Casual Connect is happy to welcome GameDuell as a sponsor for Casual Connect Europe in Amsterdam, February 11-13. Over the last several years, GameDuell has focused on creating entertaining and enjoyable mobile and Facebook games. The team develops native apps for both iOS and Android with what they consider will be the future web standard, HTML5. A specially programmed back-end game server synchronizes all game-related data to offer their apps seamlessly across all platforms. GameDuell currently has both completely new titles and cross-platform adaptations of their most successful titles in beta testing. They expect to release these during the first quarter of 2014. A mobile version of the GameDuell website will also be launched in the near future.
GameDuell co-founder and Creative Director, Michael Kalkowski will be speaking at the conference on February 11th at 10:30 am. Titled “Team Cultures for Success”, this session will discuss what factors in team cultures drive excellence and innovation in some of the world’s best technology companies. GameDuell can also be found at Stand 402 in the conference center “Beurs van Berlage” during the conference, where they will be offering insight into their projects in process. Their emphasis is on presenting their current mobile and cross-platform projects. They will also be demonstrating beta versions of impending iOS, Facebook, and HTML5 games for the first time.
Kai Bolik, CEO of GameDuell, states, “With our participation as a sponsor of Casual Connect, we are underlining our ambition as one of the leading casual games companies in the western markets. In Amsterdam, we are presenting beta versions of our current iOS, Facebook, and HTML5 projects, which will be released to the mobile and cross-platform market in 2014.”
GameDuell, a Berlin based company, is one of the largest cross-platform game communities in the world; with over 80 million users across all platforms, it is one of the leading casual and mobile games providers in the western market. The company offers a broad portfolio of over 70 casual online games and is expanding strongly across different platforms. Its games are offered on its game and matchmaking site, www.GameDuell.com, and on social networks and mobile devices. More information about the company is available at http://inside.gameduell.com.
Michael Kalkowski is co-founder and managing/creative director of GameDuell, one of the leading casual and social games providers in the Western markets. Michael is responsible for GameDuell’s games, website, player community and user experience; a universe of more than 80 million registered players.
As Creative Director, he spends most of his time interacting with GameDuell production teams and giving feedback on concepts. Any additional time he splits between connecting with users, benchmarking competitors and attending industry conferences like Casual Connect. As entrepreneur, he influences the overall strategy of the company while cultivating culture rich enough in energy to ensure smooth execution.
Intrigued by the people aspect of teams, the entrepreneur in Michael is asking questions: What brings out the best in people? What makes us happy? Why do some individuals produce world-class results while most don’t? What are the habits and “inner game” of the most successful entrepreneurs and teams?
What brings out the best in people? What makes us happy?
Michael is proud that GameDuell has attracted world-class talent and leveraged the answers he has found to maintain a positive and collaborative environment. The culture and the chemistry at GameDuell, he maintains, create smiles throughout the ranks at GameDuell — more than two hundred game enthusiasts — that trickles down to the community that plays their games.
In contrast, he dutifully admits to the challenges: finding the right ideas, getting startup capital in 2003, hiring and keeping a great team, pivoting and fine-tuning their models and becoming increasingly agile. But the greatest challenge was overcoming the “growing pains” as the company grew from the three founders in a living room to where it is at more than 200 people today. Each stage of progression had its own set of challenges. To meet them he relied on fellow entrepreneurs and mentors who worked through similar situations.
Michael tells us, “We organize regular internal and external workshops and collaborate with leading experts, especially from the technology field and open source community, who help us implement key innovations faster.” GameDuell allocates about 10 percent of its resources to researching and prototyping such new developments so that they can pivot based upon their findings.
GameDuell allocates about 10 percent of its resources to researching and prototyping such new developments so that they can pivot based upon their findings
At present, there are many interesting things happening, but Michael identifies four that he believes will have a significant impact: (1) the continuing migration of consumers toward new touch and mobile devices; (2) big data, real time analytics and predictives for performance marketing, CRM and better retention; (3) further advances in production technology, including HTML5, Unity and open GL, enabling more efficient cross-platform development; and, (4) their own high-traffic destination platform at GameDuell.com.
In five years, he sees an industry that looks quite different. He claims, “Consumers will use completely new input and output devices – think of gesture control without physical touch and Google Glass on steroids. Everything will be connected and usable for gaming. This opens up a whole new universe for game play.”
Michael emphasizes the importance of Asia in the game industry because it is the world’s largest region in terms of both players and revenue. He continues, “Many interesting innovations are coming out of the region, including titles like GungHo’s Puzzle & Dragon, so it is critical for non-Asian developers to follow what is happening here.
Michael Kalkowski is managing director, creative director and co-founder of GameDuell, Germany’s largest gaming community with over 80 million players. “I have always been especially interested in the people aspect of business. What makes them happy?” he asks, “What motivates them? Why do some teams produce world class results while others don’t? What are the personalities of the most successful people and the attributes of successful teams? And how can working in teams bring out the best in people while creating synergies?”
