“Over the past few years, a bunch of things have changed,” Mark Gazecki said during his session at Casual Connect USA 2014. “For one, the classic TV demographic has become gamers. This wasn’t the case five or ten years ago. The other thing is that there’s mass market reach, true mass market reach, just like prime time television. Social games have started to be just like that, with the same kind of reach.”
Mark Gazecki has always loved video games, right from the first Atari and Commodore 64 games, and he has never lost that love. Years later, while working in venture capital, he looked at many online games companies. With the growth of browser games, he decided to leave venture capital and founded Game Genetics, a game distribution business for online and mobile games. Then he started MegaZebra, a developer for cross-platform games, and HoneyTracks, which he describes as a company that does interesting things with data for games companies. Gazecki has an MBA from Harvard Business School and feels it was truly amazing to be able to spend two years in an incredible environment with extraordinarily talented people.
Filling Some Friends’ Needs
It just happened that he ended up in the games industry, and Game Genetics was his start. Then he kept on having startup ideas. MegaZebra started after Game Genetics was out of the gate when a few friends, who were running social networks at the time, asked if his company could provide them with social games which leverage social graph functions. Since Game Genetics was a distribution business without any such games, he asked them to wait a couple of months. He then looked for co-founders, and soon after, MegaZebra had developed their first social games and was putting them up on Facebook and other social networks.
It is the creative process that keeps Gazecki intrigued with games. He finds the work intellectually stimulating because these are complex entertainment products which bring together many disciplines. And he finds the people in the games industry passionate, driven, and humble.
Gazecki believes the next important trend in the games industry will be games that incorporate TV type experiences. MegaZebra is already trying this with their new game, Suburbia.
Loving The Cross Platform Experience
These days, Gazecki is playing a lot of Suburbia. As well, he tests many games on Facebook, iPad, and iPhone. Some of these are Farmville 2, Hay Day, Disney City Girl, and Surviving High School. He especially likes gaming on his iOS devices because he enjoys both their interface and Airplay connectivity, which allows him to connect music, video, and games with speakers and large screens. He says, “I feel that the cross-platform experience is starting to be awesome!”
He also still enjoys using his PS3, mainly for sports games, but also the occasional game of Assassin’s Creed or Red Dead Redemption. He insists that consoles deliver the best big screen experience, and he enjoys sports games most on a console. And he says, “Just like in the old days, recently we got a group together again to hook our controllers up to one Playstation and get the game on.”
When he is not involved with work, he likes DJing and producing music, mainly hip-hop and funk. These are also the music genres he listens to, as well as Kraftwerk, the German electro pioneers. He would love to have a startup idea in the music sector, but that hasn’t happened yet. If that doesn’t happen and if it wasn’t for more work in the games industry, he claims he would produce hip-hop music and drive cabs to actually be able to earn a living.
Nick Berry has come full circle. As a kid, Berry loved loved playing with computers — including programming games. However, like many boys, he also loved rockets and airplanes. When the time came to enroll at a university, he faced a tough decision between his two passions. While a degree in video games or video game programming was unheard of in those days, degrees in computer programming and aeronautical/astronautical engineering did exist.
“I solved the problem with the arrogance that only youth provides! I humbly decided that I already knew plenty about computers and that it would be a waste to go to college to be taught by some professor about something I already knew about!” Berry says. “Also, technology was moving so fast that all the books about computers at the time I read seemed to talk about paper tape and punch cards. Why learn about those antique things?”
Settling on engineering, Berry eventually emerged from university with a master’s degree. He was all set for a career as a research scientist at the UK Ministry of Defense when an old friend invited him to join a software company he was starting.
The company, NextBase Ltd., was very successful and won numerous accolades for its work in mapping software, including The Queen’s Award for Technology, presented by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991. In 1994, the business was sold to Microsoft, and Berry joined the Microsoft team in America to continue work on the mapping products. Eventually, seeking a new challenge, he joined a small team at Microsoft tasked with connecting players around the world to online games.
After years and years, Berry was back in computer gaming.
Facebook and Gaming
Berry now works as a data scientist at Facebook, where gaming still plays an important role. Although Facebook doesn’t make games itself, “we love games (and their developers), and the scale is massive,” Berry says. “In 2013, we paid out over $1 million each to more than 100 developers.”
Currently, there are over 375 million Facebook-linked gamers across desktop and mobile devices. Facebook provides tools and services to help with login and authentication, help serialize and store game data in the cloud, tools and services for marketing and promotion, and mechanisms for players to share achievements and progress with their friends and family.
Berry notes that over 70 percent of people who use Facebook for iPad worldwide have played a Facebook-connected game in the past 90 days. There are over 260,000 apps built around Parse, Facebook’s solution to make it easy for developers to use the cloud to store data, and the Facebook ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ buttons are viewed over 22 billion times a day.
Berry’s job involves picking through all the data Facebook accumulates for useful information. “There is an immense fire-hose of data flowing into Facebook every second,” he says. “This data has to be refined and concentrated to make it actionable: What games are people playing? Who is spending money? How many games are they playing at the same time? If people like one game, do they like another? … and hundreds of other questions. I help boil the ocean, looking for statistically significant trends and patterns, and turn raw data into more refined and digestible summaries.”
Trust and the Knowledge Economy
Being a data scientist gives Berry a unique perspective on data, and he is an advocate of data “trust,” which he feels is a better term than “data privacy.” “‘Privacy’ is the wrong word to use these days,” he explains. “We should be using the word ‘Trust.’ We are living in a knowledge economy, and the value many of us add in this industry is in the manipulation of information — not in the creation of some tangible hardware product. We take raw data (often customer data), and add value to it. We should use this data respectfully. People trust us with it. Without trust, people will not share, and data is the fuel of the knowledge economy.”
