As technology evolves and tools become outdated, such changes can leave developers in the dust and struggling to convert to mobile. Join Doug Pearson, Co-Founder and CTO of FlowPlay, for a technical discussion on how and why FlowPlay tackled these challenges firsthand by transitioning Vegas World from a Flash codebase to Haxe. Doug will also discuss the cost/benefits of making the move, lessons learned, and future cross-platform strategy. This session took place at Casual Connect USA 2017 in Seattle. See the full session below.
Doug Pearson is Co-Founder and CTO of FlowPlay and is responsible for all technical aspects of FlowPlay’s virtual game worlds. In over twenty years of experience as a professional software developer Doug has led dozens of projects for organizations that include GameHouse, RealNetworks and the Department of Defense. And his PhD thesis in the field of Artificial Intelligence received a nomination for a Distinguished Dissertation Award.
Recently Casual Connect enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about Doug’s work and insights on the game industry, especially the social casino genre.
Casual Connect: When you were working on mobile titles in the early 2000s, did you anticipate that the mobile game industry would expand the way it did?
Doug Pearson: I’m not sure anyone could have anticipated that mobile would take off with the smartphone, or even the impact smartphones would make on our society. When I first started developing on mobile, the space was very fractured. We had cabinets of devices hosting up to two hundred unique devices at a time, all of which required different code for the same game. But today, the industry has narrowed down to just the two main app marketplaces for Android and iOS, which has really simplified the original challenges of developing for this platform.
CC: How do you feel the virtual world inVegas World differentiates itself from other casino focused apps?
Doug: Even within the social casino market, there are almost no other apps available today that are as truly social and community-based as Vegas World. Most social casino games are slot machines where you play on your own with little or no interaction with other players. Vegas World is the opposite – we are a social game that happens to have casino elements. Our game gives players the opportunity to have friends, chat with them, and invite them to parties, while they play their favorite casino games. We bring people in because of the casino gameplay, but we hold on to them because of the community.
CC: What were some of the technological challenges in making a casino MMO in Vegas World?
Doug: Vegas World actually wasn’t too challenging to build because the hardest part of a casino MMO is the MMO itself. Since we had already built an MMO engine for our first title, ourWorld, we were able to repurpose that infrastructure for Vegas World. Additionally, casino games are fairly simple because a majority of the gaming mechanics are well understood, so there’s no need for us to constantly reinvent the wheel like in other titles where we need to create something players have never seen. That said, we have introduced innovations to differentiate our social casino from others in the market, but the core foundation of these games was already established.
CC: How is Haxe the answer for what your company needed to shift from Flash?
Doug: Earlier this year, Adobe announced the official end-of-life date for Flash, meaning the platform our game was built on will cease to exist by 2020. After thinking long and hard, we made the decision to transition our game to a new codebase and identified Haxe as our best option after evaluating several popular platforms like Unity and Xamarin. Haxe provided several benefits that other platforms did not, including the ability to produce native mobile apps, cross-compile to HTML5 for the web using the same codebase, and access to OpenFL for porting Flash code. We also felt much more comfortable adopting an open source platform over a closed platform, giving us the power to take control and evolve it to our unique needs.
CC: How has artificial intelligence grown in ways you would expect and how has it expanded in ways you haven’t expected?
Doug: When I was studying AI in college, we were extremely limited by what our computers could do and were still running problems on our desktop computers. Now, companies typically run something on a set of thousands of servers in the cloud, each of which is running its own AI algorithms, but in parallel. This increase in power is not only a drastic difference than what was available just a decade ago, but is transforming the way AI works today.
CC: Tell us about the work you do at FlowPlay. How did you come to work at FlowPlay?
Doug: I met FlowPlay co-founder, Derrick Morton, when I was running a small contracting company, working with RealNetwork’s casual game studio, GameHouse, where Derrick was heading up its mobile games division. I found out early on that we worked well together. Derrick had the business perspective to forecast where the industry was headed, while I brought the technical ability to build and deliver a great product. When we first decided to go into business together, we had no idea what we were going to build. But over the course of a year, we eventually decided to build what we thought a valuable business in the casual games space would look like. Today we are still a strong team – Derrick on the business side and me on the technical side. And our company, which recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary, has grown into everything we would have wanted.
CC: What is your favorite thing about your job?
Doug: It’s hard to choose because I truly love my job, but if I had to pick a favorite thing, it would be the group of people I get to work with every day. If I was doing the same thing but with another group of people, I believe I would not enjoy my job nearly as much. Slowly and carefully, we have worked to assemble an amazing set of positive people, with great chemistry and a great company culture.
