Making JD McNeil laugh is pretty easy. He’s perpetually a few degrees away from smiling, which causes him to project the aura of a kindly uncle. Even if you know you’ve just told a pretty mediocre joke, McNeil willingly donates a convincing laugh right on cue. In person, it’s impossible to dislike the guy.
If your only experience of McNeil is what you’ve read about his company, Battle Academy developers Slitherine, on message boards and forums, you might have a different picture. “Price gouger”, “greedy”, “elitist” – those are just a polite sample of the terms used to describe JD McNeil and his pricing policies.
From its creation in 2000, McNeil’s Slitherine quickly became one of the best-known wargame publishers house in computer gaming. True to its name, Slitherine’s success has come from its flexibility, publishing a broad spectrum of titles from the History Channel-branded Ice Road Truckers for casual gamers to ultra-hardcore Gary Grigsby wargames that render entire theatres of World War II into ten-mile hexes and take weeks to play. When faced with a rival that was almost their equal, Matrix Games, the agile Slitherine simply absorbed them, merging into a single entity with McNeil at its head in 2010.
Even detractors cannot deny that Slitherine/Matrix are the Swiss clock-makers of the gaming world. The titles they publish (many of which are developed in-house) are intricate and detail-focused. Playing one of Matrix’s more involved games gives you the same feeling you get looking at a Renaissance sculpture: partly awestruck by the craftsmanship, partly worried for your species that almost nobody seems capable of doing this kind of thing anymore.
There’s one thing that no discussion about Slitherine will fail to mention: price. Those ten-mile-scale hexes aren’t cheap. A quick perusal of the Matrix retail site will uncover PC games at price points of thirty, forty, even eighty dollars. In a marketplace where Steam has the game-buying public on the edges of their seats waiting for the next five-dollar game sale, Slitherine/Matrix is a wild outlier.
Slitherine’s arrival on the App Store with a port their casual PC wargame Battle Academy was characteristic. Battle Academy was a huge game with hours and hours of content, plus a tap into the essentially unlimited reservoir of user-generated maps that had been made by PC players. In every way, Battle Academy was unusual – starting with its price. In true Slitherine/Matrix fashion it launched at $20, and hasn’t budged from that price since.
I sat down to talk with JD McNeil about the advice he got on Battle Academy’s price, where he thinks wargames are going, and what we can expect from Slitherine/Matrix next. See the interview after the jump.
Owen Faraday: When you released a $20 game onto the App Store, you were called greedy, crazy, and everything in-between.
JD McNeil: It was pretty enormous, the feedback we saw. Forums were all focused on the price point. We actually had a conversation with Apple as well, and they didn’t get it. They simply didn’t understand – and still don’t understand – that we deal with a very specific market sector. There aren’t any stats on this, no market research. The knowledge base entirely rests with us.
OF: So if the market is so little understood, how did you come to a business decision on the price of Battle Academy?
JD: We were given advice by all sorts of people, all sorts of pundits. We did play around with various price points, we did consider not going at the top price point, but we said, what the heck.
First and foremost, this game is not an app. It’s not an app. It’s a fully fledged, total game, with added content and within the game there’s lots of user-built content from the PC that also becomes available to the iPad user. There’s many hours of gameplay there. We also released extra campaigns as in-app purchases, which was the received wisdom, we were told that was what you should do. Our in-game purchases are ten bucks-
OF: They’re not cheap.
JD: No, because they’re not small. They’re full games themselves. It’s really interesting that in these forums posts that you read, the conversation has gone from price to quality. ‘Hey, there’s nothing else like this.’ And the transition in the conversation was just a joy to watch.
OF: Did Battle Academy sell because it was a curiosity? Or do you see this as a larger trend, as part of the maturation of the App Store?
JD: Yes. This is the App Store growing up.
OF: Do you see competitors moving in this direction?
JD: I think they’d be absolutely nuts not to. Quality games at price points that justify quality games. What’s out on the App Store at the moment is, well.. they are what they are. The difficulty for the developer is that creating on the App Store is an absolute lottery. At $1.99, or 99 cents, they can’t make money. They cannot sell enough product. Everybody’s hoping for an Angry Birds – but that’s not a business model, that’s a phenomenon.
OF: So have the results demonstrated to you that there’s an appetite for games like Battle Academy on the iPad? At that price point?
JD: Oh, I’m convinced of that.
OF: Battlefront just put out Combat Mission Touch at five bucks.
JD: They did, but it’s also a cut-down version of the game. It was a different philosophy and a different attempt at attacking this sector of the market. But I think that, from the information I can see, that they’ve had a good deal of success with what they’ve done, and they’ve got a very strong following.
OF: Can we expect to see future Matrix releases at that price point?
JD: We will go with that price point again. We’re releasing games at cheaper price points -
OF: – like Conquest.
JD: Right, but that’s a different style of game all together. And we’ll see how it does. It’s an experiment, we don’t know how that sort of product is going to do. It’s a game we’ve already brought out on PC, it’s just a question of bringing it up to iPad standards. It’ll be interesting, but it’s not where our focus is going to be. Panzer Corps will come out for iPad, and it’s going to come out at a price point comparable to Battle Academy. And we expect that to do immensely well.
OF: Are you worried about your audience shrinking? If the conventional wisdom is right, wargamers are older and more male. Is there a job to do introducing wargames to a new generation that are growing up on iPhone games?
JD: The interesting fact is that our back catalog is generating an 11% increase in sales – which means a lot to us because we don’t cut prices. We have a lot of people who are committed early adopters buying our games on day one. Cutting prices is a disservice to them, so apart from a couple of annual sales, Christmas and so forth, we don’t cut prices.
The story you might hear is that wargaming is an aging sector that’s dying off – it’s not. It’s changing in its requirements. It wants a higher level of content and an easier, but not less challenging, play. Tablets will thrive with that sort of wargame and with this newer audience. The UIs in some of these older games, the older Matrix catalog, they’re almost..
JD: Yeah. Right, exactly. With older products, as we’re bringing out tablet editions of them, what we work on is getting the click counts down and structured in such a way that you have a better experience with it. It doesn’t mean we’ll make the depth any less – the complexity will stay, but the mechanical process of playing it gets easier. That’s the most significant factor in all of this.
We’re going to keep making games that are worth the money, games that we want to play. We’re wargamers too, and I think that’s why we’re successful.