He admits that “trust” can be hard to define, but that once it’s breached, it becomes clear. He notes that people handling data should “say what they do and then do what they say.” Transparency is extremely important — it should be made clear what a company is doing with a customer’s data and what that customer is getting in return for the data. That way, there are no surprises from people about what is being done with their information.
Away From the Datastream
Because of all the computer time involved with work, Berry spends his free time staying active and healthy. To that end, this year will be the fourth consecutive year he runs in the Seattle Half Marathon. “I’m a very slow runner, but I run the entire way without stopping. I do, however, find running incredibly boring, so I typically run and train with a media player and listen to audio books.”
Much of his free time is dedicated to his 10-year-old twins. However, when he gets the time, he does enjoy sharing what he knows in various ways. He’s an avid blogger, with his blog DataGenetics revolving around “data science, gaming and general geekery” — and he also mentors for the start-up/gaming community in Seattle. Two of his biggest accomplishments are also helping educate people: A TED talk on online safety which he calls a “very humbling, enjoyable experience” and a jet engine he built from scratch as the final project for his university degree — which, 26 years later, is still in use teaching new waves of engineering students.
The next feat he’d like to accomplish?
“I want to build a log cabin. I’ve got the land; now all I need is the spare time.”
Holly Liu is the chief of staff and culture at Kabam, overseeing HR and driving Kabam’s vision, mission, and values for its 800 employees around the globe. Previously, she was VP of people ops and user experience and led design for Kabam’s very successful game, Kingdoms of Camelot. Here she discusses her experiences with Kabam and her insights into the evolving game industry.
Entering the Game Industry
I entered the game industry because the free-to-play business model enabled me to connect directly with players. Before I started in the game industry, I had spent my time designing products that were based around the advertising business model. I had never been in the gaming industry before, so I’m not sure if I had any expectations. However, once I became involved in the industry, what I did learn was the fundamental difference between product design and game design. Product design can be thought of as blocks or “features” that can be stacked next to each other – not necessarily affecting one another; however, game design needs to be thought of as co-centric loops and a whole eco-system, where moving one piece will affect another, and expanding the game isn’t just “turning on features.”
The Creation of Kabam
Kabam was founded in 2006 initially as watercooler-inc, focused on things that people would talk about at work around the water cooler. We initially created the largest TV and sports fan communities on Facebook, which was so popular that when ABC wanted to distribute video, they called us rather than Facebook. That was the height of our fan communities. However, when the 2008 mortgage crisis hit, it adversely impacted us because our communities and business model were based on advertising revenue. We spent some time talking about what we should do given the climate for our particular business model. The first thing we decided was to stay in the game. We looked at three things: market opportunity, team capabilities, and passion points. First, we had a passion for games, especially our CEO, who loved PC-strategy-based games. Secondly, our team had over 60 years of cumulative experience creating and launching Facebook applications. And finally, we were realizing that Facebook games, coupled with the free-to-play business model, were growing during these trying times. That was what really our start into gaming.
Our CEO was frustrated with the lack of depth of the current Facebook games and wanted to bring a deeper game to the Facebook audience. So we started building the first strategy-based game for Facebook using the ever popular lore of Camelot. We used a lot of community building strategies we had learned from our fan communities to connect people within alliances. Today, our Kingdoms of Camelot franchise has grossed over $250 million dollars in revenue and was the top grossing application in 2012 in the iOS store. We have connected millions of players who have made lifelong friendships, connections, and marriages.
Lessons From Kingdoms of Camelot and Kabam
Through this experience, I learned that entrepreneurship is a full contact sport. Be ready to take everything you have learned – not only what you learned in books at school, but also on the playground and at family dinners, and bring it to the table. You are in the ring. The good thing is you don’t have to do it alone. Make sure you have the right team with whom you can do the best work of your life. With the right team, you can make sure you are getting the right product out the door, and you will be able to raise capital to make this happen. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
In the beginning, my role was to help design a game that was accessible for the Facebook audience. While we knew there were gamers on Facebook, we also knew that a lot of people with no gaming experience would be exposed to Kingdoms of Camelot. Therefore, I spent a lot of time on the first time experience, as well as encouraging the player to get help from and engage friends. I was really inspired by some of the Camelot lore we grew up with and by the idea of transporting the player back in time to the medieval age where there were kings, lords, ladies, princes, and princesses. The concept was influenced by many of the Asian PC-strategy based games as well as a little from Sid Meier’s Civ. The game certainly exceeded our expectations not only on monetizaton but also with the deep connections between players. Personally, what I most enjoy seeing are the connections and how this game has changed people’s lives. The interesting thing is we are changing the world one connection and one player at a time – and I’m not sure how you can change the world without changing people first.
Now as the chief of staff and culture, I am responsible for overseeing HR, internal communications, and knowledge sharing (as a subset of internal communications). Currently, my day will include various meetings on how we can increase knowledge sharing, syncing up with people, and check-ins with various employees. Larger scale projects involve defining the cultural vision, setting up the internal communications framework and executing upon it, and finally, knowledge-sharing projects and milestones. My day-to-day activities all support these larger initiatives.
The Evolving Game Industry
There have been three large shifts for the game industry in recent years. The first has been platform changes. With the astronomical growth of the smartphone, we have seen people shift some of their gaming time to the mobile phone. In the West in particular, we have seen this impact the portable gaming consoles. Also, with the accessibility of the mobile phone, the gaming audience has widened past traditional gamers who are well-versed with the controller, out of the living room and into people’s pockets. This means a whole list of issues on how to get distribution on this platform and whether there is a first mover advantage. Currently for iOS and Android, the platform is moving much closer to a retail store where shelf space is limited, given that there is only so much content that can be featured on a limited shelf space.
We have seen the model move from a consumer goods business model to a service-based micro-transaction model.