Kalkowski continues, “When we founded GameDuell, we wanted to create a culture that would attract the best talent while keeping a positive and collaborative team spirit.” Kalkowski feels his biggest success is the unconventional workplace and the great team they have developed; 200 game enthusiasts who make each other and the users smile every day.
“When we founded GameDuell, we wanted to create a culture that would attract the best talent while keeping a positive and collaborative team spirit.”
At Casual Connect Europe, Kalkowski shared his experience and those of other successful entrepreneurs as he analyzes company cultures leading to success. “I have seen many initially successful startups hit a wall after three to five years,” he explains, “They become victims of their success and fast growth.” He has also observed companies that have continued to thrive while remaining lean and unconventional. Kalkowski believes the difference lies in their underlying cultures and values; the DNA of the company.
GameDuell focuses the business side of the company on innovative transaction models, world class processes and sustainability. Nine months after the company was founded, it was already profitable, and it has remained so ever since, a total of nine years. They have a broad revenue distribution with many evergreen titles, proving that it is possible to do successful, long term business and grow companies sustainably.
Spreading joy through games
Kalkowski became interested in games as a teenager in the 1980s. He enjoyed playing on the Commodore 64, games such as Spy vs Spy, Boulder Dash, Summer Games, Pushover and Donkey Kong, but never thought of entering the games industry. Twenty years later, he co-founded his second internet start-up company, GameDuell. 2003 was a difficult time entrepreneurs. The new economy bubble had just burst, and social games on Facebook and mobile were only a distant possibility. Kalkowski and co-founders Boris Wasmuth and Kai Boluk loved the idea of “bringing people together to have a good time with games” as the purpose for their company. But before going forward, they did extensive user testing and comparative market research. They only proceeded after determining there was tremendous potential in combining mass market entertainment with innovative transaction models and the technology that allowed people from across the world to play together in real time.
“I have seen many initially successful startups hit a wall after three to five years. They become victims of their success and fast growth.”
When the team founded GameDuell they already had a user centric approach to game development, because they had learned from previous startups that this is the foundation for creating that “wow” experience for customers. But since then they have gone through many process and technology innovations. They shifted from traditional to agile teamwork and adopted a “lean startup” approach and data driven game design, with virtually everything tracked, split-tested and analyzed. In 2008 a major boost to their distribution and marketing resulted from connecting the games cross-platform, providing a seamless experience across GameDuell websites, Facebook and mobile devices.
UI revolution in the horizon
Over the next year, Kalkowski believes the greatest opportunities will be found in mobile, particularly tablets, and cross-platform leverage. But five years into the future, he predicts the biggest disruption yet, leaving the industry looking very different from today. People will use completely different input and output devices, with everything connected and useable for gaming, opening a whole new universe for game play.
In our three part series on the Ouya console, we ask industry leaders in social, casual and mobile gaming if the surprising Kickstarter console can bridge the gap between core and casual, and successfully transition the Android OS to a living room entertainment device.
Part 3: Luis Ongil – Managing Director, Americas, GameDuell
What GameDuell does: Driven by over 170 employees and game enthusiasts stationed in Berlin and San Francisco, GameDuell has been figuring out ways to monetize high quality social and casual games since 2003. With games released globally in seven languages and over 12 million user plays each month, GameDuell offers its own in-house development in addition to harnessing over 200 distribution partners across its network.
Why OUYA could matter to GameDuell: The Android console’s M.O. seems well-aligned with GameDuell’s own development efforts, as the firm continues to assemble a powerful network of developers, targeting key markets of growth – as evidenced by the company’s current push into Amazon’s Android gaming expansion to Kindle Fire.
GameDuell excels at helping developers optimize for different devices and specs, getting games prepared to publish on major digital marketplaces, and accelerating their adoption and monetization. As they asses all new potentially viable platforms, GameDuell is keeping a careful eye on Ouya’s progress.
Gamesauce: What advantages do you see in an Android home console that offers a single hardware spec for developers, versus what’s typically offered on smartphones and tablets?
Luis: Well, there are many smartphone players that just aren’t pushing the devices to the level that they should be, or want to. Same goes for developers. A lot of users are comfortable with having a device they can bring home, then pass it over to the kids, let them have some fun – and that’s almost the extent of their relationship with games on the device.
GS: The Ouya could become a simple device you could let the kids play. It’s around the size of a Rubik’s Cube, and comes with a familiar twin stick controller that has a touchpad.
Right, so it’s a device that can probably be understood and used by a lot of people in the house. That’s a smart design.
GS: It should encourage a wide range of play preferences, but when you check out the Ouya promos, you see stuff like shooters, racing games, Madden, Minecraft, etcetera – pretty much all core-type games. Is it wise to focus on the expected core titles, when it’s also ripe for casual opportunities?
