Haden Blackman of Kabam on moving from ‘Games as products’ to ‘Games as services’

Haden Blackman has many accomplishments to his name. He is an award-winning writer and producer with a long list of stories. He was the Co-president and CCO of Fearless Studios after spending some time at LucasArts, where he led the development of The Force Unleashed—an award-winning and best-selling game. Now as General Manager at Kabam, he helps bring many more games to life.


The Game Tells the Story

Gamesauce: What made you interested in the video game industry?

Haden: I grew up playing games, but also reading and writing. I was always fascinated by the ways in which games could tell stories – and allow players to create their own stories. I also became hooked on the dynamics of competitive and cooperative play very early on.

GS: How have your past career experiences helped you at Kabam?

The most successful developers are nimble, adaptable, and forward-thinking.

I spent thirteen years working at a “traditional” game developer, and saw a number of really dramatic transitions — from 2D to 3D, PC to console, small teams to large teams, original IP to licensed IP, and more. All this taught me that the industry is extremely fluid; there is no status quo, and change occurs at an ever-increasing pace. The most successful developers are nimble, adaptable, and forward-thinking.

GS: What strategies does Kabam use to create successful games?

Dozens! Creatively, we’ve developed a wide range of worlds, from the fantasy settings of Kingdoms of Camelot and Dragons of Atlantis, to the sci-fi horror setting of Thirst of Night, to the era of classic mobsters in The Godfather: Five Families. We rely on the right combination of data and inspiration to make design and content decisions. We’re not afraid to try something new, even if it goes against conventional wisdom. We study the results and learn from them. In terms of technology, we’re developing for multiple platforms and have brought one of our biggest franchises to mobile with Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North.  Since mid-April, it’s been in the top three grossing iOS apps, and #1 for a third of that time.  From a design standpoint, we are very focused on social features, such as alliances, that allow the community to self-organize, as well as providing players with a steady stream of both challenge and choice. And we embrace the attitude that a game is never done. Our games evolve continuously post-launch as we strive to make the experiences more intriguing, more immersive and more fun for our players.

Suddenly, Everything Changed

GS: What new technology has influenced the industry the most?

I think there’s an argument for everything from 3D video cards to mobile devices, but for me personally, everything changed as soon as I could connect with other players over a network. Suddenly, you had all these new models available – it wasn’t just about head-to-head with your buddy on the couch. In a few short years, we went from LAN parties with Quake and Starcraft to team-based competitive play in Counter-Strike, a DM creating adventures for co-op parties in Neverwinter Nights, and even huge communities coming together to build entire online cities in Star Wars Galaxies. Working through all that gave me a huge appreciation for the value that other players bring to the experience.

GS: Why do you think social and casual games became so popular?

People crave playing games – we love solving puzzles and we love overcoming challenges.

People crave playing games – we love solving puzzles and we love overcoming challenges. And we crave social interaction; it’s hard-wired into most of us. So, I think we love experiences that can combine those two things, especially in ways that recognize that we are now always connected to others – either through a mobile device or our browsers – but have a finite amount of time.

But Fundamentals Stay the Same

GS: How has game development evolved?

The tech, tools, processes, even team structures are dramatically different. And the new financial models and platforms have obviously changed things significantly. However, I believe that a lot of the fundamentals are still the same. You still need to provide a compelling experience. Execution is still at least 80 percent of the equation. And being successful still comes down to having the right people – people who are passionate, tenacious, honest, and talented.

GS: What is a common mistake developers make when creating a game for the current market?

The biggest mistake is forgetting the players. I think it’s easy to get so caught up in the new monetization models or platforms and forget that there are players at the other end of the experience who are giving you their time and money. Developers need to understand that it’s a trade, and we need to always make it a fair trade. What are you giving back to the players in exchange for their time and money?

GS: Which current game is a good example of the changing trends?

I think that Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North is a good example of a game that creates deeper social experiences on mobile. Previously, there was this belief that mobile platforms could only support short-session gameplay or games that didn’t have relatively deep end-games. Battle for the North proves that there is sustained interest in an immersive strategy game over time on mobile.

GS: What advice can you give developers working on service games?

Don’t forget that launching the game is the easy part. Once a game is live, you have to work harder today than you did yesterday to keep your players delighted and engaged and to attract new players. And be sure to balance adding new content and features with working on stability and polish.

Fast Forward

GS: What do you predict for the future of the video game industry?

The industry will evolve even more quickly than anyone expects. In twelve months, we’ll be discussing new monetization models, game archetypes, and platforms that we haven’t even considered yet.  Don’t forget, three years ago the iPad didn’t exist.

GS: What are Kabam’s plans for the future?

Growth!  Kabam will continue to support our existing games and franchises while also developing a number of new titles and moving into new genres, both in terms of gameplay and content. And we’ll continue to expand on mobile and other platforms.

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