Will Quick Hit Score Big? Behind the Scenes with Foxborough’s Newest Team

5/29/09Follow @wroush

There’s a company in Foxborough, MA, not two miles away from the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium, where a crew of veteran online game developers is putting the finishing touches on a potentially groundbreaking new game about football.

Now, I can tell you all about why the venture-funded startup, Quick Hit, is likely to dazzle the sports gaming world with its genre-busting title when it debuts this fall. I can explain how it combines elements drawn from fantasy-driven role-playing games, online casual games, console games, and even TV sports. But I have to disclose something up front: I don’t know jack about football. I can’t tell you the difference between a wide receiver and a tight end, or between an offsides penalty and a yellow card. (Or is that soccer?) So please listen carefully while I explain what’s so interesting about Quick Hit—but when it comes to the football stuff, don’t ask me to vouch for the details.

The core team at Quick Hit—which, until January, was called Play Hard Sports—includes CEO Jeffrey Anderson, vice president of product Aatish Salvi, producer Geoff Scott, and general counsel Kelli O’Donnell, who all left Westwood, MA-based Turbine in 2008. Turbine is famous for building massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) based on the Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings brands. To play a Turbine game, you fork over $10 to $20 for the initial software download, plus a $10 per month subscription fee.

Quick Hit’s football game, which is in its beta-testing phase now and will be opened to the public on September 9, is a very different animal. It’s part of an emerging category of “lightweight games” that are less expensive, processor-intensive, and time-consuming than console games or MMORPGs, but more immersive, socially interactive, and graphically rich than online casual games like Bejeweled.

A few of Quick Hit's leading players. L to R: Geoff Scott (producer), Jeffrey Anderson (CEO), Brandon Justice (director of design)

A few of Quick Hit's leading players. L to R: Geoff Scott (producer), Jeffrey Anderson (CEO), Brandon Justice (director of design)

Anderson says he’d been thinking about the need to lower the cost barrier to gamers even before leaving Turbine. “I became concerned about what the future would hold for the MMORPG business,” he told me. “The price point moved a lot of consumers out of the space and made it difficult for the average or light gamer to get excited about what was going on.” But Anderson’s proposal to make Turbine’s future games free, and to turn to a combination of advertising and microtransactions for revenue, didn’t sit well with the company’s board.

So he and his small crew of believers started fresh, with a game that would have rich, high-quality interaction but a low enough price point (namely, zero) to be accessible to millions of people. To build it, they turned to Adobe’s browser-based Flash animation platform and desktop-based Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) environment. That’s the same technology underlying desktop programs like the popular Twitter clients Twhirl and Tweetdeck; it’s become the dominant way for companies to deliver “rich Internet applications” without requiring users to buy or install new software.

I got a preview of Quick Hit’s game during a visit with Anderson a couple of weeks ago. Quick Hit users–let’s call them team coaches—start out by assembling offensive and defensive lineups. (The company doesn’t have a license with the NFL, so the players and teams are entirely fictional.) Coaches then enter an online gaming lobby, where they can find other Quick Hit users to play against. Games last 20 to 25 minutes, with TV-style commercials between each quarter. Since the game is free, these ads will be one of Quick Hit’s primary revenue sources.

For each turn in the game, the coach controlling the ball picks an offensive play, and the coach on the other side of the line picks an appropriate defensive formation. (I’m skating on the very edge of my football knowledge here.) Once all the players are lined up, the software executes the play, while the coaches look on from a bird’s-eye point of view. How many yards the offense gains or loses is determined in part by the comparative health and skill levels of the simulated players, and in part by how cannily the coaches select their plays.

The on-field graphics in Quick Hit are far more schematic, and the selection of plays far more limited, than what users of console-based games like Madden NFL are probably used to. But that’s okay, because Quick Hit really isn’t about the violence, the simulated sweat on each player’s brow, or the dexterity of the person at the controls. It’s about the play-by-play tactics and the choices that go into building a strong team over time.

Which is where the role-playing game elements come in. In Quick Hit, the gamer’s team is the equivalent of a character or an avatar in a classic MMORPG. Like a fantasy character, a Quick Hit team gains experience in the form of “fantasy points” for every game completed. (Winning, of course, garners more points than losing.) After gaining a certain number of points, a team advances by one experience level, at which point the coach gets “coaching points” that can be applied to individual team members, such as the quarterback or the running backs, to improve their skills. For example, a certain number of coaching points might earn the quarterback a “cannon arm” that makes passes go deeper. Part of the strategy in Quick Hit lies in knowing the skills of your own team and scoping out the skills of the opposing team, and picking plays accordingly.