The second shift has been around the business model, particularly in the West. We have seen the model move from a consumer goods business model to a service-based micro-transaction model. Or in the mobile phone context: paid apps vs. in-app purchases. In 2012, Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North was the #1 Top Grossing app across the iOS store, beating out Facebook, Pandora, Yelp, as well as any other paid app. This really ushered in a new viable business model, as it was one of the first times an in-app purchase app had beat out paid apps for the Top Grossing spot on the iOS store. The implications of this shift have radically transformed how we think about game making. Rather than thinking about a game like a movie, we need to think of a game as a TV show. In movies, as in traditional gaming, the first week is crucial to how well the movie will do. Doing well in the first weekend is the best indicator to how the movie will do over its lifetime. For a TV show, the pilot is the beta and a lot of tweaking can happen along the way. Also, the revenue curves are not determined by the first night the show is aired. Therefore, with free-to-play gaming, we think a lot about how the game is created in association with players. We value highly what players do, so we have spent quite some time looking into player behavior. There are now things that we can quantify and see, whereas before, there could have been more of a religious debate. For example, in a paid app world, there probably is a large discussion around something that is fun. For us, we can see the effects of fun with our retention rates. Additionally, the game does not stop when it is launched – in fact, that is only the beginning.
The Games-as-a-Service mindset and business model has been around for more than a decade in many Asian countries and is quite sophisticated in how they think of features and how they update the game.
The third shift is really due to the shift in the business model. It is more of a cultural and mindset shift to “games-as-a-service,” which is really a shift for the game industry in the West. This mindset and business model has been around for more than a decade in many Asian countries and is quite sophisticated in how they think of features and how they update the game. For some Asian games, there is a dedicated 24-hour hotline for VIP customers in their games. For free-to-play gamers, quality does not necessarily mean fidelity of art and graphics, it means consistent uptime, new content, and ultimately fun (or else they wouldn’t come back). Now with Games-as-a-service, when we design the game, we tend to think about how we will be able to extend the game. Much like when television writers write a story arc, they think of ways the story can be extended. We think of expansion packs and big feature releases similar to television seasons while tournaments, special items, smaller features, and events are similar to television episodes.
Challenges in the Changing Games Landscape
All game makers are facing two major challenges in this changing landscape. The first is distribution, particularly on the mobile device. On the web, folks just bought traffic or used SEO to drive traffic to their website, but now with the mobile phone (particularly for native mobile apps) it’s pretty difficult to repeat the same thing. The price of performance marketing has increased, driving many game developers either to partner or to focus on their business relationships with Apple or Google. The other challenge has been the ability to keep fidelity high while moving toward a Games-as-a-service model. Many game makers are coming from AAA console game development where a large amount of graphics and visual stunning art is what really helped increase revenue for the game. Console games were also built knowing that you had the players’ full attention – it was on the TV and there were controllers, so the games were more cinematic. But with the era of mobile, most players are not familiar with controllers. The game needs to be snack-able (i.e. you can be interrupted and it’s okay), easy to start and stop, and have a lesser amount of graphics that need to be downloaded.
Coming Innovations and How They Affect the Game Industry
I am pretty excited about wearable technology such as Google Glass and Oculus Rift, and the ushering of new gestures while maintaining an immersive experience. I’m hoping that the gestures will be more natural, which will do away with the alienation of the controller and widen the immersive experience of high-quality gaming. I’m also very excited about streaming and getting back into people’s living rooms. It is amazing that some people have canceled cable TV for streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix. And now with Google and AppleTV, you can fling a lot of content onto your TV with minimal effort, and latency fairly decently.
Coming Next From Kabam
Kabam is currently concentrating on making the next generation games. We have some pretty exciting games under development including some original IP as well as some Hollywood licensed IP, such as Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, and Mad Max. Kabam is also focused on building our platform by partnering with third party game developers not just to publish their games, but also to help localize and provide service operations to their games. And, this is all in addition to changing the world! 😉
Be sure to check out Holly Liu’s session on harnessing the power of passion in your work during Casual Connect USA!
What started as a small team of six grew to be what Game.IO is today: a serious game development studio with 40 people with a passion and drive to create great games. The team has worked on multiple projects and hopes their new games will surpass the success of their first game: Yatzy Ultimate. Marija Keleshoska, a marketing specialist for Game.IO, reminisces about building Yatzy Ulitmate.
A Memory From Childhood Leads to Our New Game
It was a usual Monday morning, and we started sharing some interesting moments from our childhood days. Everyone had his own unique story to share, but they all had one thing in common: Yahtzee. We soon realized that we all used to play this game when we were young and no one has played it since. Later on, when we were drafting our product portfolio, it’s funny how Yahtzee was on the top of everyone’s mind. We agreed that’s the game we wanted to start with. Originally, we wanted to call the game Yatzy, but unfortunately, that name was already taken on App Store, so we instead called it Yatzy Ultimate.
To begin, we started was with research and deciding the definition of the game. It gets pretty exciting when you get to know a game better – the history of the game, its mechanics, etc. It’s played in different countries and has its own characteristics. For our version, we decided to keep the basic rules and leave space to add new unique features in the next releases to make the game more attractive. Our main goal was to create a game WE would like to play.
The first version of Yatzy Ultimate included “Quick game”, “Nearby Players” and “Multiplayer”. It was the perfect fit for players of all types: those who would like to play a quick game while taking a break, or play with friends “Pass’n’Play” in Multiplayer mode. The “Nearby Players” exploited the Bluetooth feature of the device for playing with friends or family. Yatzy mainly is a game you would like to play with friends and family, but at the same time, it’s a fun way to pass time when you’re traveling or waiting in line in a coffee shop.
After the launch on the App Store in January 2011, the game started landing on our players’ devices and the first impressions really exceeded our expectations. We had some goals set in terms of number of downloads and revenue, and it was a great feeling to see how the numbers go up. The reviews we got were just more proof that we made the right choice and launched a quality product on the market.
As the game gained more success, our team starting expanding, along with our desire to make the game better. And then Yatzy Ulimate received its first award in 2012: the BestAppEver award in the dice category.
