Tweens are at the crossroads of crucial debates like F2P design versus the ethical monetization of children, kids’ online safety and more. Nine months ago, WildWorks launched a mobile version of Animal Jam, its web-based social game for tweens. Tune in to, CEO of Wildworks, Clark Stacey’s talk at Casual Connect Europe to find out what they learned about tween games and moving millions of players from web to mobile with an innovative but unproven business model. Some specific things to note from Clark’s talk include: “The top grossing games for kids are not in the kids category.”, “Parents are not friction in our payment flow, they are our customers.” and “Rule for IAP: Don’t sell disappointment.”
Clark Stacey is CEO of WildWorks, a company he co-founded in 2003 with Kris Johnson and Jeff Amis. WildWorks, based in the US and Amsterdam, focuses on creating games for children that are fun, social and beautiful. Interestingly, they do not make the educational aspect of games a primary focus, for a very good reason. Clark claims, “Educational games, with very few exceptions, suck.”
But their flagship IP, Animal Jam, which was launched on the web in 2010, incorporates the fun of discovering interesting things about animals and the natural world. The educational value to children is a natural part of the experience. As Clark describes, “When we spark their curiosity to learn more about these topics, then provide them with the means to do so through adjacent resources like AJ Academy and National Geographic, we have turned them into their own educators.”
For WildWorks, success is not measured by whether a child can regurgitate facts for some test. Instead, “It’s having that child come to the family dinner table excitedly talking about wolves, and all of the obscure facts they know about them that their parents don’t. That child will be driven to learn all she can about wolves, and animals and biology in general.”
Clark points out that children can learn a great deal through games: flying around in outer space shooting boulders, drawing a line through three or more adjacent candies, or farming, if that means telling plants, animals and people what to do next. But more seriously, Clark emphasizes that children can learn anything through play and quotes educator Maria Montessori, who famously said, “Play is the work of the child.”
Inspired by Children
Clark was inspired to start their projects by his own children. Children offer adults a marvelous opportunity to see kids playing together. “If you really observe what children are doing on a playground, you’ll realize that they are actually putting on an impromptu master class in game design.”
In fact, being a parent is a vital part of what Clark does today because it “reminds me of all the little impressionistic sensations of being a kid that adults just don’t understand; the hidden world of overwhelming meaning that kids are trying to categorize into a workable model of how the world works.”
On the other hand, being a gamer has also been critical to his work because it allows Clark to avoid the mistakes made by non-gamers attempting to design experiences for children. And it allows Clark to appreciate the story-telling potential of virtual spaces that began with the MUDs and BBS games of the dialup era and is now reaching into the coming multiplayer VR experiences.
Clark’s favorite part of his work is the responses from children: spectacularly weird questions, rants, artwork, ideas, unintentional poetry and even conspiracy theories. “I could keep a pretty amazing Dadaist tweetbot going from the raw material.”
Starting as a Fight Character
In 1994 Clark was working as a bartender and bouncer at a nightclub when he first became involved in the game industry. The owner of the club was making a fight game and hired Clark to play a filmed character. The game was Ultra Vortek for the Atari Jaguar and combined green-screened actors with stop-motion and CG animated characters. Clark says, “It was a game with more attitude per pixel than the whole Mortal Kombat series combined.” They built a filming backdrop on the stage at the club and filmed during the day, figuring out how to capture usable footage as they went along, and created their own choreography and costumes. Clark discovered this was much more fun than an academic career at a local college, so a year later he joined the club owner’s game company. Fast forward eight years, and he was co-founding WildWorks.
Nothing can prepare you for the problems and challenges you encounter in starting and growing an indie game studio, Clark emphasizes. You have to learn as you go, usually through mistakes. The most difficult challenges always center around people: finding the right ones to work with, recruiting them, retaining them, forming a creative work space everyone will thrive in, and managing competing creative visions. But it seems clear that WildWorks has successfully met these challenges. There is very little attrition in this company; most of the core team from thirteen years ago is still with them.
A Team with Passion and Humor
For members of the team, Clark’s primary concern is finding those with passion and a sense of humor, since he believes the other necessary traits in a developer flow from these. Desirable qualities such as a good work ethic, grace under pressure, creative thinking, eagerness to grow their skillset and the ability to work well with others all seem to accompany passion and a sense of humor.
The most difficult talent for WildWorks to find has been senior level server and infrastructure engineering. These days the game industry must compete for this talent with banks, insurance companies, retailers and anyone else operating their businesses in the cloud.
One of the most satisfying moments for the team came two years after Animal Jam was started. The president of the National Geographic Society was attending an official function in Washington, D.C. and was approached by a visiting VIP who had urgent questions about the society’s work with children. It turned out that all the questions were about Animal Jam, and the team was naturally very excited when they heard about it. Clark relates, “The idea that we are fueling curiosity for a new generation of explorers is still one of the best parts of coming to work.”
However, not all the company’s experiences are so fortunate. A year after the launch of Animal Jam, another project came to an end when the publisher went out of business, ending the project’s funding. In the end, they were forced to lay off twenty people, a substantial part of the team and all members of the close company family. But within a couple of years they had been able to hire most of them back.
Testing and Learning
At WildWorks, whenever possible they begin testing as soon as they have mockups with simple blocks on a screen. These are the games that turn out the best, Clark believes, because structural problems can be solved before anyone has become attached to art, GUI or a broken play mechanic.
When Animal Jam – Play Wild! was in the works, they had a long Android beta period. During the play tests, Clark was most surprised by how quickly the kids hacked the game and what sophisticated tools and techniques they were using to do it.
WildWorks uses F2P, subscription and premium business models. Their web games rely on subscriptions, and Clark believes this is the ideal business model. It has straightforward metrics to track, sustainable and predictable revenue, and it is simple and straightforward for both parents and kids. Clark expects the app stores to put mechanisms in place allowing recurring subscriptions for games; they will probably also find it is the best model for children’s games.
A Revolution in Children’s Media
Children can become involved in game development; they just need to know it’s possible. Clark strongly believes in giving them a forum to show their work from an early age. They will need guidance and protection while navigating social media, but it is a powerful thing to have an online portfolio of their art, writing, code samples or apps. Clark maintains, “When they know that their work is out there being seen by the world, even if it’s just a handful of people, they become very excited about demonstrating what they can do.”
Children abandoning traditional TV is the biggest trend Clark sees coming in the industry. Children are continuing to migrate from non-interactive media to interactive experiences such as games, social networking and their own digital media content creation. Clark believes this will be a huge revolution, not only for creators of kid’s games, but also for all other media creators.
Another important trend can be seen with the rise and fall of license-driven games. Clark points out that for much of the history of console games, publishers responded to the cost and difficulty of creating great games by making mediocre games and putting popular entertainment labels on them. While initially effective at managing risk, it was not sustainable as more people began doing it. Clark believes, “Everyone will soon be doing it again, but as Glu discovered with their Katy Perry and Bond licenses, this strategy is only effective at widening the top of the user acquisition funnel. It doesn’t lead to monetization unless the game itself is good.”
WildWorks’ studio headquarters is in Salt Lake City, a year round paradise for outdoor sports. So Clark spends his free time avidly playing tennis and, with his family, exploring the mountains around their home. Clark also enjoys, “Spending time with grievous motorcycles doing things that test the limits of my spider senses.”
Catherine Quinton is a staff writer for www.gamesauce.org. Catherine loves her hobby farm, long walks in the country and reading great novels.