Last week I was invited to interview the incomparable Martin Ouellet, founder and CEO of Genia Games, for the closed beta launch of Genia's new social RTS Brain Storm. Ouellet’s company is unknown for now, but he’s no stranger to starting from scratch. He built his first startup, Taleo, through daring strategy, eventually leading the industry in cloud computing and human resource management software. After Oracle’s monumental acquisition of Taleo, Ouellet and a portion of his team formed Genia Games, plunging into unfamiliar territory armed only with a willingness to learn and a visionary concept that would become Brain Storm.
In the unspecified future, humanity has found an alternative to fossil fuels: Genium, an unknown mineral fed by knowledge and capable of producing infinite energy. The world's realistic response is to erupt in conflict and greed--the player's goal is to build their city, make alliances, steal knowledge from their enemies, and win the game by creating the ultimate knowledge repository. With a team wholly new to game development and a concept out of this world, Brain Storm promises intelligent entertainment and innovative edification. Check after the jump for the full interview.
I've been looking into your game and it looks so unique, I don't know that I've seen a game quite like it. Can you give our readers a summary of the Brain Storm concept?
Yeah, you're right, it's very unique, it's very different, and this is the same feedback we got from E3 last week when we met some of the people in the videogame industry that are telling the exact thing you said—that it's very unique, it's very different. We've been developing this concept for 4 years now, we've been in development with 20 people and the idea is that we built a knowledge-powered game. So really, what makes this unique, that it is what you know of the real world that will make you more powerful in the game.
That idea reminds me a lot of playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, encyclopedia in hand. Brain Storm is being called an MMORPG, but is it more accurately an MMORTS? Can you tell me how those ideas fit together?
Yeah, a lot of people are talking about Carmen Sandiego, you're right. So really, what you know of the real world will make you more powerful in the game. Your knowledge of the real world will be put to the test and what you know of the culture will allow you to progress in the game. It's very different, it's a combo of quiz, realtime strategy, and social MMO as the framework of the game. So really what it is, is [sic] a mid-core gaming type of thing.
What is your gaming background? What types of games do you enjoy playing?
I've been always passionate about gaming. When I was young I used to play games like Civilization, not the Sid Meier's Civilization, no, the one on the board game. I'm not sure if you've played that before. It's a game that would last 8 hours, you were sitting around the table, it's a board game. So think about Brain Storm as being a real-time strategy game but instead of being 8 around the table, it's 2500 per game, a game lasts 30 days instead of 8 hours, and instead of playing each time at our turn, everyone is playing simultaneously.
So with limited game time, you're not going to have a persistent MMO world?
The game will be reset every 30 days, it's a strategy game, but your avatar you keep that from game to game so you will be tempted to play another game because you want to play another game, you want to modify your strategy doing better this time in your game. Depending on where you install yourself at the beginning of the worldmap, the knowledge fragments you will find will be different and the people you'll team up together to build the oracle which is the game—the goal of the game is to build that big knowledge structure—will be different as well.
I know you sold your last software company to Oracle, is that a nod to them?
No, no, it has nothing to do [with the company.]
Oh, so “Oracle” as in Delphi?
How do you meet people and form groups like you mentioned? Is there simply a chat system or another method?
Yeah, inside the game, you team up with others. Very quickly, you will identify people who have very different knowledge from you have, and different knowledge fragments as I 'd described already. You need to build this powerful Oracle which contains 60 knowledge sockets, so you won't be able to achieve that alone so you need to team up with others. So simply, on the list, you go and see where people are located and you can invite them to your alliance. You can form an alliance up to 10 people to achieve your goal, so it's very easy.
Have you looked at integration with another social website like Quora, that's knowledge-based?
At this point the integration is to Facebook so you can invite your friends to play the game. That's what we have at this point.
So people will be attacking each other's Oracles, what can you tell me about this PVP and the knowledge sockets you have to protect?
Industrial Revolution, for example, that's one of them. And to achieve that, you need to have the Watts Power Machine, the Kinetoscope, and other fragments of knowledge that are based on the theme of “industrial revolution”. Once you have that, you have to connect that to your Oracle, boost your energy, and you'll need to protect yourself against others because this knowledge is rare. Some knowledge fragments are rare in the game, for example Eiffel Tower—you come up there, and there's ten copies, and you're the eleventh coming there, there's no copy left. So you have to copy the knowledge from someone else, attack someone to copy what they know. And the people will defend themselves with what they have acquired in terms of knowledge fragments.
Are you worried that people will just keep Wikipedia open in another tab and look up answers?
No problem, this is what we're looking for. There is no problem, people can go on Wikipedia, find their information, but the game itself provides the information as well. The idea is to make people learn and the idea is for them, is to with what they know already, allow them to progress, and if they don't [know] then they can still access the Geniapedia and look at the information.
Do you plan on adding more content as the game grows? Is there a type of endgame content?
Definitely, we'll build with the community, obviously we're in beta testing right now and we're open for feedback from the community and we'll build what we are looking for in terms of leveling features that you can progress and keep from game to game, but we already have some ideas of what we would like to have as far as persistent achievement from game to game.
Your website announces Brain Storm as a free-to-play game, can you tell me what sort of microtransactions and items you're offering?
