Insider Q&A: Machine Zone’s Gabriel Leydon
What’s it like to rule the world?
That’s the question Game of War: Fire Age attempts to answer, as players build kingdoms and align with mobile gamers from across the globe in order to make the most dominant iOS empires possible.
And while the storyline might sound familiar in the free-to-play, realm-building MMO space, the innovation here lies in the translation.
While other games separate servers and players by region, Machine Zone’s Game of War actually translates real-time text into 32 languages, enabling people from all over the world to not only play together, but to communicate freely in their own language, while the game translates the text so everybody understands the plan of attack.And if the tech doesn’t quite understand the slang? No problem, as thanks to crowd-sourcing, players are actually rewarded with in-game bonuses if they are able to help correct words that the game doesn’t quite grasp.
Inside Mobile Apps caught up with the man behind the Machine, Machine Zone’s CEO and Co-Founder Gabriel Leydon, to find out more about the translations, his Game of War, and why he sees the future of gaming, not on consoles, but in the mobile devices already in your pocket.
Inside Mobile Apps: With the translation ability and the way you have people from different countries playing the game together, do you see Game of War as the first true worldwide game experience?
Gabriel Leydon: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve already seen some really interesting things, and if you look right now it’s the number four iPad game in Singapore, it’s top five in Saudi Arabia, in Brazil it’s top twenty, it’s top five in Israel, top four in New Zealand, and top ten in France. So if you look at this, this is completely a mixed-language environment. We are essentially networking the entire world together, and this is what my goal is, to network the entire world together into one real-time environment. I don’t think there has been a game that’s done what we’re doing and I think it shows how much desire there is for this type of connectivity.
IMA: When you first told your designers that you planned to launch a real-time translator into the game, did they even think it was possible, or did they just think you were crazy?
GL: When we were building the server infrastructure to handle a lot of players, the translation came out of the problem of having all of these players together from all over the world with the need to communicate. When you’re able to connect all of these people together in a real-time environment where communication is just so important, it became obvious that if we were going to put everyone into this one environment, we were going to have issues if they couldn’t talk to each other. For instance, the game is really popular in Brazil right now, but if I come into the game from the United States and everywhere I look everything is in Portuguese, I’m going to leave because I can’t play and communicate with people if they’re only speaking Portuguese. So the way I pitched it to people, it was more of something that we had to do. It wasn’t something that was crazy because if we didn’t do this, all of the other real-time stuff that we have wouldn’t even matter.
IMA: Any funny translations that just didn’t make any sense or made you laugh because the game got it so wrong?
GL: Oh yeah, there are tons of them. It’s not perfect, and that was really one of the concerns, that it just wasn’t going to be good enough and people would just be angry. The game was really good and people were having a lot of fun playing the beta, then we finally added this in and I thought the players might not like it or something, but it was really the exact opposite. When you make something like this, when you spend over a year building technology, you hope that everyone is going to be like, “This is the best thing I’ve ever seen!” But you’re also kind of scared that instead, they might say something like, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen!” You just don’t know what the reaction is going to be like because they’ve never seen it before. But when we put it out, it was like they just completely expected it to work. It was something that was so natural, they just adopted it within seconds. It was bizarre for me to see everyone adapt to it so instantly, and it got to the point where, during the beta, we had problems where it shutdown because of a bug and people would freak out because they couldn’t talk to their friend anymore. That was the light-bulb moment. When people were relying on it to talk to their friends, friends that they couldn’t have any other way, that’s when I realized how very necessary this really is. Even with its errors and issues, it’s necessary. After this game, game developers won’t be able to get away without having this.
IMA: So you expect everyone to try and mimic what you’re doing with the translator in the next wave of games?
GL: Absolutely, but if you think about what we’re doing, this is a really, really hardcore game. This isn’t a casual game, it’s not meant for everybody. It’s supposed to be for people who like to spend a lot of time in games and for people who like complex games, and there are a lot of people like that out in the world. Our goal is to network all of those people together, networking all of the like-minded people together into one place. If you think about it, that’s a really powerful thing, that’s an incredible amount of leverage. Normally, if I have a Polish player who is really into this game, I’d have to go out and build a Polish server and fill it with Polish people for him to play with. Game of War doesn’t have to do that. That’s a really powerful thing. Hopefully we can network all of these like-minded people together into one place.
I just don’t know if this is something that every developer will be able to do in the near future. This is not easy. There’s a reason why you haven’t seen it before, because it’s really hard to do. We’ve already gotten a ton of requests for licensing, and that was really surprising to me.
IMA: How important is the crowd-sourcing element to the translations?