Right away you know it’s going to be a good match for core games, and that’s good. We play casual games very easily on the phones we own, and the target player has a need and desire to play those games, since he has a phone he already knows how to use. When you have a specific device to play certain types of games, introducing the other end of the spectrum may not be so easy.
Could I see people playing casual games on this Android console? Sure. If it’s there, part of your entertainment center, I can see mom coming in to play a quick game, or a father and son playing a game together. But you need to establish if you’re making a game for a phone, or this device.
GS: Right, you have important details like a twin stick analog controller to consider…
Exactly, so you test your games with gamepad support, you tweak the gameplay. You make sure the game is highly adapted for the household if it’s going to this device. Of course it’s very tough to devote those resources when the device hasn’t become large enough to be a focal point yet. It’s like the Kindle Fire wasn’t originally a focal point for game developers, and now it’s suddenly starting to be a great place for games.
GS: The Kindle Fire is a good example, actually, in terms of it being a unifying force in the Android environment – a target spec. Would you agree that one of the issues with Android game development tends to be fragmentation across varying device specs?
Absolutely – when it’s one device and one spec, it takes a lot of pressure off the team on different levels. One of the biggest advantages for us, using Kindle as an example, is the payment system. As developers, we can do the same experience that we do on iOS with payments, and it’s a great system for users, for payment security, and so forth.
Absolutely – when it’s one device and one spec, it takes a lot of pressure off the team on different levels.
GS: So you guys are actually starting to back a specific Android experience like the Fire.
We’re right in the process of Kindle Fire implementation and developing games for it, truly optimizing for Kindle Fire. We want to start moving more heavily into Android, and this is the platform with a fantastic payment scenario. So a lot of our QA and bug testing is going to focus purely on that device. The users of that device are precisely the target for casual games, so it makes a lot of sense.
GS: From your perspective, then, this is becoming your unified development environment for Android. And obviously a lot of other people are hopping onto the Kindle Fire platform. Can the Ouya assemble its own circle of dedicated third-party studios?
Certainly, if the Ouya reaches a very wide level of distribution, it will quickly become a platform that makes sense.
GS: The Kindle Fire is a good environment to facilitate in-app buys. The experience is designed to gravitate towards store purchases, whether books, media or games. It’s a little different for a very games-focused device. Do you think today’s console gamers are prepared to buy all their games digitally, thanks to XBLA and PSN?
Absolutely, since they’re already doing it. Not just there, but everywhere else too. It’s across all entertainment now, like digital delivery on TV where you can get a movie with a couple of clicks. People are consuming all range of digital content now and it’s come to the point where they’re really comfortable with it, whether it’s clicking to get a movie or a game.
GS: Excellent point, and we’re seeing more attempts at convergence. Look at the new generation of Smart TVs coming along, loaded with both multimedia and game offerings. When the TV itself becomes the delivery unit, does it make ideas like an Android game console somewhat trivial?
There’s the catch: The experience with Smart TVs won’t be as game-centric as the Ouya. The Ouya considers games its primary focus and business. When you’re doing a complex device designed for all kinds of entertainment and not games primarily, you’re going to see some flaws in the gaming experience. So in that way, I see some opportunity for core games on Ouya to help define what it is.
GS: Core games, at least in today’s AAA console ecosystem, tend to rely more on device specs and pushing technology trends. Many people have suggested the Ouya’s base specs, a Tegra 3 chipset and 1-gig of RAM, will age quickly between now and the proposed spring 2013 release. Do you think it has enough power to last?
Yeah, maybe it’s going to be tight. It’s good technology right now and not fading yet, but it’s going to become a tougher race next year. But remember, the world is a very big place and you have a lot of early adopters, but just as many potential late adopters, for everything.
GS: On a global level, one of the big hooks for Ouya adoption could become price. With a new round of consoles coming in the $300 and higher price range, this $99 alternative could represent an affordable path to HD gaming in the living room.
It’s true, $99 is a good price. What I like about the device is that the games will be cheaper too. So you have access to a cheap device, the games definitely won’t be priced like full console games, so the content and games are now cheap too. I can see low income families finding another choice there. Or any type of household.
GS: Do you think enough mainstream buyers are aware of the Android name, such that it carries extra weight to have an affordable console that runs on the OS?
No, I don’t think that’s really relevant up front. People aren’t familiar enough with it that it would influence the buy. Maybe later on it becomes a nice bonus. What I can see is a family finding out the device is cheap and the content is cheap, and deciding to get a console for the house. It might be because I don’t want the kids to use, let’s say, my Kindle Fire, because maybe I travel with it. There, the Ouya is a different game device for them to play.
