I was sitting in NetDevil’s suite on the top floor of the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco, trying my hand at a demo of JumpGate Evolution running on their triple-screen setup, when Scott Brown, the company’s president, came over and struck up a conversation.
He asked if there was anything I was interested in. I told him there was.
“I would be very interested in doing an interview with you about the founding of NetDevil.”
I steeled myself for him to start shaking his head, or even worse, respond with the dreaded “I’ll have to talk to PR about that.”
Instead, he smiled broadly and said, “Sure! You want to do it right now?”
Read on for the transcript.
The MMO Gamer: First of all, for those among our readers who may be unfamiliar, could you please introduce yourself to us, and tell us a little about what it is you do at NetDevil.
Scott Brown: I’m Scott Brown, the president of NetDevil, which means I don’t do a lot of anything anymore. Really my role these days is executive producer for the most part over all the various games.
The MMO Gamer: Way back, before you didn’t have to do anything, is going to be the focus of this particular interview.
You are one of the few people who has founded an MMO studio from the ground up, and maintained its success through the years while keeping your position as the head of the company-without being gobbled up and forced out.
I guess my first question is: How have you managed it?
Scott Brown: Well, “shoestring” is the answer. We had a web company before this, and we went through the learning curve of all the mistakes to make then, so we’ve always been careful.
We treat every cent as gold, grow only when we have to, buy a new chair only when we have to. You just have to live that way, it allows you to survive the tough times.
But we grew fast, faster than I would’ve imagined. We grew almost 50% a year. The first year’s not so impressive, when you go from three to five people, you know what I mean? But, it kept going. Last year about this time were about 80, 85 people. And now we’re about 125 people, so it’s continuing.
Every year we think it can’t possibly grow like that next year, and we just continue to grow. We’re lucky that even in as bad of times as it is, everybody wants an online game.
Whether it’s IP, or some game we want to make ourselves, there are a lot of people who want online games right now, so we’ve just been in a good space.
The MMO Gamer: The first hour of the first day, when you made the decision to found NetDevil, what was that like?
Scott Brown: Well, to be honest, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. So there wasn’t really one day to found NetDevil, I’d always wanted to make a game company.
Embarrassingly, I’d always just wanted to make games, and I couldn’t get a job in the industry. It’s a tough industry, as everybody knows, you face the chicken and the egg problem a little bit. The first question someone asks you when you apply at a game company is “What games have you made?” So it’s very difficult to get over that initial hump.
I just got lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. There was no planning, I won’t claim anything. We had built a company that was building educational software while I was in college, and happened to fall into business application training.
We had no vision for that, and in four years we were suddenly 100 people, it was 1997 in the tech boom, and we got bought.
I was only a small owner, I was basically the CTO, if you will, only because I was the engineer that had been there the longest. But I don’t know that it was the right title.
It gave me enough money to be able to quit, and the first thing I did, it wasn’t even a thought, was like, now I’m making our game company. That was it.
The MMO Gamer: That statement, “all you wanted to do was make games,” is a very familiar one. If you asked 100 different people at GDC, 99 of them would say that was why they got into the industry.
But, they would also give you 99 different answers as to why they wanted to make games in the first place. What’s yours?
Scott Brown: Well, I’ve always loved games. When I was in fourth grade, I was in a program at my elementary school called Leap. It meant that I got to go get computer time at the end of every day, and our school had just gotten these Apple IIs.
They took us into a room and they showed us Lemonade Stand, if you remember that game. It’s basically a game where you saw the weather tomorrow and you guessed how many things of lemonade to make, and if you guessed opposite of the trend and you were right, you’d make a whole bunch of money, and if you didn’t, you wouldn’t, you’d lose a lot of money.
And then they started teaching us BASIC, and that was it. As soon as I saw that I was like, this is what I want to do.
When I was early in college we were playing a lot of this game called Warbirds. And I’d played a lot of Battletech Online, and GEnie, some of those services that were out at the time, starting to use online games. And as soon as I played those, I was like, that’s all I ever want to do.
The MMO Gamer: What was the draw to online games in particular?
Scott Brown: Worlds with other players are way more interesting to me than anything else. So, that was it.
It was like, okay, that’s the kind of games we’re going to make. And when we started the company we were like, let’s go make the games that nobody’s making that we desperately want to play.
So maybe that’s bad, and maybe it’s why we’ve struggled, but we don’t do marketing analysis. Like, “based on these numbers, and this thing, this is the right kind of game to make.”
We make the games we desperately want to play that for some reason no one else is making.
At the time when we started, we did a little survey on some web boards and said, “What kind of an MMO that’s not being made would you want? What online worlds would you want?”
The number one answer was space, and the number two was cars. And so, JumpGate and AutoAssault, right? I mean, really it was that simple.
It was just like, “Yep, we want to play these.” There’s a bunch of people out there that seemed – not a bunch, I shouldn’t say – but, you know, rough polls showed that people seemed to agree that these aren’t made, and so we made them.
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