GL: It’s really important because Google and Microsoft are at the end of the translation, of course, because they have thousands of people working on this stuff, but what they can’t do is the in-game terminology, slang, or acronyms. So when we first built it, it was just pure Google Translate running in real time. The way we have it in the game, it’s like nothing is even happening, it’s just this super-fast, natural thing, and that’s hard enough to get in the game, but then we realized that there is all this stuff people say that these services just don’t understand. They don’t get ASAP. They don’t know what that means. You and I know that it means “as soon as possible,” but the translator doesn’t, so we had to build our own dictionary on top of those services. We monitor every word coming into the system in real-time, and when we recognize a word that won’t be recognized, we find and replace that word within microseconds and then get that translated. I think what’s most telling is seeing the number of Arabic players talking with English players. These are two completely different languages, and to see lengthy, coherent conversations between these two groups is amazing.
IMA: As you’re watching the game play out on your servers so far, anything about the way people are playing the game so far that you didn’t expect to see?
GL: The game has been live in beta for five months, and the most surprising thing to me is how much deal brokering there is in terms of truces. Right now, the kingdoms are protected because they’re new, but there’s one kingdom from the beta that is really, really strong, so we’re trying to make sure the powerful players can’t go into the new kingdoms before the new players are given the chance to catch up. When we feel like the players in each kingdom have gotten to the place where they can protect themselves from the more powerful players, we’re going to take those protections down and it’s going to be one huge map. That’s coming soon, within the next few months, and when that happens, the entire game will be available to everyone who’s playing. So what we’re seeing right now is a lot of cross-kingdom brokering, which is really interesting. There are a lot of alliances forming between kingdoms in anticipation of the protection going away.
IMA: With mobile technology continuing to advance, not to mention the simplicity and convenience of playing games on a device already in your pocket, are we witnessing the beginning of the end for console video games?
GL: What Game of War represents to us is harnessing the real power of the mobile phone. It’s portable, you have it with you all the time, and it’s constantly connected to the Internet. And everybody else that you know is connected to this same Internet, so we all have these communication devices that we’re infatuated with. What Game of War does, it’s essentially a real-time communication application. It works really well in this environment because everybody’s connected to the same environment and because everybody else in the world is using the same devices. This new type of game can’t exist on a console. I don’t know if consoles will go away, but what I do know is that this type of game can’t work on a console. What these types of games have the potential to do is take up a lot of time from the players, to the point where maybe they don’t want to play on their consoles anymore. The average player inside Game of War plays two hours a day, so at 14 hours a week, how much time do you have leftover to play a console game? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t.
IMA: When mobile games first started booming in popularity, it seemed like all you heard from developers was how they were trying to bring PC or console-level graphics to the mobile device. How big of a mistake is it to spend so many resources trying to capture these intense images on small screens? Is that even what mobile gamers want?
GL: In terms of what a mobile phone can do, graphics are not the strength of the mobile phone. Everybody knows that the PC is the king of graphics, followed by console and mobile. Don’t get me wrong, mobile is catching up, but that’s not their strength, and it’s certainly not why mobile phones are important to the world. Mobile phones are important to the world because the connect the world in one real-time environment. I can call anybody in the world within seconds as long as I know their phone number, that’s why we all want mobile phones. They’re portable and they have real-time persistent data connections, that’s why we like them. Even if they didn’t have games, we would still want mobile phones. So while I think graphics are important in order to draw people into the game and get people excited, after day one, day two, and day three, for us it’s is the human relationships that last throughout the game that are the most important. Do I think they went the wrong direction? Not necessarily, but it just doesn’t have the same staying power as what we’re doing. This will go on for a very, very long time. The relationships going on in the game are very real. With our old games, at least, the players actually wanted to turn off the graphics just so they could interact with the other players faster. That’s what became most important.
IMA: How difficult is it to balance the free-to-play model, trying to get as many people as possible to download the app, while at the same time attempting to monetize the more hardcore players?
GL: I think the future of free-to-play will be more about measuring the engagement of the player, rather than counting how many people logged in. There’s too much emphasis on how many people opened up the app, as if that’s something that matters. It doesn’t really matter if someone opened up the app for ten seconds and then leaves. That’s not really valuable. At the same time, some games try to monetize too fast. And we’ve done it before with energy systems that essentially try and stop the player from playing every five or ten minutes. What we find is that we don’t have a problem monetizing a player who spends two hours a day inside our game. People who are spending two hours a day are going to end up spending money, and they don’t mind. They don’t mind because if you’re playing the game that much, you like the game, so we found that it’s more important trying to figure out how to occupy that amount of time than trying to figure out how to make money by making them stop every five minutes.