CC: What inspired you to pursue this career?
Doug: I started my career in the games industry because I have always loved writing games and building game software. I have always been one of those people that spends more time building games than actually playing them because I love thinking about the design, what makes them work and trying out new ideas. To this day, whenever I’m playing a new game, I still try to figure out how it works on the backend, keeping my fascination with the industry alive.
CC: Do you have any advice for someone interested in pursuing the same career?
Doug: Anyone that wants to work in game development needs to be writing games, and more importantly, finishing any games they start. I have talked to hundreds of people that have started games, but the real lesson is to finish it. Launching a game into the app store today can be done by practically anyone because it’s such an open platform. I believe there is no excuse not to finish a game once it has been started, and if a person is serious about games, he or she should be able to take it from the idea phase across the finish line into the app store. And I’m not saying it has to be a really great and successful game. It can do horribly, and that is completely fine, as long as it is used as a lesson. Getting a game all the way out the door to be downloaded and played proves the chops and passion needed to be successful in this industry.
CC: When and how did you first become interested in coding?
Doug: I first became interested in coding the day after someone demonstrated how to write a program in my high school math class. The guest wrote a very short program on a text screen right in front of us that only made a simple calculation, but I was immediately hooked. As a result, I joined the computer club the following day and read the manual front-to-back within twenty-four hours before starting to write programs on my own. With coding, I never had to test the waters. Something just clicked, and I could see this path was a good thing for me.
CC: Where do you find the most inspiration for your designs? What was the most interesting thing you found inspiration from?
Doug: A lot of my design inspiration comes from spending time looking at other games and thinking about what makes them work or not work, which might be a bit different from most people when playing a game. Players typically think in terms of if it is fun or not, but I take a very analytical approach, looking at each aspect of the game. This is something I have always done instinctively. When building our games at FlowPlay, the underlying framework for our platform was inspired by me mentally reverse engineering what was going on behind the scenes of other popular MMOs at the time. I once heard someone describe a game as a series of interesting decisions, and that’s exactly what games are to me. It’s what makes games fun.
CC: If you had unlimited resources and time, what type of game would you create?
Doug: I would build the next version of Civilization. It was the first game that completely hooked my life in the way that some games can, and is still my idea of one of the most creative types of games in its genre. If I had time and infinite resources, I would love to build the next follow-on game in that series.
CC: What is the most challenging part of game development for you? What is the most rewarding part?
Doug: For me, the most challenging part of game development is that we are looking for magic and won’t really know whether or not we have found it until after the game has launched. This magic ultimately comes down to connecting with players and creating a game that excites them. There have been times we have built new features that we think are fantastic and the players think are terrible, and vice versa. There have also been times when we have been really close, and just missed creating a complete failure. It will always be really difficult to predict what your player will think, but you still have to take chances because that chance might be your next big success.
On the flip side, the most rewarding part is that it feels like we’re having a constant conversation with our players, particularly with the way we build games today. When I started in the software business, the product was something you spent one to two years building before shipping it off, and that was the end of it. You sent it off, it went out into the ether, and people either loved or hated it, but there was no true feedback. At FlowPlay, we are releasing our product every two weeks into a player base of hundreds of thousands of people who are living and breathing everything we do. It’s very satisfying to receive a continuous stream of feedback that shows us what we are doing truly matters.
CC: What methods do you use to handle creative blocks? Do creative blocks occur frequently?
Doug: As a team, we experience our fair share of creative blocks when brainstorming new and innovative ideas, and sometimes hit a wall where our design does not feel quite right. When that happens, we typically throw out as many ideas as possible in the hopes that when we come together to discuss them something will come out of the conversation. This process does not and will not work for everyone – our collaborative way of working is atypical for many games companies. Coming together as a group a creative individuals to solve a problem or create something new has certainly worked for us.
CC: What was a painful experience you found a way out of? How did you do it?
Doug: Personally, the most painful experiences I’ve had while running FlowPlay were the two times we had to lay off employees. When you have to fire someone, you are able to recognize this is a relationship that is not working for both parties. But layoffs are brutal, because they are not about who the employee is as a person or even their work product, rather just the business economics. The time we had to shut down a failed game was also difficult because we felt like we were taking something away from our players. But in the end, it was the best decision for everyone at the time.
CC: What has been the proudest moment of your career so far? What led to this moment happening?