Keep Pace with Industry Trends
When something is good, it means you’re on the right path. But to make something great, it’s not enough just to follow the path. Those turns on the left and right may lead to even greater paths. As the industry was growing and new technologies were introduced, we knew it was time to take a new turn in our journey. We defined two key goals and put all efforts towards their achievement: cross-platform and online gameplay.
We already had a stable user base on iOS and Windows Phone, but it was time to make the game more social (and keep pace with the latest industry trends). We needed to allow them to get to know each other and challenge each other to see who has better skills. This was a great challenge for the whole team and included changes in the code and a lot of testing to make sure we got it just right.
For more variety, Game.IO chips were introduced in the game as virtual currency, which can be used to place bets in Bet mode and take high or low stakes in Online mode. This needed thorough analysis for our “numbers wizards” to set the economy of the game. With the introduction of Game.IO accounts and additional login methods like Facebook and Windows Live (for Windows Phone users), we set the grounds for cross-platform gameplay, allowing players to play their favorite game anytime, on any device.
The game went through serious re-engineering, development and testing to add all these bonus features. The team invested a lot of time and worked very hard to make it happen. Testing was crucial as it was a completely new structure of the game and there was no place for bugs.
After much work it was ready! But once it was ready to be introduced on the market, a new challenge was ahead of us: to market it properly and educate the audience.
Players are Not Just Numbers, Each One is Special
We went through a bumpy road in the post-launch period. The online play had certain problems with connection, which most of the time was out of our control. Mainly, when the player would lose connection on his device, the game would pick that information with delay and the player wasn’t aware the he went offline. This was our first challenge, and our priority for our next release. A customer support team is crucial at times like this, and we were lucky to already have that in place.
In the first release of the new and redesigned Yatzy Ultimate, we had to remove one feature due to certain problems that occurred with that function – playing with nearby friends via Bluetooth. Our plan was to get it back in the next release as, based on the analysis of the gameplay statistics, the percentage of the players who used this feature was not significant, and the temporal removal of it wouldn’t affect the game.
We were wrong. It turned out that this small percentage of players consisted of our most loyal players and we failed them. We learned this lesson the hard way: your players are not numbers, each one is special. Sometimes, you can have the best analysis of your target market, but it doesn’t mean you know them. Bringing back this feature was our biggest priority, and our development team worked hard to make it happen as soon as possible.
Finally, after the second release, the shaky and stormy period was behind us. Yatzy Ultimate reached its peak of glory, confirming we were on the right path. We were ready to start the new chapter.
Your Game Needs Some Za Za Zu
One of the most influential parts in mobile game development are the customer reviews. Those few sentences written by the players provide a plethora of ideas for new features and improvements of the existing gameplay. We just love our players’ creativity and their words (good and bad) are often the trigger for our most productive brainstorming sessions.
At one of our meetings, as we were reading the reviews, one really caught our attention. One player wrote us: “Pretty good. Needs some za za zu”. That’s right, let’s put some “za za zu” in Yatzy Ultimate.
A new challenge was in front of us. We needed to add more challenge, risk, and greater winnings in the gameplay. To do this, we introduced a leveling system and higher stakes in the online gameplay, and later on, a “Play with Buddies” feature. At the same time, we completed our strategy for cross-platform gameplay with the introduction of Yatzy Ultimate on Facebook. Our classic game now got the completely new trendy look and, according to the feedback from our players, Yatzy Ultimate has the “za za zu” flavor in it.
Today, Game.IO has proven itself as a serious player on the market. We’re no longer the newbies and with our experience and lessons learned, we’ve matured. New games and new challenges are ahead of us, and we have the passion and drive to make it happen.
Interested in what Game.IO has in store for their players? Find out by following them on Twitter and Facebook.
GAF Media was created to solve the problem a team of developers was having when converting Flash to a format that could be played on mobile devices. Now, the team works to provide solutions to the development community. Denis Balon, COO and co-founder, talks about their journey.
The story of GAF Media started when a team of game developers decided to expand their popular Facebook game to mobile devices. The main challenge was to convert over a thousand animations from Flash to a format that could be played on all mobile devices at any resolution. Existing tools and approaches didn’t do well with the task or involved a prohibitively large amount of work. So we decided to create the necessary tools ourselves.
Creating a Solution
Founded in 2009, the team located in the US as well as Ukraine first came to market with Pet City, a game on Facebook. The game quickly became popular and is going as strong as ever, three years later. Given the sustained popularity of the game, we decided to port the game to mobile.
There were no turnkey solutions that could convert complex animations into a size-effective format while also supporting high performance playback. The alternative and widely used approach was conversion into frame sequences, which was not an option because full control over animations and the resulting file sizes were far from optimal.
But even more important was the developers’ need for a reliable set of tools to allow them to continue developing animations using Flash CS while targeting various mobile platforms. Hence, the GAF Media team was formed to develop a set of tools that would port Flash animations to various mobile platforms (mainly iOS and Android). We defined a graphic format called Generic Animation Format (GAF) and created a tool to convert Flash animation files into GAF. Libraries were then developed to play the GAF files on any mobile device, enabling game developers to greatly cut down the time to port their Flash animations to mobile devices. The beta version of the tools was launched around the end of 2013. After over 18 months in development, we were able to launch our first product.
Prove It Actually Works
Even though some suggest Flash is dead, that’s far from being the case. Animators and developers still prefer using Flash CS to create animations, as it offers a deep and unmatched set of authoring tools. What remains daunting for many developers however is the task of quickly porting these animations for mobile. To address this need, the GAF Media team decided to offer their enabling set of tools to the game developer community.
We faced major challenges to create a worthy set of tools. The first was to prove the advantages of an automated set of tools that were versatile, but still possessed powerful performance advantages. The team’s mission was to show that the GAF solution packed a full list of features that went far beyond other solutions on the market. The tools had to combine high performance with killer features that would meet the needs of almost every developer and animator.
