use. A website called MarvelHeroes.info, which I use religiously—I go there to check out builds. I was looking at a new build for a character I’ve leveled a few times and want to level again. I always feel like there’s more I want to do with the game.
GamesBeat: How did you decide on this Marvel game, instead of all the other ones out there?
Rubin: One of the reasons is the PC. I like playing on PC more than mobile. When I want to sit down and enjoy the experience, that’s my primary setting. The other part is, I feel like Marvel Heroes’ depth, the amount of content, the amount of heroes, the amount of freedom to be what you want to be and play who you want to play—to me that’s a big draw for Marvel Heroes. That’s one of the main reasons why I think it’s the best Marvel game out there. It’s the one that allows you to be a Marvel hero and feel like you’re in the Marvel universe.
One of my favorite features in the game is kind of silly, but I love it every time it happens. It’s the way, when you’re in an area where other heroes are around, your character or other characters will say something to whoever’s in the neighborhood. You’ll hear a voice-over of the Hulk making fun of Wolverine or something. It’s immersive. It’s that feeling of being in the Marvel universe. I know it’s silly, but I love it.
A lot of the story missions, too, becoming part of a Marvel comic book—for me that feels really good. That’s another reason I love Marvel Heroes.
GamesBeat: If you were describing it to somebody, how would you talk them into playing it?
Rubin: The original pitch, way back when, was Diablo with Marvel super heroes. It’s pretty accurate. It’s an action-RPG, isometric view, very Diablo-esque. One of the big pulls for me is that there are so many Marvel characters to play. And not just play, but the sidekicks and the villains. It’s so rich with Marvel history. If you’re even remotely a fan of the comics or the movies—even if you’re not a comic book guy, but you love the cinematic universe, it’s a great place to go and experience that. That’s the biggest pull for me. It’s super easy to get into and start playing.
GamesBeat: How did you meet Dave Dorhmann (CEO of Gazillion)? Did he latch on to you as someone who was a very serious player, someone who could be useful right away?
Rubin: It’s interesting. I was a Marvel Heroes fan for a long time. Through a mutual friend I went and had lunch with Dave. We started chatting. He knew who I was, but he had no idea I was a fan of the game. But we started talking, and I was gushing about how much I liked Marvel Heroes. He would talk about the situation at Gazillion and what he’s done.
I think it was two things. He obviously understood the work I’d done at Call of Duty, and he was excited by how much of a fan of the game I was. For me, listening to him talk about how the game has come along and what he’s done with the studio and how much he cares about the people at the studio—I was attracted to that. He was attracted to what I brought. We talked more and more, and then we ended up in the situation we’re in now.
I’ve never seen a game, in the history of gaming, get a “most improved” award. Never seen that, and I don’t think I ever will. But for enough critics and people to think that the work the team put into the game post-launch to make it better—they’re always doing this. They’re always making it better. They’re always making massive improvements. Not just balancing a few characters, but really making changes for the better. That dedication to the game—you maybe saw yesterday that they announced a new update, the biggest update ever for the game. They did their Level 52 review and revamped every single character. That kind of dedication isn’t something I’ve seen before. For that’s another huge draw, another reason I’m interested in the work Gazillion is doing.
GamesBeat: It seems like the craftsmanship of the game is a big attraction for you.
Rubin: A bit? I’d almost say it’s the dedication and passion, really. It’s easy for someone to come up with a game and then say, “Oh, it didn’t do as well as we were hoping. But we’ve learned a lot, so let’s just do better with the next game.” 99.9 percent of whatever happens in the gaming universe happens that way. But these guys had a passion for Marvel Heroes. They knew they had a vision for what they wanted it to be and they realized it wasn’t where they wanted it to be. They made the effort to improve the game dramatically and they continue to make it a better experience.
That passion is why I got into the industry in the first place. I wanted to do something I was passionate about. Seeing that and meeting the people at the studio and realizing how much they love their own game, that’s a huge draw.
GamesBeat: What sort of role are you carving out for yourself?
Rubin: We’re only just announcing that I’m joining the board. I’ve literally been to one board meeting. But we’re working on it. I don’t have a huge footprint yet, but they’ve brought me on to be a bit of an advisor, with my background and experience. I’m helping bring value to the company as a whole, helping with development, talking with people and sharing knowledge in general with the team.
Part of it, it’s good to have an outside developer’s voice. One of the easiest things to do in development as a studio is get your heads down and be sort of insular. You’re not necessarily taking enough input from outside. Someone who can advise from an outside standpoint can be helpful.
We’re developing those relationships now. I’m meeting more people and starting to chat with different people at the studio. We’ll see where it goes. I don’t think we have to have a specific role for me. We’re going to do whatever’s best. That’s one of the things I like about how Dave runs the company. We’ll do what’s best for the people and best for the game.
GamesBeat: Does it surprise you that this is the company that’s brought you back to the industry after leaving Infinity Ward?
Rubin: When I left Infinity Ward, I chatted with a lot of different people about joining their studios, taking on some role like studio head or executive producer or creative director. I entertained everything. I listened and talked. But I never found something where I felt like, “this is absolutely what I want to do.”
