Over the period at the end of 1997 through the first couple of weeks
of 1998 I had a lot of fun corresponding with Eric Anschutz, CSO (Chief
Strategic Officer) of Shout Interactive,
creators of MOD.
VRML Guide: What is this MOD thing anyway?
Eric: MOD is Shout's first original property. We've chosen to express this property in the interactive space as an ongoing series of weekly cinematic Webisodes and monthly gaming experiences with some extras to boot. Around VRML98, these will be available in a stand-alone entertainment destination found at http://www.modvr.com..
VRML Guide: How do you go about authoring MOD?
Eric: Shout makes use of several tools in authoring MOD. The duality of its content - Webisodes and Experiences - demands a pair of distinct authoring tool sets. One is required to be well capable of fluidly serving the needs of creating 3D Webisodes in highly compressed production cycles, the other nimble enough to aid in the development of smart 3D gaming experiences where user interaction needs to be both unique and robust. A tall task, all the way around. Not surprisingly, our production team uses a diverse set of authoring tools to deliver these two unique faces of MOD.
Some of the authoring tools used to create MOD are provided by outside tool vendors, such as 3D Studio Max and Visual J++, while others have been developed (and continue to be refined) in-house, for authoring help unavailable anywhere else. It is also the case that much of what goes into authoring MOD occurs "by hand." The relative lack of maturity of the VRML (and somewhat Java) tool markets forces us to rely fairly heavily on the use of glorified text editors and off-the-shelf 2D pixel pushing packages. Call it "the bleeding edge blues," even though we wouldn't trade our calluses for the .wrl! (Because with each callus, the prospect of licensing or selling our own tools grows)
VRML Guide: You say you are splitting off MOD from the corporate
site. What do you mean by that?
Eric: Here's another one that makes more sense with a bit of background information. MOD's origins stem from three desires. The first was instigated by the creative genius behind Shout, Randall Ho. For months, Randall found himself unable shake the affable Jo and Oscar from his head. I think I've even overheard him say that he's dreamt of the two, conspiring on countless nights in one madcap caper after the other to head off the dastardly deeds of the bumbling Monks of Doom, led by their tireless leader, Ward Hole. Whatever the absolute truth may be, it was Randall who first breathed life into MOD. Beyond providing the proverbial glimmer in dad's eye, it is Randall who deserves full credit for MOD having won SGI's "Buzz.WRL of the Week" for every week it has been entered in the contest.
The second desire, and one representative of a consideration weighed similarly during these earliest and most formative stages of MOD, concerned the most effective use of property's supporting technologies, VRML and Java. Jim Stewartson, Shout's acclaimed technology wizard and CTO, could also sense the boundless potential offered by MOD very early on. Quickly recognizing the supreme flexibility suggested in the property, Jim knew a project like this could be stretched limitlessly to create for an ever-giving source of online interactivity. What had just been a creative concept now had legs, and many of them, if you're familiar with Jim's magical work.
(Note from Eric: The first MOD gaming experience, appropriately entitled MODvr, will lend persuasive testimony to the notion that offering several types of 3D content based on a shared property is a solid one. End users - of interactive technologies in particular - crave freedom of choice.)
The third desire in need of satisfaction, and one we all share with equal intensity, involves revenue, and lots of it, we hope. Standing as the final - and clearly most convincing - desire to satisfy in judging the potential success of this (or any interactive) project, MOD needs to produce some cold, hard cash. In assessing how best to leverage the property to generate revenue, a feat I'm first to admit we've yet to accomplish, all we have go on are a few, fairly weak examples, and a whole slew of innovative funding models. It is my expectation that MOD will cycle through several combinations of (identified) revenue streams before it finally settles into the growth intensive and autonomous revenue generating machine it so badly wants to be. So... jury's still out on the third desire, but MOD's future is looking so bright we're considering giving out shades at VRML 98.
And now, to answer the question of why we're splitting MOD off from our more corporate site: In a tip of our hats to the power of the brand, and in seeking to establish a viable funding model for the property. MOD is starving to be liberated from the restrictive environs imposed upon it by attachment to Shout Interactive. Who is Shout? Who cares... What is MOD? The process of "feeling out" various combinations of revenue streams also necessitates a high degree of freedom for the property. Yeah, MOD is very much for sale, and in whatever capacity you may want to buy into it. But Shout's not, unless of course you know someone...
VRML Guide: Would you care to elaborate on these potential revenue
streams and business models?
Eric: I'll let myself go so far as to say that advertising, sponsorship, syndication, promotions and merchandising each represent unique sources of prospective revenue Shout is considering for MOD. So as not to jeopardize negotiations we're currently in the midst of, I'll refrain from elaborating much more, though will add that the rest of the story remains somewhat elusive to us, too.
VRML Guide: I could see MOD becoming "celebrity" spokes models
..making wise cracks and comments about some product like a game or software....or
as "users" experiencing a new product.
Eric: Amen. The extent to which we can enjoy the commercial utility suggested by the MOD players is obscenely broad and deep. One of the most appealing attributes of MOD remains its inherent flexibility, to all partners involved in the project and us. To facilitate growth in this direction, situations where the MOD players find themselves acting freely or embroiled in turmoil are purposely engineered to blur the distinction between reality and fiction.
This haziness permits us to stretch the story line from the painfully real to the ridiculously absurd, and anywhere and everywhere in between. The days of Oscar - MODs lovable though thick-witted male protagonist, demonstrating (in full VR splendor) to the world just how easy it is to install that new network computer he received over the holidays are soon upon us. When even a Vespa Monk can figure out how to drive and charge one of those new electric cars in less than five minutes, how hard could it be for the rest of us? If Jo embodies such brilliant street smarts when she dons her orange crushed velvet sleeveless shirt, who's to say the same isn't true for you or me?