Privacy was also found to be a major concern by major game companies. They expressed the need to to keep their animation assets a secret until game launch. This compelled the team to develop a standalone version of GAF Converter which would run conversion of Flash animations on one’s computer without the need to upload the animations to the GAF Media SAAS service online.
Developer Community is Key
Throughout the process of commercializing our tool set, we actively sought developer feedback to help implement the right mix of features and performance. Community feedback had a direct impact far before first launch. Besides helping developers to create games faster, it was important to support animation properties that animators needed to add creativity and polish to their animations.
From automation utilities that were created solely for internal use, we ended up developing a tool set to benefit major game companies and indie developers alike, a tool that we hope someday will become as well known as Flash itself! But this is just the beginning for us. We have already started our next major effort: the GAF Converter for UI elements in games.
The GAF Converter, including a free version for download for Mac and Windows, is available at www.gafmedia.com. To welcome GameSauce readers, GAF Media is also doing a special limited offer! Sign up at GAF Media through this link and receive 500 conversion for free!
Royal Wins is an Australian games studio focused on bringing real money skill and chance social and casino games to various platforms. They work to provide adults with a variety of real money games and control in the way they play. Luke Jeffery, the community manager at Royal Wins, talks about the company and their product, Mojikan.
A Royal Change
Royal Wins, founded in 2013, is a Sydney based start-up which focuses on a hybrid social skill and chance-based experience for the web, desktop, and mobile devices. We have a dynamic team of experienced executives, game designers, developers, and artists who have honed their skills with stints at some of the world’s biggest game developers including Aristocrat, IGT, KMM, Konami, and NextGen Gaming.
Back in late 2013, the team decided to shut down their immersive online social game world known as MojiKan.com (which had been in beta-test for the past year). We had some incredible feedback and suggestions from our amazing user base and VIP members. As a result, we have taken this feedback into consideration and re-engineered the site.
A New Direction
With this new information, our game designers decided to focus the new Mojikan.com site solely on a totally new style of hybrid experience (skill+chance based games), where elements of each would be found in the other. Imagine a slot game where you could use your gaming skills to improve your chances of winning, or skill-based games that also featured a random number-generated bonus feature. We wanted to provide that type of experience.
With a clean slate, our games designer’s imaginations ran wild
Now that the base gameplay and genre was worked out, we had the luxury to be creative in deciding upon an overall theme. With a clean slate, our games designer’s imaginations ran wild, with the Mojikan theme evolving from a fantasy themed world, to a “Casino Royale-like” CIA spy thriller, to a Wild West saloon adventure. However, after many attempts, the theme and game-play just wasn’t the way we envisioned. These themes were too restricting and specific in the types of games that could be made. The Mojikan needed to have a broader, more open-ended theme. It was during this time that our team had a sudden spark of inspiration from the past Mojikan world and pulled a brilliant idea out of a hat! The MojikanKash Karnival was born, a carnival that could be fantasy, Wild West, and whatever we desired all at the same time because of its setting. This carnival housed all of the different types of games and soon it became apparent that we wanted to develop the idea further. This led to the final idea of the Kash Karnival™. This new “Karnival” theme worked on so many different levels. It meant that:
We had a setting that could resonate with multiple target audiences, as carnivals are for people from all walks in life.
We could be as magical and as crazy as we liked with the world and the characters which inhabit it, along with the stories we could tell.
This gave us many opportunities to create countless types of games with multiple aesthetics, featuring wild characters and various stories.
This carnival idea lit a magic fire within our bellies, allowing our 3D and 2D artists to create an eclectic world of colorful environments and characters, as well as allowed our designers to go crazy with different types of games that span multiple genres. We can mix and match whatever we liked and it will just work!
Designing a Karnival
With a theme chosen, it was time to develop the new Mojikan world even further. We were put to the test to answer the question of who inhabits this world and, more importantly, what is this world? The first part of the question was easy to answer: a carnival needs a ringmaster. We decided that this ringmaster would be given the grand name of Mojikan.
The character of Mojikan had four main inspirations: Willy Wonka, Guy Fawkes, and, of course, the original Ring Master from the original Mojikan game. Our designers worked hard with Jason Williamson, our art director to create a robust back story and look for our protagonist. We wanted Mojikan to be a three-dimensional character with depth. This gave our 2D and 3D artists a chance to really develop the aesthetics of the game.
The Kash Karnival is the central hub and can be found on Moji Island. The central hub is an area where players gather and interact with each other. It acts as the main “station” before they enter various themed areas. Within the hub, there are two special areas for players to explore – the Skill District and the Adventure Casino. Each area is tailored towards two player bases: players who love skill games like Angry Birds or Candy Crush, and players who love to play social casino games like slots, blackjack, or roulette. Myles Blasonato, our lead game designer took the time to think extensively about what our players would want. From past experiences and feedback from the previous Mojikan, we concluded that we want to give players the best of both worlds; to combine elements of skill and Chance together into one seamless experience. This is how the Skill District and Adventure Casino was born.
The decision to make two separate areas was not taken lightly by our design team, as it would affect the overall user experience.
The decision to make two separate areas was not taken lightly by our design team, as it would affect the overall user experience. The team needed to consider how a player would enter the game world and how they would filter through all of the different genres so they could easily navigate and find exactly what experience they wanted to have. The team thought it would be easier and less confusing to separate the two player bases and create two areas specifically tailored to each one. This allows both players to co-exist in the same space and even jump over to the other side and experience something they might never have before. It gives choice to the player to decide their own entertainment, whether it be skill games, chance games, or even both!
The Skill District is for gamers who love skill based experiences. This area is special because it allows social gamers to be rightly rewarded in a unique way for their amazing efforts by introducing small amounts of “casino-like” elements to the games. Players can choose different difficulty options and place various bets on how well they perform to give themselves a better chance at winning bigger prizes! The harder the difficulty, the bigger the prize!