Doug: There have been some great milestones over the course of the company, but up to this point, I would have to say my proudest moment is giving out 10-year service awards to a few of our employees who have been with us since we started. In today’s market, a two-year stint at a company to be great, but to run a company that has employees who have been here more than ten years – I have to say I’m very proud of that.
CC: What do you think will be the next big trend in the industry in the next three to five years? How are you incorporating this trend into your future plans?
Doug: We have never been a company that looks for the next big trend – in fact, we’ve based our business on doing the opposite. When we first entered the industry, the big trend at the time was bringing applications to Facebook and then getting onto mobile. While we are on both platforms now, we aren’t the company to chase the trend that everyone else in the industry is chasing. Certainly we think about the trends coming and going in our market, but it’s not core to our business. For us, we know humans are social and like hanging out with each other, so we make games based on that experience and try to make them as interesting and fun as possible.
CC: What do you think your staff most commonly says about you? What do your employees think of you?
Doug: I would hope our employees think both Derrick and I care about them, not just in terms of the company’s health, but care about them as people that are fulfilled and satisfied in what they do on a daily basis. We have tried to make FlowPlay an environment where good people come to do good work, and hope that is what it feels like for our employees today. The value of the company isn’t the product you sell, but it’s the team behind the company that really matters.
CC: What attributes do you look for in a member of your team?
Doug: At a high level, Derrick and I generally look for people who have good values, but from a technical perspective, I look for someone who is genuinely interested in writing software and personally passionate about writing a great game. There are many ways to find out if someone is invested in bettering themselves professionally. If they take the time to read books on software development, write games on the side or attend game conferences, these activities show they really care about what they do. In terms of office morale, we try to find people who can work in group settings and want to be part of a collaborative team and contribute to the overall company culture. While this is something most companies are trying to find in a prospective employee, I feel we place a higher value on this than most other companies.
CC: Mobile social casino has proliferated far and wide – often even garnering high numbers of users in places where real money gambling (RMG) gaming is legal. In your experience, do social casino and RMG threaten each other or complement each other? Are the studios that put out these games fighting for the same users or are they catering to different demographics? And finally, as mobile social casino continues to surge, will it displace RMG or will RMG continue to grow as well?
Doug: In today’s market, social casino and real money gambling (RMG) complement each other because the two serve different needs. RMG gives players the opportunity to win real money, while the social casino market is more about fulfilling the need for people who can’t get to the RMG experience or who don’t want to risk real money. In the future, these two worlds may collide if gambling regulations change, but for now, we’ll continue to see social casinos and RMG coexist and serve their own unique audiences.
CC: What opportunities are there for land-based casinos and mobile social casino studios to work together? What can the two different industries learn from each other?
Doug: There are several clear examples of crossover between land-based casinos and social casinos. Social casino companies are starting to partner with land-based brands to bring the same content on the casino floor into the comfort of your home. If you think of it, it’s a natural upsell to give players the option to continue their gaming experience on their phone or tablet.
As far as learning from each other, land-based operators are very skilled at understanding who their players are and build their games based on these insights, which is something social casino developers aim for. Take slot machines for example. There is so much more behind the machine than just pressing a button, a few wheels spin and a prize gets handed out in the end. It comes down to every detail, from the presentation to the way it sounds and how they build the effects. There is a lot of skill that goes in to the creation, which is something I think social casino developers could think more about.
CC: Do you see Apple Watch or Oculus as future platforms for social casino?
Doug: Someone might figure this out, but do I think FlowPlay will be doing it any time soon? Probably not. While it would be fun to do something in VR, I can’t imagine our players putting on a headset to play the game – especially since some of our players don’t even own a smartphone.
CC: A lot of attention is being paid to skill-based casino gaming. Do you see opportunities there?
Doug: There are definitely opportunities in skill-based casino gaming, and it is a market we have started to look into as a company. Skill-based gaming creates a huge range of possibilities for developers, whether that means creating the next big video poker game or a completely new experience. We feel this is an area to expand on, and something we plan to explore further.
CC: For social casino, is there still such a thing as an emerging market?
Doug: There will always be new and innovative things happening in the social casino space because companies are always reinventing themselves and games are constantly evolving. I do not doubt there will be many things to come in the space – some of which will be successful and some will not – but we’ll just have to wait and see what’s to come.
Catherine Quinton is a staff writer for www.gamesauce.org. Catherine loves her hobby farm, long walks in the country and reading great novels.