It's pretty easy, it's a Freemium Free-to-Play model, if you want to manage your game time, accelerate some building or exploration mission—you have experts in the game that you send to explore all around the world, so if you want to accelerate that, then you can pay some credits for that. Or let's say I just missed the question challenge on something so there is a cooldown of 24 hours before I can try again to get the bonus, but if I want to try it again right now then I've got to pay some credits for that.
Are you worried that it will become pay-to-win?
No, definitely not because if you know the stuff already, if you find it on Wikipedia or whatever, then you don't have to pay.
Are you worried about how your game will be received? It's incredible, to come out of a non-gaming software background and form a company with your own money and a unique concept. It's got to be a challenge.
Yeah definitely, but you know it sounds cliché but it's been developed by passion. I had a great success with my previous company Taleo, I could have just sat on my laurel and traveled around the world, but I decided to really put the money where my passion is, which is about gaming, and really build something different. I think the market needs a different type of game that brings more challenge, more mentally challenging but still fun, still addictive. You know there is this wave of social games recently, I think people are deserving of more than that, more challenging type of game. So that has been a driving factor of our team for four years. All the members of the staff are shareholders of this company, very passionate about what we're doing. And this is just our first game, we have a roadmap of other games that are coming.
Did you have this particular concept in mind before forming Genia Games or did you set out saying “I want to make a game, any game?”
I had this concept in mind already. Obviously, along the way, we have fine-tuned the concept with the early adopters, the early community, but we did have some ideas in mind already.
Do early adopters get any perks?
Yeah, like titles or items that show they're veterans.
Well first of all, they get a bonus of some credits so that once we start open beta, they will start with some credits. But I think the idea of getting them something very special is a good idea, I will think about that!
Glad to contribute! Now this is more personal, but I read that another of your passions is angel investing. Have you helped out any other gaming companies?
Ah, at this point I'm looking at other investments for gaming. I did not do it personally, I've tried to invest in the local community here pretty much, to help entrepreneurs like I was a few years ago, but this is certainly something I'm contemplating as well.
What kind of local businesses, if not gaming?
I've invested in a fashion online company called Frank and Oak, it's going very well, they're selling clothes online with a personalized stylist tool—I really like that! And also in one very recent called BonLook selling glasses online. So two web fashion startup companies, and one in the medical market as well.
But I really like this part of my new career which is helping new entrepreneurs understand the market and how to build a strong competition and visions around that and I really like to be part of this.
Do you give them tips like how you convinced your friends and family to stand in as “employees” to get your first contract when Taleo was down to one real employee?
He laughs. Yeah, that was pretty early, and I had to do that. But yeah, it worked! I didn't know you knew that!
Now I'm looking at your website again and I think there's more information since last night even!
You know what, we have so much work to do and so much stuff that we need to get together, it will grow and we will keep adding content on our website for sure. We are very excited about this project!
Are you getting ideas for additional content from the beta testers?
Yeah, we do, for example we're already receiving some very interesting feedback from our community. People would like to explore the seas as well, and find knowledge in the seas, fish and technology and all that stuff. So already we're receiving features and suggestions from our player community and we love that.
Is that something you will continue even after launch?
No no no, it will be constantly updated for sure. Once we're on open beta we'll continue gathering feedback from the players and we'll keep adding functionality as well as we'll develop new products that will fit in this knowledge universe.
I'm kind of big on making my game avatars customized. Is there a lot of option for customization in Brain Storm?
In the first game not so much, but this is already something we've been asked. The beauty is that we might provide you with some customization features depending on your strength in various areas. If you're very strong in art, for example, then you might have some customization item related to art.
With Flash going out of vogue, do you have plans to move to another engine?
We have already an internal project to move that from flash and be ready to port that to a mobile platform as well. We're already working on that; coming soon!
Are you looking at porting this to consoles as well, Xbox Arcade and such?
This is something that we will discuss maybe in another meeting, but we'll keep that for ourselves at this point. But I can tell you that pretty soon this fall we'll have a mobile announcement as well.
So what's the current schedule? I'm excited about this game, can I get in on this beta?
We are currently in the closed beta phase but it's open to everyone. It will be limited to a number of players since we are testing the capacity and stuff. We are in beta phase right now and the initial numbers we're getting are very good and that's why we're opening for other players, we have other slots available for beta testing. Once this is done, we will play a few games in beta test, and we anticipate that around, you know, September/October timeframe, we might be ready for a more open beta type of launch.
A lot of startup companies—and even the big ones—are seeing a repeated issues of scaling at launch. Their numbers just overwhelm the projections and the servers don't do so well. Do you have a plan for that?
That's a very good question and you know that my background with Taleo—you know that with Taleo we built the second-largest cloud-based application in the world after Salesforce and probably Gnome, so we're used to that. We have people working here who were in Taleo as well, building infrastructure, so I'm not worried, the scalability will be there and the performance will be there.
Well I think that's about it, thank you for sharing with me so early in the morning. I'm excited about this idea, I've missed the trivia component in games so I mean it sincerely when I say “Thank you for making a game for me!”
I appreciate that, thank you! I look forward to having you in the game and hearing what you think!