Game on

Robert Nashak
Robert Nashak, the former EVP of Digital Entertainment and Games at BBC Worldwide.

As gaming continues its rapid march to digital platforms, it does so in the context of the huge explosion of original TV shows and video content produced for web distribution, according to Robert Nashak, the former EVP of Digital Entertainment and Games at BBC Worldwide.

Robert Nashak’s impressive career history reflects his relentless passion for keeping up with trends in the gaming industry.

“The trajectory of my career has been really trying to hit all platforms and gravitate to the new platforms as they emerged and became relevant to gaming, for example mobile and online, and very much focused on mass market games,” he says.

Currently working on a digital media start-up production company focused on direct to web short-form live-action content tied to gaming franchises, Nashak comments: “The possibilities for building entertainment franchises across a number of digital platforms, such as web, mobile and console, from the ground up really excite me.”

Developing Opportunities

As the former EVP of Digital Entertainment and Games at BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, Nashak oversaw its gaming strategy and developed new opportunities across a wide range of gaming platforms. He led the company over three and half years in broadening the digital entertainment business and gaming initiatives and setting up teams in Los Angeles and London.

Nashak joined BBC Worldwide from Electronic Arts (EA), where he was VP with strategic and operational responsibility for EA’s social gaming group, “where I also led the casual studios, including the Harry Potter franchise, brought out on PS3, Wii, Xbox 360, and Nintendo DS.”

Prior to working at EA, Nashak was VP and General Manager of Yahoo! Games, one of the world’s largest online gaming portals. “At the time, this was before Facebook really hit, Yahoo! Games was the largest gaming portal in the world with 35 million monthly active unique visitors.”

He also worked as SVP for mobile entertainment publisher, Glu Mobile, with responsibility for creative direction and product development, “back in the feature phone days when you’d have to do 2000 versions of any game to make sure you were covering all the combinations of handsets and operating systems.”

Earlier in his career, Nashak held key positions at Acclaim Entertainment, Vivendi Games and Disney Online, where he gained the essential skills required to produce online, mobile and retail games on multiple platforms. He is a long-time adjunct professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema and Television and is a long-time supporter of IndieCade, the world’s best known independent games festival.

“Overall, the trajectory of my career has been really trying to hit all platforms and really trying to gravitate to the new platforms as they emerged and became relevant to gaming, for example mobile and online, and very much focused on mass market games,” he says.

Hollywood Entertainment

“Throughout my career, I have focused in on how Hollywood entertainment, and film and TV entertainment in general, translates into the gaming space and interactive experiences. For me, that’s taking a piece of intellectual property (IP) and moving it across multiple platforms, that’s really what I love to do most of all.”

Nashak claims that across gaming and digital media, “we’re undergoing a revolution in terms of how content is financed, produced, and distributed. The independent gamer has never had an opportunity like this to raise, money, produce low-cost quality products and get their games distributed on mobile, online and PC.”

“This is part of larger trend where you’ll see that more and more regular Joes go Hollywood and start building out the next generation of entertainment products from basements and garages all around the world. This includes Ireland, which has a huge base of talented games and tech talent who don’t necessarily need the big publishers anymore to succeed,” he adds.

Sony and Microsoft have made attempts to assure independent game developers that they are welcome on their systems as publishers. “Microsoft and Sony have been very strong about outreach to independent developers as they get ready to launch their new consoles.”

With Apple and android systems, “there’s virtually no barrier to entry,” he says, while Steam and Amazon have also been very supportive to independent game developers.

It’s possible that there will be more fallout from the shifting games marketplace, he says, adding that THQ was not the last big games publisher to fall.

While working at BBC, Nashak had the opportunity to work closely with the creative of TV shows. One of these was Torchwood, a spin-off from the revival of the science fiction programme Doctor Who, produced in Los Angeles.

Even before the first script was written, Nashak’s team was coming up with a digital strategy, and developed an app for iPad and iPhone, a motion comic and game hybrid, that launched simultaneously with the TV show.

“As each episode aired on TV, we would release our new episode. The directors from the TV show wrote for us, the talent from the show voiced the characters for us and it was a rare moment to have this collaboration with the creatives from the TV side and the creatives on the digital side, and be able to extend the story onto other platforms,” he enthuses.

“That, to me, is rare, certainly in Hollywood, and around the world. My hope is that this becomes more crucial moving forward and I suspect it will. A lot of TV production houses are moving straight to online distribution. With the possibilities of distributing television across digital platforms, there’s no reason not to have other digital properties living side by side.”