The Adventure Casino is a unique area for social and online casino players. It contains all of what they love, such as slots and other popular casino games, but with more entertainment value. These games aren’t ordinary, standard casino games. The Adventure Casino games are designed to drive narrative and tell character-focused stories that engross the player into the world of Mojikan and its inhabitants.
For our upcoming Facebook release, we will launch with four games in total: two skill-based games and two chance-based games. I know what you are thinking, “Only 4?” But as we say here at Royal Wins HQ, quality over quantity.
“Don’t half-ass anything” is Myles’ philosophy. “Our team wants to build the best games; we want to dedicate our time to managing and perfecting a smaller number of games to ensure a solid gameplay experience and not churn out a bunch of crap that nobody wants to play for the sake of quantity, which is mostly what’s out there. We feel the trade-off is totally worth it and hope that our fans appreciate our efforts in making the best experience possible. However, that being said, we already have a bunch of exciting ideas in our road-map for new experiences just waiting to be created.”
If you like what is happening at Royal Wins or want to follow their progress on Mojikan’s Kash Karnival then feel free to “Like” their Facebook page or “Follow” them on Twitter.
Nick Thomas, CEO and Co-Founder of SomaTone, Inc., is a video games industry veteran and thought leader with 10+ years of proven executive leadership results with a focus on developing strategic industry partnerships, innovating creative outsourcing solutions and managing talented teams that contribute to more than 100 games annually from nearly all major publishers and developers, as well as independent developers. He discusses the transformation occurring in the industry in this article.
It’s happening again, right before our eyes; we’re in the midst of yet another era of redefinition and reinvention in the ever-evolving gaming industry. While the landscape is changing dramatically, history shows us that something new and good will invariably emerge. After all, (and despite many attempts), you cannot own or control creativity, or predict the future of gaming.
We at SomaTone are ten years deep as a leading provider of creative content for mobile, social, and casual games, working at the forefront of gaming over the last decade’s explosive growth. Having produced audio content on hundreds of games for many of the top publishers as well as for the indies, our vantage point gives us a sweeping perspective across the landscape of the games industry– from AAA console games, to MMO’s, to Social/Mobile, to Casual, and beyond.
We’re seeing the cyclical pendulum swing of innovation, homogenization, and reinvention continuing to keep the publishers of gaming content guessing as the smaller, faster, and more creative start-ups are yet again redefining the gaming industry.
The Ripple Effects of Converting Players into Users in Mobile Gaming
Casual games continue to go through a familiar pattern, and we are currently emerging from a decline of the smaller “Mom and Pop” game developers, who have been squeezed out by the realities of mobile publishing and the dominance of Free-to-Play (F2P) games. This economic model has sought to systematically convert game “users” into a currency that has been hoarded, sold, and traded in an effort to control access to “game players.”
As a consequence, the industry was stratified into large game publishers–who controlled the access to “users” and thus the majority of the market–and new start-ups and Indies, who were either being gobbled up by these same publishers, or self-publishing and hoping for a Flappy Bird-style anomalous hit.
The middle-class of game development–studios of 20-50 working on games that were sold via standard pay-to-play standards with supportive publishing partners–has suffered. With limited access to users, who are carefully controlled by game publishers, it was nearly impossible for mid-sized independent game developers to make and sell their own games and support their teams. The result was a polarized and stratified industry in which a small fraction of game publishers own the vast majority of market, making it extremely difficult for small game developers to independently make and sell their games without yielding to the requirements of the publishers, who will own the IP, take the lion’s share of the revenue, with no clear obligation to bring “users” to their game.
“Every time the industry has homogenized itself by the few having control of the many, a new era of gaming has invented itself.”
Now while all publisher models attempt to control access and distribution to customers (this is in fact what publishers are supposed to do), there is a dramatic new variable at play, with the F2P economy. This “race to the bottom” business model, which has led to disruptive game-play mechanics designed to extract fees from “users”, in their efforts to enjoy a fully featured game-play experience and be “players”, is highly dependent on publishers’ access to users, and their ability to monetize these users. Those “old school” game designers, who sought to develop great games, that offered fully featured immersive game-play experiences at the outrageously expensive price of $.99, never stood a chance against “free” games, which are developed by game publishers and promoted to their “users”, requiring players to pay for the features included in a 1-dollar competing title.
This Latest Cycle Will Induce a Painful Rebirth
This cycle of innovation, homogenization and reinvention is not a new trend. We have seen this same cycle in gaming in the past, with Big Fish Games‘ consolidation of the PC Downloadable market and subsequently, Zynga‘s dominance of browser-based Facebook, and in both cases, there was a painful rebirth of the industry. Those fastest to adapt to the new ecosystems survived, and those who could not evolve, died away.
However, it is also true that every time the industry has homogenized itself by the few having control of the many, a new era of gaming has invented itself. Just after Big Fish unequivocally took control of PC downloadable, Facebook came along and completely disrupted their reign. A few short years later, the kings of Facebook (Zynga, Playdom, Wooga) have been dethroned, only to be replaced by the current leaders of the mobile industry. With each successive attempt to control and “own” the industry, new life has begun.
“You cannot control game players or ‘own’ creativity. A new era is currently percolating under the thin crust of the mobile/casual games ecosystem, and by my observations, we are onto a new dawn of gaming.”
This reminds me of Jurassic Park. Life finds a way. In this case, creativity finds a way, and despite the attempts of the current reign of publishers to own and control this inherently creative marketplace, they are discovering, just as all others before them have, that you cannot control game players or “own” creativity.
A new era is currently percolating under the thin crust of the mobile/casual games ecosystem, and by my observations, we are onto a new dawn of gaming. One in which King.com, and Kabam, or perhaps even the Apple Store and Google Play store, will soon find themselves trying to catch up, and wondering what happened as the world they felt so sure of has shifted beneath their feet.