Quick Hit ScreenshotThere’s a lot more to Quick Hit than I have space to describe here. (By which I really mean, there’s a lot more than I could absorb from Anderson’s demo, suffering as I do from football-related attention deficit disorder.) But one of the neat things about the game is that beginners can choose from broad-brush plays like “run” or “pass” while more experienced users can drill down into a playbook with scores of unique formations, each with their own complicated choreography. From playing RPGs, I can definitely understand the appeal of nurturing a team over time, deciding where to invest coaching points, and testing a team’s mettle against competitors. And I can see lots of other ways for Quick Hit to add complexity for those who want it—not to mention monetization opportunities. (Anderson says the company is already making plans to sell branded virtual goods—think virtual Gatorade, giving your offensive line a temporary burst of speed.)

But I have a hard time predicting exactly how big of a hit Quick Hit will be. There’s no denying that casual Internet games are on the upswing—especially social games in which users are playing against other humans rather than a computer. And the company was wise to focus on a game that’s already America’s national obsession. As Anderson puts it, “Most people already know everything about football.” (To which I say: speak for yourself.) But he’s right—even apart from all the passion and money generated by actual college and NFL football, the sport has a generous online following, claiming more fantasy-league adherents, by far, than any other sport. (There are 22.5 million fantasy football league members in the U.S., compared to 8.1 million for baseball and 5.7 million for basketball, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.)

I do wonder, though, how quickly the three most obvious audiences for a new online sports strategy game—console game players, MMORPG players, and fantasy league participants—will cotton to a game that bends and mixes genres the way Quick Hit does. My concern, in fact, is that the company may be occupying whatever is the opposite of a sweet spot. Madden NFL players may be put off by the relatively primitive graphics and the swords-and-sorcery-style point system, MMORPG players turn up their noses at a game about conventional sports, and fantasy-league fans may miss the connection to real teams and players.

But Bob (who’s editing this piece) points out that Quick Hit might be perfect for the many fantasy players who like the idea of console sports games but can’t or don’t want to put in the time to master the controls. They’ve already mastered the “brain” part of football video games, just not the physical part—and now they won’t have to. And Samantha Smith, Quick Hit’s director of communications, says the company has done its homework, and is confident that it’s targeting a big audience. In a company-sponsored survey of 1,000 football fans and gamers last summer—all male, and all between the ages of 14 and 40—85 percent said they would “definitely” or “most likely” want to play Quick Hit, Smith says. And the RPG elements that Quick Hit is incorporating, says Anderson, “are the same ones that have proven to be widely successful after a decade of use in the industry…Advancement, skills, leveling are things that have been tried and truly tested.”

With a $13 million venture pot provided by Menlo Park, CA-based New Enterprise Associates and Vienna, VA-based Valhalla Partners, the company should have the resources it needs to adjust the game in response to user feedback come this September. While its quarters in Foxborough are spacious—and even show a touch of dot-com-era architectural enthusiasm, such as the giant gridiron on the wall of the entrance lobby—the startup has a lean team, with only 25 employees, and isn’t spending anything close to the $20 million to $100 million that can go into a developing a typical MMORPG or console game these days.

Quick Hit Team Preview Screenshot“There is a blockbuster-film approach to building these titles, but the downside risk is that you play a Madden NFL once or twice and you’re done,” says Anderson. “On the other end of the spectrum you can do an iPhone or Nintendo DS game for $250,000, but those games have no real replayability or depth. In our product, we’re building in these elements of advancement to keep people playing.” And having constructed a game engine that can handle a sport as complex as football, Anderson says, Quick Hit is in good position to apply its approach to other sports like soccer, baseball, or basketball.

You may be wondering whether Quick Hit’s decision to locate in Foxborough really has anything to do with the Patriots. As it happens, the team’s former practice field is visible out the window at Quick Hit. But the startup’s location actually has more to do with mental hospitals than with football. Its offices are part of the old Foxborough State Hospital, which, as Anderson explained to me, opened in 1889 as the nation’s first facility for the treatment of alcoholics (then called “dipsomaniacs”) and later became a treatment center for patients with psychiatric disorders.

The facility closed in 1976 and was abandoned for many years, except for the occasional Halloween haunted house fundraiser—doubly fitting, given the nearby cemeteries, which are the final resting ground for 1,100 anonymous former patients. The former hospital campus is now being redeveloped by Boston-based Vinco Properties under the appropriately anodyne name Chestnut Green; Quick Hit chose the location because Anderson lives in Foxborough.

And that, gentle readers, is my first and probably last column about football. You can sign up to be a Quick Hit beta tester at www.quickhit.com; if you try it, I’d love to hear back about whether you think the formula works.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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