Engaging the Audience 

Enthusiastic about the exciting possibilities transmedia offers to engage fans, he imagines that in the future, “when you’re creating a TV show or a movie, you’re thinking about that world having story extensions onto all other platforms as well. That way you’re reaching fans where they are, you’re engaging them. Games engage people like no other medium.”

“In the game show sector, we’re seeing a lot of movement right now in terms of trying to incorporate digital platforms into the very show itself and engage the at-home audience in an interactive way,” he says.

With the Dancing on the Stars’ game at BBC, Nashak made the decision to go off Facebook with it, to “be able to bubble the game up to international broadcasters’ sites and basically launch in territories where Facebook may not be as relevant to players. For us, it was a way of owning the community more and managing the community better.”

“You give Facebook 30% of all your revenues. If you can actually get the game off Facebook you have a better chance of a bigger revenue stream. There are players who just will never play a Facebook game, but will perhaps play a game that’s browser-based. “

Despite the massive technological breakthroughs over the years, Nashak comments that the latest Facebook and social games operate similarly to the early quarter-eating arcade games.

“While the technology has shifted over the years, the mentality of getting hooked on a game and having to put a quarter in to keep playing remains. That’s exactly the methodology on social games like Facebook, where you have a certain amount of energy, for example, and if you want to keep playing, or you’re addicted, you can play a small sum of money to keep going.”

The shift to the freemium model of gaming means that success entails a volume play, he explains, and since the conversion rates of turning free-to-play gamers into paying customers is so low, “you need millions of eyeballs on your games and this in itself will force the development of more and more truly global games franchises that travel East to West and West to East.”

Smartphones have been the most disruptive thing to happen to gaming in 10 years, he believes. In general, the proliferation of smartphones around the world has made global development truly possible for the first time and it’s still early days with that, he says.

I’m very encouraged by what’s happening in Northern Ireland and Ireland in terms of new technology and new games companies.

The Global Picture 

In China, the mobile games market, revenues will be US $1.2 billion in 2013. That’s out of a global video games business which will be worth something like $80 billion in total by 2016.

“There are 80,000 game developers doing mobile games in China right now. There are hundreds of app stores. It’s a very fragmented market, but customers are really gravitating to smartphones. By the end of 2013, there’ll be about 500 million smartphones in China. In 2012, there were 100 million, so you can see the exponential growth in that market right now.”

“The jury’s out in terms of how big the market can get, but in terms of mobile gaming that seems to be where the big action is right now. “

In the US, video games sales in 2012 (excluding hardware) was about $15 billion, he says, and digital downloads of PC games and console games on the rise. “Not only downloading games directly off the internet but also streaming games, also games made just for the Internet and mobile devices are going to be more and more of a dominant force. That’s a macro trend that’s on-going.”

Looking at the real barriers companies face in creating global games, he says: “The cultural barriers to entry are real, but some game IPs will overcome them. It’s already happening.”

“Behemoths like TenCent from China are having huge success in China and other markets. The march West has already begun and we’ll be seeing a lot more activity.”

In the West and the US, a huge fragmentation has emerged in terms of gaming platforms so the average gamer is splitting their time between one or two devices, whether that’s a console and mobile, or handheld devices like Nintendo 3DS and mobile, PC and console. “People have multiple devices and you find that’s not always the case in other countries where smartphones really dominate,” he says.

There is “a lot of heat right now around virtual reality technology” he says, mentioning California’s Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset for immersive gaming. With the support of top video game companies including Valve, Epic Games and Unity, the Kickstarter was an enormous success, raising more than US $2.4 million in funding from project backers and supporters around the world.

“Whether or not it’s going to become mass market is hard to tell yet, but what it does indicate is that if you can release a product that’s at a low enough price point, people are really interested in having new types of experiences around games. Sony announced for the PS4 that they’re also doing a virtual reality headset.”

Silicon Beach 

Although Silicon Valley is the tech hub in the US, “what you’re seeing down in Los Angeles is a phenomenon called Silicon Beach, where tech companies are being funded, some of which are linked to the entertainment space.”

“The big gaming companies and console manufacturers are building offices in LA, to have a presence there. My suspicion is that California, in general, and not just San Francisco, will continue to be a leading hub of innovation around technology.”

Game development is truly global, however, with teams distributed around the world, and Brazil has become very important, he says. Companies based in Ireland doing interesting work include Inlifesize, NeverMind Games and Pixel Wolf Studios, he says.

“I’m very encouraged by what’s happening in Northern Ireland and Ireland in terms of new technology and new games companies. The big disrupter in all of this is the rise of the independent game developer.”

Read the interview in the latest issue of Silicon Valley Global.

Nashak can be reached at Rnashak@gmail.com or @nebraskaroth

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