I still haven’t gotten to the point where I’m ready to get back into full-time development. But the Gazillion opportunity, being able to be part of the team and take part in what they’re doing without necessarily having the day-to-day job of doing that, with a game that I love—that, to me, was a huge draw. I get to be a part of it. I get to be involved in the work and be proud of what everyone’s doing. But I’m not necessarily back in the grind of working every day on a specific project.
That’s a great amount of personal freedom. You get the best of both sides. I get to be behind the scenes, part of a project, on a game I love, and I get to still enjoy my time off. Now, that may change as I go forward. I might get back into full-time game development. But that’s very TBD at the moment.
GamesBeat: Have you felt like you want to start working again? Or are you still enjoying this period of mainly just playing games?
Rubin: I’m on the borderline. I could go either way. I am enjoying where I’m at. But I’m getting a little bit of the itch to maybe say something again. I don’t know what that will look like. I do have a bit of the creative juice coming on. I’ve been working on some game designs, throwing ideas down on paper and seeing if there’s something I want from a new project standpoint. I think I’m on the cusp right now. After two years, that might be my next move. We’ll see what it’ll be.
GamesBeat: Considering the amount of money you spent on the game, you might be considered a whale. Do you feel you’ve learned something about being a big spender in a free-to-play game and how companies should treat their biggest fans?
Rubin: That’s a tough question. You have to think about the way a whale thinks about what they’re doing. The thing with free-to-play is it’s often incremental. They don’t think about it. I don’t think about going into a free-to-play game and spending a lot of money. I just do small transactions here or there. It’s one of those things where—give me content, obviously. From a free-to-play standpoint you want content. There are so many heroes to buy, and I haven’t leveled everybody yet, which is amazing considering the amount of hours I’ve put in.
So give me that content, give me the playground to play in, and I’ll be happy. There wasn’t a time where, for instance, I felt like I deserved or wanted an unfair advantage because I’d spent money. I say that, of course, but I used XP boosts that I bought on the store. That does accelerate progress. But it doesn’t make my character more powerful. I didn’t get an ability that’s stronger specifically because I spent money. This is a purely personal opinion, but as a whale, someone who’s willing to spend a lot of money, I don’t feel that’s something I need or want from a free-to-play game. Just give me content that I really care about.
That’s one of the things Marvel Heroes has done well. They have so much great content, whether it’s the heroes themselves or the costumes for the heroes. They have a playground, the Marvel universe, to host that content. For me that’s the biggest thing.
Another game I spend a lot of money on is Old Republic. I pay a subscription for Old Republic, but I also usually spend about $100 a month on the coins to get the unlock packs that provide various mounts and costume pieces and so on. I’m very happy doing that. I enjoy the playground, the Star Wars universe. I feel like Old Republic didn’t get enough credit for what it’s done. For an MMO, the single-player storyline experience is amazing. I love that every character has their own story. So I have the playground and I have the content that I want to keep playing with.
It’s funny. On Call of Duty, I don’t want to say anything I’m not allowed to say, but we had big, huge, bigger than Hollywood blockbuster budgets. We shipped a game with tons of content. But we only got $70 per person, maximum, plus DLC.
GamesBeat: In some way that sort of equalizes every fan, right? There’s no such thing as a VIP Call of Duty player, unless you’re buying the Deluxe Edition I guess. Whereas in free-to-play, you can have people who maybe want to think of themselves like high rollers in Las Vegas, people who’ve paid their way past the velvet rope. It’s a different way of looking at fans.
Rubin: It definitely is. There’s also the cultural differences in how free-to-play games are played. One of the things we noticed on Call of Duty—we created Call of Duty Online, the free-to-play Call of Duty in China. That market space plays Call of Duty very differently, plays free-to-play games very differently than you would see in Europe or North America.
In a lot of the Chinese market spaces and Korean market spaces, whales will buy huge guilds and invite tens of thousands of people into their guilds and give them money – sometimes real money, in essence – to join up. It becomes a status thing. I’m the head of Guild X, I spent tens of thousands of dollars to create it, we’re huge, I have 25,000 adoring guildmates. It’s a very strange phenomenon compared to how people play in the west.
We say free-to-play has been around for a while now, but it’s still in its infancy as far as our understanding of what it means and how it works in the bigger picture. If you narrow it down to a certain game, Candy Crush and Clash of Clans and so on, they’ve found their niche and figured out their business model and figured out their target audience. They’re well-organized and they move forward. Marvel Heroes and other games like that, they know their space. They know their fans. They know what’s driving their business.
If you look at the whole market, though, it’s a much more chaotic situation. If you try to take all that and put it all together into one big picture, it doesn’t easily fit into a described framework.
GamesBeat: Well, I hope you keep on having fun.
Rubin: I’m very much enjoying my time off. I’m enjoying games. It’s sometimes still hard to take my developer hat off when I look at a game and say, “Augh, why didn’t they take the extra time to polish that?” It’s always going to happen. I’m sure directors and actors feel the same way watching movies. But I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to delve into games and play more than I have in the past.
Again, that’s part of the reason why I started to get a bit of the itch back. Being able to sit back and enjoy games and really look at stuff again has given me some great ideas for what we could do going forward.