“Mom and Pop” developers, take heart. The pendulum swings both ways. And from our vantage point, which reaches from the largest publishers to the smallest indies, the playing field is leveling.
2014 will be a year of reorganization and consolidation, as the bubble of Mobile/Social games refocuses its efforts, and quality will retake its place as the leading factor in a company’s success, rather than simply a publisher’s control of access to users. And developing innovative and high-quality games has always been what the “Mom and Pop” game studios have done best and are continuing to do.
Look forward to the next installment of this series next month, a case study on Zynga’s Puzzle Charms!
In 2009, Turkey emerged as a compelling outlier in Facebook’s global social network audience. The male-dominated, primarily Islamic audience comprised nearly 75 percent of the total population of the country. Game companies the world over looked to this surprisingly vibrant online social market with avarice. While many knew that their Turkish players were a highly-engaged, low-cost component of their global mix, most viewed Turkish players as an interesting anomaly, but continued to pursue primarily North American and Western European players as their “core” money-making audience.
Most companies, but not Peak Games. The Peak Games’ founders clearly saw an underserved market opportunity in the active regional game audiences that had been deeply engaged in browser games from Gameforge and Bigpoint in the early 2000s, but now found themselves relegated to “2nd tier” status by the global social games market.
An “Emerging Markets” Success Story
Founded in November 2010, Co-Founder & CSO Rina Onur remembers a small team with a passion for games, but somewhat disillusioned with the inherent cultural disconnect caused by playing games made for someone else, somewhere else in the world. Armed with this and a singular focus on tailor-made games for their “home” audience, Rina and her partners pursued success in Turkey by making games for Turkish players, by Turkish developers.
Onur says, “We started by porting other people’s games, in particular variations on the ‘farms’ that were popular elsewhere in the world at the time.” Peak’s approach to the products went beyond simple localization of game text and UI, and instead pursued a true ‘re-culturalization’ of the product and content to make it more relevant to the unique experience and sensibilities of a Turkish player. It worked! Peak acquired more than 2 million DAU for this game and a very strong starting point for a big regional social games business.
At this point, Peak Games management reflected on the successes and shortcomings of that project. Rina and her team quickly realized that if they truly wanted to achieve a truely “local” game experience, they would need to start from scratch and build games from the ground up by investing in a grassroots game team to build games especially for Turkish players. Understanding through daily participation that players saw gaming as a social pastime centered around regionally popular “coffee house” games like Okey, 101, Tavla, and Batak. Peak decided to tap into this cultural behavior and let players do what they already loved, but online.
Coffee House Feeling
Historical fact: Coffee is culturally important to the Turks and the Middle East in general. Coffee (and the culture of coffee) was cultivated in this part of the world as far back as the 14th century…two hundred years or more before the drink was widespread in Europe.
Today, Peak Games dominates the Turkish parlor games genre generating sustainable and profitable growth across platforms with the most successful games bringing more than 50 percent revenue from mobile. With a strong focus on the parlor games genre (traditional and popular board, card and table-top games), Peak Games integrates the community feel of a coffee house into today’s screen-based social activities. The end result of this highly loyal and active community is a long and highly engaged player lifetime of many years leading to the sustained growth the company has shown since inception. “Peak Games has maintained its focus on community-based, multiplayer, synchronous games,” comments Onur.
Furthermore, Peak Games has begun to extend that success into the Middle East. However, their dedication to cultural knowledge, sensitivity, and awareness shows in their approach to this market as well. “The first things we did when we decided to approach Middle Eastern players was to open a new studio in Jordan and purchase another in Saudi Arabia,” Onur explains. “They only way to really understand the core motivations and requirements of a culture is to be a part of it.” Rather than simply re-purposing their existing game portfolio and targeting distribution in the Middle East, Onur and her team gave their Jordanian and Saudi teams free reign to develop services that were ‘just right’ for the audience they were meant to serve.
Thinking about Design
What kinds of things does a design team need to consider if they want to make culturally relevant games? The list is long, the thinking is deep, and the task is very difficult without inherent cultural knowledge.
What kinds of things does a design team need to consider if they want to make culturally relevant games? The list is long, the thinking is deep, and the task is very difficult without inherent cultural knowledge. For example – Arabic is written right to left rather than left to right. So what? Unless your UI designers have done a great deal of study on the concept of “reading weight” and the assumptions of UI element importance that reading weight imposes upon the player, it’s unlikely your designer is likely to fully appreciate the awkwardness an Arabic-speaking player feels while using an interface designed with the top-left to bottom-right reading weight assumptions that are instinctual for someone who reads, say, English. Try playing your favorite game reflected in a mirror, and you can get a sense of this.
Even more difficult to grasp are the bone-deep perceptions and motivations learned over a lifetime of cultural immersion. Is anonymity especially monetizable in a culture where male/female public interactions are governed by strict social mores? How do broad class divisions impact the important of a sense of “fairness” in a multiplayer competitive game experience? What does “social” mean in a particular culture, in terms of topics, privacy, and communication features and how is this impacted by the reality and perception of freedom of speech?
In the end, Peak has proven that deep understanding of cultural sensibility is a critical competitive advantage when creating entertainment services like online games. Commenting on Peak Games growth, investment bank Digi-Capital’s Founder Tim Merel said, “Peak’s management team continues to drive them from strength to strength, capitalising on deep cultural connections and understanding of their core Turkey/MENA markets. Our experience is that synchronous multiplayer and mobile are key growth drivers for leading games companies globally. Peak’s strength in these markets positions them as one of the most valuable players in Turkey/MENA.”
About Peak Games
Peak Games is the largest and fastest-growing gaming company focused on the emerging markets of Turkey, Middle East and North Africa. Despite its regional focus, Peak Games ranks as one of the largest online and mobile gaming companies globally with 25 million monthly active users. A key to Peak Games’ success is its unrivaled expertise in creating and publishing games that are community-based, multiplayer, and synchronous. The company’s diverse portfolio includes game titles on Facebook and mobile platforms. Peak Games’ local talent hold deep expertise across gaming and high-tech industries. The company’s investors include Earlybird Venture Capital, Hummingbird Ventures, and Endeavor Catalyst.
