Mobile is here to stay in social games worldwide. The Latin American market is a strong example of this foothold. In a talk entitled The Challenge of Mobile Social Games in Latin America, CPO of Akamon Entertainment, Alex Cohen, explained how to decide the most appropriate mobile platform in each country of Latin America. or being able to engage users in mobile as done online are key. Alex reflected, “I think there is a general impression in Latin America that it is a market that is full of low income feature phone users . . . In practice that really is not true. Smartphone penetration in Latin America is up in the range of 67% and feature phone penetration is smaller and declining.” To hear more stereotypes busted, listen to Alex’s talk from Casual Connect Europe.
Alex Cohen, an experienced casino game designer, is Chief Product Manager at Akamon Entertainment, leading the product design and development team as well as being responsible for the company’s portfolio. Prior to working at Akamon, Alex spent nine years designing slot machines in the land-based industry for IGT (where several of the early titles are still among DoubleDown’s most popular) and online for a small Stockholm studio, Quickspin. The advantage of these past experiences has been developing a comfort zone for working in environments with a rapid rate of change, with immense competitive pressure in the market and where it can be necessary to build a superior product with relatively few resources.
Different Markets, Different Trends
Alex’s educational background was in mathematics and statistics with a B.S in Mathematical Sciences and Operations Research. The inspiration for a career in the games industry came through searching for a fun, creative way to apply this background. As Alex points out, “Being an actuary might have been okay, but I think the constant novelty of the gaming industry has meant that it constantly challenges and reengages me.”
The most enjoyable aspect of working at Akamon for Alex is the variety. Akamon’s wide geographical footprint means they see different trends in the various markets. “It’s fascinating to pour through the data we have for Latin America and Europe, and then contrast it with trends we also see from our sister company Diwip, whose user base is primarily in the US.”
There was little early indication that Alex would become a part of the games industry; an interest in mathematics did not emerge until about age 15 or 16, and the internet was still very new at that time. The appeal of coding began to evolve about a year later, which Alex now considers comparatively old for what children should be doing today.
Ideas Come Constantly
Alex’s creative process is “a constant queue of ideas”, any of which may come from looking at data, listening to feedback, watching customers or seeing what is happening in parallel markets; then “having an epiphany about how that can be imported into our fields.” But it is essential to prioritize these ideas to avoid spending time “chasing mice.” The greatest inspiration comes from noticing an aspect of the market where there is a clear need for improvement or seeing something and believing their team can do it better. And with so much going on, creative blocks are never a problem; when one occurs, Alex simply moves ahead with something else.
Unlimited resources would not be an advantage, according to Alex. Without some constraints of time, money or ROI, product designers would never know when something is good enough and would probably go on tweaking something endlessly without ever releasing it.
Understanding the “Why”
The most challenging part of game development is understanding the “why”; no matter how much data is available, you can’t be certain how users will react to the game until you see how the individual players behave with it. Alex maintains, “Testing hypotheses is a science, but developing good hypotheses in the first place is definitely an art.”
Painful experiences come every day with B2C marketing. One of the biggest challenges for Akamon is that their markets tend to convert slowly, so there is a lot of pain as they discover whether they are on the wrong track with a product, or the market just needs time to mature.
The most satisfying time Alex remembers in his career came early in his work with IGT. A slot game, Treasures of Troy, was very novel for the time, so there was considerable internal debate about whether they were going in the right direction. Then, a year after the game was first conceived, since land-based games take a long time to release, the first performance numbers came in, showing that the risk had paid off. “It was a fantastic high!” Alex says.
If you would like to have a similar career, Alex recommends, “Try to understand as much about the different parts of the business as possible. If you work in a B2C internet company, you have many different competencies right in front of you.”
The Future of Social Casino
In social casino, Alex foresees three important trends. The first is finding a way to get users into social casino from a broader audience. The really valuable players are probably already in the market but Akamon has discovered in their emerging markets that companies can still get good results by building up volume and getting players into the right kind of casino game. Second, it will be important to find ways to detect high-value users early. Is the player a perpetual non-payer or, instead, someone who is already spending $1000 per month on one of your competitors? Finally, it will be difficult for some of the early games to hang on to their players. There is already a trend toward using multiple applications to meet this problem, with companies such as Zynga, funneling their players toward them. And sometimes a non-payer in one app turns into a loyal payer in another.
In the US, only a few states permit online gambling and non-regulated social casino apps are predominant. But Alex notes that this is not the case in the global market; online RMG is ten times as big as social casino. Although it has fewer users, it is a highly evolved and competitive market.
As a future platform for social casino, Alex believes Oculus Rift is a possibility but it would require a 180 degree shift from the current direction. The problem is that mobile gaming operates on small pockets of time – while on the subway you can play a slots game instead of reading the paper, for example. But Oculus requires the player to set aside a block of time for it. Apple Watch could also be a platform for social casino, but smart watches are caught in a conundrum: app developers don’t focus much functionality on them because the user base isn’t there and users don’t focus on them because there isn’t a lot of functionality.
Opportunities for Skill-Based Gaming
Alex does see opportunities in skill-based casino gaming. There are already card games with players definitely accepting the skill element. Other areas are more difficult; it is important to remember that while players are learning a game, even in social casino, they are losing money quickly. Card games like poker, blackjack and others work because the players are already familiar with the game.
There are certainly still emerging markets in social casino, Alex insists. The US and similar markets have an advantage in infrastructural and cultural terms, making for user bases that are easy to convert. However, Akamon is an example of building up a social casino market where the users have to be introduced to social casino as a concept.
Alex occupies his free time with hiking in the mountains, traveling and trying new kinds of food.
Catherine Quinton is a staff writer for www.gamesauce.org. Catherine loves her hobby farm, long walks in the country and reading great novels.