There’s room for several devices in our lives. We have this mentality that everything will be in the phone, but that’s not true, because the phone goes with you wherever you go. When you have family-centric living room entertainment that is needed, you need a device better suited to that.
We have this mentality that everything will be in the phone, but that’s not true, because the phone goes with you wherever you go.
GS: For game studios, diversifying to multiple platforms and services can be a wise move, so I imagine the Ouya is being cautiously observed by many Android developers across the world.
Well, there’s a lot of hype since it’s trying something new, but I think it’s kind of a no brainer: You have a cheap HD console with a popular OS, and consoles still manage to sell tens of millions across the world every generation. People still want new and different consoles.
GS: Right, and there are parts of the world, developing nations, where people are still playing old consoles and the notion of an expensive HD console is out of reach for a lot of people.
The idea of very expensive new devices, like phones, tablets, consoles – that’s still a very first world idea. Developing nations, we have a few billion people in the world there, and they’re all going to have access to entertainment on a large scale soon. Can a cheap new console find a niche in that rising market, a device made for gamers by people that know games and demographics? Sure.
GS: Consider the small indie teams all over the world with dreams of developing for console, but nowhere near the resources to pull it off. Ouya could be a gateway to console game development for them.
If you’re ready to develop for console, and prepared to make something more hardcore, for sure. I don’t know about purely casual games, but that depends on who ends up buying the console. It’s certainly a disruption from what console gamers and developers are used to, so maybe that disruption opens the door for different types of console games.
GS: Will the Ouya become a real console development environment, or because of the mobile hardware and OS, the lack of physical game media, does it operate in a mobile development environment?
Mobile and console game development are really the same environment. To me, the Ouya may be a little closer to mobile. The difference between the two is that in console development you finish the product and ship it. Here, you don’t ship it. You put it live, you iterate, and you service it. So you’ll still be developing a console game, but thinking of it more like games as a service, not games as a product. So you can push the content and improve it as you go.
The console game developer will probably love to be able to do games that are cheaper, or free, with in-app purchases. You don’t factor in shipped software. Of course a lot of people are already doing that, and if you’re connected to Xbox Live, you’ve probably experienced it. With Ouya you have to be connected, so I think it’s going to give developers a lot of different ways to distribute their games.
GS: Given that console buyers are accustomed to paying higher prices for games, and have expectations for bigger experiences, do you think Ouya developers can get away with significantly higher pricing than typical mobile titles?
It’s different from both traditional console and mobile, but I don’t foresee any games priced above the $29.99 range. That would be the highest range. People are probably going to compare game prices to what they are on tablet, so a lot of buyers will be expecting up to $9.99 at most, or $14.99 for a very premium game. Remember, you’ll be seeing different price tiers, and that market will have to decide on its prices. It’s up to the developer to create the model, and the developer can choose his upfront fee or in-app purchases to support the game service.
GS: Do you think developers may feel obliged to include add-on features in Ouya games that also work on your mobile device?
Some will be happy to just release and support their [Ouya] game, and others may decide if you purchase the game for console, you get access to extra features you can use on another device. Play it on your console, and then take something with you on the phone.
We’re doing something similar with our new Android games. We’re creating one version with optimizations towards Samsung and Kindle devices, and we have to tweak the game for both. On both devices the experience is beautiful. We have to actually go in and make adjustments to graphics, tweak it for screen sizes, make sure the gameplay is perfectly consistent.
So there would be nothing to stop us, or other developers, from approaching Ouya the same way.
GS: We’re talking mobile, touch-based experiences versus sitting in front of the TV in the living room with a game controller-in-hand. So there’s going to be more involved than mobile-to-mobile adaptations.
Well, you need an adaptive design and flexibility. I remember doing an iOS game for iPhone and iPad, and having to take care of very specific tweaks for each version. It’s going to take some focus to adapt for the console. Sometimes it takes a main team on the game, working with specialized people assigned to making the game excel on other devices, as we do.
GS: Do you see yourself as an early adopter of the Ouya?
No, not me [laughs]. I don’t play enough games. But I see a lot of people giving it a shot. Look at the success of the fundraising, the traction it has there; a lot of the people that have invested in the company are actually consumers with an intention to own the product. That says a lot.
Ultimately, it’s really cheap to be a part of it for a consumer or developer, and in the end you simply can’t know how it’s going to perform – so maybe you want to be onboard now, beta testing, and ready to go if it really starts rolling. I think a lot of the money came after that breaking point – like when it broke about $1 million, suddenly a ton of money and interest starting coming in, and developers said: “Hey, it looks like there’s something here.”
It’s impressive when your potential customers are ready to pay for the device to be built. They’re paying for something that doesn’t exist, but they believe it is cool, and they want it as soon as it’s done. Having that type of installed base is a good start for anyone.
GS: It’s all based on uncertainty, but a lot of people would love to be the focus of this much uncertainty. Cheers for your superb insight, Luis.