When a person has a passion for gaming and the motivation to do something with that passion, great things happen. Such is the case with 5th Planet Games. The “studio” was, at first, not even a studio. It was just four guys who played games together. Slowly, they warmed to the idea of making their own games – games they would enjoy playing themselves. This idea drives them forward each day. In the beginning, 5PG took a chance by launching a hardcore game on Facebook at a time when it was believed these games would not “work” there. In May 2010, they proved everyone wrong when their first title, Dawn of the Dragons, became a Facebook hit. 5PG believes they create social games that are fun and engaging for all kinds of gamers, from hardcore or casual.
Life at 5PG
Since Dawn of Dragons, the company grew from 4 to 55 people, but they still all share a passion for games. In fact, it is such an important trait that they look for it in all new hires. “Does somebody really love gaming and really love their work?” asks Robert Winkler, co-founder and CEO. “Do they believe in what we’re trying to do and are they willing to go the extra mile to get the job done? These are intangible traits, but very important to the kind of culture we are trying to build.” He jokes that having “insane skills in whatever role you’re applying for” is helpful, too.
Shared passion makes it easy for the team to work collaboratively. All ideas are considered and encouraged, regardless of who it came from. Even when there are disagreements, they are quickly taken care of. “Everything we do always comes back to the premise of ‘Is this the right thing to do for our player base and community?'” says Winkler. “It’s usually pretty cut and dry when you look at things that way, so that helps resolve most disagreements or difficult decisions.”
Creating Outside the Norm
At the time of Dawn of Dragons, hardcore games were not successful on Facebook, so why did 5PG take the risk? Simple – these were the games they wanted to play. 5PG games reflect that shared passion through the gameplay, storylines, and artwork. The amount of work involved can be a problem, but they enjoy it regardless. “We are creating these whole worlds that players are asked to invest themselves in, so we have to make them seem as real and fantastic as possible,” says Winkler. “It’s not like a casual game, where you can design a whole game around one or two simple mechanics – there’s a lot of layers to our games, and they take time to flesh out, but in the end, we feel it’s worth it.”
5PG added another challenging genre to their portfolio: Digital Collectible Card Games. According to a report by the Casual Games Association this is one of the highest monetizing social games categories. They update these types of games by creating new cards with new mechanics. “With each new release, we risk that a new mechanic has a different effect on the game than originally intended, or that it severely alters the way the game is played,” says Winkler. While this can be a challenge, Winkler says it also creates unexpected opportunities for players, causing them to think up new strategies. He spoke more on this topic during a session at Casual Connect.
A Lasting Community
The community surrounding and supporting their games is key to 5PG’s success. “One of our guiding principles is building games that enable players to benefit from cooperation. Helping fellow players rather than rewarding payback and the demise of fellow players,” says Winkler. To do this, they incorporate certain ideas into their games promoting this type of gameplay, such as guilds and alliances. The team shows a lot of respect to the team members who interact with their community the most, and puts a lot of emphasis on supporting their large community. “Community interaction is so important to our games not only because it makes them more social, but because it depends on a player’s engagement and keeps them engaged for longer,” says Winkler. “We even fly in a group of players every month or so to hold player councils, where we can pick their brains directly on what new features they’d like us to implement, how they want to see the games evolve, and other ways to improve the games.”
With such a focus on the community, one sees why the fans stick around, but Winkler points out that there is another reason: “Our Games-as-a-Service approach, we are constantly rolling out new features and content so the gameplay never gets stale or boring.” Even Dawn of the Dragons, launched over three years ago, receives regular new updates. 5PG also takes player feedback into consideration when looking into new content. “We take in feedback – both constructive and not so constructive – and iterate on our designs and content based on this feedback,” says Winkler. “We find that our players understand the games at least as well as we do and more often than not, their suggestions are right on the mark.”
“Many game genres will be reinvented for the tablet, as bigger touch screens allow more advanced and intuitive ways to interact with games.”
Antti Hattara is Head of Studio at Wooga, where he works with Product Leads to develop free-to-play games from concept to live service. If he was not involved in the game industry, he imagines himself with a future in sports tracking. He intended to become a management consultant, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Work and Play
When Antti studied programming at university, his projects all ended up being games, including Java Applet Air Hockey, Asteroids for early Symbian, and 3D Tetris with open GL. He was made to work on games. He started working as a game engineer for Sumea Studio in Helsinki. The company was acquired by Digital Chocolate in 2004. He claims working there was “seven years of fun, with eight different titles, and eight different business cards.” Then he made the move to Berlin to work as Wooga’s Head of Studio. “Sticking with what you enjoy is an easy decision,” he says.
When Antti has time away from work, he enjoys swimming, cycling, and running long distances, as well as exploring the playgrounds of Berlin with his two sons, ages 2 months and 2 ½ years. It is no wonder he describes himself as energetic.
The Challenges of Changing
Antti tells us the greatest challenge in his career was changing from the paid mobile games model to free-to-play Facebook games. It requires more than just changing development. The process required that he establish the Product Manager role and then build the team. Once that was done, he needed to get the cooperation of free-to-play experts and traditional designers working in the Helsinki Studio.
During his session at Casual Connect USA, he goes over how you can evaluate prototypes to recognize which have hit potential.
The Future is Tablet
The biggest trend Antti sees coming in the next several years in the games industry is the tablet. His reasoning is that it reaches the mass market and can also serve the core gamer audience well. He believes, “Many game genres will be reinvented for the tablet, as bigger touch screens allow more advanced and intuitive ways to interact with games.” At Wooga, they are working hard to prototype revolutionary new ways to interact with games on the touch screen.