Last night we broke the news that Nival Interactive has moved to the U.S. and that former Infinium Labs exec Kevin Bachus will lead the newly restructured company. Nival's shift to the West is the first-ever move of its kind for an Eastern European developer. We recently caught up with new Nival CEO Bachus to discuss how this move took place and how it will affect Nival going forward.
"The company's been around for 10 years and has done some really terrific work going all the way back to Rage of Mages, which I remember playing when the guys at Monolith published it here in the U.S., and all the way up to the Heroes of Might & Magic game that they're working on right now. They've always been solid, highly regarded and frankly profitable games," he began. "They've never really been games that have broken out on an international scale and in part that's because, as you find with many developers based in other parts of the world, they make games that they know and that they enjoy playing, and they make games that sell in their backyard, and Nival's no different."
Bachus explained how an investment holding company called Ener1 was really the catalyst behind the move: "Nival was bought by a technology venture firm last year called Ener1 Group, and they basically go out to the former Soviet Union and they find technology teams or companies or groups of individuals who have a really great idea, or products or technology and they will generally incubate it... And they saw, primarily because of the increased cost of producing video games in the last couple of years with the advent of next-generation consoles, an opportunity to do the same thing with the video game space—to find a group of people who have worked together who have the potential to break out and to do much larger scale and more widely known games and then to relocate the company's headquarters to the U.S. and bring in an American management team with game industry experience who can help guide the direction of the company."
"So they approached me a few months ago, and initially I had some reservations," Bachus continued, "because of course all of us sort of look at Eastern Europe with a mixture of fascination and some concern just simply because there are as many challenges running an Eastern European development organization as there are opportunities, but also a lot of intrigue as well; to some extent from a development standpoint this is kind of the holy grail. If you can create a management and talent organization in the U.S. that produces American oriented or Western European oriented games, but use the economics and the very, very talented skills of an Eastern European development organization, you can do some really fascinating stuff.
"You can start taking risks on original properties again, you can produce games that have a lot more content to them and a lot more capabilities because you're able to invest the same amount of budget or a smaller amount budget producing a game that is every bit as good [as other U.S. developers]."
While the Eastern European market is often overlooked here in the West, it's worth noting that its overall value is over $300 million. We covered this last year when we spoke with the leading company in the region, 1C Company. 1C, however, is a publisher and is not a competitor to Nival. In fact, 1C publishes many of Nival's products locally.
Despite Nival's ties to Russia, the company's shift to the West represents a dramatic change to its business. Bachus shot down one of the common misconceptions about the developer and emphasized to us that the new Los Angeles operation isn't simply "Nival U.S." or an extension of a Russian company into North America. "The company is now an American company. Most of the people who work for me are based in Russia, but we are an American company," he said. "We are based in Los Angeles, headquartered in Los Angeles, and I'm not the CEO of 'Nival U.S.' I really am the CEO of Nival... It truly is a global company that is based in the U.S."
He continued, "There have been Russian developers in the past who have opened field sales offices in the U.S. or sent a couple Russian guys over and that really doesn't change the dynamics very much... If you want to make games that have global appeal you need to start thinking like an American company. The way that we're producing games now is a lot more like the way you produce an episode of The Simpsons; you have like 5 or 10 guys on the Fox lot who are responsible for storylines, and scripts and recording dialogue... and then you ship all that stuff over to Korea where you have individual guys who create each of the hand drawn animation cells.
"Well, it's the same thing here. It makes a lot of sense to pay guys well in the U.S. to create the game design and the characters and the art direction in the same way you would hire your screen writer, your producer, your director or your cinematographer, but then you can have much larger, more skillful teams for the same amount of money in Eastern Europe who then are under the direction of those guys, and that's the approach here."
In its former incarnation Nival focused entirely on the PC games market. Now, however, the developer is ready to break out on all platforms. "Now we're a licensed Sony developer, we're working with a publisher on a [Xbox] 360 game concept, and so there's a lot of work that we are able to do across platforms," Bachus said, "because despite the fact that Sony spent the last ten years trying to convince the world that it takes a completely different mindset to make a console game than to make a PC game, the launch of Xbox shows that you can make that transition... I mean, let's just mention Bungie. The biggest difference between console development and PC game development is not technical; it's creative. It's making game designs and controller input schemes and character and art that are designed around the living room and television that has greater saturation... Bill Petro, our VP of Production, that's almost all he's ever done, is console games."
Speaking of interesting controller input schemes, we asked Bachus if Nival was looking at the Revolution. While his team has not gotten access to the dev kit yet, he seemed high on Nintendo's prospects. "It's always premature to count Nintendo out," he remarked. "People have been saying that the same way they've been saying that the PC is dead for the last ten years. So one of the things that we enjoy is because Revolution specs are, as reported, basically an amped up version of GameCube, it gives us, because of the history we have developing games for PC architectures, an advantage because the toolset and technologies we have are more closely aligned for Revolution than they will be for PS3 or 360, but you can make the transition anyway. Revolution will certainly be interesting to watch."
Ultimately, as with any developer, it's all about the quality of the games that Nival makes. "What we're investing in, the reason we've opened the office in LA, the reason why we're hiring these guys and why we're doing all this stuff is to produce the same level of quality that you find in Tokyo, in London, in Los Angeles, San Francisco or anywhere around the world," said Bachus. "The games have to be indistinguishable from those. We don't want to get cut some slack where somebody might be playing our game and say, 'Eh, it's not as good but it was developed in Russia. What do you expect?' That just doesn't work."