VRML Guide: Well I left my velvet shirt back home today but maybe
I'll break it out. Do you plan of having advertisers on MOD? Do you hope
to make any money from MOD or is it mostly a way of getting exposure?
Eric: Resoundingly yes, yes, and yes! As there are so very few proven business models from which to draw on in seeking how "best" to profit from VR/AI projects, we take a fairly simple approach to figuring out how to fund the development of our own properties: Similar project by similar project, we note the advantages and disadvantages of each project. This pool of projects now contains numerous specimen projects, many of which members of our team spearheaded in some capacity, others of which we have a less intimate knowledge of yet still understand their basic business principles. For MOD, we factored this understanding with several MOD-specific attributes, threw in a little Shout voodoo, and arrived at what we feel is the most effective balance of revenue sources (and one that's entirely plausible). If for nothing else, may MOD go down in the VR history books as 98's "Best Web Effort."
VRML Guide: Do you care to elaborate on the "specimens"?
Eric: Only a bit, as we're now somewhat treading on privileged information, disclosed only among the trusted, elite-most few. Sort of... Between Jim, Randall and myself, we've been involved with the majority of open standards 3D greats. This history, which we have helped shape first hand, spans our industry's use of enabling technologies, reaching as far back as Live 3D 1.0 and continuing right on through VRML97/2.0.
Included in this 'specimen list' are such VR classics as: Star Trek:
First-Contact (down for good), The Fifth Element, AntiGravity, Spawn VR , Xena VR, CNN 3D Globe, MOD, 1998 Nagano Olympics/IBM (no yet up) and a host of other projects based on entertainment properties that we're obligated not to mention for one reason or another. Outside of this collective Shout list, we have a rather broad understanding of the way other VRML vendors have worked for or with their funding partners. Factor in many of the great contributions blitcom, Cicada, Construct, Gravity, Newfire, Paragraph and Protozoa have made into this set, and the few others that must be escaping me right now, for a complete list of specimens.
VRML Guide: How many people work at shout?
Eric: Three, plus a few. Shout enjoys a trinity of founding principals: Randall, Jim and myself. We also benefit from several other 'shadow' employees, some of whom currently hail from overseas locations, are still in school, or are moonlighting with us from industry heavyweight employers. We'll be mainstreaming these (significant) contributors as soon as their circumstances - and our payroll - allows.
VRML Guide: How many people built each MOD episode?
Eric: Two, to date. Randall has designed and produced each of the cinematic Webisodes your readers have seen. Jim cleans, compresses, and otherwise optimizes each week's code before the final curtain call. Look for this figure to grow accordingly as the complexity of MOD's Webisodes increase and particularly as the series of gaming experiences starts to roll out.
VRML Guide: How long does it typically take to build a MOD scene?
Eric: Cinematic MOD Webisodes take two to three person-days to build. It should be noted that the talent behind these productions is exceptionally well versed in composing precisely this type of content. The depth of experience represented by this feat doesn't come quickly or easily.
VRML Guide: What do you think about the H-anim spec...and do
you see a need to build your avatars to conform to it?
Eric: Shout is behind any effort which simultaneously standardizes VRML while adds flexibility to avatar-centric environments, so long as the value gained isn't overshadowed by subsequent hits on performance or quality assurance. To date, none of the endeavors we have been involved with have required our avatars to conform with the H-Anim specification. We expect to revisit this issue as soon as open standards multi-participant environments start to approach the consumer level.
VRML Guide: Let's switch subjects to your hollyworlds experience.
Can you tell us the level of effort that went into your hollyworlds worlds?
Eric: On average, each project took two to three person-months, compressed into grueling three week delivery cycles. One can be certain that given the level of maturity of the supporting technologies behind these projects relative to those of today, a great deal of effort went into their creation and quality assurance.
VRML Guide: What is the main value your clients were after?
Eric: Purchasers of VR content are after cold, hard cash themselves, in some way or another. Knowing how your clients make money leveraging your services (and products) is the name of the game in all of business. In my experience selling VR content, the critical success factor is one always dependent upon - brace yourself - who the client is. An appropriately broad answer to this question might involve such factors as: driving page turns, associating sponsor's products with 3D eyeballs and driving the demand for computation-intensive microprocessors. Read: advertising, sponsorship and no-holds-barred, rich-uncle-backed guerilla marketing
VRML Guide: Are there any measures of success...like number of
hits or downloads?
Eric: Naturally, though they frequently remain elusive to the likes of lowly content vendors. Although full viewership statistics of commercial VR content is certainly kept somewhere, the vendors who deliver such projects - particularly within the confines of a strict work for hire arrangement - are seldom the benefactors of information this valuable. Viewership figures are highly prized benchmarks of success that can be worth a great deal of money and esteem in the hands of the right folks. By some inverse law, they can also devalue the 'advertisability' of interactive content, a force that kicks in particularly when figures are low.
The important point to remember is that mind share (spendable vapor bucks) can be worth millions, to your clients and you. Of course this is all despite the tremendous service making these figures publicly available would do for a fledgling platform like VRML, high or low. Benchmarks are simply critical. In due time, I suppose.
Perhaps we should all just be happy that there are some organizations willing to write checks for this stuff, turn the other cheek for the time being and let them keep doing things their way. At least until we're all on firmer ground, huh?
Either way, we'll let you know which one it was... After MOD's the first one to have crossed on over to that promised profit land!
VRML Guide: Well Eric, thanks for all the great info and good
luck with MOD.
Eric: Thank you for the opportunity to vent and best of luck to the VRML Guide! Viva la VRML!